In defiance of the law of gravity, the Seattle SuperSonics, whom you may recall as having soared nearly all the way up during last spring's NBA playoffs, have resolutely refused to come down. In fact, if early warnings are any indication, the entire Pacific Division—which appeared to be doomed to slide into the ocean, what with player defections, lineup changes, injured rock-and-roll drummers and the corpse of the Buffalo Braves polluting the neighborhood down in San Diego—seems once again to be head and goggles above the rest of the league.
Last week, for instance, there were the Los Angeles Lakers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Stormin' Norman Nixon enjoying a five-game home winning streak. There were the Golden State Warriors led by their new guard, John Lucas, enjoying a five-game road winning streak. And there was Lloyd (Prince of Mid-World)—or is it (All-Air)?—Free heaving in approximately 7,000 points for the San-Buffalo Clippers. The Clippers, who are in last place in the Pacific, had already won five games, or nearly as many as the first-place teams in the other divisions. Which merely adds luster to the Sonics' record. Seattle was 9-1 out of the box—and it plays nine of its next 11 games in the friendly un-confines of the Kingdome.
There are a number of ways to determine just how far the Sonics have come, now that they are clearly one of the best-coached, best-balanced and least-crazed units in professional basketball. One can compare them with the frantic and disorganized Bill Russell-coached teams or the Slick Watts teams, which were basically the same thing. One can point to last season at this time when the Sonics were 2-8 on the way to 5-17, which led to the coaching change from Bob Hopkins to Lenny Wilkens. Or one can even isolate on the NBA finals last June into which the Sonics, 42-18 under Wilkens, zoomed after defeating Los Angeles, Portland and Denver in the preliminary rounds.
When the Washington Bullets beat Seattle in the seventh game of the championship series, many felt that justice had been served, that the Sonics were merely a group of average players who had rallied around a monster center, Marvin Webster, and had happened to hit a hot spell at just the right time. Surely after the team lost free agent Webster, the Sonics would all return to journeymanhood and the franchise would disappear under one of Seattle's floating bridges.
Well, it has become evident that these Sonics are virtually the same as those Sonics, and Marvin Webster didn't make them, they made him. Winning all those games and advancing through all those playoff rounds built trust and respect and a mutual confidence that one man's leave-taking could not erase—even if that man was the Human Eraser himself.
"I wish Marvin well," Wilkens says of the departed Webster, "but the truth is, he was a luxury for us. We're playing better without him. We're quicker, we have more depth and flexibility. My biggest problem is convincing these guys they can't expect to walk out on the floor and just blow people out."
Put another way—specifically by Seattle's Dennis Johnson, the 6'4" defensive specialist who became a star in the playoffs—"What is the surprise? Everybody on this club made everybody else. I wouldn't have got to do what I got to do last spring without everybody getting in on it."
Needless to say, the Sonics are ecstatic about their two new players. With 6'10", 230-pound Tom LaGarde, who was an embarrassed cripple as a rookie at Denver last season, replacing Webster, and with 6'8", 245-pound Lonnie Shelton, who came out from New York as part of the compensation for Webster, filling in as a backup forward, the team doesn't miss a beat. Make that a beating. When 6'11", 230-pound Jack Sikma, last year's rookie find, thrashes around underneath with LaGarde and Shelton, the Sonic lineup appears to have been designed by some sadistic engineer out at Boeing.
Mainly because of this trio, plus veteran Paul Silas, the Sonics have averaged 51.4 rebounds a game and have by far the leading rebounding differential in the league. Primarily because of their defense—the Sonics are the only NBA team holding opponents under 100 points a game (95.8)—Seattle also is way ahead of the league in point differentials.
In their first six victories, the Sonics led an amazing 90% of the minutes played and were never behind in a fourth quarter. AH of this made the team so full of itself ("The Green Wave keeps rollin' over 'em," Gus Williams said) that the Sonics grew careless: they led 14-4 at San Diego before falling asleep and losing for the first—and only—time. Now they have become so confident they are winning in spite of themselves.