Batman or Superman? Bacon or chocolate? Elvis or Michael Jackson? Karl or Wilkens?
These are some of the questions that have dominated the American dinner table throughout history. Okay, perhaps not the last one. For any Sonics fan, though, that question is the equivalent of some of the great debate topics in popular culture.
Who is the greatest coach in Seattle SuperSonics history? You can make a case for either one of them. George Karl has the highest winning percentage in club history and three 60-win seasons to his name. However, Lenny Wilkens can write on his resume that he led the only SuperSonics championship team. Their accomplishments may cause many people to declare them ranked 1A and 1B.
I’m not one of those people.
In the second half of my series examining and ranking the coaches of team history, I examine the hardest question of all: Karl or Wilkens? Breaking away from my usual format of simply going up the list, I thought I’d begin by surveying the coaching legacy of each of the distinguished leaders individually. I do this partially because I feel each man deserves his own piece, and also because I’ve learned that long pieces will quickly lose the attention of the average sports fan.
I begin with the coach who's been with the team since nearly the beginning. Calm, cool, and a snazzy dresser, let’s take a look at Lenny Wilkens.
Coaching Career, 1969-72 & 1977-85 (478-402, .543)
When Al Bianchi left the team in the summer of '69, general manager Dick Vertlieb didn’t look too far or spend too much time figuring out a replacement. Just a day after Bianchi’s sudden departure, Vertlieb said he already began considering Wilkens, his star point guard, for the dual role of player-coach. Though surprised by the offer, Wilkens, who had only been with the team for one season, fortunately accepted.
Wilkens’ first stint with the Sonics, lasting all of three years, was unspectacular, compiling just a 121-125 record and no playoff appearances. That’s not to suggest it wasn’t a job well-done, though. Every season he reigned as a player-coach saw a win increase from the season before, as he inherited a 30-win team and bumped that total to 36, 38, and finally, 47.
In addition, Wilkens was able to oversee progress year in and year out despite what the team had to endure. From Bob Rule’s potentially superstar career being derailed due to a tragic Achilles injury, to the court trials of Spencer Haywood, Wilkens had to manage a roster that was continuously morphing in its character. As a matter of fact, only five players from Wilkens’ initial season, including himself, were still on the roster by the end of his first term.
Perhaps even more indicative of a coach’s impact is not how the team performs while he’s the coach, but how the team performs once he leaves. Following the 1971-72 season, Wilkens was given a choice to be either solely a coach or solely a player. He chose to keep on playing but then was shipped off, along with forward Barry Clemens, to Cleveland for All-Star point guard Butch Beard.
With that trade, it was like back to year one all over again. After coming off a franchise best 47-35, the Sonics dropped 21 games, finishing 26-56, their worst record since their inaugural season.
How much of that decline was due to the loss of Wilkens? In all fairness, losing Wilkens the player probably contributed more losses than losing Wilkens the coach. In his last season playing in Seattle, he averaged 18.0 points per game, along with a career-high 9.6 assists per game. The blow of losing the future Hall of Famer wasn’t softened by the fact that Beard looked anything but an All-Star, putting up a meager 6.6 PPG in his only season in Seattle. It also didn’t help that Wilkens’ replacement on the sideline, Tom Nissalke, was so incompetent that his players wanted, and succeeded in getting, him fired. Still, it’s hard to believe that Wilkens would not have been able to manage a team with Haywood, an emerging Fred Brown, and a veteran Dick Snyder significantly better than his successor.
What’s another indication Wilkens did a good job? His team wanted him back. After retiring from playing and a short stint as head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, Wilkens returned to the team as director of player personnel. Following a disastrous start to the 1977-78 season, in which the team managed a 5-17 record in Bob Hopkins’ first year as coach, Hopkins received the axe. With the club on a sinking ship, Wilkens put on his Superman cape and came to the rescue, taking up his old role as head coach.
Improving a team that is fighting to stay out of last place is no easy task. Just ask Mike D’Antoni or Brett Brown. Time is needed to nurture and grow a team, and progress tends to drag on and be painful.
Then again, perhaps not if the man in charge of the team is Lenny Wilkens.
He took a squad that had only won five games in 22 tries, and immediately they won six consecutive to begin Wilkens’ second stint with the Sonics, with the first three of those games being on the road. Seattle won their first 11 of 12 games with Wilkens back on the sideline, including two games by at least 32 points. This was the beginning of the first golden era in team history.
Under Wilkens, the team that looked doomed for the cellar played 42-18 the rest of the way, or the equivalent of 57 wins throughout the course of an entire season. In comparison, under Hopkins, the Sonics were on pace to win 19 games. For perspective, a 38 game difference is even greater than what the Phoenix Suns achieved in 2004-05 after the acquisition of Steve Nash. Of course, the difference here is that the Sonics didn’t have to add an MVP-caliber player.
Seattle wound up making the NBA Finals before losing to the Washington Bullets in seven games. The next year saw the team improve to a franchise record 52-30, forcing a rematch against Washington for the championship. This time, they won, winning four in a row after dropping Game One. Like a mechanic turning a junkyard mess into a Maserati, Wilkens transformed and led the SuperSonics to their first ever NBA championship.
The following year saw even more improvement, as the team finished 56-26. Unfortunately, they ran into Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the Los Angeles Lakers. The remainder of Wilkens' tenure would see the team gradually decline, as Seattle saw the departure of Dennis Johnson, the departure of Gus Williams, and the slow aging of Fred Brown. After the Sonics finished the 1984-85 season with just a 31-51 record, management felt it best to move in a new direction. Out was Wilkens, and in was Bernie Bickerstaff.
Though Wilkens’ ending wasn’t exactly one out of a fairy tale, it didn’t need to be, as he had already cemented his place in team history. He did what coaching greats like Mike Holmgren, Lou Piniella, and George Karl could never do, and that was bring a championship trophy to Seattle.
Not only that, but he did it with a team that really lacked the look of a champion. Though DJ, Williams, Brown, and Jack Sikma were all phenomenal players in their own right, they never possessed the superstar power akin to that of Michael Jordan or LeBron James. When the Sonics won, it was because of the team, not any individuals.
At the time of his departure, Wilkens had given Seattle one title, two Finals appearances, and their four winningest seasons in team history up to that point. Wilkens, perhaps just as much as any individual in sports history, showed a team could win with any pieces, as long as those pieces are used properly.