Wed., Oct. 31 on ESPN:
Sonics at Nuggets, 10:30 p.m. ET
The first ever recipient of the John Wooden Award (player of the year) and a member of Wooden's last championship team at UCLA in 1975, Marques Johnson was the third overall pick in the 1977 NBA Draft, selected by the Milwaukee Bucks. He enjoyed an illustrious 10-year NBA career, playing in five NBA All-Star Games. After retiring from the NBA, Johnson has been active as a broadcaster, and as an actor. A lead analyst for FoxSports Network since 1999, Marques Johnson is the current lead basketball analyst for FSN and game analyst for FSN’s Pac-10 men’s national basketball action. Johnson will join the network for 10 key Western Conference games this season.
Ten Things the Sonics Need to Have Happen for a Cinderella-Type Season
Early Season Schedule (We shall overcome?)
The early part of the Sonic schedule is very tough, including the opener in Denver, the home opener vs. Phoenix, a three-game homestand vs. Memphis, Utah and Detroit, a five-game road trip to Orlando, Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte and Memphis and then returning home to play New Jersey and San Antonio. If things don’t go well, they could easily start with a very poor record, and for a team with a lot of youth and a new coaching staff and new direction, that could be psychologically too damaging to overcome. They’ve got to play close to .500 basketball over the first two weeks.
First Things First
In preseason, the Sonics have given up close to 110 points per game (109.6), which would be the worst in the league if it held true to form based on last season’s stats. In terms of giving up points, obviously they’ve got to do a better job. The Paul Westhead fast break system that they’re trying to implement is excellent and a lot of fun for the players. But it needs to be taken in small doses, especially since the Sonics will be playing against some good transition teams early. They don’t want to get run off the floor. So Westhead’s system needs to be piece mealed right now.
Have Ball, Will Shoot
Kevin Durant is shooting .396 overall .407 from the three-point line, which tells me that he is having trouble identifying where the open shots are for him, especially when he puts the ball on the floor. In watching him play, when he puts the ball on the floor he’s kind of forcing things. He’s not used to getting bumped, banged in the paint, or having to finish where the play is a lot more physical as compared to how it was in college. That to me is a question of him getting acclimated to the physicality of the pro game offensively.
That will in turn allow him to be a much more efficient scorer when he puts it on the floor. He can average 20 a game, which he will do in my opinion, but if he averages 20 a game and shoots below 40 % from the field overall, it becomes more of a detriment to this team than a plus. All of a sudden you have veterans who are griping because he becomes a quantity shooter as opposed to a quality shooter. It’s fine for a rookie to lead you in scoring as long as he is taking good shots, but if he is just casting up shots right and left without any regard for what is a good shot and what’s not a good shot, then that can create some dissension from the older guys on the team.
OK is not OK
It’s so easy to say that you just have to worry as a team what you do on the floor, but now you’re in a city where you’re perceived by some to be kind of a lame duck franchise. There is some question as to whether or not you’re going to even be there next year or the year after that and that has a way of filtering down to the players if you’re not careful as an organization. So the organization, the coaching staff, they have to do what they can to continue to form a bridge between the team and the community. Whatever they can do, some community oriented functions, personal appearances, showing up at schools, they’ve got to do whatever they can to keep the community supporting this team. If the community turns on this team, the players, especially a young team, will be affected.
Wanted: A Little General
John Madden said it best: “If you’ve got two starting quarterbacks, then you haven’t got any.” You’ve got to figure out who your main guy is at the point guard spot and that is going to be hard because you have two guys from last year who battled it out – Earl Watson and Luke Ridnour. Earl is a much better defensive player. Luke probably takes care of the basketball and distributes the ball a little more effectively than Earl. Then you throw in Delonte West on top of that who can play both the guard positions. Last year in Boston he averaged 12 points per game and so far in the two exhibition games he played for the Sonics he was averaging 18 points per game with a great assist to turnover ratio.
Now you’ve got to decide among three players who the main guy is going to be. Who is going to be the extension of the coach on the floor and play the bulk of the minutes at the point guard spot because I don’t think it is really going to work out trying to somehow dole out the minutes equally to three different guys at this position. You’ve got to get your starter, your backup and then you’ve got your insurance guy in case somebody gets injured. That is something that the coaching staff is going to have to identify quickly.
And in the middle…
There was a lot of talk about center by committee among Robert Swift, who I call “The Bakersfield Biker” because of all the tattoos he has (over 80) and who is coming back after missing a year due to injury, Johan Petro and Mouhamed Sene. All three guys are young and haven’t had a lot of on court NBA experience, so now what do you do? You’ve got to try to solidify that position. There was talk going into training camp that P.J. did not want to play Nick Collison a lot at the five spot because he would be overmatched by some of the taller and more physical centers, but you might have to play him there. He played well at the five during the latter part of last season and he’s played well there during the exhibition season. Sene has been impressive with the 15 rebound game against Indiana. Swift has been impressive at times.
But you probably have to look to play Collison and Chris Wilcox together. Right now they’re in a battle to see who will be the starting four. I think if these are your two best bigs right now, you have to put them on the floor together and then use these other guys as subs depending on the size of the opposing center. To me you have to go with Nick Collison because he has proven himself to be one of the most efficient and effective rebounders per minute in the league.
Emulation. Imitation. Defense-ation.
Both new head coach P.J. Carlesimo and General Manager Sam Presti have migrated from the Spurs, in the process bringing the San Antonio mentality to Seattle. The thing that makes the Spurs the Spurs, though, is their defense. If you are going to emulate the Spurs, you’ve got to emulate the Spurs and their defensive mentality. If we see that, if we see that defensive personality emerge from this team, then they have a chance to be successful right off the bat. They’re not going to win games by trying to outscore people early on. They’re going to win games by playing great defense. That’s the Spur emulation that you want to have, how they play some of the best help team defense that I’ve seen in years. They don’t have great athletes and Bruce Bowen is as old as I am, but they’re effective because they help each other out. Their team defensive principles are the best in the league.
Kevin Durant already has been battling a sprained ankle. Wally Szczerbiak had his issues last year with Boston. Robert Swift missed most of last year because of a knee injury. Delonte West has missed a lot of games during training camp. It’s an obvious one, but this is a team that can ill afford to have a key guy go down for an extended period of time.
The Gomer Pyle Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!
This team is going to need a surprise guy to step up and play well. It could be Damien Wikins. He has improved his outside shot, he’s got great basketball bloodlines with his uncle Dominique and his father Gerald, and I’ve watched him in practice knock down three pointers like they’re layups. However, when you have Wally Szczerbiak and some other guys who can knock down the three point shot, you don’t want him to forget about what he does best, which is playing D and attacking the basket. I think he can really be a guy who comes on this year and averages mid double figures and surprises people.
Jeff Not So Green
We all talk about Kevin Durant, but watching Jeff Green at Georgetown last year, he was one of the most complete players in college basketball. You have one rookie that is going to play 35 minutes a game. Do you really want to have two in your rotation playing a lot of minutes? Conventional wisdom says not really, but with Jeff Green, he’s different. Jeff Green is a guy, having played for John Thompson III, he will figure out a way to help your team win. To me, Jeff Green is a real big key – finding minutes for him, involving him in the rotation. He’s not going to have a lot of pressure on him to score, but with his defense and the way he plays he can really help you.
Hack Murdoch Award
When I played, this was in reference to a player who fouled out a lot. This team is fouling an average of 27 times per game, which would lead the league based on stats from last year. Teams are outshooting them from the line by five more free throws per game. They’ve got to put the hatchets away and play defense with their feet and stop fouling so much. If you look at their defensive field goal percentage, it’s at 44%, which is decent. But the reason they’re having trouble winning games in preseason is because they’re sending teams to the line way too much. They’ve got to do a better job of playing smart defensive basketball and stop hacking.