In the late 1970s and early 1980s, few, if any, guards could match the greatness of Gus Williams.
From 1978 to 1985, Gus averaged 20 points, 6 assists and 2.3 steals a game. At 6’2″, Williams was able to play either guard position. He was at his best busting out on the break and creating sublime, quicksilver scoring opportunities on the run that earned him the nickname “The Wizard”. As time wore on and his team’s needs changed, Gus became more and more of a play-maker topping off with 8.5 APG in 1984.
Williams’ heyday was certainly with the Seattle SuperSonics, but his illustrious career began in Golden State.
Drafted by the Warriors in 1975, Williams was a sturdy backup in his first two years (1976 and 1977). That Warriors squad should have been a perennial contender in the late 1970s. Rick Barry was moving just a touch past his prime but with Williams, Jamaal Wilkes, Phil Smith, Clifford Ray, and Robert Parish, that team initially had more than enough talent to contend. Indeed, The Warriors won the NBA title the year before Gus showed up (1975) and they reeled off an NBA-best 59 wins in his rookie season (1976).
Ultimately, the Warriors fell apart in the 1976 postseason, losing the Western Conference Finals to 42-win Phoenix, and never recovered. Overlooked as a prized asset, the Warriors let Gus leave and sign with the Sonics after the 1976-77 season. One man’s afterthought is another’s franchise cornerstone.
Williams was inserted into Seattle’s starting lineup and his career truly took off. Playing in a three-guard rotation with Freddie Brown and Dennis Johnson, Williams wasn’t a full-time point guard or a full-time shooting guard. He just went out and played in the backcourt to stunning results.
The Sonics made the NBA Finals in 1978, losing to the Washington Bullets in 7 games. After the heartbreak of ’78, though, Seattle stormed back to the Finals in a rematch with Washington in 1979. This time they captured the title in just 5 games with Gus averaging 29 points in the series. Backcourt mate Dennis Johnson was named Finals MVP and Jack Sikma had brilliantly manned the middle.
With back-to-back Finals appearances and its three best players at 24 (Sikma), 25 (Johnson), and 26 (Williams) years of age, the Sonics appeared to be on cruise contender control.
Much like the Golden State year’s though, Gus’s time in Seattle was marred by a team that fell apart at the seams and didn’t maintain its greatest potential. Despite making their third-straight Western Conference Finals in 1980, the Sonics’ infighting – highlighted by Johnson’s feud with coach Lenny Wilkens – unraveled the title contender. Gus was no bystander in the Sonics’ fall. Offered a 3-year, $1.5 million deal by management, Williams rejected the deal and held out in the summer of 1980. The hold out continued into the fall. Then into the new year. The contract dispute ending up lasting the duration of the 1980-81 season.
Finally, Gus and Seattle agreed to a deal that paid him $700,000 a year and Williams was seemingly better than ever. With Johnson exiled to Phoenix, Williams became the full-time, absolute point guard for Seattle. From 1982 to 1984, he averaged a robust 20.7 points, 7.8 assists, and 2.3 steals per game. Compare that to his three seasons (1978-’80) before the hold out: 19.8 points, 4.2 assists, and 2.3 steals per game.
In recognition of his triumphant return, Gus Williams was finally named to an All-Star team in 1982, chosen for the All-NBA 1st Team, and finished fifth in MVP voting that season. The Sonics were not as deep a club as their 1978-’80 incarnation, but Williams along with Sikma led the team to a 52-win season and an appearance in the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
Unfortunately, the Sonics’ playoff series victory in 1982 would prove to be their last with Gus in the fold. Through the rest of Williams’ tenure with the club, Seattle slowly eroded. They mustered 48 wins in 1983 and only 42 in 1984. During this period, Gus’s playoff averages were 26.1 points, 8.7 assists, and 1.7 steals. He may not have been the problem for Seattle, but given the state of the franchise and his age, Williams was not to be part of the solution.
In the summer of 1984, Gus was traded to the Washington Bullets.
The Bullets years are largely forgotten for Gus – as most Bullets years of the 1980s are – but the team like the Warriors and Sonics had unfulfilled potential. The Washington club featured Williams, Dan Roundfield, Jeff Malone, Cliff Robinson, and the bruising, skilled center Jeff Ruland. When healthy that was a formidable roster, but Ruland’s feet would not cooperate with the “healthy” part. Appearing in about 60 games over the 1985 and 1986 seasons, Ruland’s absence undercut the Bullets push for glory.
Williams’s counting stats in the Bullets’ years were pretty good for a point guard in his early 30s (16.8 PPG, 6.8 APG, 1.8 SPG), but his shooting percentages took a noticeable hit from his Seattle years. His field goal percentage dove from 47.5% to 42.9% while his free throw percentage dropped from 76.6% to 72.8%.
Following the 1986 season, Gus again got into a contract dispute. With the Bullets not budging, Williams was eventually signed by the Atlanta Hawks in January 1987 to replace an injured Spud Webb as the backup point guard. Averaging just 4 PPG for the Hawks, Williams retired after the season.
Gus Williams’ career gets lost in what is sometimes perceived as the NBA’s doldrums, the late 1970s. Every season he played, his team made the playoffs. His Sonics were a top-shelf contender in 1978, 1979, and 1980, losing in the NBA Finals, winning the title, and losing in the Western Conference Finals, respectively. And that WCF loss was to the Showtime Lakers who ran away with the West, and the subsequent media attention, for the 1980s leaving Gus and his accomplishments in the dust.
However, it’s never too late to appreciate greatness. Memory may not instantly recognize Gus Williams and his Sonics of the era as great, but the history shows that indeed they were, and indeed he was.
All-NBA 1st Team (1982)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1980)
2x All-Star (1982-’83)
All-Rookie Team (1976)
Regular Season Career Averages (825 games):
Playoff Career Averages (99 games):