How improbable and unpredictable has the NBA's Western Conference been this season? How about eight teams finishing with records of .500 or better? Or Denver never scoring fewer than 100 points in a game? Or Houston going 30-14 after an abysmal start and in the process dropping from second place to third in the Midwest Division?
"The East has the name teams but the West has the power and balance," says Kansas City Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "If Boston, Philly or Milwaukee had to play a Los Angeles, a Seattle or a Golden State six times a year, its record wouldn't be nearly as good."
"We could finish first in our division, or second, or out of the playoffs altogether," says Houston Coach Del Harris, whose team was 44-34 at the end of last week and in a six-club battle for the last four postseason spots. "At the start of the year I thought a little under .500 would get you into the playoffs. Then when the Pacific Division teams started so well I changed it to .500. Then a little later I said 43 wins. Now I think it will take at least 45 or 46. I don't want to hear anything about how easy it is to get into the NBA playoffs."
Right you are, Del. The degree of difficulty for just getting into the Western Conference playoffs this season is only slightly greater than that of picking who'll make it to the NBA finals, as the Rockets did last season. In this year's playoffs Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might not be all that much more important to the Lakers than Eddie Jordan or Bob McAdoo; and Paul Griffin could be as big a key to San Antonio's fortunes as George Gervin; and Billy McKinney could very well play a bigger role than David Thompson for Denver.
Yep, the zanies are what's happening in the West. Or not happening, as is the Lakers' hope. The Lakers were the first and most notable victims of Rocket-mania a year ago, losing a mini-series in three games. But the Lakers should win the Pacific title and thereby earn a bye into the conference semifinals, a considerable accomplishment given the variety of crises that befell the team this year.
First there was Magic Johnson versus Coach Paul Westhead, followed by a public-relations blitz that tried to exonerate Magic for Westhead's firing. Then Power Forward Mitch Kupchak had his yearly disabling injury, a broken left leg that should keep him out of the playoffs. Later there was the club's six-game winning streak in December minus Abdul-Jabbar and his subsequent hurt feelings.
Then there was the much-talked-about role change for Kareem. No longer would he worry about scoring; instead he'd concentrate on blocking shots and rebounding. That led to talk about L.A. not being big enough for both Magic and Kareem—with, the theory went. Magic's up-tempo game winning out and Kareem being traded to San Diego, to Cleveland, to Uranus. But Abdul-Jabbar started scoring megapoints late in the season, averaging 25.4 a game in March.
Coach Pat Riley says the only problems the Lakers have now are "the people who keep saying that we have problems." But that wasn't the case earlier in the season. "It's like walking on eggshells in the locker room when things like that are happening," says one Laker player. "We don't have anyone who can walk into a locker room and say, 'Do this,' and 'Do that.' I wish we did, but not many teams do. Maybe it can't be done anymore."
Not on the Lakers, with their galaxy of stars. No one can tell Abdul-Jabbar, Johnson, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon et al. how to play basketball. No one has to. Come playoff time, the only things that should bother the Lakers are what affects even the lowliest team: injuries. Sixth man Michael Cooper, who usually comes in at guard, has a pulled groin that could limit his playoff action, and the next reserve guard on the list, Eddie Jordan, cracked a bone in his leg below the left knee on March 30. L.A. must have one or the other in good form—and soon. But the biggest loss was Kupchak, who says he won't return for the playoffs "if I use my head and play it smart for once."
"L.A. can't win with a Kurt Rambis, a Jim Brewer or a Mark Landsberger at Kupchak's forward spot," Fitzsimmons says. "All you do is leave them alone on defense and cheat over into the middle against Abdul-Jabbar. Then you can beat them in a half-court game, which is what you usually get in the playoffs, where teams really work hard to curtail the fast break."
Enter McAdoo, who recently lit up Cotton's Kings for 30 points off the bench after missing nine games with a torn calf muscle. If he can maintain any sort of consistency, the Lakers may yet come up with a happy ending.
Given the jumbled state of the conference standings, it's hard to tell whom the Lakers will face first. "If there's any team I fear, it's Houston," Riley says. "They're big and physical and do a great job of taking us out of our running game."
The epitome of "big and physical" is Moses Malone, this season's most dominant player. He will be a free agent at the conclusion of the season, and he started his contract drive back in December. In his last 31 games, through Sunday, Malone had averaged more than 36 points, many of them off the offensive boards: The Rockets like to play Throw the Bone off the glass with Malone as the Golden Retriever. His 14.5 rebounds a game are tops in the league.
Currently Malone has been joined in the big-numbers category by Elvin Hayes, who had played more than 41 minutes a game in Houston's seven most recent outings through last weekend. In that time E averaged 19 points and almost 10 rebounds in finally making the Harris double-big-man offense work. The Rockets, however, won't win in the long run because they can't run and they're vulnerable to teams that can.
If there was ever a game for the ages and the television ratings, it was one played March 6 by the Midwest-leading Spurs and the Bucks, tops in the Central. After the dust had cleared, an NBA-record 337 points had been scored as the Spurs won 171-166 in triple overtime. Since then San Antonio has been just 7-11 and has been the most tired team in the league. "I hope that's what it is," says a Spurs official. "I can't imagine us being that bad all of a sudden."
Exhaustion hasn't been the Spurs' only problem. One of the most punishing of San Antonio's Bruise Brothers, Paul Griffin, has missed most of the season after surgery on his left knee. Another bully, Mark Olberding, recently returned after an 11-game absence caused by a sprained ankle. Still, San Antonio may have made the best personnel move of any contender when it acquired Mike Mitchell from Cleveland on Dec. 23. "Mitchell made that team," says Denver Coach Doug Moe. "Before, other Spurs might score, but you could help out on George Gervin and not get hurt. This guy will kill you."
Actually, Denver could be a killer, mainly because the Nuggets, with their constant running and offensive pressure, don't play the way other NBA teams do. They have three men in the top 14 in scoring, but with Moe's free-lance passing attack, Alex English (25.4 points per game), Dan Issel (22.7) and Kiki Vandeweghe (21.6) aren't the only Nuggets to get their shots off. Denver leads the league in scoring (126 points a game) and in field-goal (.520) and free-throw (.798) shooting. Nuggets opponents work hard for almost 24 seconds to score and then get beaten back up court by a long inbounds pass or Denver's twin squirts, 6'1" Billy McKinney and 6'0" Ken Higgs, for a payback basket in less than 10 seconds.
"The Nuggets will be tough because the way they play it doesn't matter where they play," says Fitzsimmons. "They just run around in circles. You go to the blackboard before the game and you can't write anything. They don't do anything more than once." McKinney's becoming a starter coincided with Denver's recent 12-game winning streak.
It was only about a month ago that Seattle was a popular choice to make the NBA finals. And, although the Sonics haven't played well of late, All-Stars Gus Williams, Jack Sikma and Lonnie Shelton make them hard to beat.
The Sonics' willingness to role-play is what will make them tough, according to San Diego Coach Paul Silas, who says, "In the playoffs each game comes down to you against your strengths and weaknesses. That's why roles are so important. The value of a Fred Brown coming off the bench for three quick baskets is emphasized in the playoffs.
"I don't think the Lakers had this when they won. After you win it once, the roles become even more important. The emotion isn't there the second time. You must sacrifice more to win."
Besides making up for their embarrassing performance of a year ago, the threat of being sacrificed by owner Jerry Buss if they don't win will probably be incentive enough for the Lakers.