Yet again, the Seattle Sonics exceeded expectations. Before the season, many pundits felt that the Sonics would not be able to make the playoffs at all. But, led by coach
Nate McMillan and superstar point guard Gary
Payton, Seattle went 45-37 and claimed the seventh seed in the tremendously tough Western Conference. That earned them a date with the Midwest Division champion San Antonio Spurs. It didn't exactly look like a great matchup for Seattle, who would surely be dominated inside by the Spurs' one-two punch of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. It looked even worse when San Antonio destroyed Seattle in Game 1, behind Duncan's triple-double performance. But Robinson had to leave that game with back troubles, and in Game 2, the Sonics were able to take their game inside and get the win. The Spurs regrouped, and Game 3 was another San Antonio blowout. The Spurs' quick point guards Tony Parker and Antonio Daniels burned Payton for the second time in three games. Seattle forwards
Vin Baker and Rashard Lewis, who had played well in the first two contests, were invisible. Lewis also had to leave the game with a separated shoulder, and would not return in the series. At that point, even despite Robinson's injury, the Sonics' chances to win two of the next three games did not look great. But the sudden death of Tim Duncan's father threatened to change the complexion of the series. Duncan missed Game 4, and without either San Antonio big man on the court, the Sonics were able to win easily. Payton had a triple double, and rookie
Vladimir Radmanovic (23 points) was superb. However, Duncan returned for the decisive Game 5 of the series, and he laid down the law as the Spurs put down the Sonics for good. Payton got absolutely no help from his teammates; Duncan blocked seven shots; and the Spurs' point guards scored 28.
Overall, the Sonics are doing as well as can be expected of a team that does not have an impressive nucleus on paper. Yet fans have to worry that the franchise has never done all that much to expand that nucleus. The one attempt to do that, the acquisition of Baker, turned out to be a flop, and Seattle has not attempted a similar move since.
To be fair, the last few years' situation would present a very difficult problem to any GM. The Sonics have played well enough that they never get particularly good draft picks. (This last season was their 15th straight season over .500.) Yet, so much of their team's value is concentrated in Payton that no one is really dying to acquire the other guys. So it's tough for the team to make moves.
The most immediate question facing the franchise is whether Lewis, who is one of the league's marquee free agents this offseason, will be retained. Beyond that, fans have to wonder what will happen when Payton's play is slowed by age, or when he leaves town altogether. Could you really put together a contending team out of late first rounders and second rounders? Without Payton, that's pretty much what the Sonics have got.
Gary Payton (22.1 ppg, 9.0 apg, 4.8 rpg) was the whole show this season, as he has been ever since the fall of Shawn Kemp. "The Glove" finished sixth in the MVP voting, which means he was given proper credit for once. No individual player takes more responsibility for carrying his team, on and off the court, as Gary Payton does. The Sonics' second most valuable player was Payton's backcourt mate,
Brent Barry (14.4 ppg, 5.3 apg, 5.4 rpg). In fact, in a fantasy league, you might rather have had Barry. "Bones" also shot 51% on field goals, which is extremely good for a guard, and even better for one who hoists a lot of threes. Most amazingly, Barry had more steals than Payton, who is traditionally near the top of the league in that category (but who fell to 18th this
season). Barry is a consummate team player who used his playing time this year to silence the doubters who claimed that he was not a quality starter. He deservedly received some votes for Most Improved Player. His admittedly awful postseason should take nothing away from his accomplishments.
Small forward Rashard Lewis (16.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.7 apg) was the Sonics' second highest scorer, and is the focus of the current offseason. Lewis, who will turn 23 years old in August, is a free agent who is likely to ask for the maximum allowable contract. Seattle is now forced to answer the simple question: Is this guy a franchise player? Lewis plays quality defense, is a killer on the fast break, and is an outstanding long-range shooter. But does he settle for the three-point shot too often for a 6'11" player? Does he make his teammates better? Even if he doesn't do these things now, will he able to do them later? These are the questions that Seattle, working off incomplete information, must attempt to answer now. At power forward,
Vin Baker (14.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg) put in another inconsistent performance of the type Sonics fans have come to expect from him. Not that it needs repeating, but, Baker has never been the player for Seattle that he had been in Milwaukee. Not only is he less productive in general, but he has taken his game outside, when the Sonics desperately need an inside presence.
The center position was supposed to be filled this season by new free agent acquisition
Calvin Booth. The ex-Maverick blocked shots at an amazing rate in '00-'01, averaging two blocks a game in only 17 minutes per contest (!!) He also showed a surprisingly sweet jumpshot in the postseason. After flirting with free agents Nazr Mohammed and University of Washington product Todd MacCulloch, the Sonics' front office eventually decided to reward Booth with a $34 million, 6-year contract. Let's just say that they didn't get much out of the first year of that pact. An injury to his right ankle basically made Booth a non-factor, as he only played 279 minutes on the season. This forced Seattle to dig up centers like
Predrag Drobnjak (6.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg),
Jerome James (5.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.54 bpg), and
Art Long (4.5 rpg, 4.0 rpg). All of them had their moments: Drobnjak stepped up his level of play as the season went on, showcasing a good jumpshot... James had some big games and certainly showed shot-blocking ability... and Long, although undersized, hustled and banged bodies. Nonetheless, it's ultimately hard to believe that this troika, or any member of it, will be the long-term answer at center. And it's certainly fair to wonder whether Booth is either.
The bench represents the team's future. That's a rare phenomenon, but in Seattle, it's certainly true. 2001 Slam Dunk champion
Desmond Mason (12.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) got some Sixth Man of the Year Votes, showing a developing well-rounded offensive game to complement his already solid defense.
Vladimir Radmanovic (6.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg) fought all season against foot injuries, but put up some nice games when healthy, both during the regular season and in the playoffs. The lanky 7-footer is really not a guy you want to play at power forward or center, but on the other end, his three-point assault is very tough for opposing small forwards to guard. The third outstanding young bench player is
Earl Watson (3.6 ppg, 2.0 apg), who proved to be an excellent backup to Payton in the Eric Snow/Greg Anthony tradition, and may eventually be more. Watson ran the team well and averaged 2 steals per 36 minutes. Watson's emergence buried sharpshooter
Shammond Williams (4.4 ppg, 1.7 apg), once viewed as a possible starter, even further on the bench. Yet another small man off the pine was former LSU star
Randy Livingston (3.2 ppg, 2.0 apg). Livingston will never be the superstar that he surely would have been with healthy knees, but damned if he can't still play a decent point guard. Which still doesn't explain why the Sonics left Watson off the playoff roster in favor of Livingston. Livingston does have more experience in the league, true... but with just a little over 2000 career NBA minutes played, it's not exactly like he is a grizzled vet.
Ansu Sesay also saw unexpected playoff time; he only appeared in nine regular season games, but made it into four playoff contests. It's hard to evaluate him as an NBA player yet, but he was sure good in college.
Nate McMillan, a popular Seattle figure from his long tenure as a Sonics player, did an exceptional job in his first full season as coach. In fact, he even won The Sporting News' Coach of the Year Award, although not the NBA's version. McMillan and Payton were formerly teammates, and like the Glove, "Mac-10" was a great defensive point guard. This gives the two men a rapport, and McMillan has proven able to fulfill his major job responsibility -- "keep Gary happy and productive." The rest of the Sonics are a very coachable bunch. Even Baker's underachieving is seemingly not due to lack of effort, but to self-esteem issues beyond the abilities of a coach to handle. McMillan does a solid job utilizing a strong bench. There's certainly no reason I can see to think that the Sonics would be doing appreciably better with a different coach. Starbucks Coffee magnate
Howard Schultz just completed his first season as owner and seems to be happy with his purchase.
The Sonics have usually done a good job of picking the best guy left on the board when it comes around to them, but there's only so much you can do with the kind of picks they get.
- 2001: This draft yielded Radmanovic (#12 overall pick) and Watson (#40)... both seem to be excellent picks so far, especially Watson if you consider how late he went. Bobby Simmons was drafted #42, and traded to Washington for Drobnjak. Simmons got into 30 games last season and seemed like a mediocre swingman. I'd rather have the mediocre center in Drobnjak.
- 2000: Desmond Mason (#17), a very solid pick. Olumide Oyedeji was regarded as a potential steal at #42... there had even been lottery talk about him. But, the Nigerian would probably have to learn the NBA ropes on the job, and Seattle is not in a position to grant him that opportunity. Josip Sesar (#47) was traded to Boston for 2 future 2nd rounders, and has not been heard from since.
- 1999: Corey Maggette (#13) was immediately traded to Orlando (along with Dale Ellis, Billy Owens, and Don MacLean) for Horace Grant, a 2001 2nd rounder, and a 2002 2nd rounder. I hated this trade at the time, and it doesn't look much better now. I understand that sometimes, you need to cash in your young talent and play for "this year". But Grant has now come and gone from Seattle without having made any impact on the franchise. The Sonics were engaged in severe wishful thinking if they thought that Horace was the one missing piece that could put them over the top.
- 1998: Vladimir Stepania (#27) was probably a player whom the Sonics should have kept. He has legitimate center size and attacks the boards. But they let him go, and he now backs up Zo for Miami. Rashard Lewis, despite being invited to attend the draft in person, fell to #32. He has certainly since proven that he should indeed have been the lottery pick he was expected to be. Jelani McCoy (#33) was with the team for three years. He was athletic and blocked shots, but was easily pushed around inside and couldn't shoot at all. He spent this past season absolutely buried on the Lakers' bench.
- 1997: Bobby Jackson (#23) is one hell of a bench player, so to hear that he was traded to Denver for never-was James Cotton and a 1998 2nd round pick might sound distressing. But, it turns out that the pick was Rashard Lewis, so this really ended up being a great trade for Seattle! Eddie Elisma (#41) didn't make it. Mark Blount (#55) perhaps could have been useful. The Sonics waived the shot-blocking center, and three years later, he ended up in Boston and played okay. He was stapled to the bench this past season. He's probably no better or worse than the centers the Sonics currently have.
97.7 points per game
3,131/6,681 field goals (46.9%)
1,263/1,672 free throws (75.5%)
489/1,292 three-pointers (37.8%)
4.9 opposition blocks per game
40.3 rebounds per game
11.8 offensive rebounds per game
23.5 assists per game
13.7 turnovers per game
6.9 opposition steals per game
94.7 opposition points per game
2,966/6,605 opposition field goals (44.9%)
1,362/1,844 opposition free throws (73.9%)
472/1,374 opposition three-pointers (34.4%)
41.7 opposition rebounds per game
13.3 opposition offensive rebounds per game
22.3 opposition assists per game
15.3 opposition turnovers per game
8.5 steals per game
4.4 blocks per game
This statistical profile is very consistent with the other Sonics teams of the Payton era. The lack of quality big men creates several disadvantages for Seattle statistically. They usually get out-rebounded. They don't block many shots. (James, who didn't even play much, led the team with 86 blocks.) They don't have many inside threats on offense, so they don't get fouled much. (Payton led the team in free throw attempts.) Their inside players are not as skilled or athletic as their matchups, so they are forced to commit a lot of fouls.
However, Seattle still ends up winning games (by an average of 3 points per contest) because they do pretty much everything else right. The emergence of Lewis (39%) and Radmanovic (42%) as three-point shooters really bailed out a team that, at times in the recent past, has struggled mightily from downtown. Barry (42%) was already a notorious sharpshooter. Payton, thankfully, has cut down on the three-point shooting. He and Barry both shoot great percentages for guards, and that plus the good passing makes the Sonics' offense efficient. The Sonics get their share of steals, and are all good ballhandlers... except for the big men. They're accurate from the free throw line... except for the big men.
Did I mention that this team could use some quality big men?
In terms of individual defense: Although Payton shows no signs of slowing on offense, it's a different story on defense. His steals are way down, and he's starting to get burned by younger, quicker point guards, as illustrated most memorably in the playoffs. Although GP easily made first-team All-Defense as usual, it may be telling that he didn't get any votes for Defensive Player of the Year, which is unusual. Nonetheless, The Glove's size, know-how, and incomparable trash-talking ability still make him an above-average defender. Watson was a defensive terror at times, and at worst should be above average on D. Lewis and Mason are good defensive players. Barry plays good team defense, but it's tough for him to guard guys one-on-one. Similarly, Radmanovic is not physical and is easily pushed around, but he has quick hands and picks up steals. James' shot-blocking is the only positive defensive ability owned by the other big men. Booth's presence would not only have added a much-needed intimidation factor inside, but would have taken some pressure off the perimeter players on defense as well. That didn't happen.
The Payton/Barry backcourt is set, and even if Lewis leaves, you've got Mason and Radmanovic who are probably both small forwards by trade. The major team need, by far, is a big man. The thing that makes it frustrating is that Booth and Baker are getting so much money for so long that you know they are never going to be phased out of the equation. So a big man picked here, already a marginal player by definition because he's being picked so late, would have to really outperform expectations to make a true difference on the team.
Clancy, PF, 6'7", USC
The Sonics need someone who can rebound. Lord knows Baker doesn't do it. Booth, at least based on the limited amount of NBA time we've seen from him, doesn't seem to be a great board man either. Clancy can do it. He is tough... tough enough, in my opinion, to produce at PF despite being relatively undersized. The Sonics often have a 6'10" or taller guy at SF at any given time, so it's all good.
Other Players Considered
My two other big choices (literally) were Jason Jennings
and Dan Gadzuric. Most NBA front offices would probably have taken one of them, because a 7-foot center is a lot harder to find than a power forward. Fact is, though, that if Booth is healthy, the Sonics need a power forward just as badly as they need a center. That, to me, means that Clancy's size disadvantage is not that big a factor. And if you don't give extra credit for size, then I think Jennings and Gadzuric end up way below Clancy in terms of skills. If you're 7 feet tall, and you've played four years at U.S. colleges against quality competition, and yet you're a second-round draft pick and an acknowledged "project"... I dunno. I think we're basically talking about two players who are going to be Bill Wennington or Will Perdue types. I just don't know that you need to actually draft guys like that.
There are a bunch of foreign centers out there too -- David
Andersen, Nenad Krstic, Lazaros
Papadopoulos, Faith Solak, Zaur
Pachulia. None of them is going consistently in the first round of mock drafts, so it doesn't seem like any of them is a particular standout. I don't really know anything about them myself, needless to say. So I didn't feel like I had much reason to take any of them.
I had to at least consider taking a guard, as there are some decent names still left: shooting
guards Freddie Jones and Casey
Jacobsen; point guards John
Salmons, Steve Logan, Smush
Parker, and Marcus Taylor. In real life, the Sonics pick 49th rather than 30th as they do here, and they would probably have to take a guy like
Jones or Salmons if they somehow fell THAT far. Otherwise, I just don't think it makes sense to add further to the Sonics' traffic jam at the 1 through 3 spots. Payton, Barry, and Rashard (if Rashard is back) need to play most of the minutes, plus Mason and Radmanovic need to be on the court if they are to
fine tune their game. It's tough enough to find minutes for all these guys as it is.
Who the Sonics Will Probably Take
A Euro big man is a pretty good guess. There will still be some available at #49; the team needs size; and if the guy can't play right away, I doubt the Sonics much care. The success of Radmanovic and the decent play of Drobnjak may help assuage any front office fears about non-American products.
Other Moves the Sonics Should Make
The Sonics' free agents are James, Long, Oyedeji, Lewis, Sesay, Livingston, and Watson. My feeling is that none of these players are irreplaceable, and it really boils down to dollars and cents on all of them. Lewis is of course the most essential of them. I would not give him the maximum contract. I don't think he is quite that player, and I doubt any other NBA team thinks he is either. I think if he insists on the max, he may very well end up in an Anthony Mason situation where he spends virtually the entire offseason unsigned, and ends up signing for half of what he asked for. There is just too much downside to overpaying good but not great players... ask the guys who signed Juwan Howard or Allan Houston. At the right price, I'd be happy to have Rashard back.
Booth will hopefully be healthy, so I think Long can go. You can always pick up guys like Long if you need to. James has a little more potential, and I would try to retain him. Oyedeji should only come back if a big man is needed to fill out the roster. Like I said, Olumide might get good eventually if you could give him serious minutes, but who can afford to do that? Sesay, whatever, keep him for minimum wage if you can, I guess. Watson should be re-signed if possible, and if Livingston is willing to play for minimum wage, he makes a good third point guard. Bringing back both of them begs the question of what to do with Shammond Williams. I say, ship him out. There's gotta be teams that can use an instant offense guy coming off the bench at either guard position. There are even a couple of teams for which Shammond could start at point as a better version of Matt Maloney. You're not gonna get an established quality player for Shammond, so I'd try to get someone who will either flame out or be terrific... maybe to Washington (Jordan, like Shammond, being a UNC guy) in exchange for Etan Thomas? Not exactly something that will turn around the franchise, but, worthwhile. Baker, one of the highest-paid players in the league, could only be traded for someone else's vastly overpaid problem. (Eyeballing the salary lists, Tim Thomas is the only guy I see as a possibility, and such a trade probably makes sense for neither team given their personnel.)
The free agent pool is so sad this year that I'm reduced to looking at it and saying things like "y'know, I always thought Tractor Traylor never got a fair shake in the NBA." (Which I do think, but, I can see why you wouldn't want to reward his terrible conditioning habits with playing time either). Raef LaFrentz would be perfect, for sure. Michael Olowokandi will get a lot of money from someone... I don't particularly want it to be the Sonics. Mike Bibby and Bonzi Wells... hey, I'd sure take them, but it probably doesn't make sense for either Seattle or the players. Larry Hughes and Ricky Davis would be even less logical options. Donyell Marshall would be nice.
Moving down to the lower tier, Darvin Ham might be a guy who could put some life in the building and play PF without being a big oaf about it. Mikki Moore is another mobile big man, more of a center so that's nice. Gary Trent just adds another big bruiser to the ones they have, but he'd be one of the Sonics' better inside scorers, so they'd have to consider it. Scott Williams is all right, but, I mean, you'd just have to replace him in a couple of years so I dunno if it makes a ton of sense. Loren Woods apparently carries the plague, or so you would think from NBA front offices' treatment of him. I'd sure take a chance on him if I were Seattle. Corie Blount and Eduardo Najera are players I think any team can use.
Basically, whether you're looking at the draft board, the trade table, or the free agent pool, there aren't a lot of options for this team. They could cash in Payton, but that's a Jerry Krause move. Basically, the goal should be to keep making the playoffs as long as Payton is a superstar... then when he falls off, either trade him at that time, or hope that the young talent on hand can be groomed into prime timers by then.