For a professional sports team in any league, there is perhaps no greater crime than to lack an identity. Some teams are tough and physical, others cocky and confident, still others dominated by a strong offensive or defensive philosophy which dictates how players will play the game at all times. The difficult task of building a team identity and winning mentality without an individual leader haunts general managers across the NBA and results in many a franchise lingering at the bottom of the standings despite an abundance of physical talent.
Where a team draws its identity from is an inexact science. For years, Laker, Knick, and Miami great Pat Riley was able to stamp his personal style upon any player who entered his system. In recent years the Pistons as a group embraced the defensive nastiness of Larry Brown and Ben Wallace while the San Antonio Spurs mirrored the laid-back professionalism of superstar Tim Duncan. For every success story there are several other examples wherein teams have attempted to build their franchises around star-caliber players or coaches but for a variety of reasons find that the results never materialize.
Perhaps the greatest question mark facing the 2005 Seattle SuperSonics is how their identity will change with the departure of former head coach Nate McMillan. It has been widely assumed that McMillan set the tone for a successful 2004 season with his defensive mindset, work ethic, and blue-collar attitude. His departure creates the potential for an identity crises that must be overcome by the players and coaching staff if the team hopes to build upon last yearâ€™s success.
When asked about this issue, players and coaches begin to offer a few clues as to what this new identity will be. Surprisingly enough the consensus from the coaches is that the team will be if anything more defensive-oriented in McMillanâ€™s absence than it was with him at the helm. New Head Coach Bob Weiss noted immediately that the team was not where he wanted it to be defensively.
"What this team needs to focus on is defense," said Weiss. "Last year we were a 46% FG defensive team, in the bottom third of the leagueâ€¦our transition defense was one of the worst. Getting that down is going to be one of our main goals. Defense will be the main focus of this team."
He went on to state clearly that the team will continue to move away from a trapping defense and focus more on â€œMan-on-man defense, with help.â€ Weiss will not be alone in installing a defensive mindset to the club. During the off-season, the Sonics added both Bob Hill and Brendan Malone to the coaching staff, both of whom have ties to Larry Brown and are known as defensive-minded coaches.
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of last yearâ€™s team was a tendency towards hard picks and aggressive, physical play in the front court. According to Assistant Coach Jack Sikma, that style was very much a result of the personnel on hand and will still be used by the team.
â€œWe have a lot of guys who are tough, strong, and physical and frankly we expect several of them to get better as they gain experience,â€ said Sikma.
In addition to the coaching staff the Sonics have retained a core group of players with several common traits. Adjectives thrown around in various interviews included â€œIntelligentâ€, â€œChemistry guysâ€, â€œWinnersâ€, and possibly most appropriate â€œProfessionalsâ€. Sonics President Wally Walker describes what they expect from their players:
â€œWe want guys to approach it like our guys did last year as a job or more than a job. In this profession, you need to have passion. We said clearly to our guys in the season that we want guys to help their teammates get better and whether it's because weâ€™ve stressed that or because it's just the type of guys they are they have stepped up and done so.â€
Second-year Sonics forward Nick Collison adds his take: "Itâ€™s important to have guys who just care about winning. Nothing else but playing the way that it takes to win a ballgame. It sounds like a little thing, but really a lot of guys just donâ€™t get it.â€
It seems clear that Head Coach Bob Weiss and the Sonics management are not too concerned about a lack of either winning attitude or identy. The game plan calls for the Sonics to maximize the strengths of their individual players and retain many aspects of the system that worked so well for them a year ago. While they do not have a Pat Riley, Tim Duncan, or even Nate McMillan to set the path, they do have a stronger sense of their expectations and goals than I expected this early in the season. This is a team that knows it can score, is determined to defend, and relies on team effort and cohesion to win ballgames. If they can bring it all together then this team will quickly establish its own identity and resume last year's winning ways.
Notes from Media Day:
â€¢ Bob Weiss indicated a strong preference towards having a set rotation going into the season. He advises that every player has a chance to earn their role but he is not a proponent of changing his rotation to react to matchups.
â€¢ Sonics rookie first-rounder Johan Petro spent a good part of the afternoon sitting awkwardly and avoiding interviews. In a chat with Sonicscentral.com, it was clear that Petroâ€™s English was still a problem, but he advised, â€œI understand very well, speak not so good.â€ Working with some help from an interpreter Petro quickly relaxed and did his best with the conversation. He pointed out that his problem with fouls in Summer League were largely a result of not knowing the NBA rules and that he had just arrived in the US days earlier. He does not feel that will be a problem going forward. Petro also feels that language on the court is not a substantial obstacle. Apparently English is the language of the European Leagues. Players and coaches come from countries all around the world and it is standard practice for English to be used while on the hardwood.
â€¢ Camp invitees Noel Felix and Roger Powell both felt that the Sonics history of success with players such as Reggie Evans, Damien Wilkens, and Jerome James were major factors in their decision to attend Sonics camp. â€œIts my agent's job to put me in a strong situation and he encouraged me to come here.â€ said Powell.
â€¢ Sonics guard Mateen Cleaves spoke briefly about his decision to attend summer league and mentor the young players there:
â€œThey called me Old-G and I just tried to teach them about basketball and also about what Iâ€™ve seen of the business side of the league.â€
Cleaves says he hopes to have an opportunity to coach summer league squads in upcoming seasons and pursue a coaching career when his playing days are done.
â€¢ Several players and coaches dominated the interviews. Most in demand were Head Coach Bob Weiss, and stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, all of whom spent the entire afternoon surrounded by microphones. Also in high demand were forwards Vladi Radmanovic, who quickly grew tired of answering contract related questions, and Nick Collison, who frankly seemed like heâ€™d be more comfortable playing ball than conducting interviews. Point guard Luke Ridnour displayed remarkable quickness darting from photo shoot to photo shoot while avoiding interview opportunities.