In the NationalBasketball Association's 26 seasons rarely has a division brought together asmany strong teams as the Pacific will this year. To appreciate just how toughthings are on the West Coast, consider the plight of the Lakers. Los Angeleslost only 13 games last season, it easily won the playoffs even though JerryWest had misplaced his shooting touch and Coach Bill Sharman his voice—and itshould be every bit as powerful again. So the invincible Lakers will run awayfrom the rest of the division to another NBA championship, right? Not exactly.Los Angeles may well be the big winner once more, but no one between Tempe andTacoma will be unduly startled if the Lakers are not. That is a measure of justhow strong the other contenders are—Phoenix, Golden State and Seattle—in theSuper Division.
The concentrationof all that power in the Pacific is merely the culmination of a two-yearwestward swing in the NBA. In the last two final-round playoffs, Easternershave won only one game—and coaches of teams both East and West are forecastingthat six of the eight best records this season will be compiled by WesternConference clubs. Two of them, Milwaukee and Chicago, are members of theMidwest Division, but they will have considerable impact on play in thePacific.
In the first twoseasons of the current four-division alignment, NBA rules automaticallyqualified the first and second finishers in each division for the playoffs.This year only divisional winners are guaranteed playoff spots. Within eachconference, the remaining two playoff places will go to the teams with thenext-best percentages regardless of the division in which they play. In theorythis could alleviate the Pacific jam-up by permitting three from this SuperDivision to participate in postseason games, but probably only in theory. TheBucks and Bulls finished with the second-and third-best records in the NBA lastyear and should do as well this time, thus securing playoff berths.
So Pacific teamswill be forced to try to end up at least in second place. And to finish secondon the Coast may require a record superior to that of any team east of theMississippi. This will provide a bonus for fans since all games, particularlythe intradivisional ones, will be important. For players and coaches it willmean not only getting up for the big ones, but also not letting down for thelittle ones. Midwinter losses on Tuesday nights in Omaha and San Antonio couldturn out to be pivotal.
One big Pacificpivotal point plays the pivot for Los Angeles, Wilt Chamberlain (see cover).The Lakers had superior talent and coaching last season, but equally importantwas their health and happiness. Before this season opened the Lakers seemed tohave less of both. Los Angeles players began fighting with Owner Jack KentCooke at a less than triumphant victory celebration after the playoffs lastspring, and the battle continued with Chamberlain leading the charge. He wantedto renegotiate his contract, claiming that the raise included in the one hesigned last year was limited by the wage controls then in effect. Cooke atfirst was unsympathetic to Chamberlain's demands and told his center to bargainwith new General Manager Pete Newell the way the rest of the players do. Butearly this week Cooke said it was all a misunderstanding and announcedChamberlain's signing on undisclosed terms. The hassling had kept Chamberlainout of Los Angeles exhibition games and raised doubts—despite summervolleyball—about his physical condition. It also left alive the question: WillWilt approach this year with the same spirit of cooperation that led to lastyear's championship?
Anotherdisgruntled Laker is Forward Un-Happy Hairston. Of all Los Angeles players.Hairston modified his style the most to accommodate Sharman's running game.Instead of sprinting off to play offense he became a tireless defensiverebounder and, with Wilt, gave the Lakers the strongest board work—and one ofthe best fast breaks—in the league. Hairston also wanted to renegotiate hiscontract but the Lakers, although they had already modified one for GailGoodrich, said that it was against team policy. Bargaining continues.
Last season Lakerstarters missed only nine games—Los Angeles lost three of them—but that numbershould be exceeded in the first three weeks this year. Goodrich, the team'sleading scorer, is out with a deep stomach and groin pull. Fortunately forSharman, Goodrich is probably the easiest starter to replace. Pat Riley, alsoan accurate jump-shooter, and Walt Frazier-like rookie Jim Price fromLouisville will fill Goodrich's playing time. The loss of his scoring should betaken up by higher production from West, who did sign a new contract (for$300,000 per year), and Forward Jim McMillian. McMillian's subtle head, hip andshoulder fakes are often not noticeable from the stands, but they catch the eyeof defenders just enough to make him one of the best baseline players in thepros.
Sharman spent fiveweeks during the summer without speaking a word and he now talks from far downin his stomach to protect his ulcerated vocal cords. Dorothy Sharman describesher husband's new voice as "sexier." His players may find it persuasivein a different way. Sharman's hardest task will be making sure that off-seasondisgruntlement does not turn into regular-season disintegration.
Bill van BredaKolff is another old voice speaking in a new way. When Butch quit the Pistonsearly last season he complained about the players and fans, and indicated hewas leaving the game for good. Now he is back coaching at Phoenix where thecrowds are well-behaved and the players make this the land of the RisingSuns.
The shooting starin this solar system is Charlie Scott, who jumped from the ABA late last yearand averaged 18.8 points in his six appearances with Phoenix. Scott is asupertall (6'6") guard, and his speed and jumping ability are equallyoutsized. When he was in the ABA, the book on Scott was that he only coulddrive to his left; the book is now being rewritten. Either way, Charlie headsup one of the strongest guard corps in the league, including starter Dick VanArsdale and subs Mo Layton and Clem Haskins.
For the right tosign Scott, the Suns sent Forward Paul Silas to Boston. Silas was anexceptional defender, rebounder and leader: Suns rookie Corky Calhoun will onlyreplace his defensive ability. Former Bullet Gus Johnson is attempting acomeback on his often-injured legs and if he progresses well enough for theSuns to carry him as a substitute during the year, he and flashy Connie Hawkinsand steady Center Neal Walk could persuade Phoenix fans to forget Silas'rebounding as well.
Center NateThurmond and 6'10" Forward Clyde Lee make rebounding a Warrior strength.Thurmond also shores up Golden State's defense by playing the league's two topcenters. Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar, better than they play each other. TheWarriors have strong shooters in Cazzie Russell and Jeff Mullins. Last seasonGolden State finished second in the Pacific because of two new assets: AlAttles stopped playing to concentrate on coaching and proved he is excellent atit, and the Warriors finally found a floor leader in Jim Barnett. Still, OwnerFranklin Mieuli was dissatisfied. He continued his relentless quest for waywardWarrior Rick Barry, and for a time it seemed that Barry would be happy to leavethe ABA Nets to return to the Bay Area. In June a court ordered him to honor anold contract with Mieuli and by early August it was reported the two had made adeal. Then Barry suddenly announced he would quit basketball and pursue a TVcareer if Mieuli did not allow him to stay with the Nets. Typically, Mieuli didnot give in. Shortly before the start of the season, he flew to New York formore bargaining with Barry. "I'm going to get my boy." he said as heheaded East. And he did just that. With Barry, the Warriors will be contendersfor the NBA title as well as the division's.
In Seattle, thereare enough interleague transfers for the Sonics to be known aptly as the ABAAll-Star team. New Coach Tom Nissalke was Coach of the Year last season withthe ABA Chaps. Three of his players—Spencer Haywood, John Brisker and JimMcDaniels—have followed similar routes to the NBA. Haywood and Brisker are bothexplosive forwards, but McDaniels appears to be out of his league. He is tooslow to play defense at forward and not rugged enough to rebound at center. Atone point the Sonics tried unsuccessfully to deal him and his $1.5 millioncontract back to the ABA Cougars from whence he jumped. Throughout theexhibition season there has been speculation among NBA coaches that Nissalke'sbest center is Haywood, not McDaniels. Playing Spencer there would also openmore playing time for strong cornerman Garfield Heard and rookie BudStallworth.
Seattle is deep atguard with Dick Snyder, Lee Winfield, Butch Beard and Fred Brown, a rookiedisappointment last season who shed 20 pounds during the summer and directedthe Sonics well in exhibitions. But the team's best backcourt man is gone. Thetrade of former player-coach Lenny Wilkens, who was popular with Sonics playersand fans, was an obvious attempt to strengthen Nissalke's hand, but it surelyweakened his team on the floor. Seattle is talented but young and needs asteadying influence like Wilkens. If one of the younger guards matures to fillthat role, the Sonics would boom. More likely, they will be the first of thePacific's strong foursome to fall from playoff contention.
The onlynoncontender in the division is Portland, but the Trail Blazers will improve.They now have stable coaching from Jack McCloskey, late of Wake Forest, whoshould be able to evoke mutual recognition on the floor from Guard Geoff Petrieand Forward Sidney Wicks, Rookies of the Year for Portland the past twoseasons. The Blazers have a promising new center, but not the one they plannedon. They picked Loyola of Chicago's skinny, 6'11" LaRue Martin first in thedraft and paid him $900,000, even though the highest offer from the ABA was$700,000 less. He is now second string while third-round draftee 6'8" LloydNeal, a heavier and cheaper man from Tennessee State, will start.