Avg Wins per season: 59.5
1993: Lost in Western Finals to Suns in 7
1994: Lost in first round to Nuggets in 5
1995: Lost in first round to Lakers in 4
1996: Lost in NBA Finals to Bulls in 6
1997: Lost in 2nd round to Rockets in 7
1998: Lost in 2nd round to Lakers in 5
Between the 1989 and the 1990 drafts, the Seattle Supersonics picked up the two players who would form one of the best 1-2 punches of the decade. With the 17th pick in the 1989 draft, Seattle stole the 19 year old man-child Shawn Kemp. Coming straight from prep school, many teams had passed on him because of his age and inexperience. Though it would take a year, Kemp soon made those teams pay. The following year, the Sonics were rewarded with the number two pick, using it to pick up Gary Payton. Payton would take some time to mature into his role as floor general, his scoring average would steadily rise from his rookie year (7.2) until his fifth season, when he had his first 20+ ppg season.
It took some time for the duo to take over the team, but once they did, the Sonics would feature one of the league’s strongest defenses and most deadly fast breaks. Payton’s first year, the Sonics were ousted in the first round, and they followed this by falling to the Run-TMC warriors in 1992. By 1993, the Sonics were ready to roll, and thus began a six year stretch in which the Sonics would average 59.5 wins a season, placing themselves alongside the Jazz and Rockets as one of the elite teams of the West.
In 1993 saw the Sonics fell in a seven game classic to the Phoenix Suns, but the team stood ready to build on the success of their young duo. After Jordan retired for the first time, the Sonics were on the short list of contenders. 93-94 saw them post one of their finest regular seasons. Behind Payton, Kemp, and newly acquired big man Detlef Schrempf, the Sonics cruised to a league best 63 wins, and they matched up with the 42 win Denver Nuggets. What followed is one of the most told stories in the NBA’s annals. Up 2-0 in the series, the Sonics dropped the final three games, resulting in the biggest upset in NBA history.
Expectations were high for the Sonics, who finished fourth in the conference the following season. Led by Kemp and Payton, and joined by Schrempf and young star Kendall Gill, the Sonics were once again heavily favored in the first round against the LA Lakers. The Sonics barely won a game as they suffered yet another playoff collapse, ending their chance to win a title while Jordan was out of the league.
In 1996 these Sonics had inarguably their finest year. Both Kemp and Payton had perhaps among their best seasons. Kemp cemented his place next to Karl Malone and Charles Barkley as one of the league’s most unstoppable power forwards, averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds. Payton meanwhile, was all finesse on the offensive end, good for 19 points and 7 assists a game. Even more important, however were his almost three steals, which netted him defensive player of the year, and a reputation as one of the league’s finest perimeter defenders. Finishing with 64 wins, good for second best in the NBA, the Sonics swept the defending champion Houston Rockets, and frustrated the Utah Jazz in the Western Finals. Though they eventually lost to the legendary 1996 Bulls, the Sonics were undoubtedly the second best team in that 1995-1996 season.
The next year would be Kemp’s last with the team. Changes were underway within the organization. The team featured a much slower-paced half court offense, better suited for Patyon’s ability to create off the dribble. Kemp’s scoring dipped while Patyon’s rose. Still, the team finished with 57 wins, and was among the favorites to come out of the west. Eventually, the team lost in seven to the Houston Rockets, and Kemp was traded in the off-season. For one season, 1997-1998, Vin Baker would play the part of Shawn Kemp, and few could tell the difference. Displaying an affinity with Patyon on the court, Baker had one of his best seasons, helping guide the new, grind it out Sonics to 61 wins. The Sonics eventually lost once more in the second round, becoming victims of a Laker team that was led by Shaq and Kobe Bryant. The Sonics never again reclaimed the success that they had had earlier in the decade. They never made it out of the first round with Patyon again. Still, their annual regular season dominance, combined with a phenomenal 1995-1996 season cements them as one of the top teams of the era.
Highest High: While the Chicago Bulls stole the spotlight in 1995-1996 with 72 wins and a year long coronation of Michael Jordan as basketball’s messiah, the Sonics were running on all cylinders out west. Earlier in the decade their maturity issues had haunted them in the playoffs, but now their will to win had caught up with their talent, and all the pieces just seemed to come together. The fact that they cruised through a very tough western conference is evidence for just how good this team was.
Why didn’t they win? Well the presence of Michael Jordan for one, but mostly because of their two infamous playoff collapses. They were absolutely the best team in the regular season in 1993-1994, and were better than their record showed in 1994-1995. The fact that in 1996 they swept the Rockets shows that, had they made it out of the first round either of those years, they had a good chance to go all the way. Instead, they will go down as one of the best teams from the modern era to never win a title.