He was selected as a National Basketball Association All-Star nine times, named MVP in the 1971 game, elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988, and ranks third among active NBA coaches with 743 career victories.
But no one in the Cleveland Cavaliers organization is willing to give Lenny Wilkens a vote of confidence as his contract expires after this season.
The Cavaliers, who play the Washington Bullets at the Baltimore Arena (1 p.m.) today, are 18-32 and likely to qualify for the June lottery for also-rans. But it seems absurd to blame Wilkens for his team's low estate.
First, the Cavaliers lost All-Star point guard Mark Price to a season-ending knee injury Nov. 30. As NBA coach-turned broadcaster Doug Collins said, "The Cavaliers are not a team that can function anywhere near full efficiency without Mark Price."
Soon after Price was sidelined, he was joined by all-purpose forward John "Hot Rod" Williams, who averaged 16.8 points and 8.1 rebounds last season. Williams missed 38 games before returning to action last week.
Wilkens has also been without reserve forward Winston Bennett for most of the season. He has been forced to patch and mend by recruiting Darrell Valentine and Henry James from basketball's minor leagues and force-feeding rookie forward Danny Ferry, fresh from a year in Italy.
Craig Ehlo and Valentine, who have spent most of their careers as backup guards, now form the Cavaliers' starting backcourt. It is mindful of Bullets coach Wes Unseld trying to make do these days with A.J. English and Ledell Eackles running his offense.
With Williams back, Cleveland has shown positive signs in winning three straight, but Wilkens' status remains uncertain. Both co-owner Gordon Gund and general manager Wayne Embry issue only abrupt "no comments" whenever the subject of Wilkens' contract is raised.
Wilkens said his agent called Embry early in the season to discuss an extension and did not even get a return call. Team insiders say a coolness developed between Wilkens and Embry, once close friends, over the controversial 1989 trade that sent high-scoring guard Ron Harper and two first-round draft picks to the Los Angeles Clippers for Ferry, who refused to sign with the Clippers after graduating from Duke in 1989.
The deal reportedly did not get the full support of Wilkens, who felt the Cavaliers were mortgaging too much of their future in order to acquire Ferry. Cleveland already appeared solid up front with Larry Nance, Brad Daugherty and Williams, plus the capable Chucky Brown.
But with Ferry more suited to power forward than small forward because of a lack of speed, Williams with his seven-year, $26.5 million contract, has become trade bait and firmly believes he will be playing for Miami next season. The Heat tendered the offer sheet to Williams last year that the Cavaliers matched.
In the meantime, Ferry still is trying to get his game together, averaging nine points and five rebounds a game. He enjoyed one of his best games Friday night, scoring 19 points to lead a 90-85 victory over New York.
Said Ferry: "I've pressed at times, but I don't know if that is as much the expectations everyone puts on me or the ones I put on myself. I want to be a very good player and I think I can be, but sometimes I want it a little too quick."
NOTES: Neither Haywoode Workman (groin muscle) or Darrell Walker (knee) are ready to be reactivated, said to the Bullets' medical staff. . . . Reserve guard Clinton Smith is expected to sign another 10-day contract with Washington today.