A year ago this division inherited Bill Walton, Tom Burleson and Clifford Ray, and now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes in from Milwaukee to join that towering group. You would have to bet that one of the four will be playing in the NBA championship final next May. With Abdul-Jabbar the Lakers instantly became everyone's favorite, which is a mighty leap for a club that struggled to win 30 games last season. As Walton goes so goes Portland, and there is an early season reason to believe that the big redheaded vegetarian has finally decided to take the Trail Blazers a far distance. And this time around no one will be overlooking Golden State, whose Warriors are primed for a repeat performance. The kids of the Seattle SuperSonics are a year older, and when they put it together—they made the playoffs last year—anything can happen. The Phoenix Suns are in for a long winter.
With Abdul-Jabbar on hand, Laker Coach Bill Sharman is expected to revert to the same pattern—a pressing defense, a fast-break offense—that he used so successfully when he had Wilt Chamberlain in the pivot. The lineup will be three-fifths products of John Wooden's glory years at UCLA: Abdul-Jabbar and Guards Lucius Allen and Gail Goodrich, assuming he ends his preseason holdout. Cazzie Russell, out most of last season with a knee injury, will be at one forward, with Kermit Washington or Happy Hairston as his running mate.
The problems are: Russell defensively and Allen offensively. Russell has never been known for defensive skills, not even in his San Francisco years with Nate Thurmond, whose presence permitted him to overplay his man, and he can be beaten regularly one-on-one.
If the Lakers can fast break that will minimize pressure on Allen, who flunked his test as a quarterback-type guard at Milwaukee. All Allen will be asked to do now is run the break, either hitting the open man or taking the percentage shot himself. If the defense breaks down, Sharman will most likely replace Russell with either third-year man Corky Calhoun or veteran swing man Pat Riley. Should the Lakers be forced into a control offense much of the time, Stu Lantz or Don Freeman would make a better backcourt partner for the moody Goodrich.
Inspired both by Walton's size (at last report, 250 pounds) and his newly voiced dedication and by the arrival of rookie Guard Lionel Hollins of Arizona State, Lenny Wilkens has retired from active duty in the backcourt again, this time for good, he says, to stick to coaching. Hollins, who was the first guard to be picked in the draft, will be Wilkens' prime pupil, as soon as he recovers from an appendectomy. With Sidney Wicks at one forward and Geoff Petrie and Larry Steele the guards—and Walton playing up to his potential—this will be a strong team. John Johnson, long underrated, is strong enough to be a power forward in some situations, a scorer in others. At the end of last season the Blazers weren't a bad team without Walton. With him they could be outstanding.
After a summer of desultory negotiations with the networks, Golden State's Rick Barry has temporarily set aside his ambition of becoming a TV sportscaster, and once again he'll be asked to supply the Warriors with both firepower and leadership. The Warriors made one off-season move that may cause second thoughts, sending veteran guard Butch Beard and two draft choices to Cleveland for 6'8" Dwight Davis, a strong forward. Davis will replace the retired Bill Bridges behind Barry and Rookie of the Year Jamaal (formerly Keith) Wilkes. With Clifford Ray and George Johnson at center, and each cheering for the other, Golden State's forward line can match anyone's.
The Warriors' backcourt consists of Phil Smith, who came on powerfully at the end of last season, doing most of the outside shooting, and Charles Johnson, a clever passer. Reserves are rookie Gus Williams; veteran Jeff Mullins, who delayed his retirement one season; and Charles Dudley, who performs well coming off the bench.
Things have cooled down somewhat between Seattle Coach Bill Russell and All-Star Forward Spencer Haywood, but the Sonics need more than tranquillity. Early in the exhibition season Haywood asked to be traded, but later said, "Everything's cool. It's just a situation I had to get off my chest." Haywood claims he is being asked to shoulder too much responsibility on a very young team, but at least he discovered that the chest colds plaguing him last season were the result of allergies that can be contained by antihistamines.
The one Sonic rookie of seeming importance is Frank Oleynick, a brush-cut No. 1 draft pick from Seattle University who has demonstrated the ability to become the playmaker. Russell wants to use him to feed fifth-year-man Freddie Brown in backcourt and Haywood and Burleson up front, especially Burleson. Archie Clark has moved on to Detroit, but Seattle is loaded with such guards as Slick Watts and Rod Derline, and shouldn't miss him.
Phoenix could turn out to be a better team than a lot of people expect. The Suns sent Charlie Scott to Boston for playmaking guard Paul Westphal, and this is the year Notre Dame's John Shumate will be unveiled as a pro after being forced to sit out a year with blood clots in his lungs. They will join such burly Suns as 6'10" Dennis Awtrey, 6'9" Mike Bantom, 6'9" first-round draft pick Alvan Adams and 6'7" Curtis Perry. Phoenix may be outplayed, but it won't be outmuscled.