Judging by the looks of the Pacific Division, the ship has capsized and the survivors are struggling to reach shore. This year the division that has given us an NBA playoff finalist in six of the last seven seasons should be wide open: the team that can stay injury-free and put a live center on the floor will win it. Hardest hit is the great Northwest, where the Portland Trail Blazers, the 1977 NBA champions, open the season with a lineup that will make a nightly packed house of 12,411 recall the days of Rick Adelman and Shaler Halimon. In Seattle, where Marvin Webster won plaudits for almost leading the Sonics to last year's championship and then made a fast break to New York, a search is under way for somebody—anybody—to play center. In Los Angeles, Jerry West will surround Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with another cast of spear carriers, while Golden State will take the floor minus golden boy Rick Barry for the first time in six years. Phoenix, unaffected by the coastal upheaval, still has plenty of talent and Center Alvan Adams. San Diego has a new franchise—what used to be the Buffalo Braves. The team is now called the Clippers, after the sailing ships. They will rapidly sink to the bottom of the Pacific.
With Bill Walton out of the picture at least until January—and who knows where he will be then—Abdul-Jabbar suddenly towers all by his lonesome in the division. And, if the officials continue to toot their whistles every time a defensive man lays a hand on an opponent, as they did in the preseason. Abdul-Jabbar will be undefendable. That is, if he wants to be. Kareem was not overpowering enough in the Lakers' first-round playoff loss to Seattle. While West seethed in the locker room after the Lakers were eliminated. Abdul-Jabbar and Guard Charlie Scott happily brandished new tennis rackets and discussed the relative merits of metal versus graphite. West would have shipped Scott to Denver then and there if he'd had the Nuggets' telephone number handy. As it was, the Lakers traded Scott in June.
Kareem isn't going anywhere, of course, but if his attitude stays the same as it was in training camp, when he often appeared to be sleepwalking, neither will the Lakers. More than once, Abdul-Jabbar asked to go to the rest room when it came time to run laps, and when his teammates warmed up before practice with extra shooting, Kareem often curled up in a corner with a newspaper. When L.A. traveled to Fresno for its first exhibition game, Kareem forgot his uniform.
There are indications that perfectionist West might be getting fed up with Kareem's passive attitude. The feeling among some of those close to the team is that Kareem doesn't care about basketball anymore; certainly, he looked sluggish in preseason games. Whatever he was thinking, he wouldn't say, because he was boycotting the L.A. press over a story that said he demanded $5,000 to spend 30 minutes talking to wayward juveniles during the summer.
Nevertheless, the Lakers should win the division, largely because the team that was devastated by injuries—and Kermit Washington's suspension last year—is hale. Also, there is one notable addition. For Scott, West acquired 6'2" Guard Ron Boone from Kansas City (via Denver), a strong, smooth-shooting iron man who has played in 826 consecutive games and has a 19.9-point career average. Boone will start next to second-year man Norm Nixon—the Lakers' best playmaker since West himself—who was fourth in the league in assists last year. West calls him "one of my two irreplaceables."
A broken left foot kept 6'8" Kenny Carr out most of his rookie season, and a broken right foot kept him out of camp this year. But he should be ready this week and thus give West three flexible cornermen, the others being Adrian Dantley and Jamaal Wilkes, who missed 28 of the last 34 regular-season games with a broken finger. "Fifty," says West. "This team should win 50."
"It's a good feeling," says Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo, "to know your house is in order while all the others on the block are in need of repair." Not that the Suns didn't need a little patchwork done on their shattered dreams after they roared off to a 36-16 start, finished 13-17, and then got burned by Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs.
Adams, a superb passer and runner, led the Suns to the NBA finals as a rookie three seasons ago. And when he said he had an eye on medical school, the Suns assumed he wanted to be a doctor, not a patient, which he was for most of the next two seasons. If he is fit, the Suns can finesse themselves into contention—if Ron Lee, the Suns' third guard, can keep from smashing himself up in his headlong pursuit of loose balls. In peerless Paul Westphal and selfless Don Buse, the Suns may have the league's best starting back-court; Lee's defense gives them extraordinary depth. Even so, Westphal was miffed last year because of limited playing time, especially in the playoffs. He averaged 25.2 points and Buse was fifth in the NBA in steals (Lee was first), and both played just 31 minutes a game. What the Suns need is help in the frontcourt. Walter Davis ran away with Rookie of the Year honors last year, but a back injury to Curtis Perry and a poor performance from Gar Heard caused the Suns to fold. Perry has retired, leaving a glaring need for muscle. To that end, Coach John MacLeod is experimenting with 6'10" Bayard Forrest as the big forward on offense—and center on defense—to spare Adams further beatings. Unfortunately, Forrest moves like one, so Heard could get the job back or it could go to second-year man Alvin Scott, who has bulked up from 185 pounds to 205. Also backing up Adams is Dennis Awtrey, now in his ninth year and sporting a menacing beard. "The Pacific Division has to have a big, redheaded, bearded iconoclast," he says.
With the departure of Barry for Houston, everyone in the Golden State camp is on equal footing for the first time since 1972, and everyone is having fun, "Morale is up tremendously," Coach Al Attles says. It isn't hard to figure why. Barry's presence was overwhelming. He dominated every player, and the limelight.
John Lucas, whom Golden State got in compensation for Barry, is the playmaking guard the Warriors have been searching for since Guy Rodgers left in 1966. He plays with a maturity that belies his two years in the NBA. Attles points out that last year, a woeful one for the Rockets, Lucas had 768 assists and just 213 turnovers. "He's the kind of player who makes everyone better," says Attles.
The one who will benefit most is Guard Phil Smith, who sparkled when the Warriors won the championship in 1975, his rookie year, but apparently became intimidated by the Barry-oriented offense. "Rick dominated the ball," he says. "He wasn't one to move up and down the floor the way Luke can." Smith will make Lucas better, too. At Houston, Lucas played next to little Calvin Murphy; thus he was always matched against the opponents' big guard. Alongside the 6'4" Smith, Lucas, who is 6'3", will generally have the matchup advantage. With the playmaking of Lucas and Charles Dudley, and Smith free to concentrate on his scoring abilities, Attles will move his offense closer to the basket, where it will work off the center tandem of Robert Parish and Clifford Ray.
With Barry gone, everyone may see the ball more, but they're not going to be able to do with it what Rick did. Many will try: 6'6" swingman Sonny Parker, 6'5" Nate Williams, 6'7" rookie Purvis Short, the team's leading scorer and rebounder in training-camp scrimmages, and former Laker Tom Abernethy. On the power side is E. C. Coleman, the defensive gem.
Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens is desperate for a center. "You spend a whole year developing a good team and all of a sudden you lose a key part of it," he says. Wilkens was referring, of course, to Webster, who jumped to the Knicks.
Wilkens still has a backcourt of Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson—two of the best young guards in the game—plus Fred Brown, surely the league's best off the bench, veteran shooter Dick Snyder and Forwards Jack Sikma, John Johnson, Paul Silas and Wally Walker. And the Sonics got Lonnie Shelton from the Knicks as part of their compensation for Webster. Quick for his size (6'8", 245 pounds), Shelton has a good soft touch, is surprisingly adept at stealing the ball and can rebound, but plays so aggressively he often gets into foul trouble. The Sonics will need him badly.
Shelton is a better forward than center, however, which seems to leave the pivot to Sikma and 6'10" Tommy LaGarde, who averaged just 11 minutes in 77 games after knee surgery as a rookie last year. "Tommy will surprise a lot of people," Wilkens says for public consumption. He will, when they see how bad he is. Sikma, who moved into the middle when Webster rested last year, will see plenty of action there this year, but he is far more effective facing the basket. "If I told you my gut feelings about what happened to this team," says Fred Brown, "I'd be on a plane to San Antonio in the morning."
Portland's immediate future looks grim, with Walton having quit, Forward Bob Gross still not recovered from a stress fracture of his left ankle, which he suffered last March 23, and Guard Larry Steele having broken his right ring finger during a summer one-on-one game. Steele could miss the first few weeks and Gross is sidelined indefinitely. Lloyd Neal, the invaluable power forward who backs up Maurice Lucas, is still out with an injured left knee that has already been operated on twice. He has been advised by several doctors to retire but is doggedly trying to come back. One guard, Lionel Hollins, is recovering from off-season knee surgery, and another, Dave Twardzik, missed the first three weeks of training camp with a bruised kidney. And Lucas is still complaining about a sore finger on his right hand. He was bothered most of last season by sore ligaments in both wrists.
All of which means that four rookies could make Portland's opening-day roster. If the wounded vets heal, the Blazers might be in pretty fair shape by the playoff stretch, provided they haven't fallen hopelessly behind. In the meantime, cunning Coach Jack Ramsay will make the most of what he's got by stressing a gluey defense and installing a high-post offense—a concession to Center Tom Owens, who is way out of Walton's league as an outlet passer and runner. To that end, at the beginning of the season, Ramsay will move T. R. Dunn into Twardzik's starting-guard slot alongside Hollins, which, says Ramsay, "absolutely gives us the best defensive backcourt in the league." Not a bad offensive one, either, especially when you add one of the Blazer rookie gems, 6'4" Ron Brewer, a 56% career shooter at Arkansas.
Complementing Lucas at power forward will be the NBA's No. 1 draft pick, 6'10" Mychal Thompson, from Minnesota via the Bahamas. Thompson looked so good in an exhibition game against Phoenix that Suns Assistant Coach AI Bianchi leaped off the bench to protest that the beads Thompson wears around his neck are illegal. "They might be some kind of voodoo beads," he yelled. Filling in for Gross at small forward could be Missouri rookie Kim Anderson. The Blazers may need a little voodoo if they, are to be contenders.
Movie mogul Irv Levin may not have been as shrewd, say, as Samuel Goldwyn when he traded the Boston Celtics for the 27-55 Buffalo Braves, swapped Marvin Barnes, Billy Knight and Tiny Archibald for Kevin Kunnert, Kermit Washington, Sidney Wicks and Freeman Williams and moved the franchise to San Diego. At least he did right by hiring Coach Gene Shue, who moved more than 50 players through the Clipper camp, including 41 rookies and free agents. "This is fun," Shue said. "It's like raising kids." Indeed, one day Shue opened practice like a first-grade teacher. "O.K.," he said, "are we ready to learn another play? Let's start with something simple. Let's learn an out-of-bounds play."
If the Clippers go anywhere it will be on inside strength, which they have plenty of, with Wicks and strongman Washington in the corners and Swen Nater, Kunnert, Scott Lloyd or Marquette rookie Jerome Whitehead in the middle. There is also the superb all-round play of all-star Guard Randy Smith. The other backcourt men are noted gunners Bird Averitt and Williams, the 6'4" rookie from Portland State who led the NCAA in scoring the last two years and once popped in 81 points against Rocky Mountain College. "I always played zone," says Williams, "so this defense stuff is new to me." Comforting words for an NBA coach.
Curry Kirkpatrick, John Papanek and Melissa Lincoln.