Judging by the looks of the Pacific Division, the ship has capsized and the survivors are struggling to reach shore. This year the division that has given us an NBA playoff finalist in six of the last seven seasons should be wide open: the team that can stay injury-free and put a live center on the floor will win it. Hardest hit is the great Northwest, where the Portland Trail Blazers, the 1977 NBA champions, open the season with a lineup that will make a nightly packed house of 12,411 recall the days of Rick Adelman and Shaler Halimon. In Seattle, where Marvin Webster won plaudits for almost leading the Sonics to last year's championship and then made a fast break to New York, a search is under way for somebody—anybody—to play center. In Los Angeles, Jerry West will surround Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with another cast of spear carriers, while Golden State will take the floor minus golden boy Rick Barry for the first time in six years. Phoenix, unaffected by the coastal upheaval, still has plenty of talent and Center Alvan Adams. San Diego has a new franchise—what used to be the Buffalo Braves. The team is now called the Clippers, after the sailing ships. They will rapidly sink to the bottom of the Pacific.
With Bill Walton out of the picture at least until January—and who knows where he will be then—Abdul-Jabbar suddenly towers all by his lonesome in the division. And, if the officials continue to toot their whistles every time a defensive man lays a hand on an opponent, as they did in the preseason. Abdul-Jabbar will be undefendable. That is, if he wants to be. Kareem was not overpowering enough in the Lakers' first-round playoff loss to Seattle. While West seethed in the locker room after the Lakers were eliminated. Abdul-Jabbar and Guard Charlie Scott happily brandished new tennis rackets and discussed the relative merits of metal versus graphite. West would have shipped Scott to Denver then and there if he'd had the Nuggets' telephone number handy. As it was, the Lakers traded Scott in June.
Kareem isn't going anywhere, of course, but if his attitude stays the same as it was in training camp, when he often appeared to be sleepwalking, neither will the Lakers. More than once, Abdul-Jabbar asked to go to the rest room when it came time to run laps, and when his teammates warmed up before practice with extra shooting, Kareem often curled up in a corner with a newspaper. When L.A. traveled to Fresno for its first exhibition game, Kareem forgot his uniform.
There are indications that perfectionist West might be getting fed up with Kareem's passive attitude. The feeling among some of those close to the team is that Kareem doesn't care about basketball anymore; certainly, he looked sluggish in preseason games. Whatever he was thinking, he wouldn't say, because he was boycotting the L.A. press over a story that said he demanded $5,000 to spend 30 minutes talking to wayward juveniles during the summer.
Nevertheless, the Lakers should win the division, largely because the team that was devastated by injuries—and Kermit Washington's suspension last year—is hale. Also, there is one notable addition. For Scott, West acquired 6'2" Guard Ron Boone from Kansas City (via Denver), a strong, smooth-shooting iron man who has played in 826 consecutive games and has a 19.9-point career average. Boone will start next to second-year man Norm Nixon—the Lakers' best playmaker since West himself—who was fourth in the league in assists last year. West calls him "one of my two irreplaceables."
A broken left foot kept 6'8" Kenny Carr out most of his rookie season, and a broken right foot kept him out of camp this year. But he should be ready this week and thus give West three flexible cornermen, the others being Adrian Dantley and Jamaal Wilkes, who missed 28 of the last 34 regular-season games with a broken finger. "Fifty," says West. "This team should win 50."
"It's a good feeling," says Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo, "to know your house is in order while all the others on the block are in need of repair." Not that the Suns didn't need a little patchwork done on their shattered dreams after they roared off to a 36-16 start, finished 13-17, and then got burned by Milwaukee in the first round of the playoffs.
Adams, a superb passer and runner, led the Suns to the NBA finals as a rookie three seasons ago. And when he said he had an eye on medical school, the Suns assumed he wanted to be a doctor, not a patient, which he was for most of the next two seasons. If he is fit, the Suns can finesse themselves into contention—if Ron Lee, the Suns' third guard, can keep from smashing himself up in his headlong pursuit of loose balls. In peerless Paul Westphal and selfless Don Buse, the Suns may have the league's best starting back-court; Lee's defense gives them extraordinary depth. Even so, Westphal was miffed last year because of limited playing time, especially in the playoffs. He averaged 25.2 points and Buse was fifth in the NBA in steals (Lee was first), and both played just 31 minutes a game. What the Suns need is help in the frontcourt. Walter Davis ran away with Rookie of the Year honors last year, but a back injury to Curtis Perry and a poor performance from Gar Heard caused the Suns to fold. Perry has retired, leaving a glaring need for muscle. To that end, Coach John MacLeod is experimenting with 6'10" Bayard Forrest as the big forward on offense—and center on defense—to spare Adams further beatings. Unfortunately, Forrest moves like one, so Heard could get the job back or it could go to second-year man Alvin Scott, who has bulked up from 185 pounds to 205. Also backing up Adams is Dennis Awtrey, now in his ninth year and sporting a menacing beard. "The Pacific Division has to have a big, redheaded, bearded iconoclast," he says.
With the departure of Barry for Houston, everyone in the Golden State camp is on equal footing for the first time since 1972, and everyone is having fun, "Morale is up tremendously," Coach Al Attles says. It isn't hard to figure why. Barry's presence was overwhelming. He dominated every player, and the limelight.
John Lucas, whom Golden State got in compensation for Barry, is the playmaking guard the Warriors have been searching for since Guy Rodgers left in 1966. He plays with a maturity that belies his two years in the NBA. Attles points out that last year, a woeful one for the Rockets, Lucas had 768 assists and just 213 turnovers. "He's the kind of player who makes everyone better," says Attles.