December 7, 2001

Critical Mass

Editor’s Note: This column was edited for grammar when it was posted on SonicsCentral 9/03. – KP

Only twice in my time as the Sonic columnist here at (going on nine months now) have I felt an issue urgent enough that I wrote a column two days in a row. The first came at the start of August, as Gary Payton-to-Portland rumors flew and the Sonics lost Ruben Patterson and added Calvin Booth.

This is the second, and I feel the situation could hardly be more urgent. Less than a week after an inspiring victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, the situation has hit critical mass in Seattle with a loss to the previously 2-14 Miami Heat.

Now, yes, I know, the Heat is certainly not as bad as its record reflects, especially given that tonight was one of the rare occasions on which stars Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, and Alonzo Mourning were able to play together. And the Heat does deserve credit for its play tonight.

That said, the Heat has beaten two teams this year. Toronto on opening night, and the Sonics TWICE! In fact, Seattle victories have neatly served as bookends for a twelve-game Miami losing streak in which the quality of coaching being provided by living legend Pat Riley has come into question. Once upon a time, which seems like ages ago, the loss at Miami was explained away by the fact that the Sonics had come off a double-overtime game the night before at Orlando and were without Desmond Mason. However, given the current status of the Heat, even such lame excuses seem hardly enough to take away the fact that the Sonics lost to a bad Miami team without their star, Alonzo Mourning.

Now, what excuses will we hear? Injuries? Yes, Desmond Mason is out. And I'm sure Jerome James and his 30% shooting would have made a huge difference to the game, right? And the Sonics have had a tough schedule which finally will provide a respite next week with Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday all as off days.

I like Webster's definition 1a of excuse:

"to try to remove blame from"

Isn't this exactly what is happening with the Sonics? Regardless of the outside mitigating circumstances, the onus must eventually lie with the players and the coaching staff. Every NBA team faces back-to-backs and injuries. To think that the Sonics are alone in this regard would be preposterous. Yet, all but one other opponent of the Miami Heat has managed to escape their troubles with a soothing win over Miami. Heck, even Cleveland has beaten the Heat twice!

In a sense though, I'm glad Jim Jackson's final shot in regulation went in and the Sonics eventually lost. For one thing, they certainly did not deserve to win based on the play. For another, though Coach McMillan commented after one of the road games (can't remember which one) that losses would not be 'sugarcoated', wins sure as heck can be. Win this game and it's quickly forgotten. Lose it, and perhaps the lessons it has are learned.

Of course, the losses to Miami are not so much troublesome in and of themselves as in the fact that they are illustrations of the bigger root problems the Sonics are facing.

As discussed at length in yesterday's column, inconsistency is a HUGE problem that the Sonics must solve. Related to this is showing up every night mentally prepared to play. The Sonics came out listless this evening in the first quarter and put themselves in an 8-point hole. Recovering from this hole expended all their energy such that they had little left by the time overtime rolled around.

The last three games, the Sonics' big men have been an embarrassment. After generally solid play following his return from the injured list, Vin Baker has suddenly regressed the last three games. His combined totals? 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 fouls. Calvin Booth has actually been worse. His three-game totals? 12 points, 11 fouls. These two players' inability to avoid early foul trouble has absolutely killed the Sonics in the last three games. My in-game notes on the issue:

Apparently, none of the Sonics' big men can manage to play more than five minutes at a time without picking up at least one foul. In the first quarter, no less than three Sonic big men -- Booth, Baker, and Art Long -- picked up two fouls. And lest you think this will turn into a rant against the refereeing -- and the referees did deserve blame for calling a multitude of fouls on each side and reducing the pace of this game to a crawl, making it a typical Eastern Conference game that only Mike Fratello's mother could love -- the players must bear the brunt of the responsibility. Yes, I know that in a sense this is a Catch-22. If these players are to avoid fouls, they'll be chastised for playing too softly. Go all out, they'll pick up fouls and be criticized for that. But this is within reason. In the first half, Booth picked up three fouls in 126 seconds. For you non-math majors out there, that's one every 42 seconds!?!?! Why it got so bad that Olumide Oyedeji got in the game . . . and you know that's bad.

As an aside, what happened to Peja Drobnjak to cause his minutes to be cut so severely? Did Radmanovic rat him out for cursing McMillan in Yugoslavian? Drobnjak has the body -- if not necessarily the attitude -- to be an enforcer, and his soft touch from the outside is a welcome change from Long. He is still a rookie himself, after all, and three years younger than Long (who McMillan called one of his young guys after tonight's game . . . uh, 29 isn't young in my book!) Drobnjak deserves and needs minutes in order to help the team and further his development.

For a team that supposedly prides itself on defense in the mold of their coach, the Sonics sure don't actually play much defense, do they? A Miami team which entered the game shooting just under 42% from the field managed to shoot better than 50% against the Sonics. Perhaps foul trouble is to blame for trouble defending Mourning on the interior, but where is the perimeter defense? It seems the Sonics' struggles are mostly a result of lack of effort. Good run-outs, fighting through screens; the Sonics aren't doing these simple things, and is killing them.

Offense, however, seems to be little better for the Sonics this year. To wit, more in-game thoughts:

I would say the Sonics' offense . . . well . . . frankly . . . sucks. But I'm afraid that would require quite a leap of faith. Namely, that the Sonics have an offense.

Thus far I've seen little evidence -- occasional and inconsistent brilliant individual play aside -- that the Sonics can have sustain success with the ball. For all of Nate McMillan's complaint about Payton freelancing away from the quote unquote 'system' against the Lakers, I have this to say:

"There's a system?"

There seems to be no cohesive thread uniting the Sonic offense.

Pick and rolls? No

Screens? No

Movement? No

Post-ups? Maybe

No better example can be provided than the end of the last two close games. When the game is on the line, the Jazz go to the pick-and-roll. The Lakers go to Kobe. What do the Sonics turn to? Well, against Detroit it was a hurried jumper by Baker and an improvised drive by Radmanovic (after Payton was unable to make anything of a post-up attempt). Last night, the Sonics went long periods of the late fourth quarter and early overtime without scoring. They simply didn't seem to know what to do.

Shammond Williams certainly knew what to do when allowed into the game in the second quarter. Shoot. And shoot some more. Anyone looking for a definition of the word gunner need look no further than the tape of Williams in the second quarter. Apparently, Shammond has not received the memo that:

a. He's shooting under 40% from the field thus far
b. He's the team's third string point guard

Was Shammond stopped from shooting? Nope. Instead, he dribbled down, dribbled out some clock, and put up a 20 footer. Predictably, he shot just one of six from the field. Why hasn't he been traded yet?

Perhaps -- and I grant that this is a strange thought -- the Sonics actually benefited from the undisputed offensive genius of Paul Westphal, who during his one month tenure as Pepperdine Head Coach has already directed upset victories over USC and UCLA. Sure, Westphal lost the respect of the players. But what good is the ultimate respect Nate enjoys from his troops if it doesn't translate into the only tangible NBA goal -- wins?

So, the Sonics now find themselves 9-13. And while the calendar only says December, as Barry noted after the game, the Sonics have played more than a quarter of their games. Those 13 losses are definitely never coming back. Now, to even match last season's 44-38 performance -- not good enough to make the playoffs -- the Sonics would have to go 35-25. Excuse me if nothing I've seen has indicated that the Sonics will go on a 60% winning tear over the next four months or so.

In fact, the 9-13 record is almost the same in terms of winning percentage as the 6-9 record the Sonics sported last year when Westphal was relieved of his duties. What does this mean? Changes must be in order.

A coaching change? Of course not, that's preposterous. While I may be frustrated with the Sonics one-on-one based offense and their exclusive use of the trap on defense, no complaint against Nate would be nearly enough to make up for his style, emotional leadership, and the respect he possesses from the players. As well, let's keep in mind that Nate is still in his second year as head coach. Rookie mistakes are not exclusive to players. Improvement is to be expected, and I think that Nate is currently in the upper half of NBA coaches right now.

A trade? An intriguing possibility. But let's think about this further. Trade Payton? Well, solving the one player the Sonics can count on night in and night out, while perhaps best in the long run, certainly dooms the Sonics to a certain position in the lottery. Baker for Harrington, etc.? Again, this may be a beneficial long-term strategy, but Othella Harrington is not going to radically change the dynamic of the current Sonic team. Barry? Certainly the Sonics would never be able to get anything nearing adequate return on one of the more underrated players in the league. Lewis? Perhaps an intriguing thought after my conclusions of last column, but we'll leave that idea for the here and now. One of the young guys? Certainly it makes no sense to rebuild by trading the youth.

So, in my opinion, a trade can generally be ruled out, though such a possibility may be revisited if the Sonics continue struggling.

What that leaves, in my opinion, is a lineup change. And, like last year against Portland in Nate's successful head coaching debut, not just a cosmetic change but a significant one.

With that in mind, I humbly submit to you the following thought. The Sonics ought to bench Baker and Booth and start in their place Radmanovic and Long.

In a sense, this move would be somewhat punitive. Baker and Booth have obviously struggled of late, and thus a demotion would not be unwarranted. As for Radmanovic and Long, both have been playing better of late, and the move could certainly also be seen as a reward. However, I think it also may make sense from a pure strategic standpoint. What's the problem plaguing Booth and Baker now? Foul trouble, especially early foul trouble. Well, it's my hope that not playing the first few minutes of this game would help, if not alleviate this, than at least delay it so that it didn't become a problem until later in the first half.

As well, we've seen a number of slow starts by the Sonic starters of late, just as last year. Quite clearly, a key part of the Nate McMillan way of basketball is holding energy on the bench to unleash on a team. In my opinion, however, Earl Watson represents all the energy any basketball team on the planet could ever need to unleash. Putting some of the energy, in the persons of Long and Radmanovic, makes sense to me to set a defensive and active tenor to a game.

Beyond that, with Baker on the bench it makes it easier for the Sonics to ensure that two of the group of he, Payton, Barry, and Lewis are in the game together. This is necessary to give the Sonics at least two credible offensive threats. I also can see a valid argument for separating the two rookies. Well as Earl 'The Pearl' has played all season, and Radmanovic of late, they're still rookies. Rookie mistakes are so monikered for a reason. Separating them would seem to serve to reduce the chances of mistakes being compounded.

So there you have it. I am pushing the panic button, but not to the extent that a trade would. I think this rather simple lineup charge -- were it to get past Baker, who all but demanded last season that he start this year -- would have a significant and positive effect on the Sonics.

Got your own take on what the Sonics do or don't need to do, as well as my suggestion?

E-mail me at or use the links section at the top of this page to find the Sonic message board. I hide from nobody, and any thoughtful and reasonable question or query will be answered. As Tom Cruise would say, "Help me . . . help you."