Westphal had to be fired

  • Larry Henry / Sports Columnist
  • Monday, November 27, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – During a lull in his first practice as the new interim head coach of the SuperSonics, Nate McMillan stood at mid-court speaking quietly to five players early Monday afternoon. As McMillan made his points, Gary Payton focused his attention on the coach and nodded his head several times.

When was the last time you saw Payton listen to his coach and agree with everything he said? Maybe when George Karl was the boss?

Regardless, it was a favorable early sign that maybe, just maybe, the Sonics now have a coach that Payton can get along with.

Payton has always said that he respected McMillan as a player. Now we’ll see if he respects him when Nate gets in his face as a coach.

That time will come.

Like a grade school kid with a new teacher, Payton will test McMillan sometime, somewhere. How McMillan responds to that test will determine whether Payton continues to respect him.

My guess is McMillan will handle it firmly but fairly and Payton will walk away saying, “cool.”

But nothing is guaranteed with Gary Payton.

This move had to be made. Paul Westphal had to be fired, Nate McMillan had to be elevated to head coach.

It was either that or a season that had looked so promising when it began would be destroyed before 20 games were played.

As it is, the Sonics at 6-9 are in much better shape than they were when Lenny Wilkens replaced Bob Hopkins as coach after 22 games in 1977. Taking over a team that started out 5-17, Wilkens got the Sonics to the NBA finals, where they lost in seven games to Washington.

The current Sonics team might not get that far, but it’s certainly capable of advancing deep into the playoffs. But only with a different coach.

McMillan knows how to get there. He was a key player on the 1995-96 team that made it to the sixth game of the NBA Finals before losing to the Chicago Bulls.

McMillan knows what made that Sonics team so good: defense.

That was a trademark of all of George Karl’s Sonics teams, and it was a trademark of Nate McMillan’s 12-year NBA career.

Little surprise then that when McMillan met with his players for the first time as a head coach Monday, he told them this: We’re going to play defense.

Which was something the Sonics hadn’t been doing. They were next to last in the league, giving up more than 99 points a game.

“Defense is the key to winning games,” said McMillan, dressed in stylish jeans and a sweater after the workout session in the team’s practice facility. “I’ve always been a defensive-minded person … and I believe we have a team that is capable of playing solid defense. I think we can play straight-up defense, I think we can trap, I think we can press, I think we can be more aggressive. I think we really have just as much ability as when we went to the finals.”

How the Sonics play will be a direct reflection of the head coach’s makeup, said Dwane Casey, who had served as a Sonics assistant with McMillan and was given the title of associate head coach. “His personality will come out in this team,” Casey said. “That’s defensive toughness. That’s what we’ve got to be. Right now, we don’t like the reputation of our team – being a soft team. We want to be a tough, defensive-minded team.”

Anyone not wanting to play defense will take a seat on the bench, McMillan stressed.

One more McMillan attribute that will characterize this team: It will play hard all the time – in practice as well as in games. “Yes, we definitely will practice hard,” McMillan said. “You learn about yourself in practice. What will work for you and what you need to trash.”

He operates on the theory that you have to practice at the same speed as you play in a game.

When he played, McMillan always looked as if he had just taken a shower when practice ended. His jersey and shorts were soaked with sweat and whoever had played against him was wrung out.

Nate never cheated his coach, his team or the Sonic fans. He gave full effort every night.

He said he expects no problems with Payton, who got into a tiff with Westphal last week and threatened to slap the coach. “I know he’s very competitive and when he talks to you, he talks to you in a tone that … you can feel that it’s personal sometimes,” the 36-year-old McMillan said. “But that’s something that we’ll deal with as it comes. I think he’s the best point guard in the league and I’m happy to have a point guard with his capabilities to start off my coaching career with.”

The few players who talked after practice didn’t say anything negative about Westphal. As a person, it’s hard to find fault with him. He’s a decent guy. Maybe too decent.

As Sonics general manager Wally Walker, who had the difficult task of firing his old friend, said: Players sometimes “take people’s niceness and abuse it.”

Westphal, according to McMillan, was into “substituting guys back into the game when they weren’t playing well, starting guys when there were other guys who could give you just as good a play, sticking with guys when they weren’t doing anything for the team. Even if they had played bad for three quarters, Paul would give them an opportunity.

“He would come and tell us (after the game), ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’ But the man has an unbelievable heart and I think he really felt that this is the way that it needs to be done. It’s not working, but this is the way it needs to be done.”

Things are about to change. Players will earn time on the floor, “not because your contract is bigger than the next guy.”

“If you’re not playing defense,” the new coach said, “you will not play.”

And, he made it clear, there’s only one boss. “It will be the way I want to do it,” he said.

If he does well, the “interim” will be removed and he’ll be simply the head coach. “If I’m not here next year,” McMillan said, “I’m cool. I’m OK.”

In his new job, he’ll be much better than OK.

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