The sometimes bizarre, sometimes wacky, often paranoid and almost always unpredictable National Basketball Association will begin its 37th season Friday night.
The stability of the league itself is in question, with the players averaging annual salaries of $218,000 and the 23 teams reporting average annual losses of $750,000.
There are new looks--on the court, where three league MVPs are playing for new teams; on television, since cable will provide most of the national coverage of regular-season games, and in labor negotiations, with the season beginning without a new collective bargaining agreement between the players and management.
But one thing about the league is dependable: the Los Angeles Lakers, who are heavily favored to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Boston Celtics in 1968-69. The Lakers have won two of the last three NBA titles and the 1982-83 title would justify claims that this is one of the best basketball teams ever.
So much for stability.
Much has happened since the Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games for the title four months ago.
For openers, the 76ers had the best record in the NBA over the last six seasons, but no championships to show for it. So they obtained free agent Moses Malone, the league's MVP, leading rebounder and second-leading scorer last season. All it cost them was Caldwell Jones, a No. 1 draft choice from Cleveland that cost them a good shot at getting 7-foot-4 collegian Ralph Sampson and a total of $14.2 million, including a $1 million signing bonus.
Dave Cowens and Bill Walton, both former league MVPs who once led their teams to NBA titles, are back after two-year layoffs.
Cowens, 34, who retired after leading the Boston Celtics to two NBA titles as their center, was traded to Milwaukee for Quinn Buckner and will be the Bucks' starting power forward.
Walton, 29, had his left foot rebuilt and is back with the San Diego Clippers on a one-game-a-week basis while he attends law school. He was the league MVP when he led the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1976-77 title.
This will also be the first year of a four-year $88 million television contract with CBS, but it calls for only four regular season games and a maximum of 28 games, compared to 40 last season. CBS also will televise the All-Star game and as many as 23 playoff games.
The USA and ESPN cable networks each will televise 40 regular-season games.
The collective bargaining agreement expired in June. With the league saying it lost, as a whole, approximately $17.5 million last season, the owners want to stop their contributions to the pension and insurance plans, cut the roster limit from 12 to 10 and institute other cost-cutting moves.
The players aren't asking for much more than they already have, but they say they aren't going to move backward.
If no agreement is reached by Friday, the two sides agreed to keep the old agreement in force until a new one is reached, as long as both sides continue to bargain in good faith. The next negotiations are scheduled Wednesday at an undisclosed site.
"We definitely don't want a strike and we aren't thinking about one," said Larry Fleisher, executive director of the NBA Players Association. "But there are certain rights we have to have protected and if they aren't. . . "
The first three players chosen in the draft were all undergraduates: James Worthy of North Carolina, Terry Cummings of De Paul and Dominique Wilkins of Georgia. Worthy is the starting power forward for the Lakers; Cummings, an ordained minister, hasn't signed with the Clippers and is playing for Athletes in Action, and Wilkins has been traded from Utah to Atlanta, where he is starting at small forward.
Other rookies expected to be starters opening night are guard Bryan Warrick of Washington, forward Clark Kellogg of Indiana and guard Trent Tucker of New York. Guards Quintin Dailey of Chicago, Paul Pressey of Milwaukee and John Bagley of Cleveland also are pressing for starting assignments.
Malone wasn't the only established star to change teams; no less than eight other blockbuster trades could affect the standings dramatically:
* Golden State traded Bernard King to New York for Michael Ray Richardson.
* Phoenix traded Truck Robinson to New York for Maurice Lucas.
* New Jersey traded Ray Williams to Kansas City for Phil Ford.
* Denver traded David Thompson to Seattle for Bill Hanzlik and a first-round draft choice.
* Philadelphia traded Darryl Dawkins to New Jersey for a first-round draft choice and $700,000.
* Atlanta traded John Drew, Freeman Williams and $1.5 million to Utah for Wilkins.
* Milwaukee traded Buckner to Boston for Cowens.
* Chicago traded Artis Gilmore to San Antonio for Dave Corzine and Mark Olberding.
In other major deals, San Antonio traded George Johnson to Atlanta for Jim Johnstone; Portland traded Kelvin Ransey to Dallas for Wayne Cooper and a first-round draft choice, and Phoenix traded Rich Kelley to Denver for a first-round pick.
There were three coaching changes: Hubie Brown replaced Red Holzman in New York, Paul Westhead replaced Jerry Sloan in Chicago and Tom Nissalke replaced Bill Musselman in Cleveland. New York and Chicago should improve significantly under their new coaches, but Cleveland needs more than a new coach for its chances to improve dramatically.
The new New York Knicks will play defense and pass the ball, as the two-time champion Knicks did a decade ago; the Bulls finally will give up their deliberate, physical style of play.
If anyone takes the title away from Los Angeles, it should be the Bucks, Celtics or 76ers. But another team to watch is the Hawks. The acquisition of Johnson to go along with Tree Rollins gives them the two best shot-blockers in the league last season and they already had one of the best power forwards in Dan Roundfield. With the dynamic rookie, Wilkins, the question is: how far can they go and how fast?
Coach Pat Riley of the Lakers will probably start Worthy and Jamaal Wilkes at forwards, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center, Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson at guards and bring Bob McAdoo and Michael Cooper off the bench.
"There are two major reasons why it's so hard to repeat as champion," said Riley. "First, everyone plays harder against you every night. Games in December become like championship games and it's difficult to sustain that through the playoffs. Second is the mental attitude. The team has to grow closer and form a solidarity."
But, in assessing his team, Riley said: "We have no weaknesses and our greatest strength is our abundance of talent. We have quality players who can both play and think. We're versatile; we have great quickness, shooting and leaping ability and we have the most dominating center in the game. We are the champions and we aren't giving up anything. All those who want to take our crown know where to find us."