- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
George Karl stands uncertainly over his Seattle SuperSonics, back scratcher in one hand, whip in the other. The coach can't decide which is the more appropriate tool to apply to his team. Win 10 straight games, as the Sonics did a few weeks ago? Wield the back scratcher. Lose to the Dallas Mavericks at home, as they did on April 6? Seize the whip! Own the fourth-best record (50-25) in the NBA? A little to the left. Perform like the league's biggest waste of talent? Fifty lashes!
"Sometimes we don't know what we are ourselves," says point guard Gary Payton. Another opinion, from backup guard Dana Barros: "Sometimes we play like we're in a fog." Still another, from reserve forward Eddie Johnson: "We can either go all the way or be a first-round flameout." Nothing like having a clear identity with the playoffs looming. The Sonics: Team Mystery, Team Fog.
Seattle is also the only good team in recent memory that with the postseason imminent, is fiddling not only with its substitution rotation but also with its starting lineup. At this time of year, teams in the picture as championship contenders (and the Sonics are most assuredly there, albeit tucked in a corner of the frame) are usually seeking stability. But Karl seems to be after something else. Creative tension, perhaps? How else to explain the coach's recent decision to bench All-Star forward-center Shawn Kemp and frontcourt mate Derrick McKey, the two most-talented players on a talent-laden team?
"The key to our team is intensity," Karl said last Friday after a 111-97 victory over the Sacramento Kings, the first game in which Kemp and McKey watched the opening tip from the pine. "Nothing else matters. Starting lineups, rotations, things like that, just aren't as important to us." Karl flashed his bad-boy grin. "Hey, we're just not like other teams." Certainly the Sonics are not like the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks, who have been consistently dominant of late. The Sonics, in fact, haven't been a truly dominant team since a five-game winning streak ended on March 23—witness their loss to Dallas and a 98-96 defeat at the hands of the reeling Los Angeles Lakers in L.A. on Sunday.
Still, Karl's point is valid. The Sonics aren't like most teams. They're better defensively than most teams (through Sunday they had held opponents to a .469 field goal percentage, 10th overall), deeper than most teams (nine players average more than 21 minutes per game), younger and more athletic. That is why, with all the question marks that surround their charge-of-the-cavalry aggregation, they have to be considered a major postseason threat. On the other hand, in comparison with most of the other contenders, the Sonics have some major holes. They lack a leader, an effective half-court offense, a go-to guy, championship-level experience and an ability to focus at all times on the task at hand. And just how does that last flaw manifest itself? "Well, sometimes we come out of a timeout huddle," explains Payton, "and two guys run one play and three guys run another."
The tendency to find fault with the enigmatic Sonics, however, belies the indisputable fact that they've come a long way since Karl took over for the fired K.C. Jones 40 games into last season. Is there anyone out there who thought Seattle, a second-round loser in last season's playoffs, would be any better than the league's fourth-best team? Hardly.
No Sonic has come further than Payton, who (in this, his third season) has all but erased the doubts of those NBA observers who once rated him all brash and no brains. Payton's execution in the Sonics' half-court offense is improving—his assists-to-turnovers ratio is respectable, almost 3 to 1—and his defensive intensity is a big reason that the Sonics, like the emerging Chicago Bulls of two years ago, can be far more aggressive in their full-court and half-court traps than any other team in the league.
Still, Payton runs afoul of Karl once in a while, which is part of his charm. Early during a March 18 game against the Kings, Payton spotted Kemp, perhaps the game's most dynamic dunker, on the wing during a fast break and threw him an alley-oop pass—off the backboard. Kemp missed the slam, and Karl went ballistic. To this day Payton wonders what all the fuss was about. He and Kemp had long been talking about attempting such a play, and Kemp had called for the backboard pass; the Sonics were comfortably ahead (they eventually won 131-111); and, hey, as Payton says, "Coach has to realize this is the '90s." Well, maybe ol' George is caught in a time warp, but both Payton and Kemp began the second half against the Kings on the bench.
Notwithstanding occasional friction with his players, Karl has gotten the maximum out of his veterans—Michael Cage (in his ninth season), Johnson (12th), Nate McMillan (seventh) and Ricky Pierce (11th)—who have exactly zero championship rings to show for all of their experience. The 6'5" McMillan began his career as an oversized point guard, but now he's used mainly as an undersized small forward. He can defend four positions and supply competent offense. And he can also provide an element of outrage that, too often on the Sonics, emanates only from Karl. After the embarrassing loss to the Mavs (which came two days before the rap video Not in Our House, featuring several Sonics, hit the local airwaves), it was McMillan's voice that carried through the locker-room door and into the hallways of the Coliseum—and he was most assuredly not calling his teammates a real swell bunch of guys. McMillan was still furious two days later. "To come out with that kind of effort when we're a team that's supposed to be a contender was just, just, sickening," he said.
Cage's always minuscule shooting range has dwindled to about three feet, but his lunch-bucket rebounding (8.1 per game) and interior defense are still solid. Pierce's scoring average (18.1 points per game) is his lowest in four seasons, but Karl would love to transplant his give-me-the-ball mentality and know-how into McKey and Kemp. And there is Johnson, at age 33 still one of the league's better purveyors of instant offense (14.2 points per game in just 22.5 minutes).