In one of my previous articles on the blueprint for creating a championship team, I made a statement that George Karl could arguably be considered the greatest coach in team history. Someone took note of that and made the comment that the title should go to Lenny Wilkens instead. That question had me thinking: who is the greatest head coach in Seattle SuperSonics history?
I wanted to go further than that though. Every fan knows that when discussing the greatest coaches in team history, it boils down to either Wilkens or Karl. I wanted to get an idea of who were some of the other great, and even not-so-great, coaches Seattle has seen. I did a quick Google search looking for a list of the greatest coaches in team history, and I was surprised. No one had ever come up with a list.
People try to rank the greatest players or the greatest teams, but coaches? Not so much. Coaches are people too, you know? A great coach can elevate a team as much as a sixth man off the bench (or maybe even more) can. It had to be done. I was going to rank all 15 men who have roamed the sidelines as coach of the Seattle SuperSonics.
It’s not an easy task. Unlike players, there are not a bunch of stats to help get us started. And even the stats that are out there, wins and losses, are not indicative of the true impact of a coach. Wins don’t make a coach, but rather, how well a team plays together and maximizes its potential. With that in mind, I combed through the team’s history and drew upon that my rankings of the greatest coaches in SuperSonics history.
As there are a lot of coaches and a lot to be said about each one, I'm dividing this assignment into different parts. The first batch of coaches I dub the "forgettables." I'm not ranking them based on their whole coaching career, but just their time in Seattle. The "forgettables" are those the organization probably really wish we had not hired in the first place.
INCOMPLETE: Bucky Buckwalter, Bob Kloppenburg
Rather than try to make something out of nothing, I've just decided to give incompletes to two coaches who were never really meant to be the team's coach, and thus, didn't serve for long enough. Bucky Buckwalter was an assistant coach for the Sonics before being named to the head job on an interim basis after Tom Nissalke was fired midseason during the 1972-73 campaign. While he would later have a successful career in the front office with the Portland Trail Blazers, his time in Seattle was rather unmemorable. The only thing that could be said is that he had a more successful stint than his predecessor, finishing the season 13-24, an improvement over Nissalke's 13-32.
Bob Kloppenburg served as the team's head coach during 1992 for a grand total of four games. A well-respected defensive guru, he simply served as a stop gap between the firing of K.C. Jones and the hiring of George Karl. He finished with a record of 2-2.
13. Bob Hopkins, 1977 (5-17, .227)
A cousin to Bill Russell, Hopkins served as Russell's assistant coach before ascending to the top job. He inherited a team that finished 40-42, which while not great, was still something to work with. He had the talents of future Sonics legends like Gus Williams, Fred Brown, Dennis Johnson, and Jack Sikma at his disposal. Yet, he could only muster a 5-17.
If the team had continued winning at the same rate, it would have won a mere 19 games, a franchise record for futility. Immediately upon his departure, the team won six games in a row under the leadership of Lenny Wilkens. They would go the rest of the way 42-18 and make a trip to the NBA Finals. Undoubtedly Wilkens was a great coach, but for a team to look like the worst team in the league at the beginning of the season and one of the best by the end is not only a credit to Wilkens but a demerit to Hopkins. The difference in winning percentage between Wilkens and Hopkins during the 1977-78 season was .473, a margin equivalent to about 40 games. It doesn't matter how good a coach someone is, it takes a lot to improve a team by 40 games.
In all fairness to Hopkins though, he did make solid contributions to the franchise-just not in the head coaching capacity. He was Slick Watts' head coach in college and persuaded Seattle to give the point guard a look. Hopkins was the man behind the drafting of Jack Sikma, despite the fact the whole organization was against it. As an assistant, he was hard working, loyal, and a man of many roles. And he may have actually been a terrific coach. According to Watts, Hopkins was, "one of the top five coaches in the world." However, judged based on his time with Seattle, he'll go down as the team's worst.
12. Tom Nissalke, 1972-73 (13-32, .289)
To me, the Coach of the Year award doesn't mean much. For example, from 2006-2009, the award winners were Avery Johnson, Sam Mitchell, Byron Scott, and Mike Brown. All four of those men were fired within two years of winning the honor. Winning Coach of the Year is no indicator of future success, and those men, along with Tom Nissalke, are evidence of that.
After Lenny Wilkens stepped down in his dual role as a player-coach to just play in 1972, the Sonics were left without a head coach. To fill the vacancy, they hired Nissalke, who was the reigning ABA Coach of the Year with the Dallas Chaparels. Described by Bob Houbregs, general manager at the time, as having shown, "intensity, knowledge and complete dedication in the game," Nissalke, who was only 37 and just had one year of professional head coaching experience, had the potential to make a big splash in the coaching ranks. It just didn't happen in Seattle.
The Sonics were coming off the best season in franchise history, winning 47 games. They had been steadily making progress, improving their record in each of the team's first five season. If they had been taking a step forward each year, with Nissalke, they took five step backs. At the time of his firing, the Sonics were a mere 13-32, with a winning percentage on par with that of their inaugural season. Assistant Buckwalter would replace him and win the same number of games, except with eight less losses.
The team's decline can't be placed solely on Nissalke. Prior to the start of the season, Wilkens was shipped off to Cleveland, so losing one of the team's best player was a big blow. The major problem though was Nissalke failing to inspire his players. His demanding style, instead of getting the best out of players, rubbed them the wrong way. As Watts would write in his book, Tales from the Seattle SuperSonics hardwood, "When a few SuperSonics found Nissalke too tough for their high-salaried style, they boasted - even to the referees - that they would lose enough to get him fired."
11. Bob Weiss, 2005-06 (13-17, .433)
Like the other two coaches I've mentioned, Weiss didn't even last a full season with the team. 13-17 at the time of his firing, the team wasn't awful and were just two games behind the division lead, but they were definitely underachieving. Coming off a surprising 52-30 season in 2005 that saw the Sonics win the Northwest Division and take the eventual champs San Antonio Spurs to six games, the team was expected to be in the playoffs in 2006. When Nate McMillan left, the team sought continuity, so they went with Weiss.
Though Weiss' previous track record as the head man was unimpressive at 210-282 and with just two playoff wins, it was hard not to like his promotion. He was experienced, knowledgeable, and the players were familiar with him. In addition, Weiss was a very likeable guy due to his humor and laid-back attitude.
Unfortunately, that laid-back attitude didn't allow him to effectively run the squad. The Sonics lacked discipline as Weiss never truly had control of his team. Major contributors to the 2005 season like Vladimir Radmanovic and Luke Ridnour weren't stepping up under Weiss. The team ranked last in the league in Defensive Rating (though in all fairness, they weren't that great before either).
I don't want to be too hard on Weiss though. After starting 17-3 in 2005, the squad finished the season at 35-27 and then lost Antonio Daniels, probably their third best player, to free agency. Perhaps the Sonics weren't supposed to be all that great in 2006 anyways, but still, a little bit more was desired. In his last game as head coach of Seattle, the team lost by 19 to a short-handed Indiana Pacer team, an appropriate ending to a coaching stint marked by disappointment.
10. P.J. Carlesimo, 2007-08, (20-62, .244)
Because I, and any loyal Seattleite, would not merge the Sonics and Thunder franchise together, I am only evaluating Carlesimo based on the sole season he was in Seattle, which was 2007-08. If I did include the Thunder's first season in Oklahoma City, Carlesimo probably ranks below Weiss, but for now, he's above him
It's kind of difficult to judge Carlesimo's coaching job based on that single season. On the one hand, the team was 20-62, which was the worst in team history. On the other hand, he was coaching a team that was in the first year of rebuilding and led by a 19-year-old rookie. At the same time, one could argue that that team had some depth and a good mixture of young potential and veteran players that should have kept it out of the cellar. But then again, there was really no one player capable of carrying the team.
To me, it's all about exceeding expectations. Does the final product fall short or rise above the sum of the parts? Does the team play better than it looks on paper? I took a look at the 2007-2008 NBA season preview on ESPN, and of the ten analysts, only one expected the Sonics to come in last in the West. In contrast, the most common prediction was 11th, with three analysts predicting that. Were the Sonics expected to be bad? Yep. But last place bad? Nope. So Carlesimo's team underachieved with him at the helm, but probably not as much as Weiss' team did.
9. Paul Westphal, 1998-2000 (76-71, .517)
Westphal is the first coach to appear that actually has a winning record coaching the SuperSonics. This just goes to show that it's not all about the wins and losses, as five coaches that I'm going to rank above him have worse winning percentages.
Westphal had a tough task to begin win. He had to replace a George Karl, a beloved coach who led the team to three 60-win seasons in five years, and an NBA Finals appearance. However, if anyone was up to the task, one would have thought it was this guy. He had a rather successful stint with the Phoenix Suns where he led Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, and company to the 1993 NBA Finals. However, he couldn't bring the magic from the desert up to the Emerald City.
At the end of the 1998 season, Karl's last as coach, the team looked like legitimate threats to the Chicago Bulls threepeat. By the end of the 1999 season, Westphal's first as coach, the team looked ready to head off to summer vacation, not even making the playoffs. The team somewhat rebounded to make it to the postseason in 2000, though they lost in the first round. However, with the acquisition of Patrick Ewing the following offseason to team up with Gary Payton and Vin Baker, the team was thought to be in the upper echelon of the West once more. Instead, they started off 6-9 and Westphal got the boot.
I honestly don't think Westphal is a bad coach, but he just wasn't a good fit for the personnel. Just four games into the 2000-01 season, Westphal offered to resign after postgame shouting by players in the locker room. Later in the season, Payton and Westphal got into a heated exchange during an in-game huddle, leading to Payton being suspended before he apologized. He had lost control of the locker room, and his players seemed to stop listening to him.
Still, as bad as all of this sounds, not all the blame can be placed on Westphal. Though he inherited a successful team, it was an aging team. Also, it was not his fault that Baker couldn't stay in shape and let himself go. Nor was it his fault that Ewing, though serviceable, was a shadow of his old self by the time he got to Seattle. And I think a lot of people would agree that Payton is not exactly the easiest player to get along with. In addition, one thing to take into account is that after Westphal's dismissal the team did not get substantially better. While the success of the Karl era left Seattle fans wanting more, what keeps Westphal from being lower on this list is that he still put up decent squads.
All of the coaches I've mentioned so far have had rather forgettable stints with the Seattle SuperSonics. That's not to say they were bad coaches though. Among them are a Coach of the Year winner and an NBA Finals appearance, for whatever those are worth. These men know basketball and had credentials to be hired as head coach. However, when they came to Seattle, for a variety of reasons, things did not go their way.
At the end of the day, these coaches didn't bring the type of success expected. With Hopkins and Nissalke, nothing went right. Losses were assured just about every game. With the other three, it was all about underachieving. Weiss took a possibly good team and made it below average. Carlesimo took a possibly bad team and made it really bad. Westphal took a possibly really good team and made it just solid. For that, these coaches are the forgettables of Sonics lore.