January 8, 2002

A new Sonic team emerges

I've found something rather interesting in the Sonics' recent stretch, which they've extended to eight wins in their last nine games. It's far easier to write a column about a bad team, and point out everything they're doing wrong, than it is to write a column about a team that, while still far from the upper echelons of the NBA, is playing at about peak performance.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on professional columnists after all for their overemphasis of the negative.

The Sonics did get some extremely bad news over the break. Calvin Booth, who was expected to return in the Sonics' 2002 opener against Philadelphia, instead was found to have suffered a setback. A visit to the doctor revealed that his injured ankle had not healed, and he was placed in a boot and ordered not to have any contact whatsoever. At the earliest, Booth is expected back in around mid-February. Personally, I think that Booth's troubles were all preventable had he not returned from injury in early November due to the Sonics' troubles in the frontcourt. Of course, this is completely unfounded speculation, likely untrue. However, I think it's at least as fair to lay the blame for Booth's continued absence on someone else as on Booth himself, as most fans seem to have done. I also believe the Sonics ought to call it a year for Booth. While he would certainly be valuable down the stretch, as the Sonics try to fight for a playoff spot, I think the risk that this injury becomes chronic, along the lines of a Grant Hill or a Bill Walton, far outweigh this benefit.

Seattle closed out the year 2001, a tumultous one for the Sonics, with an impressive 101-76 crushing of the Toronto Raptors. The recent run of luck for the team continued, as the Sonics missed yet another superstar. First it was Tracy McGrady, injured five minutes into the contest with the Orlando Magic. Then Chris Webber, who aggrivated a sprained ankle the day before the Sonics took on the Sacramento Kings. After that, Lamar Odom came up injured just prior to the Sonics' game with the Clippers, and Vince Carter culminated the unusual trend when he missed the Sonic-Raptor game. Without Carter -- and starting center Hakeem Olajuwon -- the Raptors were almost hopeless, and the Sonics played some of their best defense of the year in a convincing win.

The Sonics had a five-day break to allow them -- and us -- to celebrate the New Year. Unfortunately, it looked during their return to the court January 4 against Philadelphia like they had drunk a little too much champagne and sung 'Auld Lang Syne' one time too many. After a week of debate on message boards over whether the Sonics would come out rested or rusty, the definitive answer was provided by their horrible offensive play in an 87-77 loss that wasn't nearly as close as the final score seems to indicate.

The Sonics fell behind by as many as 20 in the early fourth quarter, and shot miserably all night long. The Sonics shot 37.6% on the evening. Of course, the Philadelphia defense was a contributing factor. With Dikembe Mutombo in the lane, the Sonics were continually harrassed when they did get into the lane. That said, with no disrespect to the Philly D, the Sonics might not have been able to score 100 points against the Washington Generals on Friday night. Nothing indicates how far off their games were than their free throw shooting -- an awful 6 of 14. I don't think Mount Mutombo was altering those shots, now was he?

I can't say that the Sonics' poor play particularly displeased me as an analyst. It bothers me when they play unintelligently or lack hustle, but I don't think that was really the case on Friday night. It was just one of those nights when nothing goes right. Shots don't fall, loose balls don't roll into your hands, and the calls don't go your way. As an analyst, there's nothing to be gained from a game like that. You just have to throw it away.

Something good did come out of the Philadelphia game after all. Shammond Williams got to play the entire fourth quarter with the game got out of hand. In that time, he scored 15 points on 5 of 7 shooting. It was a nice little audition for Shammond, but there was also disappointing news. Frank Hughes of the Tacoma News-Tribune reported in a recent article that Williams was a Base-Year Contract player. I tend to trust Hughes' assertion more than another site, which is saying that he isn't.

If Williams is, indeed, Base Year, then the easiest deal that the Sonics could make involving him would be with the Miami Heat, who hold a trade exception for three million dollars. The reason they haven't used it yet is because they don't want to exceed the luxury tax threshold, but if they waive players with non-guaranteed contracts by tomorrow, they may have the room necessary to take him on.

Following the Philadelphia game, the Sonics headed out on the road for a three-game trip. The first two came in far and away the easiest back-to-back they've faced all season, with Memphis on Sunday afternoon and Chicago on Monday night.

In Graceland, the Sonics won with a pretty mediocre game, largely because Memphis played so miserably. Jason Williams had what was, at first glance, a pretty decent game, with 22 points and 11 assists. However, when his 6 turnovers and 8 of 22 shooting are considered, Williams really wasn't that effective. On the Sonic side, Gary Payton played an excellent game, as did Vladimir Radmanovic. It was perhaps the best all-around game of Radmanovic's career, with 13 points and 9 rebounds, not to mention three three-pointers.

The next night, the Sonics got of to a terrible start at Chicago, and trailed by five after one quarter. They were down by 10 when they went on a 20-2 run near the end of the first half which put them in command of the game for good. By the fourth quarter, they were up enough to even get Williams some more run. It was a team effort. Not in the sense that everyone who played was great, but pretty much everyone was good enough.

So, today, the Sonics stand at 18-16, tied for third place in the Pacific Division with the Clippers and Phoenix. That's good enough for a tie for sixth in the Western Conference which, if the Sonics could somehow secure it, would today project to a first round matchup with the Sacramento Kings. Quite a leap from the days when the Sporting News was picking them as the 26th best team in the NBA, eh?

Do I think the Sonics are even really good enough to be the sixth seed? No, the seventh seed is probably the best we can realistically hope for as Sonic fans. However, in the NBA, who knows? Even in the Western Confernce, questions abound about some of the contending teams like Phoenix, Utah, and the Clippers. Maybe the Sonics could make some playoff noise this season. They have a chance ... and that's why I'm so grateful they chose to hang on to Gary Payton this summer.

Yes, Payton is slowly declining, but the Sonics have a number of players like Radmanovic, Earl Watson, Desmond Mason, even -- yes -- Booth who are improving. In some cases, like Radmanovic, this improvement has been remarkable within the course of the two months he's been in the NBA. I expected fast development from him, but Radmanovic has surprised even me with his excellent play. For a while, I felt that Radmanovic's success ought perhaps spell the end of Rashard Lewis' time in Seatle, but I have been since convinced that Radmanovic can play the power forward. With that in mind, my plea is that the Sonics keep this group together. These core players, young and even the few effective older guys -- Payton, Brent Barry, and yes, Vin Baker, who can't bring equal value in return, should be kept together. Allow the Sonics to build a cohesive unit here with Nate McMillan, and let's see what happens. We might just be pleasantly surprised. . . .