Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Anatomy of a Lost Season
By Zach

2005 seems like a long time ago.

Today, the news came out that the Sonics have fired head coach Bob Weiss after the team started the season 13-17. Weiss was the players' choice to be the head coach after Nate McMillan left for the Trailblazers over the summer. His former top assistant, Dwayne Casey, was expected to be the next Sonic head coach if McMillan left, but he took the head job in Minnesota before McMillan had made up his mind, leaving the Sonics scrambling to find a head coach.

Maybe it was a bit naive of me to think that Seattle could display the same level of professionalism, intensity, and cohesion that they did in winning 52 games and the Northwest Division last year. Several unique elements combined to make that team work, elements that were sorely lacking this year.

1.) Lots of players in contract years: This was originally given as a reason the Sonics would struggle last year, since 8 players (Ray Allen, Antonio Daniels, Vlad Radmanovic, Reggie Evans, Damien Wilkens, Vitaly Potapenko, Jerome James, and Flip Murray) were free agents-to-be, as was McMillan. Somehow, Nate and some of the players managed to create a mindset by which guys like Evans, Potapenko, and even (sometimes) James sacrificed their offensive games to set screens, grab rebounds, and bang on defense, and yet still feel like they'd get paid in the offseason. It worked out for Allen, James, Daniels, and Wilkens, while Radmanovic turned down what now looks like a very nice deal in order to become an unrestricted free agent this season.

The problem in 2005-2006 is that some of those same players (Radmanovic, Murray, Evans) are going to be free agents again this offseason, while other guys got their long-term deals. It seems to me that it would be awfully hard to get those guys to buy into a similar mindset for another year, especially with a coach like Weiss, who seemed more concerned with getting along with everyone than with actually getting results.

2.) Point guard play: My big hope, and the hope of the organization, was that Luke Ridnour would continue to develop and in doing so would offset the loss of Antonio Daniels. Ridnour may have started last year, but AD finished most games, and provided the Sonics with superior scoring and defense from the point guard position. Ridnour has struggled mightily this season, especially with his shot. He's shooting just 36.3% from the field and 26.6% from behind the arc, well below his numbers from a year ago. If he doesn't knock down outside shots, he's almost useless on offense because he can't bring defenders up on him to set up his drives. Instead, he's stuck floating around on the perimeter. Furthermore, when he starts along with Allen, the team's backcourt defense is terrible. Ridnour plays hard but is undersized, while Allen is (like most scorers) indifferent on defense.

The problem at the point continues when the team goes to the bench. Supposed backup Rick Brunson has barely played this year with a foot injury, leaving either Murray or Mateen Cleaves in the role for most of the season. Murray scores well enough to replace Daniels, but doesn't play defense and holds the ball far too long. As a scorer off the bench he's fine, but he's not a natural point guard and when he's asked to play that role he struggles to set up the offense. Recently, Weiss began experimenting with Damien Wilkens at the point, which provides some advantages. Wilkens is 6-6 and the team's best perimeter defender, though his ball handling and playmaking are still a bit rough.

3.) Ray Allen: While Rashard Lewis has improved his play from last year, Allen has started to tail off a bit. The scoring is still there, but he's shooting just 42.9% from the field, several points lower than his career average. Even worse, his three-point percentage is just 36.3, which would be his lowest total since 1998-99. He remains a potent scorer, but his utter unwillingness to play defense has killed the team at times this year, especially when he's also not scoring.

So how much of this is Weiss' fault? Not all, certainly. He was clearly not the team's first choice to coach this squad. If you had asked anyone in the Sonic organization at the end of last season who would be coaching this team, the only two names you would have heard were Nate McMillan or Dwayne Casey. Unfortunately for the team, McMillan kept them waiting long enough that Casey felt like he needed to take a chance with the Timberwolves, and then Nate went south for more money.

Still, at a point in the season where the team is really struggling, there are only two choices to try and salvage the season (and remember, the Sonics, as bad as they've played, are just two games out of the division lead). Make a trade, or fire the coach. The Sonics lack tradable commodities for the most part, since they're highly unlikely to deal Lewis or Allen, while Radmanovic has a partial no-trade clause and guys like Murray and Evans don't make much money. Luke Ridnour could have been an option, but his value is likely fairly low considering his play of late.

Who knows how the team will respond to Bob Hill? But by firing Weiss, the organization is at least trying to send a wake-up call to the players. If Hill can get the team to improve from its current standing as the worst defensive team in the league, that will be a start. Until then, it looks like my high hopes for the 2005-06 Sonics were just a fantasy.


Blogger David Arnott said...

Great googly moogly... I'd missed a lot of this in my NBA viewing this year... All I have to say is, when Mateen Cleaves is getting minutes for your team, Mateen Cleaves is getting minutes for your team.

6:37 PM  

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