November 27, 2001

The demise of Paul Westphal

Monday, November 27, dawned like any other Monday for me. I can't say that I particularly remember the details of the early part of the day, but I'm quite certain I spent some time on the computers at the UW library, went to my literature class, ate lunch, went to math, and eventually went home on the bus.

After I got off the bus, however, the day got considerably more interesting. My car's radio was still set to KJR after I had listened to Mitch in the Morning on the way in. Thus, almost as soon as I got in the car, I heard the day's big news -- Sonics coach Paul Westphal had been relieved of his duties.

Of course, the news was hardly a big surprise. Prior to the start of the season, then-GM Wally Walker had made it clear Westphal was on the hot seat by refusing to honor the coach's request to have his 2001-2002 option picked up. As well, expectations were high for the Sonics after their acquisition of Patrick Ewing caused numerous prognosticators to pick the Sonics as high as fourth in the Western Conference. Add in the difficulty of working Ewing, Vin Baker, Gary Payton, and the up-and-coming Rashard Lewis into a cohesive lineup, and Westphal was on shaky ground before the season began, as our own esteemed BskBALL noted when saying he was the second most likely coach to be fired (after Denver's Dan Issel) at the start of last season.

The start of the season did little to help Westphal's case. On opening night, the Sonics had an embarrassing road loss at Vancouver. After splitting a pair of home games, the Sonics went on the road for a disasterous road trip. After an 11-point loss at Orlando, Westphal faced a near-mutiny in the lockerroom, even offering to quit after various players questioned his decisions after the game. A loss to Miami was followed by an upset victory over Charlotte. Instead of being the end of the tough stretch, this proved to be only the beginning.

A miserable New Jersey team beat the Sonics by 35, which was followed by a trip-ending loss at another lottery team, Detroit, dropping the Sonics record to 2-6. In a rematch between Ewing and the New York Knicks, the Sonics won easily, followed by a loss to Dallas and a victory over the Clippers, but another crisis loomed. Playing Dallas again at Reunion Arena, the Sonics found themselves in a tight game down the stretch. Payton vocally questioned Westphal's lineup at a timeout, and had to be pulled back to the bench when Westphal ordered him out of the game. He was initially suspended for the next night's game at San Antonio, but the suspension was lifted, demonstrating to most fans that the inmate was running the asylum.

Westphal was clearly a lame duck by this point. Regardless of one's opinion about Westphal's coaching ability (we'll get into that a little later), once he lost the team, he had to be replaced. There was no other option. As well, the Sonics had two assistants who, if not made coach, might be attractive targets to other teams come the summer. As a result, I came to the conclusion that the Sonics would be better off without Westphal. The point was made with a couple of signs at the Sonics' next home game, a blowout win against the Clippers. It was not enough. The last game Westphal eventually coached with the Sonics was a loss at Sacramento on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 25.

Then came that fateful Monday. As you undoubtedly know, the Sonics named one of those two promising young coaches, 'Mr. Sonic', Nate McMillan, as their interim head coach.

In hindsight, I'm not quite sure exactly why firing Paul Westphal and promoting Nate McMillan excited me so much. I wasn't a huge Westphal critic, and still am not so. I was excited about the possibility of Nate being the head coach, but I had no idea for certain whether he would be a good coach. Really, how could any of us have any clue? Nate had never been a head coach on any level, excepting of course the eight games during the previous summer's Boston Summer League.

No matter what the reason, that day brought me back to basketball. After the devoted fandom of my formative years, I must admit that I had turned away from the Sonics in recent years. My initial excitement about the resolution of the lockout withered away amidst a disappointing 25-25 season. In 99-00, I was so busy with my senior year of high school that I had to give most of the games I was supposed to attend to my brother. College had been little different. On the aforementioned five-game road trip, I only watched one of the games. I was still a relatively close fan, but not exactly the frothing Sonic maniac I think most readers make me out to be.

And on November 27 that all changed. Suddenly, the most important event in my life was the next night's game with the Portland Trail Blazers, with a close second Thursday's matchup against the Lakers. When the Sonics won both, with the Lakers game at the Key perhaps the most fun game I had attended in several years, it was a done deal. I was an insanely devoted Sonic fan again. I wore my Nate McMillan jersey to class and to games with pride. I didn't miss a televised game without an awfully good reason.

And, eventually, I became the columnist here.

I think it's definitely fair to say I wouldn't be writing here, and undoubtedly wouldn't have my own Sonic website, were it not for November 27. Not only did the date bring me back to basketball, it was the end of the line for the previous BskBALL Sonic columnist, Fletch. His last column, which stayed on the site for the next three and a half months, was written the next day. Were it not for the fact that one morning I decided to check out the Sonic column, noted this fact, and sent BskBALL an e-mail, I would assuredly never have become the Sonic columnist. So far, I think this has been a fantastic gig, and I'm a bigger Sonic fan than ever before. I owe all the thanks to November 27, 2000.

For the Sonics, November 27 also marked the beginning of a new era. While Nate's coaching exploits were not enough to get the Sonics into the playoffs, they did manage to get them close and develop the team we're enjoying this season. Nate's move to put Desmond Mason on the bench clearly seemed to help his development, while Brent Barry, who never seemed to be a Westphal kind of guy, has finally begun realizing his full potential under Nate. The difference in the attitudes of Baker and Payton has also clearly been night and day.

I don't think Westphal is a horrible coach, as some people seem to. After all, horrible coaches don't take teams to the NBA Finals, as Westphal did with the Phoenix Suns in his 'rookie' season of 92-93. That said, I don't think he was ever the right guy for the Sonics. His moves with Detlef Schrempf and Hersey Hawkins during the '99 season bordered on lunacy. Coming into that season, the Sonics still had the same core as their three straight previous Pacific Division Championship teams, and didn't expect any big changes. Instead, Westphal decided he wanted the size of Billy Owens in the starting lineup, and disrespected both Hawk and Det by demoting them to the bench. As well, it's my feeling -- though I haven't gotten much agreement on it -- that Westphal treated both Baker and Payton completely wrong. Baker appears to me to be a player with a lot of self-doubt, who needs to be encouraged. Yet, Westphal continually publicly castized him, which served in my mind to extend Baker's own problems. Payton, on the other hand, needs to respect his coach, needs to see him as a greater power. Westphal's deference to Payton on ocassion allowed the Glove to think he was in charge. Now, McMillan has shown Payton who's boss, and we've seen a resulting change in Payton's behavior.

Westphal's run, at least, left us with one legacy. He, unlike former coach George Karl, was willing to play young players. Lewis, Vladimir Stepania, Jelani McCoy, Ruben Patterson, Shammond Williams, and Mason probably never would have seen the light of day in the Karl era. While many of these youngsters didn't pan out, it was important for the Sonics to weed out (oh, man, that could be a terrible pun but believe me, it's not intended) McCoy and Stepania. Without that, they couldn't have discovered Lewis, now an integral part of team's future, and Williams. Westphal left a better future for the Sonics than he found, and we must give him credit for that.

Because of his personality, Westphal seems well suited to coaching a college team, where he has less to worry about in the way of player insubordination. His laid-back attitude is more at place in NCAA ball than NBA ball as well. I feel Westphal will be very successful at Pepperdine University, and, as he is by all accounts a solid guy off the court, wish him the best of luck.

Games in Review:

Sunday, November 25 - @ Sonics 99, Indiana 88 Vin finally returned from his 'contusion', and, despite supposedly being at only 75%, had a very nice game with 19 points and 6 boards. Lewis, after being taken to task by me in my last column, got off the schneid with 24 points, many of them down the stretch to close out the game. Gary was his usually excellent self, with 12 assists. Although the Sonics were dominated on the interior by Jermaine O'Neal, they were able to keep plugging away until they put the Pacers away with Lewis' buckets down the stretch. A very nice win to put an end to the alternating W-L streak.

Tuesday, November 27 - @ Sonics 112, Minnesota 102 A huge win to give the Sonics a three game winning streak and bring them back to .500 for the first time since being 2-2 after the Orlando win. Barry was the big story, scoring a career high 31 points -- on a fabulous 10 of 15 shooting -- and also dropping 10 dimes. On a team note, the Sonics shot 49.4% from the field against a team allowing opponents to make less than 42% for the season, and you can't argue with that. They also did it despite an off night from Payton, who should demonstrate just how good he is when an 'off night' means 20 points and 13 assists. Vin was strong again, with 19 and 9, Lewis had 15 and 7, and Calvin Booth also had 10. The Sonics got absolutely hammered on the boards, 53-34, but that's excusable if you win.