What can the Lakers do for an encore?
Byron Scott had an answer. "We've got to try to improve on last year," he said with a straight face.
Oh, really? Since the Lakers won the NBA championship last season, they may find it kind of difficult to do any better than that.
Then again, maybe they could sweep the final series in four games, which would be a two-game improvement over last spring's performance.
There are those who figure the Lakers are a cinch, once again, to wind up in the championship series, where they seem to appear each June without fail. They have been there the last four years, five times in the last six, and have won the NBA title three times.
No team, however, has won consecutive championships since 1969, so Coach Pat Riley chooses to low-profile the Laker victory over Boston last season.
"We are not champions eternally," Riley said. "We are only champions of last year."
Last year's champions are using a different formula to try to repeat. They won last season with virtually the same team that had missed the title the year before. This time around, the Lakers have made some changes that are going to be quickly noticed.
The most recent change was made Thursday, when Ronnie Lester was put on the injured list as the Lakers reached the roster limit of 12.
The Lakers say that Lester, 26, a five-year veteran point guard, has tendinitis in his left knee, which was supposed to be his good knee. Lester has had surgery twice on his right knee, once in college and once in his rookie season with Chicago, to correct ligament damage.
Lester must miss a minimum of five games on the injured list and be returned to the active roster no sooner than the Nov. 7 game at Utah.
The Lakers' biggest difference, however, is the subtraction of Bob McAdoo and the addition of Maurice Lucas. This promises to produce a major alteration in the way the Lakers do business.
McAdoo, an offensive specialist, was usually the first player off Riley's bench, and the Lakers would run plays designed to allow him to shoot. Lucas is basically a defensive player, and that changes the entire emphasis of Riley's substitutions.
When he had McAdoo, Riley's normal substitutions were for more firepower. Now, with Lucas, the first Laker substitution is for defense and rebounding, not shooting. It is arguable that the Lakers lost more games through failure to rebound than through lack of scoring, so on paper, the addition of Lucas makes the Lakers even stronger.
"The beginning of the season will let us know how good we are going to be when it counts," Riley said. "With Luke and (No. 1 draft choice) A.C. Green, I don't totally know when they will play or with what combination. We'll find out in the first month.
"We're going to learn about our new team, and it isn't like last year," Riley said. "Things have changed. With Mac last year, we went to him to exploit his offense. Now with Luke, we can't exploit his offense. When A. C. starts playing quality minutes, you've got two new guys coming in with primarily defensive tendencies."
This in itself is a little unusual for the Lakers, who have traditionally worried more about scoring points than preventing them, although they're proud of the half-court trapping defense that they spring from time to time.
Last season, the Lakers averaged 118.2 points a game and shot 54.5%, setting an NBA record. They won the Pacific Division by 20 games, another NBA record.
When the playoffs started, the Lakers swamped Phoenix, Portland and Denver before downing the Celtics, 4-2. Outside of that, it was a fairly routine season.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the center of the Laker team, and not just because of the position he plays. At 38, he remains the first and last option on offense and the final line of defense. His $2-million annual salary has already been extended through the 1986-87 season, as well, should he decide to play until he's 40.
It may be hard to believe, but point guard Magic Johnson is 26 and playing in his seventh season as the leader of the Laker fast break. Johnson may not have to go to the backboards as much with the arrival of Lucas and Green, but the Lakers are probably going to ask him to shoot more from the outside, which may be the team's only real weakness.
Off-guard Scott, the Laker with a shooter's conscience--none at all--and reserve guard Mike McGee are the club's only true outside shooters, although the Lakers believe that spidery defensive specialist Michael Cooper can make his open shots.
Look for Scott, now 24 and in his third season, to make more of an impact, especially by taking the ball to the basket more often.
Small forward James Worthy started getting a reputation late last season as the next Laker superstar, after Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson. Like Abdul-Jabbar, Worthy is a devastating post-up player against a single defender. But many teams will send two or three defenders at Worthy and Abdul-Jabbar, who then must pass back outside if the offense is to continue working.
The Lakers are easily the NBA's deepest team in talent. Kurt Rambis may be the worst starting offensive player in the league, but his defense and rebounding are a precious commodity to the Lakers.
On the bench, besides Lucas, Cooper, McGee and Green, there are Mitch Kupchak, who backs up Abdul-Jabbar, and small forward Larry Spriggs. Kupchak, who may eventually prove to be one of the most important Laker non-starters in relief of Abdul-Jabbar, was a major factor in the championship series last season.
With Lester injured, 7-5 center Chuck Nevitt also made the opening-night roster. The Lakers will begin the regular season Saturday night at San Antonio.