Being No. 2 Isn't Too Bad : * Lakers: With a new coach and five new players, no one expected them to get to the NBA finals. But there may be even more changes in the off-season.


Admit it, you never thought the Lakers would get that far.

"I really didn't know what to expect, to tell you the truth," Magic Johnson said Thursday, looking back to training camp.

"I looked at our team and I actually didn't know what was going to happen. I was as curious as probably you guys (reporters).

"When we started playing that way (1-4), I didn't think we could make a run for the championship. But as the season went on, I said, 'Wait a minute now. We're all right.' Especially after we beat Phoenix in Phoenix and won up in Portland. I said, 'There's something about this team that's all right.'

"By the end of the season, I thought we could do some damage. I really did."

They did some damage, all right.

If you had gotten odds in November on an 11-3 postseason romp through the West, you could be as rich as Magic today.

They also found out how good Mike Dunleavy was, got a pleasant surprise in Sam Perkins, developed Vlade Divac and unearthed two more prospects in rookies Elden Campbell and Tony Smith.

They changed five of their 12 players, plus their coach, and pulled off an amazing feat: an almost seamless transition from their '80s heyday into the '90s.

Keeping it going will require more moves, but they're working on it.


Laker assistant coach Bill Bertka argues that to understand last spring's plummet, you have to understand how incredibly the Lakers played during the '89-90 regular season.

Can you imagine a team with Mychal Thompson starting at center and Orlando Woolridge and Michael Cooper as the top reserves winning 63 games?

They did.

"I thought we played as well all year as we possibly could," Bertka said.

"When it came time for the playoffs and the other teams elevated their games, we were already playing at our peak. We were a tired team at the end of the year."

By mid-summer, Pat Riley had departed amid circumstances that are still unclear. His rapport with his players had been strained. Even friends think he was nudged toward the door, if not outright fired.

General Manager Jerry West decided on an overhaul, but all his moves paled before his selection of a new coach.

If his choice was as good as he thought, the Lakers would have a chance.

Otherwise, there would be dancing in the streets of Portland, Phoenix and the rest of the West.


Mike Dunleavy--A year ago, he was little more than a gleam in West's eye, recognized only in general manager circles as a coaching prospect. Now he has proved himself a comer. Bright, poised, confident but low-key, a players' coach all the way, he was the perfect successor to Riley, whose hard-driving style had worn everyone out.

Sam Perkins--West wanted Cleveland's Hot Rod Williams but was wise enough to have a fall-back position. Perkins' signing for $19.2 million was considered an outrage until he began showing everyone--teammates and fans alike--how good he was. He was even better in the playoffs, graduating from his old "complementary-only" rap and playing with a new fire.

Terry Teagle--If this move had worked out, too, West might have retired the executive of the year award for the decade. But Teagle was a disappointment. Conscientious and hard-working, he couldn't adjust to fewer minutes in a more structured offense than Golden State's. A Laker source says they were trying to deal him to Denver for Walter Davis before the trade deadline. West is expected to go looking for reserve firepower again.

Elden Campbell--Another West coup? After finding A.C. Green and Divac at the end of the first round, he was supposed to be out of tricks, but this could be another find. Dunleavy threw orthodoxy to the winds, using the untested Campbell in the playoffs, and Elden had some spectacular moments, winning himself a shot at the rotation this fall.

Tony Smith--If little was expected of Campbell, even less was expected from this little-known No. 2 pick, a converted shooting guard from Marquette taken at Dunleavy's recommendation.

Smith turned out to be a hard-nosed defender, a fast learner and amazingly poised. He wasn't ready to be the backup point guard during the season but had a fine Game 5 against the Bulls. If he makes a move in the off-season, he can be something.


Magic Johnson--The Lakers still begin and end with him and would like to avoid riding him into the ground, as they did this season.

Dunleavy lists a backup point guard as the first priority.

West tried for Spud Webb last summer. He may be looking for a similar player who can beat people on the dribble and create shots for teammates.

Those type of players are in short supply, though. The other option may be a veteran, such as the Knicks' Maurice Cheeks.

Oh yes, Johnson expects to be back.

"Pretty much, I'm coming back," he said Thursday. "You don't want to go out like this. That's what makes you come back. (Laughing) You'd rather go out next year winning the championship and going to the Olympics."

Does he think the Lakers are close?

"Yeah. I feel we're real close. I mean, a horse here, a horse there and we'll be right there."

James Worthy--One of his toughest seasons ended with his sprained ankle forcing him out. He fretted off and on about his contract extension, but the Lakers announced Thursday that he has been re-signed.

The speculation about a trade to Charlotte for the No. 1 pick appears groundless. Dunleavy told a reporter asking about it, "You're barking up the wrong tree."

Byron Scott--His season ended similarly, with a shoulder injury, but he's expected to be OK. He doesn't play the game with his legs as he once did, but he had a solid season and a fabulous run in the playoffs until the finals.

Vlade Divac--What a difference nine months make. He was out of shape and lost in camp, in and out during the season, when it often looked as if Johnson was going to take him over his knee. Divac stepped up in the playoffs, showing he could be the player the Lakers thought he was. This summer, they will make sure he stays on his weight-lifting and instructional programs.

A.C. Green--He became a reserve without complaint or loss of his remarkable enthusiasm. Campbell's rise may make him expendable, though. If the Lakers want to do anything major, they need Green's $1.7 million under the cap.

Mychal Thompson--The life of the party for five seasons, he says he's gone. He's probably right. Trading him would free up $625,000.

Larry Drew--A growing list (Wes Matthews, David Rivers) has failed to become the long-coveted backup for Johnson and Drew joins it. The Lakers can use his $550,000.

Now it's summertime.

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