Last night, Lenny Wilkens became the losingest coach of all time in the NBA. The game which Wilkens lost, a blowout by the Spurs, was fitting for the accomplishment. He passed Bill Fitch with 1,107th loss. Of course, Wilkens is also the all time winningest coach too. Opinions have ranged about how good Wilkens is as a coach. Some consider him a top coach who gets a lot out of his talent. Others think his longevity is a tribute to mediocrity and not greatness. In support of that claim, detractors note that Wilkens has only one championship in 30 years of coaching.
Each side’s argument has merit. The answer, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between these two extreme views of Lenny. In order to properly quantify where exactly Wilkens lies on this spectrum, we should take a look at the details of his coaching career and determine his accomplishments and failures. When assessing Wilkens’ record, or any other coach’s record for that matter, is not necessarily fair to expect a certain amount of wins or playoff wins. Really, coaches must be judged by the realistic expectations based on the available talent. Thus a 50-win season could be a disappointment and a 40-win season could be a success. So, remember context matters in an accurate evaluation. With that in mind let’s go through Wilkens’ coaching career record:
REGULAR SEASONPOST SEASON YEARTEAMWINSLOSSESPCTWINSLOSSESPCT 1969Seattle3646.43900.000 1970Seattle3844.46300.000 1971Seattle4735.57300.000 1974Portland3844.46300.000 1975Portland3745.45100.000 1977Seattle4218.700139.591 1978Seattle5230.634125.706 1979Seattle5626.68378.467 1980Seattle3448.41500.000 1981Seattle5230.63435.375 1982Seattle4834.58502.000 1983Seattle4240.51223.400 1984Seattle3151.37800.000 1986Cleveland3151.37800.000 1987Cleveland4240.51223.400 1988Cleveland5725.69523.400 1989Cleveland4240.51223.400 1990Cleveland3349.40200.000 1991Cleveland5725.69598.529 1992Cleveland5428.65936.333 1993Atlanta5725.69556.455 1994Atlanta4240.51203.000 1995Atlanta4636.56146.400 1996Atlanta5626.68346.400 1997Atlanta5032.61013.250 1998Atlanta3119.62036.333 1999Atlanta2854.34100.000 2000Toronto4735.57366.500 2001Toronto4240.51223.400 2002Toronto2451.32000.000 TOTALS 12921107.5398094.460
Stop 1: Seattle Supersonics. 1969-1971. Regular season W-L totals 121-125. No playoff appearances.
Wilkens’ first coaching stop was in Seattle with the relatively new Sonics franchise (born in 1967-68). The team was young and not great. The added dynamic was that Lenny was not only still playing but he was still playing well at age 32 (he averaged 22.5 and 8.2 apg the year before). Wilkens had never coached but he was known as a smart player and a floor general so it was assumed he could coach. It was also during the time when player-coaches were in vogue (Bill Russell in Boston and Dave DeBusschere in Detroit). So, the combination of the trends in the NBA and the bad Seattle team got Wilkens a shot.
Wilkens had a young expansion team that had not been good with its previous coach, Al Bianchi. Besides himself, Wilkens had few useful players. The pirmary scorer was center Bob Rule (24.6 ppg and 10.3 rpg) and Wilkens was its best player but the rest of the team was made up of veteran role players like Bob Boozer and Tom Meschery. The team improved by 6 games to 36-46. The team slowly improved over the next two years, culminating in a 47-35 season in 1971-72 and missing the playoffs by only four games. The team remained rather mediocre in terms of talent but they were able to snag a young Spencer Haywood. Haywood was a star forward (26.2 pgg 12.7 rpg) and he, along with a still very good Lenny Wilkens, was almost able to lead Seattle to the playoffs. In fact, the team was poised to make the playoffs until Haywood missed the last nine games with injury which the team went 1-8 to miss the playoffs.
Sonics president Sam Schulman was angry about the finish and as a result he put pressure on the popular Wilkens by offering him a Hobson’s Choice. Wilkens either had to concentrate on coaching and quit playing or vice versa. It may have been difficult to coach and play but Wilkens was still a very good player (he averaged 18.0 ppg and 9.6 apg in 1971-72) so it would have been silly to stop playing. Wilkens resigned as coach and pledged his loyalty to whomever would replace him. The Sonics were skeptical of the pledge and traded him out of town to Cleveland for Butch Beard. Beard started at point guard but only averaged 6.6 ppg and the team, which was ostensibly the same besides Wilkens, slumped to 26-56 and the Sonic fans booed the home team and cheered Wilkens when he returned as a Cav.
Assessment of Tenure 1
Wilkens first stint as a coach demonstrated that he could maximize his good players (Bob File, Spencer Haywood, himself). Wilkens did not really develop much young talent (Dick Snyder improved, Haywood was a finished product when he came to Seattle). You have to characterize Wilkens first coaching gig as a moderate success, the team was improving and building to something and the team became really bad quickly after he left. Of course, some of that had to do with losing Wilkens the player for a non-scoring guard like Beard. However, the 21 game drop off in performance could not have all been solely a result of losing point guards. It also demonstrated that Wilkens was a good coach who could create a solid team around a small amount of talent.
Stop 2: Portland Trailblazers. 1974-1976. Regular season W-L totals 75-89. No playoff appearances.
After playing a few solid years in Cleveland, Portland gave Wilkens a chance to be a player-coach again in 1974-75. Wilkens, then 37, had little left as a player (6.0 ppg 3.6 apg) and he concentrated more on coaching. The Blazer team he would coach was an odd one. It was coming off of a miserable campaign but had gotten the coveted draft pick in Bill Walton. So, Wilkens had the rookie Walton and a couple of scorer in Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks. Unfortunately, Walton’s chronic foot problems surfaced and he played only 35 games that year. Despite this the team did improve by 11 games from the previous season.to 38-44. The next year, Wilkens retired as a player and he hoped for the team to improve with a healthy Walton. Unfortunately, Walton only played in 51 games and the team slumped to 37-45. This lack of improvement in an environment of high expectation hurt Wilkens. Additionally, there were rumors that Wilkens had a rift with Walton because of the latter’s frequent injuries. The two factors were enough to do in Wilkens after the his second year in Portland and he was fired.
Assesment of Tenure 2
Wilkens time in Portland was a disappointment. The team gelled after Wilkens left and won the World Championship the next year. Of course there are many mitigating factors when you consider Wilkens’ tenure with the Blazers. First the team had few good players, Petrie, Wicks and 50% of Walton, and it did improve a over the previous regime. Secondly, Wilkens might have had success if he been given more time with the Blazers. Still, these factors only explain the problems he had and do not change the fact that he could not get along with his star. That fact and the team’s great improvement after his departure dictates that Wilkens’ tenure was not a success.
Stop 3: Seattle Supersonics. 1977-1985. Regular season W-L totals 357-277. Playoff W-L 37-32 (one championship).
In Seattle, Wilkens had been replaced by Bill Russell who had moderate success as coach of the Sonics but whose stint had run its course. Sam Schulman reached out to Wilkens, making him Personnel Director. The Sonics started out the 1977-78 season 5-17 and fired their coach, putting Wilkens back in the helm. As most people know, the second tenure in Seattle was clearly the highlight of Wilkens’ career. Wilkens’ revamped the starting lineup inserting Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson, John Johnson, and Jack Sikma into the starting lineup. The team went 42-18 the rest of the way and lost in the NBA Finals to the Washington Bullets in a close seven game series. The next year, the Sonics brought back the same team and went 52-30 and again met the Bullets in the Finals. This time the Sonics won Wilkens’ and the franchise’s only championship. It was not an overpowering team but it was well-balanced (they had no weak spots) and the league lacked a real dominant team. The team was still effective in 1979-80, in fact they won 56 games (the most in franchise history at the time) and made the conference finals. However, this time the Lakers were beginning their dynasty with a rookie named Magic Johnson who helped dispatch the Sonics in five games.
The bottom fell out of the Sonics in 1980-81 as the team went 34-48 to finish last in the Pacific. This was not really Wilkens’ fault as two devastating personnel issues sabotaged the team. First, the team traded Dennis Johnson, still in his prime, for the older and fragile Paul Westphal. Westphal played in only 36 and put up modest numbers (16.7 ppg, 4.1 apg, tepid defense) while Johnson helped the Suns win the Pacific Division. Secondly, Johnson’s backcourt mate, Gus Williams sat out the entire year in a contract dispute. With Washington back 1981-82, the Sonics rebounded to 52 wins and they made the second round of the playoffs. The Sonics slowly declined over the next three years (48 wins, then 42 wins, then 31 wins). The core had aged and not been suitably replaced, they got Tom Chambers but aside from him they had no one to replace Fred Brown and Gus Williams as they aged. Wilkens stepped aside after 1984-85 to go to the front office.
Assesment of Tenure 3
It was a nice eight year run where Wilkens established himself as a very good coach. He helped develop four good young players all at once in 1977-78 to create a great core that lasted for half a decade. Wilkens had trouble regrouping once the team he built got old but, in his defense, who could rebuild with a worn-out David Thompson, Gerald Henderson, or Danny Vranes? This stint was the crowning achievement of Wilkens’ career and put him in elite company as a coach. He got about the most he could have out of the Sonics and the team could not have picked a better coach at the time.
Stop 4: Cleveland Cavaliers. 1986-1993. Regular season W-L totals 316-258. Playoff W-L 18-23.
After a year off, Wilkens returned to coaching in Cleveland in 1986-87. He inherited a miserable team that was built around Roy Hinson, Mel Turpin, and World B. Free. The Cavs dealt all three of them before Wilkens coached a game and came up with some nice young talent in return. The 1986 draft yielded four good rookies for Cleveland: Ron Harper, Brad Daugherty, Hot Rod Williams, and Mark Price. It was an amazing success rate to get so many good players in one drat. It was also reminiscent of Wilkens helping develop four young starters at once as he did in Seattle. The Cavs went 31-51 Wilkens’ first year but there was a sense that the team, after years of floundering, was building towards something better. Indeed they were. In 1987-88, the Cavs improved to 42-40 and made the playoffs as all the young Cavs continued to improve. The Cavs then went on the best run in the history of the franchise. They exploded to 57 wins in 1988-89 and were considered a possible dynasty fir the 1990s. All the rookies blossomed to great players and they acquired Larry Nance to bolster the front line.
The problem was that the Cavs ran in to the actual dynasty of the 1990s, the Bulls and Michael Jordan, and lost in a tough series (you know Jordan hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo to eliminate them). After 1988-89, the team floundered for a couple of years because of injuries and bad trades (see Ron Harper for Danny Ferry). However, in 1991-92 the Cavs regrouped, winning 57 games again and meeting the Bulls in the conference finals. Unfortunately for Wilkens, the Cavs were just not as good the Bulls, losing 4-2 in the series. The Cavs re-focused in 1992-93 with sole goal of finally getting the best of Jordan. They signed noted “Jordan Stopper”, Gerald Wilkins. It didn’t work. Yeah, the Cavs won 52 games but when they met the Bulls in the playoffs the result was a rather easy Bulls Sweep. In addition, Daugherty was starting to breakdown and Nance got older. Wilkens resigned under ownership pressure after the 1993 playoffs. The Cavs were never near as good again.
Assessment of Tenure 4
The Cavs tenure elicits all the tensions involved with assessing Wilkens. He was involved with building a good team from scratch and he helped a team have a nice run over a long period of time. However, there is a question of whether Wilkens underachieved. The team was very good with All Star level players at four positions (Price, Harper, Nance, and Daugherty). The question is whether another coach could have done better. I think maybe a Pat Riley or Phil Jackson could have but clearly the average coach would have done no better. Indeed, Wilkens only failure in Cleveland was that he could not beat Jordan, which no one else could do either (save the Pistons for a few years). On the other hand, there was a time when the Bulls and Cavs were young teams and it seemed at the time that the Cavs were clearly the better team. It is that fact, that eats away at Wilkens’ coaching resume. Still, you have to characterize Wilkens’ time in Cleveland as a success.
Stop 5: Atlanta Hawks. 1993-2000. Regular season W-L totals 310-232 . Playoff W-L 17-30.
Showing himself to be a true lifer, Wilkens jumped at the next job after the Cavs. Like Cleveland in 1986, Atlanta in 1993 was not a desirable team to coach. The Hawks had been floundering near the playoffs for a few years and they needed to accommodate the stars of the 1980s, Dominique Wilkins and Kevin Willis, with the rebuilding effort. Wilkens was able to do this in 1993-94 by convincing the team to play defense like they never had before. The Hawks surprised everybody by winning the top seed in the east with 57 wins. The team was not nearly as good as it appeared (they lost in the second round of the playoffs) but the overachieving team was a testament to Wilkens’ ability to tweak a team and get major improvement.
After 1993-94, the Hawks had a nice run as a nondescript but solid team. The Hawks made the playoffs six years in a row with tough defense and a solid backcourt of Mookie Blaylock and Steve Smith, Dikembe Mutombo in the middle, and no bench or small forward to speak off (remember Ennis Whatley or Tyrone Corbin?). The team also made the second round three more times but could not get past the second round where the top teams would run them over easily. The consensus was that the Hawks were a nice team but that they needed another start to put them over the top. Atlanta took a gamble that J.R. Rider would be that player in 1999-00 and you know how well that turned out. The team bombed and Wilkens was let go.
Assessment of Tenure 5
Wilkens did great work in Atlanta. A team that had no business winning payoff series made it to the second round four times. That is about all you could expect from the team and no coach could have done better with this group. Wilkens was victim of his own success. Management demanded more than solid seasons and took silly gambles for an unrealistic chance at glory. Wilkens unfairly took the fall for these gambles and he was fired after his first bad season in Atlanta in seven.
Stop 6: Toronto Raptors. 2000- . Regular season W-L totals 113-126. Playoff W-L 8-9.
Toronto has been an odd situation for Wilkens. Unlike his last few jobs, the team was rising before Wilkens got there. They had a young Vince Carter and some solid role players like Antonio Davis, Alvin Willams, and Charles Oakley (they just lost Tracy McGrady and Doug Christie but that’s another story). 2000-01, Wilkens’ first year, brought the Raptors 47 wins and their first playoff series victory and they took a good Philly team seven games before losing in the final seconds. The next year was an odd year. The Raptors were expecting to build on the playoff success but Vince Carter injured himself, causing the team to flounder. However, with the team bordering on failure, the Raptors went 12-2 (without Carter) to end the season and make the playoffs. They even had a nice showing in the playoffs taking the second seed Pistons to five games before losing.
The current season has not been good for Wilkens. Carter has been injured and diminished when he does play and Antonio Davis is getting older quickly. The team is currently 24-51 and way out of the playoff race. The rumors indicate that Wilkens will not get another shot to turn this team around. Wilkens has not done a good job this year (the defensive effort has been poor) but the Raptors really have little talent and it is not fair to expect the playoffs with this team under these circumstances.
Assessment of Tenure 6
It is hard to assess Wilkens in Toronto. The Raptors played their best basketball in franchise history for Wilkens in 2000-01. Last year, you have to give credit to Wilkens for making the playoffs with a bunch of role players. This year, Wilkens has done poorly but expectedly so with Carter being out. You would have to say that Wilkens has been a good coach in Toronto but not overwhelmingly so.
Overall Assessment of Wilkens
Wilkens has been a coach a long time. He is not a great innovator but he clearly gets more out of solid talent than most coaches. In addition, many of the franchise’s he coached had great runs. No job he took, with the exception of the weird situation in Portland, can be considered a an outright failure. Making teams better is what coaches should do and it is what Wilkens has done. If you can do it almost everywhere you go for 30 years then you are a Hall of Fame coach. Wilkens has his warts as a coach but he is never afraid of a challenge and he often succeeds. One can only hope that this will not be his last year as a coach. He deserves a better ending than the 2002-03 Raptors.
In the final scheme of things there are decent amount of coaches from the last 20 years that I would prefer having to coach my team than Wilkens (Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Chuck Daly, Jeff Van Gundy, Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham, Rudy Tomjanovich, George Karl). However, Wilkens is right on that second tier of good coaches. Unfortunately, Wilkens has not been given the credit he deserves for what he is. He has a great career and it would be nice if people appreciated for what he has accomplished. It silly to harp on his win and loss totals except to the extent that it indicates his ability to survive so long in one of the toughest professions in the world.
Some more Lenny notes:
I consider the 1991-92 Cavaliers the best team Wilkens ever coached. I know the Sonics were champions but the Cavs had some serious talent. In addition, I don’t think those old Sonic teams could beat MJ either.
Here is my all time Lenny starting five:
PG: Mark Price
SG: Dennis Johnson
SF: Larry Nance
PF: Spencer Haywood
C : Brad Daugherty