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Inside The NBA

Feb. 11, 2002
Feb. 11, 2002

Table of Contents
Feb. 11, 2002

Super Bowl XXXVI

Inside The NBA

Wild about Gary
The resurgent Sonics are thrilled by Gary Payton's maturation
into a leader

This is an article from the Feb. 11, 2002 issue Original Layout

Whatever happened to the combustible Gary Payton? With Seattle
clinging to an 88-85 lead in the final two minutes of a recent
game at Indiana, Payton threaded a pass to Desmond Mason under
the basket, only to see the second-year swingman fumble the ball
out-of-bounds. In years past Payton would have unleashed a
tirade. This time he merely snapped his fingers and turned back
upcourt, and the surprising Sonics held on for their third win on
a four-game road trip.

After 11 abrasive seasons in Seattle, Payton's transformation to
Mr. Nice Guy has been sudden and shocking. "In the past Gary
would let his competitiveness override his intelligence," says
teammate Vin Baker. "He was always the best point guard
physically; now he's become the best point guard mentally."

Payton's career hit bottom last season when he was held
responsible for everything from the firing of coach Paul Westphal
(one week after he and Payton had had a heated confrontation
during a game) to the Sonics' failure to make the playoffs for
the second time in three years. Suddenly the Sonics' franchise
player was the subject of trade talks. This year Payton is
getting credit for leading an overachieving team--10 players have
fewer than four years' experience--that's challenging for one of
the three Western Conference playoff spots that are likely to be
up for grabs.

Payton's transformation is in part the product of a partnership
with coach Nate McMillan, a 37-year-old former assistant who was
Westphal's interim replacement and was given a four-year deal in
March. "This is his team," says Payton, "and I've got to obey."

Payton and McMillan go back to 1990-91, when McMillan was the
Sonics' starting point guard and Payton was the team's high
first-round draft pick. Not only did McMillan willingly cede his
spot, but he also became Payton's trusted friend and adviser.
McMillan reminded him of their history last summer when he asked
Payton to take responsibility for his teammates. "Nate and I went
down the roster, and I'm the oldest guy on the team," says the
33-year-old Payton. "I had to be the one to adjust, and that's
what I did."

Their partnership has hit a few bumps, though. Last season,
following a loss two months into McMillan's tenure, he and
Payton argued in the locker room while the rest of the team
watched. After a sleepless night McMillan suspended Payton for a
game, ending his streak of 356 starts, at the time the longest
by an active player. Both seemed to learn something from the
incident. Although he and McMillan still have disagreements,
Payton says they resolve them in private. "I know I can't come
out and say things to him in front of the other players," Payton
says.

"I don't think people held their ground with Gary in the past,"
McMillan says. "I was honest with him. I told him if changes
couldn't be made [in Payton's attitude], then the organization
would make changes."

As trade rumors swirled, Payton put out an extraordinary
statement to Seattle fans on the eve of the June 27 NBA draft,
declaring he had never asked to be moved. "Please understand I
have no problems with Seattle management and would like nothing
more than to finish my career in Seattle," the statement read.

Star players tend to become off-court leaders as their on-court
production declines. Payton, however, refuses to see himself as
an old man. He was averaging 23.0 points (12th in the league),
9.2 assists (third) and 41.9 minutes (fourth) at week's end. His
continued dominance is taking pressure off Baker, the former
All-Star who slumped noticeably last year, and forward Rashard
Lewis, 22, a budding star who's years from leading a team.

Payton is resolved to continue making life easier for his coach.
Last month McMillan left the team for four days to travel to
North Carolina, where his 59-year-old mother is undergoing
treatment for kidney disease. "I try to take some pressure off
him so he doesn't have to go home worrying about his mother and
his team," says Payton, who during McMillan's absence made a
last-second shot to beat the Cavaliers.

McMillan has turned the Sonics into one of the NBA's
hardest-working teams, with practices lasting 90 minutes on game
days and three hours otherwise. Payton, formerly an inconsistent
practice player, has participated without fail. "Gary's at the
age where he needs to put in that work," McMillan says.

Payton believes he can play at a high level through his late 30s,
but he can't guarantee his career will have a happy ending in
Seattle. If the Sonics fail to sign him to an extension before
next season, the last in his seven-year, $85 million contract,
Payton says he'll leave Seattle. "In that case he wouldn't
cooperate with them on a sign-and-trade," says Payton's agent,
Aaron Goodwin. "He would go to another team and then come back to
the Sonics and punish them every year."

New Seattle chairman Howard Schultz won't discuss the team's
plans concerning Payton, but he doesn't sound as if he's willing
to let Payton walk. "In the past, the players have not trusted
one another," Schultz says. "We've put that sense of trust in
place, and I give Gary all the credit."

The Future Is Later
Trade Talk

Every team in the league is fishing for a good deal in
anticipation of the Feb. 21 trade deadline. Most are wasting
their time: On average only three or four deadline trades have
been made over the past 15 years, and few of those have had an
immediate impact. Trades are much easier to pull off in the
summer, after free agents have become available and the league
has tabulated the next season's salary cap.

Nevertheless, each February execs cast their lines. "Every day
you're talking to somebody," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh.
"It heats up the week before the deadline. By then you've
whittled it to six or seven teams, and you're talking all the
time."

Two players known to be available last week were Denver point
guard Nick Van Exel, who has demanded a trade, and Golden State
center Marc Jackson, whom the Warriors retained as a free agent
in the off-season with the idea of trading him. Walsh has had
discussions about both players and is mentioned in many other
rumors because he has a stable of nine promising players who are
25 or under. The question is which of them will he be able to
keep while avoiding the impending luxury tax. Indiana's payroll
is about $53 million, and after next season Jermaine O'Neal,
Jonathan Bender and Jeff Foster will be seeking big raises as
free agents. As much as he and G.M. David Kahn are on the phone,
Walsh says, "I spend most of my time looking at my own team."

Walsh is in the happy predicament of having more talent than he
can afford because he made the bold move of rebuilding his team
at the height of its success following its six-game loss to the
Lakers in the 2000 NBA Finals. "I looked at Shaquille O'Neal and
said, 'This is the time to change the team,'" Walsh says. "You
look at him and say, 'How are we ever going to beat him?'"

That points to the defining aspect of this year's trade market:
It's more about the seasons ahead than the one at hand. Walsh
agrees with the sentiment of a fellow Eastern Conference general
manager, who looks out west at Shaq and Kobe Bryant and says,
"As long as those two are together, we're all playing for second
place."

Guard Optimism
Larry Hughes Seeks a Spot

The Warriors made an intriguing announcement after they drafted
Jason Richardson with the No. 5 choice last June. To make room
for Richardson at shooting guard, they would shift Larry Hughes
to the point. "I thought it was a good idea," says Hughes, 23,
who was shipped from Philadelphia to Golden State in February
2000 after he was unable to coexist in the backcourt with Allen
Iverson. "I get to handle the ball, and it keeps me involved."

Hughes has shown potential at the point, especially in three
games in which he produced eight or more assists with no
turnovers. The 6'5" Hughes also ranks third in the NBA in steals
per game (2.02 through Sunday) despite often guarding smaller,
quicker players. "It's the toughest position to play, and he's
handled it more smoothly than I thought he would," says one
Western Conference G.M.

Nonetheless, Hughes has a poor assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.04.
While that's partly the result of his teammates' failure to
finish--at week's end the Warriors were shooting 41.9%, third
worst in the NBA--the figure has some questioning Hughes's ball
handling and decision making.

Hughes is one of a number of talented young players who have yet
to find a niche in the NBA. Is he a point guard, a shooting
guard (his career-best 42.5% from the field limits him as a
perimeter threat) or a potential swingman? While he says he
doesn't want to be limited to one position, there's some urgency
to his need to solidify his status. He'll be a restricted free
agent this summer, and Golden State will be positioned in the
lottery to draft a point guard like Duke's Jason Williams or
Illinois's Frank Williams. The Warriors would like to keep
Hughes, but if they can't reach an agreement, Hughes and his
agent would probably have to seek a complicated sign-and-trade
deal to present to the Warriors. "If it doesn't work out for him
here," says one of Hughes's teammates, "he can always go back to
playing the two somewhere else next year."

The Shot, Again
Play of the Week

With 1.6 seconds left and the Wizards trailing 92-91 last
Thursday in Cleveland, Washington point guard Chris Whitney came
off a Michael Jordan screen on the low block. Cavaliers
defenders Bryant Stith and Jumaine Jones both followed Whitney
to the corner, leaving Jordan alone. He ran to the foul line,
caught the inbounds pass and canned the game-winning 18-footer
at the buzzer from practically the same spot on the floor from
which he famously eliminated Cleveland in the 1989 Eastern
Conference first round. "A little bit of deja vu, huh?" said
Cavaliers coach John Lucas. "We blew an assignment, and the
absolute wrong man came open."

For complete scores, stats and the latest news, plus more
analysis from Jack McCallum, go to cnnsi.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Payton has continued to hone his game but has finally taken the edge off his sharp tongue.COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLANCOLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Hughes's shift from shooter to point hasn't been an unqualified success.

scout's Take
On the 76ers, who at week's end had won 12 of their last 16
games to climb above .500 for the first time in two months.

"It's taken them awhile to get it together, but the Sixers are
the team to beat in the East. They changed a lot of pieces from
last year, but the chemistry seems to be coming back. In fact,
they can be better than they were. The trade for Dikembe Mutombo
was the key last season, and this year it's the acquisition of
Derrick Coleman [above]. He's putting up good numbers [averaging
14.9 points and 8.8 rebounds through Sunday, second on the team
in both categories], and he's in much better shape than he was in
the last two years. I have no idea how he's getting along inside
their locker room, but I noticed he's the only guy not afraid to
tell Allen Iverson he's taken a bad shot. Let me ask you: Whom
you would rather have at power forward, Tyrone Hill or Derrick
Coleman? From that standpoint, bringing him in was a no-brainer."

around the Rim

Nets guard Kerry Kittles improved his game the hard way: by
missing last season while recuperating from a potentially
career-ending knee injury. "I used to think about stuff that
sidetracked me," says Kittles, who says he worried too much about
the consequences of missing a shot. "I told myself that if I
could come back, I was going to enjoy the game, play aggressive
and not put added pressure on myself." At week's end he was
shooting a career-best 47.0%.... Bucks coach George Karl likes to
keep even his own players guessing as to who'll take the last
shot in the final seconds of a tight game. "Right before the
play," he says, "I whisper to the inbounds passer [the name of
the guy] I want him to pass it to." The idea is that when each
player acts as if he might take the last shot, the pressure stays
on the defense.... The Trail Blazers are back in contention
thanks to inventive coach Maurice Cheeks, who has gone stretches
with 6'7" Scottie Pippen at the point and 5'10" Damon Stoudamire
at shooting guard, from which he works off picks to get open for
his jumper. Stoudamire averaged 17.7 points over a nine-game
period in the role, compared to 12.2 before that.... Playing to
half-empty houses in Charlotte has toughened the Hornets, and
with the return of Jamal Mashburn and George Lynch from injury,
they should contend in the wide-open East.... Timberwolves VP
Kevin McHale won't get misty eyed this weekend. The seven-time
All-Star calls the NBA's midseason classic "a game that has no
bearing on anything."