Wilkens' greatness can't be ignored
By Sam Smith
Special to ESPN.com
Is Lenny Wilkens the best coach in NBA history?
Based on a highly unscientific survey among my colleagues here in ESPN cyberspace, Wilkens may be one of the poorest. Memories in sports are short, as Wilkens knows. Most of his players in the last decade at one time or another expressed surprise he'd played in the NBA.
Of course, he's a Hall of Fame player, though he never looked like one.
Lenny Wilkens is one of the best coaches in NBA history. Top five? Top 10? That's all arbitrary. But when anyone speaks about the best ever, Wilkens has to be among them.
He may even be the best.
The biggest knock against Wilkens always has been how few championships his teams have won, the total being one. It was with the Seattle SuperSonics in 1979 on a team led by Jack Sikma, Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Fred Brown. That's more than 20 years ago, and none of those players has been honored at Hall of Fame ceremonies yet. Not one of them was among the NBA's 50 greatest players list in 1996.
In fact, entering his 30th season of NBA coaching, the only top-50 player Wilkens has coached (except for Bill Walton through two injury-plagued half seasons at the beginning of his career) was Lenny Wilkens.
Wilkens is the all-time coaching wins leader without ever coaching a Hall of Fame player in his prime or at his best. It may be the most remarkable record in sports. It can be augued no one has done more with less in NBA history than Lenny Wilkens.
Wilkens has suffered in recent seasons because of the poor management of the Toronto Raptors. Star Vince Carter has been unable to become the leader the franchise expected, and the franchise made several poor personnel and financial decisions: Believing Hakeem Olajuwon had a career left, believing Antonio Davis was more than a good role player, believing Alvin Williams was a point guard and Jerome Williams was a starter. The franchise committed hundreds of millions of dollars, and it expected more results than its talent suggested was possible.
Who's better? Red Auerbach, who really was a better executive? Not only did he have Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, two of the best ever at their positions, but he had Hall of Famers coming off the bench.
Phil Jackson had Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal. Pat Riley had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Patrick Ewing. I would rank them higher than Wilkens if I were asked to since great players don't always win championships. Jerry Sloan had Karl Malone and John Stockton, Chuck Daly had Isiah Thomas, Billy Cunningham had Julius Erving and Moses Malone. Red Holzman had a starting five filled with Hall of Famers.
Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Ron Harper were nice players, although no one would mistake them for any of the above. That was a terrific team Wilkens developed in Cleveland, and if not for injuries, it might have been the team of the 1990s instead of the Bulls.
It's what Wilkens did. He built teams. He didn't have stars, so his teams relied on five players. Perhaps it is a fatal flaw in professional basketball, that, in the end, the team with the biggest star wins, not necessarily the best overall team.
Just what exactly does make a great coach? Is it only winning titles? Can someone be a great coach if they never have great players? Society doesn't allow that, at least not ours. We celebrate winners and dismiss runners-up.
Perhaps the best example of that in the coaching life of Lenny Wilkens was Game 5 of the 1989 first-round playoff series. You've all seen the last shot, Jordan's jumper over Craig Ehlo -- "The Shot" as we called it in Chicago -- that's been replayed by now thousands of times amidst Jordan's many comebacks and game-winning shots.
What I admired most about that game was the play before. The Bulls went ahead by one point and the Cavaliers called a timeout. There were about eight seconds left. Wilkens drew up a beautiful inbounds screen play that got the Cavaliers a layup with about three seconds left.
That it wasn't the game-winner was testament to Jordan's brilliance. But here's a deciding playoff game coming down to what might be a last possession and the Cavaliers get a basket on a layup. How often have you seen that? If it were the winner, would it forever have been known in Cleveland as "The Layup"?
Of course, Jordan made that game-winner. Wilkens often was ridiculed in those years for not double-teaming Jordan. One reason was the pride and stubbornness that got Wilkens out of Brooklyn in the 1950s to a life in basketball. He would and could defend anyone.
But Wilkens did call for a double-team on that possession, with Nance coming out to help. The Bulls actually almost ran out of time on the inbounds. But Brad Sellers didn't panic and had perhaps a fraction of a second before a violation. He then got the ball to Jordan, who twisted away from the double team and made the shot.
It perhaps defined Wilkens' pro coaching career: He came up with a brilliant plan or play but was beaten by a better player.
His Seattle champions were the most starless in NBA history. In fact, when they went to the Finals in 1978, it was without a player on the All-Star team that season.
After winning their title in 1979, the Sonics won a then franchise-best 56 games. But Magic Johnson (who's going into the Hall of Fame this week) by then had come along to join Abdul-Jabbar, and one couldn't go too far led by Williams, Sikma and Lonnie Shelton.
Wilkens moved on to Cleveland and twice won 57 games, playing perhaps the most artistic ball in the NBA. The Cavs played brilliant pick-and-roll before Malone and Stockton seemed to invent it, and Wilkens left after winning 54 games.
He went to an Atlanta team that won 43 games and traded its only star, Dominique Wilkins, midway through the season. The Hawks, nevertheless, went on to win 57 games and the division. Unfortunately, Atlanta couldn't retain Danny Manning. Over the next four seasons, with role players and such misfits as Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Stacey Augmon, Ken Norman and Christian Laettner being their principal players, the Hawks averaged 49 wins per season under Wilkens. They haven't been close since.
Wilkens is a stubborn and proud man. He has always been somewhat uneasy with media, which limits his rankings in these media quickie polls. He's not particularly glib or colorful.
It's perhaps why he has always emphasized the team. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, I'd heard of Lenny Wilkens from Boys High School. Boys was in the black neighborhood and in our conference. We'd all come for their warmup show, which was the only time we'd ever seen anyone dunk a basketball. We were led by Steve Katzman and Barry Kleinman. Not to be sterotypical, but you can imagine our team wasn't dunking.
Lenny didn't dunk, either. He was barely six feet tall and 175 pounds. He didn't seem that fast, but he always got to the basket. He didn't do anything to draw attention. He just scored or got the ball to someone to score. It was the way he later coached. No frills.
Lenny also was tough, but he didn't look it -- because he was a pioneer. African-American kids weren't offered many big-time basketball scholarships in 1956, and that's one reason he ended up at Providence College. And when Wilkens took over the Sonics in 1969 as player/coach, African-Americans weren't getting coaching opportunities.
Wilkens didn't shout for attention or demand it. He earned it with results, which is the way it should be. He never had stars, but he built winners. He rarely had the ultimate success, but his teams were always well prepared, effective, competitive and committed. No one could ask more of a coach. And few could ever do it better than Lenny Wilkens.
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, writes a weekly column for ESPN.com.