Last week, I began a series taking a look at the coaches in Seattle SuperSonics history. I focused on the coaches that I deemed were forgettable. These were the men whose tenures made me think, "Was there really no one else available to coach the team?" That list was composed of, in ascending order, Bob Hopkins, Tom Nissalke, Bob Weiss, P.J. Carlesimo, and Paul Westphal. Now, that’s not to say that any of them are bad coaches, but rather that their time in Seattle could be deemed largely unsuccessful.
This week, I move on to the next tier of coaches. I want to spend time talking about three coaches who, while avoiding a disastrous tenure, left us wanting more. Think of them like getting a C in organic chemistry: it’s not failing, but it’s far from great. If you had studied a little harder, you probably could have done better, but at the same time, the subject is pretty hard, so you probably wouldn't have done that much better.
To steal a term that Doug Baldwin mentioned so often during the Seahawks' playoff run, these coaches were like pedestrians or appetizers. At best, they don’t make your meal, but at worst, they won’t ruin your meal. They came, they left, and the team moved on. Nothing too bad, but nothing to brag about either.
8. K.C. Jones, 1990-1992 (59-59, .500)
Jones is not a bad coach by any means. In fact, one could argue that he is the exact opposite. As the head coach of the Boston Celtics from 1983 to 1988, he won no less than 57 games and took the team to four NBA Finals, winning two of those. His time in Boston was a period that a coach could only dream of.
When Jones came to Seattle, it was to help out his old friend Bernie Bickerstaff as an assistant. However, when Bickerstaff decided to step down and become the team’s vice president of basketball operations, Jones was promoted to the top job. Based on his track record with the Celtics, he was undoubtedly qualified. Along with that, Jones, an easygoing, calm, and professional gentleman, was known for being respected by his players. As Larry Bird put it, "He treated us like men, and he wanted that kind of respect back."
Having won eight championships as a player and a coach, Jones envisioned bringing an NBA title to Seattle. Unfortunately, that never materialized, and following a losing streak midway through his second season, Jones was shown the door.
With a .500 record, one can’t really say that Jones' teams didn't perform. Unlike Paul Westphal, who inherited a team that won at least 60 games in three of the previous five seasons, Jones was taking over a team that hadn't won 50 games since the 1981-82 season. And in a way, Jones never had the stability that coaches very much crave. He was expecting a team starring Xavier McDaniel and Dale Ellis, but those two were soon traded. Ricky Pierce and Eddie Johnson became the two anchors of the team, but at the same time, Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp were waiting in the wings.
While the stream of changes may have been unfair to Jones, at the end of the day, it’s about meeting expectations and maximizing talent. Based on that, Jones underperformed, albeit not by much.
So what were the expectations that the SuperSonics were held to? After Bickerstaff passed the torch to his friend, he said, "I think this group, if healthy, is a 45-46 win team." While the team fell short of that mark, it was only by a few games. And shortcomings could also be blamed on the in-season transactions made by the team. The following season, the 1991-92 season, with a team headed by veterans Pierce and Jones and the potential of youngsters Kemp and Payton, Jones even said himself that he foresaw a 50-win season. Halfway through the season, it became apparent that that was not going to happen, or at least not happen under his watch.
What further hurt Jones’ standing was what happened as soon as George Karl took control. Karl was able to maximize the talent Jones was never able to. Under the new coach, the team finished 27-15, and the next season, the squad was a win away from making the NBA Finals. Just like that, Jones disappeared into Sonics history.
As I've mentioned, unsuccessful coaches for the Seattle SuperSonics don't necessarily mean bad coaches overall. For whatever reason, things just may not work out. In the case of Jones, his personality just did not fit that of his team. In Boston, Jones was known for shelving young players and sticking with veterans. His inability to manage young players contributed to his struggles in Seattle, and even Jones himself knew that. After being fired, Jones said, "They’re a young team. They’re in a learning mode. It’ll take some time. It just didn’t come quick enough."
For any evidence of Jones’ struggles, one need look no further than the words of the greatest player in team history, Gary Payton. Though a second overall pick, Payton struggled in his rookie season with Jones as coach. Just last year, he provided some rather scathing remarks.
"If we wouldn’t have changed coaches, I would have probably said, ‘Yo, you know what? I want to end this. I don’t want to do this anymore because I’m not happy.’ If they would have stayed with the same coach, I would have probably just shut it down."
Though Payton is just one player, that comment alone, and the thought that Jones may have depraved Seattle of its greatest ever basketball player, helps explain why Jones ranks this low on the list.
7. Bob Hill, 2006-2007 (53-81, .396)
When Bob Hill was fired in 2007, my English class was in the middle of our poetry unit. Because of my love of the Sonics, I felt moved to write a sort of eulogy/poem in Hill's honor. My literary masterpiece went as followed:
Hill, Coach Hill, what's there to say?
When you coached, wins went away
Sure, there were injuries to Ray and Rashard
But the losing that occurred was just too hard
I know it's not right, I know it's not fair
But all that losing was too much to bare
You're simply just not what we desired
You're sacked, you're gone, Bob Hill, you're fired
There are multiple reasons why Seattle fans may not like Hill. Perhaps it's the .396 winning percentage, which ranks sixth worst in team history. Or it might be the the perceived arrogance or ego that he may have occasionally displayed. Perhaps it was his rotation inconsistencies, or the fact that his teams were so poor on defense. Whatever the reason, I don't think fans were too sad when he was dismissed (But then came Carlesimo...).
I came close to putting Hill under the incomplete group because I felt he never had a chance to really show what he could do with the team. He took over after Bob Weiss was fired mid-season, and then he only had one season after that, which was heavily plagued by player injuries. As a result, it became difficult to evaluate Hill because there were too many external factors affecting the performance of his teams. I decided to give it a shot, though, and after some thought, I actually believe Hill did an adequate job as coach of the Sonics. When it comes to getting the most out of his players, I would rate Hill as satisfactory.
Taking a look at the 2005-06 season, where Hill took over as the interim following Weiss' firing, his record does nothing to distinguish him from his predecessor. Whereas Weiss posted a 13-17 record and a .433 winning percentage, the team under Hill went 22-30, which actually had an even worse winning percentage at .423. However, one has to look beyond the numbers to recognize what Hill was doing. Aware that the talent of the team was inadequate, Hill chose to give playing time to the two young first-round big men sitting at the end of the bench, Robert Swift and Johan Petro. He sacrificed winning for the benefits of development instead. While Swift and Petro may not have blown people away with their performances, they showed potential and were making strides towards being NBA caliber players, rather than just projects. In the words of Ray Allen, Bob Hill was "nurturing the youth of the team, unlike anybody in the past."
After making moves to acquire Chris Wilcox and Earl Watson before the deadline, the Sonics were finally able to put up a competitive team. After initial struggles under Hill, the Sonics finished the season 14-11. Having put together a promising supporting cast that could complement Allen and Rashard Lewis, the team looked like they would be able to challenge for a playoff berth the following year.
Unfortunately, injuries hampered the Sonics and the team finished a measly 31-51. Does that mean Hill sucks? Not quite. First, consider the fact that Swift, who was supposed to start at center, didn't play a single game after getting hurt in a preseason contest. More significantly, note the fact that Allen and Lewis played together in only 34 games. In those games, the team finished 14-20. That's still pretty unimpressive, but the point differential during those games was about 0, meaning that in the long run, the team probably finishes around .500. A .500 record still probably falls short of what I would expect out of the team, but not by much.
What might be more indicative of the job Hill did was that after his contract was up, Allen and Lewis both advocated for his return. Allen himself said that he never had a coach who impacted him, positively or negatively, more than Hill did, and Hill did so positively. Considering that Allen also played for George Karl and Nate McMillan during his career, I think his comment says a lot.
All in all, Hill is a coach that one has to look beyond wins and losses to judge. There definitely was more that he could have done. For instance, the defense only ranked 27th, though in all fairness, it also ranked 27th under McMillan in 2004-05. And still, a 14-20 record in games where Allen and Lewis played together in 2006-07 is underwhelming. Despite that, his tenure saw the development of multiple players, including Allen and Lewis themselves, both of whom had arguably career years in the 2006-07 season. As well, how the Sonics finished the 2005-06 season makes me believe that if he had a healthy roster, the team could have been competitive the following year.
6. Al Bianchi, 1967-1969 (53-111, .323)
Evaluating a coach is difficult when they've only coached two years. It's made even more difficult when those two years were the first two years in franchise history. If that's not enough, it doesn't help when those two years were nearly five decades ago, making it hard to find information about them. Such is the case with Al Bianchi.
There's not much I can really say about Bianchi as it pertains to the Seattle SuperSonics. I know he was their first coach. I know he was fiery and passionate, and that he got ejected from many, many games. I also know that his resignation after two years came as a surprise to the team.
Since I don't know much about the man, I wanted to try to find a way that was as fair as possible to judge him. I didn't feel it was fair to rank him too lowly due to his record, because that's attributed to having to coach an expansion team. Rather, I asked myself whether or not Bianchi met expectations. Did the first two teams in Seattle SuperSonics history perform better or worse than what I would expect from a team in their early years?
My methodology for this was simple. I looked at the teams that came into the league around the same time as the Sonics, which I restricted to the years between 1966 and 1970. Not including Seattle, there were seven teams: Chicago, San Diego, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Portland. I calculated the average wins for these teams in their first two years, and then compared them to that of Seattle under Bianchi. The average win total for these teams in their first year was 22.4, about in line with Bianchi's 23 wins in 1967-68. For the second season, the average was 32.0, slightly higher than Bianchi's 30.
I rely on evidence to get my point across, and I can't say I have sufficient evidence to believe that Bianchi's coaching hurt the team in any way. Nor do I have evidence to say his coaching contributed substantially to the team. The only thing might be the All-Star play of Walt Hazzard in 1968, but as it's been said, it's not hard to put up good numbers on a bad team. Bianchi's teams performed just as well, not much better or worse, than one could expect. Therefore, he gets a pretty decent ranking.
The difference between the coaches in this article compared to last week is that while they may not have made a huge difference to the team, their negatives were limited. It's like the difference between having to watch Batman and Robin and Batman Forever. You want to avoid Batman and Robin whenever possible, but while you might not prefer to watch Batman Forever, it could be worse, and perhaps some of you might even like it.
Jones, Hill, and Bianchi all had different challenges during their time. Jones faced a team that was transitioning away from the days of McDaniel and Ellis, Hill was dealt with a team battered by injuries, and Bianchi had the challenge of coaching a team mainly composed of players in their first and second year. Factors like these show the importance of looking beyond wins and losses for evaluating a coach, and asking the question of what more they could have done.