In the first installment of this series, I asked if Bob Weiss could get a roster of non-defensive players to start playing defense. In this second installment, let's focus instead upon the Sonics offense and the engine that powers it. I'm not talking about the 3-point shooting of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, though their efficient scoring last year was clearly a key to the team's success. No, for this installment I'm going to focus on the one player the Sonics have tied their fortunes to this year, and upon whose shoulders they will rise or fall.
II. Will Luke Ridnour continue to improve his game?
The Sonics roster and strategy for 2005-06 is clearly built around one player -- Luke Ridnour. Sonic management obviously has enough confidence in him to let Antonio Daniels go. This year's Sonics team will go as far as Luke can take them. If Luke stumbles or is injured, the responsibility of running the team's offense lies in the hands of Flip Murray, Rick Brunson and Mateen Cleaves -- all of whom have some ballhandling skill, but none are players a fan would want starting at point for more than a few games. Murray is best suited as a Ricky Pierce-style gunner off the bench, Brunson is a capable yet unspectacular journeyman backup, and Cleaves is basically the NBA equivalent of an emergency catcher.
Ridnour showed great promise in his sophomore season, more than doubling his minutes played while posting an impressive assist to turnover ratio of 3.2 to 1. Luke also shot 38% from behind the arc and averaged about a steal a game. On the whole he was still a below-league average shooter (His 40.4 FG% was still better than Kirk Hinrich's) and questions remained about his ability to play man defense at his position, but at 24 he is still one of the more promising young point guards in the NBA.
So what's the next step for Luke Ridnour?
I'd like to see Luke improve his shooting efficiency. I thought his shot selection improved as the year went on. Given this team's roster, the Sonics don't need Luke to score more points. They need him to hit his jumper when teams sag off him to concentrate on Ray Allen. Luke was fairly effective at making teams pay for doubling off him last year, but he can improve in this area.
Luke might also benefit from a change in the starting lineup. For a great deal of his floor time last year he was saddled with two players who were complete non-threats to score in Reggie Evans and Jerome James. That Luke actually made Jerome James look good when the big man ran the floor is testament to Ridnour's skill at delivering the pass so his teammate could finish at the hole with authority, instead of weakly laying the ball in and possibly sending him to the line. If a more effective scorer such as Nick Collison is inserted into the starting lineup I think it would benefit Ridnour's game tremendously, and by extension the other players on the floor, while also helping their defensive rotations.
The biggest hurdle in Luke's development remains his defense. He is slightly undersized for his position and had trouble guarding many of the taller, more athletic backcourt players. Luke does a good job at staying in front of his man and funneling him towards the help defense. He also has very quick hands which garnered him a lot of steals when the Sonics chose to trap around midcourt. Nate began the season with Ridnour picking up the ball full court or 3/4 court, which was an interesting experiment, but ultimately it probably wore him down more quickly than guarding the ball in a halfcourt or quarter court set. It isn't clear yet if Weiss will pressure the ball at midcourt as much as Nate did, so Luke's steal numbers may go down. And it is possible for some of the taller players to simply shoot over Luke.
Weiss has indicated that this year the team intends to junk the trap D and play more man defense with help. I'm ecstatic they've finally gotten past the trapping. I'm just not sure the new concept I'm hearing about is the best system for a player like Ridnour. Ideally one of the backcourt players should to be able to stop dribble penetration without help. Because of the lack of a shotblocking threat, both Ray and Luke have to be very conservative about how they play defense and keep their man in front of them. Luke's skill at playing solid man and help D both on and off the ball will be one of the biggest keys to a successful season.