Technically speaking, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the newest team in the NBA. Until 2008, they were known as the Seattle SuperSonics. In a hotly contested move, owner Clay Bennett bought out the SuperSonics’ lease with Seattle’s Key Arena, and moved the team to Oklahoma City. The Thunder will play their home games at the Ford Center. Their head coach is P.J. Carlesimo.
Early Years in Seattle
The Seattle SuperSonics were born in 1967. They suffered the typical growing pains of an NBA expansion franchise, winning only 23 games in their inaugural year. Led by future Hall of Fame point guard Lenny Wilkens, the team averaged 33 wins in its first seven seasons. Their best season during that stretch was the 1971-72 season, in which they won 47 games but failed to make the playoffs.
The Seattle SuperSonics made their first playoff appearance in the 1974-75 season, Bill Russell’s first as head coach. They beat Detroit in the first round before losing to the Golden State Warriors in the second round.
The Seattle SuperSonics posted a 52-30 record in the 1978-79 season. Led by Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and center Jack Sikma, they beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, four games to one. In the Western Conference finals, they beat the Phoenix Suns in seven games, advancing to the NBA Finals. The Sonics faced the Washington Bullets (now known as the Wizards) in the Finals, defeating them four games to one. It is, so far, the franchise’s only championship.
Karl, and Payton, and Kemp — oh, my!
After enjoying moderate success during the 1980s the Seattle SuperSonics developed into one of the NBA’s best teams for much of the 1990s. Three factors are largely credited for this development: the drafting of forward Shawn Kemp in 1989, the drafting of point guard Gary Payton in 1990, and the hiring of head coach George Karl in 1992.
Karl’s hiring boosted the Sonics from a playoff contender to a Western Conference powerhouse. In the 1992-93 season, the team posted 55 regular season wins and made it to the conference finals, where they lost to the Phoenix Suns, four games to three.
After first round losses in the following two seasons, the Sonics came roaring back. In 1995-96, the team won 64 regular season games. In the playoffs, they beat the Sacramento Kings, the Houston Rockets, and the Utah Jazz en route to their first NBA Finals appearance since the 1978-79 season.
Like the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sonics had the misfortune of going against the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. The Bulls won the series, four games to two, and despite continued success, the Sonics never made it to another Finals.
Shawn Kemp was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1997, George Karl left after the 1997-98 season, and Payton was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in the middle of the 2002-03 season.
In 2007, Sonics star shooting guard Ray Allen was traded to the Boston Celtics for three minor players. The Sonics drafted Texas scoring machine Kevin Durant the same year. Led by Durant, the Sonics won only 20 games in their last season in Seattle.
The Oklahoma City Thunder may have moved east, but they are still a member of the Western Conference. As such, a playoff berth is not a feasible goal for the Thunder. Rather, a 30- to 35-win season would be considered a successful campaign for the former Seattle SuperSonics.
Fred Brown, Tom Chambers, Spencer Haywood, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Jack Sikma, Lenny Wilkens, Gus Williams