For the past decade, the Los Angeles Lakers' fortunes have been as unchanging as the Southern California weather: 50 to 60-plus wins and sunny, with a good chance of a world championship. Even last season, L.A.'s first since 1974-75 without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers finished 63-19, which gave them the Western Conference's best record for the ninth straight year. So it didn't take a genius to predict that, despite changing coaches, saying whoa to Showtime and starting the season by losing five of their first seven games, the Lakers would right themselves, reel off 16 straight midseason wins and once again position themselves for a run at the NBA title.
However, the forecast for Los Angeles became cloudier last week, when the Lakers suffered two ominous losses to prime contenders. First the Suns, who had eliminated L.A. from last season's playoffs in the second round, defeated the Lakers 99-95 on Feb. 12 in Phoenix to stop that 16-game roll. Sun point guard Kevin Johnson, who finished with 35 points, exposed L.A.'s lack of quickness on the perimeter. Last Friday night the Boston Celtics, the Lakers' archenemies and the best team in the East at week's end, manhandled Los Angeles 98-85 at the Forum; the victory was the Celtics' first in L.A. in five years. In scoring 29 points, Boston center Robert Parish exploited the inexperience of the Lakers' second-year pivotman, Vlade Divac of Yugoslavia.
But on Sunday, the Lakers, with James Worthy scoring 30 points and Magic Johnson adding 24, righted themselves with a 106-96 defeat of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Western Conference leaders, at the Forum.
Sunday's victory left the Lakers with a 37-13 record, 3½ games behind Portland (41-10) in the tough Pacific Division. "But that's all right," says Johnson. "Instead of being hunted, we're going hunting for a change. We can have some fun with that."
Indeed, the many changes the Lakers have undergone since last season—not the least of which is an increase in the fun quotient under new coach Mike Dunleavy—may make them more capable of bagging the big game come playoff time. First, by signing free agent Sam Perkins, the 6'9½" forward with a 7-footer's wingspan, the Lakers have toughened their interior defense. At week's end they were permitting a mere 99.2 points a game, second fewest in the NBA to the Detroit Pistons and a precipitous drop from the 108.6 Los Angeles surrendered during the Showtime decade. The Lakers also have slowed down their high-octane offense—they're scoring 107.0 per game this season, compared with 114.8 during the 1980s—by replacing speedy forward Orlando Woolridge and swingman Michael Cooper with Perkins and 6'5" Terry Teagle. Los Angeles now can put five players capable of posting up on the floor at once: Divac, Johnson, Perkins, Teagle and Worthy. That gives the Lakers a smorgasbord of halfcourt options on offense and allows them to create all sorts of headaches for the opposition on defense with towering double teams.
So when the game gets shortened from fullcourt to halfcourt, as it often does in the playoffs, the Lakers are more versatile at the offensive end and more physical at the defensive end. "They're like a hybrid now, a lot like Detroit," says Phoenix center Mark West. "They can D up and play aggressively, then they can post up and execute in the halfcourt. And you can't forget as long as they have Magic, they can also run."
After the Suns wore down the Lakers in five games in the 1990 playoffs, it became obvious that L.A. needed more reconstructive surgery than an aging Hollywood star. Some Laker players believed that Pat Riley, the coach since November 1981 and last season's Coach of the Year, had fallen prey to what he himself called "the disease of more," or success breeding excess. In Riley's case, the symptoms were more practices, more inspirational speeches and more challenges to his players' manhood. "He expected a lot from us, and when we didn't give it, he squeezed more the next night," says Cooper, who is now playing in the Italian League. "Not that that's a negative thing necessarily." Says guard Byron Scott, "We needed somebody we could communicate with, somebody that understands us."
After the season Riley listened to the complaints for a while before deciding that he had had enough of coaching. He took a job as an NBC studio analyst on NBA games. Enter Dunleavy, 36 years old and Brooklyn born, who has had a varied career in pro basketball. In 1976 Dunleavy, a guard who played at South Carolina, was the Philadelphia 76ers' sixth-round draft pick. He stuck with the Sixers for one season and part of another on heart and hustle and a good long-range stroke. From Philly he went to Winston-Salem, N.C., where at age 23 he was the player-coach of the Carolina Lightning of the Ail-American Basketball Alliance, a CBA precursor that went belly up.
He returned to the NBA in March 1978 as a guard for the Houston Rockets and stayed with them for four years. During that time he was beloved as the Chicken Man, because in five games he scored the point that lifted the Rockets above 135, the magic number that triggered free meals for fans from a fried-chicken chain. Dunleavy then played a season in San Antonio before joining the Bucks, for whom he once came off the bench and scored 48 points. He became a Milwaukee assistant coach in '87. Three times he shrugged off back troubles and came out of retirement to play in a pinch.
Dunleavy will point out without much prompting that he was on three division championship teams and that two of those teams, the 1976-77 Sixers and the '80-81 Rockets, reached the NBA Finals. Dunleavy's potential as a coach was no secret in the NBA, but he was content to stay in Milwaukee—he turned down head coaching offers from two teams he refuses to identify—until the opportunity to take over a team with a chance of winning the league title came along. The Lakers, whose general manager, Jerry West, had been a fan of Dunleavy's since watching him coach in a predraft camp in '88, certainly met that qualification.