After years of trying to develop a title in Los Angeles, Lakers Owner Jack Kent Cooke went out and bought one. His deal with Wilt Chamberlain was in seven figures. His deals for guards—Chicago sent him Keith Erickson, a big scrambler, and Milwaukee chipped in with Johnny Egan, a deft little playmaker—cost him, too. Competitively, Cooke's buying habits have produced a most unhealthy situation in the NBA. Financially, just to pay the bills he will have to draw about 12,000 customers a night. But he will have his championship.
The Lakers won 30 of their last 38 games last year and really had no business losing to Boston in the finals. This fall Elgin Baylor came in 15 pounds overweight and Jerry West is always on the brink of injury—he is doing exercises before every game now, a sort of preventive maintenance—but never mind. With Chamberlain joining them nothing short of a holocaust can keep the Lakers from winning in the weaker Western Division.
Lakerologists, like students of the Kremlin, will be straining to make significance out of whatever difficulties arise between Chamberlain and the other two superstars and Coach Butch van Breda Kolff. The benefits the towering center brings to the court, though, should far outweigh any personality scratches. Chamberlain should not offer any internal threat to the scoring prowess of Baylor and West. Furthermore, his rebounding will spare Baylor from having to work the boards so much, and his presence underneath will permit West to exercise his great defensive talents with more confidence.
Accommodations, however, must be made if the team is to reach its full potential. With Chamberlain under the basket. West and Baylor cannot drive or free-lance as much as they have. In turn, Chamberlain must not remain so reluctant to practice the techniques of the high post—a style Baylor and West are used to.
Opponents may try to upset the Lakers with a full-court press, but with the new Es aiding West and Fred Crawford in the backcourt the Lakers would appear to have the depth to handle even that ploy. Erwin Mueller was sent back to Chicago in the Erickson deal, but dependable Tom Hawkins, rookie Bill Hewitt and Mel Counts—who seems to have grown into his seven feet—offer sufficient skills to fill out the rest of the Chamberlain-Baylor front line.
The Laker juggernaut can be stopped only if Nate Thurmond of San Francisco has an extraordinary playoff. While courthouse fans were speaking solely of Rick Barry, Thurmond quietly was becoming the best center and the most valuable player in the league before he suffered his annual injury in January. The whole Warrior team might be more suitably dressed in uniforms that said THE INFIRMARY on them instead of THE CITY. Jimmy King, a marvelous little guard, is out, at least until December, with a vexing muscle inflammation that appears to defy healing. His loss leaves Jeff Mullins as the lone experienced backcourt shooting threat. Al Attles, more celebrated on defense, should be appreciated at least as much as the team's offensive catalyst. Sophomore Bob Lewis and rookie Ron Williams will vie for playing time behind bench Guard Joe Ellis.
Rudy LaRusso, the complete cornerman, Bill Turner and Clyde Lee all help Thurmond on the boards. Lee, Thurmond's pivot substitute, is 20 pounds heavier from honeymoon home-cooking, but he appears no slower for the weight. Ellis will also move up front against speedier forwards. Perhaps more than any other Warrior, he has had his confidence bolstered by new Coach George Lee, whose predecessor, Bill Sharman, had a quick hook for reserves. Lee, and his assistant Attles, will return more to the ways of Alex Hannum, who preceded Sharman but who is now featured at the other wheel in Oakland.
No coach is faced with a greater challenge than Richie Guerin, whose St. Louis team has moved to Atlanta. This in itself was upsetting, since the coach and many of his players were comfortably settled in Missouri, but the greater issue involved the Hawk who would not budge—Lenny Wilkens. His protracted holdout—which finally was ended with his trade to Seattle for Walt Hazzard last Saturday—managed to bare deep team sensitivities. Bill Bridges, the articulate cornerman, said publicly that Wilkens was the type "who thinks he has to have everything." Ben Kerner, the team's former owner, chimed in with the news that Guerin and Wilkens had long felt "jealousy" for one another.
After such statements it was obvious that Wilkens no longer could serve effectively on the Hawks even if simple money matters could be settled. In Hazzard, Atlanta picks up an aggressive and personable young leader who will certainly inject life into one of the more businesslike clubs. He is not up to Wilkens' level as a playmaker, but no one else is either, and the Hawks desperately needed someone of his stripe because their other guards—Don Ohl, George Lehmann and Lou Hudson, when he swings to the backcourt—are, first of all, shooters. With Hudson it may not even be a question of whether he plays guard or forward. In two weeks a Greensboro, N.C. court will decide whether his signed contract with Miami of the ABA or his signed Atlanta NBA contract is valid.
The roughneck frontcourt returns basically intact, with Bridges, Zelmo Beaty, Paul Silas and the improved Jim Davis setting for the speed of Joe Caldwell and Hudson. With the forecourt's sturdy performance and Guerin's excellent coaching to rely on, the Hawks can threaten San Francisco despite the problems of adjustment. Besides, the rest of the division is just an embarrassment of expansionists, and even the addition of Wilkens cannot strengthen Seattle sufficiently to contend with Atlanta.
A model expansion organization, Seattle was the best of the new teams even before the trade. The Sonics are so close-knit that virtually everyone on the payroll (including Hazzard) gave up cigarettes at once. Wilkens' toughest job will be to make himself dominant on the court but only a comfortable member of the group off it. The Sonics have already shown court poise, a rare expansion quality; Wilkens brings more.
In the backcourt Wilkens rejoins two of his old Hawk mates, Ron Thorn and Tommy Kron. Just as they did last year the Sonics again drafted two players who can step right in as regulars—Art Harris, a fourth guard from Stanford who reminds one of the young Sam Jones, and the burly forward, Bob Kauffman, from little Guilford College, who teams on the front line with Tom Meschery, Bob Rule, Al Tucker and Dorie Murrey. They all work at defense and getting the ball out for the fast break. Rule may miss Hazzard the most. By prodding Rule, Hazzard seemed to inspire the young center to his best performances against bigger centers.
Like Seattle, Chicago has been whipped into excellent shape by the new coach, Dick Motta, who was plucked out of Weber State in Utah. His pro experience? He has seen one NBA game. If the front office, which drove Johnny Kerr to Phoenix, lets Motta run things his way the Bulls could get back on the right track. "After last season this club was way down," says Guard Jerry Sloan, "but the whole team believes that little man is going to make us better."
Motta found the No. 1 draft choice, 7' Tom Boerwinkle of Tennessee, at 300 pounds and out of breath. A nine-week conditioning program brought Boerwinkle into the exhibition opener sleek enough to play 36 minutes and score 21 points. Dave Newmark skipped his senior year at Columbia to back up Boerwinkle, and if Motta can get one good game in the middle out of his two rookies the Bulls will contend with Seattle. Forwards Bob Boozer and Jim Washington then could concentrate more on shooting, and former Bull Center Erwin Mueller could stay in the corner, where he may be the best passer in anybody's frontcourt. Sloan, who played in pain for much of last season, can make the team go if he regains his form of two years ago. Flynn Robinson and Clem Haskins can shoot.
San Diego does not even have the hopes for a reconditioned playmaker, which is a special irony since Coach Jack McMahon was just the sort of player his team needs. The backcourt starters, Jim Barnett and Pat Riley, are both strictly "second" (shooting) guards.
The front line, though, is top drawer, with John Block, Don Kojis, Henry Finkel, Toby Kimball and the rookie who doesn't wear his name on his uniform—just E. Elvin Hayes has already declared himself the fourth-best center in the league, and if he has not hidden his light under a bushel, neither has he failed to shine. His offense comes as no surprise, nor does his spectacular shot blocking, but he has also shown an understanding of the good pro defensive tactic of sagging and helping out on the shooter. Despite Hayes's unflagging confidence, there are nuances of the game at both ends that still elude him, and his apprenticeship and that of the whole team is slowed for lack of a backcourt leader. If some of Wilkens' or Hazzard's ability could somehow be obtained for Kimball, the Rockets would move ahead of Seattle and Chicago.
Phoenix, the newest outpost in big-league sport, is headed by Kerr and Jerry Colangelo, 28, the young general manager, who also left Chicago. The only person with more experience in expansion ventures is George Wilson, the center, who holds the record. He has moved with every expansion three years in a row: from Cincinnati to Chicago to Seattle to the Valley of the Sun. At 6'8" Wilson will be hard put keeping up with the league's giants in the pivot. Outsized, he will have to scramble—and scrambling he must foul. When he goes, the replacement is Davidson rookie Rodney Knowles. McCoy Mc-Lemore, a 6'7" starting forward, will be moving into the pivot regularly.
Kerr's Suns will have to scratch and scuffle and make up for their lack of size with youth and aggression. McLemore, Dick Van Arsdale and No. 1 choice Gary Gregor of South Carolina give Phoenix strength in the corners. Dave Lattin broke a hand fighting with Kauffman of Seattle, but he is 20 pounds lighter and is better for it. Dick Snyder and Gail Goodrich are a pair of starting guards, but there is not much on the bench to support them. While the Suns are not as deep as their Milwaukee confreres, like them they will trade for future choices and while away the long desert winter practicing coin flips.