November 11, 2001

Jekyll and Hyde

To begin the column this week, I'd like to revisit something I wrote a couple of columns ago. To quote myself:

"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."

So far, this belief has proved itself out. One night, the Sonics look great, and fans are full of optimism, predicting a high seed in the playoffs. The next night, the Sonics play terribly, and the fans are back off the bandwagon again.

This week, it is especially true. For the opener, the Sonics went into the O-Rena to take on a very talented Orlando Magic squad and emerged in double overtime with a W thanks to career highs of 36 points and 19 rebounds from Rashard Lewis. The next night, an exhausted Sonics team predictably loses to Miami despite the absence of Alonzo Mourning while shooting just 32%, but draws kudos from the fans for their effort and guile to get that close while so tired. And then the road trip falls apart. Thursday and Friday, the Sonics lost back to back games to the New Jersey Nets and Boston Celtics, letting fourth quarter leads slip away to lose by double digits in each instance.

Is that really such a bad thing? Not really. If I had merely looked at the box score after the game, I probably wouldn't have been that disappointed. Though I predicted that the Sonics would beat New Jersey, a loss was certainly far from shocking, and I expected the Sonics lose to Boston. So the result itself isn't the real problem.

What is a problem is that I and other Sonic fans didn't just read a box score in the paper. Instead we saw the New Jersey game and listened to the untelevised Boston game on the radio. And what we saw and heard disgusted us. Why in particular? It's tough to get a complete handle on that fact; to put it into words. The best I can do is to say that both games were eminantly winnable, but the Sonics gave them away because of a lack of hustle, basketball intelligence, and perhaps heart. In other words, I expected the Sonics to lose because they did not have as much talent as their opponents. I did not expect them to lose because they did not have the same quality intangibles.

The real killer for the Sonics right now is the defensive rotation, which is about as fast as rush hour on I-5. A number of people have commented on the Sonics' lack of an interior presence. This is true, but the Sonics have also been slow to rotate to open perimeter players, leading to 8 three pointers in 12 tries for Paul Pierce last night on the way to 35 points. Opponents are getting numerous easy shots, open looks, and it has been devestating for the Sonics, especially at the beginning and end of games. As many a fan has pointed out, isn't it simply inconceivable that a Nate McMillan-coached team could be allowing 102.3 points per game through seven games?

Offensively, the Sonics have in their losses suffered from severe lack of ball movement and, reciprocally, lack of player movement. Various players -- mostly Gary Payton, Desmond Mason, and Vin Baker -- have dominated the ball at times during a game. This has, in turn, led other players to not move to get free without the basketball, or cut to the lane. This has meant that the players without the ball have stayed around the three point line. This has meant -- lo and behold -- that the Sonics have been getting three happy, especially in New Jersey, when they threw up 25. When the outside shots stopped falling in the fourth quarter, the Sonics were dead in the water.


- Baker has shown more than signs of life. On the roadtrip, he's been the Sonics second most consistent offensive presence, behind only Payton. He is now averaging 18 points and 7.9 boards through seven games. Honestly, those numbers aren't even awful for a player commanding his salary anymore. It seems like Vin continues to get better and better and more confident in the post all the time, and if he can keep up this play, it's still hard to imagine -- despite the poor play on this trip -- that the Sonics won't be playoff bound.

- Rookies. Vladimir Radmanovic has done some very good things in the limited minutes he's gotten thus far. Radmanovic is arguably the most agressive player on the roster, something the Sonics need when they get three happy. He's also rebounded better than expected. Expect a high learning curve and continually improving play. Earl Watson has been a revalation thus far on the defensive end. Quick question -- who has more blocks, Calvin Booth (granting he has missed three games due to injury) or Watson? Obviously, I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't Watson, who has been a spark on d. Offensively, Watson's assist-to ratio is about 3-1, excellent for a rookie point guard. His shooting is still subpar, but Watson has to be making Shammond Williams nervous over there on the bench.

- Desmond Mason. The Cowboy has demonstrated phenomenal and surprising improvement on his jump shot. Perhaps Dale Ellis really was the coach Mason needed. With the jumper, Mason has been a dynamic offensive force this season, and a key part of the Sonics' gameplan as part of a closing smallball lineup.

- Rebounding. Raise your hand if you expected the Sonics to be outrebounding their opponents this far into the season. I sure as heck didn't, but the Sonics have done a fantastic job, even boarding Boston, the best in the league thus far, to a draw last night. They have truly done it by committee, with particular credit to Lewis, whose 9.7 per game are a huge step up from last year, and, shockingly, Brent Barry, who is averaging almost 7 per game. I made comments this off-season about the Sonics having one of the best rebounding backcourts in the NBA, but that was assuming Mason as Payton's partner, not Bones. Keep up the good work.


- Art Long. Seriously, he must go. I understand Long's potential value as a 10th man because of his athleticism, hustle, and rebounding ability, but there is a key assumption in that value -- that he not get in the way! Yet Long has, repeatedly. In 52 minutes thus far this year, Long has committed six turnovers -- more than point guard Watson in 87 minutes. Long must stay out of the way on offense. He has also committed 14 fouls, more than enough to foul out twice in the span of one game. Now, ideally, this is not a problem, you'd like Long to be fouling -- but again, only if he is seriously bringing the lumber and putting a hard foul on someone. Instead, twice against New Jersey alone, Long made soft fouls that allowed three point opportunities for the Nets. Olumide Oyedeji should be getting these minutes. It appeared that he would when, after not having played in the Sonics' first six games, Dub O started against Boston. He did his job in four minutes, grabbing three boards, but was not seen the rest of the night. Trying to understand McMillan's substitution patterns can at times be very difficult. . . .

- Brent Barry's shooting touch . . . have you seen it? There is a reward. On this road trip, Barry has been awful from the field. After starting the season 15-24, Barry has shot 10-37 during the trip. He has continued to contribute in other ways and I still love him, but please come back, Bones' shooting touch! - Jerome James. After a fantastic start during pre-season and opening night, James had Sonic fans all hot and bothered about the prospect of a real center. No more, my friends, as he has regressed back to the player that the Kings released two years ago. He is shooting just 34.5% from the field, which is almost incomprehensible for a man of his size playing so near to the basket. I hate to do it, but James desire must at times be questioned.

- Injuries. They are certainly not an excuse for the losses, but injuries have been extremely problematic for the Sonics thus far. Booth's ankle injury is getting worse instead of better. He sat out losses against Utah, New Jersey, and Boston, and when he did play against Orlando and Miami, he was completely ineffectual, almost embarrasingly bad. As noted before, the league's best per-minute shot blocker last year has blocked only one so far. I really think it's the injury that's doing this ... and, well, I don't want to consider the alternative. Mason also sat out a game for precautionary reasons against Miami, and the Sonics desperately needed his energy off the bench. Predrag Drobnjak, who would make Long and perhaps even James unnecessary, isn't anywhere close to returning from his sprained ankle and has not practiced yet.

Sniper Challenge:

As you may know, Toronto Raptor columnist Sniper provides daily picks against the line for, which can be found using the links above. I am predicting the scores of Sonics games for, my own website, so I've decided to challenge Sniper to a contest to see who is more accurate in their Sonic predictions. I don't know what, if anything, is on the line, beyond our reputations, which may likely both end up tarnished.

So far, Sniper is 3-3, having missed on the Sonics' covering against San Antonio and not covering against New Jersey and Boston. I am 2-5, having missed on the Sonics' covering against Sacramento, not covering against Utah, covering against Orlando and Miami, and not covering against New Jersey.

Week in Review:

- Saturday, November 3 - Jazz 91, @ Sonics 74 -- The Sonics were simply flat in this one from beginning to end, and could never get things going against the Jazz defense. The shooting was terrible, with Payton going 4-17 from the field and the team shooting just 4-14 from three point range.

- Monday, November 5 - Sonics 123, @ Magic 119 (2 OT) -- The Sonics controlled this game almost from the beginning, but the Magic finally caught them in the first quarter when the Sonics' offense went dry. Overtime was a battle between Payton and Tracy McGrady, and McGrady blinked first, throwing a pass out of bounds and missing a contested layup in the closing moments of the second overtime, and the Sonics held on for a much deserved win. As noted above, 36 and 19 both set career highs for Lewis. Payton was fantastic, with 32 and 11assists, and Baker solid, with 22 points, 6 boards, and forcing the Magic to tip the ball out of bounds numerous more times.

- Tuesday, November 6 - @ Heat 97, Sonics 95 (OT) -- The Sonics shot miserably in this game, 32% overall, and it looked to be an easy win for Miami as the third quarter started despite the absence of Mourning with food poisoning. Sean Marks, a Sonic for a week last year and member of their summer league squad, went off to score more points than he had in his entire career previously, finishing with 15 on 7 of 9 from the field. The Sonics closed the gap with strong defense and an extremely small lineup with Watson, Payton, and Barry playing together. Eddie Jones hit a runner over Payton with 1.7 seconds left, and Payton's three attempt on the other end rattled out, giving Miami the victory. - Thursday, November 8 - @ Nets 106, Sonics 94 -- Another night, another big man with Seattle connections going off. Former UW star (and eternal SK favorite) Todd MacCulloch had a career night, scoring 29 points on 11 of 17 shooting from the field, most of his points on layups and dunks as the Sonics failed to rotate. Despite that and a near triple-double (16 points, 12 assists, 8 boards) for Jason Kidd, the Sonics held a lead of as many as six with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. However, more defensive lapses and repeatedly bricked threes led the Sonics to dribble away the game.

- Friday, November 9 - @ Celtics 104, Sonics 94 -- A similar result. The Sonics did prevent any unlikely Celtic big men from going off, but Paul Pierce sure as heck did, scoring 35 points and grabbing 8 rebounds. Offensively, it was the Payton and Baker show for the Sonics. Payton scored 30 on 14 of 24 shooting and handed out 11 assists, while Baker had 23 points and 9 boards. Nobody else did much of anything, and Pierce's sharpshooting and Sonic turnovers allowed another fourth quarter lead -- albeit only four -- to be frittered away.

Useless fact of the week: The Sonics are the NBA's tallest average team, averaging 6-8. Perhaps that's because they're carrying on the active roster -- but not playing -- Oyedeji and Antonio Harvey, both 6-11.