March 2, 2002
I apologize to both of my loyal readers for the tardiness in this column, as it's been two weeks since I've updated. I've been bogged down with a lengthy paper for my communications class, amongst other end-of-quarter work. It won't happen again . . . I hope.
It's only fitting that the last time I wrote a column on the Sonics here at BskBALL.com was just before I set out for the Sonics' February 16 game with the Boston Celtics. Looking back on that column tonight, it seems like it -- unfortunately, this is true of much of my work -- was essentially outdated just hours after the time it was posted.
The concern and doubt that most Sonics fans shared just two weeks ago is evident throughout the column; anger at Howard Schultz for questioning the viability of KeyArena; confusion at the Sonics' inability to win close games at home down the stretch; disappointment in yet another injury suffered by Vin Baker.
Two weeks later, these clouds, which once seemed to be bearing rain that they were poised to drown all of the city in, now appear to be but mere puffy cumulus clouds on an otherwise beautiful day. (Oddly enough, this could be linked to Seattle's weather as spring approaches and the sky is clear, if it remains cold. However, no Sonic event parallels the fact that there were isolated flurries of snow last Sunday.)
Should we have expected anything less than wins in seven of the next nine games?
Over the last two seasons, the Sonics have displayed a maddening (yet good for columns) tendency to do the opposite of what a rational thinker might expect them to do. Give them a number of close home games in late January and February, and of course they repeatedly fail to capitalize, giving up much-needed ground in the playoff race. Take away their starting power forward, send them out on the road and -- Bam! -- instant success. It's no different than last season, when the Sonics responded to Paul Westphal's dismissal by beating Portland and the Lakers back-to-back, or when they rallied from the depths of poor play in early March to win six straight and eight of nine in returning to the playoff hunt.
Thankfully, this year the Sonics do not face an uphill climb to make the playoffs. I take a little pride in my predicting last summer that the bottom of the Western conference would not necessarily be as difficult as it was last season. The Suns' struggles to adjust to the losses of Jason Kidd and Cliff Robinson were, in hindsight, not difficult to forsee. I was one of the rare voices dissenting to the Clipper hype this past summer, wondering if they might not have been a bit lucky to win as much as they did last year. Don't get me wrong -- Los Angeles, especially with the benefit of another lottery pick, will be tough next season if they keep the team together -- but right now they are not quite there.
The Suns eased the Sonics path a bit on the eve of the trade deadline, sending out two key reserves, guard Tony Delk and forward Rodney Rogers, to Boston for rookie Joe Johnson, cap filler, and a first round pick. In the long run, the Sonics will likely rue having to face the multi-talented Johnson four times a year, but for now it's a trade the Sonics ought to celebrate. Of course, they were partly responsible for precipitating the deal with a 103-91 victory in the Valley of the Sun the day before Phoenix pulled the trigger.
As for the Sonics, they were as quiet at the trade deadline as they have been since getting Sam Perkins from the Lakers nearly a decade ago (wow, can you believe it's been nearly a decade since that trade? I'm getting old . . . and I'm not even out of my teens yet!). Any astute observer can't help but conclude that the current Sonics braintrust, for better or worse, would prefer to make any necessary changes over the summer as opposed to mid-February.
That said, there have been hushed rumors about the possibility that the Sonics had a trade in the works, if not nearly completed, that was foiled by a Valentine's Day gift they seemingly could have lived without -- three dislocated toes on Baker's foot. It seems possible that Indiana was looking towards the Sonics as a trade partner, but was forced by Baker's injury to turn to Chicago and instead procure young talents Ron Artest and Brad Miller. As for the player the Sonics really wanted to move -- well, okay, at least most of their fans wanted him dealt -- there was, according to the esteemed BskBALL, no interest in Shammond Williams. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Timberwolves were able to take Marc Jackson for a second round pick in 2007 (2007? The NBA could be in Europe by then, for goodness sakes) and an ending contract in Dean Garrett.
You'll notice that I used the term 'seemingly' in that last paragraph. It's no coincidence. Events in the past two weeks have cast doubt on Baker's value to the team, as well as whether the Sonics would have needed to deal for Jackson or a similar big man.
Reading my previous column, you'll find the following note about the Sonics' big men:
"With Art Long suddenly having gone to the end of Nate McMillan's bench, Peja Drobnjak unable to provide much of anything of value without his jumper falling, and Jerome James still -- like the team -- maddeningly inconsistent, the Sonics need to make a move up front with the trade deadline looming."
Please send the crow to SonicsKevin c/o BskBALL . . . or better yet e-mail.
To borrow from Friends, could I be any more wrong?
James is finally making good on his enormous body and talent, and the result is some sight to behold. In a coemback win over Toronto last Sunday, James, who scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, was arguably the best player on the court in a game that included Dream Teamers Gary Payton and Vince Carter. His field goal percentage, which I lamented and wondered how it could be under 40%, has climbed to 50% with his recent hot surge, and James is keeping up his efforts on the boards and blocking shots. He has provided the Sonics a post threat in the absence of Baker. The one problem remaining unresolved is James' foul proneness, as he appears to have attended the Shawn Kemp school of inopportune and utterly avoidable fouls. I can live with that, however, if he continues to stuff the box sheet at both ends of the court.
However, I don't know which is the bigger surprise -- James' play, or that of Drobnjak? In the summer, I held high hopes for both, imaging Drobnjak as a deadly shooter from the perimeter who could run the pick and pop with Payton a la Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer in Detroit. For three and a half months, that seemed a pipe dream, as Drobnjak shot 40% from the field but continued to fire it up, while also struggling on the boards.
Baker's injury -- and, to be sure, regular playing time -- has lit a fire under Drobnjak, who exploded in the first three games AB (After Baker) for 16 points, 14, and 15 -- his best three point totals of the season. He's slowed down only slightly since then, matching that career-high 16 again on this recent road trip and averaging 10.7 points and 6 rebounds since my last column.
As if that weren't all amazing enough in and of itself, even Long has gotten into the act, returning to the rotation as a fourth big man who comes into the game to bang under the hoop, grab rebounds, and commit some hard fouls. It's the perfect role for him, and Long has excelled in it.
All of this leads to a natural question. How much do the Sonics 'need' Vin Baker after all? On its face, this seems like a preposterous notion. After all, Baker's third on the team in scoring and second in rebounding. How on earth could he not be a critical part of Sonic success? Of course, such primary statistics do not, we know, tell anything even resembling a complete story, and if I hear Baker's 49% shooting from the field quoted one more time, I think I might just be ill.
The reason this is even a topic worth discussing whatsoever is the Sonics remarkable record when Baker has been held out with injury. Without him in the lineup, the Sonics are an astonishing 14-5 (.737), as opposed to 18-22 (.450) with him.
Logically, of course, this doesn't make sense. Forget Baker's numbers -- how could any team be better off without a starter? There have also been more inolved excuses made on Baker's behalf (by Times beat writer Nunyo Demasio, in his weekly column last Sunday, in particular) with unfounded comparisons to the Kings' strong start this season without Chris Webber, and the Lakers' play without Shaquille O'Neal. First off, the notion of comparing Baker with perennial All-Stars like Webber and O'Neal is just ridiculous in the year 2002. Not even the most ardent Baker backer would dare put him on this level. Secondly, the fact that's conveniently ignored is that while these teams managed to stay alfoat without their star players, neither of them improved by nearly 30% (of course, in these cases, they probably would have had to win more than all their games to achieve that kind of improvement, because they're already so good in the first place).
An oft-used rationale for the Sonics' improved play sans Baker is that other players step up in his absence. They can keep up this higher level of play (one hundred and ten percent) for brief stretches, but are hard pressed to do it on a regular basis. Well, an ever growing sample size threatens to burst this argument at its seams. It's been nine games now since Baker was injured, and in only one of those games has neither James nor Drobnjak had a good game. In general, I'm loathe to accept such psychological rationales, because almost any sports psychology can affect players in both positive and negative manners. For example, if other players really felt a need to step up in Baker's absence, isn't it entirely possible they would put too much pressure on themselves and struggle as a result? I prefer to stick to tangible facts, if it's all the same with you. Take it up with me if it isn't. . . .
There can be little doubt that the Sonics big men, as well as Brent Barry -- averaging 16.7 points and 6.1 boards per game in Baker's absence, with nary a single-digit scoring output to be found -- have indeed played better. Where I may disagree with others is in the reason behind this. To me, it's not so complicated as the psychological reaction to a teammate's injury, which its doubtful that any of us can really comprehend, unless you happen to be a professional athlete. Instead, the answer lies quite simply in the fact that these players have had more chances. In Barry's case, this is more possessions, whereas James and Drobnjak have had both more touches and more regular playing time.
So let's test this, why don't we?
In the last nine game, Barry is averaging .375 possessions (fga + (.48*fta) + to) per minute, as opposed to .333 possessions/minute for the season. That's a 12.6% difference (ignoring the fact that those nine games are included in the season total because it would be more trouble than it's worth). So a significant number of Baker's possessions -- and there's a lot of those, as Baker uses more possessions per minute than any Sonic save Payton -- are going to arguably the most efficient scorer in the NBA. That's got to be a good thing, right?
James has seen a slight increase in possessions -- .457/minute as opposed to .437/minute, though it should be noted that in his case nine games is a significant portion of his season. His minutes have increased by nearly 50% despite the foul trouble, from 14.3 to 20.3. The most important James stat is that in the last nine games he is shooting a stellar 36 of 60 (60%) from the field. When combined with the fact that he's the Sonics' biggest defensive impact player, able to disrupt offenses with is shot blocking, that makes James extremely valuable.
As noted previously, Drobnjak's never been shy about putting it up, but lately he's been ever more aggressive than normal, increasing his possessions/minute from .444 to .499, a difference of 12.4%. Increased minutes (up to 21.4 per game) are, in my opinion, extremely important for Drobnjak. Very few shooters -- Dell Curry and Ricky Pierce come to mind -- can enter a game warmed up to score. The rest of us mere mortals, other NBAers included, have to get into the flow of the game. That's difficult to do in the 10 minutes a night Drobnjak was playing. It's little surprised to me that some regular run has him shooting 43 for 80 (54%) as opposed to that putrid 40% mark he was hovering around.
So maybe it's not so preposterous that Baker's absence would be a boon for, not the bane of, the Sonics. If his possessions are going to better scorers and his minutes are going to players making the most of them, then the result follows naturally.
It all raises the question of what Baker's role will be when he returns. In my opinion, he has to accept a reduced role that sees him playing a similar role in the offense to that of James and Drobnjak now. The pick and role (or pick and pop) has emerged in Vin's absence as a staple of the Sonics' offense, and has worked marvelously, with Payton able to drive the lane or kick to Drobnjak for an open jumper or James under the hoop. With the shooting ability of Drobnjak and an inside game to rival James', Baker should be particularly adept at this; why not run it? What must not happen is that the Sonics go back into the same offensive rut that has stangnanted the game of basketball in recent years -- feed the post, kick it out, feed the post, try to get an open jumper. Not only is the style aesthetically unpleasing to the fan, it is clearly not as effective as the Sonics' current wide-open offense. There are times, to be sure, when a Baker postup will be necessary to take advantage of a mismatch or stymie an opponent run; it just can't be the focal point of the offense.
You didn't think I'd get through this column without mentioning the streak, did you?
Yes, that's right . . . with their stellar AB play, the Sonics tied their second-longest road winning streak in franchise history with eight straight victories in unfriendly confines, tying the Dallas Mavericks for the longest such streak this season. As of my last column, the team was at three straight victories on the road: @Milwaukee (Baker injured, misses second quarter), @Indiana (Baker sits out with injury), @Golden State (Bakers sits out with injury). Notice a recurring theme?
The first AB test was the most difficult situation any NBA team can face this season -- entering the Lion's Den that is Arco Arena, home of the Sacramento Kings and their rabid fans. Spurred on by a column in the morning's Sacramento Bee wondering a bit prematurely if the Kings could finish 40-1 at home this season, the Sonics took a lead of better than 20 points to the locker room and held on down the stretch for arguably their most impressive victory of the season.
Next was a mundane win at Phoenix which saw the team shoot lights out. After that, the Sonics headed out on the five-game eastern trip they conclude tomorrow at Memphis (12:00, King 5), starting with Toronto. Despite trailing much of the game by double digits, the Sonics furiously rallied in the third quarter and put the Raptors away down the stretch. Two nights later, the Sonics blew out a resurgent Cleveland ballclub that has won 7 of 10 with strong defense in the third quarter. A night later, they followed it up with a comfortable victory in Atlanta.
Tonight, however, the streak came to an end at the hands of the now-lowly New York Knicks. It was a predictable letdown game, but disappointing nevertheless as the Sonics failed in an attempt to rally in the last two minutes which saw them get the ball down two with 3.7 seconds left. Lacking a timeout, the Sonics turned to Payton, who airballed a contested three attempt as the buzzer sounded. Nevertheless, the Sonics can finish this road trip a fabulous 4-1 with a win Sunday, which would make it a productive trip, if not a reacord breaking (or at least tying) one.
Perhaps better news is that the Sonics finally got the close home game monkey off their backs with a win over Atlanta last Friday night. That followed another late loss to Portland, but one win may be all the Sonics need to right the ship in front of the home crowd.
Heading to the home stretch, the Sonics look pretty good for at least the eighth seed in the West. A seeding battle, however, remains to be determined. Portland has been playing marvelous ball of late, and I doubt seriously that the Sonics will be able to catch their I-5 rivals. Utah, on the other hand, is catchable. While the Jazz showed their mettle with a strong performance on a road trip from the nether regions, they have a very poor point differential, just better than +1 point per game, while the Sonics are +2.5 per game. All other things equal, the Sonics' luck in close games is bound to change, allowing them to match the win total commensurate with such a point differential.