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What do we do now?

Let me be the first to admit my own errors in judgment: I never saw this coming…

When asked during the preseason to predict the Sonics record this season I spoke on public record and predicted 48 wins. In private I felt as if 52 would realistically be possible. Now I find myself wondering if we may end the season with more than 52 losses in the book and a top 5 draft pick on the horizon.

Many factors contributed to my faith in the team. The strong finish to last season, Bob Hill’s private feelings that the team would win at least 52, and a training camp which people much more experienced that I ranked as excellent all seemed to indicate that the team would be very competitive. My primary reason for optimism however centered on a central premise: We had an abundance of players who could be better than last year.

It may sound overly simplistic, but in review of an NBA roster I think that there are always a certain number of players whom you feel are “known quantities”. These players may be stars or they may be role players, regardless of their ability to contribute you can figure that they are beyond the age of dramatic improvement but not yet at the point where a significant decline should be expected. They have established their role on the court and within a certain range their role is easy to project.

In addition to the known quantities there are players for whom a decline can be pretty reasonably forcast. These players are either at an age where their physical abilities are no longer sufficient or they may have come off a year in which their performance was significantly greater that you could expect them to maintain. Regardless it is feasible to project at least the possibility of decline.

Lastly would be players whom you can look at and based on age, ability,or a prior slump project their performance to improve to some degree. I felt that the Sonics roster was stacked with this type of players.

Compare for example the Sonics with their division rival Denver Nuggets. Their star, Carmello Anthony appeared to be a known quantity as did point guard Andre Miller. However one of their most signicicant rotation players, Marcus Camby has a long history of injury and focus issues. Last season was perhaps the most consistent and impactful of his career. It seemed ludicrous to expect him to repeat that performance for two consecutive years.

Looking down the rest of the roster I saw only one player who realistically looked likely to improve. Center Nene, who missed the entire season with injury would certainly be more productive this year. With that single exception I did not see a single player for whom I projected a major improvement this season. There was not a single young player who had underperformed or who appeared to be a bright young prospect on the cusp of stardom.

The Sonics on the other hand seemed to have a stocked shelf of players who could produce at a higher level. Nick Collison and Luke Ridnour both underperformed last season and appeared to be on the very cusp of understanding the NBA game. Young centers Johan Petro and particularly Robert Swift both possessed the combination of youth and ability to indicate that they should be coming into their own after a full training camp of increased expectations. Power Forward Chris Wilcox was entering the season on a team perfectly suited to his physical abilities with an incentive laden contract and a 3 year window to prove himself. Even much maligned Danny Fortson had reason to show improvement as he entered a contract year focused on earning a new deal and a place in the rotation.

With those players, combined with rookie Mo Sene and third year scorer Damien Wilkens all having a reasonable chance of making major strides it seemed logical that the team would see improvement over last season. Not all of those players would progress as expected, but surely 3 to 5 of the 6 or 7 on the list would.

The problem of course is that none of them have performed. Each player mentioned, as well as veterans Earl Watson and Chris Wilcox have undergone major slumps this year. This complete and total lack of performance, combined with injuries to stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, terrible coaching by Bob Hill, and a tremendously difficult schedule have buried the team in the most lackluster season of my lifetime.

Who could have predicted that not a single player would step up? Not a single one. Certainly I did not.

At this point asking how it happened becomes irrelevant. More important is what should the team do about it and how will it affect the teams future in this region. While it is obvious to anyone paying attention that the season is in shambles they appear to be unable to acknowledge this in any way. Can the team concede this season via trades or firing the head coach without sending the wrong message to state legislature and fans? Can they risk firing their coach or trading Ray Allen for a package of draft picks without losing what little public support they have for a new arena?

The team will likely never answer this question but it is clear to me that if a winning season is required to retain the team then we may have lost them already. The team should not sit back and pretend that everything is going well, nor try to sugarcoat the disaster that has occurred on the court. They need to be aggressive and honest with the public rather than follow the NBA model of timid public messages and omission of negative news.

I recall many years ago, as the dangers of saturated fat were becoming more and more apparent and foods such as movie popcorn were coming under sharp criticism the public began “outing” various products for their unhealthiness. A newspaper report focusing on the popular Cinnabon products was released. Cinnabon they claimed contained somewhere along the lines of 3 days worth of saturated fats and was one of the single unhealthiest foods available to the American people. The news story caught the eye of the public, reports snowballed, stock prices tumbled, and the company’s CEO was forced to call an emergency press conference. It was widely expected that he would that he would announce changes to make the product healthier.

Instead, in perhaps one of the bravest corporate maneuvers I have ever seen he went on national TV, looked the public in the eye, and said with absolute conviction that he would not apologize for his product. Cinnabon, he explained was a desert, not meant for frequent eating but instead a wonderful indulgence, an enjoyable sin that was meant to be savored and not intended for calorie counters. He would not substitute margarine for butter or give up the sweetness that identified the product. In short he endorsed the products weaknesses, made them his own, and turned them into a sales pitch. The absolute honesty of his statements, combined with the conviction of his appeal instantly nullified the bad press and ended the story.

After more than a decade I still remember this strategy with admiration and use it frequently as an example of a strong corporate message. I believe that the Sonics should adopt a similar strategy in the face of their mounting losses. Rather than hide behind a timid PR campaign they need to acknowledge that the team is poorly built and decry this as the reason for lagging public support. Speak with conviction and tell the public that the reason for optimism lies not with this roster, but with the new ownerships refusal to accept what they are seeing from this team. As odd as it may seem Clay Bennett should build a bridge with the public based on our common disgust with the product as it stands today and a shared vision of the changes needed. He should speak truthfully and say that while they inherited this particular roster and staff they will not accept the results and that the days of losing are in the past. Fire those that need to be fired, trade those that they can trade, and set demands of their replacements. Focus the public on the future since the present is so bleak.

I believe strongly that the public always has more sensitivity to lies than advertisers would like us to believe. When faced with a series of obvious lies or “half-truths” people may accept them, but in the back of their minds they know what is going on. If the Sonics try to paint a picture of optimism around the current team and then in their next breath discuss the need for an arena solution they invite doubt and skepticism on both fronts. Better that they demonstrate to their fans honesty and conviction, point towards a solution to the problems, and then ask for the public to do the same.