The NBA, much like just about anything in life, is an organic body. It doesn’t remain constant throughout time, but rather evolves and changes. With the ascension of Adam Silver to the throne of NBA Commissioner, one can expect the league to evolve even further.
Silver has said that he’s a man who’s open to change, though unfortunately none of the possible changes seem to involve a basketball team in Seattle. Rather, throughout the past month, there have been talks ranging from what can be done to improve the draft to how to make the playoffs more exciting.
Whether or not any of these ideas are carried out is still left to be seen. Still, it’s fun to think, talk, discuss, and debate about. What I find fascinating to ponder is how changes in league-wide regulations could possibly have impacted the history of a single NBA team. For instance, what would a different playoff format have meant for the championship hopes for the teams of Sonics’ past?
I’m not trying to justify our team’s history or make the franchise look any better or worse than it was. Rather, what I hope to do is examine the hypothetical. If some of the changes that Silver or others have proposed had been permanently put in place the last five decades, how and to what extent could it have changed Seattle SuperSonics history as we know it?
The NBA Draft
Disparity in the league between the best and worst teams is bad. For one, it disrupts the competitive balance, which is detrimental to the fan experience. Perhaps even more troubling, it leads to the accusation that teams are trying to tank and be as bad as possible in order to increase their chances of getting the first overall pick.
Personally, and Commissioner Silver has made a similar statement, it’s important to distinguish the difference between purposely losing and cleverly rebuilding. In my mind, telling the coach to sit good players or trying to acquire low-level talents is tanking. Trying to acquire expiring contracts or young assets is not.
Regardless, the degree to which teams appear as if they are trying to be bad has caused the issue of draft reform to arise. While sentiments vary, such as Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban expressing his feelings that the three worst teams shouldn’t have a shot at a top-three pick, a method coming to the forefront of discussion is a draft wheel. With this method, the picks every team would have would be predetermined according to a wheel that would ensure each team would have a top-six pick once every five years.
So how would this have impacted team history? To be honest, it’s hard to say. The only thing for sure is that the Sonics would have had at least one first overall pick in their team history, something they never had. However, there’s no way of knowing who would have what pick in what year, and what picks they would have made.
What the draft wheel does do is theoretically take luck out of the equation. The bounce of a ping-pong ball wouldn’t be able to determine whether a team had the first overall pick or the fourteenth. This is where the Sonics become relevant because a little luck took the franchise a long way.
The greatest player in Seattle SuperSonics history is arguably (but not really) Gary Payton, taken with the second overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. What people tend to forget is that at the time, Seattle was coming off a season in which they finished 41-41. In fact, one more win would have put them in the playoffs, and would have given them either the 12th, 13th, or 14th overall pick.
The way the lottery worked back then was that each of the eleven non-playoff teams had a chance at a top-three pick based on their regular season performance. The worst team had 11 chances, the second worst team had 10, and so on, with the best of the non-playoff teams having just one chance. As a result, Seattle had only two chances, and thus a three percent chance of getting to pick first.
They didn’t end up getting the first pick, but the second pick, still a longshot, in the long run ended up better. Taking Gary Payton, the Sonics found the second half of their one-two punch alongside Shawn Kemp, which would bring many victories to the city of Seattle. The Sonics emerged as a dominant force in the '90s because of a little luck, and this would not have been made possible with the draft wheel.
Raising the Age Limit
Commissioner Silver has been a proponent of raising the NBA age limit to 20. When talking about requirements to join the NBA, the first player a Sonics fan might think of is Spencer Haywood; however, Haywood was 21 years old when he played his first game with the squad, so he wouldn’t apply. Two key figures in Sonics history came to the league without playing any NCAA ball, though: Shawn Kemp and Rashard Lewis.
Is it possible to imagine Seattle SuperSonics history without Kemp? Is it possible to envision the early and mid-'90s without him being fed lobs from Payton? I certainly can’t imagine it. Without Kemp, the Sonics still would have probably been a good team with Payton, Schrempf, and the rest, but a trip to the 1996 NBA Finals would never have occurred without the Reign Man’s effort.
As for Lewis, as a second round pick from Elsik High School in Texas, Seattle was able to grab him in one of NBA history’s more notable second round steals. Considering Lewis participated in only two playoff squads during his time in the Emerald City, his erasure from Sonics history would not have had the gravity as that of Shawn Kemp. Still, between his All-Star appearance, his name atop the three-point leaderboard, and his contributions to the Cinderella 2004-05 team, he left behind a big mark.
While allowing teenagers into the NBA has proven to be beneficial for the Sonics, their record hasn't been unblemished. For an example, one needs to look no further than ten years ago when Robert Swift was drafted from Bakersfield High with the 12th overall pick. Aside from half a season, Swift had next to no impact with the Sonics. One can only wonder who else the Sonics could have taken with the 12th pick, but almost anyone would have been an improvement.
Looking at the Swift case justifies the reason why Silver wants to up the age limit. It’s about maturity and growth. Considering Swift hardly played at all his rookie season, he could have used a couple of seasons of college ball to improve his game.
While raising the age limit has both its advocates and detractors, in the survey of Sonics' history, allowing teenagers into the league has proven beneficial to the franchise. While there are instances like Swift that produced underwhelming results, the gains have outweighed the losses as Kemp and Lewis came to Seattle without any college ball and would both eventually make a great impact.
A common complaint about the NBA postseason is that it is too long and predictable. That happens when there’s a seven-game series and half the teams make the postseason. That’s why, to increase excitement, Silver recently brought up the idea of single-elimination. One only needs to take a look at the NFL to see how a single-elimination style postseason makes the champion much harder to predict. How would a single-elimination tournament have affected how Sonics teams finished in past seasons?
For one, the sole championship in franchise history doesn’t happen. They lost Game One of the 1979 NBA Finals to the Washington Bullets before winning the next four. Then again, Washington lost the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, so they themselves would not have even made the Finals.
Similarly, the 1986-87 Seattle SuperSonics’ miraculous run to the Western Conference Finals would never have occurred. They were walloped in the very first game against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.
However, where the biggest change in team history would have occurred would have been in the '90s. In each of the five seasons between 1993-94 and 1997-98, the Sonics were legitimate contenders. The only team that would have been worse off would be the 1996-97 squad, though the difference would have only been one round. The 1996 Finals team would have stayed the same, but the three other teams won the first game of the series that they ended up losing. It’s not out of mind to think that at least one of them could have made a trip to the NBA Finals.
Reports came out that NBA executives had discussed the idea of a four-point line; however, the NBA has denied this. If there had been a four-point line throughout history, I think it’d be fair to say Seattle would have had an advantage. Let’s take a look at some notable Sonics greats.
Fred Brown: Brown wasn’t called "Downtown" because he liked to hang around the business district. It was because he could shoot. Unfortunately for him, there wasn’t even a three-pointer until over halfway through his career. Still, in the very first season there were three-pointers, Brown led the league at 44.3%. His old coach, Lenny Wilkens, claimed that if there had been a three-point line prior, Brown would have averaged 30 points a game. Just imagine what he could have done with a four-point line.
Dale Ellis: In his four full seasons in green and gold, Ellis shot 41.2% from beyond the arc. He also ranked top ten in most made in each of those years. In his second stint with the team beginning in 1997-98, he led the league in percentage at 46.4%.
Ray Allen: 269 threes in the 2005-06 season. 2,931 threes for his career. Need I say more?
The Sonics have been blessed with three players who really put the shooting in "shooting guard." While I’m not sure how I would feel about a four-point line, it would have elevated the careers of three already terrific players.
All of what I've said isn't to be taken too seriously. I'm not looking to make a point of whether certain changes should in fact be enacted, but take a look at what their implications may have been for the past. What-ifs are too difficult to assess and too many additional factors play a role in what could have happened beyond what I have discussed. Still, it goes to show how simple changes in the way the NBA runs could have greatly changed the landscape of a team’s history.