October 21, 2001

A Booth for two?

There is always a certain amount of pressure that goes along with being a team's first round draft pick or key free-agent signing, or even the key player acquired in a trade.

If you don't believe that, ask Brent Barry, who had arguably the worst season of his career -- and certainly a very disappointing one -- after the Chicago Bulls signed him in '99 to be the replacement for Michael Jordan.

With the Sonics, the standards for key free-agent signing are clearly reduced. In recent memory, the team as never brought in a star via free agency; in fact they've only brought in four free agents since 1990 with the intent to have them start. The latest of these four is of course new center Calvin Booth. Unfortunately for Booth, his basketball abilities have been largely clouded over by one of the other fateful four -- Jim McIlvaine.

Booth's probably never met Jim McIlvaine off of a basketball court. It's doubtful he knows very much much about his story -- certainly not as much as Sonic fans. He's done nothing in particular to bring on comparisons to the ill fate suffered by McIlvaine (who, in a twist of fate, was finally released from the initial seven-year contract given him by the Sonics just last week -- with two years left on it).

Yet, these comparisons are inevitable whenever anyone discusses Booth. They probably would be inevitable for any of the free agents the Sonics considered this off-season (Nazr Mohammed, Marc Jackson, and Todd MacCulloch) because they were all centers being brought in to start. For Booth in particular, however, the coincidences -- none of his fault -- do run deep. Of the four players, Booth is the worst offensively. He made his reputation largely on his fine shot blocking -- like McIlvaine. Perhaps most damning, McIlvaine and Booth were both second round picks of the NBA's Washington franchise (renamed from Bullets to Wizards in the interim).

There are also a multitude of differences between Booth and McIlvaine. Limited though his offense may be, Booth clearly does bring some skills to the table. Despite the fact that I saw his shooting ability roundly questioned in a Sonic message board because of one 0 for 6 effort from the field at Memphis last Monday, I've seen Booth in person now four times as a Sonic (twice in pre-season games and twice in open practices) and he has consistently displayed some good touch on his jumpshot. Now it is true that Booth isn't much of a post scorer, but neither was Horace Grant, and I see Booth filling a similar role offensively. An additional -- and extremely underrated from what I've seen -- skill that Booth brings to the table is passing. The Sonics have run much of their pre-season offense through Booth in the high post, and with Barry in the lineup, the Sonics' ball movement from the starters has been fantastic.

Additionally, Booth brings more athleticism and intelligence to the table than McIlvaine ever did. It would come as no great shock to Sonic fans if I were to refer to McIlvaine as slow afoot. Booth displays fantastic athleticism for a center, moreso than any Sonic center since Ervin Johnson, helping the Sonics' fast break efforts. It will also ease the Sonics' frequent switching, since Booth is somewhat capable of guarding players on the perimeter. Reviewing my Rick Barry's Pro Basketball Bible (1995-96 edition), I find the following note on the then-rookie McIlvaine:

"Another reason Bullets didn't run stuff for him is that he had trouble remembering the plays. . . ."

This should not be an issue whatsoever with Booth.

In conclusion, Calvin Booth is not Jim McIlvaine. They are two entirely different people. Just because one of the Sonics' four free agent starters did not work out (well, Officer Polynice didn't exactly star in '99 either) does not mean that Booth will inherently not work out. Give the guy a chance, and please don't judge him before you've seen him play at least on tv. The basketball insistence on comparing everyone to someone else (for example, Harold Miner as 'Baby Jordan' . . . right) constantly confounds me. This is especially true of players who don't really hae anything to do with each other, such as Booth. I also wonder why European players can also only be compared to other Europeans. It's not as if I would ever compare Jason Terry and Michael Dickerson just because they're both from the Seattle area and went to the University of Arizona. They, like almost everyone else, have completely different styles.

Game in Review:

Thursday, October 18 - @Sonics 101, Sacramento 99

A Jekyll and Hyde game. In the first half, the Sonics looked great, lead by the fine play of guards Gary Payton and Barry. In the second half, they were sluggish, and the Kings were able to stay close down the stretch despite the fact that they were using their third stringers against the Sonics' starters. However, a win is a win. Rashard Lewis had a big fourth quarter to lead the way with 24 points, with Barry and Payton checking in with 19 and 18, respectively.

Open practice in review:

Payton sat out the Sonics' scrimmage on Friday with the lingering effects of his hip flexor. While he's not really injured, he's also not worth risking in a scrimmage. Art Long had a very nice day, perhaps making a bid to stay on the roster. Shammond Williams had a nice day from outside, keeping his team in the game. Earl Watson made the most of one of his rare opportunities, displaying a lot of heady play for a rookie.

- Predrag Drobnjak suffered a sprained ankle in practice Thursday; it looks like this one's pretty serious, and might just keep him out until the start of the season if not longer. If so, it is possible Drobnjak makes the IL at the beginning of the season, which would likely me another open spot on the roster for a big man, perhaps meaning that both Long and Antonio Harvey would make the team.

- One thing that has seemed apparent over the pre-season is that the Sonics will probably be a pretty streaky team this season. This, of course, is relative -- all NBA basketball is by its definition streaky -- but the Sonics seem particularly apt to playing well one half and then stinking up the joint the next. It's my guess that this is a natural result of the Sonics' perimeter-based style. The old cliche, 'live by the three, die by the three', if extended to jumper, fits the Sonics well. The trapping defensive style also lends itself to streakiness. When the Sonics are good, they can be really good. But they can also be really bad.