Who Was The Better Sonics Player: Tom Chambers, Spencer Haywood, or Dennis Johnson?

The last time I did one of these posts, it was over a month ago.  I’m still sitting on my post about the greatest Sonics by jersey number, but I had to get this other post out of the way first.  As I mentioned before, most of the numbers are easy to determine who wore it best.  #34 was a challenge, because Ray Allen and Xavier McDaniel were so close to one another, statswise.  Well, #24 is quite the bear itself, with three guys who were pretty damn good in a Sonics uniform.

A Scoring Machine

Another Scoring Machine

And A Champion

This one is tough for me, mostly because all three were before my time (“my time” started sometime in 1993).  So, like I did before, I’m going to work my table magic and provide the raw data needed to decipher this riddle.

Tom Chambers (PF) Spencer Haywood (PF) Dennis Johnson (SG)
Seasons 1983/1984 – 1987/1988 1970/1971 – 1974/1975 1976/1977 – 1979/1980
Games 393 326 323
Games Started 294 (unknown) (unknown)
Minutes Played 13,210 13,156 9,530
Minutes per Game 33.6 40.4 29.5
Points Scored 8,028 8,131 4,590
Points per Game 20.4 24.9 14.2
Field Goals 2,886/6,150 3,168/6,849 1,708/3,918
Field Goal % .469 .463 .436
Free Throws 2,150/2,603 1,795/2,207 1,162/1,572
Free Throw % .826 .813 .739
Three Pointers 106/336 (unknown) (unknown)
Three Point % .315 (unknown) (unknown)
Rebounds 2,577 3,954 1,884
Rebounds per Game 6.6 12.1 4.3
Assists 931 769 965
Assists per Game 2.4 2.4 3.0
Turnovers 1,123 (unknown) (unknown)
Turnovers per Game 2.9 (unknown) (unknown)
All Star Games 1 (1986-1987) 4 (1971/1975) 2 (1978/1980)
Team Record 187-223 190-220 195-133
Reg. Season Win % .456 .463 .595
Best Reg. Season Finish Third (2 times) Second (1 time) First (1 time)
Playoff Appearances 3 (Lost 1st Round 83/84, Lost in West Finals 86/87, Lost 1st Round 87/88) 1 (Lost 2nd Round 74/75) 3 (Lost in Finals 77/78, Won Championship 78/79, Lost in West Finals 79/80)

Obviously, we run into a problem comparing these three guys, since the powers that be didn’t keep very accurate stats before 1979, but I think this one is probably easier to determine than the Ray Allen/X-Man debate.

Now, if we were going by Best Overall Career, you have to look long and hard at Dennis Johnson.  The guy won three championships!  He was Finals MVP with the Sonics, he was in five All Star Games, and he received high marks for his defensive abilities throughout his career.  Unfortunately for him, this isn’t a question of who had the best career, but who has the best SONICS career.  And while he certainly gets a lot of credit for his overall team record, his 1979 NBA championship, and his teams’ performances in the playoffs, I don’t think he really makes a dent when it comes to the other two guys.  Primarily because he was a Sonics draft pick in 1976 and his first two seasons, statswise, weren’t all that impressive.  When you look at D.J. in a Sonics uniform, you look at his final two seasons, and then you see he went on to continue his solid, steady play for Phoenix and Boston for many years to come.

So, pretty much, this is a 2-man race between Tom Chambers and Spencer Haywood.  Haywood was a true superstar, known all over the country thanks to his lawsuit granting him admission into the NBA when it was illegal at the time for a player to bypass college (or simply wait less than 4 years from when they graduated high school).  And when he hit the scene with the Supersonics, he was a man on fire!  In his five seasons in Seattle, he averaged nearly 25 points a game and a hair over 12 rebounds.  Granted, he wasn’t on the best of Sonics teams, but he did lead them to their first-ever playoff appearance in 1975.

Chambers, on the other hand, was much lesser-known.  The Sonics grabbed him from the San Diego Clippers and he sort of had an up & down tenure with the Sonics.  BUT, his 86/87 season (where he won All Star Game MVP when they played in the Kingdome), alongside Dale Ellis and Xavier McDaniel was a thing of beauty:  23 points, 6 and a half boards, 3 assists, all while helping this team reach the Western Conference Finals (where they lost to Magic, Kareem, Worthy and the eventual NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers, 4-0).  Nevertheless, his overall career with the Sonics (more playoff appearances, better field goal percentage & free throw percentage than Haywood) isn’t anything to sneer at.

One could argue the Sonics never used Chambers properly, as he would go on to have his two very-best seasons upon signing as a free agent with the Phoenix Suns (averaging 26.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, while shooting 48.6% from the field), but that’s neither here nor there.  As an individual, I have to confirm that the best player to wear the jersey number 24 for the Seattle Supersonics was indeed Spencer Haywood.

Haywood went to the All Star Game in his final four seasons with the Sonics (compared to just one for Chambers).  He was Seattle’s first true superstar.  Hell, he’s the only one of the three to have his jersey number retired!  And, really, he gave all he had to the Seattle Sonics.  After he was traded to the Knicks in 1975, he was never the same.  Declining skills, but especially injuries, forced him into being a role player.  He finally got his ring, with the 1980 Los Angeles Lakers, while only playing 20 minutes a game (and averaging under 10 points for the first time in his career).

As far as the Seattle stats are concerned between the two, Haywood has it all over Chambers.  Yes, points, but also rebounds.  That rebounding discrepancy is HUGE.  He also averaged more minutes (and, I would wager, probably started more games).  The field goal and free throw percentages aren’t all that different from one another.  And Chambers shooting 30% from behind the arc (compared to Haywood’s near 0%) isn’t enough to tip the scales.  I’d rather have the guy who almost never shoots a three because he knows he can’t make it, over the guy who shoots poorly (as all of his three point attempts would surely be ill-advised).

So, that’s that.  Spencer Haywood, #24.  One helluva Sonics player.

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