By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE – Something old, something new.
That expression, used commonly at weddings, helps describe the look to be unveiled by the Seattle SuperSonics as they open the 2000-01 season tonight in Vancouver against the Grizzlies.
The 7:30 p.m. game will mark the Seattle debut of center Patrick Ewing, one of the NBA’s genuine graybeards at age 38. He will be joined in the opening lineup by rookie guard Desmond Mason, who had just entered second grade when Ewing broke into the league in the fall of 1985.
Completing Seattle’s starting five will be guard Gary Payton and forwards Vin Baker and Rashard Lewis, all holdovers from last season’s team. That squad finished with a 45-37 record and a No. 7 finish in the Western Conference, and coach Paul Westphal figures the Sonics should improve on both figures this season.
“This is clearly the best group of players we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Westphal, who is starting his third season at Seattle’s helm. “We’ve been in the process of trying to change the team because we got old. Well, the team’s been changed now. This is a really good group and we’re anxious to see how good we can be.”
Unlike most NBA teams, which typically use rotations of eight or nine players in the regular season, the Sonics expect to use 10 players most nights. Guard Brent Barry and forward Ruben Patterson, both starters for most of last season, lead the reserve unit. They will be joined by guard Shammond Williams and forward Jelani McCoy, both subs a year ago, and center Ruben Wolkowyski, a 27-year-old free agent signed from his native Argentina.
“I think we’ll be better off later than we are early because we’ve had a lot of changes,” Westphal said. “We have three new starters (Lewis started only the last few weeks of last season) and we’re making the transition from being a small team to a big team.
“But I’m confident we’re ready to go play, and I’m anxious to see where we are now that the games are counting,” he said.
There are, of course, questions about this squad, and most focus on Ewing. At an age when most NBA players are easing off into retirement, he is attempting to rekindle a career after 15 seasons with the New York Knicks. Injuries slowed Ewing over the past three seasons – he missed 88 regular-season games and all of the 1999 NBA Finals with assorted maladies – and his health is a primary concern as Seattle sets out on the league’s arduous six-month campaign.
Westphal knows “there is a perception out there” that Ewing is likely to break down at some point. Yet it’s an opinion Westphal disputes.
“The people that say, ‘It’s not if he breaks down, it’s when he breaks down,’ I don’t think they’re basing that on anything except pure cynicism,” Westphal said. “Robert Parrish played at that age very well. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the same thing. Karl Malone is about the same age as Patrick (Malone is 37) and they’re not holding any fund-raisers for him.
“Patrick’s got sore knees, as would any 38-year-old guy who has played as many minutes as he has. But he’s dealt with those knees for a long time. And the sore knees from time to time haven’t kept him from playing at a high level. … We want to monitor his minutes so we don’t tax his joints. But at the same time, we’re not going into this thinking that he can’t hold up. We expect him to.”
Of all the Sonics, no one may endure greater scrutiny this season than Baker. After struggling each of the past two years, Baker must now adjust his game to the low-post presence of Ewing and to the increasing contributions of Lewis, his fellow forward.
It is Westphal’s belief that Baker has “the toughest job on the team this year because he’s going to have to change his game more than anybody else. I think he can do it, but he’s going to have to play off Patrick a little more, and he’s going to have to up his rebounding, up his shot blocking, and find a way to be effective (offensively).
“I don’t think we’re asking him to do anything he can’t do, anything he can’t flourish at. And if he’s able to make the adjustment to Patrick, than I think we can be a dynamite team,” Westphal said.
Will the Sonics have enough muscle to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers for supremacy in the Pacific Division?
Well, if Westphal has a prediction, he’s keeping it his secret for now.
“All I know is that I like our team a lot,” he said. “Everybody in the West is better, too. Now, how much better are we in comparison to the other teams? We’ll find out.
“But I know we have some players that have accomplished things in this league, and yet they still have a lot of basketball left. And we have some young players that are going to accomplish a lot. I think we’re going to be highly competitive and fun to watch, and if we stay healthy we’re not afraid to go play anybody.”
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