Change is the order of the day in the Pacific Division, and the Los ANGELES LAKERS jumped right into the swing of things on Oct. 10, sending starting Guard Norm Nixon to the San Diego Clippers for backup Center Swen Nater and rookie Guard Byron Scott. The trade creates a new chemistry test for the team and its fans. "I'm wearing black," said season-ticket holder Jack Nicholson, one of Nixon's most ardent admirers. The Lakers maintain that Nater was the key to the deal. If healthy, the 6'11" Nater, who has played in just 28 games in the last two seasons because of knee injuries, will provide more than just a body to spell Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 36 now. As the season starts, the Lakers' medical report reads: Jabbar—recovering from viral hepatitis; Forward Kurt Rambis—a sore left foot; Forward James Worthy—recovering from the fractured left leg suffered late last season; Mitch Kupchak—making an almost miraculous recovery from a severe knee and leg injury suffered two seasons ago. As for Scott, when the Clippers made him the fourth pick in the draft, he said he considered himself comparable to the Lakers' do-everything guard, Magic Johnson, "except I'm quicker and can shoot better from the outside." Whatever, first place is a lock for the Lakers.
In recent years the PHOENIX SUNS have fielded finesse teams, all of which faded in the playoffs. This season the Suns will mix talented finesse forwards like Larry Nance and Walter Davis with talented musclemen like Maurice Lucas and Rick Robey—and hope that it works. Coach John MacLeod has Alvan Adams at center, along with James Edwards, who was acquired last February from Cleveland. Look for Edwards to start, if for no other reason than that he's taller, which should mean more rebounds. Adams and newcomers Robey, who came from the Celtics in return for Dennis Johnson, and Guard Paul Westphal, a starter for the Suns' 1976 NBA finalists who signed as a free agent after playing for the Knicks last season, provide quality depth. "When I was here before," says Westphal, "we had maybe two or three guys who could score and the rest you told to go pick somebody. Now I can see where any one of nine or 10 guys could lead the team in scoring in any particular game."
Before the June draft, the PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS gave psychological tests to likely picks. Of the more than 700 tests that Bruce Ogilvie, professor emeritus of psychology at San Jose State, has administered in all sports, few athletes have ever tested as high as Clyde (The Glide) Drexler, the 6'7" forward from Houston, who was the Blazers' No. 1 pick. He will add a dash of flash to what is a good but rather workmanlike Blazer team. As usual, the star of the Portland show is Coach Jack Ramsay's system. However, the players implementing it are perhaps Portland's best since the team's championship days of 1976-77. Guards Jim Paxson and Darnell Valentine, forwards Mychal Thompson and Calvin Natt and Center Wayne Cooper are solid performers. Ramsay's biggest problem will be finding enough minutes to satisfy everyone, including Kenny Carr, Fat Lever and Audie Norris.
Talk about change. During one two-week period in training camp the SAN DIEGO CLIPPERS traded for five guards to join the seven already in camp. First-year Coach Jim Lynam will start Norm Nixon and Ricky Pierce, acquired from Detroit. Whoever brings the ball up will be able to pass it off to potentially one of the best front lines in the league. The plan for Center Bill Walton this season calls for him to play all games except those on consecutive nights. When Walton's out of the lineup, former Seattle SuperSonic James Donaldson, who's 7'2", will provide effective relief. At forward, Greg Kelser, another ex-Sonic, was dazzling in camp and will work with Terry Cummings, last season's Rookie of the Year, who expects to play a complete season despite an irregular heartbeat which kept him out of last season's final five games. At times Lynam will send on court a front line that should strike fear into the hearts of most teams: Walton and Donaldson together, with Cummings operating as the small forward. But it will be the backcourt that determines whether these Clippers will have wings.
The big change for the GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS is on the bench: For the first time in 14 years, Al Attles won't be there, having given up coaching to be general manager. His successor, former assistant John Bach, may be in for heavy weather. After missing the playoffs by a single game in 1980-81 and '81-82, Golden State fell apart last year, finishing fifth in the division. Things won't change that much this season, though Bach has instituted a get-tough policy. "Discipline is needed in America, and not only in pro basketball," says Bach. "If a controlled substance is illegal, then anyone caught using it should be banned from the league. If we have to shoot some hostages, let's do it." Center Joe Barry Carroll (24.1 points per game last season) and Forward Purvis Short (21.4 ppg) are back, and they've been known to shoot some basketballs.
The SEATTLE SUPERSONICS are a team in transition, the group that won the '79 NBA title now only a memory. "Nineteen seventy-nine was a long time ago," says Coach Lenny Wilkens. "A team's priorities change, and you do what you have to. It's not enough to just make the playoffs; almost anyone can do that. We want to go farther."
Unfortunately for Wilkens, just making the playoffs is probably beyond reach this season. Forward Tom Chambers, acquired from San Diego, Center Jack Sikma and Guard Gus Williams give the Sonics a potent scoring triumvirate. Unfortunately, the Sonics can't play defense. Rookie Forward Scooter McCray and Guard Al Wood, who came up the coast in the Chambers deal, will help, but apart from Sikma and McCray, Seattle is woefully weak on the boards. General Manager Les Habegger has jokingly wondered about advertising for some rebounding help. But neither want ads nor Dear Abby will provide the answers, which may make new owner Barry Ackerley wonder why he splurged $21 million to buy the team from Sam Schulman on Oct. 14. Ackerley has been quoted as saying that he knows nothing about basketball but is patient and will be content to let his basketball people run the show. This season that patience will come in handy.
It doesn't figure to be a boom year in Seattle, but Scooter McCray should stand out in the crowd.