You can generally learn something about an NBA team by the kind of meetings it holds when it's losing. Four years ago, for example, the Seattle Super-Sonics, in the midst of a losing streak, had a meeting that turned into such an emotional bloodletting that one player threatened in a quavering voice to quit the team. The guy decided to stay around, the air was cleared, and the Sonics went on to win the NBA championship, beating the Washington Bullets in five games.
Last week the Sonics were back in Washington, but this time they were humiliated 99-86 for their 12th loss in 14 games. It was the Sonics' most feeble offensive performance of the season—an 89-88 defeat at the hands of the inept Cleveland Cavaliers two nights later was a new low of a different kind—and afterward a meeting of sorts was called. In the visitors' locker room at the Capital Centre, the site of their greatest professional triumph, Gus Williams, Lonnie Shelton and Fred Brown, all important cogs on the 1979 championship team, wanted to quietly discuss the Sonics' chaotic offense. The locker room was crowded with players and reporters, so the three retreated to the only private place that was left, an unoccupied stall in the bathroom. In looking for Seattle's lost attack, they'd come to the right place, because in only half a season, the Sonics have gone from la cr√®me to latrine.
After opening the year with 12 consecutive victories, the best start by an NBA team in 25 years, Seattle has gone 13-20 for a 25-20 overall record at week's end, good for only fourth in the Pacific Division, 10 games behind the leading Lakers. And although the Sonics were hurt by injuries to Guard David Thompson and Center Jack Sikma, the slide began before either went down and continued after both returned. Seattle's roller-coaster performance has probably been the dizziest such ride in league history. Which is probably why owner Sam Schulman blasted his team two weeks ago, saying, "Everyone is on the trading block, and I mean everyone. If we're going to lose, I'd rather lose with a $2 million payroll than a $4 million payroll."
Most of the Sonics now regard their 12-0 start as a fluke. "That winning streak was probably the worst thing that could have happened to us," says Thompson, the newest Sonic. "When we lost those first two games badly [New Jersey cut the Seattle string 111-91 on Nov. 21, and three days later Los Angeles buried the Sonics 111-93], some of the guys began to believe that we weren't that good after all. During the streak we had always found ways to win. But when it was over we stopped playing to win and started playing not to lose."
Unlike many NBA teams, the Sonics don't have a player capable of taking charge in the crunch and making sure that Seattle gets the most out of its talent, which is among the best in the league. Coach Lenny Wilkens insists that Sikma is the Sonics' leader, but Sikma hardly seems to welcome the role. "There hasn't been that inner strength we need to get out of the rut," he says. "I don't know if we know how to get better. I don't know if we even have a clue."
Seattle hasn't really had a leader since Forward Paul Silas retired after the 1979-80 season, and though Wilkens is an extremely capable coach, he's not noted for his forceful personality. "What we have is a bunch of very polite guys who don't want to offend anybody," says one Sonic, who asks not to be identified so as not to offend anybody.
Wilkens sought to shore up the Sonics' backcourt weaknesses with an off-season trade of defensive specialist Bill Hanzlik and a first-round draft choice to Denver for Thompson, who had been feuding with Nugget Coach Doug Moe. Wilkens believed that the only thing better than one terrific guard would be two, and he sneered at the doubters who said Williams and Thompson both needed the ball to be effective. "If you know the game of basketball," Wilkens said early in the season, "you know that David and Gus can play together."
And in the beginning they could. Through the first 12 games, Thompson, shooting 52.1%, averaged 21.1 points per game, Williams 19.4. The high point came when Thompson won a game at home, 108-107, with a 28-foot three-point shot as time expired in overtime against San Antonio. 'After I made that shot," Thompson says, "I was visible. I was no longer an exile from the Nuggets, I was a Sonic. It was like a rebirth." Thompson had proved that he played well with Williams and that he could play hard. In Denver he'd been accused of being a bad actor.
By the end of the winning streak, however, Thompson was experiencing pain from fluid that fills his right knee after every game. Shortly after Thanksgiving he underwent an arthroscopic exam, which revealed that he has traumatic arthritis in the knee and that his days as a Skywalker are numbered. Thompson attempted to come back soon after the exam, which involved minor surgery, during a stretch in mid-December when the Sonics were playing four games in five nights, and the results were disastrous. "That was a mistake," he says. "It seemed like my leg was real weak after that." As the Sonics began to lose more regularly, Thompson was wildly inconsistent, scoring 26 points as he did at Philadelphia on Jan. 21 and none two nights later at New Jersey.
Last week in Detroit, Wilkens brought Thompson off the bench for the first time all season in a 118-109 victory. Phil Smith started in his place. "I'm just trying to relax David until he can become a little more consistent," Wilkens said. Someone reminded Wilkens that Thompson, who had seven points in 20 minutes against the Pistons, had not been happy coming off the bench in Denver. "I think it's a different situation," Wilkens replied. "They put him on the bench and forgot him. I'm not going to forget him." The next night in Washington, Thompson played 10 minutes in the first half, scoring only two points, and didn't get into the action after that. "Everything started so well," Thompson said, "and now it seems like it's all come apart."
Since the streak, Thompson's offense has disappeared: His shooting accuracy from Nov. 21 through last week had plummeted to 43.8%, his scoring to 10.5 points per game. Meanwhile, as the Sonics sank further and further, Williams' breakaway baskets began to disappear. His field-goal percentage, 51.6% during the streak, has been 46% since. "With so many uncertainties, I think Gus became tentative," Brown says. "He felt that to control the offense he would have to slow it all down. That didn't help us." Wilkens, too, felt that Williams was suffering from the pressure of having to carry too much of the offensive load, a problem that became especially acute when Sikma, the 6'11" center, sprained his right ankle on Dec. 28 and was forced to miss seven games, all of which Seattle lost. Even Williams' old adversaries began to notice a change, now that he was trying to help make up for the loss of Sikma's offense. "It's different trying to set people up than just trying to score," the Lakers' Norm Nixon said. "Having Gus play the point may end up hurting his team."
The Sonics' lack of a true point guard—Williams is at his best roaming without the ball—is a sore spot with Wilkens. "Not having a point guard wasn't a problem when we won 12 in a row," he says. Smith, the erstwhile Warriors star, has been helpful because he runs the plays through more than one option, but he's nothing more than a stopgap.
After so many seasons as a power in the Pacific Division, the Sonics may have lost their self-esteem during the current collapse. Shelton says that, because of the losing, "teams disrespected us." Shelton knows this to be true because Maurice Lucas tried to undress him during a game in Phoenix in which the Sonics were blown out. "Yeah," Shelton says, "he pulled my shorts right up over my buns. Exposed something very private to me." Lucas probably did it because Shelton possesses the Mt. Everest of buns—one undresses them simply because they're there.
The unkindest—though deserved—cut may have been delivered two weeks ago by Julius Erving, who is usually the Doctor of Diplomacy. Philadelphia had Seattle down by 32 points before winning 130-117. Earlier that week the 76ers had struggled to beat the Cavaliers by eight. "Yes, there is irony there," Erving said. "Maybe Cleveland has a good future, while Seattle's future is questionable."
It's a question that is even in the minds of some of Seattle's players. "It really comes down to starting over now and seeing if we can become a team that can be in the hunt by playoff time," Sikma says. "I don't know if that's possible. Can we? I don't know. And when you don't know, you're already defeated."