November 16, 2001
Hope Despite a Slow Start
Editor’s Note: This column was edited for grammar when it was posted on SonicsCentral 9/03. – KP
The Sonics went 2-1 over the past week, while playing a pretty easy schedule -- @Washington, Phoenix, and Golden State. Though both the Warriors and Wizards have been much improved this season, and the Suns are still celebrating their victory over the Lakers this evening, the fact is that all three games were eminently winnable.
If ever there were a caveat, however, it would be this. The Sonics had to play all three games without their top three big men. Now imagine for a second, if you will, the Lakers without Samaki Walker, Shaquille O'Neal, and Robert Horry. Or the Spurs without Tim Duncan, David Robinson, and Malik Rose. Okay, things certainly aren't that dire in Seattle, in that the Sonics are not as dependent on interior players as are these teams. But the fact remains that the Sonics are being forced to use Jerome James, expected to be the 9th or 10th man, as a starting center. Art Long, just three weeks ago a longshot to even make the team, is now a key part of the rotation. Rashard Lewis is being forced to play at power forward, and even for a few minutes this evening as a center. Why it got so bad that tonight Antonio Harvey served as the Sonics' sixth man!
Now I don't like using injuries as an excuse for poor play, but again, this situation is beyond the limits of normal reasoning.
Calvin Booth and Predrag Drobnjak each continue to be bothered by severely sprained ankles. Booth has missed five straight games, dating back to the New Jersey loss, and is unlikely to suit up tomorrow night against Denver. Drobnjak has yet to play this season, having spent the whole year on the injured list. He's begun practicing towards the tail end of this week, and both players might return as early as Tuesday at Dallas. Vin Baker is a relatively new casualty, having been determined just prior to game time Monday at Washington to be suffering from a left knee contusion.
A brief aside, if I may be so permitted. Does anyone else out there hate the word contusion? I do. It's a bruise! Let's call a spade a spade. It seems like contusion was simply a word invented to cover the fact that grown men are sitting out ballgames because of bruises. Now I'm certainly not accusing Vin (or anyone else, for that matter) of making his injury out to be worse than it is, I'm certain the doctors are holding him out, but that just annoys me.
Instead of getting better, the injury got worse, and Baker was placed on the injured list prior to Tuesday night's affair with Phoenix. He will miss at least three more games, meaning the earliest point of return for him is next Friday night against Houston. Activated from the IL was guard Shammond Williams, who . . .
. . . returns from the injured list to find no job left for him. There is an old adage about a player never losing his job because of injuries. This adage is, frankly, moronic in my opinion. You play the best players for your team now, not the best players two weeks ago, and things can often change that quickly.
They have most definitely changed that fast in terms of the Sonics' backup point position. While just a month ago fans were speculating as to whether Earl Watson might be bumped from the team for Anthony Johnson, now he has suddenly become an integral part of the rotation. Since an extended playing stint against Miami when Desmond Mason sat out with injury, Watson has shined in action that continues increasing in duration.
I knew Watson collected a lot of steals at UCLA, but I had no idea how disruptive a defensive force he was until this season (hey, give me a break, the only UCLA game I attended saw them lose to UW last season, not exactly a 'One Shining Moment' for the Bruins or Watson). Not only does Watson have some of the quickest hands I've ever seen, his defensive intensity is almost unmatched in the NBA. He is truly reminiscent of a young Gary Payton or perhaps Nate McMillan, with the unfortunate exception that Watson's limited frame is not as capable of bodying up defenders as are those of the aforementioned Sonic heroes.
Offensively, Watson has also been far better than was expected. I commented before the pre-season that I didn't think he would have NBA three range, at the very least not during his rookie season, but he has been shockingly effective beyond the arc, hitting on 5 of 12 thus far. Another aspect of his game that has already shown marked improvement just from the beginning of the season is his finishing in the lane. Yesterday evening, Watson had arguably one of the prettiest all-around plays I have ever seen. He leaped to intercept a pass, tiptoed the out-of-bounds line, went behind his back to begin a fast break, outran everyone but Golden State's Adonal Foyle, and made a reverse layup while being knocked to the ground by Foyle. Of course he missed the free throw, but don't even get me started on Watson's free throw shooting. . . .
Week in Review
Against the defense of Payton and Mason, Michael Jordan had arguably one of the worst games of his career as the Sonics ran away from the currently woeful Wizards. Others have attributed Jordan's poor shooting to his own rust, but I can't always be objective and am a fan of both Jordan and the Sonics, so I have decided that it was simply a fabulous defensive effort by the guys in green. Payton's 32 and 15 led the way for the Sonics, and Art Long had an extremely improbable double-double, scoring 10 points and grabbing 10 boards. MJ finished 5 of 26 from the field in a forgettable game.
They invent the word heartbreaker for games like this. This was a back and forth battle between two similar teams (even more so when the Suns' overpaid power forward, Tom Gugliotta, had to leave the game after being hit in the head by Mason). The Sonics had a four point lead, 90-86, with a minute and a half left when Bones Barry dropped in a clutch triple, but the Suns answered right back when Penny Hardaway -- who scored 26 and looked completely back -- cut the lead back to one with a triple of his own. Another Penny jumper on the next series gave the Suns the lead. The Sonics answered back, as Jerome James dunked a miss by Mason through to give the Sonics a brief advantage. On the other end, Penny drew a double team that left Suns center Jake Tsakalidis (who always seems to play well against the Sonics) wide open under the hole. Lewis flew over to try to cover Big Jake and blocked his shot . . . but a foul was called. Jake made both free throws, and the Sonics had 4.7 seconds to try to win. Gary got a decent look at a 22-foot jumper that was off, Desmond couldn't connect on a follow attempt, and the Sonics were beat. Payton had 27 to lead the way again, and James had a nice effort with 11.
Coming off a loss at home the previous night to Toronto, the Warriors came out flat in the first quarter and trailed by 11 after one. In the second quarter, they used a huge height advantage and Danny Fortson -- who is a monster -- to only seemingly grab every rebound and get back in the game. In the third, the Warriors briefly tied the game before Watson sparked a 10-2 run which put the Sonics ahead for good. Lewis closed things out with three buckets in four possessions -- with an assist on the fourth -- in the final two minutes. Gary again led with 30 points, Rashard had 18 and 10, and Earl had 13 and 5 steals.
All in all, not so bad. The Sonics were one Gary Payton jumper away from sweeping the week despite being without all their big men. The defense has clearly tightened up -- note that in none of the three games did the Sonics allow their opponent 100 points. Is this related to Baker and Booth being out? I sure hope not, and I highly doubt it. Coach McMillan simply has the team gelling defensively. When the offensive ball movement matches this point, and everybody gets healthy, the Sonics should again be dangerous.
A quick note. There are a few completely bogus Gary Payton trade rumors floating around out there. If the Sonics had a move to make with Gary, it would have been made before the season. If they want to make one now, it will not likely be made until next July. The Sonics have never shown a willingness to consider even relatively minor in-season deals. The last two years, fans have heard rumors about possible trades near the deadline, but the Sonics have made only one in-season deal in the Wally Walker era, dealing then-fourth guard Eric Snow to Philly for a conditional second round draft pick.
And we are expected to believe that he is to make a major move that will affect the entire future of the franchise in season? Don't discredit the importance of the requirement such a move makes to redo ad campaigns, etc. The Sonics have a ton of Payton merchandise, his likeness in their pre-game movie . . . the list goes on and on.
As well, the supposed trades themselves are rather weak. A website is reporting that the Sonics would deal Payton to the Clippers for Keyon Dooling, Corey Maggette, and draft picks. On the Clipper end, we are to believe that the penny-pinching Clippers are going to expand their payroll by something like 8 million to acquire Payton? That seems highly unlikely. The Sonics are to trade Payton and not get a big man in return? Where does Maggette play in Seattle with Radmanovic, Lewis, and Mason in place? Do people even consider these issues when throwing out rumors?
Another rumor service is reporting renewed interest by George Karl in Payton, dangling Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson. From the Sonic end, same thing applies. Why trade Payton without getting any big men in return? From the Buck end, why would they deal two starters for one mid-season and disrupt whatever chemistry the team has? Again, highly unlikely.
Remember that if something is truly going to go down with Gary (or anyone or anything else), BskBALL.com is the place to find out about it. Throughout the summer we saw countless rumors about GP deals. Anyone remember Mike Kahn's article stating that Payton would imminently demand a trade from the Sonics? BskBALL continued to state that the Sonics were not seriously pursuing anything with Payton. And, judging by what I've seen in KeyArena this year, I'd guess that it's a lot more correct than Payton going to Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Minnesota, Portland, and even a couple of a cities that don't have NBA teams if I recall correctly.