Even if the Atlanta Hawks finish this season as a .500 teams, or worse, they already have made a far greater impact on the NBA than anyone, including owner Ted Turner, figured.
Most prominent among their accomplishments, according to Houston coach Tom Nissalke, is the effect they will have on future contract negotiations.
"After what they've done, you will see the end of no-cut contracts within three or four years," said Nissalke recently after losing to the Hawks.
The Hawks were supposed to rivaal the Nets as the worst team in the league, but so far they've ranked only among the best. Even after they fellout of first place in the Central Division they refused to fold and continue to challenge for the lead.
They've won with only two players, John Drew and John Brown, drawing more than $1000,000 a year in salary. On some NBA teams, like Los Angeles, every player makes at least $100,000.
They've won using what rival coaches say is a zone defense, a supposedly illegal alignment in the NBA but overlooked by referees as long as it isn't too blatant.
And they've won despite crippling injuries that should have ended their impossible dream for good. But even without leading scorer Drew and center Steve Hawes (both out with ankle injuries), they beat Boston and Atlanta and then stunned Phoenix on the Suns' home court when 5-9 Charlie Criss scored 30 points.
Criss is the kind of player Nissalke is talking about. A star in the Eastern League. Crisis is making the $30,000 NBA minimum while demonstrating on the court his gratitude to the Hawks for giving him a chance.
"You've got a bunch of players who are hnugry," said Bullet coach Dick Motta. "They are hustling and just trying to survive."
Coaches who must deal with $300,000 players who have no-cut contracts are restricted in ways to motivate them. The worst they can do is bench them, but what owner paying that much salary wants to see his star as a reserve?
Atlanta coach Hubie Brown has no such star problems. He uses all 11 men every game, getting something out of everyone, ranging from rookies Eddie Johnson (who also has been hurt) and Tree Rollins to recent acquisition Tom McMillen to aging veteran Ollie Johnson.
Because of the Hawks' success, the theory making NBA rounds these days is that with the ABA no longer in existence and colleges producing better players every year, teams are going to let competition, not salary inducements, motivate their athletes in the future. In an owners' market like the one that now exists, the player have little alternative but to accept what management wants.
Turner emerges a a budding hero among his peers for forging new ground in owner-playing relations. But the irony is, Turner took this season's cut-rate course with the Hawks out of desperation not stubbornness.
The team lost $2 million last year and he figured, as he puts it, "a bad team was better than no team at all." So amid rumors of a franchise shift, the Hawks reduced their payroll to around $1 (lowest in the league) by unloading the high-salaried Lou Hudson. Truck Robinson and Joe Merriweather and filling in the blanks with fringe players who now are playing like budding superstars.
Of course, the Hawks got themselves into their financial problems. (They averaged only 4,000 fans per game last year, worst in the NBA) with horrible trades and terrible drafts despite high draft picks. Now, attendance is up (average: 7,000 per game) the team is winning and the franchise may yet survive to the surprise of everyone.
Teams have until Friday to decide whether they want to play players presently on the injured reserve list for the rest of the season. For a few atheletes like Don Chaney of Los Angeles and Dick Snyder of Cleveland, this could mean the end of the line . . .
Houston's fortunes have improved dramatically since rookie Robert Reid, a second-round pick from Little St. Mary's College in Texas, was promoted to a starter at forward. His spot had been occupied by Kevin Kunnert and then Dwight Jones, but the Rockets needed more front-line quickness and Reid so far has been the answer . . .
Seattle coach Len Wilkins, who wanted Wally Walker and traded a first-round draft choice for him to Portland quickly put the former Virginia star into the lincup after replacing Bob Hopkins last week. Walker like Reid, immediately rewarded his coach with consistent performances . . .
The Bullets are going to give their pep squad the Bullettes another chance. Tryouts for the squad will be held Thursday at 6 p.m. in Capital Centre. When the bullettes reappear, probably in January, they also will have new uniforms.