Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Sonics-2005 NBA Champions?
By Zach

So, for those of you out there who haven't figured it out yet, Sportszilla is a big fan of the Seattle SuperSonics. The Jabber Jocks? They're more inclined to favor the New York area teams. But nevermind that, today we'll look at the Sonics, and whether or not they can legitimately win the NBA title.

First, I'll say that I fully expect the Spurs to win the title. They've got the best player in the league in Tim Duncan, they have more experience than any of the other Western Conference contenders, and they play great defense and passable offense.

But I'm not sure there's another team in the league that's better equipped to beat the Spurs in a series than the SuperSonics.

First, the Sonics are 2-1 against the Spurs this year (2-0 with Ray Allen in the lineup), including a win at San Antonio and a 20 point win in Seattle. So clearly, they've showed they can beat the Spurs.

Secondly, they've got the exact kind of team that can bother the Spurs. Despite many assertions to the contrary, the Sonics are not a fast-paced team like the Suns, Wizards, or Bulls. Nor are they overly reliant on their so-called "great" shooting. In fact, the Sonics are just 14th in the NBA in FG% at 44.7%. They are fourth in the league in 3pt FG% at 37.5%.

The Sonics score 100.7 points per game because they have the league's most efficient offense, not because they're great shooters. While they're 14% in field goal percentage, they're 4th in effective FG%, which weighs three-pointers heavier (because of course they're worth more than an average field goal). But that's not all. The Sonics are 5th in the league in percentage of possessions that become turnovers, at 13.4%. And most of all, the Sonics are the best offensive rebounding team in the league, grabbing a rebound on an astounding 32.7% of their misses. The Sonics are the only team in the league to rank in the top 10 in all three catagories, let alone the top five. Stats courtesy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

This means that no one in the league gets more out of their possessions than the Supes. They don't turn the ball over very often, they make a high percentage of their shots, and when they miss they're still a good bet to get the offensive rebound.

This efficiency differentiates them from other top offensive teams like Phoenix and Washington, teams that rely on a high volume of possessions (and shots) to reach such gaudy point totals. The Sonics are actually near the bottom of the league in possessions per game, yet are seventh in scoring.

This efficiency also means that, in my mind, the Sonics are a better bet to advance deep in the playoffs than the Suns. It's hard to believe that a disciplined team like the Spurs, or even the Rockets, would allow themselves to get into the type of running game that the Suns favor. If that's the case, the Suns will have to demonstrate that they can in fact score in the half-court and even maximize their possessions. I wouldn't say that a team as talented as Phoenix couldn't do it, but the fact remains that they haven't had to, and thus haven't demonstrated that they can.

People nationally seem lost on the Sonics because, unlike the Suns, they made no big offseason moves to improve their team. Clearly, the additions of Quentin Richardson and Steve Nash have had a lot to do with Phoenix's improvement, as has the growth of Amare Stoudemire.

While the acquisition of Danny Fortson gave the Sonics some much needed toughness and rebounding off the bench, it's been the continued growth of Reggie Evans (The Collector) and the availabilty of Nick Collison that have improved the Sonics' rebounding dramatically. Evans has been playing at a tremendous level, as evidenced by his rebounding numbers. He's even started to draw comparisons(sorry, ESPN Insider required) to another great rebounder, Dennis Rodman. Evans has even started getting under the skin of his opponents with his intense, physical defense. Seattle's also gotten a boost from the improvemnt of Rashard Lewis into an All-Star, especially since he gives the Sonics their only real viable post option on offense.

All of the above bodes well for the Sonics, as does their success against many of the top teams in the league. The negative, I see, is that their defense, flat out, sucks. They have good interior defense, another reason I like their chances against the Spurs. But their have basically no perimeter defense. Lewis and Allen are scorers, not defenders. Luke Ridenour is young and small. He has quick hands, but struggles to stop ball penetration. Vladimir Radmanovic's play is totally dependant on how he's shooting. If he's on, he plays hard on D, plays passing lanes, and even blocks some shots. When he's not, he doesn't seem to care a whit. Antonio Daniels is really their only solid perimeter defender. KnickerBlogger addesses this issue in depth and with good statistical analysis, if that's your thing.

So, where do we stand? Can the Sonics win the NBA title. The answer is, maybe. If they get a favorable set of match-ups early on (i.e. they get either Houston or Memphis in the first round, and either not Phoenix or a banged-up Phoenix in the second round), and make it to the Western Conference Final against San Antonio, I'd give them a 35-40% chance. In the NBA Finals, I'd have to like their chances against either Miami or Detroit, since they're 3-0 against those teams this year. All in all, it's been a hell of a year for the Sonics, and one that looks to get even better.


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