Charting the Seattle SuperSonics’ Slide
Watching the Seattle SuperSonics the past four-plus seasons has been a roller-coaster ride through a fantasy land. From their magical tour into the Western Conference finals in 1987 to their present status of treading water above the Pacific Division cellar, the entire process (perceived through 20-20 hindsight) has been questionable.
There have been at least 15 steps that have led from the penthouse to this clear view of the basement -- not the least of which was the trade last Friday of Xavier McDaniel to the Phoenix Suns for Eddie Johnson and first-round draft choices in 1991 and 1993 or ’94. The trade of McDaniel is filled with irony considering how he will improve the Suns and hurt the value of those draft picks.
And the tumultuous Dale Ellis adventure took a turn Tuesday when he was activated.
“Our goal all along is to win the NBA championship,” Sonics president Bob Whitsitt said. “Our immediate goal is to make the playoffs this year. We figured we had to make a deal before it was too late to do anything. Now we have enough time to rectify the situation.”
The highlight was reaching the 1987 Western Conference Final with three young 20-point scorers -- Ellis, Tom Chambers and McDaniel -- plus five first-round draft choices over the next three years. Here are the steps, in chronological order, that have led to the present status of the 1990-91 Sonics (5-12) entering the game Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers in the Coliseum.
1. The 1987 draft
The Sonics were eliminated from the Western Conference Final in four games by the Los Angeles Lakers, but had the fifth and ninth selections of the upcoming draft to add to Ellis, Chambers, and McDaniel. Instead of taking the best players available, they stuck to a plan to draft size.
They overplayed their cards, swung a deal with Chicago, giving the Bulls the fifth choice for the eighth selection, plus a second-round choice and a slew of position changes that amounted to nothing. They ended up with Olden Polynice and Derrick McKey instead of combinations from the group of Kevin Johnson, Scottie Pippen, Kenny Smith, Horace Grant and Reggie Miller.
Adding to the air of questionable judgment was that the only contingency on the Chicago trade was that Reggie Williams wasn’t available with the fifth pick. Williams already is on his third team, San Antonio, having been traded by the Los Angeles Clippers, then cut by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The best part of the whole deal was ending up with Sedale Threatt.
2. The 1988 playoffs
This was a major turning point in the franchise, as coach Bernie Bickerstaff’s disdain for Chambers and love affair with McKey came to fruition. This was the most talented team from top to bottom in the five years, but Bickerstaff’s frantic coaching and benching of Chambers in Game 1 of a first-round series blew a huge lead, cost them the game, and ultimately the series. McKey single-handedly took over Game 4 with 18 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 25 minutes, creating an illusion of future dominance.
3. Chambers Part I
Chambers became an unrestricted free agent and Ellis was a restricted free agent. Bickerstaff repeatedly assured Ellis the team was being built around him, and never once talked to Chambers. He also put out the word Chambers could not get along with McDaniel and Ellis. Whitsitt never again came close to signing Chambers. The Sonics’ four-year, $5 million offer was doubled by Phoenix. Ellis then was signed to a six-year, $7.4 million deal.
4. Chambers Part II
Chambers left in July, but not before he unloaded on the media about the Sonics trading the 15th choice of the 1988 draft (Gary Grant) and the middle of three 1989 first-round selections to the Los Angeles Clippers for Michael Cage. Chambers said Cage could do only one thing, rebound. Well, he does play good man-to-man defense, too. But beyond that, Chambers was right. Cage was an ill-suited replacement for the multitalented Chambers, and two more draft choices were gone.
5. McKey Illusion II
Another illusion unfolded in the 1988-89 season as the Sonics rolled to a 47-35 record with the benefit of five victories against expansion teams.
The attempt to move McDaniel to sixth man failed miserably, although McKey continued to look like the future star of the team at small forward. The final 10 games, McDaniel started at small forward and McKey at power forward, with Cage relegated to the bench. It began a steady stream of moves to appease McDaniel, ultimately pushing McKey and Cage out of position, negating McKey’s effectiveness in particular and killing his confidence.
6. The nerves are shot
Bickerstaff went to the emergency room in Milwaukee, Wis., on March 9, 1988, with a bleeding peptic ulcer, reflecting the turmoil coaching was causing him. He missed six games and threatened to retire after the Sonics lost to the Lakers in the 1989 Western Conference semifinals. He coaxed friend K.C. Jones to join the fold as an assistant for the 1989-90 season, a segue to take over as head coach for the 1990-91 season.
7. Good draft, bad logistics
The good part of the 1989 draft was selecting Shawn Kemp and Dana Barros. The bad part was how they got there. With the 17th and 18th choices remaining from their big five, Whitsitt traded No. 18 for Brad Sellers, then swapped the 1990 first-round choice to Golden State for the 16th selection in the 1989 draft. Six weeks later, center Alton Lister was dealt to get the pick back. In essence, Lister was traded for Sellers, who was traded for Steve Johnson. Johnson was released at the end of the year, and the Sonics still haven’t replaced the shot-blocking, low-post play of Lister. Bickerstaff told Whitsitt he couldn’t continue with Cage and Lister, and Whitsitt opted to get rid of Lister.
8. The Ellis factor continues
With the team struggling to get above .500, Ellis gets into a one-car accident on Jan. 12, 1990, and is convicted of drunken and reckless driving, then McDaniel had arthroscopic surgery on his knee for the second time in 18 months.
But Ellis was the major problem, with this being another example of his inability to avoid off-court problems that included getting arrested in Houston during the 1987 playoffs, getting arrested for domestic violence for allegedly striking his wife, and countless moving violations.
9. Reality strikes
Bickerstaff, with Jones at his side, kept his head up and nearly got the team into the playoffs with numerous lineup changes. With Ellis and McDaniel back, the Sonics could have been in the playoffs had they won their regular-season finale. They didn’t.
10. Hello K.C., bye Bernie
On May 15, Jones was named head coach and Bickerstaff became vice president of basketball operations. It became evident, quickly, Bickerstaff was caught between Whitsitt and Jones, with nowhere to go. On July 10, Bickerstaff resigned and was named general manager of the Denver Nuggets, leaving Jones with a disjointed team, with Ellis and McDaniel at the apex of the problems.
11. The ‘Hot Rod’ chase
In September, word got out the Sonics and Cavaliers had struck a deal, sending McDaniel and Nate McMillan to Cleveland for John “Hot Rod” Williams, money, and possibly a draft choice. But Williams, who signed a $26.5 million offer sheet from Miami that was matched by Cleveland, utilized his option to veto the deal. McDaniel was enraged and McMillan upset. They both came to training camp in October in various states of anxiety.
12. Ellis again
Ellis is in woeful condition in training camp and on Oct. 20 in East Lansing, Mich., complains of numbness in his right foot and is placed on the injured list with what was diagnosed as tarsal tunnel syndrome.
13. Ellis exacerbation
The beginning of the end: On the day before Thanksgiving, in practice, Ellis and McDaniel squared off. They got into a full-fledged fight in front of the Sonics administrative offices, and Ellis was suspended without pay for five days.
14. X Man, the ex-Sonic
Then last Friday, after months of speculation and the inability to deal Ellis, McDaniel was traded to Phoenix for 31-year-old Eddie Johnson and two draft choices. McDaniel responded by saying, “The off-court problems haven’t been the Sonics. They’ve been Dale Ellis. It hasn’t been a lot of guys getting into trouble, it’s been all Dale Ellis.”
15. And in the end
Tuesday, the Sonics activated Ellis from the injured list.