Wednesday, May 21

Championship Fallout

Happy Birthday, former Sonic James Bailey

There is a paragraph in Lenny Wilkens’ autobiography Unguarded, where the former Seattle Sonics coach talks about what made staying at the top of the NBA mountain so difficult after the Sonics had captured the NBA title against Washington in the 1978-79 season. Allow me to quote:

Another by-product of winning is low draft choices. The more you win, the lower you draft. So we didn’t have an influx of young talent to replace the aging veterans such as Silas, John Johnson, and Fred Brown.

Just one problem with Wilkens’ theory: It’s crap.

I’m sorry, that’s too blunt. To be fair, Wilkens explains in previous pages that the main culprit is “Championship Fallout,” or what Pat Riley calls “The Disease of Me.” Put simply, many of the Sonics’ players became greedy or complacent after winning the title in 1979.

But, that’s not our issue today. No, we’re focused on Wilkens’ contention that by winning the NBA Title in 1979, the Sonics were doomed to fail simply because the team continued to win large numbers of games in subsequent years, leading to low picks.

Oddly, co-writer Terry Pluto never called Wilkens on this, but a simple glance at the draft board for June 1979 shows the Sonics with the #7 pick overall, a pick they received in compensation from the Knicks after Marvin Webster signed as a free agent with New York.

That #7 pick was Vinnie Johnson, who wound up playing in three NBA Finals … for the Detroit Pistons.

Well, you say, that’s just one player. How can you expect the Sonics to reload with just one top 10 pick in a few seasons?

Ah, yes, but you forget, Vinnie Johnson wasn’t the Sonics ONLY first round pick that year. In fact, he wasn’t even their HIGHEST first round pick that year.

That’s right, the NBA Champion Seattle Sonics not only had the #7 pick in the draft, they had the #6 pick in the draft. In the entire history of the NBA, can you point to any other NBA Champion with TWO top ten picks the month they won the title? I’m too lazy to do the research, but I’m guessing it’s not a long list.

That pick – James Bailey – turns 57 today, and is, obviously, the reason you’re reading this right now. And while Bailey never materialized as the NBA star the Sonics hoped, the fact they were even able to select him at all throws quite a bit of mud in the face of Wilkens’ excuse that a main factor for his inability to maintain a championship team was lack of access to bright, young talent.

Ironically, the Sonics found greater talent in the fourth round when they drafted James Donaldson, who, of course, went on to great success with the Dallas Mavericks, and in the second round, when they selected Johnny Moore, who went on to score 5,000 points with the (mostly) San Antonio Spurs.

In all, players drafted by the Sonics the month they won Seattle’s first major sports championship went on to score 30,000 points and grab 15,000 rebounds in the NBA, most of which came in jerseys that were not green and yellow.

In the end, it appears that contrary to Lenny Wilkens’ theory, the problem wasn’t that the Sonics didn’t have access to talent – it was that they didn’t know what to do with it when they found it.

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