For whatever it's worth in mid-January, the three best teams in the National Basketball Association this season are the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics, and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. All that needs to be added are the words: although not necessarily in that order.
However, there is enough hard evidence around to suggest that one should not overlook the Seattle SuperSonics, who are well coached, well balanced, and well organized. In fact Seattle, if you remember, opened the 1982-83 season with 12 consecutive victories, seven of which came on the road.
The problems the Sonics have been having lately are not due to a lack of talent, but because of injuries to several key players, including the team's all-purpose center Jack Sikma. Although Sikma is not quite as good a rebounder as Moses Malone, he has in this writer's opinion gone past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish as an all-around, offensive-defensive player.
''As of this moment, I don't think Seattle overall is as good a team as Philadelphia, Boston, or Los Angeles,'' Sikma told me during a stopover in LA. ''But I think we can be by the time the playoffs start in May. To do that we're going to need a more dependable and a more experienced bench.
''Actually I shouldn't have said that,'' Jack continued. ''It's not fair for me or anyone else to put that much burden on our bench, which has been doing a good job. But we do have some kids back there, and how much they are able to learn in our remaining games is probably going to determine how well we do in the playoffs.''
Seattle, which has one of the top coaches in the NBA in Lenny Wilkens, often plays some of the best defense in the league. Perhaps Wilkens's greatest strength as a coach is that he played pro basketball himself for nine years and knows all the tricks.
Lenny doesn't coach so much as he teaches, and with young players who are willing to listen that can produce all kinds of unexpected dividends. He is also good at matchups - that curious area of coaching where an opponent's offensive stars can sometimes be held below their scoring averages by the aggressiveness of certain defensive players. The trick is to know which of your players can do this effectively.