For the past decade, the Los Angeles Lakers' fortunes have been as unchanging as the Southern California weather: 50 to 60-plus wins and sunny, with a good chance of a world championship. Even last season, L.A.'s first since 1974-75 without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers finished 63-19, which gave them the Western Conference's best record for the ninth straight year. So it didn't take a genius to predict that, despite changing coaches, saying whoa to Showtime and starting the season by losing five of their first seven games, the Lakers would right themselves, reel off 16 straight midseason wins and once again position themselves for a run at the NBA title.
However, the forecast for Los Angeles became cloudier last week, when the Lakers suffered two ominous losses to prime contenders. First the Suns, who had eliminated L.A. from last season's playoffs in the second round, defeated the Lakers 99-95 on Feb. 12 in Phoenix to stop that 16-game roll. Sun point guard Kevin Johnson, who finished with 35 points, exposed L.A.'s lack of quickness on the perimeter. Last Friday night the Boston Celtics, the Lakers' archenemies and the best team in the East at week's end, manhandled Los Angeles 98-85 at the Forum; the victory was the Celtics' first in L.A. in five years. In scoring 29 points, Boston center Robert Parish exploited the inexperience of the Lakers' second-year pivotman, Vlade Divac of Yugoslavia.
But on Sunday, the Lakers, with James Worthy scoring 30 points and Magic Johnson adding 24, righted themselves with a 106-96 defeat of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Western Conference leaders, at the Forum.
Sunday's victory left the Lakers with a 37-13 record, 3½ games behind Portland (41-10) in the tough Pacific Division. "But that's all right," says Johnson. "Instead of being hunted, we're going hunting for a change. We can have some fun with that."
Indeed, the many changes the Lakers have undergone since last season—not the least of which is an increase in the fun quotient under new coach Mike Dunleavy—may make them more capable of bagging the big game come playoff time. First, by signing free agent Sam Perkins, the 6'9½" forward with a 7-footer's wingspan, the Lakers have toughened their interior defense. At week's end they were permitting a mere 99.2 points a game, second fewest in the NBA to the Detroit Pistons and a precipitous drop from the 108.6 Los Angeles surrendered during the Showtime decade. The Lakers also have slowed down their high-octane offense—they're scoring 107.0 per game this season, compared with 114.8 during the 1980s—by replacing speedy forward Orlando Woolridge and swingman Michael Cooper with Perkins and 6'5" Terry Teagle. Los Angeles now can put five players capable of posting up on the floor at once: Divac, Johnson, Perkins, Teagle and Worthy. That gives the Lakers a smorgasbord of halfcourt options on offense and allows them to create all sorts of headaches for the opposition on defense with towering double teams.
So when the game gets shortened from fullcourt to halfcourt, as it often does in the playoffs, the Lakers are more versatile at the offensive end and more physical at the defensive end. "They're like a hybrid now, a lot like Detroit," says Phoenix center Mark West. "They can D up and play aggressively, then they can post up and execute in the halfcourt. And you can't forget as long as they have Magic, they can also run."
After the Suns wore down the Lakers in five games in the 1990 playoffs, it became obvious that L.A. needed more reconstructive surgery than an aging Hollywood star. Some Laker players believed that Pat Riley, the coach since November 1981 and last season's Coach of the Year, had fallen prey to what he himself called "the disease of more," or success breeding excess. In Riley's case, the symptoms were more practices, more inspirational speeches and more challenges to his players' manhood. "He expected a lot from us, and when we didn't give it, he squeezed more the next night," says Cooper, who is now playing in the Italian League. "Not that that's a negative thing necessarily." Says guard Byron Scott, "We needed somebody we could communicate with, somebody that understands us."
After the season Riley listened to the complaints for a while before deciding that he had had enough of coaching. He took a job as an NBC studio analyst on NBA games. Enter Dunleavy, 36 years old and Brooklyn born, who has had a varied career in pro basketball. In 1976 Dunleavy, a guard who played at South Carolina, was the Philadelphia 76ers' sixth-round draft pick. He stuck with the Sixers for one season and part of another on heart and hustle and a good long-range stroke. From Philly he went to Winston-Salem, N.C., where at age 23 he was the player-coach of the Carolina Lightning of the Ail-American Basketball Alliance, a CBA precursor that went belly up.
He returned to the NBA in March 1978 as a guard for the Houston Rockets and stayed with them for four years. During that time he was beloved as the Chicken Man, because in five games he scored the point that lifted the Rockets above 135, the magic number that triggered free meals for fans from a fried-chicken chain. Dunleavy then played a season in San Antonio before joining the Bucks, for whom he once came off the bench and scored 48 points. He became a Milwaukee assistant coach in '87. Three times he shrugged off back troubles and came out of retirement to play in a pinch.
Dunleavy will point out without much prompting that he was on three division championship teams and that two of those teams, the 1976-77 Sixers and the '80-81 Rockets, reached the NBA Finals. Dunleavy's potential as a coach was no secret in the NBA, but he was content to stay in Milwaukee—he turned down head coaching offers from two teams he refuses to identify—until the opportunity to take over a team with a chance of winning the league title came along. The Lakers, whose general manager, Jerry West, had been a fan of Dunleavy's since watching him coach in a predraft camp in '88, certainly met that qualification.
Dunleavy's East Coast roots are evident in his pallor, in his discourses on the "foh-wud" position and in what Magic calls "that New York competitive thing." Ask Dunleavy how he's faring in his regular three-point shootouts with Johnson and Scott, and you'll make his day. "When Byron was struggling with his shooting, we each took 10 threes," says Dunleavy. There's a pause. "Byron hit 10 in a row." Another pause. "And lost." The blue eyes open wide. "Eleven to 10."
"The thing that makes Mike so great is that he knows the game and applies that knowledge," says Magic. "But he's cool at the same time. You can mess with him and have fun with him. Or he'll say, 'C'mon, I'm going to shoot you out.' He mixes the fun and the work so well that by the time the game comes, you want to win so bad for him. A lot of times, he'll say, 'I'm not out there, what do you think?' Or, 'You played this guy; what should we do?' He remembers what it was like to play, and that's how he coaches."
This fall, when Los Angeles got off to its worst start in 12 years, Dunleavy didn't panic. He realized that the Lakers were not in the shape he thought they were and that the addition of five new players to a veteran nucleus would necessitate some adjustments. Following a 112-111 home loss to Phoenix on Nov. 13, which dropped L.A. to 1-4, Dunleavy calmly told his players (hat if they continued to contest shots and run the offense, they would soon gel. The next day, after having read comments by the Suns' Kevin Johnson expressing doubt about the Lakers' fortitude, Dunleavy tacked up the quotes on a bulletin board in the Forum. "I don't look at me as a great motivator; I was just trying to bring something to their attention," he says. "I was trying to be me, being intense, getting them ready for game time."
Then, two days later, Dunleavy replaced A.C. Green with Perkins in the starting lineup. Green, who can play either foh-wud spot, immediately gave the Lakers a jolt of energy coming off the bench, while Perkins showed a variety of talents down low—particularly on defense—that had been concealed during his six seasons of playing outside for the Dallas Mavericks. At times L.A. has come close to being the dream team Riley used to rhapsodize about, one capable of deploying five players who are all tall enough, 6'9" or thereabouts, and quick enough to be almost interchangeable on defense. Dunleavy deploys that size to maximum advantage with the sort of helping, collapsing, switching (and zone) defense that his former boss in Milwaukee, Don Nelson, has used so effectively as coach of the Bucks and the Golden State Warriors. "Even on isolations, you know you're not out there by yourself," says Scott. "You can get up on your man and know that, if he beats you, you've got help."
Perkins quickly proved that he could not only block shots but also step in and hold his ground. "He may look skinny, but he's top-strong, and he doesn't take any stuff, either," says Magic.
At week's end Perkins was averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, and L.A. was running its offense through him more and more. He has been a gradual revelation to the Lakers, but his growing stature has not resulted in an inflated ego. "If I'm going to be labeled a strong defender, I'll take it," says Perkins. "I'm not going to be known for scoring or anything, so before I leave this sport I guess I have to find some definition in myself. If it's defense they want, I'll do it."
Once Dunleavy developed a consistent rotation, L.A. started racking up wins like the Lakers of old. Over the 16-victory run, Los Angeles battered the opposition by an average of 15.4 points a game and developed offensive balance. Six different players led L.A. in scoring during the streak, and only four times did the top scorer get more than 30.
But even after L.A. ran off the NBA's longest winning streak in nine years, doubters could still find plenty to whisper about. Sure, seven of the victories came on the road, but only five of the victims had winning records. Sure, Divac averaged 13.8 points and 9.7 rebounds during the run, but he went head-to-head with only two All-Stars, Brad Daugherty of Cleveland and Parish.
At 23, the 7'1", 248-pound Divac plays with an almost teenage friskiness. He likes to hang back and harass the inbounds passer after the Lakers make a basket. He likes to execute spin and behind-the-back dribbles and no-look passes. He also likes to engage in spinning, high-fiving celebrations with Green after big plays. Occasionally he seems sent from central casting for a Showtime revival, improvising on the court and hanging around after the game to lay a line on reporters through his thick accent: "You know Mandrake the Magician? That's me." Indeed, he gave a magical performance on Feb. 13 with 18 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks, four steals and three assists in leading L.A. to a 120-106 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Divac, however, seems to be a few years and 15 pounds of muscle shy of being a night-in, night-out force. Against Mark West, Parish and Portland's Kevin Duckworth last week, Divac was outscored 55-18 and outrebounded 33-26. Magic frequently pushes the drowsy Divac, exhorting him to take a cue from the children's TV show Divac has appeared on, Wake, Rattle & Roll. Divac does try to please. "One day in training camp I came into the locker room, and he was sitting there with his head hanging," says Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka. "I said, 'Vlade, what's wrong?' He said, 'I am concentrating—like Kareem.' "
Dunleavy made Divac his starting center at the beginning of the season and weathered criticism when he didn't pay immediate dividends. "To me, Vlade's disposition is terrific," says Dunleavy. "I really enjoy him. But sometimes he's very laid back."
"Last year you could dunk on Vlade all night," says Magic. "This year he's not letting it happen. If he doesn't improve, we're a middle-good team. If he does, we're a great team."
With Worthy, who was scoring a team-high 21.9 and Magic (19.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 13.5 assists), the Lakers will always be a cut above middle-good. Both are playing more than 37 minutes a game, and Dunleavy has tried to compensate for that hefty work load by cutting down on practice days for the team.
While Magic may be running less, he seems to be enjoying the halfcourt game more. "We have so many weapons now," he says. "When we don't like our first look, we just go on to the next one. We know just what we want to do to get a great shot."
Says Dunleavy, "I'll pay Magic an unbelievable compliment: I think he's as competitive as I am."
So how far can the Lakers go in the deep and dangerous Western Conference? The forecast here says clear sailing into the second round of the postseason, but no rings on the horizon.