Los Angeles — Paradise this season has not been the locker room of the Los Angeles Lakers, a collection of All-Stars that could potentially be the best team in the National Basketball Association.
The problem started in training camp when head coach Paul Westhead went to a more structured offense, one with approximately 30 new plays, plus options. It somehow didn't seem necessary with a team that had a 54-28 record last season.
The Lakers are best when they run and free-lance, when either Norm Nixon or Magic Johnson is pushing the ball up court, when Jamaal Wilkes and Mitch Kupchak are filling the lanes, or when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar commands a position under the basket.
With so many highly creative players, it was a mistake for Westhead not to fit his system to his material, instead of trying to make plowhorses out of racehorses - the mistake, some say, of a stubborn man.
Paul wanted to run things like a sideline quarterback, jumping up in front of his bench whenever the Lakers got the ball and either calling out plays verbally or holding up finger signals to indicate what he wanted.
In a transition game like pro basketball, this doesn't make much sense. The players never warmed to Westhead's offense and made that quite clear by the way they reacted on the court. And when the Lakers lost their first two home games of the season in the Forum, where they are usually unbeatable, they also played boring basketball, especially on offense.
When Westhead, who likes to quote Shakespeare, insisted that his players stay within his offensive framework when they had the ball, several of them went to owner Jerry Buss and complained. Among them were Johnson, Nixon, and Abdul-Jabbar, according to General Manager Bill Sharman, but there were also others.
Buss, by the way, is an emphatic fan of fastbreak basketball, the behind-the-back pass, and the spectacular score. Jerry didn't like what he was seeing either.
Actually, Buss decided to fire Westhead on Nov. 15, but but held up the announcement until he, Sharman, and special assistant Jerry West could decide on the best course of action regarding a new coach.
They discussed several alternatives, although Sharman won't say what they were. There was speculation that they considered bringing in a new coach, having West take over, or giving assistant coach Pat Riley a shot for at least the rest of the season.
Last week even though the Lakers had a five-game winning streak going, Johnson suddenly told the press he and Westhead weren't getting along. He followed that by saying he wanted to be traded.
Magic, unaware that Buss had already made his decision, probably did this more out of frustration than anything else. And his timing, of course, was terrible.
When Buss announced one day later that he was firing Westhead and that Riley had been named interim head coach and West offensive coach, it certainly looked as though Johnson was running the club.
''I'm not happy with Westhead being fired,'' Magic said after the team's biggest offensive show of the season on Friday against San Antonio, a 136 point outburst. ''I just wasn't having any fun under Westhead's system, and I can't play looking at the sidelines when so much of my game is instinct. I'm not part of management. I didn't try to start anything. I'm not even the main man on this team. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the captain and the main man, and he's mostly why we win.''
Asked why the Lakers had so much trouble winning by big margins this year under Westhead, Riley replied:
''For one thing the players hadn't adjusted to Paul's offense yet. We just weren't very consistent, and too much of our offense was of the half-court variety. We also weren't getting the job done defensively as a team, and that's even more important.''
Asked how he and West can work together when Jerry might want to get an offensive-type player into the game at the same time that Pat wanted more defense, Riley said:
''I don't see that as a problem. You always substitute on the basis of matchups, and in that area our player values would undoubtedly be the same. Offensively, West wants to keep things as simple as possible and so do I. This is a team that should free-lance and fastbreak whenever it can.''
As for Westhead, who took over as Laker coach 13 games into the 1979-80 season (after head coach Jack McKinney was injured in a freak bicycle accident) and won the NBA championship, Paul is bound to be picked up eventually by some other pro team. Meanwhile he will be paid for the rest of this season, plus two more, at a reported $275,000 a year.
Although Westhead was and is a good coach and a hard worker, veteran NBA observers were surprised after the Lakers won the title when Buss paid off McKinney rather than give him back his job.
McKinney, now the boss of the Indiana Pacers, is easily one of the top three coaches in the NBA, and many people felt at the time as though Buss had fired the teacher and kept the pupil.