Larry Brown Wanders Again

It seemed like he was ready to leave the moment he got there, but Larry Brown actually lasted six years in Philadelphia.  Larry Brown has become one of those walking paradoxes.  He is an all-time great coach yet he never stays in one place long enough to see it to fruition (championship).  He has also developed a bad rap for blowing town early and letting down those who rely on him.  These are the raps, how true are they?  Brown has coached seven professional teams and two college teams since 1972.  That’s quite a body of work.  Looking at the circumstances of each of Brown’s tenure will help determine how true this criticism is.

Larry Brown’s career coaching record
Year Team W L Pct
72-73 Carolina (ABA) 57 27 .679
73-74 Carolina (ABA) 47 37 .560
74-75 Denver (ABA) 65 19 .774
75-76 Denver (ABA) 60 24 .714
76-77 Denver (NBA) 50 32 .610
77-78 Denver 48 34 .585
78-79 Denver 28 25 .528
81-82 New Jersey 44 38 .557
82-83 New Jersey 47 29 .618
88-89 San Antonio 21 61 .256
89-90 San Antonio 56 26 .683
90-91 San Antonio 55 27 .671
91-92 San Antonio 21 17 .553
91-92 LA Clippers 23 12 .657
92-93 LA Clippers 41 41 .500
93-94 Indiana 47 35 .573
94-95 Indiana 52 30 .634
95-96 Indiana 52 30 .634
96-97 Indiana 39 43 .476
97-98 Philadelphia 31 51 .378
98-99 Philadelphia 28 22 .560
99-00 Philadelphia 49 33 .598
00-01 Philadelphia 56 26 .683
01-02 Philadelphia 43 39 .524
02-03 Philadelphia 48 34 .585
Totals 1108 792 .583

Carolina Cougars 1972-74

After bumming around the nascent ABA as a solid point guard for a few years, Brown started his coaching career with the Carolina Cougars in 1972-73 near his Tar Heel roots.  The Cougars had been a .500 team for the previous three years that they existed.  With Brown, the team broke out to 57-27.  It didn’t hurt that Billy Cunningham, Mack Calvin, and Steve Jones came aboard.  The team slumped a bit to 47 wins the next year when Cunningham went down with a knee injury but Brown continued his solid run.  Unfortunately, the Cougars, like many ABA teams, were not solvent and went under after the 1973-74 season.  Brown’s tenure in Carolina was short but it showed him to be a dynamic coach which he would prove even more in his next job in Denver.

Denver Rockets/Nuggets 1974-1979

Denver was only 37-47 the year before Brown got there.  He started quite well in Denver going 65-19 and 60-24 his first two years.  The team was built around rookie David Thompson and Dan Issel (and to a lesser extent Ralph Simpson).  The team never won an ABA championship but came close in 1975-76.  The team continued to be solid when they moved over to the NBA in 1976-77.  The success of Thompson and company translated in the NBA.  Brown went to the playoffs his two full years in the NBA including going to the Western Conference Finals in 1977-78, which was Denver’s peak under Brown.  The next year the team traded Bobby Jones, a player Brown loved, for the George McGinnis, a player that epitomized the everything Brown detested (a scorer who did not fit into Brown’s team concept).  The team stumbled around .500 before Brown was fired near the end of 1978-79.  Interestingly enough, the year after Brown left the Nuggets plummeted to 30-52 and missed the playoffs for the first time since Brown came to Denver (to be fair, this was also due to Thompson’s drug/injury problems) .  Brown spent 4.5 good years in Denver where he gave Denver all he had.  He, again, showed he could build a good team and he did not leave early.

New Jersey Nets 1981-1983 

After a brief but successful stint with UCLA, Brown returned near home to the New Jersey Nets in 1981-82.  The team was coming off of a 24-58 season and still felt the hangover of selling Julius Erving a few years earlier (the Nets had not yet broken .500 since moving to the NBA in 1976-77).  Brown immediately turned around the Nets, going 44-38 and making the playoffs with an unimpressive team.  He got a lot out of rookie Buck Williams and Ray Williams and guys like Len Elmore, Darwin Cook, and Albert King.  Brown looked to be building on his success in 1982-83, the Nets were 47-29 when word was leaked that Brown had already agreed to the Kansas job six days before the playoffs.  The Nets refused to go to the playoffs with a lame duck coach and fired on the spot.  Brown had created a good team from scratch again but his dealings with the Nets left a lot to be desired.  Brown broke his contract and put the Nets in turmoil at an inappropriate.  Even Donnie Walsh, Brown’s close friend and ardent supporter, admits that Brown’s departure in New Jersey was entirely Brown’s own fault.  The Jersey experience helped create a perception that Brown could not be relied as a long term solution as a coach which did not exist in the ten years previous that Brown had coached.

University of Kansas and the Knick Flirtations 1984-1988

Brown’s reputation as an unreliable wanderer grew as he waffled between returning to Kansas and taking the Knicks job in the spring of 1987.  Brown had all but agreed to the Knicks job (I think a press release even went out) when Brown backtracked and returned to Kansas.  In the subsequent Year Brown and his star Danny Manning would win an NCAA title.  Then, Brown left Kansas abruptly (and with probation violations) to go coach the San Antonio Spurs.  Brown had been coaching for 15 years at this point but the multiple job incidents from 1983-1988 started to create a perception that Brown did not want to hang around any town too long.

San Antonio Spurs 1988-1992

Coming to San Antonio felt right but ultimately ended in disappointment.  The Spurs had drafted David Robinson with the first pick of the 1997 draft understanding that he would not be ready to play until 1989-90.  Brown came to Texas in 1988-89 waiting out the Admiral one year and hoping to build a good team around him.  A bad Spur team went 21-61 with Alvin Robertson and Willie Anderson.  Brown basically looked ahead to 1989-90 the whole year (which was the correct thing to do).  Once Robinson came to town, the Spurs exploded to 56-26.  In addition, the team acquired Maurice Cheeks (for Johnny Dawkins) and Terry Cummings (for Robertson) to complement Robinson, making the Spurs look like a possible dynasty in the 1990s.  These major moves showed Brown’s first real inclination to shake up his nucleus.  It didn’t end there.

Cheeks was traded halfway through his first year in San Antonio for raw second year point guard Rod Strickland.  Strickland had all the makings of a great guard but he was raw as a decision maker on the court and off.  In game 7 of the second round series in the 1990 playoffs, Strickland threw an ill-advised behind the back pass on a fast break in the waning moments that went into the stands.  The Blazers then went down and clinched the game and the series, blowing Larry Brown’s best playoff run with the Spurs.

The next year the Spurs continued to play well (55-27) but they were upset by the seven seed Warriors who played 6’7 Rod Higgins at center and a small ball lineup against the bigger Spurs.  This left a bad taste in Brown’s mouth and created some tension in San Antonio.  When the Spurs struggled to a 21-17 record in 1991-92, Brown got in a dispute with new owner Peter Holt that ended in Brown leaving the team ASAP (Brown swears he was fired while Holt swears Brown quit).  Brown underachieved in San Antonio, this team had a chance to be quite good.  Granted Strickland’s off court incidents did not help but this was a team that Brown could have seen through to the next level.

We can never know whether Brown quit or what background tensions existed (I think there were rumors that the conservative Robinson thought Brown was a bit abrasive).  Even if you consider all the mitigating factors, Brown probably wanted out.  Days after leaving the Spurs, Brown signed on to coach the Clippers.

Los Angeles Clippers 1991-1993

47 games into the 1991-92 season, Brown left Texas for LA.  The state of the Clippers was the same as it every couple of years, the team was bad but it had accrued a bunch of good young players through the draft and trade (Danny Manning, Olden Polynice, Ron Harper, Loy Vaught, Charles Smith, and Ken Norman to name a few).  The hope was that these players would gel.  Coach Mike Schuler was 22-25 and the team would likely miss the playoffs unless they got hot in the last third of the season.  Enter Larry.  Brown energized this team to a 23-12 record and the seven seed where they took a good Utah team to a deciding fifth before losing.

Brown came back for a return engagement an 1992-93 and the team played pretty well (41-41) and again got the seventh seed.  The playoffs were, again, competitive (another close five game series to a good team, the Rockets, but another loss).  1993-94 looked to be a make or break year for this young Clipper team, they were on the verge of becoming good but many of the players were going to be free agents and wanted to re-negotiate. Brown wanted no part of this potential problem and bolted town.  You have to be less harsh on Brown for this one than for New Jersey or San Antonio.  The Clippers were a powder keg and Donald Sterling, the owner, was notoriously unreliable in helping coaches or in averting salary disputes.  So, Brown fairly read the handwriting on the wall and moved on to Indiana.

Indiana Pacers 1993-97

Like every team Brown coached, the Pacers were not very good when Brown got to town.  They had lost in the first round of the playoffs four straight years and never had won a playoff series since the team joined the NBA.  They had talent in Detlef Schrempf and Reggie Miller but the Pacers were considered pretenders as good teams could beat them in the playoffs with superior defense.

Brown immediately turned around the Pacers.  He rebalanced the team to be more defensive and less finesse.  First he traded away Schrempf for the less skilled but tougher Derrick McKey.  McKey combined with Dale Davis and rookie Antonio Davis to make a tough front line.  Brown also helped Rik Smits turn from project to legit low post center (Brown gave up on trying to make Smits anything more than a scorer and that helped Smits thrive).  The result was two game sevens in 1994 and 1995 Eastern Conference Finals.  Unfortunately, the Pacers lost them both.  Still, the team was on the verge of breaking through.  But Brown hit a wall.

In 1995-96, Reggie Miller broke his cheek bone in the first round which helped the team get upset by the Hawks.  1996-97 was an even bigger waste when the team traded away point guard Mark Jackson and handed the job to raw Jalen Rose and Travis Best.  The Pacers sniped and slumped and missed the playoffs.  The Pacers still had a nice core but Brown wanted no part of re-grouping.  This was not so much of a bail out as the team may have been legitimately tired of Brown and it was best to get a different style of coach in their.  (The team did thrive the next three years with the same personnel under Larry Bird).  Brown left Indiana in decent shape and went to Philly.

Philadelphia 76ers 1997-2003

Brown arrived to another ugly situation in Philly in 1997-98.  The team had not made the playoffs since 1990-91 and management was unsure what to do with Allen Iverson the dynamic yet frustrating 1996-97 Rookie of the Year.  Brown figured it midway through 1997-98, Iverson was not a point guard he was a shooting guard.  Brown then shipped out Jerry Stackhouse for defensive stopper Theo Ratliff and found Eric Snow on the scrap heap.  In one year, Brown turned the Sixers from a mess to a bona fide team but turning Snow, Ratliff, and Aaron McKie into real contributors when then previously they had been nothing more than backups and after thoughts.

The Sixers made the playoffs in 1998-99 and upset the Orlando Magic to make the second round.  1999-00 also featured an upset (this time the Hornets) and another second round exit.  The team was peaking and Brown knew it.  He went for broke in 2000-01, trading the younger Ratliff and Toni Kukoc for Dikemebe Mutombo.  The move paid off, Mutombo helped lead the Sixers to the finals (and a loss to the Lakers).  The Sixers floundered a bit in 2001-02, losing to Boston in the first round.

This year, the Sixers righted themselves and looked like the best team in the east going into the playoffs.  However, the Pistons knocked them off and Brown called it quits after the season.  Brown had given the Sixers six good years as coach (his longest tenure as a coach).  Still, people speculated why he left Philly.  Was it Brown’s innate nomadic tendencies?  Was he tired of fighting with Iverson?  Did he really think this team had reached its peak?  Does he have a better deal somewhere?

The answer is probably a combination of all these factors.  However, I believe Brown when he says that this team has reached its peak.  Iverson is slight and may start breaking down soon.  Apart from Iverson, the team has little depth.  The second best player was a 35 year old Derrick Coleman and the front court had grown soft and weak, something Brown detests in his teams.  Besides, would you want to coach a team that might need to rebuild with Iverson on the roster?  Brown’s tenure in Philly helped the franchise and he did not leave the team in a lurch, six years was enough.

Is it fair to call Brown a wanderer?

Yes.  He is a great coach who has a clear vision of how to fix messes.  But unlike most great coaches, he moves on to the next mess.  This is a bit odd but it does not mean Brown is an unreliable hire.  He has improved every team he coached and the only teams he really left in a lurch were the Nets (20 years ago) and arguably the Spurs.  The idea that Brown creates instability is not really supported by the evidence.  The fact that he is usually no longer than a three or four year engagement should be accepted and not looked into too deeply on a psychological level.  Hell, most coaches (even the successful ones) don’t last that long in one town anyway.  He is a Hall of Fame coach and that is all that really matters.

Where will Brown go from here?  I don’t know.  Rumors are flying but the only thing for certain is that he will improve his next team too.

Miscellaneous Brown

I know these type of things are usually not done until a coach retires but we will look at some of the odds and ends of Brown’s career to date:

Brown’s All Time Starting Five:

PG:    Eric Snow (Mark Jackson is close but Brown really has not had a great point guard, just a bunch of solid good ones)

SG:    Allen Iverson (Wow, this is a tough one.  Who do you take?  David Thompson, Reggie Miller, or Allen Iverson?  They are all Hall of Famers.  Iverson and Thompson are a bit tougher to deal with but they do so much more on the court than Miller.  I’ll go with Iverson just because he is actually a more reliable player than Thompson was.)

SF:    Danny Manning (Billy Cunningham is close but he played fewer games for Brown than Manning did percentage wise)

PF:    Buck Williams    (Dale Davis was a stud for Brown and Bobby Jones also did the dirty work but Buck could score a bit more than the other two which gives him the edge)

C:     David Robinson    (Finally, a position that is not close.)

Brown’s best team:    Another tough one but I am partial to the 1994-95 Pacers.  They were complete and well balanced but they could notStop Penny and Shaq.

Brown’s worst coaching job:    It had to be a tie between the Nets of 1982-83 which he ditched and the 1996-97 Pacers that should neverhave missed the playoffs.

Is Lenny a Loser?

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 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

The Ewing FAQ

On Friday, the Knicks will deservedly raise the jersey of Patrick Ewing to the Garden’s rafters.  Ewing has been a lighting rod for criticism and praise over the years and a somewhat controversial figure in New York.  It is a good time to review Patrick’s career and see what we come up with.  So let’s address all the issues surrounding his career.

Why did Ewing have problems with fans and media in New York?

The easy answer would be to say that Ewing was surly and the New York media did not appreciate that.  This is true on some level but the issue is more complex.  Ewing was, apparently, a quiet guy all the way back to his days at Georgetown and people claimed that John Thompson shielded him too much from the media.  Ewing was sensitive.  He talked, a few times, about how he was hurt by racist taunts by the crowds at his high school games in Boston and later in the Big East.  It was almost Deja Vu for Ewing in 1987 (his third year) when he happened to play a stinker game on “Patrick Ewing Poster Night” causing the Garden fans to return their fans to center court during the game by projectile form.  The fans expected a lot from Ewing, he was dubbed the next Kareem or Wilt, and the Knicks thought his presence should have made the team an instant contender.  It seemed like the poster fiasco reminded Ewing of the racist taunts he had been subjected to as a younger player.  That may have not been the exactly case but Ewing was sensitive to the issue and the fans were sensitive to the fact that the team had sucked (with a few exceptions) since 1974.  So, the seed for hostility on both sides was planted early.

Later in Ewing’s career, when the team did well, Ewing was showered in praise as a warrior but there was still an expectation that he should deliver a championship.  For his part, Ewing seemed reluctant to emotionally embrace the fans, even during success he always aloof and keeping the fans at arms length.  The result was a vicious circle where when the team fell off a little, Ewing received flack from some corners.  A majority of fans in New York saw Ewing as an All Star and Hall of Famer but there was a significant enough portion of Knick fandom that was ready to jump ship when the waves got a little rocky, moreso than similar caliber players to Ewing should have to endure.

Did Ewing underachieve as a Knick?

No.  He was a great player, a Hall of Fame player, but he was not better than Hakeem Olajuwon and he was not better than Jordan.  The loss in the 1994 Finals underscored this point.  Ewing was good in the Finals against Olajuwon, but Hakeem was better.  Ewing came close but he could never beat Jordan either.  This is no great shame.  However, he was not as good as the unrealistic expectations placed on him while in college.  Ewing was as good as you could be without being on the “dominant player” plateau but he was no Shaq.

As for Ewing’s actual accomplishments, he scored 21 ppg for his career and 9.8 rpg on .504% shooting. Ewing went to at least the second round of the playoffs for nine years in a row including the conference finals three times (plus one year where he was injured a portion of the playoffs).  That’s impressive both personally and team-wise.

Why did Ewing leave the Knicks?

Ewing forced a trade after the 1999-00 season.  Ewing’s contract was ending the next season and he wanted to re-negotiate with the Knicks.  The problem was Ewing was being paid $18 million and he wanted a multi-year deal in that range.  Ewing was 38, had missed 88 games the last three years, and was coming off the lowest scoring average of his career (15.0).  Additionally, there was rumbling from both the media and the players (Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston) that the offense should not be run through Ewing anymore.  Ewing was hurt both by the suggestions that his game was falling off and by the fact that the Knicks would not re-sign him after all he done for the team so he demanded a trade and the Knicks complied.

The postscript is that the trade was horrible for both sides.  Ewing’s game fell even lower in Seattle, he became a part-time player during his free agent year and his free agent stock plummeted.  He went to Orlando as a bit player in 2001-02 before retiring.  Had he remained with the Knicks it’s possible that they would have given him a bigger role than Seattle, where they ran the ball and had no emotional tie to him, and his next free agent deal would have been more favorable. 

For the Knicks part, they should have just let Ewing play out his walk year and use the cap room.  Instead, they filled Ewing’s $18 million slot with a bunch of long term mediocre contracts like Glen Rice, Luc Longley, and Travis Knight, who continue to hamstring the Knick’s salary cap room to this day.

Was Ewing surrounded by inferior talent?

Ewing backers have always trumpeted the fact Ewing was never provided with the great teammates that Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, or Larry Bird had and that lack of support prevented him from succeeding in his quest for a title.  This is true to some extent.  There was no McHale or Dumars or Worthy to play with.  Ewing never really had another All Star player with him.  John Starks, Mark Jackson, and Charles Oakley all made the team once but those was more flukes than an indication of what kind of players they were.  The best player Ewing ever played with was Latrell Sprewell who came after Ewing began to decline significantly.  So, there is something to this argument that Ewing was short handed, however, his overall teams were pretty good most of the late 1980s and all of the 1990s.  Here is a list of the best players season around Ewing during his career as a Knick (ordered by position):

PlayerYearPPGRPGAPGFG%Team Record
Mark Jackson88-8916.     51-31
Derek Harper95-9614.     47-35
John Starks93-9419.     57-25
Allan Houston99-0019.     50-32
Latrell Sprewell99-0018.     50-32
Anthony Mason95-9614.     49-33
Charles Oakley93-9411.811.82.70.478     57-25
Bill Cartwright86-8717.     24-58

How did the front office decisions affect Ewing?

The reviews of the Ewing’s GMs are decidedly mixed.  Let’s take a look at the highlights and lowlights of the Knick GMs:

Worst moves during Ewing’s tenure:

1.    Letting Bernard King walk to use the the salary cap room for Sidney Green.

2.    Dealing the lottery pick that would end up being Scottie Pippen for Jawann Oldham.

3.    Trading a young Rod Strickland for an old Maurice Cheeks.

4.    The ugly Kenny Walker lottery pick.

Best moves during Ewing’s tenure:

1.    Finding Mason and Starks in the CBA.

2.    Trading Cartwright for Oakley.

3.    Trading Starks, Chris Mills, and Terry Cummings for Latrell Sprewell.

4.    Getting Derek Harper for nothing (Tony Campbell and a draft pick) from the Mavericks.

The bad seems to outweigh the good.  Dave Checketts needed to pull the trigger on a deal for another scorer (Mitch Richmond or Clyde Drexler) but always missed out on the opportunity.  Ewing could have really used a classic point guard like Strickland against the Bulls to counter that tough press they ran against the Bulls in the early 1990s.

Where does Ewing rank as an all-time Knick?

Most people agree there are only three people that should be mentioned in this conversation, Ewing, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed. Now the title of “Greatest Knick” is somewhat meaningless unless you define your terms.  If you are asking who has done the most for the organization, Frazier may take the title because he helped lead the team to two titles and he was a healthier part than his teammate Reed.  If the question is who was the best player, i.e. the one you would most want to build a team around, I think the answer has to be Ewing. 

To assess this, you must first take into account level of competition of the NBA at each point.  Otherwise, the relative worth of the player’s numbers is difficult to assess.  I tend to believe that the level of play in the 1980s and 1990s is higher than in the 1960s and 1970s.  However, let’s put that aside and assume that the level of play is equal.  Even with this assumption, Reed, compared head-to-head with Ewing, comes up short.  Reed was an All Star level player for six years while Ewing had 12 straight All Star level years.  Additionally Reed played only 650 games as a Knick to Ewing’s 1,039.  Despite the longer career (and the decline in numbers that Reed did not suffer because of his abbreviated career) Ewing still scored more and shot better.  When you consider that Ewing was at least as good and played so much longer, you have to take Ewing.  Indeed, Reed agrees as he called Ewing when the question was posed to him.

The Frazier-Ewing issue is more complex.  Frazier had a great run, putting up 9 straight All Star level seasons.  He was clearly the best point guard in the league most of that time too.  Ewing was never really the best center in the NBA during his run but he was good longer than Frazier (1,039 games to Frazier’s 759 as a Knick).  I think based on longevity and sustained excellence Ewing beats Frazier as the “Greatest Knick,” at least by the second definition of the term.

Where does Ewing rank as an all-time center?

Again, all the problems about definition arise.  Let’s assume that “Greatest Center” is the best player, the one you would most want to build a team around.  I will again assume that the level of play has not changed significantly over the years (we will except George Mikan from this conversation as the 1950s, by all accounts, were inferior in play level to all subsequent decades).  I think to start a team, it is indisputable that a few guys are clearly ahead of Ewing: Hakeem, Shaq, Kareem, Wilt, Bill Russell.  Moses Malone is slightly below these guys but ahead of Ewing as well.  The only question is how Ewing matches up with some of the near-great and semi-great centers like David Robinson, Wes Unseld, Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier, Artis Gilmore, and Nate Thurmond (we discount Bill Walton because of injuries and Alonzo Mourning because Ewing was so clearly better head-to-head).  Let’s look at career numbers:

Robinson92321.910. 2001-02)
Unseld98410.814.* blocks only counted after 1972-73
Cowens76617.613.* blocks only counted after 1972-73
Lanier95920.* blocks only counted after 1972-73
Gilmore90917.* does not inlcude ABA stats
Thurmond96415.* blocks only counted after 1972-73

David Robinson is a very similar player to Ewing.  Robinson’s two years in the Navy take away from his career totals but his career numbers still look superior to Ewing’s (21.9 ppg and 10.8 rpg versus 21.0 ppg and 9.8 rpg).  Of course, Ewing had a couple of decline years that Robinson has not suffered because he is younger.  So, they are very close.  This is a coin flip.  I’ll go with Robinson by a hair based on his title (albeit as a secondary player) and his MVP.

As for the rest of this group, Unseld was a great player but it is clear that he was more complementary on offense and clearly not the same cornerstone player Ewing was.  Cowens was also not as a great a scorer and his career was much shorter than any of the other centers not to mention Ewing who had, by far, the most longevity.  Thurmond was also a great defender but his rebounds were inflated by playing in the rebound plentiful 60s and he shot a very poor percentage.  That leaves Lanier and Gilmore as the only players who can be argued to be better than Ewing.

As good as Lanier was (and I think people tend to forget because he was often on bad teams), he was not as good as Ewing.  Again, Ewing had a much longer career with similar numbers during times when rebounds and shooting percentage were shrinking.  Ewing was also a much better defender (and a far superior shot blocker, 2.5 versus 0.5).  Gilmore is a little more complicated.  His ABA years were great (22.3 ppg and 17.1 rpg) and his NBA numbers look weak by comparison and not as good as Ewing’s.  An argument can be made for Gilmore if you count ABA stats but most agree that those are weaker by some percentage to NBA stats.  In terms of intangibles, Ewing was always regarded as a better player offensively (Gilmore made Ewing’s hop step move look smooth) and defensively.

So a conservative estimate of Ewing ranks him about the eighth best center of all time.  That is nothing to be ashamed of.  Let’s keep that in perspective with some of his critics.  I remember when Ewing was traded to Seattle, David Halberstam wrote a retrospective of Ewing asking whether Ewing was truly a great player.  Halberstam’s answer:

“Is [Ewing] a very good player? I guess so. The Knicks in the years of his prime were always going to be respectable, though they were never going to surprise anyone. In the end, I came to hate watching them play: It was all so heavy and slow and predictable. I find him the most puzzling of players, talented, hard-working and, in the end, limited.  His ability leveled out very early in his career, and unlike most very good and great players, he lacked a sense of or feel for the game that often made the best of them seem like coaches on the court. I think one of the most important things that happened during his career was that the game of basketball changed and he did not — or could not. And as the game changed, it unveiled his weaknesses. He was better and more dominating in college, when he concentrated on defense and rebounding, than he was on the pros, when he seemed to think he was first and foremost a jump shooter.” 

That kind of knee-jerk reaction to Ewing missed the point but encapsulated the view of the Ewing detractors.  Yeah, Ewing was not a work of art.  When you watched him play ball it did give you the ennobling feeling you might get from listening to Mozart.  He did not glide like Jordan or run the passing offense of Red Holzman.  However, he is one of the top ten centers of all time and a damn good player.  To assess him for the possibilities you thought Ewing offered when he was in college and not by the reality of the player he was and the great things he accomplished misses that larger point.