From this point on, SuperSonics president-general manager Wally
Walker should again be known as Wally Wonder, as he was during
his playing days. On Sept. 25 he traded unhappy power forward
Shawn Kemp, who had vowed to sit out the season rather than play
with the Sonics, in a three-way deal that brought to Seattle the
Bucks' power forward Vin Baker, who is deliriously happy, an
inch taller than the 6'10" Kemp, two years younger (at 25) and
possibly a better all-around player.
In one attitude-cleansing move, the Sonics were transformed from
a troubled team to one that's very capable of making one last
title run in what will probably be the final season for
37-year-old swingman Dale Ellis, 33-year-old guard Nate McMillan
and 36-year-old forward-center Sam Perkins. "There's an
excitement that hasn't been here the last three or four years,''
says coach George Karl. "Seattle has been a team of
perseverance. Now, with our young people and the guys we've
added, we have the emotion that had been missing."
The reason is Baker. He's a better passer than Kemp: He averaged
2.7 assists last year to Kemp's 1.9. "Vin will pass," says Karl.
"Vin likes to pass." He's a better ball handler: He had 3.1
turnovers a game last year to Kemp's 3.5. He's as good a jump
shooter, although Kemp, whose hero is Dr. J, stopped shooting
the 15-footer after apparently deciding that slam-dunking on the
break to make the nightly highlights was his thing. "Shawn is a
dominant player when he rebounds the ball," says Karl. "When he
was spectacular, he didn't have as much to do with winning as he
did when he was rebounding." Moreover, Baker will be less likely
to disappear during a game, as Kemp sometimes did. Over one
three-game stretch last season, Kemp had 19 points and 22
rebounds. He scored fewer than 10 points in a game nine times;
Baker did it twice.
Few fans appreciate the fullness of Baker's game because he was
stuck with the Bucks, steady and near-invisible losers in the
Midwest Division, during his first four years in the NBA. "Not
many people have seen him play, especially people on the West
Coast," says Walker. So here's an introduction: Baker is a
three-time All-Star. Last season he, Lakers center Shaquille
O'Neal and Wizards forward Chris Webber were the only players in
the league to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds and
shoot at least 50% from the field. For his career Baker has
averaged 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game, and shot 49.4%.
Only seven other active players (minimum: 5,000 career points)
are able to match all of those numbers.
"Now it's time to start chasing championships," says Baker of
his role with the Sonics, who have won 55 games or more for five
straight years and reached the Finals two seasons ago. "I get a
chance to flip the script here in Seattle. Now my game is going
Igniting Baker's game will be the West's best guard, point man
Gary Payton. Last summer, when Baker was still a Buck, he spent
two weeks in Europe on the Nike tour with, among others, Payton.
Baker kept saying, "I'd love to play on the same team with that
guy." As for pairing at forward with 6'10" Detlef Schrempf, who
is a superb passer, Baker says, "When I call home, I don't tell
everyone how much it rains in Seattle. I tell them that I'm
playing with Detlef."
The Sonics love players with long, athletic bodies and fast
games. Says Baker, as if on cue, "I love to run. The Western
Conference is perfect for my style." Baker has two things to
prove in Seattle: that he can deliver during the postseason, in
which he never played as a Buck, and that he can adjust to
Seattle's gambling, pressing defense.
"I'm so excited about this trade because it's just like it was
in Milwaukee when I was drafted so high [No. 8 out of Hartford
in '93] and no one knew who I was. Then I surprised them," Baker
says. "They won't be as surprised here, but they will be
surprised. I'm not worried about being compared to anyone."
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH PEERLESS PAYTON (20) WILL RUN A NEW SEATTLE SHOW THAT SHOULD GET A RISE FROM BAKER [Gary Payton and opposing player in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [Jim McIlvaine]
BY THE NUMBERS
1996-97 TEAM STATISTICS Record: 57-25 (first in Pacific)
Points Rebounds Turnovers
per game FG pct. per game per game
(rank) (rank) (rank) (rank)
SuperSonics 100.9 (4) .467 (8) 40.0 (22) 15.0 (8)
Opponents 93.2 (7) .441 (8) 39.9 (9) 18.7 (1)
Since the 1992-93 season, only the Bulls (.732) have had a
better regular-season winning percentage than Seattle (.722).
The Sonics' record (296-114) is the best in NBA history over a
five-year span by a team that didn't win a championship.
BEST REGULAR-SEASON WINNING PERCENTAGES OVER A FIVE-YEAR SPAN
WITHOUT AN NBA TITLE
W-L Percentage Lost Finals
1992-93 to '96-97 Sonics 296-114 .722 1996
1991-92 to '95-96 Sonics 286-124 .698 1996
1990-91 to '94-95 Suns 285-125 .695 1993
1977-78 to '81-82 76ers 281-129 .685 1980, '82
1989-90 to '93-94 Suns 280-130 .683 1993
1988-89 to '92-93 Suns 279-131 .680 1993
1992-93 to '96-97 Jazz 279-131 .680 1997
NOTE FROM THE UNDERGROUND
Center Jim McIlvaine (right), who is in the second year of a
seven-year, $35 million contract, is a nice
15-to-20-minute-a-night player. That's it--and the Sonics know
it. Don't make the mistake of taking McIlvaine's averages for
rebounds and blocks and extrapolating them to show what the
numbers would be if he played 40 minutes. Overuse him, and he'll
hurt you, not help you. For instance, when he misses an easy
shot, he has a tendency to panic. Then he's quite capable of
throwing the ball to someone on the other team.
PROJECTED LINEUP with 1996-97 stats
Coach: George Karl (seventh season with Seattle)
STARTERS G PPG RPG APG SPG BPG FG% FT% 3FG%
PG Gary Payton 82 21.8 4.6 7.1 2.40 0.16 .476 .715 .313
SG Hersey Hawkins 82 13.9 3.9 3.0 1.94 0.15 .464 .875 .403
SF Detlef Schrempf 61 16.8 6.5 4.4 1.03 0.26 .492 .801 .354
PF Vin Baker[*] 78 21.0 10.3 2.7 1.04 1.44 .505 .687 .278
C Jim McIlvaine 82 3.8 4.0 0.3 0.48 2.00 .471 .495 .143
F-C Sam Perkins 81 11.0 3.7 1.3 0.85 0.60 .439 .817 .395
G-F Nate McMillan 37 4.6 3.2 3.8 1.57 0.16 .409 .655 .333
G-F Dale Ellis[*] 82 16.6 3.6 2.0 0.73 0.09 .414 .817 .364
G Greg Anthony[*] 65 9.5 2.8 6.3 1.98 0.06 .393 .730 .370
F Jerome Kersey[*]70 6.8 5.2 1.3 1.70 0.70 .432 .602 .262
[*] New acquisition