George Karl stands uncertainly over his Seattle SuperSonics, back scratcher in one hand, whip in the other. The coach can't decide which is the more appropriate tool to apply to his team. Win 10 straight games, as the Sonics did a few weeks ago? Wield the back scratcher. Lose to the Dallas Mavericks at home, as they did on April 6? Seize the whip! Own the fourth-best record (50-25) in the NBA? A little to the left. Perform like the league's biggest waste of talent? Fifty lashes!
"Sometimes we don't know what we are ourselves," says point guard Gary Payton. Another opinion, from backup guard Dana Barros: "Sometimes we play like we're in a fog." Still another, from reserve forward Eddie Johnson: "We can either go all the way or be a first-round flameout." Nothing like having a clear identity with the playoffs looming. The Sonics: Team Mystery, Team Fog.
Seattle is also the only good team in recent memory that with the postseason imminent, is fiddling not only with its substitution rotation but also with its starting lineup. At this time of year, teams in the picture as championship contenders (and the Sonics are most assuredly there, albeit tucked in a corner of the frame) are usually seeking stability. But Karl seems to be after something else. Creative tension, perhaps? How else to explain the coach's recent decision to bench All-Star forward-center Shawn Kemp and frontcourt mate Derrick McKey, the two most-talented players on a talent-laden team?
"The key to our team is intensity," Karl said last Friday after a 111-97 victory over the Sacramento Kings, the first game in which Kemp and McKey watched the opening tip from the pine. "Nothing else matters. Starting lineups, rotations, things like that, just aren't as important to us." Karl flashed his bad-boy grin. "Hey, we're just not like other teams." Certainly the Sonics are not like the Phoenix Suns and the New York Knicks, who have been consistently dominant of late. The Sonics, in fact, haven't been a truly dominant team since a five-game winning streak ended on March 23—witness their loss to Dallas and a 98-96 defeat at the hands of the reeling Los Angeles Lakers in L.A. on Sunday.
Still, Karl's point is valid. The Sonics aren't like most teams. They're better defensively than most teams (through Sunday they had held opponents to a .469 field goal percentage, 10th overall), deeper than most teams (nine players average more than 21 minutes per game), younger and more athletic. That is why, with all the question marks that surround their charge-of-the-cavalry aggregation, they have to be considered a major postseason threat. On the other hand, in comparison with most of the other contenders, the Sonics have some major holes. They lack a leader, an effective half-court offense, a go-to guy, championship-level experience and an ability to focus at all times on the task at hand. And just how does that last flaw manifest itself? "Well, sometimes we come out of a timeout huddle," explains Payton, "and two guys run one play and three guys run another."
The tendency to find fault with the enigmatic Sonics, however, belies the indisputable fact that they've come a long way since Karl took over for the fired K.C. Jones 40 games into last season. Is there anyone out there who thought Seattle, a second-round loser in last season's playoffs, would be any better than the league's fourth-best team? Hardly.
No Sonic has come further than Payton, who (in this, his third season) has all but erased the doubts of those NBA observers who once rated him all brash and no brains. Payton's execution in the Sonics' half-court offense is improving—his assists-to-turnovers ratio is respectable, almost 3 to 1—and his defensive intensity is a big reason that the Sonics, like the emerging Chicago Bulls of two years ago, can be far more aggressive in their full-court and half-court traps than any other team in the league.
Still, Payton runs afoul of Karl once in a while, which is part of his charm. Early during a March 18 game against the Kings, Payton spotted Kemp, perhaps the game's most dynamic dunker, on the wing during a fast break and threw him an alley-oop pass—off the backboard. Kemp missed the slam, and Karl went ballistic. To this day Payton wonders what all the fuss was about. He and Kemp had long been talking about attempting such a play, and Kemp had called for the backboard pass; the Sonics were comfortably ahead (they eventually won 131-111); and, hey, as Payton says, "Coach has to realize this is the '90s." Well, maybe ol' George is caught in a time warp, but both Payton and Kemp began the second half against the Kings on the bench.
Notwithstanding occasional friction with his players, Karl has gotten the maximum out of his veterans—Michael Cage (in his ninth season), Johnson (12th), Nate McMillan (seventh) and Ricky Pierce (11th)—who have exactly zero championship rings to show for all of their experience. The 6'5" McMillan began his career as an oversized point guard, but now he's used mainly as an undersized small forward. He can defend four positions and supply competent offense. And he can also provide an element of outrage that, too often on the Sonics, emanates only from Karl. After the embarrassing loss to the Mavs (which came two days before the rap video Not in Our House, featuring several Sonics, hit the local airwaves), it was McMillan's voice that carried through the locker-room door and into the hallways of the Coliseum—and he was most assuredly not calling his teammates a real swell bunch of guys. McMillan was still furious two days later. "To come out with that kind of effort when we're a team that's supposed to be a contender was just, just, sickening," he said.
Cage's always minuscule shooting range has dwindled to about three feet, but his lunch-bucket rebounding (8.1 per game) and interior defense are still solid. Pierce's scoring average (18.1 points per game) is his lowest in four seasons, but Karl would love to transplant his give-me-the-ball mentality and know-how into McKey and Kemp. And there is Johnson, at age 33 still one of the league's better purveyors of instant offense (14.2 points per game in just 22.5 minutes).
Another major coup for Karl was his victory over team president Bob Whitsitt in a minibattle of wills over the value of center Benoit Benjamin. Whitsitt thought the Sonics needed a traditional 7-foot, back-to-the-basket pivotman, rather than a converted-forward combination of Kemp-Cage-McKey; and he wanted Benjamin, whom he had obtained two seasons ago from the Los Angeles Clippers, to be that man. But Karl detested Gentle Ben's atrocious physical condition (he weighed a soft 270 pounds) and work ethic. Whitsitt finally shrugged his shoulders and, on Feb. 22, dealt Benjamin to the Lakers, along with the rights to unsigned rookie Doug Christie, for Sam Perkins. Maybe the 6'6" Christie, the 17th pick in the draft, will develop into a poor man's Magic Johnson, as has been predicted. (Possible.) Maybe Benjamin will shed 30 pounds and become a workhorse. (Not likely.) But for now, the versatile veteran Perkins is a perfect fit for the Sonics, and his playoff experience—two seasons ago his three-pointer gave the Lakers a 93-91 win over the Bulls in Game 1 of the championship series—seems to give Seattle much the better of the trade.
Then, too, Perkins fulfills another important need for the Sonics—his heavy-lidded, laid-back demeanor can make McKey look downright perky. Now in his sixth pro season, McKey just doesn't seem to get it. (Derrick, it's O.K. to look like you're AWOL, Asleep With Open Lids, on the court as long as you don't play that way.) As McKey sees it, however, he's never at fault. If his rebounding is criticized—he has averaged only 2.8 rebounds in the last four games—he says it's because he was asked to play defense on the perimeter and thus was too far from the basket. When Karl informed him that he was being benched, his response was, "If they think I'm not getting it done, let somebody else do it."
But the tension between Karl and McKey speaks to a larger issue for the Sonics. "On our team we need a leader on the blocks, a player who wants the ball, demands the ball," says McMillan. "We're trying to mold McKey into that. He can do it. He's got the shot, the moves, the passing skills, the years in the league, the talent. But...." But what? "But it just hasn't happened."
If that leader is not McKey, then the burden most assuredly falls to the 23-year-old Kemp, who sparked the Sonics' quick start this season, in which they won 20 of their first 28 games. But over the last two months Kemp's performance has dipped. He says the decline has nothing to do with complacency, which some believe may have set in after he became a first-time All-Star in February and signed a seven-year contract extension on March 1 that will pay him about $27 million through the 2001-02 season. Kemp merely believes that he is struggling to adjust to the double- and triple-team defenses he has started to see on a regular basis. Karl, meanwhile, sees something different. In a memorable critique delivered recently, Karl said the powerful 6'10", 245-pound Kemp has "too much sugar in his game" (i.e., he sometimes fails to convert his shots because he relies too much on style and finesse and not enough on force).
Kemp does not care to hear the word sugar associated with him, but neither does he want the sweetness leached out of his game. "I can play small, I can play big," he says. "If it's necessary to take my man outside, I want to do that. If I have to push the ball upcourt, I want to do that. NBA big men don't have to have that one identity anymore." Uh-oh. Sounds like a Ralph Sampson-Bill Fitch-type showdown might be imminent. But if Kemp's concentration may falter from time to time, he has by no means tuned out Karl. There he was at a practice last week, working long and hard and sweatily under Karl's tutelage to make himself "big" when posting up. He's neither a sulker nor a lazy player, and, in fact, Kemp hasn't been given nearly enough credit for what he has accomplished. When he was drafted by the Sonics in 1989, the 17th player picked overall, he was just a year out of high school and had a somewhat checkered academic past, and there were many skeptics waiting for him to fail. He hasn't. Remember that when his new contract expires, he will be only 32 years old.
Still, like all youngsters, Kemp occasionally likes his sugar a little too much. He's raw, and perhaps not quite ready for the prime-time challenge of a championship drive. In essence, he epitomizes the Sonics. "Leadership is one of our problems," says Johnson. "We count a lot on young players on the floor, guys like Gary, Shawn and Derrick. And perhaps they're just not ready to supply that leadership off the court and in the locker room. A team can overcome that, but it's tough."
Tough to overcome, also, is the feeling that Karl is courting danger by fiddling at this critical juncture with his lineup—and thus with the psyches of two players he will most certainly need if the Sonics are to be true contenders. This is the time of year, after all, when peak is important and pique can be fatal. Surprisingly, though, most of the Sonic players seemed to back Karl's decision, perhaps because they, too, have grown weary of the irregular displays of energy and concentration from McKey and Kemp.
"This is the time to forget all the exterior stuff and just play," says the usually reticent Pierce. "The important thing is to play not just up to your level, but above it. That's what championship teams do. At least, that's what I've been told they do."
Karl would agree with that. He honestly feels that despite the Sonics' flaws, their defensive prowess and prodigious depth are good enough to carry them to a championship. They're not like most teams, remember, and for that Karl feels fortunate and proud—most of the time, anyway.