Let us not be hasty in proclaiming the Houston Rockets the new champions of the West. The Lakers are vanishing, but not yet gone. Game 5 is in Los Angeles. If they win it then the same one game that separates them from elimination also separates them from regaining the home court advantage.
But the Rockets have been particularly impressive, haven't they? They would certainly appear to be the NBA's Team of the Future, especially considering the Rockets have advanced through the playoffs with a patchwork back court, starting Robert Reid at lead guard alongside Lewis Lloyd. Since John Lucas was dismissed from the team on March 13 in yet another cocaine episode, the Rockets have been threadbare on top. Reid entered the NBA in 1977 as a swingman and never played the point until these last 18 games. Alan Leavell backs up Reid, and Mitchell Wiggins backs up Lloyd, altogether a mundane group.
Houston's turbo is all up front, boosted by Akeem Olajuwon, the best center in the NBA. In Olajuwon, Ralph Sampson and Rodney McCray, the Rockets have what may become one of the legendary front courts in pro basketball history. They are like Alps, 7-0, 7-4 and 6-7 at their summits, and this season they combined for 52.7 points and 28.9 rebounds per game. In the playoffs those numbers are up to 61.2 and 30.8; Olajuwon, by himself, against L.A. has turned 31.3 and 12.3.
But as good as they are, they haven't won anything yet. And as good as they may be, they aren't the best front court in the NBA today.
The Celtics are.
The Celtics are the best front court ever.
Like the Rockets, the Celtics are plain at guard. Dennis Johnson is a great defensive guard, but neither he nor Danny Ainge should scare teams offensively, nor should the Celtics who fill in back there, Jerry Sichting and Scott Wedman. Like the Rockets, the Celtics are loaded up front. Only more so.
From Larry Bird, the greatest forward to ever play, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the Celtics got 63.2 points and 27.4 rebounds per game this season and won 67 games in the process. Now add Bill Walton's 7.6 points, 6.8 rebounds (in 19 minutes per game) and his extraordinary passing skill to the mix. Bird's the worst shooter of the bunch -- career average of 49.6 percent. Still, who would you rather have with the ball in the last desperate seconds of a game?
Boston's front court lacks speed (which isn't crucial in big people anyway), but it has everything else: size, shooting, strength and the anticipatory sense of one another's presence and need. Collectively, they are a clock of exquisite function and timing. Making up somewhat for their slowness, Bird and Walton are the all-time best passers at their positions. (It's shivering to think how good Walton would have been but for his chronic foot problems.) Although not flashy, Parish has been a metronomically productive center since the Celtics traded for him in 1980. McHale appears unstoppable. Bird is simply the grand player in the game.
There have been other front courts of distinction in the NBA, those complete with scorers and rebounders who imprinted their character on their teams. Those nice front courts should include this St. Louis Hawks' combination from the early 1960s: Bob Pettit, Clyde Lovellette and Cliff Hagan; the textbook front court in Portland (in Walton's only healthy season, 1976-77): Walton, Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross; the Washington Bullets' championship front court: Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge.
Stepping up in class, we move to the great front courts. The New York Knicks with Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley (with either Cazzie Russell in reserve in 1969-70 or Jerry Lucas in 1972-73) are included because they were such fine perimeter shooters and so intelligent at getting the ball to the open man. Certainly the Minneapolis Lakers teams that won four championships in five seasons in the early 1950s led by George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard, who regularly combined for more than 65 percent of the Lakers' points.
Until now, however, the best front courts of the NBA were constructed around the two best centers, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's great teams were equally strong front and back, with Oscar Robertson in Milwaukee and Magic Johnson in L.A.) Russell's early Boston teams featured the guards; Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman led the Celtics' scoring. By the beginning of the 1960s, though, Boston had front courts with Russell, the greatest defender ever, Tommy Heinsohn, Tom Sanders and, first inventing, later perfecting the role of sixth man, Frank Ramsey or John Havlicek.
The most celebrated Chamberlain front court (Chamberlain, by himself, was an awesome frontcourt -- averaging 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game in 1961-62) was the sensational Philadelphia 76ers collection of 1966-67: Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson and Billy Cunningham off the bench.
Allowing that these Celtics are better, since all athletes -- and particularly pro basketball players among the team sports -- are better now than athletes of 20 years ago, these Celtics are demonstrably superior shooters than those Celtics and 76ers. (Rebounding averages favor the Russell and Chamberlain teams because more shots were missed 20 years ago.) Havlicek made but 44 percent of his shots. So did Cunningham and Russell. For their careers Heinsohn and Ramsey shot 40. A good case can be made for the old-time teams on mystique, but a great case can be made for these Celtics on proficiency.
Whichever team -- Houston or Los Angeles -- draws Boston in the final will have a mountain to climb. The Celtics have lost just once in 12 playoff games and seem as near to invincible as bugs to a porch light.