In calling around the league, talking to his fellow general managers, Washington's Bob Ferry says he never has heard such optimism on the eve of a National Basketball Association season.
"Everybody's improved a lot," Ferry said last week. "Usually, when you talk to people, they're down on their team. But everybody is up this year. I was on the phone all day yesterday, and everybody was excited. You have to improve just to stay even."
By June, when the championship series will be over, there will be only one entirely happy team. It will not be the Boston Celtics, seeking to become the league's first repeat champion since 1969, when Bill Russell was in his last season with the team.
There will be some partly happy teams, such as the Washington Bullets, Detroit Pistons, Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, reaching the upper echelon of competition. But the only really happy team will be the Los Angeles Lakers, who should beat the Philadelphia 76ers for the NBA title.
*The only team in the Western Conference that can possibly beat the Lakers in those playoffs is Portland, with an infusion of talent in No. 1 draft pick Sam Bowie and scoring forward Kiki Vandeweghe.
*The Lakers' biggest obstacle will be themselves. But they have motivation this year. Not only is this possibly center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's final season, but they consider the 4-3 loss to the Celtics in June more of an embarrassment than the 4-0 sweep by the Sixers the previous season.
*The Eastern Conference playoffs promise to be much more competitive. It would not be surprising if Boston, Philadelphia or Detroit made the championship series, with Washington and Chicago the up-and-coming teams in the division. But the edge goes to the 76ers because of the additions of a rebounding power forward (Charles Barkley) and a good ball-handling guard (Leon Wood).
One final word: The rookie who will make the biggest immediate impact on his team will not be Akeem Olajuwon, the first pick overall, or Bowie, but Chicago's Michael Jordan. Said one NBA general manager,: "He's the best I've ever seen. He makes everyone else a better player."
Here's a closer look at each team, by division, with last season's won-lost record in parentheses: EASTERN CONFERENCE ATLANTIC DIVISION
Philadelphia (52-30): The nucleus (center Moses Malone, forward Julius Erving and guards Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks) of the 1982-83 championship team is back and healthy. "We were not focusing on the business at hand," Erving said of last season, when the Sixers lost three straight at home to the Nets in the first round of the playoffs. Coach Billy Cunningham says the Sixers are focusing on winning the playoffs this season and Barkley and Wood should make it easier. Boston (62-20): With guard Gerald Henderson traded to Seattle and power forward Cedric Maxwell unsigned, Coach K.C. Jones is taking his defending champions into the season with uncertainties at two positions. He says Henderson was traded "because minutes were a problem and I wanted to keep all the (seven) guards." Rookie guard Rick Carlisle from Virginia has been impressive, but the Celtics are one team that, on the surface, did not improve. Washington (35-47): The team's new slogan is "Thunder and Lightning." Assuming their progress continues and there are no injuries, it would not be a shock to see the Bullets in the conference finals. New Jersey (45-37): Center Darryl Dawkins outplayed Malone in the playoffs last season and power forward Buck Williams had 1,000 rebounds for the third straight season. This is a fun team to watch, but few teams are successful with only a running game in the playoffs, and the Nets needed a much more consistent half-court offense. New York (47-35): Somebody has to finish last in the NBA's toughest division and this year it may be the Knicks, despite all-pro forward Bernard King. They have a number of injuries going into the season, they are trying to manipulate the salary cap to sign free agents to offer sheets and no one in the league likes to deal with their checkbook basketball. Coach Hubie Brown is a big plus. CENTRAL DIVISION
Detroit (49-33): The Pistons have what they lacked a year ago, power forward Dan Roundfield, acquired from the Hawks for Cliff Levingston and the rights to a former No. 1 pick, Antoine Carr. Bill Laimbeer has developed into a top-notch center, Isiah Thomas is a classic point guard, Kelly Tripucka and Vinnie Johnson have solved their contract problems. With its bench and with Milwaukee rebuilding, if the Boston-Philadelphia domination of the East is to end, Detroit is likely to do it. Chicago (27-55): The Bulls will lead the league in taking open shots because of the way Jordan draws defenders. This will be the most improved franchise in the league because of such other additions as center Steve Johnson (acquired late last season from Kansas City in the Reggie Theus deal) and Caldwell Jones (from Houston). Milwaukee (50-32): The Bucks will not fall as badly as many people expect, even with the loss of Bob Lanier and Tiny Archibald (both retired), Marques Johnson and Junior Bridgeman (both traded to the Clippers). Milwaukee got power forward Terry Cummings in the Johnson trade and still has all-star guard Sidney Moncrief. Cleveland (28-54): There's a lot of young talent for first-year Coach George Karl. The Cavaliers are extremely happy with the play of rookie center Melvin Turpin, acquired in the draft-day deal that sent Cliff Robinson to Washington. World B. Free still is the shooting guard, but the depth is unproven. Atlanta (40-42): Injuries are a big problem, with forward Dominique Wilkins' bruised right heel worrying the Hawks. They have a big problem at shooting guard. The coaches like swing man Randy Wittman, but he may not be back until January because of injuries and guard Mike Glenn is an unsigned free agent. This team can run, but is out of control at times. Indiana (26-56): First-year Coach George Irvine wants to run. The Pacers have a decent front line in Steve Stipanovich, Herb Williams and Clark Kellogg. A lot depends on how well guard Vern Fleming, the top draft pick from Georgia, adjusts to the pro game. Gene Smith of Georgetown apparently has made this team on his defensive ability, but the Pacers have no depth. WESTERN CONFERENCE PACIFIC DIVISION
Los Angeles Lakers (54-28): The Lakers had only 13 players in camp, so the competition wasn't for jobs, but playing time. Rumors persist that 10-year forward Jamaal Wilkes will be traded. Earl Jones, the 7-footer from the University of the District of Columbia and the team's top draft pick, should make the team. So far, he has played better in practice than in exhibition games. Forward Larry Spriggs, from Howard University should win a spot on the roster again. Portland (48-34): Center Bowie is just coming back from broken ribs incurred early in camp. He is not expected to play more than 15 to 20 minutes a game at the season's start, but when he is ready Mychal Thompson will move to power forward. The defense is improved in the middle, but is suspect overall any time Vandeweghe and Jim Paxson are in the lineup at the same time. Los Angeles Clippers (30-52): The Clippers have only four holdovers from last year's team that was dreadful on defense and poor on ball handling: Bill Walton, James Donaldson, Norm Nixon and Derek Smith. Both defense and ball handling should improve with the addition of Marques Johnson, B true point guard after discovering Ricky Sobers, obtained with forward Tim McCormick in the Williams' deal, is not. They got one in Henderson, but they still have back court problems. Center Jack Sikma, a six-time all-star, needs to become a more assertive team leader. Golden State (37-45): Center Joe Barry Carroll is an unsigned veteran free agent. He has declined a $1 million-a-year offer and the team's attitude seems to be, "We missed the playoffs with you, we can miss them without you." If Carroll signs, the starting team returns intact. But the scuttlebutt is that Carroll and management will be hardheaded on this one. MIDWEST DIVISION
Dallas (43-39): The Mavericks declined to match the offer the Knicks made for starting center Pat Cummings, reportedly involving a $1 million signing bonus. Coach Dick Motta doesn't want to use top draft pick Sam Perkins, a forward from North Carolina, at that position if he can help it. This is an up-and-coming franchise on which former Maryland point guard Brad Davis has found a home. Houston (29-53): The Rockets finished last with 7-4 Ralph Sampson, No. 1 pick in the 1983 draft. For that accomplishment, and by winning a coin flip, they got 7-0 Olajuwon as the top player in this year's draft. This team is still a year away, but the addition of point guard John Lucas may quicken its progress. Utah (45-37): The Jazz won the division last season as Frank Layden was coach of the year and forward Adrian Dantley the comeback player of the year. Dantley, the NBA's leading scorer last season, is having contract problems and Utah has not improved as much as Dallas or Houston. Last season, this team lost only 12 man-games to injury or sickness, low in the league. San Antonio (37-45): The Spurs failed last season to make the playoffs for the first time in their 11-year history. Cotton Fitzsimmons has taken over as coach, and this veteran club, led by former scoring champion George Gervin, is healthy again. A key here is the addition of guard Alvin Robertson of Arkansas. Denver (38-44): The team that is famous for running will try to play some pressure defense. The addition of forward Calvin Natt, point guard Lafayette Lever and backup center Wayne Cooper from Portland in the Vandeweghe trade should help improve two weaknesses last season, rebounding and depth. Kansas City (38-44): New Coach Jack McKinney is optimistic because the top draft pick, Providence's Otis Thorpe, fills the Kings' rebounding weakness and because Mike Woodson, Larry Drew and Joe C. Meriweather all have recovered from injuries that slowed them a year ago.