The Los Angeles Lakers walked around their Hawaii training camp last month wearing T-shirts that carried the bold message: "Three-peat!"
But general manager Jerry West, Coach Pat Riley and point guard Magic Johnson say winning a third straight National Basketball Association title is likely to beeven more difficult than their narrow escape against the Detroit Pistons in June.
Starting Friday night, when the regular season begins, every team will be lining up to take its best shot at the Lakers.
"Right now, we're in a wonderful place to be, and everyone can talk about how great we are," West said. "But I see signs on the horizon. We need an influx of talent at a couple of positions."
Riley, who made no title guarantees this year after doing so the year before, said, "The challenges become more severe. Other teams are hungrier." And Johnson suggested the Lakers must adjust their offense to compensate for the fading talents of center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 41, making his final tour of the league. The Lakers showed their vulnerability by being stretched to seven games in playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and Detroit. "The Lakers are a good basketball team," said Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey, "but I don't think they're a great basketball team. I don't think they compare to the 1967 Philadelphia team that had Wilt Chamberlain, Chet Walker, Hal Greer and Billy Cunningham." In any case, the bullying days appear over for the Lakers and Boston Celtics, who have monopolized the NBA championship during the 1980s, except for 1982-1983, when the Philadelphia 76ers won. Free agency, expansion and restrictive salary caps have given the NBA parity almost equal to that of the National Football League. The Pistons aren't the only team flexing its muscles. The Atlanta Hawks, buoyed by the off-season additions of center Moses Malone and shooting guard Reggie Theus, believe they finally have the talent to challenge for the Eastern Conference title. There is a similar feeling in Chicago, where newly acquired Bulls center Bill Cartwright's inside moves are expected to complement Michael Jordan's flying stunts. In the Western Conference, the Mavericks, Jazz, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers seem eager and well-qualified to supplant the Lakers. But coaches are a more conservative lot and fearful of motivating the Lakers with brash talk. Frank Layden speaks cautiously, even though his Jazz, led by playmaker John Stockton and budding superstar Karl Malone, outran the Lakers, and shot-blocking center Mark Eaton neutralized their inside game. "We have to be very careful now," Layden said. "The temptation is to say that we went to the second round of the playoffs last year and gave the Lakers a good run, and now all we have to do the next time is cruise into the playoffs and get right back there again. "It's good to have confidence," Layden said, "but you have to keep things in perspective and not just think we have jumped up to the Lakers' level and only one game separates us. We've still got to do work to close the gap." Teams that are rebuilding, such as the Phoenix Suns, have a different perspective. Still, they sense a change of the NBA power structure is imminent. "The Lakers can be had," said Cotton Fitzsimmons, who replaced John Wetzel as Suns coach. Then Fitzsimmons retreated, saying, "But as long as Magic can still breathe and James Worthy and Byron Scott can still fly, I wouldn't be ready to sign their death certificate." Fitzsimmons is one of only seven new coaches in the NBA this season. Like the much-traveled Fitzsimmons, Don Chaney (Houston Rockets), Don Nelson (Golden State Warriors) and Larry Brown (San Antonio Spurs) have had previous head coaching jobs. Two new coaches, Dick Harter and Ron Rothstein, have new teams, the expansion Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat. Jimmy Rodgers, getting his first head-coaching job after 17 years as an NBA assistant, has a formidable challenge in Boston. He must keep the Celtics' winning tradition alive with a veteran nucleus that no longer can go the iron-man route, as demonstrated in last year's conference finals, when the Celtics ran out of gas against the Pistons. "If we want to win a championship," said All-Star forward Larry Bird, "we definitely need help. We can't do it with five guys anymore. You can't rely on five guys playing 48 minutes every night. It's fun, but you can't win a championship that way." K.C. Jones, who announced his resignation as Celtics coach during the playoffs, was blamed for pushing his starters to the limit while keeping young players Brad Lohaus, Mark Acres and Reggie Lewis on the bench. But Bird said he didn't agree entirely. "Some of our first-year players didn't work as hard as they could have ... and that's why they didn't play more," he said. "They have to catch the coach's eye, not mine." The presence of the Lakers and Pistons in last year's championship round may have led NBA general managers to reassess the methods they use to build a contender. Neither finalist had a dominant center, which, in the past, was considered the quickest way to become a power. Abdul-Jabbar was a poor imitation of his once-formidable self, and the Pistons used center Bill Laimbeer primarily to set high picks and shoot from the outside. The Lakers and Pistons won because of the leadership of their point guards, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. For the same reasons, Portland, with Terry Porter; Utah, with Stockton, and Denver, with Michael Adams, moved up in class. Whether they, or anyone else, are in the Lakers' class is just one question that will be answered starting Friday night.