Welcome to #CavsRank, the illustrious ranking of the best all-time Cleveland Cavaliers players from some of your favorite Cavs bloggers. Today, Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens checks in at No. 18.
Cleveland might not be as synonymous with the legendary Lenny Wilkens as the cities of Seattle, Atlanta and even Brooklyn. But there’s no doubt Wilkens, both as a player and coach, had a profound impact on the Cavaliers franchise.
As a coach, his seven-year run was one of the most successful stretches for any Cleveland sports team. They won 57 games one season and made the Eastern Conference Finals a different year. But always, there were rival squads just a wee bit better and that pesky superstar in Chicago.
That serves fairly well as the epitome of Wilkens’ career. Always second-best, constantly overlooked. Yes, he retired as the all-time winningest coach in NBA history – but he’s since dropped to second place. Of course.
More overlooked than anything, especially in the eyes of today’s NBA fan, is the fact that Lenny Wilkens, 32-year head coach, also was a phenomenal basketball player. He was a Hall of Famer as a player, too. And his playing days included a late-career stint with the fledgling Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I learned early that if I wanted to achieve anything in life, I’d have to do it myself. I learned that I had to be accountable.”
As the story goes, Wilkens, a native of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, came from an incredibly difficult background. Born in 1937, his father died when he was four. By seven, Lenny was bagging groceries and serving as the man of his household. Gangs were everywhere. He quickly learned to block away all the outside noises. That steadfast character shaped his later days.
From a two-time All-American career at Providence, the defensive-minded player was selected as the No. 6 pick by the St. Louis Hawks in the 1960 draft. The first two picks in that draft? Legends Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.
“He has gifts, which always helps,” Gary Smith wrote in Sports Illustrated back in 1994. “Bedford-Stuyvesant has dozens of better shooters, higher leapers, faster runners, flashier dribblers. But he has phenomenally quick hands on defense and eyes that see everything on a court — sharp photographs instead of blur. And one more thing: He has made it his life’s business not to let feelings migrate to his muscles, to his nerves. One minute left. One-point game. Give him the ball.”
Wilkens actually had never seen a live NBA game until after he was drafted. Quietly, of course, he developed into a crafty and talented left-handed point guard. He missed the bulk of his second NBA season for active military service. He then became involved with the Player’s Association, a leader on the perennial Hawks playoff teams and one of the league’s best players.
In 1967-68, at 30 years old, he averaged 20.0 points, 8.3 assists and even 5.3 rebounds. He was getting better, craftier, an even more willing passer. He finished in second place in the MVP voting. The winner was none other than Wilt Chamberlain. But after that season, the Hawks packed their bags for the bright promises of Atlanta and, after a brief but subtle contract dispute, dispatched Wilkens to Seattle.
He spent four playing years with the Sonics. At the start of his second year, he was named a player-coach — just the second African-American coach in the league’s history. He already had been the de facto coach anyway. All the while, he would set career marks and lead the league in assists, earning All-Star nod after All-Star nod while still averaging at least 18 points per game.
But again, just like he had been banished to the second-year SuperSonics, he suddenly was banished to the third-year Cavaliers. The Cavs were only 15-67 and 23-59 in the franchise’s first two seasons. Cleveland was seen as so undesirable that Wilkens actually didn’t play the first six games of the 1972-73 season out of protest. He never really wanted to be there. Seattle was his new love, his new home.
Those early Bill Fitch teams had some young talent, no doubt. But nothing was clicking. There was big man Walt Wesley, the de facto veteran. Scorer Bingo Smith was the No. 6 pick in 1969 by San Diego, then became an all-time Cavaliers legend. Forward John Johnson was the franchise’s first draft pick (No. 7 in 1970) and first All-Star in that 1970-71 season.
The terrible debut season led to the drafting of No. 1 pick and Notre Dame superstar Austin Carr. Carr was a sensational talent, immediately becoming a 20-point scorer, and could have had a historic career if not for debilitating injuries. The young Cavaliers also brought in big man Rick Roberson, who averaged a double-double that next season. Up-and-coming point guard Butch Beard joined the team after military service and promptly made the ’72 All-Star game.
“Show people how to have success and then you can push their expectations up.”
Beard was traded to Seattle in the Wilkens deal. Fitch called the trade “a calculated gamble,” betting on the odds of a current superstar’s possible contributions in return for the young Beard. At the time, Wilkens was a soon-to-be 35-year-old eight-time All-Star and on track for one of the greatest NBA careers ever. He could have simply decided to coach, not play, and remain in Seattle. The Sonics were ready to move forward and, heck, he had just led the league in assists. Eventually, he played for the Cavaliers. And play he did.
“A playmaker isn’t a guy who simply runs patterns for you,” Fitch said to Sports Illustrated via NBA.com. “He’s the guy who can make things happen when the set things haven’t panned out. When the clock gets down to five or six seconds, he’ll go to one of the basics — one-on-one, pick and roll, pass-and-cut. And he’ll make them work.”
Wilkens helped to transform those early Cavaliers, even though the records still weren’t quite good enough. He made his mark. His competitiveness seeped into the hearts of the Cavs’ impressionable talents. He served as a mentor for the new young point guard Jim Cleamons, an Ohio State product. And just like he always did, Wilkens played excellently.
He was the franchise’s first superstar, well before the days of Brad Daugherty or LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. He averaged 20.5 points, 8.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds in year one with the team. He made his trademark running hooks and scoop shots and racked up the assists. At 35 years old. He only missed one other game the rest of the season season after his early season protest. He earned his incredible ninth All-Star bid.
In year two, the averages dropped down to 16.4 points, 7.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds. He was clearly on his final days as a star. Carr and Smith were developing into the team’s two better players and were far younger. It was the last season of superstar Lenny Wilkens. He didn’t make the All-Star team. After the year, he was traded to Portland – a long-rumored final destination – where he played out his final season.
As a person, Lenny Wilkens has always been seen as credible, honest, faithful, disciplined, reverent and, above all else, a non-superstar. He never even coached a superstar during his 32 years on the bench. In many social settings – and even in parties – he’d easily blend into a crowd, pretending to be a nobody. He kept everyone out of his inner circle. He was such a staunchly independent figure, it irked executives, coaches and even his former players.
But as a Cleveland Cavaliers player, Wilkens helped kickstart the franchise’s path to relevance. Just two years after his departure, Fitch’s Miracle of Richfield team – shaped by the first inches of competitiveness of those Wilkens teams – stunningly made the Eastern Conference Finals. Expectations had shifted. Lenny Wilkens, the player, changed the Cavs.
There’s an argument to be made that Wilkens’ No. 19 jersey truly deserves to be retired by the Cavaliers organization. Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, lower on this #CavsRank list, also only played two late-career seasons with the franchise. Heck, Thurmond only played one full-season equivalent in minutes. Wilkens was the first Cleveland basketball superstar and an incredibly successful head coach for the franchise too. With the upcoming retirement of Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ No. 11, Wilkens is a fitting next person to honor.
More #CavsRank coverage around the Web
Introduction — Kevin Hetrick, Cavs: The Blog
No. 20: Mo Williams and Nate Thurmond — Carter Rodriguez, Real Cavs Fans
No. 19: Craig Ehlo — David Zavac, Fear The Sword