Team Preview: Seattle SuperSonics
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
In one bold draft day stroke, General Manager Sam Presti penned the introduction to a new chapter in Sonics history. With NCAA Player of the Year Kevin Durant already in hand thanks to a lucky ping-pong bounce that awarded the Sonics the second pick in June's draft, Presti faced the decision of adding more pieces to an inherited puzzle that finished 31-51 last year or wiping the laborious and seemingly unsolvable puzzle off the table and rebuilding. Presti, his image groomed in the Spurs front office before he was hired in June by new owner Clay Bennett, went with the latter (though he'll likely never call it simply "rebuilding," but rather the more fan-friendly, "laying the foundation for future success").
In the Sonics' final year in Seattle, expect plenty of foundation to be laid, which is likely to be the NBA equivalent of watching sausage get made. New coach P.J. Carlesimo (note the Spurs theme) will attempt to get a roster of the inexperienced (Durant and Green) and the semi-talented (everyone else) to his play his defensive-oriented game not a skill that this team has shown any deftness for the last few years.
Luke Ridnour and Earl Watson get one more year to fight over point guard duties, if Delonte West doesn't take it from both, before Presti drafts a long-term solution in 2008. Robert Swift, who missed all of 2006-07 with a knee injury, will man the middle and likely be dominated by every big man in the league not named Jerome James, even though Swift's said to have added 30 to 40 pounds to his 7-foot frame. And Chris Wilcox and Nick Collison will wonder where their frontcourt minutes will come from as the Sonics have no reason not to play Durant and Green at least 30 minutes a game. Depending on Durant's development, Wally Szczerbiak, who was also acquired in the Allen trade, could shoulder much of the scoring as he's one of the few players with any offensive game.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
The Sonics have a versatile roster and as such playing time and positions are likely to be fluid. Bank on Kevin Durant seeing the bench only sparingly, whether he plays shooting guard, small forward or power forward. Swingman Jeff Green also will see good minutes, even if he doesn't start from the outset. Green's defensive acumen could give him an advantage over the competition, though.
That's about all that is guaranteed. In the backcourt, Luke Ridnour, Earl Watson and Delonte West will share the point guard job. West can shift to shooting guard, if needed, as can small forward Wally Szczerbiak, the team's best shooter and one of its few veterans.
In the frontcourt, if Robert Swift proves himself healthy after missing last season with a knee injury, he'll get the first shot at center. Kurt Thomas will relieve him, with Chris Wilcox, Nick Collison and Thomas sharing time at power forward.
* Nick Collison SEA [C]: Collison returns to do the dirty work under the basket. He averaged 9.6 points and 8.1 rebounds last year, starting 56 games, often giving up considerable size at center. Still, he can hold his own underneath and has a nice mid-range jumper. Collison likely will see less minutes this season than the 29 he averaged last year as the Sonics suddenly have a crowded frontcourt.
Johan Petro SEA [C]: Petro was in and out of the starting lineup last season, averaging 6.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. He'll back up Robert Swift at center and likely see about 10-12 minutes a game, down a bit from the 18 minutes a game he logged last year. Petro runs the floor well and can block shots, but his inexperience shows nightly.
Mouhamed Sene SEA [C]: Sene went from starting to the NBA Developmental League last season, which pretty much sums up his package -- talented but raw. Hopefully, he'll learn a trick or two from veteran Kurt Thomas this season. Beyond that, don't expect much, and except the D-League to call his name again.
* Kevin Durant SEA [SG,SF]: Expectations could not be any higher for Durant, whose dominating collegiate season at Texas made him the second pick in June's draft. Durant's well-rounded game allows him to play just about anywhere on the court. He can hit the fade-away jumper and has good enough range to drill threes; he can play in the low post and can defend the perimeter; he can run the floor or take his man off the dribble. Durant will see time at shooting guard, small forward and power forward as the Sonics mix and match to suit his game. One thing is certain, the offense will run through Durant he'll have the opportunity to score 20 points a night. The only thing that could hold him back is his strength. (He famously couldn't bench press 185 pounds.) Once he adds some muscle, look out.
* Chris Wilcox SEA [PF]: Wilcox proved last season that his breakout year in 2005-06 wasn't a contract year fluke, but he still struggled with inconsistency. At his best, Wilcox jumps out of the gym and finishes the fast break like few others. But while he averaged a decent 13.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game, he's capable of much more. He got lost in the offense at times last season, and his interior defense came and went. This season's roster shake-up affords Wilcox the opportunity to put his stamp on the Seattle's offense early. The offense will run through Kevin Durant, but Wilcox will have plenty of scoring opportunities in the front court; he just needs to bring the consistent low-post game that is expected from his tremendous athleticism.
Jeff Green SEA [SF]: Green's stock rose during draft season as he was seen as perhaps the class's most well-rounded rookie: he can pass, shoot, defend and run the court. At 6-9, Green is big enough to hold his own at small forward, but he's still quick enough to defend guards on the perimeter. Green will play a versatile role with the Sonics he'll come off the bench, start, play small forward and play shooting guard but his scoring opportunities could be inconsistent. One thing is certain, though, Green and fellow rookie Kevin Durant are the franchise's future, and they'll both get plenty of minutes together to bond and learn the NBA game.
Kurt Thomas SEA [PF,C]: Thomas brings some veteran savvy to the Sonics this season and likely will see time at both power forward and center. The Sonics have needed a quality big man for years, and though Thomas is just 6-9, 225, he'll provide some much-needed muscle and defense inside. The Sonics likely will limit his minutes to keep him fresh as he enters his 13th year in the league.
Mickael Gelabale SEA [SF,PF]: Gelabale has good upside, but the team's offseason moves pushed him farther down the depth chart. Gelabale plays good defense, which could win bonus points from new coach P.J. Carlesimo, but he doesn't have much of an offensive game.
* Luke Ridnour SEA [PG]: Ridnour began the year as the starting point guard but finished it coming off the bench. He is a good passer, but his outside shot is lacking (35 percent from three-point range), and he plays defense like he's allergic to it. He'll compete in camp with Earl Watson and Delonte West for the starting job. Don't be surprised if he is traded at some point.
* Wally Szczerbiak SEA [SF]: Szczerbiak's season ended last year with ankle surgery. He comes to the Sonics this season as one of the few players with an established offensive game. As such, Szczerbiak might end up shouldering much of the offensive load, at least in the beginning. His long-range shooting (40.4 percent) will have to replace that of Ray Allen, for whom Szczerbiak was traded. Szczerbiak will also play small forward, depending on where the Sonics play Kevin Durant, and likely will start and come off the bench during the course of the year. He should see good minutes, but he's not part of the team's future, and he won't be on the roster after his two years and $25 million come off the books. Therefore, the Sonics won't likely please him with minutes and looks at the expense of their crop of youngsters.
Earl Watson SEA [PG]: Watson's season ended four games prematurely last season with an ankle injury after he took the starting point guard job from Luke Ridnour late last year. Watson, Ridnour and newcomer Delonte West will compete for the job this season, and Watson could have an advantage with his defensive skills. Watson averaged 9.4 points, 5.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.1 turnovers last season.
Damien Wilkins SEA [SG]: Wilkins showed promise in the past, but when he got the chance to start last season for the injured Ray Allen, he didn't live up to expectations. A good defender, Wilkins averaged just 8.8 points per game last season in nearly 25 minutes per game. He'll come off the bench for the Sonics this season and can play shooting guard or small forward.