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In the National Basketball Association's 26 seasons rarely has a division brought together as many strong teams as the Pacific will this year. To appreciate just how tough things are on the West Coast, consider the plight of the Lakers. Los Angeles lost only 13 games last season, it easily won the playoffs even though Jerry West had misplaced his shooting touch and Coach Bill Sharman his voice—and it should be every bit as powerful again. So the invincible Lakers will run away from the rest of the division to another NBA championship, right? Not exactly. Los Angeles may well be the big winner once more, but no one between Tempe and Tacoma will be unduly startled if the Lakers are not. That is a measure of just how strong the other contenders are—Phoenix, Golden State and Seattle—in the Super Division.
The concentration of all that power in the Pacific is merely the culmination of a two-year westward swing in the NBA. In the last two final-round playoffs, Easterners have won only one game—and coaches of teams both East and West are forecasting that six of the eight best records this season will be compiled by Western Conference clubs. Two of them, Milwaukee and Chicago, are members of the Midwest Division, but they will have considerable impact on play in the Pacific.
In the first two seasons of the current four-division alignment, NBA rules automatically qualified the first and second finishers in each division for the playoffs. This year only divisional winners are guaranteed playoff spots. Within each conference, the remaining two playoff places will go to the teams with the next-best percentages regardless of the division in which they play. In theory this could alleviate the Pacific jam-up by permitting three from this Super Division to participate in postseason games, but probably only in theory. The Bucks and Bulls finished with the second-and third-best records in the NBA last year and should do as well this time, thus securing playoff berths.
So Pacific teams will be forced to try to end up at least in second place. And to finish second on the Coast may require a record superior to that of any team east of the Mississippi. This will provide a bonus for fans since all games, particularly the intradivisional ones, will be important. For players and coaches it will mean not only getting up for the big ones, but also not letting down for the little ones. Midwinter losses on Tuesday nights in Omaha and San Antonio could turn out to be pivotal.
One big Pacific pivotal point plays the pivot for Los Angeles, Wilt Chamberlain (see cover). The Lakers had superior talent and coaching last season, but equally important was their health and happiness. Before this season opened the Lakers seemed to have less of both. Los Angeles players began fighting with Owner Jack Kent Cooke at a less than triumphant victory celebration after the playoffs last spring, and the battle continued with Chamberlain leading the charge. He wanted to renegotiate his contract, claiming that the raise included in the one he signed last year was limited by the wage controls then in effect. Cooke at first was unsympathetic to Chamberlain's demands and told his center to bargain with new General Manager Pete Newell the way the rest of the players do. But early this week Cooke said it was all a misunderstanding and announced Chamberlain's signing on undisclosed terms. The hassling had kept Chamberlain out of Los Angeles exhibition games and raised doubts—despite summer volleyball—about his physical condition. It also left alive the question: Will Wilt approach this year with the same spirit of cooperation that led to last year's championship?
Another disgruntled Laker is Forward Un-Happy Hairston. Of all Los Angeles players. Hairston modified his style the most to accommodate Sharman's running game. Instead of sprinting off to play offense he became a tireless defensive rebounder and, with Wilt, gave the Lakers the strongest board work—and one of the best fast breaks—in the league. Hairston also wanted to renegotiate his contract but the Lakers, although they had already modified one for Gail Goodrich, said that it was against team policy. Bargaining continues.
Last season Laker starters missed only nine games—Los Angeles lost three of them—but that number should be exceeded in the first three weeks this year. Goodrich, the team's leading scorer, is out with a deep stomach and groin pull. Fortunately for Sharman, Goodrich is probably the easiest starter to replace. Pat Riley, also an accurate jump-shooter, and Walt Frazier-like rookie Jim Price from Louisville will fill Goodrich's playing time. The loss of his scoring should be taken up by higher production from West, who did sign a new contract (for $300,000 per year), and Forward Jim McMillian. McMillian's subtle head, hip and shoulder fakes are often not noticeable from the stands, but they catch the eye of defenders just enough to make him one of the best baseline players in the pros.
Sharman spent five weeks during the summer without speaking a word and he now talks from far down in his stomach to protect his ulcerated vocal cords. Dorothy Sharman describes her husband's new voice as "sexier." His players may find it persuasive in a different way. Sharman's hardest task will be making sure that off-season disgruntlement does not turn into regular-season disintegration.
Bill van Breda Kolff is another old voice speaking in a new way. When Butch quit the Pistons early last season he complained about the players and fans, and indicated he was leaving the game for good. Now he is back coaching at Phoenix where the crowds are well-behaved and the players make this the land of the Rising Suns.
The shooting star in this solar system is Charlie Scott, who jumped from the ABA late last year and averaged 18.8 points in his six appearances with Phoenix. Scott is a supertall (6'6") guard, and his speed and jumping ability are equally outsized. When he was in the ABA, the book on Scott was that he only could drive to his left; the book is now being rewritten. Either way, Charlie heads up one of the strongest guard corps in the league, including starter Dick Van Arsdale and subs Mo Layton and Clem Haskins.