Considering the talented McKey's tendency to disappear at times on the court, the deal seemed like a godsend for the Sonics, but there was a surprising amount of agonizing over it by club officials. Even Karl, whose intense personality often conflicted with McKey's laid-back style, admits he didn't sleep well the night the trade was made, contemplating the loss of McKey's defensive abilities. McKey, a Sonic first-round draft choice in 1987, was one of the most popular Sonics and a co-captain along with guard Nate McMillan. It's noteworthy that while the rest of the league marvels over Seattle's shrewdness in adding Schrempf and Gill to a team that came within a game of reaching the NBA Finals, some of the Sonics express mixed emotions. "I don't really understand why a team that nearly makes the Finals has to make two major trades," says Kemp. "I'm glad to have Detlef here, but a lot of my heart is still with Derrick." Can nothing make this team happy?
Fortunately for Schrempf, he didn't need a welcoming committee to make him feel at home in Seattle. Born in Germany, he came to the U.S. to attend high school in Centralia, Wash., about 70 miles from Seattle, and he later played for the University of Washington, in Seattle. A onetime gym rat who has since discovered other pleasures—including water-skiing on Seattle's Lake Washington—Schrempf moved back into the house he owns on the lake after the trade, all of which indicates that the Sonics have a good chance of signing him to a new contract. If, that is, he can get used to the Sonics' frenetic style of play and their kinetic personality. "This team doesn't hold anything in," he says, smiling. "But I have no problem with that—I'm pretty emotional myself. Maybe sometimes people on this team say things they might regret later, but it's only because they're so committed to winning a title. After years in Indiana, that's something I'm glad to see."
Schrempf hasn't yet begun to pay his greatest dividends for the Sonics, especially on the backboards (he's averaging 4.3 boards per game, 2.2 below his career average) and on defense, but he has shown the smooth offensive game that Seattle expected. His passing skills (3.2 career assists per game) and his ability to post up should be especially helpful to the Sonics, whose half-court game has been a weak spot in the recent past. But Seattle more than makes up for that shortcoming with its greatest strength—defense. Without a traditional, shot-blocking center, the Sonics, a swarming, sticky-fingered lot, compensate with a succession of traps all over the court, reflecting a strategy that Karl refers to as "pressure and disruption." They were disruptive enough last season to lead the NBA in steals (11.5 per game) and forced turnovers (18.5), and in the 20 years since the league began recording steals, they were only the sixth team to have five players (Payton, McMillan, Kemp, McKey and Pierce) with at least 100. Through Sunday, Seattle again led the league in steals (12.2 per game) and forced turnovers (20.8).
The Sonics are so consumed by defense that Payton has instituted a gesture he calls the Glove, in which a Sonic clasps his hand around his wrist in a sort of sign language that says, "Let's get a steal."
"It's just a motivational thing to get us to concentrate even more on defense," says McMillan, who lost a friendly competition with Payton last year over their individual steal totals. Payton finished with 177 thefts; McMillan had 173.
The Sonics spread the wealth just as generously on offense; in each of their 10 wins, at least five starters scored in double figures. The addition of two exceedingly unselfish players—Perkins, who came over in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers with 32 games remaining last season, and Schrempf—has helped ensure that there are few hard feelings about the distribution of shots. "There were times last year when if you came down the court two or three times and somebody didn't get to touch the ball, he got upset and you heard about it," says McMillan.
But the Sonics' balance has had its drawbacks. For Sonic opponents the bad news is that it's impossible to discern whom Seattle, which doesn't have a true go-to guy, will turn to in the clutch; the good news is that the Sonics often don't seem to know either. That's a flaw they will have to eliminate if they are to turn their fast start into a title. "I don't know how that will work itself out," says Karl. "Our go-to guy could be Shawn, it could be Detlef, it could be Ricky, one of the best shooters in the league with the clock running down. We could do it by committee, which is the way we do a lot of things."
That's the Sonic way, of course, and however unorthodox, it works more often than not. Karl and his bosses think they have built a championship-caliber team, and although they are giving themselves a two- or three-year window, it's clear that they believe this could be the Sonics' championship season. Others, like McMillan, are more cautious. "I don't know why everyone thinks this is going to be our year," he says. "I still think it's going to take a few years until we're at our best." It's a point the Sonics would be happy to argue about well into the playoffs.