If things would have worked out ideally for the Seattle SuperSonics, they never would have acquired Lonnie Shelton. Their first plan was to re-sign center Marvin Webster, who had helped lead to the team to the 1978 NBA Finals. It was only when Webster chose to trade in Seattle for the big lights of New York that the Sonics ended up with Shelton as compensation. The rest, as they say, is history.
One can only speculate what the Sonics might have done with Webster in the middle, but it is certain that with Shelton at power forward and young Jack Sikma moving from forward to center, the Sonics won their only NBA Championship the following season.
Shelton was no stranger to the Pacific Northwest when he was traded to Seattle. He played collegiately at Oregon State University, where he was named All-Pac-8 and played on the Beavers team that upset Bill Walton's UCLA Bruins, snapping their 50-game conference winning streak.
An early entrant after his junior season, Shelton was taken by the Knicks. He stepped in immediately as a starter up front, averaging 11.6 and 14.9 points and better than seven rebounds each of his first two seasons in New York. Despite that performance, New York was more than willing to give Shelton up when the opportunity arose to sign Webster. That, however, was all they wanted to come up. A dispute arose between the two teams on compensation that ended with commissioner Larry O'Brien awarding the Sonics Shelton, a 1979 first-round pick and $450,000 (compensation later deemed excessive by a New York federal judge, forcing the Sonics to send their 1981 first-round pick to the Knicks).
New York President Michael Burke was incensed.
"I am shocked to the point of disbelief," he said. "Based on the standards set by the commissioner himself in prior cases, based on the record in this controversy, including Joe Axelson's impartial evaluations and based on our own careful assessment of the equities, I simply cannot comprehend the commissioner's ruling."
On the other side, Sonics Coach Lenny Wilkens was excited to get Shelton.
"We're very pleased about it," said Wilkens. "In compensation cases, you could do a lot worse. Lonnie has the potential to be a great ballplayer. He is capable of adjusting to our system.
"Now we've got three big people who can play forward or center."
The Sonics began the season with Shelton on the bench and a starting lineup of Sikma at power forward and Tom LaGarde in the middle. It wasn't long, however, before Shelton would get his chance. 23 games into the season, LaGarde was lost for the year with a torn knee tendon. Though it was believed at the time that Sikma was better suited to play forward, not center, there was little choice but to move him into the middle and elevate Shelton to the starting lineup.
Thanks to Shelton's fine play, the Sonics were able to go right on winning through the lineup change. With Shelton in the game, the Sonics lost some height and rebounding, but got bigger in the paint and were more athletic in the open court. Despite his 6-8, 260 frame, Shelton was an outstanding athlete who often outran opposing power forwards.
A highlight for Shelton came on Mar. 15, 1979, when he hit all 13 shots he attempted in a 104-98 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, at the time a Sonics record for field-goal attempts without a miss. Shelton finished with 28 points and eight rebounds.
During the playoffs, Shelton picked up his game, ranking third on the Sonics in scoring at 12.9 points per game and second in rebounding at 8.4 boards per game. Along with Sikma, he helped contain the Washington Bullets' high-scoring interior duo of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes as the Sonics won their Finals series 4-1.
With the exception of the 1980-81 season, when he played just 14 games because of injuries, Shelton had established a niche for himself in Seattle as a quality defender and third or fourth option on offense. Shelton had his best season individually with the Sonics in 1981-82, when he averaged 14.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists, shooting 48.6% from the field and 78.3% from the free-throw line. As a reward, Shelton was voted a starter on the Western Conference All-Star team, his only All-Star appearance.
A little more than a year later, however, Shelton was deemed expendable and traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second-round pick and cash.
At a press conference to announce the deal, Wilkens was hardly nostalgic about Shelton's Seattle career.
"We think this is significant for the club," he said. "Lonnie just wasn't as consistent as we wanted him to be this past year. It was something we talked about a year ago, and it just didn't happen. Lonnie has given us some very good years, but we think it's time for a change."
When asked what the Sonics would do at power forward without Shelton, Wilkens responded, "We didn't play with a power forward last year, either."
Shelton finished his Sonics career with averages of 13.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 329 games and better than 10,000 minutes. He consistently elevated his game during the postseason; his career average of 8.3 rebounds per game in the playoffs was more than 25% better than his regular-season mark. Shelton was always a fine shooter whose 49.8% shooting from the field would rank him in the Sonics all-time top ten if he had enough attempts to qualify.
Shelton would spend three years with the Cavs, the first as a starter. That season, he averaged 10.8 points per game, the last of eight times in double-figures scoring. After two more years as a reserve seeing less and less action, Shelton retired following the 1985-86 season.
Shelton's children have inherited his unique combination of size and athleticism. L.J. Shelton was a first-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals who has been a starter for the Cardinals the last four years, starting 61 games in that span. Marlon Shelton followed his father into basketball and to the west, playing for the University of Washington, where he spent four years as a backup big man, averaging 3.0 points and 2.7 rebounds per game as a junior. Titus Shelton is a junior in high school and a top prospect.