Sonics belong on list of NBA's best teams. Seattle has the talent to match any club's, plus a superb teacher-coach in Lenny Wilkens
Los Angeles — For whatever it's worth in mid-January, the three best teams in the National Basketball Association this season are the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics, and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. All that needs to be added are the words: although not necessarily in that order.
However, there is enough hard evidence around to suggest that one should not overlook the Seattle SuperSonics, who are well coached, well balanced, and well organized. In fact Seattle, if you remember, opened the 1982-83 season with 12 consecutive victories, seven of which came on the road.
The problems the Sonics have been having lately are not due to a lack of talent, but because of injuries to several key players, including the team's all-purpose center Jack Sikma. Although Sikma is not quite as good a rebounder as Moses Malone, he has in this writer's opinion gone past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish as an all-around, offensive-defensive player.
''As of this moment, I don't think Seattle overall is as good a team as Philadelphia, Boston, or Los Angeles,'' Sikma told me during a stopover in LA. ''But I think we can be by the time the playoffs start in May. To do that we're going to need a more dependable and a more experienced bench.
''Actually I shouldn't have said that,'' Jack continued. ''It's not fair for me or anyone else to put that much burden on our bench, which has been doing a good job. But we do have some kids back there, and how much they are able to learn in our remaining games is probably going to determine how well we do in the playoffs.''
Seattle, which has one of the top coaches in the NBA in Lenny Wilkens, often plays some of the best defense in the league. Perhaps Wilkens's greatest strength as a coach is that he played pro basketball himself for nine years and knows all the tricks.
Lenny doesn't coach so much as he teaches, and with young players who are willing to listen that can produce all kinds of unexpected dividends. He is also good at matchups - that curious area of coaching where an opponent's offensive stars can sometimes be held below their scoring averages by the aggressiveness of certain defensive players. The trick is to know which of your players can do this effectively.
Wilkens, who is too smart to get pulled into any serious discussion of whether Philadelphia, Boston, or Los Angeles is the NBA's top team, did say that he thinks everybody is impressed with the 76ers. But like any coach who has been around for a while, he knows that the playoffs (even with Malone in Philadelphia's lineup) often turn out to be unpredictable.
''When everybody on the Sonics is healthy, I think our starting five can compete with any team in the NBA,'' Lenny said. ''But when you look at our bench we're basically a young team that too often, in its enthusiasm to play well, ends up turning the ball over. By the end of the season, I hope we will have learned enough so that we won't keep repeating our mistakes.''
Although Sikma is the Sonics' key player (because he gets them the ball), Wilkens has the prototype power forward in 250-pound Lonnie Shelton, who might well have made it as a linebacker in the NFL if he had been so inclined. Lenny also has a clever small forward in Danny Vranes, plus help off the bench up front from Greg Kelser.
There isn't a starting guard in the league who can do more things than Gus Williams, and running with Williams in the backcourt is David Thompson, whose 44 -inch vertical leap from a standing position is probably still unmatched on this planet.
Thompson, who had a lot of personal problems before coming to the Sonics from Denver in an off-season trade, was averaging close to 20 points a game until he was injured. David is an early candidate for NBA Comeback Player of the Year honors.
''Until last year, Denver always gave me as much floor time as I wanted,'' Thompson explained. ''Even in games when my shooting rhythm wasn't there at the beginning, they always stayed with me until I got my offense going.
''They knew that eventually I'd be good for a lot of points and I knew it, too. But when the Nuggets switched to a new offense last season, they changed my role so completely that I ended up coming off the bench. And I'm always going to be a better player starting than I would be as a substitute.''
Before so many of their players started missing games with injuries, Seattle had the best road record of any NBA team this season - always a strong recommendation when rating possible giant killers in the playoffs.