Through the '80s, the Los Angeles Lakers not only dominated the Western Conference, they almost obliterated it. Except for two brief blips (1981 and '86) made by Houston on the NBA Finals radar screen, the Lakers were the sole Western finalist—and generally the only Western team worth more than a passing glance. Even last season, when the Portland Trail Blazers broke through to make the Finals—where they promptly lost 4-1 to the Detroit Pistons—the best regular-season team in the West (and the entire league, for that matter) was none other than the 63-win Lakers.
Well, this is the year it all changes. That's not to say that the good ol' Lakers—O.K., the good new Lakers—won't be in the middle of the hunt. They will. But it is to say that at least five Western teams will be right there with them, trying on formal clothes for the prom.
There's Portland, of course. And Phoenix. And Utah. And San Antonio. And Dallas. All are legitimate conference title contenders. You've heard this before, particularly about Utah and Dallas, right? Yes, you have. But the difference is that these Western contenders did not just talk about getting better, they actually went out and did something about it.
"Our division and conference is basically a monster," said Mike Dunleavy, who couldn't have picked a tougher year to come aboard as Laker coach. "I really don't see any relief." Neither does Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who paid his conference the ultimate compliment: "There are about seven teams in the West that Cotton Fitzsimmons would not be afraid to coach." He includes the Los Angeles Clippers with the Monster Six, but, Cotton, let's not get carried away.
Interestingly, the roster-strengthening moves made by the Monster Six were similar—in each case a team landed established veteran players, sometimes sacrificing young players and first-round draft picks to get them. The two Eastern Conference teams that made significant moves, Chicago and Philadelphia, did likewise. Apparently the hard news has sunk in: Championships are won by experience, not by glitzy draft picks. Unless, of course, a Magic Johnson or a Larry Bird happens to be your glitzy draft pick.
What follows is an evaluation of the moves made by the West's Monster Six, as well as by Chicago and Philadelphia:
Portland made only one significant deal—getting guard Danny Ainge in a trade with Sacramento for backup guard Byron Irvin and some draft picks—but it might turn out to be the deal that pushes the Trail Blazers to the top. Can Ainge help the Trail Blazers win more than the 59 games they did last season? Possibly not. But this move was made for the postseason, where last year the Trail Blazers were haunted by the failure of their third guard, Drazen Petrovic, to have an impact in the Finals against the Pistons. Say this for Ainge, who earned two championship rings as a Celtic: He knows how to make an impact.
What a statement the Lakers made, getting frontcourtman Sam Perkins (page 120) from Dallas via free agency and swingman Terry Teagle in a deal with Golden State for a first-round draft pick next June. No, Perkins and Teagle will not help the Lakers win more than 63 games; in fact, L.A. is probably destined to fall below 60 wins in a much tougher conference. But the Lakers will not sink like a stone in the second round of the playoffs as they did last spring against Phoenix. Remember, Teagle is only 30, Perkins, 29. They'll be around for a few more years, and Magic Johnson will get to know them better and better.
Swingman Paul Pressey, who now lives in Mr. Robinson's San Antonio neighborhood, is rather like Perkins, a player valued, even coveted, by many teams around the league in spite of the fact that he has never set the world on fire. Pressey's strength, like Perkins's, is defensive versatility, but, having pioneered the point forward position under Don Nelson at Milwaukee, Pressey can also help steady the sometimes erratic Spur point guard Rod Strickland. San Antonio also picked up veteran forward David Greenwood from Detroit to replace rugged Frank Brickowski, who went to Milwaukee in the Pressey deal. Greenwood is a nice acquisition, if only because he can tell the Spurs how much fun it was to play for a championship team.
At first glance it doesn't seem very important that Phoenix got Ed Nealy from Chicago via free agency. The acquisition of the blocky 6'7", 250-pound forward will hardly change the balance of power in the West. But ask the 76ers how important Nealy was as a rebounding presence in Philadelphia's Eastern Conference playoff loss to the Bulls last season. He'll again be a factor in the playoffs when the going gets rough inside.