Perhaps the best name for it is the Twilight Zone, the combination press-trap-zone defense that helped the LOS ANGELES LAKERS win the 1982 NBA championship. Was it or wasn't it a zone? Coach Pat Riley will never tell. Even if the NBA were to legalize the zone tomorrow, few teams would have the personnel to play it. The Lakers simply have the best starting five in the game today. Or is it the best starting eight? Guard Norm Nixon can play both backcourt spots, and Magic Johnson can play anywhere he wants. Despite all the histrionics concerning Johnson's role in the dismissal of Paul Westhead, after the championship series it was Magic holding the MVP trophy. "With his sacrifices, Magic was the man who made that team," says Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson. "Without him they definitely don't win the championship." Another important cog, Bob McAdoo, is back to score off the bench, as is defender Michael Cooper. And 6'9" James Worthy, the No. 1 pick in the draft, will more than make up for Mitch Kupchak's absence because of slow recovery from knee surgery. Kurt Rambis, last season's starting power forward, hurt his right arch in training camp and is doubtful for the opener against Golden State. What remains to be said about the incomparable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, except perhaps that he'd like the Lakers to become the first team since the 1968-69 Boston Celtics to repeat as champions? "It's the ultimate challenge," says Jamaal Wilkes, who seems to get better with age. "No one's made a big deal out of it, but we're all aware of what's at stake. Right now we just plan on going out and playing every night and letting history decide."
This season could go a long way toward determining how history will regard David Thompson. A 24-points-a-game scorer, for his six pro seasons, Thompson was a bust in Denver last year because of a variety of personal problems. Now with the SEATTLE SUPERSONICS, Thompson hopes to succeed his running mate at guard, Gus Williams, as the Comeback Player of the Year. "In Denver I always had to compete with myself and what I had done," Thompson says. "The expectations aren't as great here, and there's not as much of a burden to carry. But if I get the minutes, I'll get the stats. I haven't lost anything as a player." Coach Lenny Wilkens certainly believes he hasn't, or he wouldn't have gone after Thompson. Nor would he have gone to the trouble of redesigning his offense in an effort to better utilize Thompson's talents. Besides Williams and Thompson, All-Stars Jack Sikma and Lonnie Shelton should prosper in Wilkens' 1-3-1 set, which Wilkens insists is just "a new wrinkle, something every team does in the summer. We haven't junked everything else."
One possible change for the better made by the PHOENIX SUNS is that for the first time in recent memory, the players on the court will call the plays, not Coach John MacLeod. That should please guards Kyle Macy and Dennis Johnson and swingman Walter Davis no end. "It should make everyone more aware, help them look for advantages, perhaps lean on each other," MacLeod says. What the coach really hopes, however, is for his team to start leaning on the other guys. To that end, the Suns acquired tough guy Maurice Lucas from the Knicks and will give more playing time to Larry Nance, a 6'10" second-year man from Clemson who could turn out to be the most improved player in the league. First-round draft choice David Thirdkill, a 6'7" guard-forward from Bradley, can lock people up on defense. That's why he's called the Sheriff. And MacLeod hopes for more easy baskets, which was the team's trademark when it won 50 or more games for three straight years.
In MacLeod's opinion, the West will be a fast-breaking, open-court conference because of the overall lack of power players like Moses Malone. That style of play would be just fine with the GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS, who have missed the playoffs by a single game the last two seasons. Sharpshooter World B. Free was in the best shape of his career before suffering a deep right-knee bruise, when he slipped going up for a layup on the first day of practice, but he should be fit again for the start of the season. Forward Bernard King, an offseason free agent, signed an offer sheet with the Knicks and was traded there for Michael Ray Richardson, a former All-Star guard who the Warriors hope will respond to Coach Al Attles' big stick. If Les Conner, the Warriors 6'4" top pick out of Oregon, signs, the guards will be golden.
The PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS have sold out every home game for the past five seasons and always seem to satisfy their fans with fast starts. Last season Portland was 7-0 before it slowed down. Nevertheless, the team was in the hunt for a playoff berth (as always) until late in the season. History will probably repeat itself—fast start, not-so-fast finish. The only major addition is 6'3" Lafayette Lever, a point guard from Arizona State, who will back up Darnell Valentine but may not captivate the fans the way Billy Ray Bates, who's now with the Bullets, did.
San Diego Clippers Coach Paul Silas is faced with a problem. No, not his peripatetic owner, Donald Sterling, who may sell the team before long. This one concerns Bill Walton. The redhead will be allowed to commute from his classes at Stanford Law School to play one game a week. The choice of which game is up to the Clippers. The dilemma is, should the team have him play against weak teams in the hope of securing a victory or against strong ones, when Walton's presence would go a long way toward helping keep the score respectable, and might even produce an occasional upset. Right now Silas is leaning toward the latter course. "Some teams might not accept the situation or would find it disruptive," Silas says, "but remember, we won 17 games last year. I don't think we can afford to be choicy." Center Swen Nater agrees. "It's just a situation where if he's here, he's here, and if he's not, he's not," says Nater. "There's no question that everyone gets a little more excited when he's around." The Clippers would perk up a little more if they could sign Forward Terry Cummings of DePaul, the No. 2 pick in the draft. An ordained minister, Cummings was working out with Athletes in Action in Memphis in the preseason, but the Clippers hope he'll be in their uniform soon.
What the Clippers need more than either Cummings or Walton is an experienced guard. Right now Silas has to pick from among such stalwarts as Robert Smith, Mike Evans, John Douglas and Jim Brogan. If one should emerge from the pack, look for Al Wood to move to the big guard spot, freeing Michael Brooks to join Tom Chambers and perhaps Cummings and that once-a-week warrior, Walton, on the front line.
Lucas will help Phoenix to toughen up its act.