Have the Mighty Lakers Fallen?

1983-84 Boston Celtics

Having seen Los Angeles play four times this preseason, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Lakers have dropped a notch. No longer a member of the Superpowers, the Lakers are merely a Power. The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics share the NBA's luxury box alone. The Lakers have toppled into the second tier occupied by Milwaukee, San Antonio and Phoenix.

True, LA is the only team with two world championships and three final appearances in the last four years, but they play in a weaker conference and have sustained significant losses in the last two years. Norm Nixon is gone, and no matter how good Byron Scott becomes, the loss of Nixon will have a negative impact initially. And let's not forget that KareemAbdul-Jabbar is 36 years old and missed almost the entire preseason with viral hepatitis.

Meanwhile, Jamaal Wilkes will be 31 when the playoffs roll around, and Kurt Rambis (Achilles tendon), Mitch Kupchak (legs) and Mark Landsberger (ankle) are hobbling. James Worthy is the man the Lakers hope can take over, but he is recovering from a broken leg and didn't play in any preseason games until this weekend. They'll miss Nixon and would be an ordinary team if Magic Johnson suffered any long-term injury.

Does coach Pat Riley agree that the Lakers have slipped? "It's a possibility," he admits, "but if everything comes together, I think we're going to be stronger. It's just going to take a little while. We're a couple of months away, but we have more depth, we're able to rest our veterans more, and we have more competition for jobs. "The key is Worthy," Riley says. "If he comes back to where he was last January, we'll definitely be stronger."

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