When you add Bill Walton and Tom Burleson, the division ain't what it used to be. It's probably better, even without Jerry West. Bill Sharman has slowly rebuilt the Lakers from the team that won it all in 1971-72, and the new look is almost as good as the old. Portland won the toss for Walton, which gave it the best center in the division before he had played even a minute and, with Lenny Wilkens coaching and playing, the Trail Blazers could make everyone else look like Custer. Nor should one overlook Seattle, which is young, talented and also well-coached. In Burleson the Sonics have one of the tallest men in the world, and in Bill Russell the man who can teach him how to play center. Golden State is a bit tarnished, what with old trades and new injuries, and Phoenix gave up its starting center for three expansion players, which should tell you something about the Suns.
If nothing else, the Lakers know how to win. They have added a proven scorer in Cazzie Russell, who came down from Golden State saying he did not mind being sixth man if the price was right. First, the knee he tore up in preseason has to heal. Otherwise, the Lakers are deep and experienced at every position. Jim Price filled in for the injured West last season and Los Angeles lost very little. Price has amazing body control, good hands, is a tough defender and moves easily as either a playmaker or a scorer. The other guard is Gail Goodrich, All-NBA and always in fluid drive. With Pat Riley as the No. 1 reserve, the Lakers have one of the finest backcourts in the league. Elmore Smith struggled through last year as Wilt Chamberlain's replacement, and now should become the center Sharman expected him to be. Inconsistency was Smith's problem but he seemed to lick it over the final five games, both offensively and defensively, and Sharman worked with him through the summer. Connie Hawkins and Happy Hairston are the strong incumbent forwards, and if either falters, which is possible, Russell will soon be available to move up from No. 6 to a starting fifth.
As Wilkens began his first fall season as Trail Blazer coach, his most pressing problem was to find leadership in the backcourt. He had the strength up front: Walton, Sidney Wicks and John Johnson. And he had Geoff Petrie as one fine guard. What he needed was a traffic cop. Not finding one, Wilkens stepped out of retirement and into short pants, and that was like adding a 10-power scope to a .340 Weatherby Magnum. Portland not only has firepower, but now knows where it is going.
All Wilkens has to do is persuade his sharpshooters to share the trigger. Walton will, of course. But in the past Petrie (the NBA's eighth scorer last year with 24.3 points) and Wicks (22.5) have indicated that they thought a pass was something thrown only in football games. That they are considerably less than friends may have had something to do with it. Even Johnson, who gives off the ball well, has his ego moments. But with Wilkens in command in the back-court and Walton at the controls under the basket, the problem may be on its way to solution.
Seattle is just 175 miles from Portland, and Bill Russell decided if he was going to live that close to Walton, he would have a center even bigger. So the Sonic coach went out and got Burleson, who measured 7'4" in North Carolina but was taped at closer to 7'2" in Washington. Nevertheless, that will allow Russell to shift All-Pro Spencer Haywood from center to the much more comfortable role of forward.
Russell, naturally, is devoting a lot of teaching time to Burleson, but he is quick to say that it is far from being a cram course. "I don't want to crowd him, understand?" Russell says. Cram or not, Burleson is learning quickly because aggressiveness and willingness to work hard are two of his strongest assets. Comparisons with Walton are inevitable. At the moment Burleson is quick to go to the offensive board—but not as quick—and, unlike Walton, he has yet to learn to pace himself, to protect the ball and to make sure his passing lane is clear before, unloading. As the big center improves, so will the Sonics.
Although both Golden State and Phoenix will open with new looks, neither is expected to impress anyone. The Warriors have only six men back from the team that lost seven straight games and the division title at the end of last season. One of the best of those, Guard Jeff Mullins, has been incapacitated with a fractured bone in his hand. Rick Barry returns but he can't do it alone, although he will probably shoot in clusters while trying. The Warriors shipped Nate Thurmond to Chicago, Russell to Los Angeles and had to send Clyde Lee to Atlanta as part of a forgotten four-year-old deal. The future is bleak.
Jerry Colangelo, the general manager at Phoenix, likes to wheel and deal. He wheeled in Connie Hawkins, Paul Silas and Neal Walk, then made some more deals and they were gone. It did not help when John Shumate, the team's No. 1 draft choice from Notre Dame, suffered a recurrence of blood clots in his lungs and was sidelined for the year. Last season Phoenix won 30 games. This year the Suns won't rise past 7 a.m.