Any division that loses a Wilt Chamberlain but gains a Bill Russell is game for sweeping changes, and that is what has occurred in the turbulent Pacific. Each of the five teams will be adjusting to a new coach or attuning itself to the addition—or absence—of important players. Each team, that is, except Golden State. Stability alone would give the Warriors an edge, but it is hardly their only virtue. They should win the division—and win it big—because they have a decided advantage in talent.
Other Pacific teams need only look at what happened to Golden State last season to gauge just how unpacific change can be. The Warriors began with high hopes but had to wait until their playoff victory over the Bucks before their goals were even partially fulfilled. It was a period of massive readjustment with the return of Rick Barry, the redesigning of the starting lineup late in the winter to make room for a strong rebounding forward, Clyde Lee, and the uncovering of two surprise rookies named Johnson (Guard Charlie and Center George) to shore up the bench. It all added up to a "disappointing" 47-35 record.
The Warriors could easily be 57 and 25 this season. Coach Al Attles is overstocked at forward, where Barry and Lee are backed up by two explosive scorers, Cazzie Russell and Joe Ellis. Nate Thurmond is only the third-best center working for a pro team on the Coast, but since Chamberlain will not be able to dunk over him from the ABA and Russell cannot block his shots from the bench, Thurmond will dominate the division. Finding a playmaking guard to work alongside Jeff Mullins is the Warriors' single major problem. Jim Barnett and Johnson, C., a pair of dauntless penetrators, and Butch Beard will share the berth. How successfully Attles juggles them could determine if the Warriors become NBA title contenders.
Whether or not another Pacific team even makes the playoffs will be decided by how well Bill Sharman nurses the ebbing Lakers, or how quickly two new coaches, Russell at Seattle and John MacLeod at Phoenix, can discipline their talented young teams.
The Lakers will be weaker at center because the man they obtained from Buffalo, 7' Elmore Smith, is not now (nor is ever likely to be) a Chamberlain. To get Smith, the Lakers gave up Jim McMillian, their only forward who combined speed, good defense, exceptional shooting on the fast break and the intelligence to lend movement to a set offense. McMillian's replacement must come from among Happy Hairston, Bill Bridges, Mel Counts and Stan Love, all of whom are too big for his job, and holdout Keith Erickson, if he plays. At least the Lakers have retained their starting guards, Gail Goodrich—whose defensive weaknesses will be more glaring in Chamberlain's absence—and Jerry West. The lone superstar on the team for the first time in his 14-year tenure, West held out until a week before the season began, staying in shape through lonely workouts at the Loyola University gym. Unlike his teammates, he seems capable of getting off to a fast start.
With stronger rebounding at forward from improved Corky Calhoun and rookie Mike Bantom (no bantam at 6'9"), the Suns are an accomplished team whose biggest problem is its biggest attribute. Last season, Charlie Scott's first full one with Phoenix, the Suns lost 10 more games than they did in 1970-71 and 11 more than in 1971-72, and the 6'6" Scott took most of the blame. He is a hugely talented guard who averaged 25 points, but often played selfishly and carelessly. During the off-season he said he would change his style, but it was his mental error in the Suns' first exhibition that forestalled a Phoenix win in regulation time. In the next game Coach MacLeod, who came to Phoenix from the University of Oklahoma, benched Charlie after more of the same. "I'm not mad. It's for my own good," said Scott afterward. If those words mean he intends to adjust to MacLeod's method, then Phoenix could improve radically.
Immediate improvement is not something Russell foresees for his Sonics, whom he considers too weak on fundamentals to become a contender this year. Seattle worked so hard on essentials in training camp—sometimes eight hours a day—that Russell never got around to bringing up his favorite topic: team defense. His special project has been Seattle's top player, Spencer Haywood, who switches from forward to center armed with a Russell-taught hook shot. As part of his rebuilding plan, Russell will give ample playing time to youngsters Jim McDaniels, John Brisker and Fred Brown, all of whom have big reputations, bigger salaries and small achievements.
In Portland a real achievement would be winning 29 games, which is what the Trail Blazers did three years ago when they first entered the league. This year's team should surpass that modest total. Portland is solid at four positions after trading its top draft choice last spring to Cleveland for two steady performers, Center Rick Roberson and Forward John Johnson, who will team with All-Stars Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks. But the club's best hope is fourth.