October 26, 2001
RespectEditor’s Note: This column was edited for grammar when it was posted on SonicsCentral 8/03. – KP
It's the time of year that predicting and prognostication becomes all the rave around the NBA. Look around this site, and you'll see numerous team writers putting in their two cents about their expected finish for their team's division. The stands at the grocery store are filled with the familiar preview magazines -- well, to be fair, most of these have been there for a month or two. Other media outlets like ESPN.com are predicting finishes as well.
You might have noticed something as a Sonic fan when reading these predictions. For the most part, they don't have the Sonics even sniffing the playoffs. In fact, many of them have the Sonics sixth in the Pacific Division, ahead of only the lowly Golden State Warriors. If you're anything like myself, you might have a bit different picture of things.
Now, before we go much further, the proverbial grain of salt. Last year, the Sonics were picked by many of these same publications as perhaps even as high as the fifth best team in the NBA. Subsequent events proved that prediction wrong. Very few media outlets had the Blazers finishing seventh in the Western Conference (though this year a Blazer fall is a trendy pick). Picking finishes is an extremely inexact science, and while the NBA is hardly as wide-open as the NFL, I think it's fair to say that as many as 11 Western Conference teams have a shot at the playoffs, writing off only the Warriors, Nuggets (due to the injury to Antonio McDyess), and Grizzlies. That leaves plenty of room for surprises and -- with the NBA being a zero-sum sport -- disappointments.
So, with those facts in mind, my thoughts on why I believe the Sonics can pick up the two spots necessary to become a playoff team this year:
Yes, of course Nate was around for all but the first month of last season. But, for one, it was that month which by and large set the tone for the entire campaign. As well, this is the first time Nate will go into the season having had say on personnel decisions and running his own camp. Could be the difference.
Barry looks more comfortable this season than I have seen him throughout his tenure with the Sonics. In his first season and perhaps the first half of last year, Barry still seemed to be feeling his way around; trying to figure out how to utilize his skill set in relation to his teammates. Everything clicked last March or so. Now, he has added more aggressiveness to his repertoire along with increased ballhandling abilities. By the way, fantasy players, with more minutes, Barry could be a sleeper.
If nothing else, Baker certainly enters this season in better shape and with a vastly improved attitude. I haven't seen any telltale signs of Vin lounging in backcourt while the Sonics play 4 on 5, and he has accepted a bit of deference to other starters, so no matter what Vin will be more valuable than last season. No different than the last three years, I think the Sonics will only go as far as Baker takes them. If he can improve his post scoring and defense at all this year, it will be a boon for the Sonics.
Jelani McCoy showed flashes of brilliance during his stay in Seattle, but overall James and Drobnjak will be a huge improvement as backup 4/5s. (Yes, I know McCoy started, but let's face it, he played backup minutes.) Each brings different (and complimentary) strengths. James provides an interior presence the Sonics lack throughout the rest of the roster, with post skills and shot blocking ability. Again, he doesn't need to do anything, so whatever he provides is a benefit. Okay, I guess I should explain that. There are no real expectations on James' shoulders, he's but a fourth big man playing for the minimum. Thus, if he flops miserably, it shouldn't be a real problem for the Sonics, with Drobnjak and perhaps one other big man inheriting the minutes. If he succeeds, he's a huge plus. As for Drobnjak, when he returns from injury he should provide an extremely capable backup big man who can continue the Sonics' high post offense initiated by Calvin Booth.
I respect the effort and intensity Patrick brought to the table last year; he played his heart out. That said, he was an immobile center who wasn't deserving of the number of post chances he got, and he stifled the Sonics ability to run. Booth is, while arguably a better player, clearly a better fit for the system. Davis is a great defender and has some shooting ability, but that doesn't make him a player worthy of starting, and having Barry in early in games will help the Sonics dramatically.
Now, of course, not all is rosy. The departure of Ruben Patterson to the Rose City will hurt the Sonics significantly; more so if Vladimir Radmanovic is not ready to contribute right away, a questionable proposition at this point. Although the Sonics' starting unit appears to be much improved from last season, the reserves are not as strong, especially with injuries ravaging the club of late (though how many teams exactly can manage to lose two of their top three big men, as the Sonics did this week, and still have solid players up front?)
My thoughts on the other competitors for the playoffs who the Sonics will be fighting with:
I think the Clippers will be a vastly improved team this season due to the addition of Elton Brand and the development of their youthful roster. That said, I think there's an outside shot that they win less games, and don't see them seriously contending for a playoff spot. Here's why -- last year, the Clips could sneak up on teams. No more. Now I think that visiting clubs will feel that entering the Staples Center to play L.A.'s 'other team' is a dicey proposition and prepare accordingly. The Clips future is clearly bright in my opinion, but I think they could have some growing pains. I'm watching to see if Jeff McInnis can continue his stellar play of last season, which surprised nearly everyone. He's in a walk year, by the way.
I see the Suns as a fantastically interesting team. I recall that last year, a certain major publication had a quote about the Sonics which essentially stated that they could go either way -- gel and seriously contend or fall apart and miss the playoffs. Truer words may never have been spoken. I can see Phoenix being a similar team this year. They have a world of athletic talent, but the mix may not be right. IF Anfernee Hardaway and Tom Gugliotta can shake off the lingering effects of injuries and return to form -- and, of course, avoid re-injury -- this team could battle the giants of the Pacific Division. On the other hand, if they are injured, start slowly, and start infighting, Jerry Colangelo et al. could have a minor disaster on their hands, especially in such a loaded division. I'm planning to keep my eye on this entire team to see how things work out, and in particular whether Shawn Marion can take his game to the proverbial next level and become a superstar in just his third season.
Houston's a team I already follow rather closely, solely because of this site and the great job The Rocket Guy, Briefly Speaking, and company do covering the Rockets. TRG is my idol. As well, in my opinion, the Rockets faced many similar decisions to the Sonics this off-season. Of course, they held more picks and more cap room, but both had to decide whether to retain an aging superstar, what (if any) free agent big man to target, what to do with an unwanted big man with an albatross contract, a restricted free agent point guard commanding too much money for their tastes, and how to balance youth with experience. In Seattle, we saw the superstar stick around, followed by a commitment to youth. Houston went for the old Sonic theory -- a little from column a, a little from column b. The aggressive move to get Eddie Griffin in the draft (my second favorite player from this year's class) and departure of Hakeem Olajuwon struck blows for potential. However, the Rockets balanced that by trading for a pair of older role players in Glen Rice and Eddie Griffin. Willis is a guy I heard mentioned a handful of times as a possible pickup for the Sonics to solidify the bench. My position was generally that the Sonics should do what they have done and allocate that time for young players to aid their development and the organization's assessment of their ability. Willis is a better fit for Houston, which has already seen more than enough of Jason Collier and is, as a result of Maurice Taylor's injury, thin up front. I think the Rockets should end up a seed or two ahead of the Sonics again. I've got my eye on Kelvin Cato. Yes, it's pre-season, but if TRG is praising him, he must be doing something right.
A year ago, just about everybody was writing off the Timberwolves with dire predictions about how they would not contend for decades because of the draconian punishment inflicted by David Stern as a result of their illegal deal with Joe Smith. Well, 12 months later, everybody's back in place, including Smith, brought aboard with the median exception as the duo's fascination with each other continues. The T-Wolves survived thanks to a step up in play from point guard Terrell Brandon, steady improvement from second year man Wally Szczerbiak, and surprising play from free agent pickups Reggie Slater and LaPhonso Ellis. Was it smoke and mirrors? I have my doubts, but the fact is the Timberwolves got the job done when nobody thought they could, and, despite not having a first round pick, the load got considerably lighter this year. Smith replaces Ellis, with Slater being replaced by a nice low-risk gamble in Gary Trent, late of the Mavericks' injured list. I really want the T-Wolves to falter this year, because it would be nice for the Sonics chances, but I have a hard time not seeing them as the seventh or eighth seed for, oh, the fifth consecutive year (or does it only seem that long?) Felipe Lopez, who played very well against the Sonics and overall during his time with Minnesota last year now gets a full season with the team to try to make good on his potential, and I'll be watching.
And my projected order of finish for the Pacific Division?
Now, don't fly off the handle, Laker fans. I still think the Lakeshow will take its third straight championship, I just think they'll take a slightly different path. If memory serves me correctly, in both of the Bulls' threepeats, their regular season record went down from the first to second to third seasons. I think a similar fate will befall the Lakers this regular season. Also, as great as a pickup as Lindsey Hunter was (a rusty nail would be good return for Greg Foster), he's not on the same level as Derek Fisher, so the team may in my opinion struggle a bit prior to Fisher's return . . . imagine saying that a year ago?
I've made the argument on Portland before. For four months, they played basketball at as high a level as anyone else in the Western Conference. For two months, they were outplayed by the Sonics. I choose to see the two months as an aberration, not the four months (not to mention the two prior seasons), and expect the Blazers to return to form this season. Also, the curse of Rod Strickland (sure, it's just a coincidence he got there when the Blazers went downhill, right?) has been lifted. Chemistry be damned, criminal record be damned, let's bring in Ruben Patterson and Derek Anderson ... Bob Whitsitt basketball at its finest! I have to be honest -- if I were ever an NBA gm, I harbor a sneaking suspicion that my style would model that of Trader Bob.
As for the rest, I think my thoughts are pretty self-evident. I think there will be a rather wide gulf, of course, between the top three teams (all pretty close) and the Sonics.
Week in Review:Sunday, October 21 - Sonics 100, @Golden State 84
The Sonics played a good, solid, all-around game in disposing of the Warriors by 16 in a game that was never particularly close. Gary Payton and Rashard Lewis each had 18 points, Payton adding 14 dimes and Lewis 11 boards. Barry had 16. Earl Watson played his most extensive minutes and was effective, leading to Monday's action. . . .
On Monday, Shammond Williams was determined to have a broken ring finger that will keep him out four weeks. Williams was injured against Sacramento; odd that he played (and played well) at the open scrimmage the next evening. Despite Williams' injury, the Sonics still cast away experienced point Anthony Johnson the same day, handing Earl Watson the backup job (with help from Barry) at the beginning of the season. That shows a lot of faith in the rookie, and it’s the decision I've been advocating all along.
Later in the week, Vin Baker went down with a sore back. He missed the Sonics' final two pre-season games and his return is questionable for Opening Night Tuesday.
Wednesday, JaRon Rush was sent packing to cut the roster to 14. With Drobnjak and Williams headed to the injured list, it should stay that way, with Art Long the surprise to make the team. There was some complaint about letting the clearly athletic Rush go, but I'm afraid his game just doesn't appear to translate into the NBA. He needs to work on his jumpshot a lot over the next year, because he can't get to the hole with enough regularity to score in that fashion as he did in college.
Thursday, October 25 - @Utah 103, Sonics 98
Friday, October 26 - Sonics 106, Sacramento 88
With Opening Day around the corner, look for a Sonic-centered preview coming Monday or Tuesday.
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