Lakers will be tough again
Palm Desert, Calif.
Often after a team wins a world championship, players become difficult to sign, complacency sets in, and motivation becomes a tougher problem than the opposition.
However, if rival members of the National Basketball Association expect anything like this to happen to the 1980-81 edition of the Los Angeles Lakers, they are probably going to be disappointed.
The Lakers, who won last season's NBA playoff finals from the Philadelphia 76 ers in six games, have been built to last and finish first. Player subtractions since last season may even have helped the chances of the Lakers, who earlier released power forward Spencer Haywood and guard Butch Lee and lost Marty Byrnes to the expansion Dallas Mavericks.
Haywood, who had a colossal attitude problem, eventually became such a disruptive force that he was suspended during the playoffs. Byrnes became excess baggage when the Lakers traded for super rebounder Mark Lansberger, and Lee's style never did fit comfortably with LA's offense.
Basically the Lakers are a team that will rely on center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to get them the ball; overpower the opposition inside when no one else is in a position to score; and block just enough shots to keep rivals from driving the lane.
Abdul-Jabbar, voted the NBA's most valuable player for the sixth time last season, has been a different performer mentally (much more interested in the game) since Magic Johnson arrived last season and created an aura of excitement for everybody. Although Johnson was a rookie, he never played like one, and his ability to occasionally move into the power forward position often made the Lakers seem like a team of interchangeable parts.
Probably just as important in LA's overall balance is guard Norman Nixon, who led the team in assists, blended the best parts of his own game with Johnson's, and stabilized everybody on defense.
The bench, which consisted primarily of Lansberger and guard Mike Cooper, had marvelous statistics for the number of minutes they played. And although rookie guard Brad Holland contributed little during the regular season, his eight pressure points in nine minutes against Philadelphia in Game 6 of the playoffs should increase his floor time this season.
Directing the whole operation is Paul Westhead, the Shakespeare-reading head coach who began last season as Jack McKinney's chief assistant and who helped install the team's fast break offense.
After McKinney was injured in a freak bicycle accident, LA became Westhead's full responsibility and he showed remarkable poise as the team won 51 of 69 games under him and then went 12-4 in the playoffs. McKinney, who was later given a full playoff share by owner Jerry Buss and then released, is now head coach of the Indiana Pacers.
Although Westhead is not a screamer (Kevin Loughery); a pleader (Jack Ramsay); or a cutie (Bill Fitch), Paul has his own way of getting his points across to the referees. And the way he handled all those Laker egos suggests that as a boy he must have been sent regularly to the store to bring home the eggs.
While it is difficult to understand how the Lakers can improve much on last year's 60-22 record (37 wins at home), Westhead has made some major adjustments in his fast break.
Paul will have Abdul-Jabbar putting the ball into play after every out-of-bounds situation where the rules permit; run the same break (using designated ball handlers) every time down the floor; and take only what the defense gives his shooters.
There will be several options off every play, but basically there might not be a simpler offense in the league -- or a more effective one.
The Lakers, with three open spots on their roster, seem committed at the moment only to 6 ft. 9 in. forward Wayne Robinson, their No. 1 draft pick from Virginia Tech. Known mostly for his strong rebounding, Robinson says he sacrificed a lot of his scoring in college to concentrate on other things, but that he can help LA offensively.
The Lakers also have five other rookies in camp, plus center Darnell Hillman, who played part of last season with Golden State, and guard Del Beshore, who was acquired recently on waivers from Dallas.
If Los Angeles should repeat its NBA championship in 1980-81, it would be the first time in 12 years that any team has done this; the Boston Celtics being the last.