Lenny Wilkens is a skinny little man with no jump shot and a hairstyle by Dagwood Bumstead. He plays guard with one hand—his left—better than all but a few other pros do with two. "Lenny plays his position the way it should be played," says Chicago Coach Dick Motta. "There are a few other guards around who are more dangerous, but when it comes down to playing the position, to knowing what should be done and how to do it, Lenny's my standard."
In his previous 12 NBA seasons Wilkens has sometimes averaged 20 points a game, just as he is doing this year, or led the NBA in assists, or been named the Most Valuable Player in the All-Star Game. But none of those achievements reflect his value. The word that Wilkens' current coach, Bill Fitch of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and many of Lenny's opponents use most often in discussing him is "professional." It is an attribute not easily found these days among the many players who like to think of themselves as pros even while they go one-on-one to the basket and the bank. Meanwhile, Wilkens sticks quietly and expertly to the most guardly of virtues, the direction of a team's activities on the floor. He can dribble through a brier patch. He knows the perfect pass to make and, perhaps more important, realizes that most often it need not be a fancy one. He picks the proper moments to shoot one of his feathery hooks off the drive or to pull back for an old-fashioned, one-hand set shot. Best of all, he has the ability to pace a game, to enforce a tempo so adroitly that nine larger and meaner men—foes as well as friends—often end up playing to the rhythm set by the player the Cavs call The Little Fella.
Consequently, the measure of Wilkens' effectiveness is not found in his statistics, although his numbers this season (20.9 points and eight assists a game, and a $100,000-plus salary) are worth measuring. The only accurate gauge of a playmaker's success must be drawn from his team's record, and rarely has the value of a guard's guard been as clearly delineated as in the cases of Wilkens' two clubs.
One of them is the Seattle SuperSonics, the team for which he had played the past four seasons, which he had coached the last three and which unceremoniously shipped him out of town late in August. During his tenure the Sonics progressed from awful to artful. Last spring Seattle finished with a 47-35 record, its first over .500, and was widely regarded as the most promising young team in the NBA. Seattleites certainly thought so. They came to games at an average rate of 11,107, many of them apparently out of love for Lenny, whose absence has contributed to an 18% attendance drop.
His departure also has left the Sonics flying as low as the SST. They may not win more than 25 games, and Tom Nissalke, the coach hired to replace Wilkens, has been fired. Seattle's two remaining quality players, Forward Spencer Haywood and Guard Dick Snyder, obviously miss The Little Fella. Snyder is now too often left out of the action altogether while Haywood is in it too much. Without Wilkens around to set him up inside, Haywood has been coming outside to get the ball and trying to blast his way back in toward the basket one-on-one.
In their first season, 1970-71, the Cavaliers won only 15 games. A year ago solid coaching by Fitch and steady performances by some young players, particularly Center Rick Roberson, Forward John Johnson and Guard Austin Carr, resulted in 23 wins. This year Cleveland scored its 23rd victory with 20 games remaining and are hopefully battling the Houston Rockets for third place in the Central Division with a 25-46 record.
In the bad old days Cleveland's set offense consisted of five men standing around taking a vote on where the first pass from the guard would go. This time-consuming procedure usually left the 24-second clock ticking perilously close to zero as someone threw up a shot from near half court. Now the attack is crisper, although the fact that they are the league's worst group of shooters—the complexities of the layup seem to elude them—tends to undermine the good execution of plays.
Wilkens' value to the Cavs extends beyond directing set plays. "I think John Johnson described it best when he said that last year we were like a family of five kids out on the floor without a father," says Fitch. "We're still using basically the same offense we've had since the team's first year, but now if it breaks down, Lenny will make a play. A play-maker isn't a guy who simply runs patterns for you. He's the guy who can make things happen when the set things haven't panned out. When the clock gets down to five or six seconds, he'll go to one of the basics—one-on-one, pick-and-roll, pass-and-cut. And he'll make 'em work."
"I think the big thing Lenny's done for us is all head stuff," says Carr. "Take the fast break, for example. If you're in the middle with the ball and your center is filling one lane and he's going full blast, you shouldn't give him the ball because he's not used to handling it in that sort of circumstance. You should wait until he's at the basket before you throw it so he's in his customary position. Lenny does that."
Wilkens' arrival in Cleveland was precipitated by a series of events that began last spring when the Seattle ownership told him to choose between playing and coaching. He decided to remain in uniform and told his employers they could expect his full loyally to the new coach. In return, he felt he had been assured he would not be traded. During the summer trade rumors buzzed through Seattle and he again asked if he would be shipped out. The answer, says Lenny, was no.