Ray Allen and six of his SuperSonics teammates are in the final year of their contracts, but you don't hear much speculation about their future deals in the Seattle locker room. "I would never say, 'Sign me or I won't play' or 'Give me my money'--I'd never do that," says the 6'5" Allen, referring to the outrageous preseason demands of the Timberwolves' Latrell Sprewell. "I'm getting paid a lot [$14.6 million this season] to help this team compete and get better, and that's what I'm worrying about right now."
It's easy to see the bright side when you're the top scorer on the team with the league's best record: 13--2 through Sunday, including a 5--1 mark on an 8,000-mile road trip. At week's end Allen was pumping in 24.0 points per game while hitting 48.3% of his three-pointers. "I feel like nothing can go wrong," says Allen. "But at the same time I feel like I have to work even harder to stay on top."
The Sonics got off to a surprising 5--1 start last year before slumping to a 37--45 finish. What may keep them from swooning this season is the emergence of power forwards Reggie Evans, Danny Fortson and Nick Collison, who have quickly developed a synergy with Seattle's perimeter shooters. The rugged big men aren't just setting hard picks for Allen, Rashard Lewis (20.7 points per game through Sunday), Antonio Daniels (13.5) and Vladimir Radmanovic (11.3), they're demolishing Seattle's reputation for softness. After finishing last in the NBA in rebounding in 2003--04, the Sonics were outboarding opponents by 4.2 per game at week's end, second best in the league. And they've ingeniously overcome their low-post deficiencies by snatching a league-high 37.2% of their team's errant shots, leading to easy tip-ins and follows. "Teams are defending so much on the perimeter that they're leaving smalls and single coverages under the boards," says coach Nate McMillan.
At week's end the Sonics had held 12 of their 15 opponents to less than 50% shooting. When they hit an ice-cold stretch this season--which is inevitable for a young, jump-shooting team--it's going to be crucial that both McMillan and management exercise patience. If they can keep this group together and on track for three years, Lewis, Radmanovic, Collison, point guard Luke Ridnour and promising rookie center Robert Swift (all 25 or younger) could form the second coming of the Mavericks, with Allen as their leader. "Ray has reached his full potential, and he just turned 29," says G.M. Rick Sund. "If we keep him, we can have two or three [stars] in their prime at the same time, and that's when you become pretty good."
Sund and agent Lon Babby have held cordial discussions about a five-year extension for Allen, who appears willing to accept less than the $95 million max. Seattle's alternative would be to build up as much as $24 million in cap space by letting Allen go this summer to a team that has the room to sign him: the Bobcats, Clippers, Cavaliers, Hawks or Raptors (should Toronto clear room by trading Vince Carter and Jalen Rose). But neither side wants that to happen. "This is definitely a fun situation to be in," says Allen. "This team can be good for a long time."
On the Grizzlies, after coach Hubie Brown retired last Thursday:
"Whoever they hire may soon realize that this team overachieved to win 50 games last year without a dominant star. The key decisions will involve rotation and tempo. Are they going to keep going 10 deep the way Hubie did? If so, the new coach may want to run more to take pressure off their mediocre centers and to get more out of Pau Gasol, who has looked passive this season. But that's not an easy solution either; Hubie probably would have gone with a faster style if he'd thought Jason Williams could play under control while pushing the ball."