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Sonics On in the Off-season

With the signing of Vladi Radmanovic, Flip Murray, and Reggie Evans to qualifying offers, the Sonics have finished their off-season moves and have their team in place to compete for the ’05-’06 season (except training camp invitees/cuts).

So what about the moves the Sonics made and didn’t make? Is it a better team than last year’s, the same, or significantly worse?

We’ll start at the top with the departure of Nate and the team selecting Weiss as coach. Nate was a .500 coach until the break-out, 52 win season. Everything he touched turned to gold this last season. If there’s someone we can point to as having a career year, it was McMillian. Even with the injuries, he out-coached the league’s best on many occasions. Apparently the Sonics made him a nice offer, but he chose to go to Portland. Portland? I’m going to miss Nate, but we’ll find out what type of coach he really is with that team.

Weiss is a real wildcard. It remains to be seen how the team is going to respond to him, but he received endorsements from key players so the onus falls back on the players to play hard for him and not run over him because he’s a nice guy. I love the staff he assembled. It seems everyone is coming in talking defense. This Sonics team with defense? That’s a quality squad if it happens. We’ll see if the players buy in and give the effort.

So Mr. Sonic departed, but will the real Mr. Sonic pleased stand up? The Sonics retained the top free agent in the market when they inked Ray Allen. There were some internet grumblings that the 80-85 million dollar contract was an expensive retention, but I set it against Kobe Bryant’s deal last year. He signed for what? 130 million +? On paper everyone had the Lakers as a better team than the Sonics, but somehow Ray got his team to 52 wins while Kobe missed the playoffs. Is that too simplistic of an explanation? I don’t think so. Both players were called on to lead their teams—one did—Ray, the other didn’t; if he stays healthy, Ray’s deal rocks.

The Ray Allen signing made this a great off-season.

Probably the next order of importance was Antonio Daniels, and to a lesser extent, Jerome James. Both ended up departing for big contracts. James is easy: have fun Larry Brown. Keeping James and his garbage bag act would only impede Swift’s development. The skinny is that Swift and Mikki Moore will replace James’ size, and the Sonics resigned Vitaly Potapenko for bulk on defense, hitting opponents with serious screens, and hitting the pick-n-pop.

Seattle fans should be concerned about the lack of shot-blocking in the middle of our defense. We typically use a funnel style defense that runs guards into the middle of our defense, but we don’t have the shot-blocking or athleticism to be real successful with that, IMO.

AD’s departure is tricky. He got to the basket, got fouled and made free throws when it counted. That kept Seattle in a lot of games, including the playoffs against the Spurs. His defense was decent, meaning he cared about it, and he was just a picture of toughness and resiliency.

The obvious successor would be Flip Murray. He has the size, the wicked crossover to get to the hoop, and a scorers mentality. But let’s make no mistake here; by the end of the season, Murray was about a quarter of the player Daniels was. Flip can get to the front of the rim and draw the foul, but he doesn’t seem to be a clutch free throw shooter (especially for a guy shooting 74%). On defense, Murray just doesn’t seem like it’s a high priority. Either that or he just doesn’t know defensive positioning.

He has the size and athleticism to be a great defender. In fact, in build, Murray’s very close to Joe Dumars—Dumars played some D.

As much as I would like Murray to fill that role (man wouldn’t that be the Sonics best trade ever? Payton and Mason for our whole backcourt?), I think Weiss will use some Murray and some Wilkins. It will be hard keeping Wilkins off the floor because he’s going to enter the game knowing his minutes are coming from his defense intensity and pressure.

Rashard stay healthy.

Lewis improved to All-Star status last year, I believe, because he learned to really dribble the ball. His overall body control and balance were so much better. Lewis really improved in the post with an assortment of dazzling moves that gave him easy angles to score. When he missed, often the weak side defender was trying to help and there was a put-back for easy points. I include this is the off-season improvements/declines because going into his 8th year, Lewis has apparently not reached his full potential. The Sonics can still improve with Lewis playing better defense and rebounding a bit more.

Vladi, Vladi, Vladi. When Radmanovic is good, the Sonics are very good. Will he be bent coming into camp knowing he didn’t get over paid like he sought? That’s one of the important questions for the Sonics success this year, in my opinion. A brooding Broadway Joe that sulks his shooting percentage below an already questionable 41% (questionable because he’s a noted shooter and that’s not a good percentage for a “shooter”) could really hurt the Sonics, and Vladi not shooting well is going to translate to less energy on the other end of the court where the team really needs his effort. After watching this guy for a few years now, I can only say I’ll know when I see him play. He’s that much of a question mark.

I’ve been saying Nick Collison is going to improve more between this season and last more than Luke Ridnour did between last season and the year before. When that happens, Seattle’s a better team—period. Collison’s a big key in determining how the Sonics are going to fare this year. I have no problem putting that kind of emphasis on his game and maturity. He’s never going to be first up on ESPN’s highlight reel, but his steady play will be the difference many nights.

Expect Luke to find a nice jump shot at some point before the All-Star break (out of camp? We can only hope). You don’t shoot 90% from the free throw line and not figure it out from the field. Teams are going to sag and make Luke beat them, and I think he’s the type of player that will make them pay. Why? His strong work ethic gives the effort and proving the doubters wrong has always seemed like a strong motivation.

I really like the Brunson and Moore signings. These guys wanted to be in Seattle, played well together in LA last season, and bring nice NBA games. They’re not star potential, but Seattle showed last season that success was about getting solid role players to buy into the system and augment Ray and Rashard’s games. In Seattle’s system (as employed last season—we’ll see if it’s the same this year), Rick and Mikki will have a chance to be better than they’ve shown in the past because this team’s concept works towards a journeyman’s success. They won’t be asked to do things they can’t, but be good at what they can do.

Again, the defensive philosophy and orientation of the new coaching staff is exciting. Hopefully it’s not just the thing to say this time of year, but a true belief that they can plug the holes and get these guys believing they can slow other teams down. The Sonics score nearly a 100 points a game, so if they can keep that pressure on other teams (almost a defense in and of itself) and tighten the defense down, this is a quality club that can honestly look at repeating as divisional winners.

Will the Sonics win more than the 52 they put on the board last year? I think it’s entirely possible because I don’t think the division got remarkably better (meaning: the chance to win a lot of in-division games). We’ll see what Weiss brings (I’m more comfortable with Weiss than I would be with Casey if I was a TWolf fan), but I like what Seattle did in the off-season which is maintain continuity with what has been working, trust the guys’ growth, keep salaries down so that they can make key FA signings in the future, and, most of all, keeping Ray Ray.

Go Sonics.