December 6, 2001

Finding the Sonics

We're 21 games into the Sonic season now, but I must confess something. I don't have much of an idea which Sonic team is going to show up on any given night.

I suspect that many of you feel the same way. Nate McMillan certainly does. "The lack of consistency that we're seeing, it shouldn't come from professional athletes. These guys are supposed to be pros. And you're called pros for a reason. You're supposed to give an effort each and every night. The inconsistency that we're getting from some of our guys is unprofessional. And I don't know the reason for it."

Indeed, we've seen the Sonics yo-yo back and forth over the last week. After Tuesday's huge victory over Minnesota that gave the Sonics a season-best three game winning streak, they were on the wrong end of two blowouts, losing by 24 at Utah and by 15 to LA (despite mitigating circumstances we'll undoubtedly get to later). After that, back on a high, as Nate ran his record against his mentor, Milwaukee (and former Sonic) coach George Karl, to 3-0 all-time. Back on the road, a 25-point loss at Minnesota and, finally, a close game, losing by 4 at Detroit yesterday night.

The really funny thing about the Sonics is that they seem to lose so badly all the time. Prior to the Detroit game, the last five Seattle losses had come by a total of 81 points, an average of over 16 per game. What could possibly explain this is beyond me.

The obvious explanation is youth. While the Sonics certainly have a more youthful roster than they've had in several years, I don't think youth is an adequate explanation. The Sonic starting five has Gary Payton, who's in his 12th year, Vin Baker, in his ninth, and Brent Barry, in his seventh year. Rashard Lewis, though only 22, still has three years of experience. The rookie mistakes have to end sometime, right? As well, much of the inconsistency must fall on the shoulders of the veterans.

While it's not exactly an analogous situation, two veterans made an unreasonable number of mistakes down the stretch against Detroit to give away a game the Sonics undoubtedly should have won. Baker started it out with a minute and a half left. In a tie game, he was fouled and missed both foul shots. After Vladimir Radmanovic hit one out of two free throws, Detroit went ahead on a contested layup by Corliss Williamson which the Sonics contended should have resulted in a jump ball. The Sonics were only down one, but instead of running the offense, Baker took an ill-advised, hurried 20-footer that was off. Detroit had the ball with 30 seconds left, which meant, barring a three, the Sonics would get another look.

Unfortunately, nobody told Barry. Thinking the Sonics had to foul, Barry grabbed Chucky Atkins and sent him to the line with 25 seconds left in the game. Bones was bailed out by Atkins, who missed the second free throw, meaning the Sonics had an excellent chance to tie. Payton posting Michael Curry was the first option, but Curry, a tough defender, wasn't giving an inch. Payton worked the ball around the top of the key to Radmanovic, who went strong to the basket. After drawing the defense, Radmanovic passed slightly behind Baker. However, it was still a catchable ball, but Baker came up empty. Jerry Stackhouse recovered the ball, and after two free throws the game was over.

Let's count the missed chances. Two missed free throws by Baker. A miss by Radmanovic. An overly quick shot by Baker. Barry commits a foolish foul. Baker can't make the catch.

All but one of those involved players with years of NBA experience. With all due respect, it hasn't been the rookies who've been killing the Sonics. It's been the veterans.

Payton wasn't in that sequence, but he deserves some blame as well. Against Los Angeles, the Sonics had an excellent chance to continue their four-game Laker winning streak. With a little over two minutes to go in the first quarter, Shaquille O'Neal was kicked out of a tie game. With Kobe Bryant already on the bench with two fouls, the Sonics seemed to have an excellent chance to take the game. However, Kobe returned with a venagence in the second quarter, and the Sonics were unable to draw his third foul until well into the third quarter.

But an equally critical factor in the loss was the Sonics' unintelligent play on offense, for which Payton was largely responsible. Instead of running the offense, Payton decided to come out firing in an attempt to win the game by himself. That might not have been a huge problem, but with Payton shooting 5 of 15 as well, it was. Baker also had a miserable first half, getting himself into foul trouble with foolish play. Of course, instead of fessing up to his mistakes, Baker instead chose to whine about the refereeing after the game, a sure sign of lack of maturity. For the first half, Vin had 2 points, providing ammo for those who question whether he's returned to form.

After that game, Nate ripped the two (though the quote above was not from that game, but instead after the Minnesota game). Whatever he said in private, it worked. The Sonics came out with arugably their best performance of the season, beating the Bucks wire to wire and never seriously being threatened.

Perhaps the best development of the Bucks game was the successful return to the rotation of Radmanovic, who played 19 effective minutes. The box score may have shown that Radmanovic had 3 points (on 1 of 4 shooting) and 5 rebounds, but that doesn't really provide an accurate measure of how much better he looked on the court. Defensively, Radmanovic was in the right place and did not look lost. He also made a couple of nice athletic plays on defense to force turnovers. On offense, he no longer looked only to call his own number, but worked the ball around well, even perhaps a little too passive. Most importantly, he avoided any turnovers. It was, if not a 180 degree turn from his early play, still a huge improvement, and great to see from a critical part of the Sonics' future.

Despite their inconsistency, there have been other extremely positive developments from the Sonics' first 21 games. If Baker can't -- yet -- have been determined to have completely returned to form, he's undoubtedly played a lot better than could have been reasonably expected this summer, and better than last year. Desmond Mason has made strides, improving phenomenally on his rookie season. Earl Watson has been a revelation as the backup point guard, coming out of nowhere to more than adequately fill the role for the Sonics and provide an energy lift off the bench.

During the summer, as most of us predicted a season with somewhere between 40-45 wins, us fans speculated about what would happen if Baker were to return to his 97-98 form and Mason were to make that huge second year leap. It seemed near concensus that the Sonics would be a lock for at least 50 wins under this senario. While things aren't quite that great for Baker, I'm left to wonder . . . why hasn't the play translated into a better record than the 9-12 one they currently possess?

An easy answer to this question would be injuries. Certainly, the loss of Baker for two weeks, Calvin Booth for a significant period of time (he's still not completely healthy), and now Mason, who was injured Sunday when he fell and sprained his knee, hasn't helped. Though Mason came back to hit 8 of 9 from the field and score 16 points, he was placed on the injured list. He'll definitely miss the Sonics' next two games, and probably will miss another week.

However, even when the Sonics were at full strength, for five games from November 25 to December 1, they only went 3-2, including the blowout losses to Utah and the Lakers. It's pretty clear that even at full strength, the Sonics aren't a 50 plus win team.

So what's the problem?

Now, obviously, there is no such thing as a single cause. In the world we live in, everything results of multiple causation. That said, in my mind there is one player whose performance has not lived up to my expectations, and this is a significant factor in the Sonics being off to a disappointing start. And that player is . . .

Rashard Lewis

While Lewis' primary numbers of 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds are, at first glance, seemingly good, looking deeper reveals some serious questions that must be raised about Lewis' development and his worthiness of the max contract most have projected he will garner this summer as an unrestricted free agent. (All numbers through Sunday's game):

Lewis is shooting 41.8% from the field, down from 48.6% his second season and 48% even a year ago.

From beyond the arc, he's shooting 36.4%, as compared to 43.2% last season.

From the free-throw line, he's shooting 73.7%, down from 82.6% a year ago.

His true shooting percentage (48.8%) and points per shot (1.08 pps) are both well off from last season's numbers (55%, 1.30)

The change in his rebounds per 48 minutes is far less significant than it would seem, up from 9.5 to 10.5

Rashard is averaging a paltry 2.5 free throws per 48 minutes, one of the worst figures on the team. Contrast this with last season's 3.8 and the previous season's 3.7

To his credit, Rashard has decreased his turnovers from 2.3 per 48 minutes to 1.9, and improved his assist/turnover ratio to 1.1:1. However, this is still low for a small forward (the average small forward is around 1.3:1)

Lewis' points per 48 minutes numbers over the last three years -- 20.3, 20.2, and this year 19.6 -- show a disturbing trend.

Yes, yes, I know. It's only December. But the Sonics have played 21 games already, more than a quarter of their schedule. Lewis has not missed any of these games thus far. Though there will likely be movement in all of these numbers, can we expect a huge change? Probably not.

Even last year, the degree of Lewis' improvement was questionable. It seems, looking at his per 48 minute numbers, that most of the apparent improvement was due to his playing more minutes as a starter.

So, then, are these facts consistent with the expected development of a player who's in his fourth season and 22 years of age? More to the point, are they consistent with the comments of many Sonics fans that Lewis has shown marked improvement each season and still has a great deal of room to grow?

I don't think so.

For all the thought when Lewis came into the league of his huge upside, it doesn't seem to me that he has that much room to grow. Okay, that's misphrased. He has lots of room to grow, however, I don't expect him to make good on that room. Rashard's limitations, in terms of his man defense, ballhandling, and post play given his height advantage at the small forward position. Can we really say he's made a significant improvement in any of these areas based on his play this season? I don't believe so. In actuality, I think one would have a difficult time distinguishing the 2000 Rashard and 2001 Rashard. For all the talk of him going to the lane more, he's (as noted above) shooting less free throws! How is that consistent with being less perimeter-dependent? It's not.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think Rashard is costing the Sonics games by any stretch of the imagination, and I don't think he's a bad player. It simply seems clear to me from the numbers and my observations that he is a complementary player, not a star, not the kind of player a franchise is built around. It also doesn't seem to suggest that in the future, he'll be making big improvements.

On a somewhat related note, I was recently reading a summary of the conclusions reached by baseball sabermatician King Bill James, and was interested to note that he concluded that players reached their peak (and began to age) sooner than was conventionally held. I found it interest because I had reached the same conclusion from some basketball statistical work. It seems to me that most expect players to continue their development well into their career, but (with exceptions -- obviously we can point to outliers, but I'm talking on an aggregate level here) this is not really the case. We don't really know whether this is different for high schoolers. I suspect that it's not, but that's a crazy theory which is not backed by any fact.

I think Rashard is a very good fit for this team, but the fact is that he hasn't lived up to my summer expectations, and I believe that to be the main reason why the team has somewhat underachieved. And this can't help but call into doubt the worthiness of Lewis to receive the salary he'll likely command this summer. I heard the question posed in a message board recently: Might we someday talk about Lewis' next contract in the same tones normally reserved only for Baker's?