October 29, 2001
As I sit and write, we are less than 21 hours away from Sonic basketball for the first time in . . . well, it only seems like forever. Every team is tied for first place and this, more than any other, is the time for optimism, warranted or not.
But first, to psyche Sonic fans up, a quick note relating to last week's discussion of the print media's lack of Sonic respect:
The Sporting News Online, in their 'NBA Power Poll' rates the Sonics 26th out of 29 NBA teams. Now I know I'm guilty of at least a little hometown bias, but 26th? That's impossible to fathom. That would seem to translate into about 16 wins -- only a virtually unprecedented (other than during the lockout season) 28 game drop in record over one year. Looking to history as a guide, excepting the aforementioned lockout year, the Sonics have never in their 34-year history dropped more than 22 games from one season to the next. Of course, TSN has the Sonics behind such 'noted powers' as the New Jersey Nets, the Detroit Pistons, the Golden State Warriors (?), and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Unbelievable.
Moving right along, I realize I've never actually recapped in sum the events since the Sonics concluded their season last April 18 against San Antonio. Let's look back:
18 - P-I article is published in which Sonic owner Howard Schultz is quoted ripping Vin Baker. The next day, Vin is quoted as saying that a change of scenery would be better for both him and the Sonics.
25 - A week after the season's end, Schultz and president Wally Walker hold a press conference in which it is revealed that no Sonic is considered untouchable in trade.
5 - Sonics hold community meetings, fans urge Schultz and Walker not to trade Gary Payton.
7 - Ruben Patterson charged with third degree rape.
11 - Patterson enters a modified 'Alford' plea to the charge and is given probation. Seattle P-I runs article on the KGP.
21 - Rashard Lewis named to Goodwill Games team.
30 - CBSSportsline.com columnist Mike Kahn reports that Payton will demand a trade. Story denied later in the day by Payton's agents.
1 - Rick Sund hired as Sonics GM, Dean Demopoulos hired as assistant coach.
27 - Sonics select Vladimir Radmanovic and Earl Watson in the draft and trade for the rights to Predrag Drobnjak.
18 - Patrick Ewing signs with Orlando.
27 - Emanual Davis signs with Atlanta.
30 - Patterson signs an offer sheet with Portland.
1 - Calvin Booth signs an offer sheet with the Sonics.
9 - Sonics announce that they will be changing logos. Booth is named to Goodwill Games team.
25 - Sonics unveil new logo in elaborate ceremony with several ex-players in attendance.
5 - Sonics sign Drobnjak and Jerome James.
6 - Sonics come to terms with Radmanovic.
1 - Sonics open training camp.
2 - Shammond Williams comes to terms on a two-year contract.
If you correctly predicted last April that the Sonics would start this season with Payton and Baker still around, a pair of Yugoslavians, and a third guy who played in Yugoslavia last season, please e-mail me to claim your prize.
All said, however, it wasn't that eventful of an off-season. Again, what kind of odds could have been procured on the bet that the Sonics would not deal one player off their roster during the off-season?
Without further ado, let's look at said roster:
He's still here? Gary Payton was rumored to end up wearing almost any jersey besides a Sonic one next season, but lo and behold he's still around, with a new physique and a positive attitude during training camp. If Gary truly has 'lost a step', he's done a fantastic job of hiding it thus far during pre-season games and training camp. As a result of the Sonics' new offense, Payton won't handle the ball quite as much, but don't expect his scoring or assists to go down much. Brent Barry joins Payton in the starting lineup to recreate the vaunted 'Beaver Backcourt' (which could probably beat the actual Beaver basketball squad of 2001). Barry has been the surprise of training camp, as the Sonics' high-post offense appears to suit him to a t. Look for a breakout year for Bones as he makes efficient use of his numerous offensive talents.
Off the bench, Desmond Mason, long expected to start, has inherited the 6th man/energy provider job from departed Ruben Patterson. Mason is a fine defender for a young player and can play above the rim, but he simply must add consistency and range to his jumper and get to the line more if he is to build off his strong rookie season. Mason will see significant time at both the off guard and the small forward positions. Shammond Williams, once recovered from a broken ring finger, is arguably the best fourth guard in basketball. When the Sonics have a need for instant offense off the bench, Williams is the guy, as he can shoot the lights out. Question marks continue to surround his ability to run a team (though he's made strides) and defense. Rookie Earl Watson earned a spot on the roster -- and perhaps in the rotation while Williams is out -- with tenacious defense and surprising shooting during training camp. In an ideal world, Coach Nate McMillan would prefer a Watson-style player to have as a backup point as opposed to a shoot-first point like Williams, so Earl could stick around a while.
He's still here too? Actually, you might not recognize Vin Baker. Despite ever-present off-season rumors to the contrary, Baker shed about 20 pounds this off-season to return his physique to the point it was during his first season in Seattle, 1997-98. If only his game would return to that point .... We've seen flashes of the old Baker during pre-season, but consistency is the key. Nonetheless, a hustling Baker with a good attitude would mark a major improvement for the Sonics. Rashard Lewis is already a solid small forward at the tender age of 22 (hey, that's actually kinda old to me), but this season is critical for him nevertheless. If he progresses and improves upon his averages of 15 points and 7 boards, Lewis will quite possibly be the top prize of the summer of 2002 as a free agent and command a max contract. Thus far this pre-season, Lewis has demonstrated improved scoring ability, though his secondary skills do not seem to have advanced much.
Predrag Drobnjak was an unfamiliar name to everyone in attendance at the Sonics' Draft Party when the Sonics traded the rights to 42nd pick Bobby Simmons to get the Yugoslavian big man from Washington. Now, however, everyone better know how to pronounce his name (it's Drob-knee-yak, by the way) as he will be the Sonics' top reserve big man when recovered from a sprained left ankle that will disable him to start the season. Drobnjak posesses an NBA body and a remarkably soft touch on his jumper. He was brought over in part to mentor Sonic first round pick Vladimir Radmanovic, a fellow Yugoslavian. Radmanovic is a 20-year old with a silky-smooth jumper and the ability to get to the hole. However, Radmanovic's adjustment to NBA ball has been slow. Expect him to see inconsistent minutes at the opening system, depending on matchups and how he is playing. Radmanovic and Lewis will probably see limited action together, providing a preview of things to come in Seattle. Antonio Harvey's second tour of duty in Seattle finds him as a relative veteran and leader, but he won't play much. Art Long's athletic ability may give him some spot minutes, and second-year man Olumide Oyedeji can provide rebounding, though he is generally regarded as having regressed from a solid rookie campaign.
After taking their sweet time in deciding which free agent big man to pursue, the Sonics at last settled on Calvin Booth, a restricted free agent who the Mavericks had hoped to retrain but were constrained in doing so by their precarious salary cap position. Booth isn't a post scorer, which the Sonics really needed, but brings several skills to the table. He's a fantastic shot blocker, leading the league on a per-minute basis last season, and also posesses good touch on the jumper around 12-15 feet. This ability, when added to his fine passing skills for a big man, make him an ideal choice for an offense which utilizes the high post. Jerome James came out of nowhere to impress Sonic fans and front office personnel with his performance in pre-Summer League practices. The team hid James during the league and signed him to a one-year deal at the minimum. The concensus is that James has always had a world of talent, but was not in the shape to make use of it. After losing 80 pounds, he remains a big body but also has fine agility. James is arguably the best post player on the team, with a solid baby-hook, and another great shot blocker. He will see extensive time against bigger centers, though there is concern about his proclitivity to picking up quick fouls.
Well, no more waffling. I've already said that I think the Sonics will be the 8th seed in the playoffs. Now I add to that -- I predict that they will finish with a record of 47-35. Yeah, that's probably optimistic, but if you can't be optimistic the night before opening night, when can you be?