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Whither the NBA at All-Star time?

With the National Basketball Association preparing for its 33rd annual East-West All-Star Game at the Los Angeles Forum on Sunday, the thing its Board of Governors has to be most concerned with is the league's lack of competitive balance. It has at least 10 teams that are playing the season chiefly for the benefit of the airlines.

The NBA at the moment is really two leagues, consisting of three superpowers - the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics, the defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers - and everyone else.

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Oh, there are some pretty good middle-of-the-road teams, like the Milwaukee Bucks, San Antonio Spurs, New Jersey Nets, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, and Seattle SuperSonics. But the rest are mostly chopped liver.

It would be the biggest upset since Truman beat Dewey if anyone except Philadelphia or Boston were to represent the Eastern Conference in the finals of this season's NBA playoffs.

Philadelphia, with Moses Malone in the pilot's seat, Julius Erving flying one of the wings, and Andrew Toney serving as the league's best tailgunner, seldom loses one game in a row - let alone anything resembling a string of them. And while even Boston can't match Malone on an individual basis, the Celtics have enough balance and muscle elsewhere, particularly in reserve center-forward Kevin McHale, to stretch a series between these teams to a full seven games.

In the projected playoff battle in the NBA's Western Conference, it is doubtful any team can beat the Lakers often enough in a short series to reach the finals. When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar gets interested and Magic Johnson is pushing the running game, Los Angeles is often capable of four- or five-minute bursts of offense, when they simply blow their opponents off the court.

Still, there have been times when Lakers General Manager Jerry West says he looks out on the floor and wonders where his team's intensity has gone. Too often, in West's opinion, LA falls into the mental trap of thinking it can turn things on or off whenever it feels like it. The point, of course, is that nobody can.

There are also those who wonder if the Lakers have enough of a backup center in Bob McAdoo to provide the necessary defense and rebounding if Abdul-Jabbar were to be injured, get into foul trouble, or simply need some extra rest. If McAdoo couldn't do the job, then coach Pat Riley would probably have to go with rookie James Worthy.

If you like the way Seattle center Jack Sikma always plays so well against Kareem, then maybe the Sonics, who've slumped recently, are the playoff team the Lakers should worry about most. But if you like the trap-zone defense that Jack Ramsay teaches so well in Portland, then maybe the Blazers pose the greater threat to the defending NBA champions.

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Meanwhile, don't look for this year's NBA All-Star Game to be any different than those in the past, meaning a tremendous display of individual scoring fireworks. I'm not saying that the All-Stars won't be worth watching, only that this is almost always more of a recital than a game, and rarely includes much in the way of defense.

Since the teams are assembled for a one-night stand, much like a network TV special during ratings week, it's a wonder they achieve the high level of competition they generally do. However, participants are often reluctant to play too physically in exchange for a headline.

If the opposing coaches (Pat Riley of the West and Billy Cunningham of the East) figure deeply in this one, it will stem from their ability to spot a cold shooter quickly and immediately replace him with one whose hand is just a little more accurate.

The starting lineup for the East (as voted by the fans) includes: center Moses Malone, forward Julius Erving and guard Maurice Cheeks of the Philadelphia 76ers; forward Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics, and guard Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons. The remainder of the squad (as selected by the coaches) includes: forward Marques Johnson and guard Sidney Moncrief of Milwaukee; centers Robert Parish of Boston and Bill Laimbeer of Detroit; forward Buck Williams of New Jersey; and guards Reggie Theus of Chicago and Andrew Toney of Philadelphia.

Starting for the West will be center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and guard Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers; forwards Alex English of the Denver Nuggets and Maurice Lucas of the Phoenix Suns; and guard David Thompson of the Seattle SuperSonics. The reserves are Artis Gilmore and guard George Gervin of San Antonio; forwards Jamaal Wilkes of LA and Kiki Vandeweghe of Denver; and guards Gus Williams and Jim Paxson of Portland.

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