Is West protecting Jabbar or is he intimidated by him? There are no easy answers. West, who played the backcourt to perfection, has been angry with his guards—Norm Nixon, Ron Boone, Brad Davis, Lou Hudson and rookie Ron Carter. "All I want to know," says playmaker Nixon, "is if Kareem's to blame for our losing, how come Jerry's always picking on me?"
In the Philadelphia loss, 76er rookie Maurice Cheeks and Ralph Simpson—guards—scored the key points. At New Jersey, Net rookie Winford Boynes scored 20. At Cleveland, 5'11" Foots Walker, a career six-point scorer, burned the Lakers with a career-high 26.
The main problem is that Boone, the bruising 18.4 career scorer acquired from Kansas City during the off-season, broke his nose in an exhibition game against Seattle and has been wearing a modified hockey goalkeeper's mask, and playing like a hockey goalkeeper—allowing opposing guards to double up on Nixon while scoring a meager nine points a game on 43% shooting. Davis, a first-round draft choice from Maryland a year ago, has not come anywhere close to his promise; the 34-year-old Hudson's career is behind him; and the 6'5" Carter, out of VMI, is all rough edges. "It's very difficult to run an offense when you can't pass the ball to the right man at the right time. Kareem isn't taking only 13 shots a game because he's lazy," West says.
West's understandable desire to get the ball to Abdul-Jabbar early and often has caused disharmony among the Lakers in the past, not to mention the fact that it's like giving the opposition all the answers before the exam. Still, in last year's nightmare of a season that began with Abdul-Jabbar fracturing his hand and missing 20 games, the Lakers managed to come in at 45-37. But then they went down to Seattle in the first round of the playoffs. Charlie Scott, acquired from Boston at midseason, frequently rebelled against West's philosophy. Now with Denver, Scott says, "In L.A. we had 22 seconds to get Kareem his skyhook. If we couldn't, we had two seconds to try something else."
This year West is trying something else, since he has a difficult array of talent to mix. In Abdul-Jabbar's four seasons in Los Angeles, he has had 37 teammates. Though West claims that "this is the most talented group I've had here," it includes two disconcertingly similar small starting forwards—Adrian Dantley and Jamaal Wilkes—and second-year man Kenny Carr, at 6'7" the only power-forward hope, who has been hampered with injuries in both his seasons. Dantley and Wilkes both like to back in to the basket and each is a strong offensive rebounder. But with Kareem operating down low, there is just not enough room for them and their defenders. So West occasionally moves Abdul-Jabbar to the high post, where he becomes less of a threat. Otherwise, Dantley shoots from the 20-foot range, and Wilkes takes what he can get in the corners. At the defensive end, the Lakers have been beaten by eight rebounds per game—against Cleveland they lost the boards by 57-33—which all but nullifies their fast break.
All of which spells trouble for West in the last year of his three-year contract. "And I mean my last," he said while airplane trouble in Cleveland made it seem as though the Lakers would never get off the ground.
"How long do they say we'll be here?" Ron Carter asked the coach.
"Two more weeks," said West. "When I get home I'm going to run 50 miles. I hope I have a coronary."
That turned the discussion to King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, who had been staying in the Lakers' Cleveland hotel after heart surgery. "Shoot, Jerry," said Assistant Coach Stan Albeck. "How would you like to make $15 million a day? You could buy the Pacific Ocean."
"Nah," said West. "I'd buy the Lakers. And disband them."