L.A. Lakers have talent, depth to go all the way
If talent, depth and experience were the only things to be considered in deciding where the Los Angeles Lakers will finish in the National Basketball Association this season, it would be difficult to rate any team ahead of them.
With free agent forward Mitch Kupchak added to a cast that already included center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, forward Jamaal Wilkes, and guards Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon, the Lakers are a collection of All-Stars who should win somewhere between 50 and 60 games during the regular season.
Where the Lakers need help is in their attitudes, and in their relationships with each other. They have not always been, especially in the playoffs, a bicycle built for five.
Often in the past there has been jealousy over how much money Magic Johnson makes; the amount of time he controls play on the floor; and his close, personal relationship with Laker owner Jerry Buss.
Actually this situation is nothing that Buss or his front office has tried to pretend doesn't exist. Asked about the problem, Jerry replied: ''Sometimes a little dissension on a team makes it better.''
If L.A. ever needed a role player to blend into its lineup, it got one in Kupchak, a 6 ft. 10 in., 235-pound horse who plays hard at both ends; gets the tough rebounds; and isn't afraid to dive on the floor.
Having Mitch around as the team's power forward and as a policeman for Abdul-Jabbar should not only make things less physical for Kareem near the basket, but also allow Wilkes the luxury of getting downcourt quicker on the fast break.
''When I first became a free agent, I was hoping that Washington would re-sign me,'' Kupchak said. ''And I was a little surprised when I found that the Lakers wanted me more than the Bullets did. I played a lot coming off the bench last year, but it wasn't fun because we didn't win.
''It bothered me my first two years in the NBA when I didn't start,'' Mitch continued. ''My problem was that I just couldn't beat out Elvin Hayes or Wes Unseld. My philosophy now is that I don't care whether I start or come off the bench, only that I'm given enough floor time to have an effect on every game.
''I can't guarantee the Lakers 15 rebounds a game, the way some people seem to think I can. But I can guarantee effort. I've always worked hard; I know the importance of defense; I'm free of the back problems that used to bother me; and when I get the ball inside I can score.''
Even though the Lakers still have veteran center-forward Jim Brewer to back up Abdul-Jabbar, they are not through testing the trade market, according to general manager Bill Sharman. In fact, if Brewer fails to satisfy head coach Paul Westhead, then the pivot could become an additional responsibility for Kupchak.
The rookie with the best chance to get some playing time when it counts is Mike McGee, the team's No. 1 draft pick from Michigan. McGee is a 6-4 swing man who averaged 24.4 points per game as a senior and can run all night. For now he is expected to play mostly at guard.
''Mike still has a lot to learn about playing defense in the NBA,'' assistant coach Pat Riley said. ''It's not that he doesn't have the tools or the quickness. Anybody with his stamina, who is willing to work, can be taught what he needs to know.
''But like a lot of rookies, Mike played for a college team that relied mostly on a zone defense, and in the NBA you just can't stand around and wait for things to happen. You have to go out and challenge your opponents right away or you end up giving away too many easy baskets.''
Although only four NBA teams won more games last season than L.A., which was 54-28, the Lakers showed little intensity in the playoffs. They were beaten two games to one in the first round by Houston, a team that had lost two more games than it won during the regular season.
When Abdul-Jabbar was asked about this recently, he replied: ''For some reason we weren't prepared for the playoffs, although I don't know whether the problem was mental or physical or what.''
Asked if he thought Kareem had worked as hard as possible in the playoffs, when he was outplayed by Moses Malone, and often took his time getting up court when L. A. had the ball, Johnson said:
''I don't know if he played as hard as he could or not. That's a very tough question. I like to think he did. Yes, I think he did.''
Summing up, the Lakers should win their division and look good doing it over an 82-game schedule. The real test won't come until the playoffs, when players will have to sacrifice more of their own games for the good of the team, and when a lackluster defense won't buy a victory, much less a championship.