From Boston, Via Washington, With Trophy : Lakers Bring Home NBA Title; Now, Can They Keep It in 1986?
Guess when the Lakers got the feeling, for the very first time, that they really would win the National Basketball Assn. title?
Right after losing Game 1 by 34 points.
Yes, the Lakers’ greatest success was a direct result of their worst failure in playoff history.
The Lakers lost to the Celtics in that first game, the Memorial Day Massacre, 148-114, but came back and won four of the next five, and were close to winning four straight.
How did they do it?
“We made a contract that day, a commitment,” Coach Pat Riley said. “Players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came forward and vowed it would never happen again.
“That was a landmark game for us. We decided it was OK for us to kick tail. We’re not the nice guys any longer.”
No, the Lakers certainly aren’t the same passive group that allowed the Celtics to steal a championship last season.
They may not be the same Laker team next season, either.
For now, the Lakers can kick off their sneakers and enjoy everything that they have earned. They brought their fourth NBA title to Los Angeles by defeating the Celtics Sunday in Boston Garden, 111-100, to win the NBA title, 4-2.
The celebration moved from the Boston Garden to the Rose Garden of the White House Monday afternoon when President Reagan congratulated the Lakers, who then caught a plane and returned home, where they will be honored today with a parade and victory rallies.
But the draft will be held in a week, and then the honeymoon will be over. The Lakers will suddenly be defending champions.
Can they do it again?
They are faced with a great many decisions that must be made before fall. Some of those decisions will affect not only next season, but several seasons to come.
If the Lakers are to be successful in defending their championship, something no other team has managed to accomplish since the Celtics did so in 1969, the Lakers may find that their most important decision is a rather basic one.
Who is going to play for them next season?
The Lakers won their new title with no fewer than six free agents on their 12-player roster. Until the draft is held, the Lakers aren’t tipping their hand about which of those six will return.
They are forward Bob McAdoo, forward Kurt Rambis, guard Mike McGee, forward Larry Spriggs, guard Ronnie Lester and center Chuck Nevitt. Another free agent is 6-foot, 10-inch Earl Jones, last season’s No. 1 draft choice, who played seven minutes all season because of a stress fracture in his foot.
McAdoo’s name on the free-agent list is a technicality. He has a Laker contract for next season, but it is not guaranteed, so he will be a free agent if the Lakers do not exercise their option on his contract.
Laker General Manager Jerry West said he would like to reach agreements soon, although not necessarily in writing, with Rambis and McGee. He said the Lakers also have some interest in Spriggs and Lester.
McAdoo, however, may be the key player to the Lakers, who for the first time, could have some maneuverability under the salary cap because of the money he makes. The Lakers could use the 13-year veteran’s 1984-85 salary of $933,000 to sign another free agent for next season, if they decide not to bring McAdoo back.
Who’s out there?
Would you believe Bill Walton?
The Lakers tried to make a deal for Walton last season when the Clippers were in San Diego, but they didn’t offer enough. There are some people in the Laker organization who, sources say, would still like to see Walton with the Lakers next season.
Because of a unique clause in Walton’s equally unique contract, he is a free agent if he wants to be.
Here’s the way it works: The clause stipulates that if the Clippers do not make the playoffs this season, and they did not, then Walton has the option of becoming a free agent. The catch is that Walton has only until the end of June to declare his free agency.
Walton has three years left on a four-year contract he signed before last season. The base pay is $200,000, although through bonuses and incentives, he is believed to have at least doubled that amount.
The Clippers could always match an offer to Walton, but if the Lakers have McAdoo’s salary of nearly $1 million to throw around, there is a possibility that they could get him if they wanted.
McAdoo said during the Celtic series that he believed that the only way he would stay with the Lakers was if they won. Riley said that if it was his decision, he would keep McAdoo. So, the Lakers may very well go ahead and pay McAdoo $979,000 next season.
At the same time, Mitch Kupchak will earn $1.15 million and Jamaal Wilkes $860,000. Their physical status is also important to the Lakers in determining their roster.
Kupchak was named the Lakers’ backup center in training camp, but then Riley barely used him until the championship series, in which he played surprisingly well.
Kupchak’s left knee ligaments were badly injured in 1981, but he played his best basketball since before that injury when Riley used him against the Celtics.
As is the case with Wilkes, who tore knee ligaments in February, the Lakers could count one-half of Kupchak’s salary against the salary cap if either player did not play next year because of injury.
Both players, however, are planning to come back.
“I think I got back a lot of my respect,” Kupchak said. “I proved to my teammates and to management that I can play.”
Laker owner Jerry Buss has pointed out before that a team ages five years at a time, not one. Here are some numbers to remember when next season begins:
Abdul-Jabbar, 38. McAdoo, 34. Wilkes, 32. Kupchak, 31. Magic Johnson will be just 26, but he said he believes that he may have only five years left in him because of the Laker pace.
Of course, next season will be Abdul-Jabbar’s last, unless he changes his mind again and returns for an 18th season, but that seems doubtful at this time.
It would be great for Abdul-Jabbar to go out a winner again, but the facts are that no team has won consecutive titles in 16 years.
Maybe the Lakers can do it merely by standing pat and making no changes at all. That’s very nearly what they did from last season to this one when Jones was the only new player on the Laker opening-night roster.
But for a club whose payroll exceeds the league limit by more than $5 million, the Lakers have a rare chance to make some moves, if they so wish.
They don’t really have to worry too much about all these things right away. First, there is the celebrating still going on.
Soon enough, though, they’ve got to figure out a way to do some more, just about a year from now.