By RICH MYHRE
Answers? You want answers?
Then give us your questions and we will tell you what you need to know about the upcoming Seattle SuperSonics season.
Question: Can the Sonics win the Pacific Division title?
Answer: Nope, not a chance. Not unless the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers get slam-dunked with calamity, that is.
The mighty Lakers and the powerful Blazers simply have too much muscle for Seattle, even with newcomer Patrick Ewing now manning the middle. And there’s no guarantee Seattle will finish up on the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, though a third-place division finish for the Sonics seems the right call from here.
That said, Seattle’s starting lineup should match up very well with the first five of both the Lakers and Blazers. Which means that in any given game this season — and perhaps in a playoff series, when teams shorten their player rotations — the Sonics would have a decent chance of beating either rival.
Q: Can Sonics coach Paul Westphal get along with Gary Payton and Vin Baker?
A: He’d better. The Sonics have some $125 million invested in Payton and Baker over the next several seasons. The investment in Westphal is about $2 million for this coming season. You do the math.
In fairness, Westphal’s problems with his two stars are probably not so severe as some believe. Payton, understandably enough, wants to win, which means he wants a capable supporting cast. His periodic angry outbursts over the past two seasons seem prompted by a perceived lack of front-office support. The arrival of Ewing obviously helps, and if the Sonics prosper Payton and Westphal will probably be best buddies.
Baker, who has not played well the past two seasons, is a bigger challenge. His efforts have frustrated Westphal, which has led Baker to feel he doesn’t have the support of his coach. Almost getting traded to New York for Ewing hardly enhanced this relationship. But just like Payton, this problem goes away if Baker and the Sonics play well.
Q: Gary Payton seems to improve each season. Will he just keep getting better and better?
A: A year ago, Payton averaged 24.2 points, 8.9 assists and 6.5 rebounds, each figure a career best. It was an awesome season, and it’s hard to imagine that his game could go much higher. We expect Payton’s points to drop this season since he has more good players around him to share the scoring.
Still, the belief here is that Payton is, hands down, the best backcourt player in the NBA. Others, such as Toronto’s Vince Carter and the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, get more highlight-film minutes because Payton rarely dunks and is not given to dazzling no-look passes. He simply competes at a truly exceptional level, offensively and defensively, game after game. We love watching Carter and Bryant as much as anyone, but given the choice we’d take Payton.
Q: Will we ever see the real Vin Baker again?
A: A good question, and admittedly the crystal ball gets a bit foggy here. The best guess, though, is yes. Baker was better last season than he was the year before, and we predict similar improvement this season. For his part, Baker needs to stay upbeat and focused, and keep his weight down. The acquisition of Ewing delighted Baker since it returned him to his accustomed power forward position. OK, the Sonics gave Baker what he wants, and now it’s up to him to deliver in kind.
Baker may not average 20 points a game as he did in his best Milwaukee years, but he should aim for 10 rebounds and two blocked shots a game while shooting .500 from the field and .700 from the free throw line. If Baker can do all that, he’s back.
Q: Does Patrick Ewing have anything left in the tank?
A: Sure, though not enough to be the same player who was a seven-time All-NBA first- or second-team choice.
And that should be fine. Postseason honors are based largely on scoring, and the Sonics don’t need Ewing to be a primary offensive weapon. They need him for defense, rebounding and toughness — and they need him to impart those same qualities to Baker.
Of course, fears about Ewing’s health will hover over the team all season. He missed 88 regular-season games with various ailments the past three seasons, not to mention all of the 1999 NBA Finals. Westphal would like to see Ewing get about 32 minutes a game, which seems high to us given Ewing’s chronically sore knees. But however it works out, the Sonics must aim to have Ewing healthy and productive when the playoffs begin in late April.
Q: What kind of year will Rashard Lewis have?
A: Take this one to the bank. Lewis will be an NBA All-Star someday, though probably not this year. In a lineup with Payton, Baker and Ewing, there just aren’t enough opportunities for points and rebounds for Lewis to put up the kind of big numbers that earn All-Star notice.
Our advice to Rashard is this: Be patient. Keeping learning the game. Develop your skills. Accept a supporting role for another season or two. Then enjoy a decade or so of NBA stardom.
Q: What’s the word on top draft pick Desmond Mason?
A: He might be the most impressive Sonics rookie since Xavier McDaniel, who averaged 17.1 points and 8.0 rebounds in his initial season of 1985-86. Mason won’t put up those kinds of numbers this season, of course, and for the same reason that Lewis won’t make the All-Star team. But the talented youngster from Oklahoma State University has shown glimpses of being an explosive open-court player and a capable defender. His outside shot and his understanding of the NBA game must improve, but we’re betting Mason ends up on the league’s All-Rookie team.
Q: The Sonics’ starting lineup seems solid, but what about the bench?
A: An insightful question, this. While the first five blends scoring, defense, rebounding, youthful athleticism and veteran poise, the bench has questions at every position. Small forward Ruben Patterson is an exciting player and an excellent offensive rebounder, but he is sporadic offensively and a mediocre defender. Shammond Williams is still learning to play the point and is so-so defensively. Big men Jelani McCoy and Ruben Wolkowyski are promising, but inexperienced. Shooting guard Brent Barry, a starter last season, is the most dependable of the bunch.
Seattle’s best teams of the mid-1990s had powerful benches. Players like Ricky Pierce, Eddie Johnson and Dana Barros provided steady scoring, and Nate McMillan and Vincent Askew were skilled defenders. This Sonics team doesn’t have that same quality of reserve talent, at least right now.
Q: Is team president Wally Walker getting the hang of the job?
A: We think so. The Ewing deal was a smooth piece of work, and more so because the first deal (involving Baker for Ewing) fell through.
Walker, who was hired in 1994, stumbled some in the early years. The signing of free-agent Jim McIlvaine was a glaring bust, and we shudder with horror to remember Olden Polynice, Billy Owens, John Crotty and Don MacLean during the lockout-shortened 1999 season.
Of late, though, Walker has found his stride. He was fortunate to draft Lewis in the 1998 second round, he picked Chicago’s pocket by getting Barry for an aging Hersey Hawkins, he snagged Patterson as a low-cost free agent, he got Horace Grant for a draft pick and a bunch of castoffs, then parlayed Grant and some other misfits into Ewing.
And if Ewing falls short of expectations, the Sonics should have a salary slot of several million dollars to chase a top free agent next season.
For some of us, Walker lived for years in the shadow of his predecessor, Bob Whitsitt. Today, that shadow is much, much smaller.
Q: What will be the most meaningful question for the Sonics this season?
A: "How are the knees, Patrick?"
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