At times during last year's National Basketball Association championship series against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Los Angeles Lakers looked like a team that needed a center who could play harder for longer periods.
Matched against Philadelphia's Moses Malone in the playoffs, L.A.'s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was outplayed everywhere it counted, meaning defense, rebounds, enthusiasm, blocked shots, and points scored. The fact that the Lakers were swept in four straight games by the 76ers was almost unheard of for a defending NBA champion.
Suddenly Owner Jerry Buss and General Manager Jerry West were faced with what seemed an impossible situation. On one hand, they couldn't afford to get rid of Abdul-Jabbar, who is still one of the three or four best NBA centers after 14 years in the league. On the other hand, they realize Kareem is no longer capable of coping with a talent the magnitude of Malone's for 48 minutes.
So it occurred to Buss and West that if Kareem's playing time could be trimmed to maybe 30 minutes a game, and a quality backup center found who could handle things the rest of the time, they might have an answer.
In what can only be regarded at this point as a tremendous gamble, the Lakers have traded guards Norman Nixon and Eddie Jordan plus a second-round draft pick to the San Diego Clippers for center Swen Nater and rookie guard Byron Scott. Jordan, whose presence on the Lakers probably wouldn't have made any difference in where they finished, was expendable. But Nixon was a starter, a former NBA all-star who had already played on two championship teams with L.A.
Nater, a backup to Bill Walton at UCLA during the early 1970s, was one of the league's best rebounders for four seasons, beginning with the 1977-78 campaign. He reached a career high of 1,216 boards in 1979-80. Because of injuries, however, Swen really hasn't made much more than a token appearance in the NBA during the past two years.
Oh, he appeared in seven games last season and 21 the season before with the Clippers. But it is rare when a player who has missed that much time comes back and reaches anything even remotely close to his previous performance level.
The results of this trade probably won't be known for a year. But Nater did give a hint of his rehabilitation problems recently when he told reporters: ''I'm not close to what I can be and I can't say exactly when I'll be ready. But eventually I think I can play a lot of minutes for the Lakers.''
Scott, a 6 ft. 3 in. guard out of Arizona State who averaged 21.6 points per game last season and was the fourth player taken in this year's draft, is regarded as a kid with unlimited potential. The Lakers are hoping that he will eventually start in their backcourt with Magic Johnson. In the meantime, however, either Michael Cooper or Mike McGee is expected to inherit Nixon's old spot. Although Cooper is the better player, because of his strong defense, the Lakers like the luxury of being able to bring him in off the bench.
Asked why Los Angeles had been swept so easily by Philadelphia in last year's playoffs, Coach Pat Riley replied:
''It wasn't Malone who beat us, it was the 76ers' superb team defense. Actually because of injuries to Bob McAdoo, James Worthy, and Nixon, Philadelphia never saw the real Lakers. What we need to beat the 76ers is to improve our defense individually and as a team.''
Looking at the NBA's Pacific Division race for 1983-84, it's hard to imagine Phoenix, Seattle, or Portland having enough manpower to catch the Lakers, who dominated last season with a 58-24 record. Golden State and San Diego might be a lot better this season, but these clubs still have to show they can win while breaking in a lot of new players.
''I like the feeling that, except for Nixon, our starting lineup will be the same as last year,'' Riley told me, referring to Abdul-Jabbar, forwards Jamaal Wilkes and Kurt Rambis, plus the club's metronome, Magic Johnson. ''I also like the fact that I'll continue to have McAdoo, Worthy, and Cooper available off the bench. That is, if Cooper doesn't start.
''I see a big part of my job this year as preserving the effectiveness of my regulars (he was referring particularly to Kareem), so that they will still have something left at the end of the season,'' Pat added. ''One of our problems last year was that we didn't rest people enough during the regular season for that to happen.''
Even allowing for his reduced playing time, Abdul-Jabbar should break Wilt Chamberlain's all-time NBA scoring record of 12,681 points on or about April 1. Kareem's magic number is 1,610, or an average of just over 21 points per game.