Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Cloud of uncertainty over Seattle
By Chad Ford
Sometimes, winning isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
At the start of the season, the Seattle SuperSonics
looked a few months away from condemnation and demolition.
A quiet summer had seemingly failed to produce the type of offseason acquisitions the team needed to move out of the quagmire that the franchise had been wallowing in since Gary Payton
left town in February 2003.
With more than half the team heading to free agency in 2005, coach Nate McMillan in the last year of his contract and GM Rick Sund sending out résumés, the future in Seattle actually seemed pretty clear – destroy and then rebuild.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Sonics' forced extreme makeover – they turned out to be better than anyone, even the Sonics themselves could have ever imagined.
The Sonics are 27-9 and are in line for a third seed in the playoffs. They've routed the Spurs and are beating their opponents by a margin of five points per game. Only four teams in the NBA are better. They are scoring 100 points a game and lead the league in three-point shooting.
While no one is claiming that the Sonics have the inside track to win it all, most of the early-season haters have no choice but to shut up. The Sonics are more than a fluke, and therein lies the problem.
The success of the team has put the front office in Seattle in a bit of pickle. Does management spend a fortune to keep this team together, or does it stick with the original plan, trade off the team's assets now that their value has never been higher and rebuild in the summer? The answer isn't as obvious as you might think and the indecision is becoming a growing distraction in Seattle.
Much has been made about Ray Allen
's impending free agency, but he's far from the only one. Only seven Sonics players are under contract for next season and one of them, Antonio Daniels
, has an opt-out clause that he plans to exercise.
Of the six remaining Sonics under contract, only three significant contributors, Rashard Lewis
, Luke Ridnour
and Danny Fortson
are under contract next season.
If the Sonics were to let all their free agents go, they would be roughly $18 million under the cap this coming summer.
Allen's situation is getting the most ink because his situation is really a metaphor for what's going on in Seattle right now. If the Sonics are willing to sign him to a big extension, the chances are they're bringing almost everyone back. If they let Allen leave, the demolition likely will take place as scheduled.
Allen is the best player on the team and he's paid like it – earning $14.6 million this season. To stay in Seattle, Allen doesn't want to take a big pay cut. He's demanding a contract worth roughly $100 million. Those aren't max numbers, but they're close. While Allen might be worth that in his prime, the Sonics are understandably worried about the long-term consequences of signing Allen to a huge deal.
Allen turns 30 on July 20. Typically, that's the milestone when athletic two guards like Allen begin to decline in productivity. By the time he's 32 or 33, there's a chance his game will start to slide the way Eddie Jones
, Latrell Sprewell
, Allan Houston
and a host of other formerly top-flight guards have slipped.
The other problem with paying Allen is that if they sign him to what he wants, most of their cap money disappears, leaving the team unable to address a huge need at the center position.
The word out of Seattle right now is that the team is trying to ink him to an extension that pays him significantly less than what he's asking for. According to Allen, there's been little movement from either side since negotiations began this fall. Allen's new agent, Lon Babby, has flown to Seattle several times during the season and plans to do so again. But so far, no agreement.
Seattle's inability to get something figured out with Allen has put the franchise in limbo. Several GMs who have talked trade with Sund over the past few weeks told Insider that Sund has been admitting as much on the phone. The team hasn't been willing to really talk trade until it figures out what to do with Allen. Until they know whether they're going to sign him, it's tough to know which other assets you can trade.
GM Sund has some tough decisions to make.
If Allen was the only issue, things would be more clear cut. While he may be the biggest player in all of this, he's not the only important one.
hits restricted free agency this summer. His agent, David Bauman, sent a huge near-max contract extension request to the team this summer. Bauman's strategy was to scare the Sonics into trading Radmanovic before the season started. There's no question that Radmanovic had been unhappy with his role in Seattle. Often he was forced to play out of position at the four or he was left backing up Lewis at the three.
While Radmanovic's requests were laughable in the fall, lately he's been a big key to the Sonics' success. He's averaging 17.2 ppg and 6.4 rpg in his last five and shooting 50 percent from the field and 48 percent from beyond the three-point arc. He stepped into the starting lineup for an injured Lewis on Sunday and scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. He wants to be a starter and believes he'll earn starter money with another team on the free agent market next year.
The Sonics hold his restricted rights, meaning they can match any offer for Radmanovic next summer, but they might not be able to afford to – especially if they sign Allen to a big deal.
Daniels is another key player in the Sonics success that will be looking for a job elsewhere next summer. He currently makes just $2.2 million this season and plans to opt out of his contract. He should, at the very least, be able to double his salary up the $4.9 million mid-level exception.
He's been great in a reserve role for the Sonics, averaging 14.2 ppg, 6.6 apg and 4 rpg while shooting 48 percent from the field in his last five. More importantly, Daniels ranks first in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. He averages one turnover for every 4.5 assists. He's also considered a top-notch perimeter defender and will have a number of suitors this summer. He'd get even more money if he was younger. But Daniels turns 30 in March.
Starting power forward Reggie Evans
also will test the free-agent waters this summer. Evans ranks second in the league in rebounds per minute with a whopping 17.4 rebounds per 48 minutes played. Right now, he splits power forward duties with Fortson and Nick Collison
. He makes the league minimum right now and will be looking to cash in after turning in the best season of his career.
Little-used backup Ronald Murray
also will get interest. A number of teams have called the Sonics over the past few months trying to pry him away. He's not getting much playing time right now, but teams are still intrigued by his breakout performance in the first half of last season. The Sonics have been reluctant to move him until they figure out what's going to happen to Allen. Murray is a restricted free agent this summer, but depending on what happens with the players mentioned above, they might not be able to afford to match an offer.
James, Allen and Daniels are free to leave the Sonics after this season.
The Sonics also stand to lose starting center Jerome James
. James has been a major disappointment in Seattle the past three season and will likely be let go. However, backup center Vitaly Potapenko
, an even bigger disappointment, also becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer and is looking to get out. That leaves the Sonics with just one center, high school senior Robert Swift
, on their roster.
With so many free agents looking to get out or for pay raises, the Sonics are in a major quandary. The success the team has enjoyed this season has only complicated things. Every one of the soon-to-be free agents is expecting to translate the Sonics' success into more dollars. That extends to their coach as well. McMillan is a big part of their success in Seattle, but the team's decision to not extend him last summer didn't sit well. He has enormous leverage going into the summer. It's going to cost them a lot to keep him.
Unfortunately for Sonics owner Howard Schultz, the Sonics' success on the court has not translated to financial success for the team. Schultz has been complaining since he took over the team that the lease arrangement with Key Arena has put the team at a competitive disadvantage – meaning that he has to keep a low payroll to keep the team from hemorrhaging cash.
That's the reason that rumors are still running rampant that Schultz would like to sell the Sonics. He's finding it difficult to find a way to keep a winning team on the floor without incurring massive financial losses.
The success of the team hasn't really caught on in Seattle, either. After experiencing unprecedented support during the Payton-Shawn Kemp
era of the 1990s, the Sonics currently rank 20th in the league in home attendance, averaging 16,130 fans a game.
Even if Schultz and Sund wanted everyone back, it's unlikely that they could afford to do it.
The plan this summer – to either trade Allen and Radmanovic or let them leave, bring in a young free agent or two in the summer and watch the team's young nucleus of Lewis, Ridnour, Murray, Collison and Swift take over – wasn't a bad one.
But winning has changed everything. Once fans get a taste of it, they don't want to take two steps back. For now, Sonics players and fans have no choice but to wait while the team makes some tough decisions about the team's future.
"When you win, you just keep doing what you're doing," Allen said. "Try to stay in the moment. We don't have to worry about the coaching change. We don't have to worry about a trade. We don't have to worry about anything except keep playing basketball."
No, that's Schultz's and Sund's job. But it sure is leading to some sleepless nights in Seattle.
Around the League
<LI>The hot rumor last weekend had the Nuggets
in serious talks with Bucks
on a Nene
swap. It's no secret that the Nuggets like Redd and the Bucks are nervous that he might bolt when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
However, sources with both teams told Insider that there haven't been any talks lately. While the Nuggets like Redd and the Bucks like Nene, the risks on both sides may be too great for anything to ever happen.
On the Nuggets' end, there are two major concerns. One, if they give up Nene, the team becomes very thin on the front line. Marcus Camby
and Kenyon Martin
are great, but after that the Nuggets have little depth. Given Camby's injury history and age, trading Nene for a two guard is a pretty big gamble.
The other concern is that there's no guarantee that Redd would re-sign with the Nuggets in the summer. While the Nuggets will be able to offer him the max, Redd has his eye on Cleveland and might bolt anyway to play with LeBron James
On the Bucks' end, the risk is smaller. The team is holding out hope that Redd, who is saying all the right things right now, will return this summer. He's the most important piece of the team right now and it would be tough to give him up for a young player who still has more upside than anything else.
The team also knows that they may be able to get more for Redd closer to the deadline than the offers they're getting right now.
<LI>Several GMs around the league are keeping a close eye on the Carlos Arroyo
situation with the n Jazz
. According to several league executives who have inquired about his availability, Arroyo is definitely on the trading block.
Arroyo (left) might be the most talented Jazz guard, but he's got to stay on Sloan's good side.
The fallout between Arroyo and Sloan has disintegrated to the point that Jazz GM Kevin O'Connor feels like he has to make a move. Arroyo has gotten a DNP in the last four Jazz games.
What a difference a few months make. In camp, Sloan couldn't stop raving about how much Arroyo had improved.
"Carlos looks very good," Sloan told Insider in October. "He's much better than he was a year ago. He's in better shape. He's more confident. It's always fun to watch that with players.
"Some guys try to take the short route and they get out of shape so they can't play very well. That's my biggest concern with some of the guys in this camp. He came ready to compete and I think he's capable of having a big year."
However an injury in the preseason, combined with a breakout performance by Keith McLeod
. have caused problems for Arroyo. The team seems to play with more energy when McLeod is in the game.
Combine that with what Sloan believes is Arroyo's questionable work ethic and attitude since his return, and it looks like the two are heading for divorce court.
Arroyo has gained a solid rep throughout the league with his play last season and in the Olympics and a number of teams seeking a true point guard are going to be interested. Both the Rockets
have made calls, but all they're able to offer right now is an expiring contract.
While the Jazz might eventually accept cap relief for Arroyo, right now they're hoping to land a quality player in return instead. The Hawks
have the assets to make a trade and would be great fits for Arroyo.