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.
In two games last week Dennis Johnson, the team's leading scorer, missed 15 of 21 shots. In the fading seconds of a brutally tight game in Detroit, first Johnson traveled and then Fred Brown drop-kicked the ball out of bounds with no defender within six feet of either. And at New Jersey the team committed 14 turnovers in the first quarter. Nonetheless, Seattle came away with two cherished road victories, 94-93 and 102-81, because the speedy Williams—the third man in Seattle's rotating-guard system—quick-footed it to the rescue with 19 and 27 points.
"They know how to win on a bad night and that's why they're champions," said Piston Coach Dick Vitale, momentarily forgetting himself, which is not all bad when a man coaches the Pistons.
"Their confidence makes them 25 to 30% better than last year," said Net Coach Kevin Loughery.
On closer inspection, the Sonics are a fine blend of experience (Silas, called "35" by his teammates out of disrespect for his age, is in his 15th NBA season) and youth (LaGarde's infantile appearance gets him "carded" in drinking establishments); of jive and solidarity; of shooters, passers, rebounders and defenders. Especially defenders. Blocked shots by Sikma and Dennis Johnson helped save the Detroit game. Against the Nets, John Johnson and, again, Dennis Johnson, embarrassed the New Jersey scorers, Bernard King and John Williamson, by harassing them into a combined nine-for-33 shooting night. Above all, the Sonics are consummate role-players. What Silas says about newly acquired veteran Guard Dick Snyder holds true for all Sonics: "Dick knows how not to deviate from his role."
The most pleasant surprise of the young season is the role LaGarde has played in the middle. As a collegian at North Carolina, LaGarde was hard-pressed to draw attention from the likes of Mitch Kupchak, Walter Davis and Phil Ford. Then in his senior year he tore up his knee and missed the Tar Heels' run at the national championship (without him. they finished second). Several pro teams shied away from LaGarde because of the knee; probably only because Nugget Coach Larry Brown is a Carolina man did LaGarde wind up in Denver. But the knee never came around, and LaGarde suffered through a terrible season both mentally and physically.
"Basketball has always been a key to how I felt about myself," LaGarde says. "When I lost my quickness and jumping ability. I forgot how to play. I wasn't an athlete anymore. I felt I was nothing."
Seattle, which had obtained Webster from Denver the previous year, gave up its first-round draft choice for LaGarde, thinking of him as a backup for the Eraser. While Webster spent the summer contemplating Gulf + Western's zillions, LaGarde rehabilitated his knee. And he became a basketball player again, shocking the apprehensive Sonics with his talent. "I heard he wasn't a player," says Brown. "Imagine my surprise."
Not to mention the surprise of others who saw LaGarde outplay Webster in Madison Square Garden in a 120-109 victory or who witnessed his 32-point performance against San Antonio in a 133-117 romp.
LaGarde is a player. First of all, his perpetually blank, fishmouth expression hides a savvy mind and sharp instincts. Although LaGarde can hit the 12-foot jumper, he prefers to drive in close, where he is much quicker than most NBA centers. He is a deceptive shot-blocker. He has running and jumping skills similar to those of his college teammate, Kupchak, now a Washington Bullet. Wilkens says that on good legs LaGarde can be better than Kupchak.
"I see Tommy in the Dave Cowens mold," says Silas. "He does the same type of things. Great leaper. Nice touch. Intelligent. Aggressive. Unscared of anybody or anything inside. You got to like him. Tommy will be an outstanding player in this league for a long time."
"He's playing now the way everybody thought he could before the knee," says the Nets' Loughery.
Which is ironic simply because the Sonics are playing the way everybody thought they couldn't before Tom LaGarde.