Thursday, April 20, 2006

It Could Have Been Worse: I Could Be a Knick Fan
By Zach

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Worst Defensive Team in NBA History

In 2004-05, the Seattle SuperSonics won 50 games and the inaugural Northwest Division title. Their success was anticipated by just about no one, myself included. It was a team that in the past year or two had shown no particular aptitude at anything except shooting the basketball. Ray Allen and a host of others were free agents-to-be (including head coach Nate McMillan), and it seemed inevitable that the season would be nothing but an 82 game fight for statistics.

Instead, astoundingly, McMillan was able to get the team to share the ball, rebound, and even play a little defense. They started out hot, winning 17 of their first 20, and while the rest of the Northwest floundered around at .500, the Sonics ran and hid. Even a slew of late season injuries couldn’t take the division away, and they went into the playoffs as the third seed. After finishing off the Sacramento Kings in five games, they took the eventual champion Spurs to six games, losing only after Allen missed a buzzer-beater three (and after two of their top offensive weapons missed significant time in the series).

The offseason brought less turnover than most people thought. Allen signed a long-term extension and the Sonics chose to match Minnesota’s offer sheet to Damien Wilkens. Meanwhile Vladimir Radmanovic, Flip Murray, and Reggie Evans came back on one year deals after being unable to secure a longer term deal on the free agent market. Surprisingly, McMillan left town, heading south to Portland for more money than the Sonics wanted to spend. Also leaving town was Jerome James, who was able to sucker Isiah Thomas (not that it’s hard to do) into a 6-year, $30 million contract after playing well in one playoff series against a team without a center. Antonio Daniels was the other big loss, as he parlayed a very strong season off the bench and a stellar series against the Spurs into a starting job in Washington, getting a contract similar to James’.

Heading into the 2005-06 season, I didn’t know what to think. I semi-seriously picked the Sonics to win the NBA Championship, since I figured that was about as likely as any other scenario I had envisioned. Without McMillan, it seemed the team would struggle defensively, but the veterans had endorsed the hiring of Bob Weiss, so it appeared he’d be able to motivate them. Daniels was gone, but Luke Ridnour needed to learn how to finish fourth quarters anyhow. James was a non-factor all year, so he would hardly be missed. In the draft, the team added another young big man, 19-year-old Johan Petro of France.

Well, long story short…this season sucked. The team was perhaps the worst defensive squad of all time. They were out of the playoff race seemingly by mid-December. Weiss got canned shortly thereafter. The ownership is now threatening to sell/move the team unless they get a new arena. Rashard Lewis is considering voiding the final two years of his deal to test free agency again after next year. Luke Ridnour continued his inconsistent play. Evans, Murray, and Radmanovic all tanked so bad they were traded (though that wasn’t really a bad thing). After rejuvenating the team last year, Danny Fortson sulked, fouled, and sucked his way to the bench (though maybe he just needed the free time to fight cyborgs).

With all that bad mojo, did anything go right? Well, yeah, actually. Allen continued to play at an All-Star level, as did Lewis (though only Allen got named to the actual game). The team played slightly better defense under Bob Hill (who had the team pick up his option for the 06-07 season a few days ago). The team was able to reacquire Earl Watson, making my dad happy and providing them with an actual back-up point guard. Both Petro and 2004 lottery pick Robert Swift showed that they’re capable of being solid centers in the league. Radmanovic netted Chris Wilcox from the Clippers, who looks like the slightly impoverished man’s Shawn Kemp. The team will get another lottery pick (most likely #10), though right now I’m not sure what they’ll do with it.

So where do they go from here? Here are the moves the team should make this offseason:

Resign Chris Wilcox

The Supes will certainly tender him the $3.5 million qualifying offer in order to maintain his restricted free agent status. While I won’t say that they will (or should) match any offer he gets, I’d be willing to commit a large amount of money over quite a few years to Wilcox. He’s 23. His two months with the Sonics constitute the first time in his career he’s gotten more than a token amount of minutes. He averaged 14 and 8 in Seattle. In other words, he quite easily could be the next Jermaine O’Neal. It’s certainly worth gambling on.

In all honesty, I don’t expect or want the Sonics to be too active in free agency. I like the current makeup of the team: with Ridnour and Watson they’re solid at the point, Allen is still an elite player, Lewis is very good, Wilcox could be a star, and Petro and Swift can give them 48 good minutes in the middle. Additionally, they’ve got Nick Collison and Damien Wilkins as strong options off the bench, and Mikki Moore should still be around to swing between the 4 and 5.

Trade Danny Fortson

While he may never play another game in the NBA, Fortson’s expiring contract (about $7 million) makes him a somewhat valuable commodity. Depending on what the team does in the draft, they could add a veteran shooter/perimeter defender or a more experienced big man if they so chose, or they could attempt to package Fortson with Swift/Petro to get a legit player. Lewis and Fortson might even bring back an All-Star, though I’m a big fan of Rashard and would love to keep him around, especially if Wilcox emerges. He’s such a match-up nightmare that it’s hard for me to feel like trading him would be beneficial.

Add a backup shooting guard

This was the one weakness for the Sonics. After years of being one of the top shooting teams in the league, their bench suffered in that area in the second half of the season. Neither Watson nor Wilkens are good shooters, which makes adding a real backup for Allen a must. This could happen through the draft (I’d be thrilled if they could draft Brandon Roy), free agency, or a trade, but it has to happen.

Settle their beef with Seattle

The Sonics are my favorite team in sports. I’ve promised Ben and others that if they leave Seattle, I’ll never attend or watch another NBA game the rest of my life (and believe me, I love the NBA). They’re the only Seattle team to win a championship (even if it was before I was born), and have been the most consistent winners in the city. They’re also the city’s oldest professional franchise. On the other hand, KeyArena was renovated a decade ago, and the city has spent a ton of money on new stadiums for the Mariners and Seahawks. Plus, the NBA has several other franchises (Portland, New Orleans) in flux. I’m fine with a new arena, but the team needs to front some of the money, or at least start winning, or else they’re not gonna sell it to the public.

So what do I see next year from the Sonics? Well, putting on my rose-tinted fan glasses, I don’t think a second division title in three years would be past them. Denver won the crown this year, but they weren’t particularly good, and most of their key players besides Carmelo are on the downside of their careers. Utah has Andrei Kirilenko, one of my favorite players to watch, but he’s not polished offensively and the team as a whole has little firepower. Minnesota has Garnett and little else: in the words of former Knick Michael Ray Richardson, “this ship be sinking.” Portland sucks, end of story. If they resign Wilcox, and turn Fortson and their lottery pick into useful players, they’ll definitely be a playoff team. If they can play some defense, they should be able to make a nice little run. And who knows, maybe one of these years picking them to win the NBA Championship won’t just be a joke.


Blogger chunkstyle23 said...

Awesome post, Z. I keep feeling like I need to get my thoughts on the Sonics season on paper, but guys like you keep doing it for me. Keep up the good work.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous T-Dawg said...

nice write-up... found you through deadspin-- congrats on the link.

by the way, I'm an Olympia boy; my favorite player when i started high school was shawn kemp. that being said, Wilcox is no shawn kemp, impoverished or not.

Personally, I'd like to see a trade of our first rounder, one of the young bigs, danny fortson and maybe either rashard or a future number 1 for the artist formerly known and Kevin Garnett.

He isn't over the hill and it could turn us from "just another team" into one of the favorites. I know I'd be giving up a lot in return, but it isn't like grabbing Patrick Ewing 3 years after he was done; Garnett still has some good years left, and wants to win a championship BAD.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Garnett could certainly be a great player, as long as he's paired with another star like Ray Ray...but honestly, I'd rather give the minutes to Weezy. He's younger, and while I love Garnett (he's perhaps my favorite non-sonic to watch), I can't shake the loser tag when it comes to him...maybe it's just me.

2:08 AM  
Anonymous tyler said...

Garnett is not a loser... remember this nugget of wisdom from "the gambler"...

"Cause every hands a winner,
and every hand's a loser,
and the best you can do
is die in your sleep."

Garnett is no more a loser than michael jordan was in 1987, Matt Hasselbeck was after he'd take the ball and score, no more than Edgar Martinez in 1994.

It is the way of the sports world, you are only as good as your circumstances, and KG has fought like hell in the worst of them... and rarely complained. A lesser man and lesser athlete would have bailed on Minny long ago.

the fact is, he is itching for a legitmate chance.

uhm... i live in Denver now, so i don't get to see/hear any non-national games (and i miss 1/2 those anyway) but who is Wheezy? Is it a Kevin Collabaro nickname?

(Yes, i know i butchered his name.)

2:02 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Weezy would be Chris Wilcox, and that nickname came fully formed from college (or maybe even high school).

I've written about Garnett before, so I'll rehash my arguments quickly. I've never seen a more talented player who misuses his talent like Garnett does. It starts with him not wanting to be listed as a seven-footer (because apparently people would then want him to play like one). The guy's 7-0, can jump out of the gym, has freakishly long arms, and spends most of his time 10-15 feet from the basket. His post game still just consists of a turnaround fadeaway jumper which may be unblockable but takes him utterly out of rebounding position. Defensively, he's lethal at the top of the key in a zone, but he can be muscled on the interior.

But my biggest complaint is that he doesn't demand the ball in the clutch. In the history of the NBA, there's been one truly great player who won without being a dominant scorer down the stretch (Bill Russell). Garnett's impact on the game is nowhere near as big, and his unwillingness to at least try and take games over baffles me.

The funniest thing about is that there might not be a more intense player than Garnett in the league (besides maybe Kobe). Why that doesn't translate into demanding the ball, I don't know. But hell, if they can get Garnett without giving up Allen or Lewis, I'd be all for it. But it's never gonna happen: if the Wolves do trade KG, they're gonna demand an all-star in return (or at least a borderline one like Rashard).

4:23 PM  
Anonymous tyler said...

thanks for the rehash... haven't seen your earlier stuff. as i said, just found the site this week.

i can't argue too much with your garnett analysis, anjd like your pointing out of the odd paradox... but as a coach (well, 30 and first time since i was 13 i wasn't playing or paid to coach) i see exactly what you see, and i'll take it any day of the week and twice on saturdays.

i was garnett in h.s... college made me a small forward. i too wanted to be listed small so my rebound totals would look better. (why i have no idea, 4 yr's don't recruit 6'4" SF that claim to be 6'2". Of course, they don't often recruit stoners either, so i kind of mucked that one up...anyway, TMI, i digress...

You got a guy like KG it makes a young big who needs to be around the hoop (wilcox, petro) more effective. Plus with KG shooting turn around fadeaways when he is posting up, it allows athletic bigs (above) or smalls (Wilkins) to have even more offensive rebound room when he does miss. KG is gonna take his man out of there, and taking 2 7 footers out of the key does wonders for opening up the lane for crashing rebounders.

(Not only that, but a couple of the possible draft selections would thrive with such a scenario... guys like that memphis leaper who is predicted to be somewhere around our area.)

You are probably right about Rashard, but i wouldn't hesitate to deal him and get rid of his opt-out clause if i'm bringing KG in... if anything, he is a worse version of Garnett, if you are upset about size playing small.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...


You're right about Garnett drawing his guy away from the bucket, but the problem is the guy he's drawing away isn't the opposing center, he's the opposing 3/4. While that helps some, you're still leaving some size underneath for the other team.

Rashard may play small (he does), but he's also got an added dimension (3-pt shooting) that Garnett doesn't. Obviously, KG is a better player, but I don't think it's worth giving up what it would take to bring KG back.

Plus, there's no way this ownership group wants to pay that salary, in my opinion.

9:56 PM  

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