December 28, 2001

Excuses Over, Winning Here

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

But two short weeks ago, the Seattle Supersonics looked to be headed nowhere fast, a potentially promising season derailed in an endless litany of excuses and dispirited play.

Now, perhaps the complaints were valid all along. For if, as it seems, the group that has won five straight games since their record stood 10-15 two weeks ago is the real Sonic team, there must be some alternative explanation as to why they started off so poorly.

Or, perhaps, it's a better team because of all the tribulations of November. Injuries to Shammond Williams, Peja Drobnjak, Vin Baker, Calvin Booth, Jerome James, and Desmond Mason (at various times) have forced the Sonics to look to alternative locations for production. In some of these cases -- Earl Watson, Art Long -- they have found talented players who look to perhaps be a part of the team's future long-term.

Long, for one, has taken full advantage of the absence of Booth and James to go from a guy who was considered a longshot at best to make the team in training camp to a competent starting NBA center. Oh, yes, Long most definitely has his limitations -- dribbling, passing, shooting outside of 10 feet, just to name a few -- but he understands his role and has meshed his skills with the rest of the starting lineup. Sometimes, indeed, a worse player may be a better fit for a given role than a better player. Booth is too frail to defend many of the league's top big men, forcing Baker into this role by default. This left him frequently in foul trouble when he started alongside Booth. What Long lacks in height he more than makes up for in grit and determination, battling tooth and nail for every inch of position on the low block. There is little doubt in my mind that by the end of the season Long will find himself a fan favorite, not to mention first in line for the Sonics' million dollar exception.

In Vladimir Radmanovic, Mason, and Watson, the Sonics have three talented young players who come off the bench with energy and enthusiasm. The challenge now is to get these players healthy at the same time. When Mason returned from his twisted knee, Radmanovic went down with a sprained ankle, only to suffer a concussion last Saturday night in a horrific fall after a dunk which marred an otherwise excellent outing. He started the season out of sync when playing competitive minutes, but has quickly learned to become a part of the offense and not try to do too much. That resulted in a breakout game against Detroit prior to the fall. With Baker missing one game, Radmanovic stepped seamlessly into the starting lineup, hitting four three-pointers and scoring a career-high 18 points.

Both Watson and Radmanovic have seen their shooting percentages increase and their turnover rates decrease as the season has worn on, a sure sign that they are adjusting to the NBA game quickly.

Upon the return of Booth from his injury -- as an aside, I hope that this time it is ensured that Booth is completely healed with no lingering effects whatsoever; there is no rush to get him back at 85% -- the Sonics should have a deep and young nine-man rotation, hopefully enabling Coach McMillan to rest his starters without resorting to the use of Olumide Oyedeji and Shammond Williams.

Speaking of Shammond, the clock is slowly but surely counting down on the door of his freedom opening. 90 days from his signing on October 2 is, by my math, New Year's Eve. I've also heard January 2 reported, under the assumption that the NBA doesn't employ someone to count out the days and simply adds three months. I highly doubt the Sonic front office will be packing Williams' bags on the holiday itself, so the actual date is probably irrelevant. What is important is that soon the Sonics will have a chip to play in the trade market.

As always, a caveat. Williams' name has come up in trade talks around this time of the year for two straight seasons, with the rumor last year that he'd go to Boston for swingman Adrian Griffin (now with Dallas) and a first round pick (assumedly Boston's third first rounder last June, the 19th pick, eventually used on Joseph Forte). In hindsight, it's a shame that the Sonics did not pull the trigger (if indeed Boston was willing to consummate the deal), but anyone who could have predicted the emergence of Watson should immediately travel to the state of Nevada or Atlantic City, whichever is closer.

In the interim, Williams actually got some meaningful minutes last night against the Clippers, taking over after Watson struggled with first half fouls. We know why Shammond's in the game, as, apparently, does he. On the Sonics' first ensuing possession, Williams jacked up a 15-foot jumper. To the immediate surprise of no one, it was off. The offensive dynamo finished 0 for 3 from the field, though, to be fair, he scored 10 points on 4 of 5 shooting in garbage time on Saturday. That's not to say Williams is not a player without his uses. For a team starved for scoring and the chance to attempt to develop Williams' playmaking skills or use him as a combo guard, a la Dana Barros or Dee Brown, Shammond could be a valuable player. Seattle is simply not the place for him. Last year, he was the odd man out, but there was at least the chance of contributions long-term. Now, Watson is the man of the future, and Williams has been made superfluous, a luxury the Sonics cannot afford while Drobnjak is playing significantly.

To the cap-savvy fans out there, there is disagreement as to whether Williams is a Base Year Compensation (BYC) player or not. According to columnist Brian Robinson, Larry Coon believes that Williams was signed while the Sonics were still slightly under the cap, meaning he would not be BYC. I humbly disagree, noting that Williams was signed the day after non-guaranteed minimum salary guys like Watson, Long, Antonio Harvey, et. al., if I recall correctly.

To match the contracts of players who they might be able to return, the Sonics would probably need a throw-in. The names of Oyedeji and Harvey have been readily thrown about. I would suggest going in a different direction. The value of these players is dubious and nil, respectively (Harvey only being desirable because, if acquired before January 10, his contract is apparently non-guaranteed, meaning his new team could wave him without repercussion). Okay, that's probably a bit unfair to Harvey, who certainly has his uses, but a team looking to pick up Shammond probably isn't the team that needs him.

Anyways, my suggestion would be to include Jerome James in any such deal. It would be my guess that James has at least some trade value throughout the league; however, I am convinced that James will never provide valuable minutes to the Sonics. Perhaps this assessment is unfair, or a bit hasty, conceived as it is after James has played in but 149 minutes with the Sonics. That said, it is my educated opinion that James is the basketball equivalent of a five o'clock slugger in baseball -- a player with prodigious power during batting practice whose bat is silent once the game gets going. The basketball equivalent is that James dominates during practice, but does not perform as well during games. Other similar past Sonic teases have included Rich King -- watching this guy shoot three pointers before games made you wonder how he could be so bad during them -- and Vladimir Stepania, who displayed phenomenal talent but little execution.

Having seen James play in at least as many practices as anyone in this city save those employed by the organization, and, along with the aforementioned Mr. Robinson, humbly part of the reason for his emergence in Sonic internet circles, I can attest to his brilliance during scrimmages. James dominated Long from what I saw during the Sonics' three open practices this fall, yet it is Long who I now see as a competent center as opposed to James. Perhaps James was injured more severely than the Sonics let on, or simply starting slowly, but his numbers so far are not pretty. I find his 0.06 assist/turnover ratio and 5.5 turnovers per 48 minutes far more frightening than anything which ever emanated from the mind of Alfred Hitchcock.

Returning to how we started this column, a review of how the Sonics have extended their winning streak from one to five:

Last Wednesday, the Sacramento Kings rolled into town without Chris Webber, beginning a theme of teams missing their key players for Sonic games which can only be considered excellent luck. The Sonics went outside despite Webber's absence, hitting 9 threes as Payton had 27 and Barry 19 (including five threes). They also dominated the boards, 47-33, in a team effort with no individual getting double figures. Doug Christie put up some nice numbers offensively for Sacramento, but he and others took the shots than normally go to Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac (as well they should!) All in all, a nice 104-92 victory that was more lopsided than the score indicates.

Two nights later, the Sonics headed for the Bay Area to take on the Golden State Warriors. In the second quarter, they made 20 of 22 shots, with one of the two misses a halfcourt heave by Baker. Though the NBA doesn't keep statistics for such things on a quarterly basis, it was likely the best performance ever. However, a 20-point lead at the half and 15 after three quarters still wasn't enough, as the Sonics collapsed down the stretch to send the game to overtime. Once there, the offense revived. A Lewis tip-in and two Payton free throws proved enough for a 111-108 victory.

The next night, the Sonics returned home to play the reeling Detroit Pistons (four straight losses) in an attempt to finally get the second of a back-to-back monkey off their backs (bad pun, I swear it wasn't intentional). They did with one of their better performances offensively of the year. Early, it was the Jerry Stackhouse show as he dominated an overmatched Lewis. However, Stack picked up two fouls and the Sonics had a 20-point lead late in the second period when he was incensed over a non-call and was ejected from the game. After that, it was academic as the Sonics shot their way to a 29-point win.

After a five day break for the holidays, the Sonics returned to action last night against the weary Los Angeles Clippers, who were without star forward Lamar Odom after he was injured the previous night (to continue the theme, it appears Toronto will be without Vince Carter tomorrow). The Clips put up a good fight, but it was a dull and poorly-played game that also suffered from subpar refereeing, turning into a free-throw contest in the first half. With 21 of 21 from the line before halftime, the Clippers won, and led at the half despite shooting just 38% from the field. Payton saved the game and the Sonics in the fourth quarter with a 20-point outburst that got him one point shy of his career high of 44, and did set a high for points scored in a regulation game.

Let me discuss Payton a little bit; at times I'm a bit hesitant to discuss him because of my complete and total lack of objectivity, but I put that out there up front. Thank goodness the Sonics didn't trade Gary this off-season. With a down Western Conference (actually, I immodestly recall someone predicting that; of course I also predicted the Sonics would trade both Baker and Payton), the Sonics certainly have a chance to make the playoffs and perhaps make some noise. With guys like Jamal Crawford, Marcus Fizer, et. al. in town, the Sonics would probably be a sad-sack bunch down with Memphis (yes, they have been markedly improved of late) and Chicago. Imagine how poor attendance would be in that case.

Sorry, draft pick or no (honestly, Radmanovic looks like a far better player than many of the similarly-aged players taken in front of him. Witness Rodney White, once rumored to be maybe Jordan's guy but now sitting on the bench in Detroit; he looked horrible when he did play on Saturday), I would never desire the Sonics have a 20-win season. Blow the pick, you're stuck there for at least another year. That's not what I want out of a team; I'll take 40 wins and a playoff run any day.

The notion seems to be going around that Payton is playing as well as he ever has in his career this season. Much as I love Gary, this is clearly false. A quick perusal of his numbers from his stellar 99-00 campaign reveals otherwise. That season, in addition to scoring more points per shot than this year, he added rebounding to his game, making him truly a threat in almost every facet of the game. Playing for a team that was a 7 seed, Payton was, by my unbiased calculations, either the second or third most valuable player in the league, behind Shaq and *maybe* Karl Malone. Of course, he got no MVP consideration, but that's another column for another day. Last season, he suffered a drop-off to the level he played at in the 99 season -- still excellent, but not MVP caliber. This year, he was down quite a bit, but has resuscitated his play in the last couple of weeks such that he's not far off last year's pace. However, no matter what, he's not playing the best ball of his career.