On the NBA Calendar, the decade of the 1980s ended on May 15 in Los Angeles when the Lakers crashed and burned in the fifth and final game of their Western Conference semifinal playoff series with the Phoenix Suns. Nine days earlier, the Boston Celtics had done likewise by losing a deciding Game 5 first-round playoff game in Boston Garden to the Knicks after leading the series two games to none.
Flip the calendar page, commissioner David Stern, and try to hide your worry lines from the world. Sure, the league is healthier than it has ever been. Sure, David Robinson has given you a brainy new poster boy. Sure, Michael Jordan is still there for everyone to love, and the Detroit Pistons are still there for everyone to hate. But, face it, you need the Celtics and Lakers. You need that East versus West rivalry, that Magic versus Bird focus that you could get only from the NBA's two most storied franchises. Not only that, they were lots of fun to watch.
So, what must be done to get both franchises back on course? Here's one man's opinion.
The Lakers finished the 1989-90 season with a league-best 63 wins, which gave them the home-court advantage for the playoffs. Some good it did them. In pro basketball, as in boxing, the psychological edge—the eye of the tiger—can disappear in an instant, and that may very well have happened to L.A. when it lost Game 1 to the Suns. So the Lakers must:
•Make sure Pat Riley remains as coach. Riley said last week that he is "considering" other career options, i.e., becoming a television commentator. Memo to owner Jerry Buss: Whatever the networks are willing to pay him, pay him more. For another couple of years at least, the Lakers need the master of mousse around.
•Trade Byron Scott, 29, for a younger guard. With a pot sweetener of some kind to go along with Scott, perhaps general manager Jerry West can acquire the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller or the Golden State Warriors' Mitch Richmond. West made exactly that kind of move in October 1983 when he traded away popular guard Norm Nixon, then 27, for a rookie guard from Arizona State, Byron Scott. Now it's time to resubmit the script with Scott in a different role.
•Forget the Mychal Thompson-Vlade Divac tandem in the pivot. Trade Thompson, and go with Divac, the 7-foot Yugoslav. Divac will need to spend some time at Pete Newell's Big Man School to sharpen up his skills, but, more important, make sure he knows that he's a center, not a forward. Maybe he's even adept enough to learn one very significant English word—skyhook.
•Package a couple of the Lakers' lesser lights—Thompson? Michael Cooper? Orlando Woolridge? Larry Drew?—and get a reliable backup point guard, a position that Drew could not adequately fill this season. More and more, the Lakers want to play Magic at power forward, so they need someone who can step in and run the team with authority. Hey, here's an idea: Coax one or two more years out of veteran Dennis Johnson, who almost certainly won't be re-signed by the Celtics.
Well, that was easy. Now for Boston. The firing of head coach Jimmy Rodgers two days after the Celtics' elimination by the Knicks was ill advised, but the invitation to Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt—unaccepted as of Sunday—to come to Boston as director of basketball operations was a wise move. Besides doing everything in their power to get Gavitt to take the job, the Celtics must:
•Trade Kevin McHale, Boston's most attractive offering for any big deal, for draft picks. In all likelihood, he could command two first-rounders.
•Tell Larry Bird to transfer some—no, make that a lot—of the scoring load to guard Reggie Lewis. Lewis is the Celtics' go-to guy of the future, and he's got to start getting gone to.
•Along those same lines, give the ball to returning point guard Brian Shaw and let him run the show. The Boston front office made a giant blunder when it did not take Shaw's contract negotiations with a team in Italy seriously enough and let him bolt last year. The Celtics won't really be "Brian's team" as long as Bird is still around. But Shaw will need the freedom to take charge and holler at the veterans once in a while.
•Phase out Red Auerbach, whose official title is president but should really just be living legend. Auerbach said last week that he'll "have the last word," even if Gavitt is hired. And he has already gone on record as saying that McHale will not be traded.
That attitude is not healthy: What if, for example, the new guy wants to trade McHale? There has never been a cannier NBA card shark than Auerbach, but he hasn't made one of his sharp deals since he signed free agent Bill Walton back in 1985. It's clearly time for him to step into the shadows.
Unless the Lakers and Celtics make a few moves, that's exactly where they will find themselves next season. And the NBA will have slipped just a bit into the shadows as well.