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Sonics Repeat Mistake - Petro to Start

One year ago the Robert Swift came off what was viewed as a dominant off-season (is that even possible) with what appeared to be a starting position in hand. He had outworked his competition in the weight room, dominated on the court in early practices, and seemingly had everything coming together for a breakout season.

Then he got what he believed was a slap in the face. Just a day before the teams first preseason game he was called into the office of then GM Rick Sund and advised that Johan Petro, not Swift would be the starter the next day. Little explanation was given and it is fair to characterize Swift as feeling "put down" by the organization. He was angry, felt betrayed, and wondered what the point of all his hard work was if he would net even get the chance to start.

Unfortunately he also felt a distinct pain in his hip.

Early in the camp the 7'2 center had taken a hard tumble and injured his right hip. While the injury was not considered serious it was limiting his game. A very candid Sund later explained to SonicsCentral.com what most readers and writers already knew. Swifts removal from the starting rotation had little to do with whether he had earned the starting sport or not, it had everything to do with how unimportant preseason games are.

Knowing that Swift would be limited, and that at time he has struggled with confidence on the floor the team determined that his hip could lead to reduced performance and that his fragile psyche may not respond to possibly resulting struggles. Better, thought Sund to rest him up, and instead provide limited minutes against lower tier talent. Let Swift rest the knee, dominate the roster invitees put in front of him, and gain some confidence he would need later to start games that really mattered.

As candid about this plan as Sund was with me more than a month later he unfortunately did not feel the need, nor have the method to relay these reasons to his 20-year-old center that became confused, disillusioned, and sulked. As a result of this perceived demotion Swift lost all the confidence the team was trying to protect.

Flash forward 1 year later and a similar situation is developing. Swift has a consensus again as virtually all members of the team, front office, and media are expecting him to start the season. And he is excited for it. Now, on the cusp of the first game he is being advised that Petro may take his starting role again for a night and that the team is devoting some time to evaluate Chris Wilcox at the center postion. While I have not spoke to Robert about this issue he is reportedly going through the same type of emotions as last year. Wondering what he could have done. Do they simply not like him? Do they not have a role for him? Is it because he is white?

There we said it. Many of Roberts insecurities seem to stem from the awkward days in high school when he was a ridiculously skinny, pale redhead with acne and a body too long to be tough. The largely African-American basketball team at Bakersfield High just didn’t support him very much and it still affects his confidence today.

So the insecurity, and the lack of confidence that the team is trying to minimize have some real depth to them. It is tangible and at times debilitating for Swift on the court. The coaches have to ask themselves “How to I minimize this” and they have decided that the best way to do so is to hold him out and wait until the opponent is right, or his health is 100%, or he just is playing at his best. What they lack in this plan, the critical componant is the ability to communicate with Swift in such a way that he gets the reason for the demotion, with out taking an unintended, but equally damaging blow to his confidence as a result.

This year the buzz coming from management is that Swift will begin the preseason on the bench yet again while Petro will start. This will have a great deal to do with managing his surgically repaired leg which should see limited action during the early weeks of preseason. With the same action being taken you can only assume that Swift is again upset and confused about the decision, and also the lack of explanation.

If the Sonics do demote Swift for another meaningless game without giving him any background as to why the decision was made it will be a repeat of the same problem last season. If Swift responds the same way he will have clearly demonstrated to them that he has not grown substantially during that period and he also will have made the same mistake twice. Hopefully one or both learned their lesson and will increase the communication, work it out, and be on the same page when the real season starts next month.

Basically there are several plays at work here. Swift needs to understand them all:

First of all preseason games are not important at all. Worrying about them is like worrying about who parked their car in the best spot. Take you game, play hard when you’re on the court, and don’t worry about stats, role, etc. You’re just trying out new stuff.

Secondly remember that they pay you a lot of money to be a big kid and deal with this kind of crap. The expectation is that, if you’re big enough to be in the league, you’re big enough to be demoted. No handholding required.

Lastly understand that seeing how you deal with this crap in years 3 and 4 when you’re only making a million or two a year gives them a great indication of how you are going to act if they decide to give you that $10 million contract in the future. It pays some dividends for them to to let you process this stuff on your own and and watch how that process goes. The correct answer is this: show up earlier, work harder, make your mark during the 48 minutes that count. Those concepts will get you the new contract in a way that pointing and complaining simply will not.

If only it were so easy to tell the truth. How exactly do you tell a 21 year old that you are worried their confidence is fragile without destroying that confidence? The team has tried just working around it. Lying doesn’t help. Perhaps they should just let him play and struggle but point out after the fact small victories. Perhaps then Swifty wouldn’t even struggle.

Life would get easier then.