Vin Baker's New Leaf
The Word Is Defense
First rule of thumb for the new Vin Baker: Turn off the car radio—or at least keep it tuned exclusively to FM stations. It's gotten ugly for the SuperSonics' power forward on the AM dial, where talk-radio callers shred him for his defensive lapses, his excess weight, his miserable season. Every day someone questions whether Baker is worthy of his spot on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team. Some guys get used to this kind of abuse. Every time Baker hears it, he feels as if someone has stuck a knife in his gut.
His numbers this season are respectable—16.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game through Sunday—but misleading. A four-time All-Star, Baker hasn't approached that status in the past two seasons. His detractors find it all the more outrageous that he's in the second year of a seven-year, $87 million contract. As the postseason nears, the Sonics have told Baker to forget about scoring and be a defender and a re-bounder. "He's a key for us—we don't make a secret of that," says general manager Wally Walker. "We're not trying to put undue pressure on him, but we need him to be active on the boards and on defense. When he is, we're an effective team."
No one needs to tell Baker how far he has fallen. "I'm trying to give myself a crash course in getting back to the old 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] Vin Baker," he says. "I stay late. I do extra work. People think I should be back to it overnight, but it's almost been like starting over."
Baker, 28, shocked the basketball world after the lockout in January 1999 when he reported to camp 25 pounds overweight. "When Vin got out of shape last year, he started taking shortcuts," Seattle coach Paul Westphal says. "He saved steps. He didn't have the same quickness, so he started pushing more."
As the criticism mounted, so did Baker's resolve to make it go away. He pressed, which led to foul trouble, which led to more frustration. He still needs to trim a few pounds off his 6'11" frame. Sonics point guard Gary Payton has chastised him publicly this season for letting down the team, which at week's end had tumbled to the eighth position in the Western Conference.
"Gary is one of my best friends," Baker says. "He says some tough things sometimes, but they're usually accurate. So you take it one of two ways. You say, 'This is ridiculous. I want out of here; there's no camaraderie.' Or you say, 'I'm going to fight through this.' I plan to stay and fight, and believe me, so does Gary. I've never heard him say anything in passing—or even in joking—about getting out of here."
Three weeks ago, just after Payton and Vernon Maxwell had their well-publicized locker room tussle, which led to rumors that Payton would ask for a trade, Westphal warned that if some players did not improve on defense there would be "major changes" in the lineup. Westphal mentioned no names, but it was obvious whom he was talking about. "When Coach said that, I didn't look around the locker room," says Baker. "I looked at myself."
Since then, reports Westphal, Baker has been extremely active on D, blocking shots and worrying more about his opponents' point total than about his own. "Like I told Vin," Westphal says, "it's not too late to fix this."
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