November 23, 2001
One Step Forward, One Step Back
Editor’s Note: This column was edited for grammar when it was posted on SonicsCentral 9/03. – KP
It's an interesting trend, but not really one I'm pleased with. Starting with the loss on November 9 to Boston, the Sonics have gone L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W. On the good side, they've avoided a long losing streak. However, that also meant the Sonics went just 1-2 on a three-game homestand last week that featured three extremely winnable games. The Sonics have go to 2-1 in this stretches, entire frontcourt injured or not.
Saturday's loss was the most egregious, as the Antonio McDyess-less Nuggets came to town and displayed a vastly superior offense to the Sonics. Both teams are, of course, perimeter-based, but the Nuggets utilized motion and repeated screens to free up players, while the Sonics simply tried to win by playing one-on-one basketball. The Sonics failed to execute their gameplan (they held an open shootaround for season ticket-holders, so I literally knew their gameplan) of containing Nick Van Exel. The longtime Sonic-killer instead was allowed to go for 38 points, most in the third quarter as the Nuggets established an insurmountable lead.
The next W, Dallas on Tuesday, brought renewed optimism as well as the return of the Sonics' top two centers, Calvin Booth and Predrag Drobnjak. In the latest episode of Booth's campaign to prove the haters wrong (he and Todd MacCulloch both), Booth returned to Dallas with a vengeance, scoring 24 points and hitting 12-of-12 from the free throw line (he's 18-for-18 on the season). That fine play keyed the Sonics to an upset victory over the reeling Mavs.
But the Sonics gave away that optimism the next evening in San Antonio. The Spurs took a 13-2 lead in the first three minutes, and the Sonics never got any closer as they were thoroughly hammered by an excellent Spur team.
Tonight, the Sonics got a huge break as they faced the Houston Rockets without Steve 'Franchise' Francis. The Rockets hung tough, as the Sonics struggled shooting from the outside (4 of 22 from threes), but the Sonics' talent advantage and the home court was eventually too much as they pulled away in the third quarter and put the game away with a 14-2 run to demonstrate the killer instinct down the stretch, led by the fine play of Desmond Mason.
Mason continues to establish himself as a critical player for the Sonics. With opponents forced to respect his newly lethal jumpshot, Mason enables himself an easier route to the hoop when he chooses to drive. The growth in his game from year one to year two is stunning. Mason still needs to tighten up his game -- he ought to look to pass more when he has the ball, trying to do everything one on one too frequently, and also needs to up his defensive intensity so that he can become a great defender instead of merely a good one. Let me elaborate on this point. Most of Van Exel's second half points were scored against Mason. It might be difficult to criticize Mason's d -- he had a hand in Van Exel's face, but did not realize that when Van Exel, as he is apt to do, enters the zone, this is not enough. Instead, Mason needed to either deny the pass or keep a player of Van Exel's caliber of so much as seeing the hoop when he gets the ball. These small flaws aside, Mason has been consistent and has vastly exceeded my pre-season expectations. I say this quietly, but might he be a better player than Rashard Lewis right now?
Booth and Drobnjak look to be a better than adequate center duo. As expected before the season, one takes over where the other left off. Both provide strong outside shooting, excellent court sense for big men, and good passing. The importance of that to the Sonic offense cannot be overstated. Want to run a zone with your center against the Sonics? Pay the price as this dynamic duo finds cutters and nails 15-foot jumpers all day. Booth still seems a bit out of place defensively, and Drobnjak continues to be too timid on the boards, but both flaws should disappear with experience.
For a bunch of young guys, the Sonics sure don't move well. In past columns, I've taken the Sonics to task for their lack of rotation defensively and poor off-the-ball movement offensively. I had hoped these problem areas would clear up with time, but, with the notable exception of much of the Dallas game, they have not. The Sonics rotate way too slowly to three-point shooters, meaning big nights for Van Exel and Steve Nash in recent games. They've also gotten lucky, as somehow opposing players are shooting a middling 33.8% from beyond the arc thus far. Offensively, the ball movement has been helped by having two intelligent centers in Drobnjak and Booth on the court, but the Sonics remain too one-on-one dominant. After paying close attention, I've determined that this has to be a 'strategy', which I can't agree with one bit. The Sonics don't have good enough players to win these one-on-one battles, which proved itself out against Denver.
While Rashard Lewis has been much improved on the boards this season, he seems to have perhaps regressed offensively. Despite the effect of his fantastic game against Orlando that seems so long ago now, Lewis' offensive numbers this season are generally poor. Entering tonight's game, he was shooting 41.2% from the field and 62.5% from the free throw line. This has added up to only 1.05 points per shot attempt, on the very low end of the spectrum. For all the talk of Lewis driving and getting to the lane more, he's averaging but 2.3 free throws per 48 minutes, a number that ranks behind all other Sonic regulars save Earl Watson. His game clearly remains completely perimeter based, as more than one-third of his shots have come from behind the arc. Right now, Rashard is not worth the max contract so many expect he'll command this off-season.
Perhaps Lewis is simply tired. He's averaging almost 39 minutes per game, good for 21st most in the NBA. Yet that ranks only third on his team, behind #10 Brent Barry (40.2), and #2 Gary Payton (43.3). Gee, anyone think Nate might be using the starters a bit much? I've generally been kind to Nate as he feels his way out, but this has got to stop. Barry in particular will, as one person suggested on a message board, 'break in two' if he continues playing this many minutes. Payton and Lewis are being ridden hard as well. Who's been the person wronged by having his minutes taken? Mostly first round pick Vladimir Radmanovic, who has suddenly descended to spot minutes at best after a solid start. Truthfully, Radmanovic is playing poorly right now, but it takes little stretch of the imagination to conclude that limited minutes might have something to do with this. Hopefully Baker's return will also lesson the reluctance to go deep into the rotation, but let Vlade have a chance as well! Olumide Oyedeji might have also earned some minutes with nice play in garbage time against San Antonio. The Sonics need to continue to evaluate Oyedeji to see if he has any chance of returning. He could be a long term solution -- Art Long is not. Speaking of that San Antonio game, Payton was in during the fourth quarter with the Sonics down twenty. Now I know Gary hates to leave any game, but come on! That was valuable rest Payton missed out on.
I take Brent Barry for granted. He's got a true shooting percentage (which counts threes as one and a half field goals, to more accurately measure their value) of 61%, good for third in the league, he's grabbing over six boards a game from the two guard spot, and yet I still don't mention him. Shame on me.
Steve Nash's hair. Find a barber shop and get a haircut already!
Peja Drobnjak overdribbling. For all his intelligence on the court, he doesn't realize yet that he's not good enough to do that in the NBA.
Todd MacCulloch's beard. To quote from Sportscenter, "He's a lumberjack, and he's okay."
The beating Wazzu's football team took at the hands of the mighty Huskies last Saturday.
The 25 point spread for tomorrow's UW-Miami game.
Behind the Numbers
This week, a brief look at the Sonics' numbers in the turnover per-48 minute department, to see why my previous bellyaching about Art Long was misguided:
(numbers courtesy www.sonicscentral.com)
Jerome James 5.5
Art Long 4.9
Vladimir Radmanovic 4.6
Gary Payton 3.5
Shammond Williams 2.9
Calvin Booth 2.8
Peja Drobnjak 2.7
Brent Barry 2.6
Olumide Oyedeji 2.4
Earl Watson 2.4
Rashard Lewis 2.2
Vin Baker 2.0
Desmond Mason 2.0
Antonio Harvey 0.0
Now, as always, sample size over the course of just 13 games (again, these numbers are prior to tonight) is a concern. Will Antonio Harvey's zero turnovers per 48 minutes hold up? That seems highly unlikely, assuming he doesn't go to the IL for the rest of the year. That said, Jerome James continues losing ground in my book, being amazingly more turnover-prone than Long. Radmanovic is clearly trying to do too much, which is reflected in his 4.6. My fear is that in less minutes, he'll try to "win the game on every play", i.e. try to make the brilliant play instead of the solid one -- that leads to turnovers. On the impressive side of the ledger, Baker (3.6) and Watson (4.6) have both seen tremendous drops in their turnover rate. Watson's is arguably the most impressive on the roster, as it's not easy to be so sure-handed as a rookie, which he has been despite handling the ball more than most of the players on the low end of the list. Currently, Watson is fourth amongst rookies in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Watson has earned the backup point role. Shammond has been pretty awful thus far this season, with his one real skill -- shooting -- having seemingly deserted him, as he went 5-for-17 from the field in his first four games. Let's face it, Watson is a long-term solution as at worst a backup point. Shammond is not, which is why his name will likely resurface in trade rumors as the deadline nears (he can't be dealt until early January), though I don't expect any action until the summer. . . .
Howard Schultz is obviously reading the column. Who shows up at the Key this evening but Freddie Brown, after my frequent complaints that he was missing at various Sonic events. . . .
Suddenly, the rumor we all snickered at this summer, with Tony Parker as the centerpiece of a deal to land Payton in San Antonio, isn't so laughable. That kid can play. . . .
For that matter, this is looking like a fantastic rookie crop, with Joe Johnson, Jason Richardson, Jamaal Tinsley, Parker, Shane Battier, and Pau Gasol all starting. Troy Murphy, Eddie Griffin, Richard Jefferson, Steven Hunter, Craig Claxton, Watson, Andrei Kirilenko, and Kwame Brown (apologies if I missed anyone) are playing key roles off the bench. Might this shut up the critics who say that the Draft is far weaker than in years past? Nah, probably not. . .
I didn't think they'd be good, but I never saw the Wizards being this awful. . . .
Is there a bigger moron in the NBA than Charles Oakley? Here's a word for him to learn before his next ill-fated diatribe – hypocrisy. . . .
The Clippers: 0-4 with Lamar Odom, 5-3 with him. Does that make him a worse player than those taking his spot during his absence? It does if you use the same logic that allows people to suggest that Philly being 0-5 without Allen Iverson and 7-0 with him proves his value. . . .
Gary Payton . . . still not going anywhere this season. . . .
Byron Scott 'rode the coattails' of Kareem, Magic, and Worthy? Sure, he's not on their level, but Scott was a fine player for many years. Pick your fights better, Karl. . . .
Are Minnesota, New Jersey, and Detroit for real? I don't have the answer, but I know I'll enjoy finding out. . . .
To drop in some actual Sonic news, Vin Baker should return Sunday. By the way, let's not be too sold on his 18 points per game -- he's taking more shots than any other Sonic save Gary Payton, so he better damned well be scoring that many. . . .
Eddie Griffin is good. Very good. I saw nothing tonight to dissuade me from the conclusion that he'll start by year's end. . . .
The one negative of winning the Apple Cup for UW fans is having to see Oregon win the Pac-10's berth in the BCS. To my colleague, Blazers writer Jeff Robertson, I feel your pain, as I assume you're hearing it from Duck fans now. Good riddance to Joey 'Hype' Harrington. . . .
This crap about shorts being too long has to stop. Who cares what length they are? This isn't a fashion show, it's basketball. The NBA has shot itself in the foot by distracting fans from the fine action on the court thus far. I know it's the NFL that mandates everything down to the length of players' fingernails, but this move reeks of baseball's mismanagement. . . .
Speaking of baseball, how's this for some hometown candor? Ichiro Suzuki is arguably not the most valuable player on his own team, let alone the entire AL. . . .
If the Bulls aren't going to win with veterans, why not play Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler? . . .
Speaking of the Bulls frontcourt, Brad Miller is very quietly having a fine season. . . .
The NBDL is the XFL without the hype. That is, a nice place for former college stars to play in quality settings for good money without having to leave the country. If UW had any former stars, I'd be excited to see them on ESPN's occasional NBDL telecasts. . . .
The more I think about it, Antonio Harvey might not see the floor the rest of the year. He's undoubtedly headed for the IL when Vin returns. . . .
With a nod of the head to the TNT, this year's Sonic start has been eerily similar (without the turmoil) to last year's, right down to beating Dallas and losing to San Antonio on the road just prior to Thanksgiving and winning at home the night after. . . .
We're coming up on the one year anniversary of Paul Westphal being fired, which was coincidentally the last time my predecessor, Fletch, wrote a column, which meant four months of nothing before I started here in March. Look for a column on the anniversary discussing the move, its repercussions, and also its effect on me personally. Should be a good one. . . .