The NBA playoffs, a two-month marathon party, have begun. Once again, Seattle isn’t invited, and even if it were, we’d probably bring Brussels sprouts and prune juice to the shindig.
Yep, still bitter.
It’s going to take a new team and a fantastic mediator to fix that complicated relationship. But it doesn’t mean there’s complete local apathy about this time of year. People just have to be creative and resilient to find joy among the anger and sadness over losing the Sonics six years ago.
If you’re in search of a reason to root, or at least pay casual attention, during the playoffs, let me give you three names from the George Karl coaching tree that evoke memories of the 1995-96 Sonics, the last great Seattle NBA team.
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Nate McMillan. Dwane Casey. Terry Stotts.
They’re all Karl disciples who have done incredible coaching jobs this season.
McMillan, the former head coach who is now an Indiana assistant, helped the Pacers earn the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Casey led the Toronto Raptors to their best regular season ever and a No. 3 seed in the East. And Stotts has directed the revival of the Portland Trail Blazers, getting the best out of the gifted star duo of point guard Damian Lillard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
It’s hard to believe it has been 18 years since they were together. Back then, McMillan was the glue, the sanity and the player always willing to sacrifice for a dynamic young team. Casey and Stotts were assistants who enjoyed long and successful runs with Karl.
The 1996 Sonics are a local treasure that has aged well. With a 64-18 record, they had the best regular season in the franchise’s history. They didn’t win a championship like the 1979 team. They advanced to the NBA Finals but lost in six games to Michael Jordan’s record-setting, 72-win Chicago Bulls. Players and coaches from that Sonics era look back at their dominant six-year period and lament not winning a title.
The Sonics averaged 59.5 wins per season during that span. They played like a team from the NBA’s future, with their pressing and trapping and jumping out of the gym. They don’t have rings to show off, but they were a phenomenon during a fun time in Seattle sports.
“I didn’t ever see a team like us,” Gary Payton said in an interview last year. “We won 60 games for almost five or six seasons. And that was just amazing, to win 60 games. And everybody was just hyped on it. And we gave so much entertainment that it was something else. We would win a lot of games like that, and people would start saying, ‘Now this is a team.’ And that’s how it was.
“Everybody was always scared to come into KeyArena. All the time. Because they knew they got a crew to reckon with. And when we went on the road, we were like that, too.”
The past 18 years haven’t been easy for many members of that 1996 team, especially the three coaches who will carry the memory into these playoffs. Inexplicably, McMillan hasn’t found a head-coaching job since the Blazers fired him in 2012. He has a career winning percentage of .514 and five playoff appearances in 12 seasons despite taking on two difficult jobs in Seattle and Portland. If Brandon Roy and Greg Oden had stayed healthy in Portland, he would’ve had an excellent chance to win a championship. Instead, he is Frank Vogel’s assistant in Indiana, and it’s no surprise the Pacers made progress in becoming a more efficient and hard-nosed team with McMillan on the bench this season.
Many had already put Casey and Stotts in the “Great Assistant, Bad Head Coach” pile before this season. Both had been fired before. Casey lasted a season and a half in Minnesota. Stotts was canned in Atlanta and Milwaukee. And when they took over their current teams, there was little buzz, and a common assumption that they would fail.
But both coaches needed only patience and a true commitment from their organizations. Stotts has transformed the Blazers into a 54-win team in two seasons. Casey inherited one of the worst situations in the NBA, but the Raptors won a franchise-record 48 games this season, his third year in charge.
Their coaching styles are different from Karl’s, but you see some of his influence in their athletic styles of play and in how serious they are about playing basketball the right way.
There’s plenty of local interest in these playoffs, from Seattle native Jamal Crawford pursuing a championship with the Los Angeles Clippers to former Washington State star Klay Thompson combining with Stephen Curry to form the league’s best-shooting backcourt in Golden State. In just about every series, you can find a trace of Seattle basketball, whether it’s a homegrown player or a local college star or a former Sonic. Oklahoma City isn’t the only playoff team you watch and wonder what could’ve been.
But if you are nostalgic, the 1996 Sonics are alive in McMillan, Casey and Stotts.
Reminisce through them. Appreciate how they’ve survived and evolved, too.
And if that doesn’t make the playoff party enjoyable, there still might be a chance to spike retired NBA commissioner David Stern’s punch.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277