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Sonics return to Square 1

By Phil Elderkin / November 3, 1980



Los Angeles

The Seattle SuperSonics are about as good an example of the question "What have you don for me lately?" as any team in professional sports. Only a year ago the Sonics were the defending championsof the National Basketball Association. What they are right now, though, is a team in transition -- one that is struggling to regain its intensity on defense; its superiority on the boards; and its ability to play four strong periods of basketball.

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"While most people still have a tendency to think of Seattle as a veteran team, we've actually got four kids playing major roles for us," said Coach Lennie Wilkens after a recent loss to the Lakers here. "The result is that we often have combinations on the floor that haven't yet learned to work that well together.

"The ideal time to break in young players is when you're winning and you can pick spots for them," Wilkens continued. "In that framework they can get experience and learn from their mistakes without necessarily costing their team any victories.

"But when you are forced to give young players more responsibility than they can accept, you lose a lot of your continuity as a team, particularly on defense. Basically that is what has been happening to us."

Wilkens is also without his All-Star backcourt of previous years, the result of Dennis Johnson's being traded to the Phoenix Suns for Paul Westphal and Gus Williams still testing the free agent market.

Johnson, who is four years younger than Westphal, reportedly was considered expendable because he no longer cared to blend his talents with those of his teammates and because he seemed to think he owned the ball.

In addition, of course, the Sonics would be getting solid value in return in Westphal, a four-time NBA all-star who had become unhappy with his playing time in Phoenix. On paper it was the perfect trade because it solved both teams' problems with an exchange of name players. Or it would have if Westphal hadn't come up with a freak injury that has made his season a question mark.

Although Williams is one of the better two-way players in the league, neither Seattle nor any other NBA team seemed anxious to sign him when they heard his asking price, believed to be in the neighborhood of $900,000 a season.

However, there are rumors that the Sonics recently offered Gus $450,000 and a new Rolls Royce, plus a $250,000 no-interest loan that he would use to buy an oversize house lot in Seattle. But with no training camp and more than one-eight of the season already gone, Williams is probably going to have to make up his mind in a hurry.

The Sonics are instantly recognizable up front where Jack Sikma plays center between veteran forwards Lonnie Shelton and John Johnson -- and all three make things miserable for opposing teams on the boards.

But the reserves, with backup center Tom LaGarde lost to Dallas in the NBA expansion draft and Paul Silas now coaching the San Diego Clippers, are not nearly as reliable or mistakeproof, Silas was also the buffer between Lennie and his players that all coaches find they need.

In their place, the Sonics have been gambling with second-year forward James Bailey, who played only about 700 minutes as a rookie; and 7-2 center James Donaldson, who did his intimidating last year at Washington State. Rookie Bill Hanzlik has also played occasionally in pressure situations.

Because Williams never reported and because he wanted to keep Fred Brown, one of the best sixth men in the league in his familiar off-the-bench role, Wilkens decided to start Vinnie Johnson, a rookie last year, next to Westphal in the backcourt.

From a coaching standpoint, it was worth a try since Brown's ability to come in cold and lift a team offensively or defensively gave Seattle an extra dimension most clubs only dream about. But eventually, because of Johnson's inexperience, Brown has had to become a starter.

"Having to change Fred's role is probably the move I hated most," Wilkens said. "We're so used to having Freddie come in and expand whatever we're doing well that we just don't adjust to him not being there.

"I can't tell precisely when we're going to click as a team," Lennie said of his club which is struggling at the moment with a 5- 8 record. "But we have talent, and by the end of the season we will be among the leaders in our division."