With the Seahawks soon to be playing in the Super Bowl, Seattle has been overcome with championship fever again. "12" flags are being hoisted on buildings, jerseys are being worn by fans young and old, and it seems like a day doesn't go by without some conversation of the beloved football team.
The thing about the Seahawks, though, is that they made it to the Super Bowl doing things their way. They didn't try to acquire the biggest stars and they didn't get lucky with a random assortment of players. The organization laid down a blueprint for success that worked. It was about finding an elite running back, getting big cornerbacks, emphasizing defense, and prioritizing special teams.
All this excitement over the Seahawks had me thinking about the last time Seattle felt this excited about their basketball team. For that, we would have to go all the way back to 1996, the last time the Seattle SuperSonics made the NBA Finals. Like the Seahawks, those Western Conference Champion Sonics were a team years in the making. They weren't just put together suddenly, but had to be slowly molded and shaped.
However, what distinguishes the two teams path to the final round is how they do things. With football, due to the one-and-done nature of the playoffs, the best teams aren't consistently in the Super Bowl, so there really isn't a blueprint to building a Super Bowl winning team. Therefore, it would not be surprising to see the Seahawks winning the league championship doing things their own unorthodox way. Any team that makes the playoffs in the NFL can win the Super Bowl.
In contrast, it seems only certain kinds of teams win the NBA Finals. That's because in basketball, there's a difference between a very good team, and a championship team. For instance, last year, the Denver Nuggets went 57-25, but were never legitimately considered contenders. Yet, in the 2009-10 season, the Los Angeles Lakers had an identical record and people took them seriously. That's because when looking at the composition of each of the rosters, the Lakers were more built to win a championship than just be a team that wins a lot of games.
I want to lay out what exactly the traits are that most NBA champions seem to possess (at least dating back to about 1991), and show how upon closer examination, the moves the Seattle SuperSonics were making met these characteristics and paved the way to an appearance in the 1996 NBA Finals.
1. Draft Shawn Kemp, 1989
With the 17th overall pick in the 1989 NBA Draft, Seattle selected an athletic freak who had never played a minute of college ball. The pick was risky, because Kemp was still raw and wasn't considered the brightest person, but there was a whole lot of promise. If things worked out, the Sonics would be getting a big man who Bob Whitsitt, the team's general manager at the time, considered a mix between Charles Barkley and Dominique Wilkins.
Considering the team had a late first round pick, taking a chance on a post player was needed. Hardly any team wins an NBA championship without a dominant offensive force down low, leading to 1) Possess an Elite Big Man. Phil Jackson's Lakers had Shaquille O'Neal and then Pau Gasol, the San Antonio Spurs had and still have Tim Duncan, and looking at the defending champion Miami Heat, they have the overlooked Chris Bosh. The only exception? If your team has Michael Jordan, the Greatest of All-Time, that more than makes up for the lack of a low-post scorer.
With the departure of Tom Chambers the summer before, the Sonics didn't really have a threat down low, so they needed to take a chance on someone who could be their franchise cornerstone. Needless to say, drafting Shawn Kemp paid off big time, as five All-Star appearances would suggest.
2. Draft Gary Payton, 1990
The team hit the jackpot when it wound up with the second overall pick in the 1990 Draft. They used the pick to select Gary Payton, a point guard from Oregon State. Considering he put up 25.7 PPG and 8.1 APG in his final season in college, the team knew it was getting a bona fide star. Though Kemp didn't play huge minutes in his rookie season, he showed potential. And though it took a couple years for Payton to break out, the thought of Payton and Kemp playing together at their best gave the franchise two young players to build around.
If Kemp never matured or Payton didn't overcome his initial struggles, the Sonics would not have a foundations of a championship team set. This is because history shows that championship teams 2) Build Around Two Stars. Think Jordan and Pippen, O'Neal and Bryant, Duncan and Ginobili/Parker, and James and Wade. There are exceptions of course, like the Houston Rockets in 1994 and the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, but Houston wouldn't have defended their title in 1995 without adding Clyde Drexler, and Dallas was a no-show in 2012.
3. Hire George Karl, 1992
Hire a great coach seems kind of obvious, but that's not what I am going for here. When the Sonics fired K.C. Jones during the 1991-92 season, they handed over the reins to George Karl, who may go down as the greatest coach in team history. As a player, Karl was a hard-nosed, defensive-minded player. This is what he tried to instill into the Sonics.
There are those who say that defense wins championships, but that's not quite true. In fact, 3) A Top 10 Offense and a Top 10 Defense. Defense, of course, is very important. Recently, no team has won a championship without being top 10 in Defensive Rating since the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, since 1991, 21 out of 23 teams have ranked in the top nine in defense. On the other end, 19 of the last 23 champions have ranked in the top 10 in Offensive Rating.
When Karl came to town, the Sonics were already a good offensive team. However, they needed his defensive-mindedness to turn around a defense that had ranked 21st and 17th (out of 27) the last two years. In his first full season with the team, their Defensive Rating would rank second, and would never be worst than tenth in his time.
4. Trade for Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf, 1993
Aside from the fact that trading for Perkins and Schrempf meant the Sonics were acquiring two good players, it also made them older. In February, the team acquired Perkins, 32, and in November, they got Schrempf, 30. All the players shipped out were younger than they.
There's a misconception that old teams are too old to go through the grind of the postseason. That's simply not true. Teams that usually hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy at the end are those with 4) Numerous Veteran Players. In the past eighteen years, only three teams (the '00, '01, and '09 Lakers) have won a championship without being one of the ten oldest. Only four have won without being one of the six oldest. Four teams, the '97 and '98 Bulls and '03 and '07 Spurs, won when they were the oldest team in the league.
By the time the 1995-96 season started, the Sonics had the sixth oldest roster in the league.
5. Trade for Hersey Hawkins and Frank Brickowski, 1995
Hawkins added some good defense and shooting while Brickowski brought some toughness, but there's more to it than that. Among championship teams, a noticeable trend is that they 5) Shoot a High Percentage on Two-Pointers. Eighteen of the last twenty-three titleholders have ranked in the top eight in two-point shooting percentage. Historically, being a good three-point shooting team doesn't mean anything, but if you can knock it down from inside the arc, the odds are in your favor.
In the 1995-96 season, the league average on two-point field goals was .486. Hawkins shot .534 and Brickowski .526, helping the Sonics to a percentage of .519, which ranked first in the league.
So, the question comes up: How come the Sonics never won an NBA title?
True, not every champion follows these guidelines. Dirk Nowitzki led Dallas to a title in 2011 without a second star, and the Detroit Pistons surprised the world by beating the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004 without any superstars and a mediocre defense. Still, the way the Sonics were constructed during the 1990s so closely resembled that of the ideal championship team. From 1993-1998, Seattle won 60 games three times in a span of five years, yet had nothing to show it.
1994 was probably the team's best shot, as not only did they have the league's best record at 63-19, they had the best point differential, and were top three in both Offensive and Defensive Rating. Not only that, but they wouldn't have to worry about battling Michael Jordan if they got to the NBA Finals. Inexplicably, the team suffered a historic loss to the eighth seed Denver Nuggets in the first round.
The next two years saw teams that were good, but unlucky. Every team, no matter how good, has a certain team they struggle against. For the 1995 Sonics, it was the Lakers, who they had lost four of five against during the regular season. Unfortunately for them, the Lakers ended up being their first round opponent. The following year's Sonics had what it took to win an NBA championship, and I guarantee would win most years...but just not in 1996, going up against arguably the best team in league history.
Following their championship appearance, the Sonics would put up two more worthy teams, but they ran into teams that followed the blueprint just as well as they did, in the 1997 Houston Rockets and the 1998 Los Angeles Lakers. By 1999, George Karl was gone, the defense was poor, player skills were deteriorating, and Vin Baker, who been swapped with Kemp, was a shell of his old self.
The 1990s was the golden era for basketball in the Emerald City, but also bittersweet. It's painful to think what could have been, with a little more luck or a little better timing. Still, one thing the Seattle SuperSonics could take pride in is that they created their team the right way. They put up teams that just weren't built to win games, but built to win championships.