The defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers are a tough ``read'' in the National Basketball Association this season, as they go about the tricky business of trying to win a third consecutive title. While insisting that they have a mental handle on all the intangible things that can destroy a champion, including loss of desire, false hustle, jealousy, etc., nobody will really know the answer until sometime next spring.
Of course, if the mental gremlins don't get the Lakers, some worrisome opponents might.
By acquiring free-agent center Moses Malone and trading with Sacramento for guard Reggie Theus, the already powerful Atlanta Hawks have made themselves even more formidable, and we all know what the Detroit Pistons are made of after taking the Lakers to seven games in last year's finals.
While no one can figure why the Boston Celtics haven't made more off-season moves, particularly to improve their bench, any team with Larry Bird and Kevin McHale can't be taken lightly.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Lakers' 41-year-old center, plans to retire at the end of this season. Until then, if he gets position inside, he should continue to score with his skyhook, because shooters seldom lose their touch.
But while Abdul-Jabbar is a remarkable athlete, he hasn't been a four-figure rebounder since 1978-79, has never been a consistent shot blocker, and isn't going to fill any lanes on the fast break.
``What I want from Kareem is exactly what I got from him last year,'' coach Pat Riley says. ``If he can continue to give us 14 points and six rebounds while playing between 26 and 28 minutes a game, I'll be satisfied. With the people we can put around him, we definitely have a shot at another NBA title.''
The Lakers can probably win another Pacific Division crown with Kareem at center, but there are serious questions about whether he can contribute enough to make Magic Johnson & Company better in the playoffs. Abdul-Jabbar, after all, was hardly a force in last season's championship-clinching 108-105 victory over Detroit, in which he scored a mere four points and grabbed only three rebounds in 29 minutes of playing time. Riley has to be concerned about efforts like that.
Veteran Mychal Thompson, who should get most of the minutes at center that don't go to Kareem, is more of a finesse player than a physical one. Against someone like Malone, for example, Thompson would be at a decided physical disadvantage.
That is one of the main reasons the Lakers went out and signed 6-9 free-agent forward Orlando Woolridge, despite a history of drug problems.
Woolridge, who led the New Jersey Nets in scoring by averaging 20.7 points a game during the 1986-87 season, figures to be the first forward off the bench. With James Worthy's injured knees a question mark, Woolridge may get as much playing time as a starter.
But whether the Lakers can make a consistently tough rebounder out of Orlando (a must if Abdul-Jabbar and Thompson are to operate effectively) remains to be seen. It is often hard for a scorer who has been around as long as Woolridge to refocus his goals.
Magic, the ultimate team player, whose talents also extend to maintaining a happy locker room, is the metronome of this team. It is Johnson who will have to decide on a nightly basis how much Kareem belongs in the Laker offense. He must also make sure that Woolridge continually works to widen his game.
When Magic says he will probably increase his playing time at forward this year and let rookie guard David Rivers of Notre Dame bring the ball up court, the lessons of history say it won't happen.
Riley is not likely to let Johnson, the league's best playmaker, drift away from what he does best, nor is the coach inclined to cut back on the minutes Worthy, A.C. Green, and Woolridge play to get Magic time at forward.
Michael Cooper, an outstanding defensive player, will be the first guard off the bench whenever Riley wants to rest Magic or Byron Scott, who finally arrived as an All-Star last season.
While Cooper has averaged in double figures only twice in his 10-year NBA career, he has had considerable success shooting three-pointers. In fact, too much success in that area has resulted in Michael's seldom looking for openings to drive to the basket.
Riley, who said he contemplated retirement for about 60 seconds after last season, is a realist.
``This isn't going to be an easy year for the Lakers,'' he says. ``While there was a period a few years back when complacency could be tolerated once in a while on this team, we can't afford that now. We can't wait until the playoffs start to get the job done.''