Quick! Name a time when the Sonics/Thunder had NO top-flight talent. It’s pretty tough. Throughout the years, this has been one talent-laden franchise.
From Bob Rule and Mahdi Abdul-Rahman (better known as UCLA great Walt Hazzard) to Kevin Durant today, superb offensive talent and exciting play has been a hallmark of the Supersonics’ (now Thunder) franchise.
Despite missing the postseason in their first seven seasons, talent was not in short supply for the Sonics. In a rough 23-59 debut season, the 1967-68 Sonics boasted a solid man in the middle in Rule (18.1 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and a 24 ppg from Abdul-Rahman in his only season with the team.
The following season, Rule took his game to new heights as the Sonics welcomed star PG Lenny Wilkens, previously of the St. Louis Hawks. Wilkens’ outstanding play carried over to Seattle as he averaged 22.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and 8.2 apg in the first of his four seasons with the Sonics.
After one more excellent season, Rule’s run in Seattle came to a disappointing end, as injuries limited him to just 20 games over the next two seasons. However, Spencer Haywood was there to pick up the slack, after an awesome 30 ppg and 19.5 rpg rookie season in Denver. He was a double-double machine for the Sonics over the next five seasons, the last of which included the Sonics’ first-ever postseason trip.
The Haywood era also saw the end of the Wikens era, though the Supersonics did add a trio of talented guards during that stretch- “Downtown” Fred Brown in 1971, Slick Watts in 1973, and future Hall of Famer and 1979 Finals MVP Dennis Johnson before the 1976-77 season. The following year, Seattle added a pair of young stars—Gus Williams and Jack Sikma—who would combine with Brown and Johnson to spearhead runs to back-to-back Finals appearances and the NBA 1979 championship.
Williams joined the Sonics after two years with the Warriors, while Sikma was the eighth pick in the 1978 draft. Williams was a consistent offensive threat over the next six seasons, and Sikma became one of the NBA’s best centers of the late-1970s and 1980s, regularly averaging a double-double and possessing a soft outside touch.
By the mid-1980s, while Sikma continued to anchor the middle, Williams was on his way out and a fading David Thompson had played out his last two seasons in Seattle. Unless they retooled quickly, the Sonics would become an also-ran contender.
Not to worry, more talent was on the way!
After acquiring Tom Chambers in 1983, the Sonics drafted rugged power forward Xavier McDaniel in 1985 and the following year—their first post-Sikma—traded for underutilized Mavericks’ two-guard, Dale Ellis. The trio clicked beautifully in their first seasons together, 1986-87, each averaging 20+ ppg and leading the Sonics to the 1987 conference finals.
While Chambers was gone by the start of the 1988-89 season, Ellis and McDaniel remained, holding down the fort until the arrival of the cornerstones for the next decade—Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. The Sonics completed their return to contender status by adding Detlef Schrempf via a trade in 1993.
This crew led the Sonics to four straight seasons of 57+ wins and the 1996 NBA Finals. However, by decade’s end, Kemp and Schrempf were gone and Payton, now the face of the franchise, was teamed with Vin Baker and rising star Rashard Lewis.
Roughly 30 games into the 2002-03 season, after nearly 1,000 games with the Sonics, Payton was traded, paving the way for a new wave of young stars to rule in Seattle. With Lewis now coming into his own, Payton was sent to Milwaukee in exchange for one of the NBA’s great shooters, Ray Allen.
After a rough 2006-07 season (31-51), luck smiled on the Sonics, as some friendly ping-pong balls and the “you can’t teach seven feet” adage landed the franchise one of this generation’s deadliest scorers, Kevin Durant. Meanwhile, Seattle sent Ray Allen (and his $14+ million salary) to Boston in exchange for Jeff Green and some cheap filler. Also, after becoming a regular 20 ppg scorer, Lewis left as a free agent for Orlando, signing a monstrosity (albatross?) of a $120 million free agent deal.
The Sonics struggled in 2007-08, but Green and (especially) Durant showed themselves to be more than capable of excelling in the NBA. After a couple of tough years, things were looking up in Seattle.
Not so fast!
In one of the NBA’s embarrassing chapters, Starbucks mogul, then-Sonics owner and then-Seattle icon, Howard Schultz, sold the franchise to Oklahoma businessman Clay Bennett. Despite declarations of commitment to Seattle and claims that the team would not be relocated, Bennett and David Stern (Bennett’s buddy) tag-teamed to plunge a dagger into the heart of one of the NBA’s best fan bases. The next season, the former Seattle Sonics took the floor as the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What’s happened since? Not much.
Durant’s averaged 25 and 30 ppg in the past two seasons, and become the youngest scoring champion in league history. Meanwhile, the Thunder added stud PG Russell Westbrook in the 2009 draft and have since become one of the NBA’s most likable teams and a budding title contender.