Seattle should be at least as good this year as it was last, when it won the NBA championship, but this season the division has become the league's own Muscle Beach. So it's going to be hard for any team, even one as good as the Sonics, to kick sand into anyone's face. Five of the six clubs have a good chance to win the NBA title next spring, and from top to bottom the Pacific may be the toughest division in sports. "It's going to be a dogfight every night," says Seattle Forward John Johnson. Adds Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo, "With each team forced to play the others six times apiece, records won't be indicative of strength. There will be some teams in the East with better won-lost records, but the Pacific is where the power will be."
It seems almost certain that some team from the Pacific will make it to the playoff finals, and if that happens, it will be the eighth time in the past nine seasons a team from that division has been a finalist. Seattle not only seems a good bet to be in the Final Two, but also to pick up the championship trophy again and, thereby, become the first team to win back-to-back league titles since the Celtics in 1967-68 and '68-69.
The Sonics are so confident that they made no off-season trades, drafted only four college players before retiring in the fifth round and signed only three of them.
Seattle appears deep at every position, beginning at guard with Dennis Johnson, who led the team in blocked shots, and Gus Williams, who was its leading scorer (19.2 points a game). Williams and Johnson may be the best backcourt in the game, and right behind them on the bench is Downtown Freddie Brown, who can pad his scoring average without changing his style now that the three-point basket has come to the NBA. In an exhibition game against Portland, Brown nailed two three-pointers in three tries. "I think it'll be another love story," says Brown of the Sonics' prospects.
Wilkens was so pleased with the job Jack Sikma did at center after being moved from forward to the pivot last November that Sikma will stay in the middle. Tom LaGarde, who was starting until he injured his knee, will be the backup. At forward, Lonnie Shelton looks as if he has overcome a penchant for erratic play that plagued him the first few years of his career, and John Johnson will continue to draw the tough defensive assignments. Rookie James Bailey can play either small forward, power forward or center. "Chances are that we can be better than we were last year," says John Johnson, "but that doesn't mean we're going to be champions again."
Not if the Lakers have anything to say about it. Los Angeles has a new owner (Jerry Buss), a new coach (Jack McKinney), one of the most exciting new players in the NBA (Magic Johnson) and an old center with a new game (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Following four seasons of watching Kareem lope down the court after everyone else was set and jack up 12 zillion skyhooks, even the Valium junkies at the Forum (a/k/a Laker fans) will notice that their team is moving kind of fast this year. McKinney has ordered a running game and has apparently persuaded Abdul-Jabbar to go along. McKinney told Kareem that if he would play an aggressive role in the Lakers' fast break, McKinney would cut his playing time by as much as 10 minutes a game to allow the 32-year-old center to catch his breath. Abdul-Jabbar agreed to try and the results have been heartening. But just how effective he will be may depend on Spencer Haywood, who has never distinguished himself as a team player during his 10 years in the pros. Haywood was acquired in a trade for Adrian Dantley. "I told Spencer I didn't need his 25 points," says McKinney. "But for us to win, I do need his strength on the boards." The Lakers also added Forward-Center Jim Chones in a trade with Cleveland for Dave Robisch.
It may well be that the best thing McKinney has going for him is Magic, and that may be enough. Johnson is listed at 6'8", which would make him the tallest guard in the NBA, and he is still growing. He's certainly growing on Laker fans, who couldn't have helped noticing that Magic—known primarily, and justifiably, for his ball handling—went 20 for 30 in his first three exhibition games. Johnson will present a real defensive problem for even the tallest NBA guards, but it didn't take him long to find out that even the little guys can play: San Diego's Lloyd Free lit him up for 30 points two nights in a row.
Phoenix fans will once again find fun in the Suns, but no championship. Forward Truck Robinson is healthy now after off-season surgery on an arthritic finger. Robinson came to the Suns from New Orleans at midseason last year and was promptly stricken with a virus that kept him out of the lineup for nearly a month. The big question this season will be: How well will the 6'7" Robinson—by inclination a small forward, and something of an offensive free-lancer at that—work with the Suns' other splendid small forward, 6'6" Walter Davis? Davis averaged 23.6 points a game last year, but with Phoenix' small front line—slender Center Alvan Adams is only 6'9"—he must contribute more than the 4.5 rebounds he got last season and play some tougher defense.
Paul Westphal is still one of the two or three best guards in the league, but Don Buse is such a mediocre scorer (7.8 points per game) that few teams play him honestly on defense. On the other hand, Buse is consistently among the NBA leaders in steals and assists, and he triggers the Suns' fast break.
"We're obviously not the most physical team around," says Phoenix Coach John MacLeod. "But we have never looked this good on paper at the start of the season. I think you have to say we do have an excellent chance—on paper."
Portland, on the other hand, looks fairly lousy on paper—but terrific on the court. Power Forward Maurice Lucas reported to camp with a broken knuckle on his right hand, tonsillitis and a contract that he felt was inadequate. He asked to be traded. Mychal Thompson, another big forward, broke his left leg during the summer; he's expected to be out for most of the season.
All of which may end up mattering little, because Portland is deep in strong forwards. Kermit Washington came from San Diego as part of the compensation for Bill Walton. And Jim Brewer, acquired from Detroit, performed well in the exhibition season, as did a refugee from the Italian pro league, Abdul Jeelani.
Tom Owens was a surprise at center, averaging 18.5 points last season, and the addition of Kevin Kunnert gives Jack Ramsay depth and flexibility in the middle. But it remains to be seen if Bobby Gross can come back from last season's ankle and knee ailments and run the way he once could. If the Blazers get into trouble at small forward, they could always trade away one of their five quality guards—Lionel Hollins, Ron Brewer, T.R. Dunn, Dave Twardzik and rookie Jim Paxson.
San Diego must keep Walton healthy for an entire season to be competitive within its division, but even if the Clippers do that, it may not be enough. "We're just one big Kermit Washington-type forward away from a championship," says Free. With 6'7" Nick Weatherspoon at small forward, San Diego Coach Gene Shue will have to choose among Sidney Wicks, Marvin Barnes and Jerome Whitehead for his strong forward. Wicks and Whitehead not only can't do it all, as Washington could, but they also can't do any of it. And as for the extraordinarily talented Barnes, he's always been bad news off the court.
One of the things the Soviets complained of in the SALT II talks was that Lloyd Free's missiles kept showing up on their radar, and Free is still chucking them up about 20 feet in the air, Bill Walton or no Bill Walton. "People relate to me as being a bad guy," Free says. "But I can't stop shooting the ball in order for us to win. Bill can help me and I can help him, and that's what we have to do."
Walton, though obviously rusty after a year and a half off, was intermittently awesome during exhibitions. But he missed the team's last four preseason games because of pain in his left foot, the one he broke in Portland. "That boy can play," said Magic Johnson after facing Walton for the first time.
The Golden State Warriors should stay where they finished last season—last. Guard Phil Smith is still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon and won't be of much use before December. That leaves two fairly small guards, 6'3" John Lucas and 6'3" Jo Jo White, in the backcourt. Center Robert Parish (7 feet, 230 pounds) is pretty good, having scored 17.2 points an outing last year, but forwards Sonny Parker (6'7"), Tom Abernethy (6'7"), Purvis Short (6'7") and 6'5" rookie Lynbert (Cheese) Johnson from Wichita State must be better than they've shown for Golden State to compete successfully. As Coach Al Attles says, "On this team no position is sacred."