May 13, 2002 (column #x)
Forecast for Summer
There is, of course, a downside to the Seattle Supersonics making the playoff this season. After one of the most interesting and eventful summers in Sonics history last off-season, this year's summer is . . . if not boring, then fairly straightforward.
While there are still important moves for the Sonics to make, they are not nearly as contentious or debatable as were last season's, such as who to select with a lottery pick and who to bring in as a free agent. This season, the main decisions are gimmes, at least in the minds of fans. The most important move the Sonics must make is re-signing Rashard Lewis, and after some heated debate about Lewis' free agency in January, there is near-unanimous agreement that Lewis must be brought back now.
Let me come out and be blunt about this. There are only two teams I see Rashard Lewis playing for next season -- the Sonics and the Washington Wizards. While two teams, Chicago and the Los Angeles Clippers, have enough cap room to make a move for Lewis, they seem set at the forward positions and unlikely to target Lewis. The Wizards, meanwhile, are in a more precarious cap position. If, as many expect, the cap stays the same, they will have (at most) less than four and a half million to spend. That would not be enough to get Lewis straight out, but might be enough to overcome the fact that Lewis will likely become a Base-Year Compensation player and facilitate a sign-and-trade deal.
If Lewis receives a raise of greater than 20% of his previous $4.5 million salary (approximately $5.5 million), he will become BYC, which means the Sonics would only be able to return about half his salary in a trade. Because of the NBA's matching rule with trades for teams over the cap, it would be nearly impossible to work a two-team deal with Lewis going to a team over the cap. Washington, however, could have enough cap room to swallow this difference between his trade value to them and to the Sonics.
Undoubtedly the Wizards will at least make a cursory effort to land Lewis; what remains in doubt is how hard they will pursue him and how much interest he has. One positive is that one of Lewis' main objectives in free agency has been playing closer to his hometown, Houston. Going to the Wizards would surely not accomplish this.
Houston is always a possibility with Lewis, who expressed desire to return there to play in a Tacoma News-Tribune article earlier this season. However, with the Rockets over the cap, the only possibilities are a convoluted sign-and-trade or their median exception. Would Lewis be willing to accept half the money the Sonics could offer him just to return to his hometown? Only he and his agent know the answer to that, but I don't believe so.
Beyond Lewis, the Sonics have six other impending free agents: Earl Watson, Randy Livingston, Ansu Sesay, Art Long, Olumide Oyedeji, and Jerome James.
James has a player option for next season. In late February, after he had emerged as a starter, James made comments to the Tribune's Hughes (who either finds or creates controversy) indicating that he would not opt out. These were later softened; perhaps someone informed James that not opting out would be basically giving away money. James' recent statements have still indicated a great deal of loyalty to the Sonics and Nate McMillan. What happens to that loyalty if another team starts throwing around big offers is another question. Actually, odds are that James will not be able to get a larger offer from another team than he could from the Sonics. As noted above, there are only a handful of teams projected to be under the salary cap who could follow the strategy the Sonics used last season to get Calvin Booth, giving him slightly more than the median exception for the first season to keep Dallas (in this case, Seattle) from using its right to match any offer.
James' situation is slightly different than Booth's, however, and is more accurately compared to Golden State's Marc Jackson last summer. Just like Jackson, James is a non-Bird restricted free agent, meaning that the team cannot go over the salary cap to resign him. Seattle, then, is constrained the same as most other teams in what they can offer James: All or part of their median exception.
So, then . . . what is James worth? I could (and have) write a column on James. In early March, when the Sonics were winning 10 out of 12 games and James was looking like the best Sonic center since Jack Sikma, I would have answered the median exception -- or more -- without hesitation. But the final two months were not so kind to him, as he continually demonstrated an inability to avoid fouls and was invisible for large stretches of games. And when the Sonics really needed James to step up his performance, in the post season against San Antonio and Tim Duncan, he failed them. A strong game two performance aside, James did little of anything in the series. He was so bad in games four and five that he did not get off the bench in either game's second half. I'm not entirely sure if I were part of the Seattle front office that I would give James the full median exception anymore.
I imagine the Sonics must be kicking themselves about not giving Watson a two-year deal prior to this season, one in which he emerged as the team's backup point guard and a possible -- if unlikely -- successor to Gary Payton. Now, the question is how hard Watson might take the organization's decision to leave him off the playoff roster in favor of Randy Livingston and Shammond Williams. With Williams playing only in garbage time throughout the series, the strategical wisdom of such a decision, considering Watson might have been able to contain Tony Parker, has to be questioned even without considering its long-term implications. Surely the Sonics want to keep Watson, but we may see a situation similar to last summer, when Emanual Davis left to Atlanta for an offer essentially similar to what the Sonics were offering. Davis appeared to leave in part because of the opportunity to start and also because he didn't like the way the organization was treating him. Watson won't likely be offered a starting spot, but he may look elsewhere because the Sonics did not keep him on the playoff roster.
Oyedeji, Livingston, and Sesay all seem to fit in a similar category. The Sonics likely want to bring them back, at the minimum, but none of them are real priorities, and another team displaying significant interest could easily pry them away. If I were a GM, Sesay would be the most interesting of the three to me. He was fairly well-regarded out of Ole' Miss, won the NBDL's MVP last season, and proved he could play at this level over the final month of this season. Nate McMillan's faith in Livingston was demonstrated by his decision to use Livingston as the backup point guard during the playoffs. Though Watson, if he returns, would likely regain that job next season, Livingston's steady hand and veteran presence make for a nice insurance policy, especially if Williams is jettisoned. Oyedeji began the season as a forgotten man, but was remarkably effective during the season's second half, providing some valuable minutes when injuries mounted.
In his own category is Long, who appears unlikely to return. Hughes, again at the center of the storm, reported on the morning of game one that a source had reported that Long left the team prior to the playoffs, unhappy at being left off the playoff roster. Both other local beat writers have reported in their end-of-the year recaps that Long will not return next season. I'll take them at their word. Thanks for the effort, Art, sorry it couldn't have ended better.
In addition to giving out contracts to free agents, the Sonics must make a decision on a new one for Payton. This will be the final season of the mega-deal he signed in the summer of 1996, and with Seattle management seemingly not willing to hand him an extension -- yet, if ever -- prepare for another three months of rampant trade rumor and speculation.
As BskBALL reported in his Rumor section this week, the Sonics probably won't look to trade Payton this summer, but they won't look to extend him either. What the team seems to want to do is keep its options open for the summer of 2003, a tremendous free agent crop that will include New Jersey point guard Jason Kidd, a friend of Sonics owner Howard Schultz. Speculating, what the Sonics may be thinking is that they will try to court Kidd and, failing that, turn back to Payton. Or perhaps they're hoping to pair the two Bay Area natives. Either way, an extension isn't part of the plan.
My personal take, unsurprisingly, is that this is not a good strategy to pursue. By not seriously broaching an extension with Payton, the Sonics risk upsetting him and precipitating a trade demand. Even if you are amongst those who believe the tame would be better off getting value for Payton while they can, being forced to deal him is not a situation that can provide the team equal value. The Sonics have never ever signed a truly impact free agent, certainly nobody on the level of Kidd. As well, depending on what the cap is set at two years from now, even a Sonics team without Payton on the cap might not have enough room to sign Kidd straight-out. In a situation reminiscent of Chris Webber last summer, Kidd has talked about playing with a number of players when he becomes a free agent (or them about playing with him, as the case may be). In the end, however, the easiest situation for Kidd might be to return to a New Jersey team that might just make the NBA Finals this season.
I guess you can sum up my feelings thusly: Why take a shot at Jason Kidd when you could have a known quantity in Payton (especially given my feeling that Payton is the NBA's best point guard currently, with Kidd and his frigid sub-40% shooting at number three behind Andre Miller).
There are always trades to consider. The Sonics have two main players they will look to trade this off season, power forward Vin Baker and point guard Shammond Williams.
If you are looking for evidence that the Sonic organization is improving, you need look no further than a comparison of last season's post-season press conference and this season's, held last Thursday. A year ago, the team essentially placed both Baker and Payton on the trade block in that conference. If Wally Walker and Howard Schultz did not say they were planning to trade both, they also did not deny that fact very strongly. This season, two different members of the organization, McMillan and GM Rick Sund, met with media, and said all the right things about Baker.
Privately, it still seems certain that the Seattle braintrust is plotting any possible way to send Baker packing. His value is clearly higher this summer than it was a year ago, and if nothing else the Sonics should be able to get shorter contracts than his. One concern is that the Sonics may be forced to part with another player in order to facilitate a Baker trade, like Peja Drobnjak.
According to BskBALL's rumors, Williams has asked to be traded, a request the Sonics would like to grant. While many Sonics fans, including me, held out hope before the season that giving Williams a regular role as Payton's backup would help him grow into a true point guard while retaining his outstanding scoring ability. Instead, Williams regressed, overdribbling, shooting too frequently, and standing out as a defensive liability on a team with poor overall perimeter defense. By the end of the season, both Watson and Livingston were seemingly ahead of Williams, who made the post-season roster only because he was considered complimentary to Livingston, whereas Watson was too similar. I still believe that Williams may yet become a capable NBA reserve, providing scoring punch as a tweener guard . . . it just won't happen in Seattle.
In the end, this summer doesn't look quite as exciting for Sonics fans as was last year, when we had a lottery pick and a new free agent to look forward to, along with a summer-league team (the Sonics will not be fielding one this year) and the ongoing drama of the Payton and Baker situations. Perhaps, however, that's a good thing, as with some luck in the free agent market, the Sonics may be able to achieve some measure of continuity between seasons for the first time since . . . well, it's been since 1995 that the Sonics did not start the season without at least one starter who was new to the team, a realistic possibility for next November.