Even in this era of big bucks and millionaire free agents, team chemistry has retained an elusive price tag. The Bullets found the correct blend last year by handing out $250,000 for Bobby Dandridge; the Philadelphia 76ers hope to win an NBA championship this season by spending fewer dollars in order to create more sense on the court.
Philadelphia, which plays Washington at Capital Centre tonight at 8 o'clock, is attempting to demostrate that it can improve by reducing its talent, a formula that is plausible only if had you had watched the 76ers and their solo performers in action the past two seasons.
Their grand experiment began in the offseason with the banishing of forward George McGinnis to Denver along with his high salary, playoff lumps and one-on-one moves.
Then Lloyd (Prince of Mid-Air) Free swung out to San Diego where his all-world jump shot has projected him into the league's top five scorers.
With those two moves, the 76ers rid themselves of 36 points a game and their best rebounder.But after being accused of trying to buy a championship and failing, their only option was to search for teamwork in place of gaudy statistics.
So far, there has been only one hitch in Coach Billy Cunningham's remade club. His team has yet to find the antidote to neutralize the Bullets.
Philadelphia's only loss in nine games this season was to Washington Oct. 18 in the City of Brotherly Boos. That night, the 76ers blended about as well as oil and water while the Bullets exploded like a nuclear reaction.
Although it is far too early in the schedule to be calling tonight's showdown a monumental game, it will say a lot about how much Philadelphia has grown and how far it still must improve.
A year ago, before the playoffs, the 76ers held the upper hand in this rivalry. They could look to a series of crushing victories over Washington, especially on their home court, where Bullet Coach Dick Motta admits, "I always sensed we didn't think we belonged on the same floor with them."
But that changed in May when the 76ers' hopes of winning last season's NBA crown blew up before their eyes after Washington became the aggressor and dominated the semifinal-round playoff series, 4-2. And then the Bullets reemphasized their domination with that shocking October victory.
"We didn't win the playoffs against them that handity but we took their best shot and held on" said Motta. "We weren't even healthy. Wes (Unseld) was hurt for most of the games and they still couldn't win.
"We can't have an off night and beat them, because they are capable of whipping anyone badly. They are that good. But when we are up, we can stay with them. That we know now."
Philadelphia is aware that to reach the championship series this season. It must learn to cope at some juncture with Washington. Although this game won't decide titles or playoff positions, it still has an important psychological meaning to both teams.
As someone has to come along and knock you off," said Motta. "Even if they win this one, by April things will be forgotten. But for now, well, I can thick the players will be, too. I know the only time they have been excited before a game this year was at the first Philly game."
In their first meeting, the 76ers were still becoming acquanited with Cunningham's constant-motion offense, which in theory is designed to stop Philadelphia's habit of becoming on-the-court fans while a teammate works alone against a defender.
But the Bullets took the spunk out of their patterns with an early bitz that Motta feels "was almost inhuman, we played so well." And when the 76ers looked for help from their bench, out trotted Henry Bibby and not Lloyd Free.
Not having to worry about Free is a relief for any opponent," said Dandridge. "He still can kill you with his shooting. He gets hot and look out."
Without Free and McGinnis around to complete for ball-handling minutes, the hub of the 76ers offense has begun revolving around Julius Erving, whose scoring average during the opening weeks of the season has risen six points from last year, to 26 a game.
yet, ironically, there is less balance on the team than before. Doug Collins (24.2) and Bibby (12.3) were the only 76ers in double figures until Darryl Dawkins brought his average up this week to 10.0. And that blacks up another Dandridge contention: "After all is done, the 76ers still come down to Erving. He has to play well for them to win. He is their main man."
Restricting Erving's offensive movement, as was the case when McGinnis was around, is like forbidding Van Cliburn to play Bach. So Cunningham now has surrounded Erving with teammates who think "pass" first and "shot" second, which is a drastic departure for Philadelphia.
Bobby Jones, an unselfish, courtwise defensive specialist, has replaced McGinnis. He is scoring only nine points a contest, but his ability to guard Elvin Hayes ultimately may mean to the 76ers what Dandridge's play against Erving now means to the Bullets.
Second-round draft choice Maurice Cheeks, from West Texas State, has replaced Bibby as the playmaker. Cheeks, who is attempting only five shots a game, delights so much in picking up assists that Cunningham is forced to go to his bench whenever he has to produce additional scoring punch.
"Anyone who thinks this is not a dangerous team, even without McGinnis and Free, is crazy," said Motto. "This is fun now, but wait until the playoff. It ought to be some kind of great war."