The Pacific Division begins the season faith a lot of old faces in new places. "Every few years you have to redefine who you are," says Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens, whose SuperSonics did just that. "If you see what you're accomplishing isn't what you want, then a coach needs to do something. Or he'll be gone." With this in mind, every team in the division has somehow redefined itself. Now the Pacific is the most balanced division in the league, with any of four teams capable of toppling Los Angeles from first place.
How can the defending champions lose with the game's current standard at center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Earvin (Magic) Johnson, who is setting a new standard for playmakers? For one thing, Laker players missed only five games last season because of injuries; by comparison, Portland players were out for a total of 311. L.A. depends heavily on Guard Norm Nixon, an outside scoring threat, and Forward Jim Chones, the team's third-leading rebounder, to take pressure off the Big Guy. Jamaal Wilkes had his best season ever, with 20 points and 2.15 offensive rebounds per game. Sky-walking Guard Michael Cooper became the Lakers' defensive stopper, while 6'8" Mark Landsberger muscled eight rebounds per game. But without even one of these players, the Lakers would be quite beatable over the course of the season.
To start his first full season as coach, Paul Westhead has installed a new system, a double fast-break offense that is designed to set off an "instant attack" after an opponent scores. "Most players' backgrounds are alien to this," Westhead says. "They're accustomed to breathing after a basket. This allows for no breathing time."
Jack Ramsay's system in Portland was riddled by injuries last season. Healthier now, the Trail Blazers think they can make a strong run at the division crown. Despite having only eight men available at one point in 1979-80, the Blazers were still the league's second-best defensive team, allowing 103.3 points per game. Forward Kermit Washington is the Portland anchor on D. The man in the opposite corner, Calvin Natt, helped rescue the O when he joined the team for its last 25 games in '79-80 and scored 20.4 points per game, the highest Blazer average ever. Center Mychal Thompson, out last season with a broken leg, joins Washington and Natt to form the most muscular front line west of Lovetron. Portland had hoped to start off the season with a backcourt of Ron Brewer and the playmaking, sharpshooting rookie Kelvin Ransey. But Ransey held out until late last week, and it figures to be a while before Ramsay has his first unit in order. Meanwhile Jim Paxson, a bust last season after being the 10th player selected in the draft, will keep the position warm, and Billy Ray Bates, who joined the Blazers for their last 20 games and had a 25-point average in the Portland-Seattle playoff series, will make it sizzle. "This is a multifaceted team," says Ramsay. "And we have to learn to win with our special skills. You don't win by depending on just one player."
But one player can certainly make a difference, which is why Seattle and Phoenix exchanged Dennis Johnson and Paul Westphal. Johnson was the MVP in the '79 championship series, but his mediocre shooting—at 42% the worst of any NBA starter except the Hawks' Armond Hill—was a decidedly negative factor as the Sonics lost the '80 Western Conference finals to Los Angeles four games to two.
Seattle had worries aplenty when camp opened. Lonnie Shelton, one of the game's best shooting (51%) power forwards, was overweight. Center Jack Sikma, he of the new, wavy hairdo, was recovering from ankle surgery. And Gus Williams was at home hoping for a fat new contract, one that would make him the NBA's second-highest-paid guard behind George Gervin. If Wilkens can overcome all those difficulties and revive the style that took Seattle to the NBA finals two straight seasons, the Sonics may boom again.
Certainly Westphal will make plenty of noise; he has a 17.1-point career scoring average. If Williams stays away, the Sonics might be even better off. Seattle could then pair Westy with Vinnie Johnson, who showed he could do the job during preseason when he averaged 14 points and 4.6 rebounds a game. John Johnson directs the offense from weak forward, and Shelton and Jammin' James Bailey provide an unequaled one-two punch at power forward.
To make the most of Dennis Johnson's talents—and replace some of the offense that departed with Westphal—Phoenix has revamped its entire lineup. "These are the most changes we've made since reaching the finals in 1976," says Coach John MacLeod. The odd man out is Guard Don Buse, a perfect, low-scoring running mate for Westphal, but an unlikely complement to DJ's primarily defensive talents. So MacLeod has moved Walter Davis, a three-time All-Star at forward, to the backcourt, where his 6'6" size and baseline-to-baseline agility give the league yet another big guard. "I couldn't believe it," says Davis of the switch. "At first I thought they had lost confidence in me. I have less freedom here, and I sometimes forget to call plays, because I've never done it before. But it's fun. Now, I get to pound on the little guys."
On the boards, Davis was usually the poundee, with only one offensive rebound per game, the lowest average among regular small forwards in the league. The Suns will slip the more rugged Jeff Cook into Davis' old spot. And the 6'7", 239-pound Truck Robinson is back at power forward, where he can provide some badly needed inside help for Center Alvan Adams, who got only 8.1 rebounds a game last year. Adams just can't handle the division's big men, especially with an old foot injury that hasn't fully healed.
After watching his Warriors sink to the level of the Continental Basketball Association last season, Golden State Coach Al Attles decided it was time to start from scratch. Less than 24 hours before the draft, Attles traded shot-blocking Center Robert Parish and the third pick in the first round to Boston for its two first rounds—Nos. 1 and 13. "I believe you find a nucleus and add to it from the inside out," says Attles. "But if your nucleus isn't doing the job, then you have to get rid of it." The new nucleus, via that No. 1 pick, is 7' Joe Barry Carroll, who held out 14 days before signing a four-year contract worth $1.5 million. Guard Lloyd Free became a rich man, too, after coming from San Diego in a trade for Phil Smith. "I'm a revived man," says World. Then Attles gambled by trading rebounder Wayne Cooper to the Jazz for the potentially explosive but personal-problems-plagued Bernard King, who is fighting alcoholism. "For five years, this thing possessed me and created so much turmoil that basketball became very secondary," King says. "I had a disease and it was killing me. I didn't change to help my career. I did it to live."
King, Free and Purvis Short, Golden State's leading scorer last season with a 17-point average, may have trouble sharing the same ball. But they'll be welcome targets for assist-conscious Guard John Lucas. If all falls into place, the Warriors will be the surprise team of the Pacific Division.
Coach Paul Silas takes over at San Diego after a 16-year playing career, during which he got three championship rings and played in 1,254 regular-season games, just 16 short of the NBA record. Instead of pursuing that mark, Silas spent training camp like any other freshman—hitting the books. "I knew in my head what I wanted to do," he says. "But I didn't know how to put it into any plans so players could understand it. It's tough teaching new habits." So Silas studied John Wooden's Practical Modern Basketball, 2nd Ed. and writings by Atlanta's Hubie Brown on defense and Ramsay on his use of Bill Walton in Portland. Even with this knowledge, Silas isn't likely to have much longevity or success in San Diego without Walton. After breaking his foot for the third time in his career, Walton played in only 14 games last season. Silas' plan to bring Walton along slowly during the exhibition schedule lasted only 22 minutes. In the Clippers' first preseason game, Walton scored 17 points in 17 minutes while stepping gingerly. But five minutes into his second outing, something in the foot "gave." A bone scan revealed a possible fourth fracture, and Walton hasn't played since. Without Big Bill, San Diego's center is Swen Nater, last year's rebounding champion with 15 per game. The Opening Night forwards were Sidney Wicks and Joe Bryant, because Silas does not want to rush Michael Brooks, his outstanding rookie. Phil Smith seems sufficiently recovered from a nagging Achilles-tendon injury to open in the backcourt with three-point artist Brian Taylor. High-scoring Freeman Williams will be the third guard.
San Diego hopes it can move forward with Brooks.