December 18, 2001
No More Excuses ...
Editor’s Note: This column was edited for grammar when it was posted on SonicsCentral 8/03. – KP
The Sonics have played four games since my last, angry column following the loss against Miami. In that span, they've gone 2-2, which is really about where they should have been in that stretch. However, the dispersal of those two wins and two losses has caused renewed complaint about the Sonics' inconsistency.
The day after losing to Miami in overtime, the Sonics traveled to Portland in a game they appeared to have little chance to win. To that point, they were 0-6 on the second end of back-to-back games, and the increased strain of an overtime game provided little relief in that respect. Though inconsistent themselves, and arguably underachieving, the Blazers remain a far better team than the Sonics. Indeed, Portland ended up winning by 21, but the game was far closer than that. Though Portland held a significant lead of 10-15 most of the night, the Sonics were only one extended run away from really making a game of it. Alas, Portland matched each Sonic run with a counter-punch of its own, and after the Sonics cut the lead to about 9 halfway through the fourth quarter, the Blazers went on a long run of their own to put the game away.
The loss gave the Sonics a four-game losing streak, their longest of the season, while dropping their record to 9-14. After two days off, they traveled for a two-game mini-trip to Los Angeles, to play first the Lakers and then the Clippers on back-to-back nights. To a reasonable person, the Laker game would have seemed unwinnable. The Sonics were playing their worst ball of the season, and had already lost by 15 at home to a Laker team that was without Shaq for three quarters. Being such a reasonable person, I predicted that the Sonics would get run out of the Staples Center with their tail between their legs.
Unfortunately, logic and reason often seem to be incompatible with Sonic basketball.
Indeed, the Sonics responded with arguably their best game of the season, getting great individual performances from Vin Baker and Gary Payton to hand the Lakers their first loss of the season by 11 points, a margin which would have been larger had they not struggled down the stretch at the free throw line. The game was close until the end of the third quarter, when the Sonics, sparked by rookie guard Earl Watson, went on a lengthy run that they maintained until halfway through the fourth quarter. After Watson, returning successfully to the city in which he played college ball, hit a triple at the point, the Sonics led by 16. Art Long also was deserving of credit for his yeoman's work slowing Shaquille O'Neal. Though Shaq had a monster night, scoring 37 points and grabbing 16 boards, he did so against single coverage, and the Sonics were able to keep the Lakers from going nuts from beyond the arc. Credit Coach McMillan for an excellent strategy change from last season, when the Lakers' mediocre complimentary players (without Derek Fisher, who missed all four LA-Seattle tilts) allowed them to utilize the trap extensively with great success.
Fresh off this momentum and confidence boost, the Sonics came out and played horribly the next night against the Clippers, trailing by double-digits most off the first quarter and 25 at halftime. The Clippers' intensity relented in the second half to keep the game from getting too ugly on the scoreboard, but it was evident how badly the Sonics were outplayed. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Sonics had renewed injury difficulty before and during the game. Prior to tipoff, the Sonics placed Calvin Booth on the injured list with tendinitis in his ankle, a lingering effect of the sprain that kept him out in the early part of the season. Booth was not replaced because the Sonics didn't have anyone ready to come off the injured list. Antonio Harvey was activated out of desperation to start the two LA games in Booth's place at center, but Jerome James and Desmond Mason didn't make the trip. During the game, Vladimir Radmanovic, who has shown marked improvement of late, rolled his ankle and did not return.
The Sonics badly needed a rest, and the schedule obliged, as they had three straight off days in which to get healthy (okay, healthier) and rest up for the arrival of the Orlando Magic on Sunday. The Magic would hear nothing of the Sonics' complaints -- they were playing the second of a back-to-back and the sixth game of a west coast road trip on which they had gone 1-4, largely due to the absence of forward Grant Hill (who is now out for the season and will have surgery on his ankle tomorrow).
For the game, the Sonics got Mason back, though not at 100% and forced to wear a brace on his injured left knee. In the early going, they got another break. Just over five minutes into the game, Orlando star guard Tracy McGrady -- averaging 36 points on the trip and having gone over 40 in three of them -- went up for an uncontested fast break dunk and strained his lower back. He would not return. At first, the Sonics took decided advantage, leading by double digits most of the first quarter. Behind Mike Miller, Orlando rallied to cut the lead to seven at halftime and as close as three in the third quarter. Again, the Sonics got it together near the end of the third quarter and were not threatened thereafter. It was a balanced offensive attack, with all five starters and Watson scoring in double figures. Long had a notably good night, going for career-highs with 12 points and rebounds.
Looking back on these four games, the obvious problem continues to be the second game of back-to-backs. The Sonics are now 0-8 in them. Last year, they finished a respectable 12-9 in such games, and why the change has been so dramatic is beyond me. However, the underlying reason seems rather apparent. McMillan is simply riding his three perimeter starters -- Brent Barry, Payton, and Rashard Lewis -- too hard. All are averaging nearly 40 minutes a game. Payton is 33; obviously playing this long is going to take a lot out of him. Barry has never really been a high minute guy, nor has Lewis, and Lewis in particular has seen his scoring decline significantly in the second game. When Radmanovic returns from injury, the Sonics will have three young, capable backups in he, Mason, and Watson. Let's hope that they continue to get the playing time they deserve, as this helps the Sonics short-term by preventing fatigue and long-term by developing these talented players.
I will readily admit that there's been a lot of negativity lately in this column, and a lot of complaining. I don't want this to become the type of place where nothing is ever good enough and there's always something with which to nitpick. Even as the Sonics have started the season slowly, there have definitely been some very positive developments with regards to several players:
1. The Rookies -- While Radmanovic was expected to play a key role this season, it was but two short months ago that we were wondering if Watson might be cut in favor of Anthony Johnson or Eddie Gill. How silly this seems with the gift of hindsight!
Watson is now a key component of the Sonics' future, having quickly and easily passed up Shammond Williams, who looks surely headed for a trade. Watson seems now to compare favorably to Nate McMillan's playing days. He could be an asset off the bench, but also an adequate starter for a team that needs his talents at the point guard spot. If he were only 6-4, I can't help but wonder if we wouldn't be talking about Watson as a possible All-Defensive team guy, an Alvin Robertson-esque pest who could change games defensively. As it is, he has led the NBA in steals per 48 minutes much of the season. He also can be the leader that McMillan was and Payton never truly has been. The Sonics have basically employed only two point guards for any significant stretch of time since McMillan's rookie year, 86-87. Watson looks to perhaps someday be the third as the Sonic point guard position tries to mimic the role of Dodger manager from the 50's to the 80's.
Radmanovic looked painfully out of place in his first two weeks in the NBA. Though he showed glimpses of brilliance, there were too many turnovers, a quick trigger on the jumper, and none of the defense scouts told us he possessed. After briefly exiting the rotation, sitting, and watching, Radmanovic has come back with a vengeance. On defense, he has done a capable job against players big and small and even demonstrated unknown shot-blocking ability. Offensively, he is now a part of the offense, as opposed to trying to play one on four. That has not meant passivity however, only controlled, intelligent aggression, and has translated to an improvement in both turnovers and shooting percentage. Ankle injury aside, Vladimir II has already arguably contributed more to the Sonics than Vladimir I.
2. Art Long -- After my early complaints, this guy is starting to look like this season's Emanual Davis, coming from the CBA and overseas (okay, he was in Sacramento a few games last year, but he didn't really get a chance to play there) to contribute. Factoring in injuries, a solid argument could be made that, behind Baker, Long has been the second most valuable big man to the Sonics this season. Not too shabby for someone who wasn't expected to make the team. While I may have backed off my idea of starting Radmanovic at the four, as Baker's effectiveness has improved of late, I still feel that Long is the guy at the five spot. Like Davis, Long is best in small doses, and probably a 20 minute or so guy at best. However, unlike last year, the Sonics can afford to have Long as a starter because every other starter is offensive minded. Long's banging ability in the post would keep Baker from having to defend the opposition's best post player, and thus hopefully keep him out of foul trouble.
3. Desmond Mason -- Mase has obviously taken a step up in his career, one that I -- and some others -- didn't really feel he had in him. Though one of the knocks on Mason coming out of Oklahoma State was that he didn't have that much room to grow, his jumpshot this season has been markedly improved. This has made him a fairly complete offensive player. Oddly enough, Mason's D -- vaunted in the Draft -- now looks like it needs some tightening up, as he learns the difference between the kind of defensive intensity that gets the job done in college and that which gets it done in the NBA. It would also be nice to see him improve his rebounding back to the level it was at last season (he's dropped 2.5 rebounds per 48 minutes).
4. Gary Payton -- Despite the knocks on him by the naysayers -- and they continue, as noted by the recent rumor that Payton is sabotaging the team by not running the offense (read the previous column; what offense?) in order to force a trade -- Payton has elevated his off-the-court attitude while continuing to bring strong play every night. Payton may be a shoot-first guard, but he's intelligent enough at this stage of his career to know when to take over a game. The Magic game was a case in point. With the Sonics scuffling in the early third quarter, Payton had 8 points in a four-minute stretch to catalyze the Sonic run. There are two worries I do have with Gary (besides, of course, the minutes). First, his three-point percentage has dipped to the point where he ought consider removing the shot entirely from his arsenal -- he's never been a good shooter from beyond the arc anyway. Secondly, he doesn't seem to be getting to the free-throw line as much in recent games. These free points are important for the team, and their absence tends to suggest that Payton is letting his game get a little too perimeter-dominant, which is a bad sign.
No More ExcusesThe Sonics can whine all day about how they've had to play too many back-to-backs, too many road games, too many games period, and too many good teams in the early going, but it won't add any wins to the record. Now, however, they will have no one but themselves to blame for poor play. The Sonics play five of six contests on the road. The schedule looks like this:
12/19 vs. Sacramento
Do any of those appear to be easy games? No, but they're all winnable games for the Sonics. None of their opponents can be thinking of them as easy games either. In a change from tradition in this column, some thoughts on the upcoming games:
Sacramento -- the thing that makes me question whether the Sonics can keep up with the Kings is the fact that Seattle's weaknesses correspond neatly with Sacramento's strongpoint. The Kings, in my opinion, move better without the ball then any other NBA team, led by the league's best individual in this regard, Peja Stojakovic. The Sonics, on the other hand, tend to rotate slowly on D and forget about players. The number one thing I would do is assign one player -- Mason? -- the job of concerning himself only with defending Stojakovic while on D. Don't rotate, don't slide over to give help -- just keep your body between Stojakovic and the ball. This is, to me, a big game for Baker. Webber called him out last season after an altercation between the two, and Vinny needs to back up his words with play.
Golden State -- after a fine start, the Warriors have fallen apart of late, leading to the dismissal of head coach Dave Cowens, replaced on an interim basis by formver Vancouver coach Brian Winters, who I don't believe has ever beaten Seattle as a head coach. With all due respect to the Warriors, who still have some talented individuals in Oakland, my number one goal for the Sonics in this game would be to play hard for three quarters and try to get the starters some rest, as it's the first of a back-to-back. This is a game that must be played with maximum intensity, as I see it. The Sonics also must get on the glass against Danny Fortson and company, some of the league's best rebounders.
Detroit -- do the Sonics have any chance to win this game? Judging by the past back-to-backs, nope. However, my optimistic side notes that the Sonics very nearly beat this good Detroit team in the Palace of Auburn Hills -- on the second of a back-to-back, no less. Even without Mason, the Sonics did a good job of containing Jerry Stackhouse, who became a passer as opposed to a shooter. Hopefully, the Sonics now, in the immortal words of former Sonic color guy and Toronto and Washington head coach Darrell Walker, "KYP -- Know Your Personnel" and realize that Chucky Atkins can light them up from beyond the arc.
Historical Perspective - Could the Sonics Have Stayed a Contender?It's always been my opinion that Sonic fans -- and NBA fans in general -- don't realize how hard it is to remain a contending, 50-plus win team, in the NBA year after year. For the Sonics, that means that fans tend to think (I think) that the team's successful run from 1992-93 to 1997-98 could have continued if not for their choice of a myriad number of people to blame. The list runs from Wally Walker to George Karl, with Vin Baker, Paul Westphal, and even Shawn Kemp thrown in as well.
To try to answer the question of whether it was inevitable that the Sonics hit a wall, so to speak, I thought it appropriate to compare the Sonics to similar teams.
The task then becomes how to define a similar team. Total wins over a six-year stretch is one possibility, but there is a rapidly apparent flaw in this thought. Chicago won 72 years in one year of a six-year stretch, in the teens another. Should those be considered similar to winning 43 or so games two straight years? Quite obviously, not. My first answer to this was to consider each year individually. Secondly, there had to be a measure of how close the sixth year of another team's run was to the sixth year of the Sonics' run. For this, I used the absolute difference in games won. That is, if the Sonics won 61 games, teams which won 54 and 68 would be equally different. Dividing this by the 61 gives a ratio of how close the seasons were. 7/61 is .11. For the heck of it, I added one to each season. Now, 54 wins and 68 wins each give 1.11. The average of the previous six seasons gives the similarity score of a given end of a run, with scores naturally ranging from one to two.
Two notes about the procedure. First, because I used wins as opposed to winning percentage, I pro-rated results in the 50-game lockout season to 82 games. Secondly, so that these were teams I (and, assumedly, many of the readers) could relate to, I went back only 15 years in the study.
Here are the 10 closest runs, in order of lowest similarity score, listed in the fashion of team (year of closest similarity score, similarity score), along with discussion of how they got there and how they fared afterwards.
Utah Jazz (1993-94 - 1999, 1.03)
Phoenix Suns (1989-90 - 1994-95, 1.05)
New York Knicks (1991-92 - 1996-97, 1.08)
Chicago Bulls (1988-89 - 1993-94, 1.08)
Los Angeles Lakers (1986-87, 1991-92, 1.09)
Los Angeles Lakers (1994-95, 1999-2000, 1.09)
San Antonio Spurs (1989-90, 1994-95, 1.10)
Portland Trail Blazers (1987-88, 1992-93, 1.11)
Detroit Pistons (1986-87, 1991-92, 1.12)
Miami Heat (1995-96, 2000-01, 1.12)
Three of these teams are really incomparable with the others. Neither the Sonics nor any other team can expect the significant shot in the arm which a returning Michael Jordan, signing Shaquille O'Neal, or getting to draft Tim Duncan provides. There's a word for these things -- luck. Well, not so much luck in the Bulls' case, but it's still not relevant to a discussion of the Sonics. Miami is also not relevant because I have no crystal ball and can't see how they'll perform in the future.
That leaves six teams. By my count, only Utah did not face a short-term downturn that forced the team out of title contention. To that extent, the Sonics' play the last two seasons was, perhaps, to be expected.
However, most of these cases have seen downturns of only a couple of years at most. Only Detroit fell pray to an extended time period in which they did not contend. Already, the Sonics have gone downhill for three seasons, longer than the others. And, contrary to those who are advocates of the Sonics completely rebuilding, four of the other five teams never had a pick better than ten in the draft. Only San Antonio had a high pick that led to rebuilding on the fly, and that was mostly a matter of injuries. How, instead, did these teams build?
Isaiah Rider, Latrell Sprewell, and Dennis Rodman (twice) were all players of questionable character who were brought in my teams on this list. All of them performed well for their new teams. Rider was the go-to guy the Blazers lacked before being traded again. The Blazers turned James Robinson into Steve Smith, with Rider as the go-between, and that's an excellent deal. Sprewell hasn't been an angel in New York, but he's provided the Knicks with fine play and little distraction. Rodman was a huge distraction in San Antonio, but the return on their deal was eventually remarkable. They gave up Elliott to get Rodman, then got him back a year later for Bill Curley. Discounting Rodman's performance while a Spur, they went from Bill Curley to Will Perdue, a solid bench contributor in later years, still not a bad deal. In Chicago, Rodman didn't distract the team from winning three championships. Enough said.
Of course, players don't have to be bad apples to reduce their value. The age-old stock axiom -- buy low, sell high -- applies in basketball as well. Kidd's value had bottomed out in Dallas after his run-ins with Mashburn and Jim Jackson. Though getting him for Sam Cassell and Finley was hardly a steal for the Suns, it provided them with a superstar, and brought them quickly back to contention.
The Sonics don't seem to have done this in the Walker era, with the possible exception of the Hersey Hawkins deal. One reason I was strongly against dealing Payton, and to a lesser extent, Baker, during the past summer, was because the Sonics were in a position of weakness during the bargaining. That's not a good way to make a deal. Walker and Rick Sund have to be on the alert for players who are suddenly on the outs with their team. Lamar Odom was an example of this earlier this year, though he seems to have worked back into the Clippers' good graces. Another prime example of using leverage was Houston getting Steve Francis for Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington, and a draft pick.
If there's anything the Sonics failed at, it was developing players during the run. Most of the time, they simply traded their pick because Karl was so unwilling to develop players. This happened four of the six years during this stretch, though, to be fair, Doug Christie was dealt simply because of a holdout. One of the remaining picks, Sherell Ford in 1995, was a bust. That left one contributor added during the course of the Sonics' run. Even when a good player was picked up in the second round, Eric Snow, Karl let him rot on the bench and eventually Snow was dealt to Philadelphia, where he became a starter.
If you're wondering why the Sonics can't trace the path of any player on their current roster to a draft during the George Karl era, this is it. The two players the Sonics do have between Gary Payton -- drafted before Karl -- and Rashard Lewis et. al. -- drafted after him -- are Brent Barry and Vin Baker. Both of these players came in trades that eventually link back before Karl, Barry to Eddie Johnson and Dana Barros; Baker to Shawn Kemp.
The fact is that nowhere on this list is there a comparable dropoff in play to that which the Sonics endured from Baker over the past three seasons. Much of today's NBA success is dependent on superstars. You can't afford to lose one for naught in free agency -- you'll notice none of these teams did that -- and you can't afford for them to fall prey to injury or poor play. Baker has, and as such has to share a significant portion of the blame for the Sonics' downturn.
Was the Sonics' fall inevitable? Well, inevitability has to be considered at least a part of the reason, but it's apparent that better work from several of those commonly blamed could have kept the Sonics going through the year 2000 and beyond.
- E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org