Gary Payton Q&A: Russell Westbrook's 'fire', Nate McMillan advice and more
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Gary Payton hasn't played an NBA game in almost a decade, but he still has a strong foothold in the game. The Hall of Famer, who made nine All-Star appearances and won a title with the 2005–06 Heat, has kept busy this past year, watching his son Gary Payton II star at Oregon State, covering basketball at Fox Sports 1, and through a partnership with the NBA and Mountain Dew, promoting amateurism in cities across the country. Payton will visit six NBA markets and provide instruction to players who have a chance to represent the U.S. in an international competition.
And while Payton’s place in the game is now outside the lines, his brash personality and strong opinions remain as relevant as ever. He’s made headlines in recent weeks, answering questions about Stephen Curry, MVP voting and more. SI.com recently caught up with Payton and discussed his son's participation in the NBA draft process, Nate McMillan's new job in Indiana, Russell Westbrook's "fire" and the run Seattle made to the Finals 20 years ago.
DeAntae Prince: You got to watch your son Gary Payton II play at Oregon State, and now he’s going through the NBA draft process. What’s that experience been like for you as a dad?
Gary Payton: "It’s great to see it as a dad. Looking at it as a player, you always critique him, but being a father and being with him through all this stuff, it’s been a great feeling. I always have to tame myself a lot because I want him to do a lot of different things, but I’m very proud of him. I just want him to be himself."
DP: Was there any piece of advice you gave him before the process started?
GP: "No, what I’m trying to do is just tell him to work hard. I don’t want to put any pressure on him. I want him just to understand that when you’re out there just work. That’s all you need to do. I think that he’s understanding that now, and it’s good. It’s coming to him easy now. He’s working on becoming himself. He’s not Gary Payton’s son, he’s just Gary II and feeling good about himself, and that’s all I want. I just try to stay away as much as possible. I’ll be there by sight and let him understand that I’m supporting him. If he asks me something, I’ll give him a lot of help in that way. Other than that, I try to stay away from it."
DP: He’s projected to go somewhere in the second round at the moment. How good are his odds of sticking in the NBA if he's taken in that slot?
GP: "You don’t care what round he goes. I don’t think he’s going to go second round. I think he’s going to go first round. I think these workouts will put him far away from what people think about him at the moment. The word now is that he has to shoot the ball. If he shoots the basketball well, he’ll go first round. But I don’t care. He could go second round. I’ll give you my example, I’ll give you Draymond Green, I’ll give you (Norman) Powell, who is in Toronto right now and came on at the end of the year. And another example is Isaiah Thomas, who was the last pick of the draft, the 60th pick. He’s like a little brother to me and he was very upset about that, and look at what he’s doing. ... So that doesn’t matter. Once you get in there and get to those teams and do what you gotta do, you’ll prove it to them then. Prove to them people that you should have gotten picked earlier, and then you make your money. The privilege is just getting drafted, and once you get picked, prove to them that you were supposed to be drafted."
DP: Pivoting to the playoffs, I was wondering if you see a bit of yourself in Russell Westbrook?
GP: "With Westbrook and myself, I can see the dog that he has in him. He’s got that fire that he won’t back down from anybody. His game is a little different than mine because he’s a fast, get to the bucket type of player, finishing above the rim and things like that. The shot was about the same. We got confidence in our shot. I don’t think he’s a great shooter. I think he’s a streaky shooter. He got a lot of confidence when he shoots the basketball that he’s going to make it. Other than that, rebounding and assisting, he’s starting to do that very well with the triple doubles. I like him because he acts just like me on the court, doesn’t back down, goes at whoever he needs to go at. That’s what I liked about him."
DP: There have been a lot comparisons between the 72-win Bulls team you played against and this year’s 73-9 Warriors squad. How do you think the Warriors would stack up?
GP: "I don’t compare them and I don’t want to compare them. They’re two different animals. The Bulls did it with a physical type of basketball, we could hand check, we could do a lot of things. It was just a different era. They come back 20 years later and go 73-9. I couldn’t compare them, because if we put Golden State in that era a lot of teams, to me, would give them problems. Because we were more physical, we put our hands on them. A lot of our teams in this era we probably would have fouled out, we probably would have had a lot of problems."
DP: It’s been 20 years since your Sonics team made a run to the NBA Finals. How fondly do you look back on that time and what memories come back when you think about that team?
GP: "We had a lot of fun that year. We were shooting the lights out of the basketball, we set records for shooting at that time. We were a great defensive team. A lot of guys on that team and we had a lot of role players. People forget we won like 64 games, and we were rolling, too. People forget too that we beat Chicago in that year. We split home and home. We had fun doing it. I think if Nate McMillan didn’t get hurt we had a good chance of doing it. I think if I started on Michael Jordan first we would have been OK. But we can’t look back at that. I just look at the fact that we had an opportunity to do it. We didn’t start playing until Game 4. We won two by 20 or more points. By that time it was too late. I wish we could have kept that team together."
DP: Speaking of Nate McMillan, were you happy to see him get another shot at head coaching with the Pacers?
GP: "I talked to him and all I told him was that this is a different era. You have to change. We can’t keep doing the same things we did when we were coming up and how we were coached. He uses Jimmy Valvano and George Karl as his mentors of coaching, and we can’t come like them right now, or like it was in the ‘90s. It’s a different era. A lot of these owners are putting a lot of money into these players, and they think that it’s more to their advantage to put a lot of trust into the players instead of the coaches. That said, he’s got an opportunity, I’m glad that he got an opportunity because he’s a great coach. I think that he’s got a good team in Indiana, a good boss in Indiana, who understands what kind of coaching needs to be done because he’s from our era. He’s got Paul George as a star right now. I think he’s going to adjust really well."