Monday, August 30, 2010

Seattle Supersonics- Oklahoma City Thunder: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

Quick! Name a time when the Sonics/Thunder had NO top-flight talent. It’s pretty tough. Through the years, this has been one talent-laden franchise.

From Bob Rule and Mahdi Abdul-Rahman (better known as UCLA great Walt Hazzard), to Kevin Durant today, superb offensive talent and exciting play has been a hallmark of the Supersonics’ (now Thunder) franchise.

Despite missing the postseason in their first seven seasons, talent was not in short supply for the Sonics. In a rough 23-59 debut season, the 1967-68 Sonics boasted a solid man in the middle in Rule (18.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and a 24 ppg from Abdul-Rahman in his only season with the team.

The following season, Rule took his game to new heights as the Sonics welcomed star PG Lenny Wilkens, previously of the St. Louis Hawks. Wilkens’ outstanding play carried over to Seattle, as he averaged 22.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 8.2 apg in the first of his four seasons with the Sonics.

After one more excellent season, Rule’s run in Seattle came to a disappointing end, as injuries limited him to just 20 games over the next two seasons. However, Spencer Haywood was there to pick up the slack, after an awesome 30 ppg, 19.5 rpg rookie season in Denver. He was a double-double machine for the Sonics over the next five seasons, the last of which included the Sonics’ first-ever postseason trip.

The Haywood era also saw the end of the Wikens era, though the Supersonics did add a trio of talented guards during that stretch- “Downtown” Fred Brown in 1971, Slick Watts in 1973 and future Hall of Famer and 1979 Finals MVP Dennis Johnson before the 1976-77 season. The following year, Seattle added a pair of young stars- Gus Williams and Jack Sikma- who would combine with Brown and Johnson to spearhead runs to back-to-back Finals appearances and the NBA 1979 championship.

Williams joined the Sonics after two years with the Warriors, while Sikma was the eighth pick in the 1978 draft. Williams was a consistent offensive threat over the next six seasons, and Sikma became one of the NBA’s best centers of the late-1970s and 1980s, regularly averaging a double-double, and possessing a soft outside touch.

By the mid-1980s, while Sikma continued to anchor the middle, Williams was on his way out and a fading David Thompson had played out his last two seasons in Seattle. Unless they retooled quickly, the Sonics would become an also-ran contender.

Not to worry, more talent was on the way!

After acquiring Tom Chambers in 1983, the Sonics drafted rugged power forward Xavier McDaniel in 1985 and the following year- their first post-Sikma- traded for underutilized Mavericks’ two-guard, Dale Ellis. The trio clicked beautifully in their first seasons together, 1986-87, each averaging 20+ ppg and leading the Sonics to the 1987 conference finals.

While Chambers was gone by the start of the 1988-89 season, Ellis and McDaniel remained, holding down the fort until the arrival of the cornerstones for the next decade- Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. The Sonics completed their return to contender status by adding Detlef Schrempf via a trade in 1993.

This crew led the Sonics to four straight seasons of 57+ wins and the 1996 NBA Finals. However, by decade’s end, Kemp and Schrempf were gone and Payton, now the face of the franchise, was teamed with Vin Baker and rising star Rashard Lewis.

Roughly 30 games into the 2002-03 season, after nearly 1,000 games with the Sonics, Payton was traded, paving the way for a new wave of young stars to rule in Seattle. With Lewis now coming into his own, Payton was sent to Milwaukee in exchange for one of the NBA’s great shooters, Ray Allen.

After a rough 2006-07 season (31-51), luck smiled on the Sonics, as some friendly ping-pong balls and the “you can’t teach seven feet” adage landed the franchise one of this generation’s deadliest scorers, Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, Seattle sent Ray Allen (and his $14+ million salary) to Boston in exchange for Jeff Green and some cheap filler. Also, after becoming a regular 20 ppg scorer, Lewis left as a free agent for Orlando, signing a monstrosity (albatross?) of a $120 million free agent deal.

The Sonics struggled in 2007-08, but Green and (especially) Durant showed themselves to be more-than-capable of excelling in the NBA. After a couple of tough years, things were looking up in Seattle.

Not so fast!

In one of the NBA’s embarrassing chapters, Starbucks mogul, then-Sonics owner and then-Seattle icon, Howard Schultz, sold the franchise to Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett. Despite declarations of commitment to Seattle and claims that the team would not be relocated, Bennett and David Stern (Bennett’s buddy) tag-teamed to plunge a dagger into the heart of one of the NBA’s best fan bases. The next season, the former Seattle Sonics took the floor as the Oklahoma City Thunder.

What’s happened since? Not much.

Durant’s averaged 25 and 30 ppg in the past two seasons, and become the youngest scoring champion in league history. Meanwhile the Thunder added stud PG Russell Westbrook in the 2009 draft and have since become one of the NBA’s most likable teams and a budding title contender.

Sorry Seattle!

PG- Gary Payton (18.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 7.3 apg, 2.1 spg in 947 games)

As you read on about this franchise, get used to the following term: this was one competitive spot.

You want proof? Dennis Johnson- one of the game’s best-ever defensive guards, two-time All-Star (with Seattle), a champion and the MVP of 1979 Finals- barely warrants a mention here.

Why? Because it’s tough to overcome a top-15 all-time PG that played nearly 1,000 over 12+ seasons for the franchise, and was every bit Johnson’s equal defensively.

And that’s not even the only guy ahead of him here!

The line of standout Sonics’ point guards began in 1968, when Lenny Wilkens arrived from the St. Louis Hawks. He was 31 years old and an eight-year veteran, but Wilkens was by no means on the downside of his career. In fact, Wilkens’ first season in Seattle was the best of his career, as he averaged 22.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 8.2 apg and was named to the first of three straight All-Star teams as a Supersonic.

Had he enjoyed greater team success or spent more of his career in Seattle, this spot could have shaken out differently.

Wilkens played 308 games for the Sonics, averaging 19.5 ppg, 5 rpg and 9 apg, but was unable to lead the team to the postseason berth. However, it is worth noting that the Sonics’ win total increased in each of Wilkens’ four seasons- from 30, to 36, 38 and finally 47 in 1971-72.

Oh, and by the way…. His last three seasons in Seattle, Wilkens not only played, but coached the team as well.

Later in the decade, the Sonics added young PG- maybe not a pure PG, but lead guard- Gus Williams from Golden State. Williams made an immediate impact in Seattle, averaging 18.1 ppg and 19.2 ppg in his first two seasons and teaming with Johnson, Jack Sikma and Fred Brown to produce back-to-back Finals appearances.

In the second of those seasons, 1978-79, Williams was the primary offensive threat out of the backcourt for the Sonics’ title-winner. In addition to averaging 19.1- 3.2- 4 in the regular season, “The Wizard” was exceptional in Seattle championship run. He averaged 26.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg and 3.7 apg and 2 spg in 17 postseason games. In six postseason appearances with the Sonics, Williams averaged 23.4 ppg or better five times, averaged at least 5.6 apg three times and was regularly good for 2+ steals per game.

His best seasons in Seattle came after the 1979 title run. Williams averaged 22.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4.8 apg and 2.4 spg in 1979-80. After missing the 1980-81 season, Williams posted a 23.4- 3.1- 6.9 and was named to the All-NBA First Team in 1981-82, and averaged 20 ppg, 8 apg and nearly 3 spg in his 1982-83 All-Star campaign.

In 477 games with the Sonics, Williams, the second best PG in franchise history, averaging 20.3 ppg, 3 rpg 6 apg and 2.3 spg.

That brings us to Gary Payton, the greatest player in franchise history. In his 12 full seasons with the franchise (11 as a starter), the Sonics finished .500 or better every year, appeared in the postseason ten times, reached the conference finals twice and came within two wins of the 1996 NBA title.

While with the Sonics, GP earned a pair of First Team All-NBA selections (All-NBA Second Team five times) and cemented his place among the greatest defensive players in history of game, with nine consecutive All-Defensive First Team selections (1994–2002) and the 1996 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

GP is the franchise’s all-time leader in points (17,123), assists (6,925) and steals (2,014), and ranks in the top three in games played (947) and rebounds (3,992). Among Seattle PGs, Payton ranks third scoring average and second in assists per game. During his prime, Payton was not only exceptionally productive, but as any point guard in the NBA.

From 1994-95 through 2001-02, Payton averaged between 19.2 and 24.2 ppg, between 7.1 and 9 apg and earned eight All-Star selections (there was no All-Star Game in 1999).

In terms of swagger, team success and individual brilliance at both ends of the floor, Gary Payton’s time at the point in Seattle is tough to top.

SG- Fred Brown (14.6 ppg, 3.3 apg, 1.2 spg 85.8% FT in 963 games)

This spot features a pair of outstanding scorer that happen to be two of the greatest outside shooters in NBA history- each of whom averaged at least 20.8 ppg and made at least 38.6% of their 3-pointers.

How then, did both Ray Allen (24.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 4.2 apg in 296 games) and Dale Ellis (20.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg 41% 3-pt in 451 games) miss out on this spot?

Well, what Fred Brown lacked in individual excellence, he made up for with consistent, very good play, an outstanding two-year peak and exceptional loyalty to a single franchise.

Brown played every one of his 963 career games with the Sonics (a franchise record and 214 more than Allen and Ellis combined), averaged double-digit points for 11 straight seasons, 16.5+ ppg for five straight years (including 21+ twice) and captained the only championship team in history.

While much of Brown’s career can be described as solid-but-unspectacular, he was outstanding in 1974-75 and 1975-76, when he posted 21 ppg and 4.2 and 23.1- 4.2, respectively, and was selected to the 1976 All-Star team.

Brown’s 14,018 points are good for second in franchise history, as are his career totals for FG attempted (12,568) and FG made (6,006). His career assist (3,160) and steal (1,149) totals rank third.

From the perspective of individual greatness, Dale Ellis- who came in a close second- takes the top spot here. Ellis was one of the best scoring two-guards of the late 1980s and a sharpshooter that was ahead of his time. He was one of the great shooters ever and was a bona fide 3-point threat before the widespread adoption of the 3-ball.

Ellis spent six full seasons with the Sonics- his four-year prime and a pair of seasons in his late 30s- and made less than 37.5% of his 3-pointers just once, and twice topped 45%. However, not only was Ellis a sharpshooter, but between 1986-87 and 1989-90 he was as prolific a scorer as there was in the NBA.

During those four seasons, Ellis averaged between 23.5 and 27.5 ppg, finished in the top eight in scoring average three times (including third in 1988-89), was named an All-Star in 1989 and played for three postseason teams, including the Sonics’ 1987 Western Conference Finals squad.

Despite two seasons late in his career that drove down the average, Ellis’ 20.8 ppg ranks fourth in career scoring average for the Sonics. Meanwhile he ranks second in 3-point percentage (41.7%), his 699 made 3-pointers rank fourth in Sonics’ history, while his 9,403 points are good for seventh.

Also deserving a mention here is another of game’s great shooters, Ray Allen. For his work in Seattle, Allen finishes an equally close, and somewhat hard-luck, third. Allen raised his scoring averaged each of his last three seasons in Seattle (23 ppg, to 23.9, 25.1 and 26.4 in 2006-07) and ranks second in franchise history in scoring average (24.6 ppg). He never hit fewer than 37% of his 3-pointers or 88.3% of his free throws, topping 90% three times. Allen was named an All-Star in each of his four seasons in Seattle (2004- 2007).

While that’s a fantastic resume, the fact that Allen spent just four years in Seattle and finished below .500 three times made it impossible to place him above either Fred Brown or Dale Ellis.

SF- Kevin Durant (25.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.2 spg 88.1% FT in 236 games)

Another pretty stacked group. Not a whole lot of defensive stops here, but man can these guys fill it up.

Durant is arguably Seattle/OKC’s best-ever forward and already one of the two or three best players in franchise history. I could have made the “Durant will be here soon enough” case and gone with someone with a heftier resume, but there already NO doubt that KD’s the best basketball player ever to play the “3” for this franchise.

Assuming he stays healthy, Durant’s as big a threat to virtually every NBA scoring record as we’ve seen since Jordan- and frankly, Durant’s incredible length and 30-foot range make that a legitimate debate.

He shoots near-50% from the field, hits virtually 90% of his free throws and is a safe bet to regularly hit 40% on his 3-pointers. He’s an All-Star, the youngest scoring champion in NBA history and is now a perennial MVP candidate for at least the next decade. Durant’s improved his game each season he’s been in the league (scoring’s gone from 20.3, to 25.3, to 30.1; rebounding: 4.4, to 6.5, to 7.6) and anyone’s who’s read the guy’s tweets knows he’s not stopping now.

Durant holds the franchise mark for scoring average and, after just three seasons, he’s eighth among forwards in franchise history in points (5,967) and would jump to fourth in 2010-11 with 2,164 points (26.4 ppg; barring injury, pretty much a lock). If he’s able to replicate his awesome 2009-10 season, he’d jump to third, trailing only Shawn Kemp and Rashard Lewis.

In franchise history, Durant’s currently 16th in scoring but will likely jump to eighth or ninth following the coming season and could very realistically crack the top three the following year.

On top of everything he’s accomplished statistically, he is by all accounts a fantastic teammate and has embraced his role as the leader of the up-and-coming Thunder. And that’s not just lip service. How many 21 year-olds (yeah, he won’t be 22 until September 29) superstars spend their offseason as an unofficial summer league coach? I can’t name another one.

Kevin Durant’s one of the best young players to enter the NBA in many years, and was impossible to overlook here.

Looking back, prior to Durant, this franchise has boasted an elite (or near-elite) small forward in each of the past three decades.

The first in this line is Tom Chambers, who was acquired from the San Diego Clippers prior to his third NBA season. In 393 games in Seattle, Tom Chambers averaged 20.4 ppg and 6.6 rpg and made 46.9% of his FG attempts. Chambers spent five seasons in Seattle, never averaged less than 18 ppg (20+ three times), was named an All-Star in 1987, scored 34 points to win the All-Star MVP on his home floor and in 1986-87 averaged 23.3 (joining Dale Ellis and Xavier McDaniel in averaging 20+ ppg) as the Sonics reached the conference finals.

Next up is Detlef Schrempf, who was acquired from the Indiana Pacers in the summer of 1993. Schrempf was one of the NBA’s best all-around frontcourt players in the 1990s, and a model of consistency with the Sonics. In six seasons, he averaged 16.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 4 apg. While his stats in Seattle fell short of those with the Pacers, Schrempf was named an All-Star twice as a Sonic and was a central figure in the franchise’s string of 55-win teams in the 1990s and the 1996 Western Conference Champs.

Finally, there’s Rashard Lewis, perhaps the most statistically accomplished forward in franchise history, but at the bottom of the list of players considered for this spot. Lewis played in 617 games over nine seasons in Seattle, averaging 16.6 ppg and 5.8 rpg and hitting 38.6% of his 3-pointers. An All-Star in 2005, Lewis ranks fourth in franchise history, and first among forwards, with 10,251 points, and holds the franchise mark for 3-points made (973). Despite a slow start to his career, Lewis consistently improved during his time in Seattle, averaging at least 18.1 ppg in every season in which he played at least 2,600 minutes.

However, despite his solid offensive game and excellent outside shot, Lewis failed to ever make a lasting impact on the franchise, had no reputation for making his teammates better (1.9 career apg; yikes!), played for just one 50-win team and severely underperformed his regular season numbers in two of three playoff appearances.

PF- Shawn Kemp (16.2 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 1.2 spg in 625 games)

Before making any jokes about the NBA’s God of Fertility, let’s a take a moment and remember “Rain Man.”

Statistically, Kemp’s actually the third best power forward in Sonics’ history, but no one at his position has had the same impact on the franchise- and during one of its most memorable and successful periods. He will, for years to come, be remembered as one of NBA history’s most spectacular and athletic big men.

Kemp entered the NBA at age 20, out of Trinity Valley CC in Kentucky, though he’d not played competitive basketball since his last year of high school. After seeing fewer than 15 minutes/game of floor time as a rookie, Kemp came into his own in 1990-91, averaging 15 ppg and 8.4 rpg in 30 mpg- this would be the last time Kemp failed to average a double-double for the Sonics.

Over the next six seasons, Kemp averaged no worse than 15.5 ppg and 10 rpg, putting up 18.1- 10.8 or better three times. Also, for six consecutive seasons, Kemp improved his averages in both scoring and rebounding. As a result, Kemp earned himself three straight All-NBA Second Team selections (1994-96) and a trip to the All-Star Game in each of his last five seasons with the team.

Among Sonics’ forwards, no one’s played more games for the franchise than Kemp’s 625, only Rashard Lewis has scored more points (by 103) than Kemp’s 10,148. Kemp also holds the franchise marks among forwards in steals (775) and the franchise record for blocked shots (959). Also, no forward is within 2,000 rebounds of Kemp’s 5,978- second in Sonics’ history to Jack Sikma.

During Kemp’s eight years, the Sonics appeared in the postseason seven times, posted five consecutive 55-wins seasons- including the first two 60-win seasons in franchise history- made a pair of trips to the conference finals and appeared in the 1996 Finals, falling to Michael Jordan’s 72-win Bulls in six games.

However, as much as any quantifiable achievement, Kemp earned this spot for perfectly personifying the teams on which he played. For much of the 1990s, Kemp joined forces with Gary Payton to give the Sonics a swagger that bordered on arrogance. The duo formed perhaps the most spectacular PG- big man fast break combo in NBA history. The Payton-to-Kemp ally-oop was- and will always be- one of the great connections in NBA history.

Shawn Kemp shares this spot with Spencer Haywood- the franchises first great PF- and Xavier McDaniel- his immediate predecessor.

For five years in the 1970s, Haywood ranked as Seattle’s best frontcourt player. In 326 games with the franchise, he averaged 24.9 ppg and 12.1 rpg- both first in franchise history- was selected to four consecutive All-Star teams and a pair of All-NBA Teams. Haywood was consistently excellent with Sonics, averaging at least 20.6 ppg each season (with a high of 29.2 in 1972-73) and grabbing 12 rpg or better in four of five seasons.

However, despite playing for a pair of better-than-.500 teams, Haywood’s Sonics reached the postseason just once, in 1974-75, falling in six games to the eventual champion Warriors in the conference semifinals. That this season coincided with one of Haywood’s worst in Seattle, and the fact that he managed just 15.7 ppg and 9 rpg in nine playoff games with the Sonics, certainly counted against him. Spencer Haywood’s stellar statistics are undone by his unremarkable team record and postseason underperformance.

Like Haywood, Xavier McDaniel, the fourth pick in the 1985 draft, spent five full seasons with the Supersonics and was a consistent and hard-nosed offensive player, though something of an underperformer on the glass.

As a rookie in 1985-86, “X” started every game for Seattle and averaged 17.1 ppg and 8 rpg. This was good for second in the Rookie of the Year voting (behind Patrick Ewing) and an All-Rookie First Team selection.

From both an individual and a team perspective, his second season, 1986-87, was his best in the NBA. That year, McDaniel, along with Dale Ellis and Tom Chambers, formed a trio of 20 ppg scorers. In 1986-87, McDaniel averaging 23 ppg and 8.6 rpg- both career highs- as the Supersonics made the Western Conference Finals.

McDaniel spent another three seasons in Seattle, averaging at least 20.5 ppg each year, was named an All-Star in 1988 and made the playoffs twice. However, his rebounding dipped following his second season, as McDaniel failed to come within 2 rpg of his 1986-87 total, and his Sonics’ teams failed to make another major impact in the postseason.

C- Jack Sikma (16.8 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 3.3 apg in 715 games)

One of the most accurate shooting big men in NBA history. He regularly shot better than 85% from the free throw line and (later in his career, while in Milwaukee) remains the only center in league history to lead the league in free throw percentage (92.2% in 1987-88).

The eighth overall pick in the 1977 draft, Sikma was named to the NBA All-Rookie Team in 1979, after playing every game as a rookie and averaging a solid 10.7 ppg and 8.3 rpg. Sikma would go on to average double-double in his next seven seasons with the Supersonics.

While most fans remember Sikma in his later days as an outside threat with the Milwaukee Bucks, he was a force on the glass early in his career. On two occasions (1981-82 & 1983-84) Sikma led the league in defensive rebounds.

Beginning in his second pro season, Sikma earned All-Star selections in seven consecutive seasons (1979- 1985). In each of those seasons Sikma was good for at 14.3 ppg and 10.4 rpg, averaged better than 17- 10 six times and put up better than 18- 11 in three seasons.

In his rookie season, Sikma helped lead the Sonics to 47 wins and averaged 13.7 ppg and 8.1 rpg during the team’s run to the 1978 NBA Finals. While the Sonics fell to Bullets in seven games in his first year, Sikma anchored Seattle only title-winning team in just his second season. That season- his first as an All-Star- Sikma teamed with Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown to capture the 1978-79 crown.

Though he last played for the franchise 25 years ago, Sikma remains the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds (7,729) and FT made (3,044), and no center in franchise history played half as many games in the middle for the Sonics as Sikma’s 715. He’s also second in Sonics’ history in rebounds per game (10.8 rpg) and blocked shots (705), and third in FG made (4,493).

Also deserving a mention here is the first- and only other- star center in franchise history, Bob Rule. Rule played three seasons (1967-68- 1969-70; he was injured and played just 20 games in the next two) for the Sonics, averaging 21.4 ppg and 10 rpg in 264 games. After a solid 18- 10 rookie season, Rule next two seasons were his best as a pro, as averaged 24.3 ppg, 10.9 rpg and was selected to the 1970 All-Star team.

As the centerpiece of an expansion franchise, Rule wasn’t part of a great deal of team success, winning just 89 games in his three healthy seasons. Had his health allowed him to enjoy a longer, more successful prime in Seattle, Rule would have warranted serious consideration here, and not just an honorable mention.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fun article. I think a few other players deserve mention here. At center, Marvin Webster was only here for one year but he played magnificently. Without him the young Sonics of 77-78 wouldn't have gone to the finals thereby gaining the confidence and cohesion they needed to win it all in 79. Even though he wasn't a spectacular shooter, At shooting guard, Dennis Johnson had more impact on the franchise than Allen or Ellis. Without him Seattle wouldn't have it's lone championship. He may not have scored 20 points but you could pencil him in for 17 to 19, along with 6 or 7 rebounds, a couple of steals all while he played lockdown D. Which leads us to his team mate John Johnson at small forward. The list just isn't complete without him. During the four years starting in 77 when the Sonics were considered true contenders, Johnson was a point forward who ran the half court offense. He was a stellar defender, solid rebounder, superb passer in both the set game and on the break, and he could score well enough to merit tight defense to be played on him. At power forward, Lonnie Shelton and Paul Silas should get at least honorable mention at power forward. I would also give Tom Meschery a bit of praise as the team's first true enforcer. Despite their unimpressive states, they were so physical and so instrumental in anchoring the team's interior D. Finally, Mr. Sonic, Nate MacMillian was one of the best "utility" players in franchise history. He could play both guard spots as well as small forward.