Seattle will start one of its tallest lineups ever
By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE — The Seattle SuperSonics are supposed to be better this season, thanks to newcomer Patrick Ewing.
Whether Seattle actually improves will soon be seen, but this much is certain. Better or not, the Sonics will at least be bigger.
With the 7-foot Ewing anchoring a front line that includes 6-11 power forward Vin Baker and 6-10 small forward Rashard Lewis, and with a starting backcourt of 6-5 Desmond Mason and 6-4 Gary Payton, this is perhaps the tallest starting five in Sonics history.
And as a general NBA rule, tall is good.
"It’s a huge advantage," said Seattle coach Paul Westphal. "It lets you go into a game pretty much playing your own style rather than having to adjust to the other team. The first option any team always has is to get the ball close to the basket and score. If you’re able to do that, the other team has to react to it. And defensively, it’s a nice advantage if you can keep them away from the basket with your size.
"If you don’t have size, you have to try to mess the game up some kind of way," he said. "With a perimeter (offensive) attack, and with (defensive) pressing and trapping and all that kind of stuff. Those things are all desperate measures by small teams."
Such tactics can succeed, Westphal said, "but it’s always Plan A to have a good inside attack and to have good inside defense. And having size is the best way to do that."
Over the past decade, the Sonics had one of the best regular-season winning percentages in the NBA. Yet those teams were all of modest size, for which Seattle had to compensate with trapping defenses and explosive open-court play.
Throughout the ’90s, the Sonics never had a lofty front line and they were always mediocre in the middle. The starting center was either a 7-footer of meager talent — remember Jim McIlvaine, Olden Polynice and Benoit Benjamin? — or a converted power forward — someone like Michael Cage, Horace Grant or Sam Perkins.
Seattle’s best season of the decade was in 1995-96, when it won 64 regular-season games and reached the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls. The Sonics did it with Perkins, who was all of 6 feet 9 inches, as the starting center. Perkins, a 3-point sharpshooter, created matchup problems for the opponents at the offensive end, but his lack of size made him a defensive and rebounding liability.
"When we lost in the Finals, the sense from everybody — and I mean all the coaches and the players that I talked to — was that we weren’t big enough," said Sonics president Wally Walker. "Guys like Luc Longley (Chicago’s 7-2 center) hurt us in the Finals. We won 64 games that year and everyone thought our main weakness was that we weren’t big enough."
The Sonics brought in McIlvaine the next season, but the 7-1 center never developed into a top-notch player. Which meant the search for a quality big man was to continue until this season, when Ewing arrived in a four-team, 13-player trade that was the largest in NBA history.
Even at 38, and with two routinely sore knees, Ewing remains one of the game’s greats, Walker contends.
"He’s still one of the better centers in the league, and I think he’s going to be terrific for us," Walker said. "He’s one of the best defensive rebounders in the league. In the past, every time the ball went up when the other team shot, I was worried. There was as much danger of a (offensive rebound basket) as there was of them making the first shot. But Patrick has really cleaned that up for us."
Still, for all their size improvement, the Sonics do not have same number of hefty bodies as the Portland Trail Blazers, a principal Pacific Division rival. The Blazers start 7-3 Arvydas Sabonis (when he returns from injury) and 6-11 Rasheed Wallace at center and power forward, then come off the bench with 6-10 Shawn Kemp and 6-11 Dale Davis, a pair of battle-tested veterans. And the Los Angeles Lakers, another division foe, have the benefit of mammoth Shaquille O’Neal, the reigning league MVP, along with the 6-10 Grant, the former Sonic.
Even with Ewing in the lineup, Seattle cannot expect to outmuscle the Blazers and Lakers up front. But the Sonics should be able to square off against those two teams, along with other towering clubs from around the league, and not worry about being overwhelmed physically.
"In that regard," Westphal said, "we’ve got something that hasn’t been seen around here in a long time."
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