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Winning Time: How bad did things get with the Lakers after 1981 playoff collapse?

After an incredible collapse in the 1980-81 season, the Lakers tried to pick up the pieces and figure out how things went wrong in the offseason.

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Each week of season two, we’ll be looking back on the newest episode of HBO’s “Winning Time” and fact-checking or adding more details on some of the key and bigger plot points with much of the help coming from the book “Showtime: MAGIC, KAREEM, RILEY, AND THE LOS ANGELES LAKERS DYNASTY OF THE 1980S” By Jeff Pearlman.

When things implode as spectacularly as the Lakers did in the 1981 playoffs, an autopsy is required to figure out what went wrong. Episode three of “Winning Time” was just that as Dr. Jerry Buss examined the Lakers and looked to figure out how to avoid another embarrassment.

This episode also offered a first deep look at Larry Bird. While we won’t be fact-checking really anything about him or the Celtics moving forward really, just know that basically everything involving him in this episode was pretty spot-on accurate.

With that being said, let’s dive in.

Bouncing back

Most Lakers fans know it to be true, but Dr. Buss did not take well to losing and this was no exception. While it wasn’t quite portrayed as much in the show, the conclusion from Dr. Buss’ examination of the Lakers was that the blame, and the pressure to win next season, fell on Paul Westhead.

In Westhead’s autobiography “The Speed Game,” he recalled a late-night phone call from Dr. Buss while he was on vacation with his family in Hawaii that set the table.

By winning another world championship—and in so doing, taking the crown away from the Bos- ton Celtics-Buss could come out a genius. If the Lakers lost, it would be Jerry Buss, the buffoon. Jerry Buss was so frightened of being labeled a fool... I received a call from Buss... His message was clear. It was not enough to win games; we had to do it convincingly.

The pressure was on for everyone to not just avoid embarrassment, but get back to winning titles.

Kupchak arrives

Present day, Mitch Kupchak is known as the GM of the Lakers during their successful runs in the 2000s and 2010s. But he was also once a promising big man in the NBA in the ‘70s and ‘80s that was hampered by injury.

Like every young person in the world, he also had some questionable decision-making when it came to food, as Pearlman discussed in his book:

Like Westhead, Kupchak was known as something of an eccentric. He ate the majority of his meals at Denny’s and IHOP, swore by the culinary masterpiece that was 7-Eleven’s frozen burrito and insisted the telephone answering machine was the greatest invention known to man. After the Bullets beat the SuperSonics to take the 1978 NBA title, the players and coaches were invited to the White House to meet President Timmy Carter. A memo went out, reminding all guests to wear jackets and ties. Kupchak arrived in jeans and sneakers-sans socks.

When it came to Kupchak the player though, the debate was a little more heated. The ideal version of Kupchak was a great player, but he was far from in ideal shape. Constant injuries had left him a flight risk so, while the front office was in agreement on him as a player, they were very far apart on the idea of paying him $800,000 a year at the time.

For reference, as we mentioned in previous pieces, that was a pretty penny in the early ‘80s. Only three players in the league made a million annually, and two of them were Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — both who had only recently cleared that mark.

The hangup on Kupchak centered around the money, but Westhead was able to do enough convincing to Buss to get the deal a cost. If Westhead had felt the pressure to win before, that was being driven up to the max after this deal.

From Pearlman’s book:

Sharman and West loved the idea of adding Kupchak, but not for $800,000 a year. Not only was the contract too big for a role player (Kupchak had averaged 12.5 points and 7 rebounds coming off the bench the previous season), but it would inevitably result in a handful of Lakers suddenly feeling underpaid and underappreciated. Westhead, however, was convinced he would serve as the ideal sidekick to Abdul-Jabbar, and urged Buss to make the move.

To say the deal was not popular around the league would be an understatement. It was almost universally panned. Among those to not like the deal? Jim Chones.

In those days, even in the era of free agency, teams still had to send compensation to the team losing the free agent. So the Lakers did have to trade Chones, among other players and picks, to Washington for Kupchak.

And the scene with Chones in the Lakers offices? There wasn’t much exaggeration there, as he told HBO.

I cursed that motherf------ up and down.

Everyone else around the league thought it was a crazy amount of money to spend on Kupchak and, ultimately, they were kind of right as he only played 173 games from 1981 through 1986 with the Lakers.

But considering what the Lakers would get out of Kupchak in the long run? Probably a fair deal.

The growing rift between Riley and Westhead

Once close friends and confidants, the rift between Riley and Westhead was growing rapidly as things spiraled. Westhead did, in fact, hire a new assistant coach, a move that was not received well in the front office as Westhead described in his book.

“I finally selected Mike Thibault because of his NBA experience. My pick was not popular with Jerry West, who proceeded for the ensuing year to criticize the activity of Thibault. I knew this was another problem between West and I, but I felt that as long as we did well, I could withstand his criticism.”

Riley wouldn’t say anything publicly about Westhead, but privately the two were no long in sync. And while the head coach and assistant don’t have to be on the same wavelength, it was another thing going against Westhead, as the clock ticked closer and faster to zero on his time in LA.

Norm vs. Magic

While Westhead took much of the blame for how things played out, Norm Nixon and Magic Johnson were one of the obvious issues on the court. Despite having won a title together barely more than a year prior, the two — like their coaching staff — were not on the same page.

The most dramatic scene of the episode was the final one in which Norm, Magic and Dr. Buss have a showdown of sorts. Incredibly, very little of that scene was dramatized, as it all really happened as detailed by Magic in his autobiography, “Magic:”

[Buss] wanted to clean up the mess left from our loss to Houston. So he set up a meeting with me and Norm... Dr. Buss arranged a lavish brunch... He looked directly at Norman. “Do you play well together? Does Magic attract too much attention from you, Norman? What does it mean that he needs the ball to perform and you need the ball to perform? What do you guys want to do? Let’s be honest about it. Because if he’s hurting you, Norman, honestly I can trade you to any team in the league. Absolutely and positively you can choose wherever it is you want to play, because you are so good there isn’t a team in the league that doesn’t want you. So, if you’re having problems, tell me.” Norm was finishing a wedge of melon. He shook his head. “Wrong,” he said. “There is no problem. There is no jealousy. Whoever should have the ball is the guy who can help us win. If that’s me, that’s great. If that’s Magic, that’s great, too. If it’s both of us, then great. I love Los Angeles, and I love playing for the Lakers. I want to stay?... “Magic and I have never had any problems in the past, and I don’t see why we should have any in the future. What happened was the excep- tion, not the rule.” “Hey, Norm,” I said, “would you stop eating all my fruit?” Everybody laughed.

Eventually, the two would reconcile legitimately and head into camp on good terms once again. And the common ground they found? Hating Westhead.

From Pearlman’s book:

As the Laker players reported to the College of the Desert for the start of camp, they were more united than ever in their disdain for Westhead. Johnson and Nixon worked to patch things up during the summer and, for the most part, they had- even traveling with Buss to Las Vegas for a weekend of women, whiskey and high-stakes poker (all funded by the boss). When it came to their coach, both players knew this couldn’t end well. “There was something ironic in his system supposedly being really complex and intricate,” said Nixon. “Because, if we’re being honest, it was painfully simple. You run to spots. That’s it. You run to spots. This wasn’t personal — I think we all liked Paul as a person. But, basketball-wise, it was very flawed.”

As we painted throughout this, things are about to get a bit more messy for the Lakers before they hit greener pastures again.

You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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