The demise of the Los Angeles Lakers the preseason favorite to win the NBA title, isn't the only surprising development in the league at the midway point of the schedule, but it easily is the most shocking.
Things have gotten so bad in the Laker camp that coach Jerry West has asked at least one veteran whether he should resign. The player said no; the trouble was the players not the coach, a view West probably hopes owner Jack Kent Cooke will share.
Certainly the Lakers are even more awesome on paper than they were before the season began. The addition of Adrian Dantley and Charlie Scott and the development of rookie Norm Nixon gives them tremondous talent. But grouping a lot of gifted players and figuring that alone will win a championship isn't always correct, something Phildelphia found out last year.
As for the rest of the league:
Phildelphia has a bit more organization under new coach Billy Cunningham, but it still relies mostly on wave after wave of ability to wear down opponents. And in Darryl Dawkins, the 76ers have the league's next great gate attraction who also is their only hope to control Portland's Bill Walton in the playoffs.
Willis Reed's autocratic rule hasn't been enough to turn the knicks into defensive demons, or make Bob McAdoo a well-rounded center. Any front-line that includes McAdoo, Spencer Haywood and Lonnie Shelton is not going to win an NBA title. Besides, Jim Cleamons hardly has proven to be another Walt Frazier.
But Frazier has proven to be better than many critics thought he would at Cleveland. Without him, the Cavaliers would be stumbling even more than they are. Austion Carr has played himself onto the starting team after beginning as the club's fifth guard, a demotion that led to what he calls "the most difficult time of my life."
Too bad more teams can't play like the Atlanta Hawks, who already have brought in more ticket revenue than last year, guaranteeing that they will make money. The Hawks demonstrate playoff defense every time out and the result is a competitive, hustling brand of basketball that frequently embarrasses much more talented opponents. Coach Hubie Brown yells and screams and his players don't love him but he is the logical winner of the coach of the year award right now.
Lenny Wilkens is another strong candidate. He has taken a downtrodden team at Seattle and turned it into a winner without benefit of a training camp or trades. His center, Marvin Webster, is playing exceptionally well since Wilkens moved him from high to low post.
Trade rumors involving Denver guard Brian Taylor have been prevalent for weeks and now the reason has come out. Denver wanted to unload him before it had to fork up a $50,000 payment in his contract. The Nuggets failed go give Taylor the money and he says he has become a free agent. The team still remains one of the league's most unselfish clubs as it continues to refine the NBA's version of the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The Milwaukee Bucks have a better record than expected, especially considering Kent Benson has been a major disappointment. Many NBA experts feel John Gianelli is a better center - no kidding - and he presently is starting in place of Benson, who has been plagued by a sprained ankle.
Artis Gilmore is Chicago's best-known player but the Bull's most exciting athletes are guard Wilbur Holland, who wasn't good enough to stay with Atlanta last year, and forward Mickey Johnson, who never played in high school. If the Bulls had a more talented bench, Portland would have to struggle to win the Western Conference title.
Phoenix has so much ability it was able to keep winning even with center Alvan Adams sidelined nearly three weeks with tonsilitis. A combination of John MacLeod's coaching, solid defense and the unexpectedly high scoring of rookie Walter Davis (22 points a game) coupled with Paul Westphal's steady play has turned the Suns into one of the NBA's five best clubs.
Golden State's Rickey Green has lost his starting spot to another rookie, Ricky Marsh, a last-round pick out of Manhattan. Green isn't scooting around the court like he did in college. The Warrior's other first-round choice, Wesley Cox, is on the injured reserve list, but the team feels he still can play in the NBA.
James Edwards hardly has shown he is going to be Indiana's salvation since coming from Los Angeles. Much like Kansas City's Tom Burleson, he seems to lack the ability to be a dominant center. Yet he is better than a third-round draft pick. How could so many NBA talent experts be fooled?