Defending champion Lakers could be even better with rookie Worthy

The Los Angeles Lakers should probably be hit with an unfair labor practice suit for not having a sign on their training camp door that says: Rookies Need Not Apply!

That is, except for No. 1 draft pick James Worthy of North Carolina, whom most National Basketball Association scouts considered the best undergraduate player (with the exception of Ralph Sampson) in the nation last season. Anyway, the 6 ft. 8 in. Worthy, after leading the Tar Heels to the NCAA Championship over Georgetown, was voted the tournament's most valuable player.

If he lives up to Laker expectations, James is eventually scheduled to replace Bob McAdoo as the team's backup forward for both Jamaal Wilkes and Kurt Rambis, while pulling occasional reserve duty at center for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

In fact, Coach Pat Riley says that because his overnight millionaire is such a strong passer and accomplished ball handler he might also use him in the backcourt.

Although McAdoo (currently a holdout) will continue to provide the Lakers with instant offense off the bench until James becomes more familiar with Riley's system, Bob is expected to log the bulk of his floor time this year in the pivot.

The plan is for Abdul-Jabbar to play no more than 34 to 36 minutes a game, a timetable that should keep Kareem, now 35, fresh for the playoffs. Riley plans to give the 12 to 14 minutes that Abdul-Jabbar will rest every game to McAdoo.

''Offensively, we probably won't be any different than we were last season,'' said Riley, whose Lakers averaged 114.6 points per game, second best in the league. ''We'll run, we'll work hard on both boards, and we'll try to get everyone involved in our offense. While we won't have a lot of plays, we will have a lot of options.

''The way we hope to slow down and pressure other teams into turnovers is with the same trapping defense that we relied on a year ago,'' he added. ''Basically I'm talking about the one that had some teams so upset that they occasionally accused us of playing a 1-3-1 zone. But it's not a zone when your players are moving and constantly coming out after people, and I'm sure I can show NBA officials that there is nothing illegal in what we do. Actually most NBA teams use traps to bolster their defense.''

Asked if he thought the Lakers could become the first NBA team since the Boston Celtics 14 years ago to win back-to-back playoff titles, Riley replied:

''Well, we can if we go into the season taking each situation as it comes and keeping our thinking straight. For example, we're going to be facing more of a mental challenge this year than a physical one because physically the talent is there.

''What we have to do is continue to be ourselves; forget about trying to live up to other people's expectations; and get through the year healthy and with a good record. If we do that, then we should be ready to handle a short season like the playoffs. Under those conditions - yes, I do think we would have a good chance of repeating as NBA playoff champions.''

One of the Lakers' biggest pluses is the fact that Riley remains committed to developing a team with more and more interchangeable parts, like the Celtics. Magic Johnson, who starts in the backcourt alongside Norman Nixon, can also play forward or even center in a pinch.

Michael Cooper, the backcourt swingman for both Johnson and Nixon and a player who improved his offense tremendously last season, also performs well up front. Then there are the previously mentioned Worthy and McAdoo, who can play either forward or center.

Even though forward Mark Lands-berger (currently involved in contract problems) and guards Eddie Jordan, Clay Johnson and Mike McGee are expected to hold their spots on the roster, Riley isn't likely to find much playing time for any of them. Landsberger, who probably thinks he should be starting or at least the team's No. 1 backup forward, isn't apt to accept his situation quietly.

But if NBA owners are able to put enough pressure on the Players' Association so that rosters can be cut from 12 to 10 players, Mark may be glad just to have a job that pays in six figures.

Although Riley says that Seattle and Phoenix, the two teams that finished closest to the Lakers in the Pacific Division last season, will be better this year, no one would expect a rival NBA coach to say anything else.

Going to pro basketball's instant cliche rack for an explanation, Riley is the kind who wouldn't awaken a sleeping dog if his championship ring were fastened to the canine's collar.

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