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Mateen is the Man!

It’s good to be back. Thanks to all the writers who kept the game flow going while I was gone and happy holiday wishes to all our readers.

It is not out of line in any way to describe this season so far as a disappointment. Instead of cruising to wins with heart and character the team has struggled to find consistency, define roles, or frankly play even a remotely interesting brand of basketball. It has been frustrating to say the least.

All that said a bit of reality should be interjected before we begin feeling too sorry for ourselves. The Sonics entered the week 2 ½ games back from the Northwest Division lead. Monday’s win over Boston combined with losses by Minnesota and Denver have left us a mere 1 ½ games out with games coming up against both the Timberwolves and Nuggets. A 3 game winning streak will essentially give us a tie atop the division and any type of modest run likely cements us on the top during the months of January and February.

It is never fun to find your success in a crappy division or the struggles of other teams. Nor is it an accomplishment that we should be content with or bask in (hey, as of today we’re in 3rd place so this whole bit is jumping the gun!) but we should be aware of, and seize the opportunity. Any time a team can be within a game or two of their division lead and a home court series in the playoffs they should be fairly happy with the standings. There is still time to right the wrongs and as most fans know a stretch of good play at the right time of year is worth significantly more than piling on wins in December and January.

Unfortunately this job just got much harder with key injuries to Luke Ridnour(Stomach Contusion) and Flip Murray(Dislocated Fingers) leaving the PG position stripped practically bare. Ridnour did not travel with the team and will not be playing. Flip Murray is listed as questionable but frankly I would be shocked if he plays, and could not expect him to play well if he is allowed on the court. As someone who recently suffered a basketball related finger dislocation I can tell you that it simply takes several weeks for your fingers to be stable enough to handle the game. This is complicated by the fact that Flip separated both his third and fourth fingers concurrently. The most standard method of supporting weakened joints is to tape the injured finger to the one next to it. This will not be an option with two injured joints.

There is only one hope for this road trip, and his name is Mateen Cleaves.

Cleaves will be the only active PG for the team tonight against the Timberwolves after averaging just 9.8 minutes per game in 17 games this season. Cleaves is a bundle of energy well known for his bench cheering and strong work ethic in practice. After having the chance to watch him in scrimmage this season I believe there is more to Cleaves than that. He has game, often leading the second team in scoring and aggressively taking the ball to the basket. He plays extremely well off the set picks and his cheering is more than just a “go team!” now and again. Cleaves considers himself a coach in training and takes charge of the players around him in a manner that is very impressive. He’s also a heck of a nice guy and I hope he makes the most of this opportunity. Clearly he has the pedigree and physical tools as he was selected #14 overall in the 2000 draft and before led Michigan State to a national title.

The lack of depth could not come at a worse time as the team looks to make headway within their division. Ray Allen and possibly even Damien Wilkens are likely to see minutes at the PG position while Cleaves rests and these changes will force coach Bob Weiss to juggle his rotation yet again.

If I am the coaching staff I consider inserting Damien Wilkens into the starting lineup over Cleaves. Wilkens would then guard the opposing PG on defense while Ray Allen brings the ball up the floor. The reason being that Cleaves’ game is so much better suited to a pick and roll offense that players like Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis may have to adjust their game to compensate for him. Cleaves could be inserted as a substitution with either Danny Fortson or Nick Collison both of whom set better picks than starters Reggie Evans and Vitaly Potapenko. With Cleaves in the game it will be essential that the team caters to his strengths and he generally plays well with Fortson or even rookie Johan Petro in the lineup.

Also expect to see trade talks heat up as injuries may force the Sonics to accelerate their personnel decisions. A move for Denver backup Earl Watson makes more sense than ever and it would not be surprising to see the Sonics involved in a three or four team deal involving Denver and Indiana forward Ron Artest. Even a minor move may clear a roster spot which could be offered to SG/PG Alex Scales who impressed the team in camp.

Look for Sonicscentral’s new site to debut sometime in the next 10 days. Its been a frustrating process but we’re almost there.

Happy New Year!