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PACIFIC: 9 SEATTLE SuperSonics
L. Jon Wertheim
November 01, 1999
If Vin Baker exacts vengeance for last season, this micro lineup won't be soft
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November 01, 1999

Pacific: 9 Seattle Supersonics

If Vin Baker exacts vengeance for last season, this micro lineup won't be soft

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By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 25-25 (tied for eight in Western Conference) Coach: Paul Westphal (second season with SuperSonics)

1998-99 PER GAME AVERAGES

POINT (rank)

FG% (rank)

REBOUNDS (rank)

TURNOVERS (rank)

SUPERSONICS

94.9 (4)

44.2 (13)

42.0 (14)

15.3 (13)

OPPONENTS

95.9 (24)

45.7 (26)

42.0 (15)

14.9 (19)

Vin Baker may prefer to listen to R&B and gospel, but the rock band Smash Mouth could have had the Sonics' power forward in mind last summer when it sang, Hey, now, you're an All-Star. Get your game on. Go. Play. A four-time veteran of the NBA's midseason classic and a player considered one of the league's leading lights, Baker endured a 1998-99 season so nightmarish that it reduced him to tears. With his numbers precipitously down in every department, the Sonics finished 25-25 and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

When Baker reported to training camp last January, he was 25 pounds above his ideal weight of 255. He figured he would just play himself into shape, but when his game failed to click in the opening days of the season—he missed his first 18 foul shots—his confidence nosedived. Baker wound up shooting 45.0% from the line, slightly worse than his field goal percentage (45.3), which was the lowest of his six-year career.

Baker also suffered a battery of injuries that forced him to miss a third of the season. On April 28 he hit rock bottom. Out of action with a deep bone contusion in his right knee, he was at his Bellevue, Wash., home with friends watching the Sonics play the Trail Blazers. After Portland spanked Seattle 119-84 and dealt a crushing blow to the Sonics' hopes of reaching the postseason, Baker quietly left his guests, walked upstairs and cried. "I felt like I let myself down, my city down and, most important, my team down," he says. "I said to myself, For all the success you've enjoyed, you should never be in this position again."

To that end Baker spent the off-season working out mercilessly in Seattle and at his parents' home in Old Saybrook, Conn. He also went to Puerto Rico to help Team USA romp in the qualifying tournament for the 2000 Olympics. "My confidence really started to come back," Baker says of his off-season. "The Seattle front office did its part to help." Conceding that Baker's performance last season was an aberration, the team signed him to a seven-year extension worth the maximum $87 million, provided he meets various weight clauses. Point guard Gary Payton, Baker's best friend on the team, has also vowed to shoot less and puff Vin up more.

"I've been challenged to step up to the plate," Baker said recently, expressing an admirable sentiment with an unfortunate choice of words. "A lot of how we do as a team is predicated on what Gary and I do. It all works if I play the part I'm supposed to play. Overall, I'm excited about how I feel, and I'm excited about the unit we have."

Except for Baker and Payton, the lone holdover from the 1995-96 team that won the Western Conference title, that unit is vastly changed from a year ago. Over the summer Seattle parted ways with nine players on last year's uninspiring roster, including longtime Sonics Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins and Dale Ellis, as well as one-year blunders Olden Polynice, Billy Owens and Don MacLean. To the fans' dismay, Seattle failed to land a big-name player in return (read: Scottie Pippen), but general manager Wally Walker unquestionably upgraded the team by adding power forward Horace Grant, center Greg Foster and guards Brent Barry and Vernon Maxwell. "On the first day of camp," says Baker, "I had to put the names with faces."

Seattle's attitude ought to be radically different this year too. The new Sonics are dripping with bravado and brashness. Grant and Maxwell are both time-honored tough guys with championship rings, but leading the charge might be second-year player Ruben Patterson, the front-runner to start at small forward. When Patterson, who played in just 24 games for the Lakers last year, was introduced to the Seattle media this summer, he declared himself the Kobe-Buster, claiming that he used to regularly shut down Kobe Bryant in practice. He then added, "I'm going to be the next Glove because [ Payton's] getting up there in age now. He can't move like he used to." Never one to miss a chance to talk trash, even if it's to a teammate, Payton responded, "Ruben is going to be good. I'm going to have to slow his mouth down a little, but he can play."

While the Sonics may no longer be underconfident, they remain indisputably undersized. Seattle boasts only one 7-footer, Vladimir Stepania, and he's a spot-up shooter. Starting the 6'10" Grant at center sounds much better in theory than it is in practice. While Patterson is, as self-advertised, a defensive gem, at 6'5" he is the smallest of small forwards. "Are we going to be the biggest team in the league? No," says Walker. "But I think we can offset a lot of that with quickness."

If nothing else, this team will be exciting to watch. Reminiscent of the helter-skelter Seattle teams from the George Karl era, the Sonics will trap, slash and push the ball upcourt. "We're going to play to our strengths," says coach Paul Westphal. "That means playing high-energy basketball, getting out on the break, rotating and being disruptive on defense. We should have more steals, create more turnovers and hopefully put more points on the board."

Performing in the birthplace of the grunge movement, the SuperSonics' off-key performance in 1998-99 was characterized by anomie, angst and slacking. With a slimmed-down Baker back to help lead an intriguing new mix, Seattle should make sweeter music this season. Until the Sonics have a bona fide center, though, they're unlikely to land a gig in the playoffs.

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