The Golden West

Who would have figured—certainly not us—that the retooled Warriors and the Magic-less Lakers would be the big winners in the Pacific Division?
December 02, 1991

Okay, okay, we understand the situation. The NBA season has barely begun and all those preseason predictions—or at least those pertaining to the Pacific Division—are fit for swaddling fish. Magic is gone. Run TMC merchandise is moldering in warehouses throughout the Bay Area. The most riveting newcomer in the division is an undrafted 6'2" guard for the Portland Trail Blazers who a few months ago couldn't get an invitation to a rookie camp. The Sacramento Kings have actually won a road game. And the Phoenix Suns are wondering whether their plan to move into an arena named after bankrupt America West Airlines isn't a rather inauspicious indication of where they're headed. "You've got Phoenix near the bottom, Portland in the middle and us on top, along with the Lakers without Magic," says Golden State Warrior forward Tom Tolbert. "It's like a whole new place."

Precisely: a whole new place. Hence our obligation to cobble together a supplement to our preseason scouting reports. But don't ask for a predicted order of finish; on that we'll have to pass. All we can do is look anew at the seven teams in the roiling waters of the Pacific, starting with surprising Golden State, the division leader (9-3) as of Sunday night.

Warrior general manager and coach Don Nelson calls his habit of using a short lineup to exploit mismatches in quickness "going small." But going small can wear down a team over the Darwinian course of an NBA season. "Some times we feel we've got to use all our energy for a spectacular basket every time down the floor," says Golden State forward Chris Mullin. "It's like we were on this fast-moving treadmill while the team we were playing was just walking through the park. Sooner or later we had to get ourselves bigger."

Thus Nelson's tortured decision on opening night to send the Warriors' superb defender and a 23.9-points-per-game scorer in 1990-91, 6'5" Mitch Richmond, to Sacramento for rookie Billy Owens. Nelson made the trade for four good reasons: the inches the 6'9" Owens has on Richmond. So far, Golden State has not seemed to miss Richmond's scoring. At week's end the Warriors were atop the league, averaging 120.0 a game, and it was as much attributable to the off-the-bench contributions of guard Sarunas Marciulionis (17.7 points per game) as it was to the consistency of the remaining two members of the now busted-up Run TMC, Mullin (24.6) and point guard Tim Hardaway (23.4), he of the crossover dribble move known as the UTEP Two-Step. Nor have the Warriors seemed to miss Richmond's defense; they were leading the league in turnovers forced, and twice during the final four minutes of last Friday's 116-112 defeat of the Trail Blazers in Portland they hounded their hosts into 24-sccond violations. Further, Owens's extra inches—as well as the discarded poundage of rookie starting center Victor Alexander of Iowa State—had helped Golden State outrebound opponents in half of its dozen games.

Yet the Warriors haven't entirely forsaken the advantages of going small. Nor can they hope to when 40% of their scoring comes from the 6'7" Mullin, who will play in the Olympics, and the six-foot Hardaway, who is rapidly making it difficult to leave him off Team U.S.A. Golden State beat Portland when the 6'5" Marciulionis, finding himself guarded by the 6'10" Cliff Robinson in the final seconds, darted into the lane and then flicked the ball out to the left wing, where Mullin lingered unguarded. Mullin bottomed out a 17-footer with scarcely a second to play, and the Warriors, losers of all three of their games in Portland last season by an average of 24 points, won despite surrendering 74 points to the Blazers in the first half. "They wanted to tell us that they're the incumbents, and they did that in the first half," Nelson said afterward. "We had to either stand up to them or go home. We stood up."

Golden State's fortitude last Friday was a good sign for the Warriors inasmuch as Richmond had been their toughest player. Marciulionis, the Lithuanian who has been getting a good share of Richmond's minutes and points, plays an extremely physical game, shattering bodies on reckless drives to the basket. Owens, on the other hand, had made his college valedictory at Syracuse a forgettable one—a 40-minute exhibition of somnambulism in the Orangemen's loss to Richmond (the university, not the ballplayer) in the NCAA tournament last March. His reception by fans in the Oakland Coliseum at first suggested that they doubted the wisdom of trading a star for a No. 3 pick in the draft who had held out through Sacramento's training camp. Tepid applause has given way gradually to respect, as Owens unveils, game by game, the skills that allow Nelson to play him at big guard. Owens will get it done, but in a much more effortless fashion than Richmond did. Thus he is usually "Billy" to his coach, while another first-year player, forward Chris Gatling, late of Old Dominion, is more likely to be addressed as "Rook" by Nelson, whose skepticism of rookies' ability to contribute is legendary.

"I've blamed rookies who haven't gotten in the game for losses," Nelson says to emphasize his feelings. "I learned that from Bill Russell, who learned it from Red Auerbach. Don't give them respect for a year. Make them earn it. Billy is being flooded with everything that we're trying to do, and he's still doing very well. To his credit, he's starting out as a blend player. But I need him to be a dominant player. We won't see that for at least a year, maybe two."

The numbness around the league brought on by Magic Johnson's sudden retirement after he tested positive for HIV is finally beginning to wear off, even in Los Angeles. "You can mourn for Magic," says Nelson, "but you can't mourn for the Lakers. You have to treat it as if the retirement happened naturally." Nor are the Lakers mourning for themselves. After a 102-97 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday night, they had won seven in a row, three of them last week while Magic graced their bench with his talismanic presence.

"He's just like a coach on the sideline," says Sedale Threatt, who has taken over as the starter for Magic at the point. "It's still his team, no question about it." Threatt and his backup, Tony Smith, have taken such good care of the ball—they made only 11 turnovers between them in three games last week—that talk of Los Angeles making a trade for another floor leader has subsided. Not that a team that at week's end ranked 25th in the league in rebounding can afford to part with forward A.C. Green, the player it has been rumored it would take to pry, say, Sherman Douglas from Miami or Derek Harper from Dallas. "Teams that rush into doing something usually make a mistake," says L.A. coach Mike Dunleavy. "We view Sedale's role as our starting point guard as permanent."

Dunleavy convened a three-day minicamp after the Lakers—in their first game after Johnson announced his retirement—lost by 28 points to Phoenix. He tinkered with each of Los Angeles's plays to allow for the loss of a 6'9" point guard. "We made a decision collectively to stay strong," says forward James Worthy, who averaged 6.1 assists a game as the Lakers amassed an 8-3 record. "We didn't want to wait two months to play well. We wanted to do that right away."

A team as young as the Seattle SuperSonics had no business going 5-0 on an early-season road trip while its most talented player, forward Shawn Kemp, remained on the injured list with a sprained left foot. Further, having both guard Ricky Pierce and forward Eddie Johnson, two of the league's finest sixth men, seems to be of little advantage as long as the rules say you can only play five men at a time. But Seattle coach K.C. Jones has found success in starting Pierce and bringing Johnson off the bench. Meanwhile, forward Michael Cage has twice gone for 20 points and 20 rebounds in relief of Kemp. "It's up to Shawn," says Johnson, looking ahead to Kemp's projected return next week. "He has to realize that we've played pretty well. Instead of us molding to his game, he's going to have to mold his game to ours."

Little more than a fumbled fast break pass kept the Trail Blazers from a spot in the NBA Finals last spring. "We had such a great season and the playoffs were such a disappointment that the toughest thing for us is to get that out of our minds," says guard Danny Ainge. "Subconsciously, the intensity level wasn't there in training camp and to start the season." Credit that ennui for the Blazers' sub-.500 road record through Sunday and their early three-game losing streak.

But if someone can wake them up, it's rookie Robert Pack of USC, who has found his way into coach Rick Adelman's four-man backcourt rotation. Pack is yet another Portland pickup you hadn't heard of. The Blazers, whose one conspicuous weakness last season was a tendency to become heedless in their half-court game, should find Pack's ability to take the ball hard to the basket—and do so under control—to be exactly the thing to fire up a largely veteran team. "He makes plays that can turn his teammates on," says Portland's player personnel director Brad Greenberg, who plucked Pack out of an L.A. summer league in July.

The Suns' troubles begin with forward Tom Chambers, just as Phoenix's success over the past three seasons (55, 54 and 55 wins) began with him. By Sunday, Chambers was shooting 36.2% and watching his playing time dwindle, as coach Cotton Fitzsimmons got a read on Chambers's stroke early in each game and, accordingly, either sat him down or left him in. He played only 17 minutes in a 103-95 loss to the Lakers on Nov. 19 and still squeezed off 15 shots—he made three. Chambers's struggles only highlight a chronic shortcoming of the Suns, their inability to score from the forecourt. During that defeat in Los Angeles, the Lakers outshot Phoenix from the free throw line 30-9, a statistic that bespeaks how hard it has been for the Suns to do anything—even draw a foul—close to the basket.

Fitzsimmons points out that star guard Kevin Johnson has a tender Achilles tendon in his right heel, and the Suns' schedule is unforgiving until after the first week of December. By then Phoenix will have played 21 games in 37 days, more than a quarter of its season, including 10 sets of back-to-back games. "Until we get Tom and Kevin going again, it's going to be hard," says Fitzsimmons, "but we've accomplished everything the last three years because of them. They brought us here, and they're going to get us out of this."

The Los Angeles Clippers' 114-109 win in The Forum on Nov. 5, their first there since moving north from San Diego seven years ago, looked like just the thing to get Angelenos to take Donald Sterling's basketball team as seriously as they do his party invitations. Then the Clippers reverted to being the supremely talented but inchoate bunch that the rest of the division knows and counts on. Perhaps the return in December of steady, stoic power forward Charles Smith, who hasn't played a game this season because of a bum right knee, will change attitudes and fortunes for the Clippers.

You say you wonder why the Clippers didn't know about Pack, who played two college seasons in the L.A. Sports Arena? "Not even in their backyard," says Pack, "but right in their living room." Silly question. The Clippers couldn't be expected to know about Pack. When USC played at home, the Clips were on the road.

Richmond may play for Sacramento now, but his regular phone calls to erstwhile Golden State teammates suggest he has left his heart in greater San Francisco. With his slashing, open-court style and Nelson's knack for designing isolation situations, Richmond the Warrior beat a path to the free throw line. But under Kings coach Dick Motta's precise and patterned offense, Richmond is starting anew. On Nov. 11, when the refs failed to send him to the line once during a 106-90 loss at Utah, he turned paranoid. "Are you just looking at the uniform?" he demanded of one official, inferring that anyone wearing the lowly Kings' uniform can't catch a break from the refs.

The Kings, however, finally found something to celebrate on Saturday night. "We're going to Disney World," said forward Wayman Tisdale after Sacramento ended its league-record losing streak on the road at 43 in Orlando with a 95-93 defeat of the Magic.

Just plain Magic, however, remains unbeaten and unbowed. He has become the world's greatest benchwarmer and center Vlade Divac's conscience—a sort of M. L. Carr with dignity. The Lakers are petitioning the league for permission to let Magic stay on their bench for the rest of the season. If there is one sure thing in the Pacific Division, it's that commissioner David Stern won't deny that request.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERMullin, who has averaged 24.6 points, has been the driving force behind Golden State's fast start. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe diminutive Hardaway has been nothing short of Olympian so far. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONLakers like Sam Perkins (left) and Threatt have applied the pressure in Magic's absence. PHOTOA.D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOSOwens lets the Warriors go big. PHOTORICHARD MACKSONPerkins and the Lakers have climbed all over the Suns in the Pacific Division standings.

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