The talk of the NBA, aside from incessant jabbering about the MVP, is how incredible the Nuggets have been since trading Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups for a bunch of young players who play defense. The Nugget’s coach, George Karl, is typically known as a strong offensive coach– a guy who knows how to put his players in position to be successful. But this recent run by the Nuggets has been fueled by the defense, as the Nuggets have posted one of leagues the top defensive efficiency ratings since the trade—a big leap from where they were.
This got me thinking about the last time George Karl had a really excellent defensive club: in Seattle in the mid 1990s. The Sonics, like the current Nuggets, boasted a roster jam-packed with versatile athletes who could cover multiple positions (could Danillo Gallinari be the next Detlef Schrempf?!). Of course, the Nuggets don’t have Gary Payton, who from 1992-6 may have played the greatest defensive stretch of seasons by a point guard ever.
The Nuggets also don’t have Bob Kloppenburg, who was the defensive assistant with the Sonics from 1985-96, and developed the team’s defensive signature philosophy, SOS.
Kloppenburg’s system with the Sonics was just rude. Instead of reacting to the offense like a polite defense, the Sonics disrupted the opponent’s offensive actions by imposing a state of mayhem on the game. The roster of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Kendall Gill, Schrempf, Nate MacMillan and Sam Perkins was tailor made for the task.
Offenses have a plan, and the SuperSonics’ switching, trapping defense was designed to attack the offense in such a way that the plan would need to be torched in favor of whatever would help the ball handler survive the immense pressure. As a result of the SOS system, the 1993-4 SuperSonics generated 200 more turnovers than any other team, nearly setting an NBA record by forcing offenses to cough up the rock on over 18% of their possessions.
My basketball proto-memories are of that SuperSonics team flying around the court in an organized chaos, tips, deflections and viscous traps inevitably leading to a thunderous Payton to Kemp alley-oop. The Sonics took it to the competition with an aggressive, hectic style that could only be described as badass. We knew anyone coming into our house was going to have to play our way, think of it as the defensive incarnation of the Suns 7 seconds or less offense.
Ironically enough, after winning 63 games in 1994, it was the Denver Nuggets who so famously upset the top seeded Sonics, leaving us with the iconic image of Dikembe Mutumbo sprawled on his back, clutching the basketball in front of his face as tears of joy stained the Seattle Colliseum floor. I’m not including that image here.
But I was at that game, as an 8 year old just learning what it meant to care too much about an NBA team. I remember weeping uncontrollably as I left the stadium with my dad, wrapped around his left hip as he dragged me like a deadweight third leg from the stadium. I recall how everyone else sent staggering out of the stadium had been shocked into speechlessness. There are few creepier things than 16,000 adults in solemn silence.
So I watch these new, inspiring, Nuggets, whose frenetic defense is built on contesting every shot rather than generating turnovers through disruption, and feel the mixed emotions so characteristic of nostalgia: I’m at once filled with the joy of mid 1990s Sonic fever, and the regret of their losing in 1994, and their leaving a fourteen years later.
Obligatory clip of ferocious Kemp/Payton highlights: