October 11, 2001

Preseason underway

Today, as I often do, I was reading the reports of my fellow Bskball.com columnists, while watching the Mariners even their series with the Indians at one. I came across the Charlotte column, written by the esteemed Green Hornet, and came across the following quotes:

"So far, I have seen reports that claim:
-Seattle's Vin Baker is in great shape and looks like the Vin Baker of old."

"We can't help ourselves! Everyone looks great, we're happy to be here, see how thin Vin looks! He can get it back, can't he?

Well, no. How many times do we have to read how dedicated these guys got over the summer? Go back one year ago, you'll see the same kind of thing. For these overweight guys, where was it their whole careers? I'd love to believe the hype, but I don't. At least eighty percent of these guys are going to regress to the mean. Especially the over-30 crowd. If Baker or Kemp ever make the All-Star [team] again, I will walk on my hands to the West Coast."

Now, before you start thinking that this is going to be the part of the column where I start taking Green Hornet to task regarding these comments and how Vin IS back, keep in mind these two things:

1. I really like Green Hornet's work, and respect what he has to say.
2. Read my own quote from this column just six short months ago:

"I will continue to say that Vin can not return to this team next year. He is beginning to resemble former Seahawk QB Rick Mirer. Every fall, as regular as leaves falling off trees, the Seattle Times would run an article talking about how this was a 'new Mirer', and he would finally put it together. I don't have to tell long-suffering Hawk fans that such progress never actually occured. In the same way, optimistic Sonic fans and officials continue to believe that Vin will regain his form. After the lockout year, he was simply out of shape, and would rebound the next year. This season, his hard work over the off-season would undoubtedly mean a return to form, along with the confidence boost provided by being an Olympian. Who knows what to expect if Vin is to return next season. Perhaps Vin will tell us he knows he will return to form because Cleo told him so."

Eerily similar indeed, other than of course the references to Cleo and the Seattle Times. But that was then, this is now. I've seen Vin play this season twice with my own eyes, and this is not hype. Vin most definitely was back at his old form on Wednesday night when the Sonics opened their pre-season against the LA Clippers. Vin finished with 10 points (on 5 of 9 shooting) and game-highs in rebounds (11) and blocks (6). But even that doesn't say it all. Vin's opposite number was Elton Brand, meaning there was not the "oh, sure, he can score on Art Long" effect I discussed last column. Brand and Baker were matched up virtually all the time Baker was in, and Brand was terrible under the defense of Baker, scoring just 3 points in his first game in a Clipper uniform. As well, Baker was never behind any plays because he remained in backcourt.

Now to be fair, Vin didn't do much of anything during his 11 minutes this evening against the Nuggets, but seeing him twice has been enough to bring me, one of the staunchest anti-Baker supporters, onto the bandwagon. I strongly believe now that Baker is capable of, if not a return to his form, at least providing a solid big man for the Sonics to bring into the Western Conference. I also now strongly believe the Sonics will make the playoffs.

So to Green Hornet, I tell you, this is not just the usual preseason optimism. Although I won't go so far as to say that I'll expect to see you walking cross-country any time soon, Vin really looks much better.

Some other thoughts from the pre-season games:

- Brent Barry. Wow. Barry played excellently in the game this evening, with 21 points (on just 11 shots) and 7 assists. His numbers against the Clips weren't great, but the Sonic offense ran much better with him in the game. I was surprised to see Barry start, but word on the street is that Nate McMillan wants Desmond Mason's athleticism off the bench. If so, I am very pleased. It doesn't come as a surprise that I'm a big Barry fan -- he's got great secondary stats (points per shot, assist/to ratio), but I came around on him even before looking at those stats, as you'll see if you go all the way back to my first column at Bskball.com in the archive. I also happened to look at some numbers, and the Sonics were 5-10 last year when Barry sat out. If that doesn't indicate his value, I don't know what does. On the other hand, I continue souring on Mason. If anyone seems to dominate the ball offensively, it's not Gary Payton, it's not Shammond Williams, but D-Mase, who simply dribbles and shoots too much for my tastes. To reiterate what I said through repetition, the Sonic offense is much smoother with Barry in the game. And he's not as bad defensively as is his reputation.

- Rashard Lewis seems even more two-dimensional in his fourth season. He looks great shooting the ball, good on the rebounds, but his handling ability appears to have declined. That shocked me, because I expected handling to be the main thing Lewis worked on this summer. He mishandled a couple of passes thrown in his direction, had a rough time dribbling to set up his shot or through double teams, and looked absolutely miserable when he brought the ball upcourt once against the Clippers, which ended up in a dunk the other way. I think he was also responsible for a Sonic eight-second backcourt violation.

- Gary Payton is still very good, though in all honesty he didn't seem to be deferring much on offense against the Clips. GP sat out tonight with a very minor hip flexor injury.

- The rookies. I really like Predrag Drobnjak in game action. Extremely soft touch on the jumper, solid job defensively and on the glass, good handler for a big man now that he's used to playing against NBA-level defenses. Drobnjak could turn out to be an unbelievable steal for the Sonics, and he comes cheap for the next two years too! Vladimir Radmanovic seemed to have some jitters, struggling a bit with his jumper. He got to the line a lot when he was in the game, and his one-on-one ability is great for a team that has little of it beyond point guards Payton and Williams. Still needs a haircut and a good clean shave.

- Defensive intensity. Fantastic against the Clippers, who were miserable from the floor, especially against the first team. Not an uncontested shot to be found in the paint. Baker and Calvin Booth in particular did a great job defensively, though Jerome James was strong as well.

- Good coaching. What I've particularly liked about McMillan's work in the two pre-season games has been that he's played the various units together for the most part, which provides a chance for these units to develop confidence and familiarity. It also makes the play more meaningful when Payton is matched with Jeff McInnis and not Miles Simon.

Again, handicapping the battles:

- Third point: Earl Watson continues sitting out, which can't be helping his chances. Anthony Johnson's only been mediocre in the two games, however, so the door is still open for Watson. Eddie Gill's done nothing to show he shouldn't be out the door. I continue to favor Watson.

- Backup big men: You know how I feel about Drobnjak already. James looked pretty solid against LA, though he picked up five fouls in limited minutes. He probably won't play enough for that to be a concern. Expect both James and Drobnjak to play off the bench. Olumide Oyedeji has been as unimpressive as he was during the summer. Good call here by McMillan, as I like the duo.

- Sixth big man: Antonio Harvey played extensively with the second unit against the Clips, which would seem to indicate he's got the inside track, but he didn't play all that well. Eddie Elisma had a very strong line against Denver, with 8 points and 7 boards. Jamal Kendrick made a late push not to be amongst the first cuts with 13 points on six of six from the field against Denver. I still personally prefer Elisma.

First cuts will likely come tomorrow, with the money still being on Kendrick and Gill as getting one way tickets out of Seattle.