Seismologists say that this could be the year of the big quake in Southern California, but if the LOS ANGELES LAKERS don't rumble in 1982, the fault will lie not in the ground but in their stars. The newest Laker star is supposed to be 6'10" Mitch Kupchak, whom Coach Paul Westhead calls "the perfect power forward for this team." Kupchak came to Los Angeles in a trade with Washington (after he had become a free agent), where he seldom started and in five seasons never averaged more than 27 minutes of playing time a game. He had back surgery in 1979, and it's questionable if he'll be able to shoulder the weighty rebounding load the Lakers have handed him. "I consider myself an experiment," Kupchak says. "I'm as anxious as anyone to find out how I'll do playing more minutes." He found out in a preseason 156-150 victory over Denver: 32 minutes, 11 for 16 from the field, 6 of 7 from the line, eight rebounds and 28 points. As skilled as Kupchak is, his most notable attribute may be his college-boy enthusiasm. He bloodied his lip diving for a loose ball on the second day of practice and, in a huddle shortly thereafter, he screamed, "Let's go Lakers!"
Loose balls were the least of Los Angeles' problems last season. Guards Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson bickered publicly over their roles, the Lakers lost their first-round playoff series to Houston, and teammates seemed to resent the 25-year, $25 million contract Magic signed last June. Supersmooth Forward Jamaal Wilkes says, "We're a lot more humble this year."
And maybe better, seeing as 34-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reported to camp in the best shape of his career. Abdul-Jabbar began working out on Nautilus equipment three days after the Lakers' playoff elimination and spent a lot of the summer riding his bicycle and swimming. He showed off his new muscle in a preseason game against the Celtics, scoring 42 points and grabbing 17 rebounds, and poured in 33 points against Houston in a season-opening double overtime loss.
Also returning are Swingman Michael Cooper, who would start on most other NBA teams, and bruising rebounder Mark Landsberger.
The PHOENIX SUNS play nowhere near a fault line, but if they don't win the NBA title this year, they may be shaken up anyway. Their almost perennial failure in the postseason—they won 57 games last season but lost in their first playoff round to Kansas City—has left painful scars. The Suns have the division's best record over the past four years, but haven't even made it past the conference finals in any of them. "We're very frustrated and we're coming into this season with a chip on our shoulders—players, coaches, management, everybody," says General Manager Jerry Colangelo. Backup Center Rich Kelley agrees: "We have to prove that we're not chokes, that we're one of the top three teams in the NBA."
Several starters were disenchanted with Coach John MacLeod's system of free substitution last year. "You can't play 12 guys 25 minutes each and expect to win in this league," said one of them, showing a greater talent for griping than for math. MacLeod decided over the summer that he had to change: "I've always believed in building my bench by playing a lot of people, but I'm not going to do it anymore if it's detrimental." The change will be most noticeable in the backcourt, where MacLeod, who used to deploy four and even five guards a game, had planned to go primarily with Dennis Johnson, Kyle Macy and Swingman Walter Davis. But Davis fractured his elbow in the preseason and will be out six weeks. Defensive ace Dudley Bradley will take his numerical place. But Macy (51% from the field) and Johnson (43%) will bear the scoring burden.
In the frontcourt, Truck Robinson and Jeff Cook are back at forward, with Alvan Adams in the pivot. Phoenix will go inside more, using its high-post offense to take advantage of the new, stricter zone-defense rules and Adams' deft passing. The Suns will run at every opportunity, which should help Davis when he returns. Rookie Larry Nance, a 6'10" small forward, was sensational in training camp before having eight teeth pulled: even without a full complement of choppers, he will give the Suns' running game extra bite coming off the bench. There was more bark than bite in the Suns' first weekend of the season, as they lost to Portland and Seattle. Hurry back, Walter Davis.
The SEATTLE SUPER SONICS should be superb again after a horrendous last-place performance in 1980-81. They went the whole season without Guard Gus Williams, who held out for more money, and all but 14 games without Forward Lonnie Shelton, who underwent wrist surgery. "Last year, teams didn't have to respect us," says Fred Brown, the Sonics' 33-year-old back-court pistolero. "With Gus and Lonnie back we can't help but be good." Indeed. Shelton had 20 and Williams 28 in the victory over Phoenix.
Seattle will start either 6'7" Wally Walker or 6'9" James Bailey alongside Shelton and Center Jack Sikma on the front line, and bring rookie Danny Vranes and 7'2", 270-pound James Donaldson off the bench. Shelton has worked off some of the 285 pounds he brought to the L.A. summer league, and when he returns to his normal 245, the Sonics will resume the running game that won them a league championship in 1979. Bill Hanzlik started the season opposite Williams at guard. If Paul Westphal can come back from a series of debilitating foot injuries and if John Johnson's left Achilles tendon heals quickly, Seattle could stay with L.A. and Phoenix.
The GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS just missed the playoffs last season, even though they had eight new players, not to mention a new Lloyd Free. Free worked hard to shed his free-lance image and, although he still finished ninth in the league in scoring (24.1), he became an adroit passer and played adequate defense. Center Joe Barry Carroll, a rookie, excelled in every area but rebounding. That shortcoming was offset by Larry Smith, who became the first rookie in 11 seasons to crack the league's top three in rebounding, with 12.1 a game. Forward Bernard King, who was recovering from alcoholism, still averaged 21.9 points a game. All of them should be better this season (if Smith returns from his preseason holdout and suspension), and with a bench that includes Purvis Short, impressive rookie Lewis Lloyd, 6'10" Rickey Brown and veteran Sonny Parker, the Warriors could be formidable—if they learn to guard anybody.
The PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS are something of an enigma, having improved at guard, where they were already strong, but not in the frontcourt, where they badly needed help. The Blazers were 38-18 over the final four months of the season after installing Mychal Thompson at center and turning their running game over to rookie Guard Kelvin Ransey. Thompson's performance in the playoffs was typical of his work all season: a 40-point, 11-rebound effort in the second game of the mini-series with Kansas City and then a 17-point four-rebound performance in the decisive third game. Kermit Washington, one of the league's best rebounding forwards, is the only other notable up front. The acquisition of Darnell Valentine in the draft will allow Portland Coach Jack Ramsay to start Ransey and Jim Paxson at guard and then, in relief, bring on his backcourt of Valentine, a defensive buzz saw, and Billy Ray Bates, an offensive weapon. "Last year I made Billy Ray a superstar on offense," Ramsay quipped. "This year it's defense."
The SAN DIEGO CLIPPERS went through most of the preseason without two players whose talents they will count upon heavily this season. Guard Phil Smith, the Clippers' best player at their strongest position, hadn't signed a contract as the season opened (though he played in the Clippers' initial victory over Houston) and rookie Tom Chambers, a 6'11" center forward who was supposed to back up Swen Nater, sat out until two weeks into the preseason. Nater was the second-leading rebounder in the league last year, but he is 31 and coming off knee surgery. Moses Malone burned him for 42 points in that San Diego victory. If anything happens to Nater and Chambers doesn't pan out, San Diego will be left with either 6'10" Jerome Whitehead, or Joe (Jelly Bean) Bryant, a 6'9" sometime forward, sometime guard, to play the middle. Bryant says he doesn't even eat jelly beans anymore; he now prefers foods that are made with whole wheat flour and are high in fiber content. Joe (Bran Muffin) Bryant? That nickname is almost as far out as San Diego is going to finish in the Pacific.
Davis' bad break will give the Suns' Johnson much more time to shine.