I didn’t know Wes Unseld, but I admired him. For a sense of who he was as a person, I recommend David Aldridge’s remembrance at The Athletic (subscription required).
I have only a few distinct Unseld memories — I’d just turned 8 years old when the Bullets won their title, and I never watched a basketball game before that Finals series against the SuperSonics. That series made me a fan, and Unseld’s rugged defense, jarring picks, dominating boardwork and laser outlet passes were part of what got me hooked. I jumped on the Bullets championship bandwagon and never found the exit.
I met Unseld briefly when he taught a rebounding clinic at a basketball camp I attended in the mid-1980s. He was a few years — and a few pounds — out of the league by then, but I still remember the basics: when the shot goes up, find an opponent and hit him with your forearm. Then pivot into a hard boxout, sealing him behind you with your backside. Then, go up and grab the ball with both hands. Squeeze it with elbows high to fend off pesky swipers and turn to make the outlet pass.
Unseld’s outlet passing was legendary. In NBA games, he’d turn and fire two-handed rockets to teammates sprinting to the offensive end. He demonstrated at the basketball camp. And it was wild.
He started around the top of the key — two hands over his head just blasting the ball off the backboard. The sound was deafening. After a few of those, he moved back to midcourt — still launching the poor ball into the quivering backboard.
He moved closer to the basket and those of us gathered on the baseline as if the demonstration was over, tossed the ball off the board, grabbed the “rebound,” and then turned and rocketed the ball into the far backboard.
Several years out of the league, overweight with gimpy knees, he did it 10 times without a miss.
As other attendees at the camp can attest, doing it once is borderline impossible for mere mortals. Lord knows we tried. None of us could manage it even once.
My other favorite memory came May 4, 1988. That was game four of the Bullets first round playoff series against the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. It was the team’s first home game following the announcement that Unseld, who was then coaching the team, would be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
When he emerged from the locker room, we gave him a standing ovation. That night, he outcoached Chuck Daly, and led by Jeff Malone, Moses Malone, Bernard King and John Williams, the Bullets won and forced a game five (where they got smoked by the Pistons, who would end up losing in seven games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1988 NBA Finals).
I have a few less pleasant memories from Unseld’s days as general manager. The standouts are two of the worst trades in NBA history — Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe, and Terry Davis, Tim Legler, Jeff McInnis and Ben Wallace for Isaac Austin. No one’s perfect.
There can be no question that Unseld is the best and most important player in franchise history. The team existed seven seasons before they drafted him with the second overall pick in 1968. They were losers in all seven — a combined record of 205-358, equivalent to a 30-win team over an 82-game schedule.
The Bullets won 57 games in Unseld’s first season — the year he became just the second player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP (the only other guy to do it was Wilt Chamberlain).
During his 13-year playing career, the Bullets went 618-448 in the regular season (a .580 winning percentage — the level of a 47-48 win team).
After he retired, the franchise went right back to losing — the Bullets/Wizards have accumulated a record of 1329-1803 since he stopped playing — about the level of a 35-win team.
Unseld played in 22% of the team’s 59 seasons. His teams account for 42% of their 24 .500 or better records. During his playing days, they reached the NBA Finals four times. He was the best player on that 1977-78 title team and a five-time All-Star.
While Unseld won MVP for that rookie season, my statistical analysis suggests his best season was probably the following year when he did more scoring a bit more efficiently and added an assist per 100 team possessions.
His first five seasons were terrific — perennial All-Star bordering on All-NBA performances, according to my PPA metric (with estimates for stats that weren’t collected at the time — steals, blocks and turnovers).
In 1973-74, injuries limited him to 56 games and hampered his performance when he did play. That was his worst season. He bounced back with several quality seasons, including a performance the year after they won the title that was right up there with his first five seasons. He was 32 years old at that point.
He may have been dealing with painful knees and hips his last two seasons (ages 33 and 34), but they were very good and pretty good respectively.
While most NBA players have a familiar career arc — worse performance at the beginning and the end, better performance in the middle — Unseld’s was the opposite. On a graph, his career resembles a shallow U.
Unseld wasn’t a big-time scorer and he was a below-average free throw shooter, but he was efficient for his day — the only time he shot worse than league average from the floor was that injury-plagued season. For his career, he shot about 10% better than average.
He’s number two in franchise history in assists (behind John Wall), first in rebounding, and would probably still be ahead of Wall on the team’s all-time steals leader board if the league had bothered to count them for his entire career.
He was one of the greats. May he rest in peace.