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It's a New Season: Sund, Hill Give Clues about Rebuilding Plan

“It’s a new season” is more than just a catch phrase, it is a mantra to the Sonics staffers and coaches gathered at the Furtado Center today. At the Sonics first home practice since the trade deadline those words were uttered by not only Coach Bob Hill, but also General Manager Rick Sund and at least two other members of the Sonics staff that I spoke with.

“It’s a new season.”

What does that mean exactly?

For starters it is an acknowledgment of sorts that last season, the 05/06 season is over. The team did not make trade deadline deals in the hopes of a miraculous playoff run. Although they will never say so specifically they made these moves with an eye towards the future and a preference towards development over wins. With the 2006 playoffs firmly out of mind it is time for some discussion about the Sonics’ future plans.

Most likely the organization would prefer than any discussion of their plans not include reference to the 5 year plan majority owner Howard Schultz first made public in April of 2001. This statement has proven to be a lightning rod for criticism from fans who feel that ownership made a promise and then failed to keep it.

There is certainly some room for debate regarding the 5 year plan in both its term and goals. The harshest of critics complain that Schultz guaranteed a championship within 5 years. Others would say that the goal was to be a “contender for the championship” or simply to have assembled the necessary core of talent during that period. Arguably last year’s 52 win team, combined with an impressive playoff run against the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs qualified. Debate ranges whether a championship is required, how long “contention” must be sustained, and even when the five year plan actually began. Some team officials have hinted that the timeline was re-set with the trade of Gary Payton for Ray Allen nearly 3 years ago. Regardless of the details I would guess that the team has some regrets about being a little too public with their plan. They have since gained a reputation as being extremely tight lipped. It is very difficult to get any idea of their model for franchise building.

In recently conversations both Head Coach Bob Hill, and General Manager Rick Sund did provide some hints about their franchise building model. Unspoken in these conversations was the thought that the team must first determine whether Hill will remain as the head coach following this season. Given his willingness to develop young players and the growth our big men have shown under his direction I feel that Hill should be given at least one more year to see if a full training camp under his guidance results in wins. Regardless of his future Hill believes that a team must first establish dominant offensive stars, and then build a defensive core around them.

“What normally happens when teams are trying to build for a championship?” Said Hill. “The hardest thing to do is score, night in and night out. So what you want to do is build a championship through your offense initially and then decide, who of those guys who can score you want to keep? Then fill that roster with defensive minded guys. Then you’ve got something.”

Last weeks trade deadline moves seem to indicate that a decision has been made. The team chose not to build around scorers Vladi Radmanovic or Flip Murray, instead searching for defenders in Chris Wilcox and Earl Watson.

“Once you build a team through your offense you start adding defensive components. "

Prior to the deadline Hill spoke about building defense through coaching and acceptance of a system by the players. While he did not pretend to have any stellar defenders on his squad he did openly profess that the players he had could combine to form a solid defensive squad. Since the trade deadline this sentiment seems to have changed.

“If you want to play really good defense you have to get some defensive minded guys.” He stated. “I don’t think there’s any question that Chris Wilcox, Earl (Watson), and Mike (Wilkes) appreciate and like playing defense. If you get some guys like that normally your defense will be better.”

Beaming enthusiasm over the acquisition of Chris Wilcox seems to be the common denominator between Hill and his general manager. Both men seemed giddy at the prospect of Wilcox building upon his amazing physical skills to become a great player. Hill has already begun giving Wilcox set plays in the post and expects that trend to continue.

When he is not busy admiring the skill set of Wilox Rick Sund does not focus so much on the type of players he is looking to acquire, but talks instead about assembling a team capable of competing during the prime years of their career. Sund considers players to be in their prime between the ages of 27 and 33 which explains why he was willing to absorb a 5 year contract for 26 year old Earl Watson, but not for 31 year old Antonio Daniels. As part of this conversation Sund acknowledges that by his standards Lewis should be entering his best years.

“Rashard is starting his prime next year.” said Sund. “We won’t be able to say that Rashard is young anymore.”

With Ray Allen set to turn 31 this summer it could imply that Sund felt the 5 year window re-set upon the acquisition of the then 28 year old in 2003. The hope would be that the team can make a significant run within the next two years, while both Allen and Lewis are within the prime years of their careers. As Allen reaches the end of his prime players such as forward Nick Collison(25), and guards Luke Ridnour(24) and Earl Watson(26) should be emerging to assist Lewis. If the run cannot occur within the two year window the Sonics will be forced to hope that Allen continues to play at a high level beyond his 33rd birthday. Many great shooters, such as Indiana’s Reggie Miller, have managed to stretch their careers longer than players at more physically demanding positions.

“We do have some youth in our center position, obviously those guys are really, really young” Sund acknowledges but points out that both Robert Swift and Johan Petro are clearly a bright spot for the franchise.

According to Sund the mix of youth and veterans is looking good so far.

“I think we have a good mix of age.” He said.

While the 2005 season may have ended in extreme disappointment Sonics fans must now turn their attention to the “new season” and hope for signs of solid improvement. In the first two games with the post-deadline roster it seems as if the roster has a much more balanced core of offensive and defensive players, a better rotation in terms of position, and even a more balanced mix of veteran and young players. If they can continue their solid play while remaining in the hunt for a top draft pick the potential for championship contention during the prime of Rashard Lewis’ career seems fairly high.

Did You know?

Supersonics General Manager Rick Sund is a member of the Board of Directors, Washington State Special Olympics. Last week’s practice was attended by a Special Olympics Athlete who had an opportunity to meet the entire team and receive a variety of autographed merchandise. Sund frequently offers Special Olympians involvement with the team and insists that players not only provide autographs, but also participate in spending some time with the disabled athletes who attend.

As a former volunteer at Special Olympic events I highly encourage you to join Rick in participating in this great cause.