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Deja Vu?

Somehow I swear that I have been here before.

Let’s see, we have a high flying PF who’s throwing down dunks and energizing fans, a point guard complaining and whining when he really has no reason to, a coach calling his players “baby” in the media, and a 7’2 white center running hard down the floor….

Ladies and Gentlemen may I present to you your 1996-1997, sorry make that 2006 Seattle SuperSonics.

No, Luke Ridnour is neither the player nor the whiner that Gary Payton was. Bob Hill while outspoken does not play the media with the divisive manipulation that became a hallmark of the George Karl era. For that matter this team will not come close to winning 57 regular season games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs as that squad did.

The similarities and differences of that season make for an interesting contrast. Throughout this city comparisons of Wilcox to Kemp have begun. Anyone needing proof that the slam dunk excites fans like no other simply has to take a look at the bond forming quickly between Wilcox and the city. Talk radio, on the rare occasion when it turns to the Sonics has focused almost exclusively on the 6’11 PF we affectionately call “Count Dunkula”.

Contrast this with Vladimir Radmanovic, who was traded straight up for Wilcox earlier in the year. Radmanovic provided a similar or perhaps greater contribution last season on a winning team. He suffered many of the same defensive deficiencies and a similar reputation as far as work ethic is concerned. The two players are in many ways very similar yet he never bonded with the fans in the manner Wilcox has in just 15 games.

The big difference:

According to A paltry 4% of Radmanovic’s shots were dunks while Wilcox throws it down at an amazing 26% clip. Furthermore Wilcox plays the pure inside game fans have been dying for since Kemp’s departure in 1997. Fully 64% of his shots are taken within the paint compared to 21% from Radmanovic.

In another odd 1997 flashback the Sonics feature a tall, lanky white center who came to the team as a virtual unknown, without an extensive resume but with physical abilities that intrigued the organization enough to take a real risk by bringing him in.

If the world were fair that would be the last of the Robert Swift / Jim McIlvaine comparisons. While it may be easy to make the connection based purely on racial stereotypes of the players they are nothing alike. Swift has proven himself worthy of the leap of faith the organization made when they drafted him at #12 in the 2005 draft. He has an athleticism that belies his appearance and nastiness on the court that is a sharp contract to his easygoing and down to earth personality.

Robert Swift, unlike Jim McIlvaine is the real deal.

McIlvaine cared so little about the game of basketball that he wound up retiring early citing a lack of passion to play through injuries. Swift has shown no desire to hit the bench despite a series of performance hampering injuries to his nose, ankle, and hip. He has continued to put in extra time after practice, and develop his game to the point where he shows signs of statistically becoming one of the best young centers in the game. His 17 point, 11 rebound, 4 block game against Denver last night may have served as a coming out party as he begins to settle into a groove that injuries forced him out of.

Swift has the potential to produce similar stats on a regular basis. He is a solid individual with a great work ethic and wonderful physical potential.

“I’ve never seen a 7 footer who can get as low as he does, in fact I’ve never seen a 7 footer who is as agile as Robert is.” Coach Bob Hill said earlier this season when asked about Swift’s game. “He’s going to be really good.”

Teammate Danny Fortson echoed Hill’s sentiments.

“He’s going to be really special man, really special.” Said Fortson

In addition to his obvious physical tools (you can’t coach height!) Swift’s passion for the game combined with a strong family support system make the sky the limit for this young player. Although the Sonics expressed interest in working Swift out prior to the draft his parents, Bruce and Rhonda Swift were surprised when the Sonics selected him at #12. The Sonics never had the opportunity to meet with Robert prior to the draft. They, like most people expected Robert to be taken by the Celtics. That did not stop the family from moving to Seattle in support of their son once the pick had been made. The Swift family now lives in the area to provide a foundation for their son as he acclimates to the rigors of NBA life and travel. His high school PG, Matt Robles was hired this season as an assistant coach at the University of Puget Sound to provide Robert with even more local support.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the 1997 and 2006 Sonics squads is the unquantifiable sense of direction. While the 97 squad featured seasoned veterans such as Sam Perkins, Detlef Schremphf, Hersey Hawkins and Nate McMillan this season is eyeing the future with young players at nearly every position. Of the nine man rotation, only one player, Ray Allen is over 30 years old. The rest of the roster has several years of prime production left in them.

Additionally 1997 Sonics had an unmistakable sense of negativity about them that is hard to put into words. Despite coming off a 64 win season and Finals run against the Chicago Bulls there was a sense that the team’s run was coming to an end. Shawn Kemp began camp with a short holdout and throughout the season media reports of dissatisfaction and turmoil leaked to the forefront. Kemp, Karl, and Payton bickered amongst themselves as well as with general manager Wally Walker. When the season ended with a loss against the Houston Rockets it did not seem surprising. During the off season Kemp publicly demanded a trade and was moved for Vin Baker. The franchise has never recovered.

Just as that season’s wins did not translate to optimism it is difficult to grow overly negative with recent performance despite the mounting losses. This year’s team simply has been unable to catch a break or gain momentum of any kind. In addition the steady improvement of young players under Hill is noticeable on a game by game basis. This youth, given free reign by coach Bob Hill combined with the trade deadline makeover really offer hope for a speedy recovery. In essence while the 1997 squad felt as though they had the potential to be much worse than it’s record, this year’s team feels like it has the potential to be much better than theirs.