Choosing the best coach in Seattle SuperSonics’ history is kind of like choosing between Homer Simpsons’ co-workers. Would you rather be alongside Carl or Lenny?
I’d be fine teaming up with either Carl or Lenny, just as I’d be fine being coached by either George Karl or Lenny Wilkens. If I had to pick one, though, who would it be?
Last week, I took a look at Lenny Wilkens, the only player-coach in team history, as well as the only coach to bring an NBA championship to Seattle. This week, it’s time to talk about the man whom a good number of fans consider at the head of the pack, and fairly so. On the surface, it’s easy to see why. His record, at least for the regular season, is as good as it gets and he led what some consider the most prominent period in team history.
Coaching Career, 1992-1998 (384-150, .719)
When management decided that K.C. Jones, a long-time coach with two championship rings under his belt, was not a right fit with a young Sonics squad, an important decision needed to be made on who was going to replace him. Who would be the man that could bring together and unleash the potential of a youthful, but seemingly stagnant, squad?
According to the Associated Press, "Gary St. Jean, an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors, was believed to be among the contenders. Other names mentioned as possibilities were former NBA head coaches Doug Collins and Mike Fratello, and New York Knicks assistant coach Paul Silas."
Among those names listed were an esteemed assistant, a man who coached a young Michael Jordan within two games of the NBA Finals, a former Coach of the Year, and a member of the Sonics' sole championship team. So which one was the pick?
None of the above.
Instead, the Sonics decided to go with an exotic choice. Literally. They went across the Atlantic Ocean, into Spain, and tapped George Karl, the head coach of Real Madrid.
Karl was a very interesting choice to say the least. The 40-year-old had four years of head coaching experience in the NBA and compiled a mere 119-176 record during that time. He also became the definition of a sophomore slump. In his first year coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers, he led them to an improved 36-46 record, only to be fired after they regressed to 25-42 the following year. Likewise, the Golden State Warriors went 42-40 in year one with Karl, only to fall to 16-48 in year two, leading Karl to resign mid-season in 1988.
Still, Karl did show a knack for being able to elevate a team, coming in second in Coach of the Year voting in 1987. His time off from the NBA also may have helped the passionate coach, as it showed the league that he could direct an elite team. At the time Seattle hired him, Real Madrid was 17-7, and the year before that, he coached the Albany Patroons of the CBA to a 50-6 record.
The Sonics franchise put a lot of trust in Karl, and that trust paid off. The two seasons before Karl arrived saw Seattle finish 41-41. When Karl took reins of the team, they were 20-20. It seemed like no changes, no draft picks, no free agency could stop Seattle from being home to totally mediocre basketball. Karl wouldn't have it that way.
As I’ve mentioned before, the success of a coach is dependent upon whether he can get a team to improve and maximize its talent. Karl did that almost immediately. With winning streaks of four, five, and five, the Sonics finished the 1991-92 season at 47-35 (27-15 under Karl) and made it into the playoffs. As a sign of how far the team progressed in just a short time, they vanquished their first round opponents, a Golden State Warriors team with a 55-27 record, in four games before losing to the Utah Jazz in the next round.
The following year provided the opportunity to see how well the Sonics could perform under a full season with Karl on the sidelines. To the relief of everybody in the Emerald City, the second-year curse of Karl proved to be over. At 55-27, Seattle wound up with the third best record in the West, were ranked fourth in Offensive Rating, second in Defensive Rating, and had the best point differential in the entire league. The culmination of one of the most successful seasons in team history ended with a loss to the Phoenix Suns, the team with the best record and regular season MVP, in the deciding game of the Western Conference Finals.
The next five years showed what Karl could do with a core of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and Detlef Schrempf. Unfortunately, it also showed what he could not do.
As a student of history, it’s important to bring up the heroes and the villains, the winners and the losers, the good and the bad, and tell the entire story. As a sports fan, I have the right to omit what pains me most.
To keep it simple, the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons saw the team achieve their two winningest seasons in franchise history at that point. Needless to say, as any Seattlelite would know, the endings were…unideal, and that's putting it gently.
Karl may have very well been fired in 1995 after the playoff disappointments, but the team decided to hold on to him and it paid off. For anyone who claims Karl is the greatest coach in SuperSonics history, most likely they will point to the 1995-96 season as his shining moment. Seattle finished 64-18, a franchise high in excellence, and made it to the NBA Finals for only the third time. There, they challenged arguably the greatest team, greatest player, and greatest coach of all-time, taking the Chicago Bulls to six games, with both their victories being by double digits.
The following two seasons were like ’94 and ’95 all over again, but with a little less misery. Despite 57-25 and 61-21 records in the two seasons, after dropping four games in a row, including two at home, against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1998 Western Conference Semifinals, Karl’s act had grown old and his departure was written in the stars.
Though popular with players, the front office was not his biggest advocate. What was the reason for not bringing Karl back? The obvious reason was his spotty playoff track record. In the words of President Wally Walker, "I think for us to have a chance to win a title, the current system, style, will not get it done."
At the same time, there was a sense of mistrust between the head coach and management. Walker stated, "I did say to his agent…if word of our conversation gets out, I can only assume that George doesn't really want the job. And it did get out."
Fit or trust, Karl was out and Paul Westphal was in. If Karl wasn't the right fit, Westphal sure wasn't either. While Karl may not have taken the Sonics far in the playoffs, at least he could say he got them there, unlike his successor, who fell short with a 25-25 record in the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
Based on the regular season, Karl is the greatest coach in SuperSonics history. He won more games and had a better winning percentage than any other coach the city has ever seen. One might say his teams in Seattle played close to the level of the '90s Bulls or the Los Angeles Lakers of the new century. Throw in the playoffs, though, and it’s a completely different story.
Karl will always be remembered for taking a franchise that seemed stuck in mud and making them contenders (at least until April) year in and year out. He indeed ruled over a glorious time of dominant Sonics basketball. However, it will always be hard to talk about Karl without bringing up his playoff failures.