Left With Squatch

The Sonics limp to season's end and an uncertain future.

Even if the Sonics are soon to bid adieu to this bound-to-collapse soufflé of an NBA season, maybe you gym gourmands could look at it this way: The team will be back in just a few months with a new menu. Let's hope locals have appetites for that nouvelle grub, because finicky fans may not sniff much familiarity among the starting five or the guy wearing street threads at the head of the bench.

Ray Allen, the main course of any Sonics meal, sprained an ankle during the Sonics' nearly unwatchable 103-81 loss Sunday, May 8, to San Antonio. He'll become a Cleveland Cav, by the reckoning of many. Jerome James, who answered the early Mother's Day departures of Allen and Vladimir Radmanovic with a heroic four points and two rebounds versus the Spurs? The Sonics want to plant recent middle-school standout Robert Swift at center. Reggie Evans? Maybe you'd see him a few butts down the bench watching vetlike NBA freshman Nick Collison play the four spot. Or maybe Evans also will be gone, along with Fightin' Danny Fortson, Flip Murray, and Vitaly ("pronounce-me-if-you-can") Potapenko. Coach Nate McMillan, still without the lucrative new contract many expected, could be the first guy to the parking lot.

With free agency breaking up that old gang of ours, who does that leave for sure next season? Right now it's Luke Ridnour, Rashard Lewis, and Squatch. That's why observing the present playoff round against San Antonio is a pensive exercise, kind of like sending away a spring graduating class. Certainly it's a group of hoops scholars that exceeded expectations, even if the Spurs are said to be about 250-1 to triumph over Seattle. It was such a certainty (I file this prior to the second game of the conference semis) that I half wondered whether San Antonio might become the first team to be anointed winner of a best-of-seven series three games to none.

Based on what was generally believed about the Supes when the season commenced, it made sense to have mostly free agents on the roster. After all, seemingly every NBA expert had Seattle penciled at 30-52 rather than the reverse. Certain losers, the Sonics would clean house after the season and reload with a new coach and players.

Yeah, but then those damned experts got it wrong again. Not only were the Sonics (when they weren't banged up) steady all year, McMillan emerged as a Coach of the Year possibility and one of the oft-mentioned new hires for every vacancy in the NBA. In the absence of a new deal here with a rim-high raise, the only thing keeping Nate in Seattle would be his kid's final years at O'Dea High.

But the Sonics have other problems. Howard Schultz can try to sell (at a loss) his majority share of the team. The flip side of the dilemma is that he can stick as principal owner knowing his club is condemned to lose millions each season in the absence of an improved arena and/or a better deal with the city. The latter isn't likely, given local voters who remember having (a) gotten a half-billion-buck baseball facility despite voting it down; (b) built an equally high-priced football stadium that is used (and not particularly well) all of a dozen times a year; and (c) thought they completed the dirty civic deed with the Sonics a decade ago.

All of the above, then, nearly makes the waning remaining Sonics games of secondary interest. Why take fan pride in the exploits of Allen, et al., if they'll be gone by the end of next week? Why embrace this franchise if its future looks about as promising as Spokane Mayor Jim West's?

One reason is that the experts could be wrong again. Even if the Sonics were to limp home down 2-0 to San Antonio, observers couldn't be certain this season's overachieving Greenies wouldn't somehow stumble into a conference final with Phoenix (the Suns, no doubt, would be favored 2,500-1). Would that kind of success set up a PR trap commanding that Starbucks Schultzy keep his team intact? At what price? In this town, if Edgar is the main ancient Mariner, then Nate is the SuperestSonic; he deserves the huge contract if only for having been associated with the club since his playing days commenced in 1986. Can't coach a playoff team? He appeared in 98 postseason games, more than any other SuperSonics player.

Placate Nate, yes, but who could make a serious case for caving to 29-year-old Ray Allen with an offer sheet tying him up until he's 37?

So as the season seems to slip away, and when answers should be apparent, the Sonics continue to pose more questions than that automaton who dominated Jeopardy last year. Jeopardy is a fitting description of what Schultz and his management team face. It probably isn't caffeine or disagreeable cuisine keeping them awake at night. Rather, they could be pondering the irony that still-warm on-court success is causing them such a foreboding sense of cold failure.


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