With all due respect to Seattle Sonics legend and current head coach Nate McMillan, Gary Payton has long been more deserving of the deified moniker of "Mr. Sonic." Not that the two don't have plenty in common. Both are point guards by trade, lack the spring-loaded legs that are the privilege of NBA wire walkers, and entered the league with woeful jump shots that they worked doggedly to improve over the course of their careers.
But Mac 10 never dunked on Michael Jordan. The Glove, who rarely dunks, accomplished that feat in the 1996 NBA Finals, following it up with an "eat my shorts, baldy" glare that may or may not have inspired His Airness to deliver the Game 6 knockout punch that added to his Chicago Bulls' run.
And then there was the time Payton referred to the Houston Rockets' splendidly versatile point guard, Steve Francis—then a rookie—as a "punk-ass bitch," touching off a ferocious personal rivalry between the two floor generals that Stevie Franchise comes closer to winning every year.
The irony of the Glove's tongue-in-cheek diss of Francis is that Payton himself is the ultimate punk-ass bitch—and Payton knows it. Until last year, McMillan's first full season as head coach, GP's swagger had mostly been a net attitudinal negative. However, before last season, Payton was publicly challenged by brown-bean baron and Sonic owner Howard Schultz to ratchet up his leadership to keep pace with his inner biznatch. Hence, paired for the first full season with McMillan, one of the forerunners in a new breed of black ex-players to assume the reins for various franchises, Payton exceeded everyone's rosiest expectations in leading the Sonics to an unlikely playoff berth, where they fell in five games to Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs.
Implicit in meeting these lofty expectations was a contract extension that would put Payton, entering the final year of his contract, in mega-bling-dolla-holla territory with the likes of Shaq O'Neal, Karl Malone, and Kevin Garnett. Or so Payton thought.
ESSENTIALLY TOLD TO shut up and play out his contract, what the Glove got instead was the hoop equivalent of being treated like a lowly night-shift barista. Toss in the protracted, poker-faced negotiations with promising free agent Rashard Lewis and the subsequent P.R. maneuvering by the Sonic front office—Schultz claimed Payton was disrespecting him by showing up a little late for camp—there is no mistaking who wears the biggest britches on Planet SuperSonica.
Schultz gets major points for revealing a gargantuan pair of brass ones here, which, considering his Starbucks track record, should surprise no one. But in a diamond-studded pro-basketball era of palatial Las Vegas summer homes and souped-up Escalades with TVs inside, it will be interesting to see if Schultz's "you work for me" moxie will play at the Key.
Of course, with the miraculous off-season jettisoning of mercurial power forward Tin Vin Baker, who was traded to the Boston Celtics with Shammond Williams for point guard Kenny Anderson and hulkish troglodyte Vitaly Potapenko, now more then ever, Sonic fortunes rest squarely on the wiry shoulders of Payton—the team's lone all-star commodity.
What Schultz is banking on is that Payton's much ballyhooed competitive juices will prevail over his cantankerous quibbling. The fact that Payton even showed up for training camp probably proves this to be a shrewd gamble, but whether or not Payton returns next year is anyone's guess. You can bet Pat Riley and his entire Miami Heat staff will offer to wash and wax GP's sled in the middle of a hurricane if it means luring the Glove down South, so here's hoping Schultz is a master of amends.
Whether the Supes make the playoffs really depends on how much teams like Francis' Rockets and the magnificently talented Los Angeles Clippers progress. One thing is for certain: The Sonics will be a better team without Baker and Williams, neither of whom fits into McMillan's gritty system—one that prides itself on the sort of defensive hustle exhibited by Payton, swingman Desmond Mason, and small forward Ansu Sesay, all of whom can defend at least three positions.
STILL, PAWNING BAKER off on Beantown is addition by subtraction. The Supes are left with a major muscle deficiency on the glass. Lewis, who must develop into a 20-point-per-game scorer for the Sonics to have a prayer, is a nice rebounder from the three spot, but Vladimir Radmanovic will be starting out of position at the four. At center, Jerome James was a pleasant surprise last season, but his injury-addled position mate, Calvin "Humpty" Booth, acted as though he was afraid of the paint in his limited time on the court.
For all the credit rightfully showered upon General Manager Rick Sund for getting rid of Tin Vin, the failure to address the team's toughness deficiency—and folks, trust me, Potapenko's not the answer—is a bit unnerving, especially when you consider that outspoken war horse Charles Oakley remains unsigned. Provided Mason replaces Brent Barry—who was a flat-out embarrassment in the playoffs—in the starting lineup sometime before midseason, Sund might look to move old Bones for someone like Stromile Swift, who looks like the odd man out in Memphis with the drafting of rookie power forward Drew Gooden. The big downside to such a move is that this would presumably mean Barry's wife, Erin, would have to leave, too.
In the West, the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Spurs, and Portland Trail Blazers look like surefire playoff teams. My pick to win it all? Surprise—the Mavericks, with Raef LaFrentz and Nick Van Exel given a full season to jell with their hyperkinetic teammates, will race to the season's best record and then oust the Kings in the Western Conference Finals before wiping the floor with whatever team emerges from the East. What of the venerable Lakers, you ask? Sorry, you can only get by on Phil Jackson's silly Zen arrogance, two horses, and a stableful of journeymen for so long. Stan Medvedenko does not a four-peat make.
The sickeningly talented Clippers, who finally have a capable quarterback in Cleveland Cavaliers expatriate Andre Miller, will make the playoffs in spite of themselves. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Suns are rebuilding, and the Utah Jazz let free agents Bryon Russell and Donyell Marshall go in favor of Calbert Cheaney and Matt Harpring. Those are hardly what we'd consider upgrades, but the savvy eleventh-hour addition of Mark Jackson to back up John Stockton will be enough to push the geriatric gents from Temple Square into the playoffs one last time.
Besides the Celtics, the second biggest off-season dunderheads appear to be the Minnesota Timberwolves, who, with longtime starter Terrell Brandon's entire season in doubt, signed free agent Troy Hudson to replace Chauncey Billups at the point. Hudson is about as cut out to be a first-tier court general as Shammond Williams, and both the Wolves and Celts will suffer through a year's worth of regret as those two "me first" ball hogs dribble out the 24-second clock on every other possession. Hence, John "Bryan Adams" Crotty will once again find himself employed this season. With all of Garnett's "I have to do everything for this team" bickering in the off-season and Wally Sczerbiak's vain decision to flex for the Sports Illustrated Women's swimsuit issue, the Wolves look poised to implode. For all his gaudy statistics, Garnett has never been much more than an elasticized Scottie Pippen when it counts. Let us never forget K.G.'s chicken, last-second dish to bricklayer Dean Garrett two years ago that ended the Wolves' season in the first round of the playoffs, which is where the Wolves' seasons always end.
THIS BRINGS US DOWN to the Rockets and Sonics for the final spot. Here, things are quite simple: If second-year forward Eddie Griffin improves as projected, 7-foot-5 Yao Ming makes any sort of impact, and the Rockets stay healthy for once, then Stevie Franchise will finally get his punk ass into the postseason.
If one of these Rocket contingencies doesn't fire, Payton & Co. will remain punk-ass bitches extraordinaire, still a year from having the experience to make it out of the first round.
That is, if the Glove decides to return.
If he doesn't, it's on Schultz—who will forever bear the burden of Mr. Sonic finishing his career in Miami Beach.