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  • RICH MYHRE / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, December 14, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

Baker unhappy as a reserve; McMillan vexed by forward’s lethargic


Herald Writer

SEATTLE — You can see it on his face, in his body language, and in his deportment on the court and in the locker room.

The message, left largely unspoken because Vin Baker isn’t talking much these days, is that Seattle’s onetime All-Star forward is not all that happy.

Since Nate McMillan became head coach on Nov. 27, the SuperSonics have won six of nine games. It has been done with a new up-tempo style and a revised starting lineup that has Baker playing from the bench.

The other Sonics seem to embrace the changes, but Baker is clearly dissatisfied with a reserve role. He seems distracted and lethargic at times — and he was both during Wednesday night’s game at Vancouver. In just 15 minutes against the Grizzlies, Baker managed nine points and was only 3-for-10 from the field after missing several layin tries.

McMillan had Baker on the court for just one minute of the third quarter and four minutes of the fourth, then sat him down for the final eight minutes of the game.

Afterward, Baker was conspicuously absent in Seattle’s locker room — a difficult thing to do on the road, since there are few places for visiting players to hide. Even teammate Gary Payton, a frequent locker room no-show at KeyArena, was at his cubicle after the game at Vancouver’s General Motors Place.

On Thursday, Baker told the team’s media relations staff that he would not be talking to the press.

All of this presents a dilemma for McMillan, just as it did for former coach Paul Westphal. On one hand, McMillan has promised to award playing time based on effort and performance. On the other hand, the Sonics need an inspired Baker to be successful this season, and the moody forward cannot rediscover his confidence perched on the bench.

Asked about Baker on Thursday, McMillan said he foresees no role changes. "Basically all I can do," he said, "is provide a fair system for everybody.

"The change (of lineup) was never a punishment for Vin Baker," McMillan went on. "I look at this as a team sport and you get paid to make this team successful, whether it’s starting or coming off the bench. Whichever way makes this team successful is the way you should play, regardless of how you feel about it. … If you don’t make it work or if you’re not trying to make it work, for whatever reason, then you’re not playing team basketball and you shouldn’t be in team sports.

Added McMillan: "Our bench scoring, because of Vin being there, is up. We have balanced scoring and he’s getting a lot of (chances with the ball). It’s working for us, I think."

In fairness, Baker has had one or two very good games since McMillan took over. In particular, a game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Nov. 30 was outstanding, with Baker scoring 20 points and nabbing nine rebounds in 34 spirited minutes of Seattle’s 121-88 win.

Also, Baker is certainly not the only sporadic Sonic. His bench partner, forward Ruben Patterson, is riding a similar roller coaster. Patterson had one of his best games of the season vs. Orlando on Tuesday (23 minutes, 18 points, four rebounds, three steals) followed by one of his worst in Vancouver (13 scoreless minutes, one rebound, two turnovers) the next night.

Patterson, though, is not a four-time NBA All-Star and a 2000 United States Olympian, as is Baker. Patterson is also in just his third pro season, not his eighth like Baker, so some inconsistency is more understandable.

Baker’s statistics have changed very little since the coaching change. Actually, since his minutes are down under McMillan (25.0 a game, vs. 33.8 under Westphal), Baker’s per-minute productivity is up. Still, his averages of 13.0 points and 6.6 rebounds a game are both near the lowest of his NBA career.

For now, McMillan said, "I will manage everybody as I see them. I think we all can give more, and I’m hoping and expecting that we all will give more."

Though Baker has made it plain that he wants his starting spot back, McMillan has no plans to switch his lineup. And no one can accuse McMillan of being callous. After all, he knows the feeling firsthand, having lost his own place in the starting lineup to Payton a decade ago.

"Roles have changed," McMillan said. "Do the players accept them? Can you do as I did and a lot of other players have done? Your role has changed, so now make it work."

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