Though the tide of opinion has turned somewhat as Paul Westphal's hiring became a reality over the course of the last couple days, it seems to me that there's still a lingering displeasure with the choice floating around this community. The first rumors of Westphal's candidacy inspired little excitement from SactownRoyalty, due in large part to votes of no confidence by ClipperSteve and Kevin Pelton whose basketball opinions TZ (apparently) trusts. Since most of us trust TZ's opinions on the Kings, some mathematical property with a name that I forgot in seventh grade applied and we branded Westphal a "retread" (an ironic accusation, since one of the few qualifications that Petrie called for was head-coaching experience). But the lures of Westphal's conference-winning rookie season as head coach of Phoenix, stellar overall winning percentage in the NBA, and distinguished playing career were too appealing for me to ignore.
In my opinion, his record in Phoenix speaks for itself. Say what you will about the amount of talent that he inherited from the architects of that team; I think we can all name plenty of immensely talented teams that never took the Bulls to six games in the Finals. Westphal's Suns won at least one playoff series in all three of his full seasons, and lost to the eventual NBA Champion each time. Maybe he was just staying out of the way, but he was staying out of the way of Charles Barkley (and winning 59 games per season in the process). That's impressive for a rookie coach. As for his poor record with Pepperdine, I simply don't care. Neither his lack of success at Pepperdine, nor his fantastic achievements at Grand Canyon College mean anything to me. It's not the same job - ask John Calipari.
So that brings us to Seattle, Westphal's most recent stop as an NBA head coach. What happened? In short: he took over a very good team, had some okay seasons, and got fired. But what else happened? Knowing little about those teams, I went to the online archives of the Seattle Times and learned some interesting things that changed my perception of this period of his career. (Spoiler: I give him the benefit of the doubt.) So if you've got the time - and, let's be honest, you do if you've gotten this far - follow me as trace the erratic course of Paul Westphal's tenure in Seattle, as reported by the Seattle Times.
To start things off, here's a fluff piece introducing the origins of Westphal's philosophies from the night before his first game in Seattle. It contains quotes praising him from John Wooden, Red Auerbach, and Kevin Johnson, among others. Most telling is this brief quote by Wooden: "Of all the players that I recruited and lost, he's the one I wanted more than any other." Though the piece is fundamentally superficial, it is clear how much respect Westphal seems to generate from players and coaches alike. It's also clear how high expectations were in Seattle at the time.
This article written before Westphal's hiring describes an interview that took place between Westphal, then-Sonics-GM Wally Walker, and Gary Payton in Oakland (Payton's hometown). Without reading the article it's clear that Payton had an incredible amount of control over franchise operations. If the Cleveland fired Mike Brown tomorrow, would the Cavaliers openly allow LeBron James to conduct a personal interview in his backyard? It's hard to believe. The article goes on to mention that Payton's top choices did not include Westphal and that his friendship with (probable racist and confirmed jackass) Rush Limbaugh was a sticking point. It's clear that Payton had not only a strong bias against Westphal before they had even met, but also the clout within the organization to successfully undermine him. And undermine him, Payton did. But we'll get to that.
Another issue confronting Westphal before he got to do any actual coaching for the Sonics was the labor lockout that began 7/1/98, two weeks after Westphal was hired, and stretched 32 games into the '98-'99 regular season. The lockout not only prevented games from being played, it prohibited any contact between players and franchise representatives. As this article points out, that meant that he couldn't even meet his new players, let alone coach them. And how much gameplanning could he do with only six players under contract? The lockout ended on 1/20/99. Less than three weeks later, the Sonics played their first game of the season, having been forced to sign their rookies, fill out the roster, meet one another, get back into playing condition, and teach what gameplanning was possible in the brief interim after having taken eight months off. Astonishingly, the Sonics were able to rattle off six straight wins before losing their first game of the season to your Sacramento Kings in overtime. They missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade, despite having an identical record to the 8th-seeded Timberwolves.
But all was not right in the Emerald City. Vin Baker - for whom the Sonics had traded Shawn Kemp, one of the keys to the team's emergence in the Western Conference - was severely out of shape after the lockout-lengthened offseason. He was overweight, slow, and lackadaisical, a condition recognized by himself, his teammates, and his coach here. His averages went down from 19/8 to 14/6, his FG% shrunk by 9% and 14%. Baker's lack of productivity and focus (he missed 18 free throws in a row at one point in the season) became one of Seattle's primary setbacks in '98-'99. Despite coming off the worst year of his career to that point, Seattle GM Wally Walker signed Baker to a 7-year $87M contract that summer, thus wedding Westphal's coaching fate to Baker and Payton, who had received his $87M contract before Westphal had arrived and was Baker's best friend on the team.
(Sidenote: Kevin Pelton's analysis of Westphal's failure in Seattle made a certain amount of ado about his starting Billy Owens over Hersey Hawkins and Detlef Schrempf. The truth is that Billy Owens started just 19 of 50 games that season, and 6 of those starts were with Schrempf and Hawkins also starting. On the other hand, Schrempf and Hawkins started 39 and 34 games that season, respectively. They were second and third to Gary Payton in minutes played and also the only players aside from Payton to appear in every game, despite being 36 (Schrempf) and 32 (Hawkins). Statistically they both played almost exactly as well as they had the previous season ('97-'98). Both were gone from the team at the end of the season, both would retire after fewer than more two full seasons, and neither ever scored more than 8ppg in what was left of their careers. If Westphal hastened the end of the Schrempf/Hawkins era, it should be regarded as a good thing, particularly considering that it cleared the way for the emergence of Rashard Lewis. Age, not Paul Westphal, was to blame for the end of their run as core pieces of a contender.)
Despite losing half of their Payton/Baker/Schrempf/Hawkins core, the Sonics went 45-37 and made the playoffs in the '99-'00 season. In fact, they did it with Payton, Baker, their three '99-'00 rookies (Lewis, Jelani McCoy, and Vladimir Stepania), and nine new players. Horace Grant, Brent Barry, Ruben Patterson, and Vernon Maxwell were the top players of this new crowd. Payton had the best year of his career statistically and Vin Baker lost about half of the extra 20 lbs. he had carried in the previous season, and regained about half of the discrepancy in production from the '97-'98 season that it had caused, registering 16.6/7.7 for the season and improving his FT% by about 23%. Unfortunately despite his improved physical conditioning, Baker's performance was erratic, as he was locked in a battle with alcoholism and depression that he had little success controlling. The '99-'00 Sonics lost their opening-round playoff series 3-2 to the Stockton/Malone Jazz after an improved, but inconsistent season with a brand-new team. In the final month of the regular season, Rashard Lewis entered the starting lineup and averaged 14/6 after having averaged just 4/3 in November. His numbers were up across the board, and he had earned the trust of his coach.
The '00-'01 season started poorly. The Sonics acquired Patrick Ewing during the previous offseason, but his production (9.6/7.4) didn't quite match his pricetag ($14M). He was a shell of his former self, and the experiment was doomed from the get-go. Nevertheless, he hobbled through 79 starts that season. Gary Payton quickly became frustrated (as he is wont to do) and began screaming at Westphal on the sideline during an 11/21/00 game in Dallas. Payton received a one-game suspension from the Sonics, but Westphal asked President and GM Wally Walker to lift the ban after a meeting in which Payton showed remorse for his actions, as described here. Six days after Payton's outburst in Dallas two days after being embarrassed by your Sacramento Kings in ARCO, Westphal was fired and Nate "Mr. Sonic" McMillan was promoted to head coach. The team was 6-9 at the time. Officially Westphal was given the boot for the team's lack of discipline, but as excellently summed up here, it was really a case of the team's superstar, Gary Payton, having the ultimate leverage of an $87M guaranteed contract over the dispensable head coach. Westphal himself attributed his firing more to Baker's rocky stretch during his run as head coach. The team finished 44-38. In McMillan's first full season as head coach in Seattle, the Sonics went 45-37 - the exact same record they had achieved in Westphal's first full season. They also lost in the first round of the playoffs.
So how can we characterize the tenure of Paul Westphal in Seattle? Well we certainly can't deny that he took over a winning team. But we also know that it was a very unstable team. Its cornerstone was an arrogant, self-centered point guard with a giant contract to match his giant ego and giant talent. Its strongest pillar was deteriorating from the inside out: emotionally disturbed and alcoholic, Vin Baker's all-star talent was consumed by his bloated body and even-more bloated contract. Nevertheless, Paul Westphal never gave up on his two best players, as noted here and proven by the story of Westphal personally asking for Payton's suspension to be lifted just a day after being publicly verbally abused by his player. The other remnants of Seattle's former glory, Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins, simply didn't have enough basketball left in them to evolve with the team. Having inherited this house of cards, and with the added obstacle of having virtually no time to prepare the team for his lockout-shortened initial season with the franchise, Westphal was able to guide nine new players, three rookies, a head case, and an even bigger headcase (I'll let you decide which is which) to the playoffs. Somewhere, Westphal found the time to nurture the confidence of the talented, but unpolished Rashard Lewis. Despite his adroit maneuvering around the tremendous obstacles that came with the job, Westphal never had a chance. He had been locked out: by the Players' Union, by Gary Payton's ego, by Vin Baker's demons, and by Seattle's unrealistic expectations.
This franchise may be down on its luck, but if there's one thing we haven't lost it's the capacity to get behind another underdog. Paul Westphal's been locked out by this league a couple of times, let's make him feel at home.
P.S. - As these things generally are, this was written very late at night. Please excuse the utter lack of editing and proofreading.