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Cautiously Optimistic

When the Sonics replaced Head Coach Bob Weiss with Assistant Bob Hill nearly a week ago it was difficult to imagine a scenario in which the team would go 1-3 in his first 4 games yet I would still have a positive first impression of his regime. With the team limping home after a 107-98 loss to Philadelphia they did go 1-3 and for several reasons I am encouraged by what I saw.

The team now finds itself at 14-20 and in 4th place in the NorthWest Division. In all 4 games they suffered quarter long breakdowns of both offense and defense in which they essentially gave the games away. Only in Chicago did they hold on for a win.

The still feature pathetic interior defense and seems to break down on offense late in games. They lack a killer instinct and settle for trading long jump shots late in games.

All of that is bad, however at least with Hill there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Hill has dramatically changed the Sonics practice routine and with it brought a better intensity and solid starts to each of the four games. While they have been losing they have at least been losing with young players (Swift and Petro) and with a solid rotation that seems likely to need just a few minor adjustments before begins to reap dividends.

Swift and Petro have both been inconsistent and neither has dominated the game. Both players however clearly look like they belong on the NBA court and appear to be gaining confidence as their playing time increases. Given the teams near desperate need for length those simple facts make it nearly inexcusable that they never saw the floor under Weiss. Best yet Hill has set a clear and reachable goal for the two young players asking them to combine for 10 and 10 on a nightly basis. With Weiss it seemed like the lack of clearly defined roles was a continual problem and it is nice for players and fans to have an idea of expectations.

The rotation over has been relatively consistent with the only major changes resulting from Danny Fortson’s injury over the past two games. It appears obvious that the frontcourt rotation will be Swift, Petro, and Fortson and the center position with Radmanovic starting at PF. Nick Collison is the primary backup at the four spot with Reggie Evans seeing a limited energy role in the 3rd quarter. In the backcourt Flip Murray is the primary backup to both Ray Allen and Luke Ridnour seeing extensive minutes at the PG position. If there are any big surprises to Hill’s rotation I believe that the large role of Flip Murray, and relatively small minutes for Damien Wilkens would be the most glaring. Flip has struggled all season and I had assumed Wilkens would replace him in the lineup after the coaching change.

The team’s attitude and aggression to start games is refreshing. They feature more movement, better spacing, and a sense of nastiness that was missing under Weiss. It is this new mentality, combined with the youth movement that gives me some remaining hope for the season.

It is important to keep in mind that Hill has not even had a single home practice to implement his changes yet already we are seeing new plays, better focus, and more heart out of the squad. Furthermore he drove the team relentlessly in their few road practices after criticizing their conditioning. Hill has often referred to the last week as a “mini training camp” and clearly the players have suffered fatigue and this could explain their inability to sustain play throughout a game. While we all want to assume athletes are immune to the physical grind it is a very real thing. Late flights and 5 games in 9 days will take its toll on any team, especially one which has suffered such radical changes in a short time period.

Given the changes Hill hopes to implement I think it is reasonable to hold judgment for a few weeks. The mid-February all-star break should give the team time to catch up on the coaches systems and needs and there is hope that the trade deadline will address the team’s problems at backup PG.

While things seem extremely discouraging right now the team remains only 3.5 games back in the lowly Northwestern division with 48 games remaining. The fact that these changes were made early provides ample opportunity for us to make a run and position ourselves for the playoffs despite this miserable start.

If nothing else at least we can say the season has gotten interesting again.