Ranking the Greatest Coaches in SuperSonics History, Part VI: The Legends

Otto Greule Jr

A close look at all the men who have roamed the sidelines in Seattle. Part VI concludes the series and finally answers the question: who is the greatest coach in team history?

Edited by Joanna Nesgoda

We’ve looked over fourteen coaches in Seattle SuperSonics history. Now comes time for the big question: who’s the greatest?

This, to me, is the most debatable question pertinent to the team in Green and Gold. It’s like going to Boston and asking which player is better between Bill Russell or Larry Bird, or perhaps going to Los Angeles and choosing between Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The difference is, in the case of Seattle, the greatest player is clear (Gary Payton for those wondering), but the case of the coach is not.

We went over Lenny Wilkens. We went over George Karl. So who’s the man? Who is, as Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic would say, the king of the world…or at the least the king of Seattle…more or less.

After five articles, there’s no more waiting. Squatch, drum roll please.

The title of "The Greatest Coach in Seattle SuperSonics History" goes to…

Lenny Wilkens.

He was the only man to serve in the dual role of player-coach. He was the only man to coach two different stints with the team. And he was the only man to coach an NBA Champion team in Seattle. Now, he’ll add team’s greatest coach to his resume, at least in my humble opinion.

While the case can be made for either him or Karl, here’s why I made the decision I did.

1. Wilkens has a superior postseason record to Karl. This is probably the main argument for anyone who prefers Wilkens to Karl. Needless to say, if you’ve won a championship, you have seen some sort of success in the playoffs. And any Sonics fan of course knows of the playoff shortcomings when it comes to Karl’s teams of the ‘90s.

However, Wilkens won just one championship. It’s not like he went all Red Auerbach in Seattle, winning one title after another after another. And while Karl’s teams may have been continuously disappointing and underachieving when it mattered most, he still did reach the NBA Finals once in 1996, in addition to coming one game short in 1993.

It’s clear Wilkens is superior to Karl in the postseason, but I began to wonder: is the disparity really that great?

Yes, it is.

Let’s put it this way. In 1994, 1995, 1997, and 1998, Karl won 238 regular season games.

Just 13 postseason victories.

In 1979, Wilkens won 52 regular season games.

14 postseason victories. Okay, it was 12, but they had a first-round bye, which would have been an additional two games.

2. Karl’s teams in the regular season may not actually have been more dominant than Wilkens’ teams. Anyone arguing in favor of Karl will point to the fact that he has the most wins and highest winning percentage in team history. Sure, playoffs were a bummer, but for many seasons, the five and a half months prior to that were pretty glorious.

The most wins a Lenny Wilkens coached Sonics team ever reached was 56, a number Karl exceeded five different times. Therefore, over the course of an 82-game season, Karl was superior to Wilkens. Or was he?

Do any of you folks remember from your college stats course what a z-score is? As a refresher for any mathematicians out there, it’s (x-mean)/standard deviation. For those fans who don’t want to mix sports and school, a z-score a way of measuring quality, based on variation in the group. For example, winning 50 games in a league where every single team is within a couple games of .500 produces a higher z-score than, say, winning 60 games where wins range from 15 to 65.

Let’s compare the most successful three year span for both the coaches. For Wilkens, we’ll call it 1978, ’79, and ’80, and for Karl, ’96, ‘97’ and ’98. A simple reading of winning percentage is as follows:

Wilkens: .700, .634, and .683

Karl: .780, .695, and .744

If we average those winning percentages out, including weighing Wilkens’ 1978 partial season as a full season, then Karl edges Wilkens out, .740 to .672.

When using z-score instead, the numbers we get show a different story:

Wilkens: 1.80, 1.30, 1.20

Karl: 1.64, 1.02, 1.29

With this method, the advantage is Wilkens over Karl, 1.44 to 1.32. Therefore, not only did Wilkens have greater postseason success, but when looking at the regular season through a different lens, he may have been superior as well.

3. Wilkens’ addition saw greater improvement to the team than Karl’s did. When Wilkens replaced Hopkins, the Sonics were "give the 2014 Philadelphia Sixers a run for their money" bad. Okay, maybe not that bad. Still, they were a measly 5-17, on pace to have their worst season in team history. With Wilkens though, things turned around immediately. Under his leadership, a team with a .227 winning percentage played the rest of the season at a .700 clip. Has anything like that ever happened before in the history of the NBA?

Not to add more math, but .700-.227 equals .473, which is 39 games. A team played 39 wins better because of a simple coaching change. How is that even possible? It would be like if Justin Bieber ended up coming in second in a 2014 Most Admired poll. Events like that are unimaginable.

To his credit, the Sonics also showed vast improvement when Karl replaced K.C. Jones in the middle of the 1991-92 season. A .500 team at the time of his hiring, the Sonics played at a pace of .643 the remainder of the season. At a rate, the team was 12 games better off under Karl than Jones, which, while excellent, doesn’t rival Wilkens’ improbable resurrection of a team on life support.

4. Wilkens did more with less. Both men were fortunate to have an excellent group of players, many of which are considered Sonics legends. Wilkens had the likes of Gus Williams, Fred Brown, Jack Sikma, and Dennis Johnson. Karl had Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, and Detlef Schrempf.

It is debatable which group one would rather have to form the core of their team, but in my personal opinion, I would pick the latter. A duo of a tenacious point guard and a hyper-athletic big man, in addition to a versatile sharp-shooting forward? Yes, please. Though I definitely have no problem with the other option either.

5. Finally, management appreciated Wilkens more than Karl did. Wilkens was so respected that when Al Bianchi resigned as head coach of the team, Wilkens was trusted to take over the reins as player and coach. Then after he was traded away, he ended up back with the team to coach them to a championship. His final season in Seattle was unideal, with the team finishing 31-51. However, he was kept around as general manager and vice-president. The message behind all this? Wilkens was valuable.

On the other hand, when Karl was gone, he was gone for good. Whether it was not being a right fit, or not being trustworthy, management felt they could do without him.

I love Lenny Wilkens. I love George Karl. They are both, undoubtedly, elite coaches. However, at the end of the day, I can confidently say: Lenny Wilkens, not only are you an NBA Champion, you are a champion among Sonics coaches.

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