Through Sonics' history, there has only been a handful of coaches that most people would consider a success. These were the ones who could, or should have been able to, walk away from the position knowing they achieved something: they left the team better off than when it started. Fans were left to wonder who would fill their shoes, and any reasonable general manager would have signed them if they could.
That's not to say these coaches were perfect, though. Anyone who sticks with a team for an extended period of time will fail to leave it unblemished. Even the G.O.A.T. of coaches, Phil Jackson, has an NBA Finals surprise exit on his resume. Among the demerits of the coaches who have earned the stamp of approval in team history are first-round disappointments, losing records, and strained player relationships. However, what makes them beloved, or at least respected, in the end was their ability to elevate a team in a way maybe thought not possible.
The two greatest coaches in team history are undeniable. Thus, I will focus on them in another article. For now, I want to pay respects to three coaches who, while their accomplishments pale in magnitude to the top two, were nevertheless difference-makers.
5. Bill Russell, 1973-1977 (162-166, .494)
When Seattle hired Russell, it was to make the Sonics a winner. Up to that point, the team had just one winning season and zero playoff appearances since their induction to the league seven years prior. Worse, they were coming off their most disappointing season yet. For the first time, they hadn't improved upon their previous season's record, and at 26-56, put up their worst year since expansion. The SuperSonics looked anything but super and were desperate for help.
To their rescue came the greatest winner in NBA history. With eleven championships as a player, his playing talents were unquestioned. With the last two of those championships coming as a player-coach, his ability to lead was further reinforced. Seattle was looking for someone who could give them hope and provide a winning culture to the team. His arrival rebuilt confidence in Seattle that someday the Sonics would be a contender.
Dubbed "Seattle's New Dictator," Russell commanded respect. He demanded excellence. Tough, strict, and a disciplinarian, Russell brought a no-nonsense approach to Seattle and let the city know who was in charge. He tried to instill, or force, his values of hustle, teamwork, and tight defense. Though faith was quick to come, progress at first looked pretty slow.
Early on in Russell's first season, the team played dismally. Following a six-game losing streak, the Sonics fell to 9-21. If they had kept on winning at that rate, they would have actually won just 25 games, a drop-off from a year before. However, the team eventually bought into what Russell was selling, finishing the season a respectable 27-25. Most impressive was the fact that they started becoming the team Russell was known for. After giving up an average of 112.2 points through the first 30 games, the team shaved over four points off that number and surrendered 108.0 points the rest of the way.
Building off their progress, the 1974-75 Seattle SuperSonics took another step forward, finishing the season 43-39. Though largely inconsistent, with three streaks each of winning and losing four consecutive games, the squad truly looked to be feeding off the culture of Russell. For one, they improved on the defensive end, ranking in the top half of the league in Defensive Rating. The team also looked as if it had begun to develop a rhythm, ending the season on a seven-game winning streak and making it through the first round before losing in six to the eventual champions, the Golden State Warriors. Every coach on this list moving forward will have a landmark season that legitimizes their efforts in the course of team history, and for Russell, this was his.
Unfortunately, the winning culture Russell brought to Seattle was just that. Under the Celtic legend, the Sonics "won" but they did not "contend." The next season was another 43-win season and another Semifinal exit, and the 1976-77 season brought a digression out of the playoffs, as the team finished a mere 40-42.
Though Russell had signed a five-year contract with the team, he never made it to his final season. Having been tabbed in a dual role as head coach and general manager, Russell was deemed too expensive by owner Sam Schulman, and the two sides split.
While Russell's techniques had shown to be effective in bringing the franchise back from the dead, one can only wonder how long he would have been an ideal coach. In a sense, Russell was the anti-Pete Carroll. Rather than bringing optimism and a sunny demeanor, he had a harsh tough-love attitude that could break down a player. While one had to respect Bill Russell for all he accomplished, playing for him may not have been the most enjoyable experience.
Spencer Haywood, the star of most of Russell's Seattle teams, saw a once great relationship strained. In King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, author Aram Goudsouzian wrote that Haywood "resented how Russell embarrassed players. He wanted credit for sacrificing statistics or overcoming injuries. He started complaining during practice." Haywood eventually grew extremely critical of Russell and demanded a trade.
Slick Watts, who was with Russell all four years, wrote in his book Tales from the Seattle SuperSonics, "Russell was pushed out I think probably because he lost some of the guys because of how he approached things. People get tired of being annihilated or intimidated...It got to a point where many people couldn't deal with him."
Russell could be analogous of that teacher all of us had in high school: the one who was mean and strict and whom we hated, but at the end of the day, got results out of us. Due to his demeanor and the words of his players, it's hard to say Russell was an excellent coach. Players were scared of him and didn't want to play for him. When it comes to player relations, Russell probably gets a failing grade. However, what we're looking at is results. After inheriting a team that was in deep mud, Russell pulled it out, cleaned it up, and made team history by not making just one, but two playoff appearances. In a sense, he also provided the bridge to the golden Wilkens era. As a result, Russell maintains good standing on the list of Sonic coaches.
4. Nate McMillan, 2000-2005 (212-183, .537)
Personally, I've always found McMillan to be overrated as a coach. This isn't to say that he's a bad coach, but I've never looked at him as the great coach that I have heard so many NBA "experts" proclaim him as throughout the years. Part of that may have to do with the fact that in twelve seasons as the head man, his team has only made it out of the second round once. The other part has to do with him being a "defense-minded" coach, yet he never coached a team that had a Defensive Rating in the top ten, and only three times were his teams even in the top half of the league.
Examining his time in Seattle, though, it's clear that McMillan did the best with the cards he was dealt. The time between 2002-04 was pretty forgettable, and even led to rumors of him being fired. After finishing the season at 40-42 in 2002-03 under McMillan, the Sonics had a losing record for the first time since 1987. However, one can find the positive in that the squad was 18-12 after trading Gary Payton. The next season, at just 37-45, though, was troubling.
Still, the big picture shows that the positives outweigh the negatives. On three different occasions, the Sonics performed better than one would expect under McMillan. First was when he took over for Paul Westphal early on in the 2000-01 season. Being given a team marked by inner turmoil and unhappy veterans, McMillan turned the team around. At 6-9 at the time of Westphal's dismissal, McMillan had the team competing for a playoff spot. Under his ship, the team was 38-29, and ended the season 13-5.
The following season may have been even more impressive. In his first full season as head coach, he led a rather young team, one that saw three rookies get consistent playing time. Gone were key contributors like Patrick Ewing and Ruben Patterson, and in came the likes of Vladimir Radmanovic and Peja Drobnjak. Expectations were low, and many expected the team to be out of the playoffs. Yet the team clinched over a week before the end of the regular season and were the only Western Conference team to take their opponent the distance in the first round.
Following the decline in 2003 and 2004, the team didn't give any reason to believe they would be better off in 2005. They lost Brent Barry, their veteran sharpshooter and team leader, and swapped big man Calvin Booth for troubled power forward Danny Fortson. Expectations were so low that Marc Stein of ESPN put the SuperSonics 29th in the league in his preseason power rankings. Considering the 2004-05 season was also the inaugural year of the Charlotte Bobcats, whom he ranked #30, second-to-last was basically last.
The first game saw a 30-point whopping at the hand of the franchise that has historically been associated with the definition of losers: the Los Angeles Clippers. That game could have reaffirmed Seattle's inferiority and set the tone for the rest of the season; however, something remarkable happened. Rather than falter, the team used that loss to propel themselves from the abyss of the NBA realm.
A nine-game winning streak followed that loss. Seattle started the season at 17-3, playing like perhaps the best team in the NBA. As the season wore on, the Sonics floated back down to earth, but still managed a 52-30 record and a Northwest Division Crown, thereby exceeding the expectations most pundits had placed on them. A last-minute missed shot by Allen prevented the Sonics from taking the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs to the seventh game in the Semi-Finals and put the cap on the Cinderella season.
For his work, McMillan came in third in Coaching of the Year voting for turning a roster of seemingly random bodies into a formidable team. Young players grew up and forgotten players reemerged. He orchestrated a beautiful symphony of offensive efficiency into a team that would rank second in the league in Offensive Rating.
Perhaps more indicative of the impact McMillan had on the Sonics was the 2005-07 season. After McMillan went down south to join Portland, a rather identical team led by the experienced Bob Weiss could not replicate the same success. A coach needs to ensure that the product exceeds the sum of the parts, and for the majority of his time in Seattle, Mr. Sonic did that.
3. Bernie Bickerstaff, 1985-1990 (202-208, .493)
Is it weird that the person I'm ranking as the third-best coach in team history doesn't even have a winning record? If so, allow me the time to explain.
On the surface, Bickerstaff comes off as a very average coach. I mean very, very average. His winning percentage is just about at .500. He took over a team that was 31-51, and in his first year, they were still 31-51. In his last season as the team's coach, Seattle finished 41-41. After he stepped down, the team finished with an identical record of 41-41. Apparently, what this glance-over analysis suggests is that fire him or hire him, the team won't be impacted.
If one were to conclude that, they would be wrong. Bickerstaff did make quite a positive impact while coaching the SuperSonics.
Bickerstaff took hold of a team that was in a steep decline. Gone were the days of contending for a championship, and instead, here was a franchise that had seen their win total decrease in four of the last five seasons. After finishing the 1984-85 season at 31-51, perhaps the biggest name in team history at that point, Lenny Wilkens, was removed from his post as head coach. Bickerstaff was left to try to restore a franchise that even the eighth-winningest coach in NBA history up to that point couldn't deal with.
His first season saw no improvement. Or did it? While the SuperSonics' record remained unchanged under Bickerstaff, the team definitely progressed. Under Wilkens, the 1984-85 Sonics had a point differential of -5.5. With Bickerstaff, even if it didn't result in more wins, that margin was trimmed down to a mere -0.1. As well, improvements were made on both ends of the court. In terms of Offensive Rating, the team rose from 22nd (out of 23) to 15th, and in terms of Defensive Rating, they went from 13th to 10th.
The improved play of the Sonics did not go unnoticed in Bickerstaff's first season. The great Pat Riley, who was coaching the L.A. Lakers then, said after a game, "They have turned into one heck of a tough team. Bernie's done a great job."
So even if the record didn't look better, a culture and identity had been instilled by Bickerstaff that could make one believe that the Sonics were on their way up. However, in a league judged simply by wins and losses, this wasn't enough. During the offseason, great changes were made; among them, the trade of seven-time All-Star Jack Sikma.
When the 1986-87 seasons started, only three players remained on the roster from the previous season. Because of that, the legendary coach Red Auerbach forecasted a gloomy season in Seattle. Not only did he project the Sonics to finish last in the Pacific, he even went as far as to say they were hardly better than a Continental Basketball Association team. Not many coaches could succeed with a team that draws a comment like that. But Bernie Bickerstaff could.
Though 39-43, the record the team finished with, was nothing to brag about, it clearly exceeded the expectations put down by the coaching legend. In that sense, the SuperSonics, and Bickerstaff, had already "won." Most importantly though, 39 wins was good enough to make the playoffs, and it was in the playoffs that year that moral victories were pushed aside for actual victories. It was the 1987 playoffs that would cement Bickerstaff's name in Seattle history.
The Sonics were heavy underdogs just by virtue of being the seventh seed. However, adding to that was the fact that their opponent was the Dallas Mavericks, who finished at 55-27. During the regular season, the two teams had met five times, with Dallas sweeping the series, winning by an average of 18.6 points per game. The Sonics looked like they had no chance of winning, and their hopes of winning looked even bleaker after a 129-151 wallop in Game 1.
After the thrashing, Bickerstaff had a chance to show his coaching prowess. He put in a crucial defensive switch that turned the series around. Rather than have power forward Tom Chambers try to chase long-distance shooter and big man Sam Perkins around the perimeter, he put the quicker small forward Xavier McDaniel on him instead, and matched Chambers up with Mark Aguirre. The move worked wonders and the Sonics would win the next three games, including a 26 point win to clinch the series.
The Sonics made history by becoming the first #7 seed to make it past the first round. But that wasn't enough. Up next was the Houston Rockets, the defending Western Conference champions. One could say that Houston was the team of the future, the heir to the Lakers' throne out west. Bickerstaff wasn't buying it. The team won in six games and made it to the NBA's final four. Unceremoniously, the season ended with a sweep at the hands of the Lakers. Still, the Sonics made a name for themselves and amazed a nation. Bickerstaff became the sort of savior Seattle was looking for.
While Seattle couldn't replicate the tale of the 1987 Sonics, they did continue to improve. 1988 saw a four win increase to 44-38 but a first round exit. In the 1988-89 season, despite having lost Tom Chambers to free agency, Bickerstaff actually kept the team together and they improved. Three more wins put them at 47-35, and they made it a step further in the playoffs, losing in the Semifinals.
The 1989-90 season saw the team fall to 41-41 and miss the playoffs, but considering the 40 combined missed games between Dale Ellis and McDaniel, it's a credit to Bickerstaff that he managed to keep the team afloat and competitive.
In his five seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics, Bickerstaff stopped a slide that the franchise was going through. Every single team that Bickerstaff coached played at least how one would expect them to play, or in the case of the 1986-87 team, significantly better. Along with Lenny Wilkens and George Karl, Bickerstaff is the only other coach to take the Sonics to the NBA Finals. I think most of us would agree that when he stepped down as coach, no one had a sour taste in their mouth.
Russell, McMillan, and Bickerstaff are not the perfect coaches. Just taking a look at their records, they don't stand out in any way, shape, or form. At times, one might have even wondered if they were the right coaches for the team. Yet, Seattle was lucky to have them.
When each of these three men took the mantle of Head Coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, they were put into a challenging situation. They were assigned to bring back the winning ways of the team. While they couldn't bring the city to the Promise Land, they took the team to a level that they hadn't experienced in recent history. Given what they had, they made the SuperSonics winners again.