January 15, 2002

The test

It was a rather heartening week for the Seattle SuperSonics, despite the fact that they only went one and one.

Yes, the Sonics lost at Minnesota on Wednesday. But all things considered, it was one of those rare losses throughout the season which are actually positive. The Minnesota Timberwolves are as hot as any team in the NBA nowadays, and the Sonics played right with them. Had it not been for some improbable shots, like the off-balance three pointer Chauncey Billups threw in after receiving a desperation crosscourt lob with the shot clock expiring, the Sonics might well have emerged from the Twin Cities with a victory.

Despite the outcome, the Sonics played very well, making the Timberwolves sweat out a 111-106 victory two nights before they soundly beat the Los Angeles Lakers. Another positive development was the play of the Sonics' 'big three' on offense, as Gary Payton, Vin Baker, and Rashard Lewis all played well. Lewis' work was perhaps the biggest surpise. His outside marksmanship -- 3 of 5 from beyond the arc -- opened him up for the drive more than it has at any other point this season. Lewis got to the free throw line 10 times, converting nine, and scored 30 points. Baker was a force in the post, scoring 23 points on 10 of 15 shooting. Payton was his usual -- 25 points on 10 for 17 shooting -- self.

Two nights later, the Sonics returned home from a 2-1 performance on their mini-three game trip with a visit from the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Sonics were without Coach Nate McMillan, who flew back to North Carolina to visit his ailing mother over the extended break after the game. That put Associate Head Coach Dwane Casey in charge; for the first time, he was the head coach in an American game.

The Sonics, especially Lewis, came out smoking in the first quarter of the Cleveland game. Lewis made 5 of 6 three point attempts in the game, scoring 19 points in the first half alone. The Sonics led by 13 after one quarter, but they allowed Cleveland back into the game in the second quarter. After haltime, the Cavaliers lit up from beyond the three-point line, and briefly took the lead. The Sonics reacted to the challenge to reclaim their lead, but the game remained tight, setting up an exciting finish.

Vin Baker could have been either a hero or a goat, depending on the game's outcome. He oscillated between the two in the final minutes. With a minute and a half left, Baker, trying to save a halfcourt violation, threw the ball right to Cleveland's Wesley Person, who streaked towards the basket for what seemed a sure basket to tie the game. Baker did not get down after his mistake, but instead raced towards the other end himself, blocking Person's shot off the backcourt. Cleveland recovered, and Lamond Murray was hammered as he went to the basket. No foul was called, and the Sonics recovered.

After a foul, the Sonics grabbed their own offensive rebound and attempted to run off clock as the Cavs tried unsuccessfully to foul. However, when the ball was worked to Baker, he inexplicably allowed himself to be fouled despite being the worst free throw shooter on the court. Baker made one of two to put the Sonic lead at three, 100-97, and give Cleveland a chance to tie. Cavalier coach John Lucas, taking into consideration his team's hot shooting from three-point range (13 of 22) decided to play for three instead of two. Murray got the ball and dribbled to the top of the arc and slightly to the left before nailing a triple with a man in his face.

With eight seconds left, the Sonics got the ball back for a final shot. Payton was called upon, and after getting the ball and receiving a screen, he feigned a drive to the basket. His defender, Andre Miller, played a step off to protect the lane, and Payton pulled up for and made a 19-foot jumper with nine-tenths of a second left.

Cleveland had one last chance, but a lob attempt could not find any Cavalier hands, and the Sonics held on for a 102-100 victory.

One disturbing trend did emerge from the Sonics' week. In both of the games, opponents were successful from beyond the three-point line, as the Sonic rotation on the perimeter seemed to slow significantly. Against Minnesota, longtime Sonic nemesis Anthony Peeler was left open enough to make 7 of 9 from downtown. Cleveland, as noted, shot 14 of 23 from three-point range, led by one of the NBA's top outside shooters, Person. The Sonics must get quicker to shooters, as they did earlier in the season after the defensive rotation was a problem early on.

Long-term, however, a bigger concern for the Seattle organization has to be an article by Frank Hughes in today's Tacoma News-Tribune. Rashard Lewis is quoted as saying some rather ominous things about his impending free agency. Some selected Lewis quotes from the article:

"I am definitely going to look at my options if they want to mess around or play around money-wise."

"My numbers compare to Kobe Bryant's numbers when he was a rookie in the NBA, and his next two years, and our numbers are pretty much around the same area. I am developing well, the same way he developed as the years went by."

"I think the Sonics already know the potential is there. If they want to negotiate by not giving me the max, or whatever they want to give me, I am going to look at my options regardless. Things are going well now, we are winning ballgames and hopefully we'll make the playoffs. But I feel that if I can go back home (to Houston) or go somewhere closer to home and get the same amount of money, then that is something I would do."

"They pretty much told me that I would be here for the future and that they would build the team around me, but you never know what could happen in the future. You could get traded, or they could pick up somebody else, there is just no telling. So I want to be on the safe side. I know Houston is my home, and that is where I am always going to go, regardless."

"I know if I sign a long-term deal, I am going to be here a long time," Lewis said. "If I am here for the next seven years, I will sign another contract when I am, what, 28? If they want to look at me as the long-term future and want to rebuild, why not start now?"

The comparison to Bryant is remarkably ludicrous. This is an example of a good place for my player rating system to compare the two players, and let's see how they match up (or, in this case, don't):
(Note: 1999 and 2001-2002 stats pro-rated to 82 team games)

Year 1: VORP Eff Value V/G
Bryant 56 .487 537 7.6
Lewis -10 .396 93 2.9
Year 2
Bryant 176 .526 1081 13.7
Lewis 118 .515 811 9.9
Year 3
Bryant 243 .518 1610 19.6
Lewis 209 .517 1406 18.0
Year 4
Bryant 271 .547 1382 20.9
Lewis 237 .516 1367 19.5
Year 5
Bryant 317 .554 1541 22.7
Year 6
Bryant 369 .566 1658 21.4

What can we conclude from this chart? Lewis has never been as good -- not nearly, really -- as Bryant at the same experience level. Projected over the first four years, Bryant has an 742-554 advantage in VORP (value over replacement player), which is really quite significant. A VORP of about 300 is a superstar-type player; Bryant was there last year and looks to be there again, while Lewis is still a significant amount away. The various other stats indicate other things about how many minutes and games the players have played; one thing Lewis definitely has in his favor is fairly good durability.

As for Lewis' development, you can see that his efficiency (a per-minute rating) has stayed rather constant over the last three years. On the one hand, because his minutes are increasing, this indicates to me that Lewis is improving. However, the magnitude of that improvement isn't really that great, and I'm still not sold that he's going to get much better than he is right now. For all the talk of Lewis improving his rebounding this season, his per-minute numbers have now decreased to about the same point they were last year, and his shooting percentage remains lower.

Bryant, obviously, signed a max contract when he finished his rookie deal, and the implication throughout the article, whether coming from Hughes or Lewis, was that Rashard will be looking for the same this summer.

I'm not going to sit here and try to assess what a man I've never spoken to in my life is thinking. To do so would be cocky and preposterous. However, what has been given us for public consumption by Rashard is rather interesting. When he began his first free agency foray, after a breakthrough 1999-2000 season, Lewis had the following comment on loyalty:

"The NBA doesn't have any loyalty to any players. So you can't really say you have a loyalty to the team."

However, Lewis disproved his own comment on August 2, the second day players were allowed to sign contracts, when he came back to the Sonics on a two-year, 8.5 million dollar deal. And indeed, by then he was singing a different tune:

"I can see myself playing my entire career in Seattle. It was a matter of [the Sonics] being loyal to me, and me being loyal to them."

Let's remember that this too is a player who was so concerned with his development so as to humble himself as an established starter to play with the Sonics' summer league squad in Los Angeles last July.

Over the last year and a half of Sonic basketball, Lewis has proven a lot, and made good on much of his once-enormous potential. Lewis has been a full-time starter the past two seasons, and one of the Sonics' top players both years.

That, however, is not enough to make a player deserving of a max contract. I wasn't in on the bargaining sessions, but my guess is that the NBA intended its limit on player salaries to not only cap those of players who had been receiving more -- Michael Jordan, for example, made 30 million his last season in Chicago -- but also adjust players who would have received about the new max downward. This, however, has not been the case. Instead, any quality free agent starts making noise about getting the max. This has seen such contracts go last summer to players like Allan Houston (a nice player, but rather one-dimensional) and Antonio Davis (overrated, and will take him through his late 30's). Given these contracts, shouldn't Rashard -- arguably the best free agent on next year's market -- expect to get a similar one himself?

No matter what happens, the Sonics will undoubtedly be in a better position than they were in two years ago when Lewis hit the market. Then, Lewis was the team's main hope for the future, the best -- only? -- young player they had developed in several years. I remember thinking that the team would have no future whatsoever if Rashard was lost. While opinions vary about Desmond Mason's potential, Mason was playing great basketball before suffering a sprained knee in early December. This year's draft looks fertile; Vladimir Radmanovic is arguably a brighter prospect than Lewis, and Earl Watson is at worst a capable backup point guard and at best a future replacement for Payton.

This, in my opinion, puts the Sonics in a position of strength this summer. The few teams who will have money to offer this off-season are not, for the most part, likely candidates for Lewis. Any other teams will probably need a sign-and-trade to bring in Lewis, should he decide to go there.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column discussing the possibility of moving Lewis to make room for Radmanovic and return an interior player. Now, that feels (immodestly) a bit prescient, as I hear many of the same sentiments echoed in the wake of the Lewis article.

However, I do think things have changed since then. Number one, I'm beginning to believe that Radmanovic is capable of playing the four on a full-time basis, alongside Lewis. In recent weeks, Radmanovic has played heavy minutes at the four and done a solid job of defending bigger players, all the way up to Miami's Alonzo Mourning. By bulking up, Radmanovic can make himself a four in my opinion.

Number two, Lewis has been a much better player of late. I don't think I've ever seen him put together two better games back-to-back than his last two against Minnesota and Cleveland, with a combined 57 points. His three-point shooting has also been improved of late, which is a good sign, tending to disprove one of my theories; that Lewis hadn't really been a very good three-point shooter except in November and December of last year.

Before I go though, let me take a bit more conservative of a stance. As noted above, Lewis has changed his public idea of loyalty before, and who's to say that these are not his real thoughts, but instead words being put into his mouth either by quotes taken out of context or from his agent. Don't write off all the excellent things that Rashard Lewis has done for this team and this community over one article.

Beyond that, I can't say I would begrudge Lewis should he exercise his right -- yes, his right -- to change teams via free agency. If he were to want to play in his hometown, who's to stop him? In a sense, I agree with Rashard's comments about their being no loyalty in the NBA. How can one not conclude that after seeing Hakeem Olajuwon leave Houston last summer, David Robinson flirt with leaving San Antonio, and the Sonics 'listen to offers' for Payton? Loyalty is, after all, a two-way street. Additionally, let's not act as if the Sonics somehow did Lewis a 'favor' by drafting him in the 1998 NBA Draft. They didn't do that out of the goodness of their own hearts, they did it because they felt they could -- as they have -- derive a competitive advantage by selecting him that late.

Prior to today's revelations, as noted in last week's column, I had been sold on the idea of keeping the Sonics together. Now, it may be a totally different world. The Sonic organization has faced bigger challenges before, but their answer this July to the Rashard Lewis question will go a long ways towards determining the future of the franchise. . . .