Saturday, November 27, 2010

Lenny Wilkens' Sonics

When I was in high school there was really only one team that I truly hated and that was the Seattle Supersonics.  This would be the Sonics of 1977-78 and 1978-79.  It stemmed mainly from their successes against the Suns of course, the most gut-wrenching of which was their defeat of the Suns in the 1979 Western Conference Finals which took them to the NBA World Championship Series and a matchup with the injury-depleted defending champion Washington Bullets.

Jack Sikma was the main target of my vitriol, and it was a case of despising the player who was the most responsible for your suffering.  Those Sonics teams were an interesting case - after a slow start to the 1977-78 season (5-17) the Sonics replaced Bob Hopkins as coach with former coach Lenny Wilkens and the team just took off.  Wilkens'  most important move was replacing starting backcourt Fred Brown and Slick Watts with Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams.  Watts, who wasn't to thrilled with the new situation was eventually shipped to New Orleans and the team settled on the DJ-Williams-Brown rotation in the backcourt.  The starting frontcourt consisted of Sikma, Marvin Webster and John Johnson with veteran Paul Silas as their primary backup.

The Sonics finished well behind Portland in the Pacific Division, but with the hopes of the Blazers resting on the fragile feet of league MVP Bill Walton, the Sonics prevailed in the second round when Walton's health betrayed him.  After dispatching Denver and David Thompson in the Western Conference Finals Seattle was edged out by Washington in a seven-game Championship Series, despite holding a three-games-to-two lead.

In the 1978 offseason Webster left as a free agent to sign with the New York Knicks, but Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien awarded the Sonics Lonnie Shelton as compensation and the team continued without a hitch.  Washington and Seattle finished atop their conferences during the regular season in 1978-79, and after quickly dispatching the Lakers, the Sonics slipped by the Suns in seven games in the Western Conference Finals, by edging them 106-105 in game six in Phoenix and then finishing them off 114-110 in the seventh game in Seattle.  The general consensus at the time was that the winner of the Phoenix-Seattle series would be the favorite to win the title as Washington would be without Mitch Kupchak.  As expected, after a loss in game one when Larry Wright of the Bullets sank two free throws after the final buzzer, the Sonics won four straight to eliminate the Bullets and win Seattle's first (and only) major sports title.

Eventually things did unravel of the Sonics.  After a strong showing in 1979-80 and a loss to Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals,  Dennis Johnson's demands for a renegotiated contract led to his being shipped off to Phoenix for Paul Westphal in a blockbuster trade.  To compound their problems Westphal suffered a broken foot, Williams held out the entire 1980-81 season in contract dispute and veteran leader Silas retired.  And just as quickly as they became a contender, the Sonics were on the outside looking in at playoff time.

Still, in retrospect, the Sonics were much like the 1977 Blazers - a team that wasn't considered a favorite gelling at the right moment and succeeding through team play.  However, much like the Blazers they were torn apart by the financial aspects of the game.

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