It seemed at times last year as if their reputation just preceded them. The Sonics, a team of notorious softies throughout the Vin Baker era transformed overnight into a rough and tough crew that threw bodies and fouls around like they had plenty to spare. This season they still intend to throw the bodies, but have some hopes that fouls will not be as big of an issue.
All is not equal in NBA officiating and nowhere was it more apparent than the Sonics/Spurs match up in round 2 of the 2005 playoffs. Player reputations played a huge role in determining calls as league poster-child Tim Duncan seemed to get the benefit of the doubt while Sonics forwards Nick Collison and Danny Fortson's reputations led to a number of questionable calls. It drove home the point that for NBA officials reputation plays a huge role. The Sonics as individuals and a team suffered from a bad rep and it showed.
During the course of the regular season Forston finished first in the league in Fouls per 48 Minutes with an astonishing 12.1 while Collison was #5 at 8.7. Former Sonics Jerome James was #2 at 10.1 and the closest non-Sonic trailed Fortson by more than 25%.
When talking about Collison's potential for improvement this season it cannot be understated how improved his performance may be if the referees simply gain some respect for his game. In his first year in the league Collison was already one of the leagues best position defenders. Often it seemed as if the refs would call a foul simply because they assumed that there was no way he could have made a play without doing so. A review of game tape should show them that he makes spectacular plays because of solid positioning and defensive anticipation. Collison is a clean, blue collar player and in his case it should be a simple matter of familiarity for the officials to warm to his game and give him the benefit of the doubt.
Fortson's situation is a bit trickier. Frankly his reputation is not so much bad as it is terrible. Since an incident in which he broke Phoenix center Zarko Carbarkapa's wrist in 2003 Fortson has been labeled as a "thug" in the league and suffered intense scrutiny from the officials. Whenever there is contact and Fortson is around he will get called for a foul. Complicating matters is the fact that he does indeed have a nasty streak and a penchant for extremely physical play.
For the most part all any players want is a fair shot and even officiating.
Its already tough enough to go out on the court with this type of competition. Its even worse when you have to worry about the officials and all that, " Said Fortson.
In order to see continued success this year the Sonics will need to see their big men be less hamstrung by the officials. In the case of Collison the hope is that the referees will grow more accustomed to his game and grant him a little more leniency as he establishes himself. In the case of Fortson the team and the player have had to be a little more proactive. According to Fortson league officials have been contacted regarding this matter.
"Letâ€™s put it this way. Those guys who were doing those types of things, they have been notified." Fortson commented when pressed.
Itâ€™s a shame that so much of the game is dictated by officials. More consistent play calling will have a big impact on the Sonics ability to set rebound, set screens, and free up their jump shooters. Its also a shame that Danny Fortson has been so misunderstood. I asked him how such a nice guy winds up with such a bad rep.
"Youâ€™re gonna have to ask those guys who write bad things about me." He replied with an easy smile and a laugh.
So is Danny Fortson always out there to hurt people?
"Not always..." Again the smile is contagiousâ€¦.