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Happy Days
Phil Taylor
February 09, 1998
Not only are the Sonics winning big, but—surprise!—they're also enjoying themselves
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February 09, 1998

Happy Days

Not only are the Sonics winning big, but—surprise!—they're also enjoying themselves

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Stats Are Only Part of the Story
A comparison of the averages of Shawn Kemp with the Sonics last season and those of his replacement, Vin Baker (right), through Sunday reveals a pretty even trade-on the court.

PLAYER

SEASON

MINS

PTS

REBS

FG%

FT%

BLKS

TO

KEMP

1996-97

34.0

18.7

10.0

.510

.742

1.0

3.5

BAKER

1997-98

35.8

20.0

8.1

.539

.605

1.1

1.8

Given the turbulence among the Seattle SuperSonics during the past few years, it seemed unlikely that the team had any surprises left. Following Seattle was a lot like watching Melrose Place—you got the feeling the soap opera had been so outrageous for so long that it could no longer top itself. But even those who thought they had seen it all from the Sonics must have raised their eyebrows this season when they saw point guard Gary Payton knitting and playing shuffleboard with residents of a senior citizens' home, forward-center Sam Perkins in a bedtime pillow fight with three kids, and guard Hersey Hawkins scrambling on the floor for candy from a piñata at a little boy's birthday party. Granted, those were scenes in a series of lighthearted commercials made to promote the Sonics' local telecasts, but the team has also been presenting a real-life image that fans probably never expected to see: Behold the Sonics themselves, happy at last.

We don't blame you for doing a double take. It's hard to recognize the Seattle players when they're smiling. But here they are, with hardly a hint of dysfunction: no greedy star demanding a trade, no bickering among teammates, no label as playoff chokers making them tense and wary of outsiders. At week's end the SuperSonics' 36-10 record was the best in the NBA, but that's not the point; Seattle has a habit of putting together gaudy regular-season records. This season the Sonics have done it with some familiar weapons, such as Payton, who through Sunday was third in the league in assists (8.8 per game) and fifth in steals (2.35) and remains one of the NBA's most complete point guards, and small forward Detlef Schrempf (16.3 points and 7.1 rebounds), who's having one of the best seasons of his 13-year career. But Seattle also has some new ammunition, most notably power forward Vin Baker, who at the end of last week led the Sonics in scoring (20.0 points) and rebounds (8.1), and swingman Dale Ellis, a reserve who led the league in three-point accuracy (49.4%). During one nine-game stretch Ellis made 24 of 29 treys.

The biggest difference, however, is that the Sonics, having traded moody forward Shawn Kemp for the affable Baker, are no longer a house of cards. They're more like a brick mansion. "We're solid now," says Hawkins. "We don't have those distractions threatening to bring us down like we've had in other years. I can't remember the last time I was on a team on which things went so smoothly, but I know it wasn't in Seattle."

Evidence of the more relaxed mood is everywhere, from the way coach George Karl and his players threw a football around after a recent practice to the way the Sonics linger in the locker room, signing autographs for kids and joking with reporters. In the past it wasn't unusual for Seattle players to bolt after games to avoid media questions designed to take the team's emotional temperature. Perhaps the clearest sign of change is that Seattle's concerns revolve around on-court issues. The players are a bit worried about their rebounding—at the end of last week the Sonics ranked last in the league, with 38.9 boards per game—and Karl wouldn't mind seeing Seattle get involved in a few more close games to better prepare his players for the postseason. That's trivial stuff for a team that used to have at least one crisis a year. "It's boring," says Karl, tongue in cheek. "The only problem is that sometimes the coach messes up and starts talking about his salary."

Karl, who is in the last year of a contract that pays him $3 million this season, is unhappy with Seattle management's refusal to discuss a new deal until the end of the season, and he has said that if and when tire Sonics try to re-sign him, he "won't come cheap." But this issue isn't likely to affect Seattle's performance. It's like a paper cut to a team that's used to internal bleeding.

The three-way trade in late September that brought Baker from the Milwaukee Bucks—while Kemp went to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cavs' Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill were sent to Milwaukee-has helped all three teams, but the Sonics have to be considered the biggest winners. In getting Baker, a 6'11" power forward and five-year NBA veteran, Seattle president and general manager Wally Walker pulled off a coup. In one move he unloaded Kemp, who had vowed never to play for Seattle again because he was dissatisfied with his contract, and strengthened the Sonics' championship potential.

On the court the Baker-Kemp exchange is more or less a wash (box, below). Both players are All-Stars. Baker is the superior passer, but Kemp is better at filling the lane on the fast break. Baker makes fewer turnovers in the low post, but Kemp is more spectacular. In the areas that have nothing to do with X's and O's, however, the Sonics are clearly better off with Baker. He sang the national anthem before a home game in December, accompanied by the choir of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, from Old Saybrook, Conn., where his father, James, is a minister. Kemp, on the other hand, was so often tardy for games that there were times last season when the Sonics wondered if he would even show up before the anthem. "The big thing is that Vin is a man of responsibility," says Karl. "He's a man of quiet character. The negative of last year has now turned into a positive."

"Vin's always in a good mood," says Hawkins. "His personality definitely fits the team chemistry better than Shawn's did."

Baker meshed easily with his new teammates almost from the first day of practice. The only significant adjustment he had to make was to Seattle's frenetic pace. The Sonics' trapping defense and fast-breaking offense is a far cry from what Baker was used to in Milwaukee. "I almost needed an oxygen mask those first couple of days," he says. "In the East, running is an opportunity. In the West, it's a way of life." But it didn't take him long to get up to speed, and since then he has been everything Seattle had hoped for. At week's end he ranked third in the league in field goal percentage, and among forwards he was 10th in scoring and 17th in rebounding.

His performance has been, in fact, exactly what Payton envisioned last summer when he and Baker toured Europe on a Nike exhibition junket and talked about the possibility of Baker's being traded to Seattle. They spent much of the tour telling two other players, Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, how dangerous the Sonics would be if Baker joined them. "Actually Gary did most of the talking," says Baker. (As Baker has since discovered, that's usually the case.) He and Payton have become fast friends, nearly inseparable on the road, where they can often be found at the pool table in the hotel bar, playing and laughing deep into the night.

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