Lenny Wilkens quits after dismal season

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The Independent Online

Lenny Wilkens resigned from the Atlanta Hawks after the worst season of a 27-year career in which he won more games than any NBA coach, it has emerged.

Wilkens' resignation was to be announced at a news conference at Philips Arena, said an NBA source, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Wilkens had two years left on his contract, paying $10.4 million. But the decision was not unexpected after the Hawks struggled to a 28-54 record, their worst mark since moving to Atlanta from St. Louis in 1968.

The team missed the playoffs for the first time since 1992, losing 25 of its final 31 games.

"This year was a disaster," team president Stan Kasten said late in the season. "It's truly beyond anything I could have imagined."

Wilkens, 62, coached seven years in Atlanta after previous stints in Cleveland, Seattle and Portland. His career record is 1,179-981 and his lone NBA championship came with the Sonics in 1979.

The Hawks had at least 50 victories in three of Wilkens' first five years, then finished second in the Central after battling with Indiana until the final week of the strike-shortened season. Wilkens signed a four-year, $20 million contract extention in 1997.

But in a bid to shake up a stale franchise and get it past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved, general manager Pete Babcock engineered a controversial deal that sent leading scorer Steve Smith to the Portland Trail Blazers for Isaiah Rider and Jim Jackson.

Rider's discipline problems were well documented, but the Hawks were in need of a makeover as they moved into the new 19,445-seat Philips Arena. They wanted to dump Smith's long-term contract and switch to an up-tempo offence with younger, faster players.

Rider didn't show for the first day of training camp, missed a practice and skipped a team flight. Finally, after two suspensions and the threat of another for repeatedly showing up late, he was waived with 18 games left in a lost season.

Wilkens blamed that elusive element known as chemistry, clearly pointing the finger at Rider for leading the team down the wrong path with his distracting behavior.

Players defended Wilkens most of the year.

"The way we've played this season has got nothing to do with the coaches," centre Dikembe Mutombo said. "Lenny didn't make all the decisions here, all the changes. All he could do was coach who was brought here."