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Do they owe us more?

As a long time Sonics fan with a deep interest in seeing the franchise be successful I find myself worried about the franchise’s relationship with its core fan base.

Readers at Sonicscentral.com are a little more informed, and also slightly more biased than the average fan watching this team on television. If you wonder what the average fans are thinking then just take a moment to review letters sent to The Seattle Times last week and bask in the open hostility for a few moments. As I made clear in my recent article describing the logic behind Sene I am understanding of the pick at least in principle, yet even I as one of the least critical fans out there begin to wonder if the team owes me a little more excitement if they want to maintain my interest.

The team actually did have a 4 year run of fairly interesting off seasons beginning in 1999. During that period it was fair to say that the team was re-tooling after a long, successful run in the mid-90’s and fans watched anxiously to see what bold moves the summer would bring.

In the summer of 99 the SuperSonics possessed their highest draft pick for several years, #13. They swung a draft day deal sending the rights to Corey Maggette to Orlando for Horace Grant and a motley collection of other players. That same off season veteran shooter Hersey Hawkins was dealt to Chicago in exchange for Brent Barry while fan favorite Detlef Schrempf left for the Portland Trailblazers after a summer of contentious negotiations.

One year later, coming off an uninspiring 45 win season the team pulled off an unlikely and ultimately irrelevant trade for New York Knicks legend Patrick Ewing. While Ewing’s one year stay in the Pacific Northwest may have been uninteresting the trade that brought him here certainly had its merits. For an entire summer the newspapers and internet rumor mills speculated on a potential Vin Baker for Ewing swap that eventually morphed into a four team trade involving forward Horace Grant and division rivals Phoenix and Los Angeles. In the end the trade was so convoluted that I honestly cannot remember which pieces New York received in return for their franchises most popular player.

In 2001 the team exercised “Plan B” of the Ewing acquisition by letting the hall of famer go in exchange for enough salary cap space to hopefully make a splash. Fans imagining big-time acquisitions had to content themselves with the dream that center Calvin Booth who was lured away from Dallas would develop into a legitimate force in the middle. Unfortunately that same season the team dealt with sexual assault charges against Ruben Patterson and eventually allowed the free agent to depart without compensation. Patterson’s departure in some senses neutralized any optimism that could have been felt with the addition of Booth.

Finally 2002 Sonics fans everywhere were able to rejoice as the Vin Baker era was miraculously brought to a close when the team traded the undesirable forward to Boston. Unfortunately this also signaled the beginning of the Joe Forte, Vitaly Potapenko era which frankly was not particularly pretty.

Since 2002 the team philosophy has centered on retaining and developing its own players. While I waited for “big time” free agent acquisitions with the team’s mid-level salary exception and hoped for names such as Juwan Howard, Michael Olowakandi, Stromile Swift and others I have been treated to almost non-existent rumors involving marginal players such as Derek Fischer and Dale Davis. Each off season the team touted its young players and preached patience while their talent developed. Clearly they felt that the roster overhauls of the previous 4 years proved to be delaying the inevitable and committed themselves to a longer term plan centered on youth. In the end the team has only used a portion of its mid-level exception twice in that period. The first time they broke the bank on a two year contract for Euro shooter Ibo Kutluay and then last season they chose to retain their own swingman Damien Wilkens. In they have not brought in a single free agent of note during this time.

The Sonics free agent doldrums have clearly been exasperated by a series of ho-hum draft choices. While Desmond Mason has proven to be a solid NBA player he was relatively low-profile when coming out of Oklahoma State. Since his selection the Sonics have bypassed recognizable names in each of the following years by selecting little known high school and international players. Clearly Saer Sene will not sell tickets. Neither did Johan Petro, Vladi Radmanovic, or dare I say it Peter Fehse. Once the Sonics decided not to draft big names they immediately entered the summer at a disadvantage when it came to generating fan buzz.

I do not need quotes from management to tell you that the team strongly believes in bringing in players based on their own talent evaluation rather than fan opinion. In fact it would be a safe assumption that almost any NBA front office member would tell you that making decisions based on the fans desires is a questionable policy at best. Looking at the list of names above and the eventual result of their signings I find myself in agreement with that idea. I do wonder however if, in the unwritten contract between a franchise and its fans, the team does owe us at least some consideration. Is it fair for them to disregard fan opinion entirely or should they throw us a bone once in a while.

As free agency begins this summer I see teams hurry to lock up players quickly and wonder about the ridiculous contracts being handed out. While I praise the Sonics fiscal responsibility I also wonder if other teams see something the Sonics don’t. Is there a significant benefit in making quick, bold, and decisive moves to energize the fan base? If so is that benefit substantial enough to offset the overpayment required to do so? My quick answer to the first question is yes, but to the second is no. Still, as the Sonics battle an increasingly negative perception in their quest for a new arena I find myself feeling that they need to make at least a couple of moves centered around simply generating fan interest. As with every facet of basketball and business facets of the game become increasingly valuable to an organization when they have critical shortages in any given area. Currently the team has huge gaping holes in both defense and positive perception. Perhaps resigning Chris Wilcox regardless of cost on the first day he is eligible would demonstrate the commitment that fans want to see. If we can't address defense then at least shore up the fan base. I hope that they will make a bold move this summer to address both issues but doubt that it will happen.

What is your opinion on moves to placate the fan base? Do the Sonics owe fans more flash as they ask us to maintain interest in a team that has been treading water for several years or should they stay the course and stick with their plan regardless?