May 5, 2002 (column #x)
Wait 'Till Next Year. . .
That it's all over now isn't any surprise. How it happened is.
The Sonics were blown out exactly one time between the All-Star break and the end of the regular season, losing by more than 15 points only to the Dallas Mavericks on April 13. Then, in a five game series with the San Antonio Spurs, they suffered five blowouts. And that stings just a little bit as a fan.
None of the games was over sooner than game five, in which the Sonics never once led. After taking an early 4-2 'lead', the Spurs erupted for a 19-2 run as the Sonics went impotent offensively. Even with a pair of late Gary Payton scores, the Sonics still managed to break their record for fewest points in a quarter with 10, and trailed by 17 at the end of one. More depressingly, they had done that even with Tim Duncan sitting out the quarter's final four minutes with two fouls; the Spurs actually increased their lead during the period.
Things had to get better in the second quarter, right? Well, for the first half of the period, the Sonics managed to stay even. But later, the Spurs went on a 12-2 run and the game was, for all intents and purposes, over at halftime. It was 55-26 San Antonio; the halftime total was also a new record low.
The second half was better, in that Seattle managed to avoid setting a third record for offensive futility by scoring less than 68 points in the game, but still not competitive whatsoever.
I take my time now to tip my cap to the San Antonio Spurs. They are a veteran team, well constructed, well-coached, and professional. For all of the complaints sometimes overheard about the job done by Coach Gregg Popovich, I felt he did a masterful job in this series, outcoaching Nate McMillan to put to rest any lingering sentiment from Sonics fans that McMillan deserved Coach of the Year.
There's been much complaint, especially from the local columnists (who have emerged to talk about basketball for the last two weeks and will now return to another 11 months of baseball hibernation), about the Sonics choking and not bringing their best effort.
I don't see it that way. Rashard Lewis was injured, and I think after the last month, when the Sonics hit their worst stretch of the season without Lewis, his value is obvious. Is there anyone making noise about his contract now? The Sonics simply cannot afford to lose Lewis for nothing, and they can't trade him. As well, Barry has struggled all series, and to some extent all month. My analysis is that it's a little bit fatigue and a little bit Bruce Bowen, but probably only Barry and his teammates know for certain why he struggled so much in this series.
Throughout this season, Lewis and Barry have been the Sonics' two best players. Switch them however you like, but I can see little argument that they rank anywhere but directly behind Gary Payton on the Sonics' hierarchy. And neither of them gave the Sonics any production in game three or the first half of game five. How many teams in the NBA could survive the elimination of that significant a part of their team? I'd venture the guess not many.
When Tim Duncan wasn't absent, Barry and Lewis being non-factors meant the Sonics had to have at least one, probably two of their other three starters -- Desmond Mason, Vladimir Radmanovic, and Vin Baker -- step up to have any chance. Counting on such volatile players is a tough gamble, and the dice came up snake eyes for the Sonics: None scored double-figures, and they combined to shoot 11 of 34 from the field.
Thus, wasn't it to a large degree inevitable that the Sonics not make shots? And when they haven't made shots, throughout this series, the Spurs have been able to get good looks in transition, which makes them even more lethal than they normally are.
Are there any real lessons for next time that the Sonics can take from this series?
I think the number one thing that I feel I have learned is that Brent Barry really can't handle being a 40 minute per night player. It's my opinion that his April/playoff struggles were caused to a large amount by fatigue. What really bothers me is thinking back to the Sonics' finale against Memphis, and remembering that Barry was on the court in the fourth quarter after the game was decided. Would it have really made a difference? Nope, but it sure couldn't help. As important as Barry is to the Sonics' success, being able to cut his minutes next season from 37.5 per night to about 35 would help him play strong into April and, hopefully, May. Whether those minutes ought to come from the backup guard (Earl Watson? Randy Livingston? Shammond Williams?) or Mason playing off guard more because of the presence of Ansu Sesay, I can't say, but if the team is healthy, they should be able to make this change without a significant cost to the team.
One question this series has left has to be about Jerome James. After a strong game two effort, James was invisible in games three-five, barely getting off the bench in the second half of any of them. On the defensive end, James is already one of the NBA's best per-minute shot-blockers, but it often comes at the expense of his ability to rotate, and he is not a great post defender. He is also a liability in terms of getting back against fast breaks, something which has absolutely killed the Sonics in the series. On offense, James has made a decent amount of jumpers, even though I cringe every time he shoots them. He demonstrates a curious inability to get good position in the post or back his man in. His best offensive asset remains the hammer. Any way to get him to Pete Newell's big man school?
I thought about a month ago that, if he returned, James would be the favorite to start next season, but I'm no longer so sure about that with Peja Drobnjak and (hopefully) Calvin Booth around. His even returning is no guarantee. If some desperate team throws a median exception at him, will the Sonics be willing to match? With the luxury tax an issue, probably not. James has, at times, promised loyalty to McMillan and the Sonics . . . but who knows? James' free agency -- assuming, of course, he opts out of his minimum salary for next season -- should be quite intriguing in a league where so many unproven talents at center received the exception last summer.
All told, Baker had a pretty strong series -- by my numbers, the best of any Sonic -- which is definitely a good thing. Let's face it . . . Vin Baker is not going to be a starter on the next great Sonic team. Vladimir Radmanovic quite possibly may be. And Baker's salary surely doesn't justify having him as a backup, especially when there are teams that might well take him as a starter -- in the East. I'm not going to get my hopes up, as I did last year, and I'm certainly not expecting value in return, but I'm confident the Sonics can move Baker.
But I'm getting into the wrong tense. That's all future, and we must first look at the past. How will this season be remembered by Sonics fans?
- The season the experts weren't so expert. The Sporting News picked the Sonics 26th in the NBA. Sports Illustrated's verdict was 12th in the West. Both had the Sonics behind the Golden State Warriors, who ended up tied with the Chicago Bulls for last in the league -- and first in the lottery. Meanwhile, I overshot, albeit slightly. In my pre-season column, I said 47 wins and the eighth seed. That was revised halfway through to 47 wins and the seventh or eighth seed. Unfortunately, the 2-7 April slide messed up my chance to really gloat about calling things, but I was still closer than those who you're paying for the privilege of reading.
- The season Brent Barry broke out. For years, he was considered one of the league's most inconsistent, underachieving players. Prior to training camp, I wrote a column discussing the labels applied to the Sonics. Well, Barry shed them all in 2001-02, emerging as arguably the Western Conference's second-best shooting guard after Kobe Bryant.
Nothing was more impressive this year than Bones' versatility -- he averaged better than five rebounds and assists, an impressive feat. Only two shooting guards -- Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady -- averaged both more assists and rebounds per game. Opening that up to the entire NBA adds only three more players -- Steve Francis, Jason Kidd, and Lamar Odom. Four of those players were All-Stars this season. Draw your own conclusions.
- The season Gary Payton proved his detractors wrong. Can't lead? Can't keep from getting in fights? Won't involve his teammates? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. On the court, Payton experienced precious little drop off from a fine 2000-01 season. By my numbers, he was the NBA's best point guard again this season, placing amongst the NBA's league leaders in both assists and assist/to ratio as he allowed players like Barry and Lewis to take a greater role in the offense. His leadership this season was exemplary. Now do the right thing, Wally and Howard!
- The season the draft worked to near-perfection. The Sonics plucked not one, not two, but three contributors from the 2001 NBA Draft, something only the Golden State Warriors can also say. Vladimir Radmanovic broke into the starting lineup, seemingly for good, in late February after the injury to Vin Baker. Unfortunately, he too was injured, missing a month with a sore toe. In his rookie season, Radmanovic showed flashes of the potential to be as well-rounded a player as Europe has ever produced. He is already a capable defender, rebounder, and three-point shooter. Now, it's a matter of adding to his game and ability to go one-on-one over the summer, and perhaps adding some post moves in anticipation of starting at power forward from the start of next season.
Peja Drobnjak started slowly, but caught on fast, starting after Radmanovic's injury and demonstrating that he wasn't overmatched in the role. No Sonic improved during the course of the season as much as Drobnjak, who couldn't make a shot in the first half but was silky-smooth with his jumper down the stretch. His foot speed will always be a problem at this level, but if Drobnjak is a reserve big man, he's one of the top 15 in that role in the NBA, in my estimation.
This was supposed to be a learning season for Earl Watson, sitting and watching behind Payton and Shammond Williams. When Williams' injury opened up playing time for Watson, he shocked everyone but himself by emerging as the Sonics' reserve guard -- until he too was injured, also missing about a month. Watson was impressive defensively for a rookie, finishing fifth in the NBA amongst players with 900 minutes played with 3.0 steals per 48 minutes. On offense, he did a solid job of avoiding turnovers and running the show.
- The season the Sonics' scouts found numerous diamonds in the rough. Watson was the 40th pick, Drobnjak came over from Washington in a deal for the 42nd. We've already discussed James, signed as a free agent for the minimum. Add to that list Art Long, another minimum salary free agent, and Ansu Sesay and Randy Livingston, both signed in-season. Long provided the Sonics almost 1000 minutes, battling in the post and doing a strong job on the boards. He was missed in the playoffs after (guess what?) he too was injured. Livingston and Sesay stepped in immediately and helped the team, providing solid role play off the bench. Livingston played tough defense, avoided turnovers like nobody's business, and was key in the Sonics' game two victory. Sesay demonstrated he belonged with sticky defense and good all-around offensive play. Both could be back next season.
- The lost season for Calvin Booth. A sprained ankle suffered at the final open practice turned Booth's first season in Seattle into a nightmare, as he missed 67 games and did little to avoid the unfortunate but unavoidable comparisons to Jim McIlvaine. I still believe that Booth will end up an asset to the Sonics, but aside from 23 for 24 from the free-throw line and a 24-point effort in a victory over Dallas, his contributions this season were negligible.
- The last season for Vin Baker? On February 14, this looked like a strong season for Baker. Not All-Star form, not by any stretch of the imagination, but also not the poor play of the previous season. Then Baker (guess what?) was injured, dislocating three toes. While he was out, the Sonics went 11-5 (10-2 at one point) and established themselves as a playoff team. It was also revealed during that time that the Sonics had a deal near completion with an unnamed team (Indiana?) to move Baker prior to the deadline. After Baker returned as a reserve, he did little to prove he deserved his starting job back before a decent playoff effort.
- Injuries. While I still contend that the Sonics' woes weren't as bad as some have made them out to be -- based on Harvey Pollack's rankings of games lost, the Sonics were in the middle of the pack, and their top three players missed only 12 games combined, including none for Payton -- they sure did have a lot of different players injured. Only at the end of the season was a player 'injured' in the sense that David Wingate was last season, but even then Lewis was injured but on the active roster.
- The playoffs return. On April 8, the Sonics clinched a playoff spot with a victory over their only remaining competition for the final spot, the Los Angeles Clippers, behind the career-high 36 points of Mason. It took them nine days to win another game and clinch the seventh seed by beating the Memphis Grizzlies behind 33 from Mason. Their opponent, also determined that night, would be the San Antonio Spurs, whom the Sonics had split with, 2-2, during the regular season. After being blown out in game one, the Sonics took a close game two to come home with a chance to end the series at the Key. Instead, they were embarrassed again in game three to reach the verge of elimination. After Tim Duncan's father, William, passed on, the Spurs star was forced to miss game four. Taking advantage, the Sonics took a 26-point lead to halftime and cruised to victory to force game five. Once there, the Sonics simply could not shoot straight, scoring 10 points in the first quarter and 26 in the first half as they never contended in a 23-point loss.
All in all, it was a good season. A fairly young Sonic team made the playoffs in a tough Western Conference and won enough games to finish with home-court in the Eastern Conference. They took an experienced and talented San Antonio team led by the NBA's second-best player to a game five -- the only Western underdog to survive that far. Let us look beyond the disappointment of game five and remember all the good moments of this season, from the upset of Sacramento at ARCO (only three other teams won there all season) to Desmond Mason's tip-dunk to send the game against Charlotte to overtime to Payton's three-point barrage in the All-Star game.
And, as always, wait 'till next year!