After years of trying to develop a title in Los Angeles, Lakers Owner Jack Kent Cooke went out and bought one. His deal with Wilt Chamberlain was in seven figures. His deals for guards—Chicago sent him Keith Erickson, a big scrambler, and Milwaukee chipped in with Johnny Egan, a deft little playmaker—cost him, too. Competitively, Cooke's buying habits have produced a most unhealthy situation in the NBA. Financially, just to pay the bills he will have to draw about 12,000 customers a night. But he will have his championship.
The Lakers won 30 of their last 38 games last year and really had no business losing to Boston in the finals. This fall Elgin Baylor came in 15 pounds overweight and Jerry West is always on the brink of injury—he is doing exercises before every game now, a sort of preventive maintenance—but never mind. With Chamberlain joining them nothing short of a holocaust can keep the Lakers from winning in the weaker Western Division.
Lakerologists, like students of the Kremlin, will be straining to make significance out of whatever difficulties arise between Chamberlain and the other two superstars and Coach Butch van Breda Kolff. The benefits the towering center brings to the court, though, should far outweigh any personality scratches. Chamberlain should not offer any internal threat to the scoring prowess of Baylor and West. Furthermore, his rebounding will spare Baylor from having to work the boards so much, and his presence underneath will permit West to exercise his great defensive talents with more confidence.
Accommodations, however, must be made if the team is to reach its full potential. With Chamberlain under the basket. West and Baylor cannot drive or free-lance as much as they have. In turn, Chamberlain must not remain so reluctant to practice the techniques of the high post—a style Baylor and West are used to.
Opponents may try to upset the Lakers with a full-court press, but with the new Es aiding West and Fred Crawford in the backcourt the Lakers would appear to have the depth to handle even that ploy. Erwin Mueller was sent back to Chicago in the Erickson deal, but dependable Tom Hawkins, rookie Bill Hewitt and Mel Counts—who seems to have grown into his seven feet—offer sufficient skills to fill out the rest of the Chamberlain-Baylor front line.
The Laker juggernaut can be stopped only if Nate Thurmond of San Francisco has an extraordinary playoff. While courthouse fans were speaking solely of Rick Barry, Thurmond quietly was becoming the best center and the most valuable player in the league before he suffered his annual injury in January. The whole Warrior team might be more suitably dressed in uniforms that said THE INFIRMARY on them instead of THE CITY. Jimmy King, a marvelous little guard, is out, at least until December, with a vexing muscle inflammation that appears to defy healing. His loss leaves Jeff Mullins as the lone experienced backcourt shooting threat. Al Attles, more celebrated on defense, should be appreciated at least as much as the team's offensive catalyst. Sophomore Bob Lewis and rookie Ron Williams will vie for playing time behind bench Guard Joe Ellis.
Rudy LaRusso, the complete cornerman, Bill Turner and Clyde Lee all help Thurmond on the boards. Lee, Thurmond's pivot substitute, is 20 pounds heavier from honeymoon home-cooking, but he appears no slower for the weight. Ellis will also move up front against speedier forwards. Perhaps more than any other Warrior, he has had his confidence bolstered by new Coach George Lee, whose predecessor, Bill Sharman, had a quick hook for reserves. Lee, and his assistant Attles, will return more to the ways of Alex Hannum, who preceded Sharman but who is now featured at the other wheel in Oakland.
No coach is faced with a greater challenge than Richie Guerin, whose St. Louis team has moved to Atlanta. This in itself was upsetting, since the coach and many of his players were comfortably settled in Missouri, but the greater issue involved the Hawk who would not budge—Lenny Wilkens. His protracted holdout—which finally was ended with his trade to Seattle for Walt Hazzard last Saturday—managed to bare deep team sensitivities. Bill Bridges, the articulate cornerman, said publicly that Wilkens was the type "who thinks he has to have everything." Ben Kerner, the team's former owner, chimed in with the news that Guerin and Wilkens had long felt "jealousy" for one another.
After such statements it was obvious that Wilkens no longer could serve effectively on the Hawks even if simple money matters could be settled. In Hazzard, Atlanta picks up an aggressive and personable young leader who will certainly inject life into one of the more businesslike clubs. He is not up to Wilkens' level as a playmaker, but no one else is either, and the Hawks desperately needed someone of his stripe because their other guards—Don Ohl, George Lehmann and Lou Hudson, when he swings to the backcourt—are, first of all, shooters. With Hudson it may not even be a question of whether he plays guard or forward. In two weeks a Greensboro, N.C. court will decide whether his signed contract with Miami of the ABA or his signed Atlanta NBA contract is valid.
The roughneck frontcourt returns basically intact, with Bridges, Zelmo Beaty, Paul Silas and the improved Jim Davis setting for the speed of Joe Caldwell and Hudson. With the forecourt's sturdy performance and Guerin's excellent coaching to rely on, the Hawks can threaten San Francisco despite the problems of adjustment. Besides, the rest of the division is just an embarrassment of expansionists, and even the addition of Wilkens cannot strengthen Seattle sufficiently to contend with Atlanta.