January 27, 2002

Road Trip!

Little more than a week ago, there was no joy in Sonicville, as the mighty SuperSonics had struck out in back-to-back road battles against Utah and Denver, looking like a team that might not win the rest of the month, given the difficult upcoming schedule (well, okay, except for at home against Denver). As they have been apt to do the last two seasons, the Sonics fought back from their lowest low with their highest high, making the most of a difficult road trip with a 3-1 record that established them as the sole holders of sixth place in the Western Conference.

The first thing that went well was that Coach McMillan clearly read my angry post-Denver loss column. After only one game on the bench, Art Long was returned to his rightful position as starting center. Additionally, Jerome James has emerged to become the backup big man for the Sonics ahead of Peja Drobnjak. These two changes in particular have improved the Sonics work on the glass, as well as making them tougher on the interior.

The difference was tangible in the rematch with Denver a night later. The Sonics went from a -22 to a +21 on the boards, and instead of giving up a devestating run late in the third quarter, they pulled off one of their own to take command of the game and blow out the Nuggets by 27. Nick Van Exel picked it up for Denver, but the little-known players who catlyzed their fine second-half play in Denver struggled mightily in Seattle. Gary Payton, celebrating his 'bobblehead night', was the key guy for the Sonics as usual with 25 points and 12 assists. The bobbleheads were nice, the game better, and a good time was had by all.

The next morning, the Sonics lit out for the east coast and arguably their most difficult road trip of the season, facing four difficult teams in Philadelphia, Charlotte, Milwaukee, and Indiana. No Lakers amongst the group, but a week-long sojourn with no apparent easy victories.

The Sixers and Sonics met on the afternoon of Martin Luther King Day, with Seattle looking to extract revenge for an embarrassing home loss in which they shot only 37% from the field and lost their six game winning streak. The Sonics were equal to the task, leading most of the way before creating some seperation with a fantastic third quarter in which they shot 80% and had runs of 11-2 and 11-3 to go up 20 going to the final period. In the fourth quarter, the Sonics held on to their lead and shot well enough to break a team record with 66.1% shooting from the field. Payton again led the way with 28 and 11.

Two days later, the Sonics were in Charlotte for likely their last visit ever to the Hive to play the Hornets. After playing well in the first quarter, Seattle fell apart in the second, surrendering 41 points as Charlotte took a seemingly insurmountable 25 point lead. However, the Sonics fought back valiantly in the second half and got as close to four points down the stretch. Rashard Lewis then went ice cold from the field, missing his last seven field goal attempts, and the Sonics could not complete the comeback. Payton, as usual, was strong with 24 points and 9 assists, while Vin Baker feasted at the line for 24 points.

A night later, the Sonics were in Milwaukee to take on the Bucks and former coach George Karl, with McMillan looking for his fourth straight victory over Karl. The Sonics looked like they were in trouble as the third quarter wound down and Milwaukee went on a brief run to extend their lead to seven, the largest it had been all game. The Sonics responded in a huge way, going on an 18-0 run that spanned parts of the third and fourth quarters. The Bucks could never regain momentum, and Seattle was able to hang on for their second victory of the trip. Brent Barry was balling, scoring 29 points and making 5 of 8 from three.

Last night, the Sonics finished their business in the midwest against the Pacers at Conseco Fieldhouse. Baker was lost to the team because of a shoulder injury, with Payton and Desmond Mason also slowed by illness. Seattle opened up with a frontline of Long and James, but was able to play right with the Pacers through the first three and a half quarters. The Pacers lost rookie point Jamaal Tinsley with a sprained left hip in the third quarter, and his absence was notable as the Sonics dominated down the stretch. Indiana couldn't get anything done offensively, making only one field goal in the final seven minutes with Jalen Rose largely on the point. The Sonics were buoyed again by Barry, who converted an old-fashioned three-point play to put the Sonics ahead and nailed a three-pointer inside the final minute to put the Pacers away and ensure the Sonics an excellent trip.

So, the Sonics have passed the midway point of the year and now stand three games above .500, at 23-20. It's old, it's tired, and it's cliched, but I'm legally obligated to do a "Mid-season report card" in this column.

Please note that the following ratings are for recreational purposes only, and kinda based on role. Just because I give player X a B and player Y a C doesn't really mean anything. In fact, none of this really means anything, but whatever. Here goes:

Point Guard Gary Payton - This is still not close to Payton's best season, but there haven't been many better stretches in his illustrious career than the last month or so. Of late, 20 points and 10 assists have seemed a mere formality. We here a lot of talk about Payton declining, but he's been better so far this year than he was last year. . . .
Grade: A

Shooting Guard Brent Barry - This is the best season of Barry's career, as he has kept up his efficient play of last season in far more minutes. Yes, he still struggles on defense and has a tendency to disappear at times on both ends, but don't you feel a lot better about things when he's on the court? I do.
Grade: A+

Small Forward Rashard Lewis - Some pros, some cons for Lewis. On the one hand, he hasn't improved as some had hoped, but on the other he's playing more minutes and wasn't that bad in the first place. I think I'm downgrading him some because of his comments in the News-Tribune.
Grade: B

Power Forward Vin Baker - Vin's certainly not an All-Star, and not the player he was his first year in Seattle, but if those are your expectations, you're bound to be disappointed. He has certainly rebounded quite nicely from an awful season last year. And that is something.
Grade: B+

Center Art Long - I can recall few players on whom my opinion has changed so much in-season as Long. In October, I considered him as having no chance whatsoever to make the roster. In November, I was angry that he was playing so much and felt him a hinderance to the team. By December, I was convinced he was the best option at center, and remain so now. Fortunately, some of the evidence of my opinions has been destroyed by time; too much remains.
Grade: A

Guard Earl Watson - Sure, Watson's play has dropped off of late, with varying explanations. McMillan believes that the problem is that his rookies have hit the proverbial wall, while I think that the cause lies mostly in decreased playing time. Nevertheless, Watson has given the Sonics far more than they expected from the second-round pick in his rookie season.
Grade: A+

Guard Shammond Williams - I've written about this too many times for my own good, but the lessons about team play that Williams seemed to have learned prior to this season have disappeared. He's shooting better of late, but there's more to offensive play than that, and Williams too often jacks up a poor shot too early.
Grade: C-

Forward/Guard Desmond Mason - Mason seems to have stopped his slippage of play on this road trip, which is fortunate. The jumper is again falling, though it still remains true that Mason could use to do a better job of using his judgement on isolation plays, not always looking to score but sometimes create for others.
Grade: B

Forward Vladimir Radmanovic - Radmanovic's jumper has not been as consistently excellent of late, but he continues to provide an excellent alternative off the bench. As a rookie, Radmanovic is one of the Sonics' better defenders, capably handling players far bigger at times. On offense, he has shown ability to play from the outside and get to the hole. It's just a matter of time. . . .
Grade: A-

Forward Peja Drobnjak - There are flashes of the talent which led the Sonics to acquired Drobnjak -- pretty outside shots, nice passes when running the offense through the high post. However, too often he ends up shooting airballs and Drobnjak can't rebound or defend at the NBA level right now. Not a rotation player, I'm afraid.
Grade: C-

Center Jerome James - Like Drobnjak, flashes. When James limits his offensive exertions to dunking and just sets screens, rebounds, and blocks shots, he's a fine player. When he tries to be a scorer and misses easy five-footers and turns the ball over, he's detrimental to the team's efforts. We've been seeing more of the former of late.
Grade: C

Center Calvin Booth - Well, Booth has had one good game this season, against Dallas, but it's still too early to really tell much about the Sonics' free agent pickup, though many have tried to claim that his injury-riddled poor play is evidence that he's 'another McIlvaine'. Give him a fair chance, please.
Grade: Inc.

Forward Olumide Oyedeji - Nothing this season has changed the opinion that Oyedeji rebounds at an NBA level, but does nothing else at this level. Unfortunately, this isn't baseball, and that type of specialization isn't that useful.
Grade: Inc.

What lies ahead for the Sonics after their 23-20 start? In the immediate future is a three game homestand against Portland, Sacramento, and Chicago on which the Sonics must go 2-1 or better. After a slump that lasted basically all of December, the Blazers have gotten healthy and finally started rolling, winning eight of their previous 10 games to emerge, along with Utah, as the Sonics most potent competitors for positioning at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture. You never know when tie-breakers are going to come into play, so its important for the Sonics to beat Portland at home and shut up the loud Trailblazer contingent in the KeyArena (such as Hoopsworld Blazer writer Jeff Robertson, I assume, since he lives up here).

Amazingly, the Sonics have (knock on wood) won their last four contests in the KeyArena with the Sacramento Kings, through a variety of fashions. Honestly, I don't remember their 123-108 win on March 31, 2000, but last year's two battles were very interesting. In the first, the Sonics went on an extended run when they put Ruben Patterson at the four and used him to defend Chris Webber. The Kings could not take advantage of this mismatch. In the rematch, the Sonics were without Patrick Ewing and forced to use rookie Oyedeji on Webber. He too did a capable job, and the Sonics emerged victorious. A month ago, the Sonics dispatched Sacramento handily in the Key thanks to solid outside shooting from Barry in particular, and Webber's absence with a re-aggravated sprained ankle. This is a game that is winnable for the Sonics, though not necessarily likely. The outcome of this one will say a lot about how the team can play down the stretch.

The Sonics open the month of February by taking on the Bulls in the Key, and this is simply a must win. Playoff teams don't lose to Chicago at home. End of story.

I hate to look too far into the future, but . . . the month of February provides the Sonics a pretty favorable schedule, with seven home and six road games. A post all-star homestand features three solid contenders, with Dallas, the Lakers, and Boston stopping by KeyArena. A brief road trip to Phoenix and Sacramento is followed by the conclusion of the home series against Portland and a contest with Atlanta. After that, the Sonics head out on their third and final extended east coast road trip. This one would seem, on its face, to be its easiest despite providing the challenge of five games in eight days. The Sonics will have to face only one real playoff contender -- Toronto -- while getting lottery-bound Cleveland, Atlanta, New York, and Memphis. That trip smacks of the kind of swing that can allow a truly contending team to get fat by taking at least three and hopefully four of five games.

In March and April, the Sonics close things up with 13 home and 11 road games. That means they are left right now with 22 home games and only 17 on the road. Assuming that they played equally well at home and poorly on the road, that would leave them with 45 victories on the year. I think this might be a little conservative. Perhaps it's just the euphoria of the 4-1 run of the past week getting to me, but I see this team as capable of getting to 47-35 or 48-34 by the end of the season.

In terms of playoff positioning, Portland is, to me, the most likely team to capture the sixth seed. While I think that most of the media has overrated the Blazers' talent level, choosing to put the blame for their poor play early on not on the fact that they have three starters (Dale Davis, Damon Stoudamire, and Scottie Pippen) who are really average at best, but instead on chemistry, perhaps because chemistry requires no statistics to demonstrate, the fact remains that this is a very good team when it plays at its best. I've only seen the Blazers play twice this year, I'm ashamed to admit, but they've looked excellent each time, drilling the Sonics during early December and beating Sacramento at home in overtime last week.

Utah is, as always, a tough competitor, and has the advantage of having the tie breaker with the Sonics already sewed up. It's tough to say what will happen with the Jazz between now and the end of the season. Will Karl Malone and John Stockton be unable to sustain their still-high level of play for 82 games? Or will, instead, their focus become more intense as the playoffs near? Tough to say. One thing I do know is that Andrei Kirilenko is an excellent player who has a knack for getting to the offensive boards unblocked. It seems Kirilenko may well play a larger role in the second half, especially if the Jazz move Bryon Russell, as there have been some whispers about.

The Clippers are probably a year away. Of course, I could write that and see them come together in the second half of the season. But right now, they can't win on the road consistently, and it's tough to make the playoffs under that scenario. This is a very good young bunch, but as I tried to remind people over the summer when they were going crazy over the Clippers, the West right now is a tough place in which to try to build a competitor. Phoenix has struggled over the past month. If they can get their play back to the level it was at in December, the Suns could well be a significant factor in the playoff race, but I honestly don't see it.

Thinking about it, I still see the Sonics as likely to end up with the seven seed in the Western Conference. But the key thing they have to do to make this reality is put away bad teams. Seattle has lost twice to Denver and twice to Miami (which looks better now that the Heat are playing well, but the losses came at the point when Miami was loosing 13 straight), and those losses are simply inexcusable down the stretch.