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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jack Sikma: Dependable and Durable

Some great players never make it to the NBA Finals but Jack Sikma played a key role on two Finalists (including one champion) during his first two NBA seasons. You can find out about the seven-time All-Star's career by reading my HoopsHype.com article about him (10/3/15 edit: the link to HoopsHype.com no longer works, so I have posted the original article below, plus some bonus "DVD extras" that were not included when the original article was first published):

Jack Sikma averaged 21.2 ppg and 13.1 rpg in four seasons at Illinois Wesleyan, which was then an NAIA school and is currently classified as a Division III NCAA program. Sikma led the Titans to a 71-20 record and three College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (CCIW) titles in his final three seasons (1975-77).

The Seattle Supersonics selected Sikma with the eighth overall pick in the 1977 draft. Seattle had posted a 40-42 record the previous season, finishing near the bottom of the league in rebounding. Sikma provided an immediate boost in that area, ranking second on the team with an 8.3 rpg average, helping Seattle improve to fourth in the NBA in total rebounds. He also averaged 10.7 ppg, earning a spot on the All-Rookie Team. The Sonics got off to a 5-17 start under first year coach Bob Hopkins but went 42-18 down the stretch after Lenny Wilkens replaced Hopkins at the helm.

"Jack never shied away. He stepped up. That is why we drafted him," recalls Wilkens. "We felt that he was a guy who could contribute and who would be consistent and when I took over as the coach of the Sonics I started him. He had been coming off of the bench. He made free throws at crucial times and was always in the game. When you have success early in your career it makes you that much more confident."

Seattle advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. There they faced the Washington Bullets, a veteran-laden team that had been swept in two previous Finals trips (1971 and 1975). Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes anchored a deep, talented frontline that also featured Bobby Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak and Greg Ballard. Sikma averaged 13.7 ppg and 7.6 rpg in the Finals, including 21 points and 11 rebounds in a 105-99 game seven loss at home as the Bullets won their first and only championship.

Seattle posted the best record in the Western Conference in 1978-79 (52-30). Sikma averaged 15.6 ppg and 12.4 rpg (fifth in the league), earning his first All-Star selection. The Sonics returned to the Finals only to find a familiar foe standing in their way: the Washington Bullets, the only team in the league that won more games than Seattle (54). The Bullets seemed to be in good shape after a 99-97 victory in game one, but Seattle won the next four games as Wilkens claimed the only title of his dual Hall of Fame career as a player and a coach. Sikma averaged 16.2 ppg in the Finals and led both teams with 14.8 rpg and 3.2 bpg.

"It's interesting, because we played them two years in a row and my matchups were different each year," Sikma says. "The first year, I had to play Elvin because Marvin Webster was playing Wes. Of course, you are talking about a guy who is so aggressive with his scoring, attacking the basket and he had the turnaround jumper. He was very physical. That was a series when having Paul Silas behind me was a great help, because it was really challenging physically and I was in foul trouble a lot because I was guarding a player who had the ball in his hands a lot. What is good about those situations is that you have a clear and focused goal: find a way to win no matter what. I was able to do that and get that done--or at least play with some level of success and learn a lot. The second year playing against Wes was a whole different thing with his size and power. Then, defensively, I knew that I was going to be in a physical battle. I had to use my strengths, try to go away from the basket and that kind of thing."

Wilkens believes that Sikma learned a lot from his first NBA Finals experience and that he applied that knowledge during the 1979 Finals. "The second year, he was a lot better; he was much more confident about what he could do," Wilkens says. "Our whole team was more confident. After we played them, we felt that we could beat them. We believed that and we believed that we were going to get back the next year."

As Sikma noted, Paul Silas, a two-time All-Star who was a key member of Boston's championship teams in 1974 and 1976, played a much more important role on Seattle’s 1979 championship team than is suggested by his pedestrian regular season statistics (5.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg). "Paul was aggressive and he could play," Wilkens says. "Any time that I thought that another veteran team was trying to take advantage of Jack, I'd insert Paul. He was a wise veteran; he knew what to do and how to do it. That helped give Jack a reprieve, a chance to catch his breath before he had to go back in the game. In practice, Paul would go against Jack. I would match them up because I wanted Jack to learn from one of the best. Paul was huge in that respect."

"Paul had a great effect helping me to become successful, both on the court and off of it--his approach to the game, how tough you have to be, how relentless you have to be, how focused you have to be," Sikma remembers. "Not just Paul, but the other veterans on the team kind of saw what could maybe happen (with my game) and were always encouraging me--but also challenging me. We always practiced really hard. We were a bunch of young guys trying to get it together. During those practice sessions I got a lot of input from Paul Silas, both verbally and physically"--Sikma chuckles as he says this--about how to play the game. John Johnson, Fred Brown, Dennis Awtrey--all the guys who had been in the league for awhile--were really helpful and encouraging and challenged us every day."

Seattle won 56 games in 1979-80, setting a franchise record that stood until the 1993-94 team won 63 games. However, a new power had arisen in the Western Conference, as rookie Magic Johnson teamed up with MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes to turn the Lakers into bona fide contenders. The Lakers beat Seattle 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals and won the 1980 championship. The Lakers won five titles in the 1980s and made it to the Finals eight times. Meanwhile, slowly but surely the Sonics declined, bottoming out at 31-51 in 1985-86. The team obviously had to rebuild and Sikma wanted to finish out his career playing for a contender, so the Sonics traded him to Milwaukee. Sikma spent the last five years of his career with the Bucks, who made the playoffs each of those seasons but never got past the second round.

Sikma ranked in the top ten in the league in rebounding six straight years (1979-84) and he made the All-Defensive Second Team in 1981-82. He played in all 82 games in eight different seasons. How was he able to be that durable and productive? "I was fortunate. I wasn’t the most athletic big guy," Sikma says. "I felt that I had a level of quickness, especially earlier in my career, that helped me a lot. I played the game positionally. My feet were on the ground a lot. I tried to react and anticipate better than the next guy; I think that helped a lot. There were not a lot of times that I was at risk while playing the game."

In other words, a player who is fundamentally sound and has good anticipation can avoid collisions or at least lessen the impact from them. "That's part of it," Sikma agrees. "The other part of it is (the difference between) collisions while you are in mid-air when you don't have a lot of control versus collisions when you (are on the ground and) have a stable base where you can react and move and that kind of thing--that keeps you out of harm's way more often than not."

Sikma shot better than .800 from the free throw line in 13 of his 14 seasons. In the last three years of his career, he emerged as a legitimate three point shooter. "Part of it had to do with how we played as a team in Milwaukee," Sikma says of his late career rebirth as a long range bomber. "We had some other low post scorers, so we were looking for ways to spread the court. I was able to guard 'fives' and match up with them and this was a way to pull them away from the basket. When I got to Milwaukee under Don Nelson for one year and then Del Harris, we always had a lot of three point shooting games (in practice) and that type of thing and I kind of showed that I could make a few of those. Del started to implement it little by little in the games and there were a few times when we would go to it early in the game just to get the opposing big guy away from the hoop and we had a level of success to keep it going."

After his retirement, Sikma returned to Seattle as an assistant coach for several seasons. Currently, he is an assistant coach for the Houston Rockets, providing guidance to Yao Ming and the team's other big men. Sikma has very specific ideas about how to help post players to develop their games. "Number one is I just spend some time getting to know them and developing a relationship where there is a level of trust," Sikma says. "I watch what they do and try to soak up where we are at. The next thing is that I have certain ideas that I like to discuss, such as how they can be effective by mixing in some face up moves or by attacking the middle more or whatever--just from what you perceive, you basically talk with them to get a level of commitment from them that they think that this type of thing is going to work and then they commit to it. My inside pivot move with my college coach is something that took a long, long time to develop and it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't committed to do it day in and day out"

Of course, the "inside pivot move" is now widely known as the "Sikma move" because Sikma honed it into a useful weapon at the highest levels of the game. "You have to commit to something and that commitment isn't me committing to make you do it," Sikma concludes. "It is you receiving the information and we have to talk about it and then you believe that it can help and are willing to make that commitment. I went against Kareem and some of the great centers in the league and balance is very important--especially, specifically now with Yao--finding ways where you can improve your positioning on the court and maintain your balance. The big challenge for bigs is we have an advantage when we are extended, when we are tall--but that takes away our balanced position. There is a lot of up and down movement that big people have to learn to get comfortable with, when to be down and when to extend and be up. Just start there. There are no big rules: establish a relationship, analyze what may work and what can be improved on and then get a commitment from the player that he wants to do it and then move forward with it."


Here are some additional "DVD extras" about Sikma:

Sikma told me what it was like to face Maurice Lucas, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld in the playoffs so early in his career:

"It was a little overwhelming in the sense of all that came at me as a rookie. Our team was young and had a lot of good pieces and came together really quickly in that 1977-78 season, so I found myself in a position in which I had playoff matchups against some of the better power forwards in the league. To have that kind of responsibility really puts you to the test. So it was a very challenging time but one that was really an important key for me because the amount of experience that I got by going through that during my first two years really helped springboard me as a basketball player. Experience in pressure situations in which you are key to the success of your team and having to focus and bring it every night as you are just entering the league is a lot to have put on you but I am really grateful for the timing of it. Again, I think that it really helped to shape me as a player in this league."


Sikma was one of the best shooting big men ever and his accomplishments in that regard are yet another example that disproves the myth that tall players who have big hands cannot become good free throw shooters. I asked Sikma how he became such an excellent shooter:

"I think that you can improve, especially free throw shooting, no matter what the situation is. I spent a lot of time on that. I felt that if I was going to be a face up jump shooter--even in the low post with my inside pivot--that I had to get to the free throw line. You can't just depend on the jump shot. I wasn't a real power game guy, so I worked hard on getting guys up in the air with shot fakes and then being able to draw the foul. That helped me to be effective in the post. Working on those things, I improved from being an 80% free throw shooter to basically a 90% shooter by the end of my career. If you get to the line a lot, that can make a difference. The other thing is that I was a late bloomer growing up, so I learned the game facing the basket. I learned the game as a wing player. Then again, I wasn't a classic power player in the post. I was a face up shooter in the post so that was just a skill that I had to have to be able to make it in the league in the first place. The range basically comes from repetition. From a fundamental standpoint, I had good shooting form and touch."


Sikma spent his prime years in Seattle but he also enjoyed five productive seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks. In his first year in Milwaukee, the Bucks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the playoffs, ending Julius Erving's 16 year Hall of Fame career:

"What I remember about it is that it was a five game series in my first year in Milwaukee. We had a lot of expectations and we did OK but maybe we didn't finish as high as many thought that we would, so it was really important to advance in the playoffs. That was a big series. I remember that Sunday (May 3, 1987, when the decisive fifth game was played), I knew that Dr. J had announced his retirement (earlier in the season) and made his tour around the league and that kind of thing, so I knew that he would be ready to go and Charles (Barkley) was there. It was a big game and we were fortunate to come out and play really well from the beginning, very aggressive, and won the ball game. I'm sure that it ended not the way that Dr. J had wished specific to that day but who could look back on his career with any kind of regret at all? He was just a fantastic player and the face of the league at that point in time."


Don Nelson coached the Bucks during Sikma's first season and Nellie's unique approach left a lasting impression on Sikma:

"He is really a matchup-oriented coach. Nellie really understands what works for players and he knows his guys so well that even though you wouldn't think so he knows that in certain situations they have advantages over their matchup and he finds a way to go with that and take advantage of that. He is innovative because he is not afraid to throw ideas out there. Nellie likes to talk about a lot of different basketball situations and 'what ifs?' Many times--probably the majority of the time--the thoughts get discarded but still he's willing to think about different ways to skin a cat, per se. With that, I think you find that Nellie is probably a guy who within a game makes as many small adjustments as anybody--whether it is attacking different matchups or playing somebody differently defensively or mixing in a zone or whatever--because he has a lot of different ideas that he likes to try and that is how he sees the game. That is very helpful. There are many times during discussions when we are talking about stuff and looking for ideas about how to handle this and something pops into my mind and we'll discuss it and afterward I will say that the roots of this came from Nellie. So I appreciate that experience. I was fortunate to play for a lot of good coaches in this league. You know, Lenny (Wilkens) and Nellie are the two leaders (in career regular season wins) and I got a chance to play for Lenny for a number of years and Nellie for one. Del Harris had a great tenure in the league. Bernie Bickerstaff was a young coach as a head coach but look how long he has coached in the league. I garnered a lot from good people and how they used me (as a player) and all that kind of stuff and I use all that information and all that experience today when it comes to the coaching side of it."

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:39 AM


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