Although Gus Williams is getting most of the credit for Seattle's resurgence this season, the major reason for the Sonic boom is the return of Lonnie Shelton, the heart of defense.
When Seattle plunged to the cellar last season after finishing second behind Los Angeles with a 56-26 record the year before, Coach Lenny Wilkens said he didn't miss Williams' scoring as much as Shelton's defense, rebounding and physical presence around the basket.
"The type of defense we play, we funnel things to the middle, but without Lonnie in there, it just isn't very effective," the veteran coach explained. "You can make up scoring from outside a lot easier than you can defense around the basket."
Williams is back after a year's holdout and is seventh in the league in scoring with a 23.5 average. Shelton, who missed the last 65 games after wrist surgery, has come back to average a career-high 17 points, plus 6.8 rebounds a game.
"Having Lonnie back has made a big difference for me and the team," said center Jack Sikma, who was voted to Sunday's All-Star Game roster along with Shelton and Williams. "It's taken a lot of pressure off me. He takes up a lot of room around the basket. The statistics don't tell the story on his rebounding. He starts a lot of rebounds other people get credit for."
The Sonics trail front-running Los Angeles by two games and, if they ever find a guard to replace Bill Hanzlik, they could become genuine Western Conference title contenders.