9 Seattle SuperSonics If Vin Baker exacts vengeance for last season, this micro lineup won't be soft

November 01, 1999

Vin Baker may prefer to listen to R&B and gospel, but the rock
band Smash Mouth could have had the Sonics' power forward in
mind last summer when it sang, Hey, now, you're an All-Star. Get
your game on. Go. Play. A four-time veteran of the NBA's
midseason classic and a player considered one of the league's
leading lights, Baker endured a 1998-99 season so nightmarish
that it reduced him to tears. With his numbers precipitously
down in every department, the Sonics finished 25-25 and failed
to make the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

When Baker reported to training camp last January, he was 25
pounds above his ideal weight of 255. He figured he would just
play himself into shape, but when his game failed to click in
the opening days of the season--he missed his first 18 foul
shots--his confidence nosedived. Baker wound up shooting 45.0%
from the line, slightly worse than his field goal percentage
(45.3), which was the lowest of his six-year career.

Baker also suffered a battery of injuries that forced him to miss
a third of the season. On April 28 he hit rock bottom. Out of
action with a deep bone contusion in his right knee, he was at
his Bellevue, Wash., home with friends watching the Sonics play
the Trail Blazers. After Portland spanked Seattle 119-84 and
dealt a crushing blow to the Sonics' hopes of reaching the
postseason, Baker quietly left his guests, walked upstairs and
cried. "I felt like I let myself down, my city down and, most
important, my team down," he says. "I said to myself, For all the
success you've enjoyed, you should never be in this position
again."

To that end Baker spent the off-season working out mercilessly in
Seattle and at his parents' home in Old Saybrook, Conn. He also
went to Puerto Rico to help Team USA romp in the qualifying
tournament for the 2000 Olympics. "My confidence really started
to come back," Baker says of his off-season. "The Seattle front
office did its part to help." Conceding that Baker's performance
last season was an aberration, the team signed him to a
seven-year extension worth the maximum $87 million, provided he
meets various weight clauses. Point guard Gary Payton, Baker's
best friend on the team, has also vowed to shoot less and puff
Vin up more.

"I've been challenged to step up to the plate," Baker said
recently, expressing an admirable sentiment with an unfortunate
choice of words. "A lot of how we do as a team is predicated on
what Gary and I do. It all works if I play the part I'm supposed
to play. Overall, I'm excited about how I feel, and I'm excited
about the unit we have."

Except for Baker and Payton, the lone holdover from the 1995-96
team that won the Western Conference title, that unit is vastly
changed from a year ago. Over the summer Seattle parted ways with
nine players on last year's uninspiring roster, including
longtime Sonics Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins and Dale Ellis,
as well as one-year blunders Olden Polynice, Billy Owens and Don
MacLean. To the fans' dismay, Seattle failed to land a big-name
player in return (read: Scottie Pippen), but general manager
Wally Walker unquestionably upgraded the team by adding power
forward Horace Grant, center Greg Foster and guards Brent Barry
and Vernon Maxwell. "On the first day of camp," says Baker, "I
had to put the names with faces."

Seattle's attitude ought to be radically different this year too.
The new Sonics are dripping with bravado and brashness. Grant and
Maxwell are both time-honored tough guys with championship rings,
but leading the charge might be second-year player Ruben
Patterson, the front-runner to start at small forward. When
Patterson, who played in just 24 games for the Lakers last year,
was introduced to the Seattle media this summer, he declared
himself the Kobe-Buster, claiming that he used to regularly shut
down Kobe Bryant in practice. He then added, "I'm going to be the
next Glove because [Payton's] getting up there in age now. He
can't move like he used to." Never one to miss a chance to talk
trash, even if it's to a teammate, Payton responded, "Ruben is
going to be good. I'm going to have to slow his mouth down a
little, but he can play."

While the Sonics may no longer be underconfident, they remain
indisputably undersized. Seattle boasts only one 7-footer,
Vladimir Stepania, and he's a spot-up shooter. Starting the 6'10"
Grant at center sounds much better in theory than it is in
practice. While Patterson is, as self-advertised, a defensive
gem, at 6'5" he is the smallest of small forwards. "Are we going
to be the biggest team in the league? No," says Walker. "But I
think we can offset a lot of that with quickness."

If nothing else, this team will be exciting to watch. Reminiscent
of the helter-skelter Seattle teams from the George Karl era, the
Sonics will trap, slash and push the ball upcourt. "We're going
to play to our strengths," says coach Paul Westphal. "That means
playing high-energy basketball, getting out on the break,
rotating and being disruptive on defense. We should have more
steals, create more turnovers and hopefully put more points on
the board."

Performing in the birthplace of the grunge movement, the
SuperSonics' off-key performance in 1998-99 was characterized by
anomie, angst and slacking. With a slimmed-down Baker back to
help lead an intriguing new mix, Seattle should make sweeter
music this season. Until the Sonics have a bona fide center,
though, they're unlikely to land a gig in the playoffs.

--L.J.W.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH DOWNCAST In his dispiriting 1998-99 season, most of Baker's blocks were mental.

FAST BREAKDOWN

STARTING FIVE [3 1/2 stars]
BENCH [2 1/2 stars]
COACH [2 stars]
FRONT OFFICE [2 stars]
CHEMISTRY [2 1/2 stars]

By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 25-25 (tied for eighth in Western Conference)
Coach: Paul Westphal (second season with SuperSonics)

1998-99 PER GAME POINTS FG% REBOUNDS TURNOVERS
AVERAGES (rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)

SUPERSONICS 94.9 (4) 44.2 (13) 42.0 (14) 15.3 (13)
OPPONENTS 95.9 (24) 45.7 (26) 42.0 (15) 14.9 (19)

In Fact

Seattle had to win three of its final four games to balance its
record at 25-25. Though 1986-87 was the Sonics' last losing
season, they have now finished at an even .500 three times in
the 1990s.

Projected Lineup

STARTERS PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

SF Ruben Patterson[#] 248 2.7 ppg 1.3 rpg 0.1 apg 41.2 FG%
Played in Greece before being anchored to end of Lakers' bench
last year

PF Vin Baker 41 13.8 ppg 6.2 rpg 1.6 apg 45.3 FG%
Scoring and steals averages weren't worst of his career, but all
others were

C Horace Grant[#] 78 8.9 ppg 7.0 rpg 1.8 apg 43.4 FG%
Second straight season shooting below 50% after 10 straight above

SG Brent Barry[#] 142 11.1 ppg 3.9 rpg 3.1 apg 39.6 FG%
Career-high 30 points came in '96 as a Clipper against the Sonics

PG Gary Payton 12 21.7 ppg 4.9 rpg 8.7 apg 43.4 FG%
Led league with 21 technical fouls last year. Next: Dennis Rodman (13)

BENCH PVR* 1998-99 KEY STATS

G Vernon Maxwell[#] 206 10.7 ppg 1.8 rpg 1.7 apg 39.0 FG%
Hasn't shot 40% or better from the field since 40.7% in 1992-93

F Jelani McCoy 210 5.1 ppg 3.0 rpg 73.7 FG% 0.77 bpg
Holds career mark at UCLA with 188 blocks, including 102 as a
freshman

F Rashard Lewis 222 2.4 ppg 1.3 rpg 0.2 apg 36.5 FG%
Made seven starts but played only 7.3 minutes per game

F-C Vladimir Stepania 257 5.5 ppg 3.3 rpg 0.5 apg 42.4 FG%
Averaged a respectable 3.53 blocks and 11.6 rebounds per 48
minutes

C Greg Foster[#] 299 2.8 ppg 2.0 rpg 0.6 apg 37.7 FG%
Has started 16 postseason games including two in '98 NBA Finals

[#] New acquisition
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 102)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)