SEATTLE – In his native Serbia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th, not December 25th, which means Saturday will be just another day for Vlade Radmanovic.
Well, maybe a little bit special since the Seattle SuperSonics will neither practice nor play a game that day. Which means Radmanovic can sleep late, then enjoy a leisurely afternoon and evening with friends from Seattle’s Serbian community.
Here’s something else he can do. He can contemplate a pro basketball career that is decidedly more rosy than it was a year ago.
Last season was Radmanovic’s third in the NBA and it was often frustrating because he yearned to be a starter. Instead he played mostly as a backup to Rashard Lewis, which was a role Radmanovic plainly did not want. Picking up on his discontent, rival teams often mentioned his name in trade inquiries, and by season’s end it was a coin toss whether he would be back in Seattle or not.
Now, in the early weeks of the 2004-05 season, little has changed for Radmanovic and yet so much seems different. As the team’s sixth man, he is usually the first substitute into every game. He plays more minutes than any forward or center other than Lewis, and more than any Seattle player outside of Lewis and guards Ray Allen and Luke Ridnour.
And, of no small significance, he seems happy.
“If I have the opportunity to start, that’s what I want,” Radmanovic said Tuesday as the Sonics tuned up for tonight’s game against Denver. “Every player in the league would like to do that. But, honestly, there is nothing to be concerned about. Playing time is the most important thing for me and I’m playing 30 minutes (a game) on average. That is better than being a starter and only playing 15 minutes.
“I didn’t get a starting job this season, but I put that aside. I decided to play ball and not think about it because those are things I cannot change. If I cannot change it, why would I think about it?”
Though every basketball player at every level prefers to start, every basketball coach will also cite the importance of an effective sixth man. This season the Sonics have started a front line of Lewis, forward Reggie Evans and center Jerome James – a scorer and two rebounder/defenders – then usually called on Radmanovic late in the first quarter.
His appearance on the court, often with backup guard Antonio Daniels, transforms the Sonics into a smaller, quicker and typically an explosive offensive unit.
“We become a more athletic team for sure, and a better shooting team,” said Seattle coach Nate McMillan. Using Radmanovic off the bench, he added, “is very important for us because it allows us to really take advantage of our shooting.”
McMillan knows that Radmanovic was frustrated being primarily a reserve in his first three NBA season, “but he’s accepted it this year. Vlade is not fighting it as he did before, and that’s good because he can really help us.”
A sixth man, the coach went on, “is just like a starting role and it’s an important role because we’ve come to depend on him to play well. Even though he’s not starting, and even though Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are who everybody talks about, we need Vlade to have a good game just as we need Ray and Rashard to have good games.”
For contractual reasons, this is an important season for Radmanovic. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires after this season, first-round draft picks (he was picked No. 12 in 2001) get automatic three-year contracts. The team then has the option of renewing the player for a fourth season, which Seattle did in October of 2003 for this season. For the fifth season, which for Radmanovic is 2005-06, the player becomes a restricted free agent, meaning the Sonics would have the right of first refusal if Radmanovic signs with another team over the summer (and assuming the new collective bargaining agreement is unchanged).
Radmanovic, then, is approaching the time when he can move from an average NBA salary (he is earning $2.3 million in 2004-05) to really big money. The Sonics, too, are nearing the point when they will have to decide about whether or not to invest in Radmanovic for the long term.
For now, he said, the idea is to focus on those things he can control in the immediate future. That means building on what has been accomplished to date, both for himself and the Sonics.
“One of the goals I set before I started my NBA career was to be better every year,” Radmanovic said. “This season I feel more comfortable, and one of the reasons is that I know exactly when I’m going to get in the game and how long I am going to play. I’m not (worrying) about that anymore. Before I was thinking, ‘OK, when am I going to get in and how much am I going to play?’ Then I’d get in and there were so many things to worry about, and so I messed up the whole game.
“Now I don’t even think about it because we have our rotations,” he said. “Everybody basically knows what they are supposed to do on the floor, and I just want to concentrate on what I’m supposed to do. I’m just going out and trying to help the team win, and so far we’ve had success.”