It’s been 10 years since Gary Payton was traded from the Seattle SuperSonics to the Milwaukee Bucks, ending a golden era in the Northwest and essentially choking the life out of basketball in Seattle.
Five years after Payton’s departure the Sonics were gone, hustled to Oklahoma City by owner Clayton Bennett just two years after he purchased the team from Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz. Payton’s exit, although the deal included former Celtic Ray Allen, extinguished the personality of the franchise. While Allen and Rashard Lewis helped the Sonics to the Western Conference semifinals in 2005, the franchise never regained the swagger and identity it possessed during the Payton years.
Inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame last Sunday, Payton repeated several times that he enters as a Sonic despite winning a championship with the Miami Heat. His departure from Seattle, the destruction of the franchise, and the failure of the city to reclaim another team last summer was fresh on Payton’s mind.
Payton fully realizes his importance to the franchise and laments leaving since it could be perceived as having permanently damaged the Sonics’ image. Payton blames the ownership switch from the popular Barry Ackerley to Schultz, who purchased the team in 2001, bringing a bundle of unfulfilled promises.
“When the Ackerleys sold the team it went from being a family team to a business,” said Payton. “The people who took over the team ran their team like a business, like how they made their money, and you can’t do that.
“The Ackerleys ran the team like a family. When we had problems, they would call us in and talk to us. They would call us in and ask us what’s the problem, not try to trade you and tell you, ‘No, you don’t need a contract.’ You see where [Schultz’s style] got us, leading to another owner moving the team. And we knew he would move it to Oklahoma, we knew that. The Schultz group should have known that, too. We were the longest-standing team in Seattle and we let a guy just come in here and take it.”
Payton continued his criticism of Schultz, who was criticized heavily in Seattle for selling the Sonics to an owner who had relocation intentions. Schultz sold the Sonics less than six months after announcing they were on the market.
“He just messed up our whole [franchise] and people did leave Seattle alone when he owned the team,” said Payton. “That’s why he had to sell it again, because he was struggling. He made a lot of silly moves and the first silly move was getting rid of me.”
Payton was 34 and in the final year of his contract when the Sonics dealt him and DesmondMason to Milwaukee for Allen, Ronald Murray, Kevin Ollie, and a first-round pick that became Luke Ridnour. Payton finished his career with the Bucks, Lakers, Celtics, and finally two seasons with the Heat.
“I wasn’t asking for a lot; I never asked for a new contract [before my previous one expired],” Payton said about his final season in Seattle. “All I asked was whether we were going to get an extension [in the offseason] and [Schultz] made it seem like, ‘I don’t care about you no more, you’re nothing.’ So, that’s what happened. He [saw] that wasn’t the right way and the whole franchise went downhill from there.
“It was time to go. I didn’t want to work for this guy. He knew it and I knew it. We don’t have the right people running this squad. Why sit here and be miserable.”
Perhaps the beginning of the end for Payton in Seattle was when Shawn Kemp demanded a trade after center Jim McIlvaine got a seven-year, $33 million contract extension, considered outrageous for an unproven player. Payton said Kemp should have remained quiet.
“Shawn had just redid his contract the [previous] season. [McIlvaine] got lucky, I think a lot of guys in the NBA are lucky now,” Payton said. “That doesn’t have nothing to do with your ability. Don’t hate, just play better, and then get that money. Don’t hate the player [for getting paid], hate what the game is about.”
ON THE RADAR
Grizzlies one of best in West
When assessing the Western Conference, the Memphis Grizzlies could be the second or third name mentioned as a favorite. The Grizzlies defeated a Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City team with ease in the conference semifinals last season, but fell short in being swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the West finals.
A year of experience, some key roster additions, and a core among the league’s best has the Grizzlies believing they are capable of reaching the Finals. Their beliefs appear justified. The lone question is new coach Dave Joerger, who took over for Lionel Hollins. Hollins was not re-signed by new ownership. A first-time coach could potentially serve as an obstacle in the early season, but club management is convinced the team will quickly gain chemistry with Joerger, who was an assistant coach under Hollins.
“You have to start rebuilding your momentum and re-creating your roles and we have a number of new faces,” general manager Chris Wallace said. “Because of the personnel and the dynamics of the organization, you hope that his transition is looser than if an outside person came in.”
The Grizzlies have risen from the lottery, to lower-tier playoff team, to contender, and now a potential favorite in the Western Conference.
“The hardest thing is going from 35, 36 or 38 wins to 50-plus wins, and going from a team that initially makes the playoffs to one that has staying power and becomes a team that the expectations are we’re not just going to make the playoffs, we’re actually going to go somewhere,” said Wallace, a former Celtics executive. “That’s the hardest jump to make. Our team has made that. We’ve become a fixture in the playoffs. The next step is a big one.”
With Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, ex-Celtic Tony Allen, a full season of trade-deadline acquisition Tayshaun Prince, and point guard Mike Conley, the Grizzlies have an experienced and talented starting five. They also added former Miami sharpshooter Mike Miller, Denver center Kosta Koufos, and former University of Florida standout Nick Calathes, who spent the last four seasons playing in Greece.
The Grizzlies won a lot of games in ugly fashion last season, harassing opponents with defense. Joerger said he wants to play a more uptempo style but the defensive philosophy will remain intact. The issue for Hollins was the Grizzlies were tied for 26th in the league with the Bobcats in scoring at 93.4 points per game. San Antonio and Miami, the two finalists, were fourth and fifth, respectively. The Grizzlies were also 21st in field goal percentage.
“I think an awful lot will look the same, there will be a tremendous emphasis on the defensive end,” Wallace said. “If we can get the offense to rise up to the statistical rankings in the league, the way we have the defensive side of the ball, we’re going to be a hell of a team. That’s the final piece, an offense that is a top-10 offense. If you look at a team that has a chance to make a run at a title, you usually have a top-10 offense and top-10 defense.”
Beginning with that controversial February 2008 trade that sent Pau Gasol to the Lakers for Marc Gasol, Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, and two first-round draft picks, the Grizzlies improved on victories in four of the next five seasons. The trade helped Memphis in the long run, though Wallace was lambasted for the deal that handed the Lakers an All-Star forward who helped them to back-to-back titles.
“There is no vindication,” Wallace said of the deal. “I’m a big boy. I’ve been in this business for a long time. I worked in Boston. I know getting roasted over a [trade] from time to time is one of the occupational hazards of being an NBA general manager, and we had to do what the organization felt was necessary to reboot the franchise, go in another direction.
“We were stuck at that point. We never won a playoff game. We were heading for a second 20-something-win season. After all, this is the entertainment business and the town really did not see much entertainment value in our team anymore. Our crowds were dismal and it coincided with the Derrick Rose season at the University of Memphis, and literally we were like a high school JV compared to them in terms of interest. It was just remarkable when we played a day-night doubleheader, you didn’t think you were in the same building when you went to their game. So, there was really nothing to lose at that point.”
Wallace said he couldn’t worry about how the trade affected the Lakers.
“Do we have to evaluate deals strictly on how they are going to affect the other team?” he said. “Do we have to eliminate any deal that’s going to help the other team win a championship? If it’s going to work for us, that’s really not our problem. Unfortunately, when you make this type of major deal and you move the best player on your team, it always comes down to a few viable teams.”
With the Lakers now in rebuilding mode and the Grizzlies by far the more stable franchise, Wallace feels satisfied after being browbeaten for the deal. The risk reaped rewards.
“When we were in the playoffs last season, it felt like you were in an SEC college town on a [football] Saturday morning,” he said. “There would be Grizzlies flags flying. This is a great basketball town, the best basketball town in the South. All this town needed was hope to latch onto with the Grizzlies.”
King’s game was made to fit
Hall of Famer Bernard King said he never attempted to take control of offenses during his NBA tenure. He blended into systems and flourished, especially under Hubie Brown with the New York Knicks. King’s game was much more appreciated after his playing days because of his remarkable comebacks from two torn anterior cruciate ligaments.
He said last weekend in Springfield that his success was predicated on understanding when to score and when to distribute. “My belief has always been that you as a player must fit the system,” he said.
“It should not be the other way around where the system has to fit you. I’ve heard guys say, ‘I can’t play in that kind of system.’ That means that you haven’t studied and figured out how you can integrate your skills into a system. I played in a passing game, I was an All-Star. I played in a transition fast-break game, I was an All-Star. I played in a set offense, I was an All-Star. So I took my skills and made whatever adjustments I had to make based on the system.”
King said he did not alter his game, which was based on dribble penetration, pull-ups, and physical drives to the basket, because of knee injuries. King missed two full seasons and was limited to six games during the 1986-87 season because of knee injuries. In the 11 seasons that King played at least 55 games, he averaged more than 20 points, including a league-leading 32.9 for the Knicks in 1984-85 and 28.4 in 1990-91 with Washington.
“I used to watch tape before I would go out on the floor when I was recovering from my knee injury, I would watch tape of myself playing, and I would watch my moves and I would record that in my mind,” King said. “And I think I would go to the court and perform the same moves I saw on that tape. Because when you’re injured like that, it’s like putting a puzzle together. It’s like Humpty Dumpty; you have to put your game back together.”
With modern technology, King’s recovery from torn ACLs would have been swifter and less strenuous. King said he harbors no ill feelings about how quickly players currently rehabilitate from what was considered a career-threatening injury 30 years ago.
“I don’t think about being any younger due to the advancement in technology,” he said. “At 34 years old, I was the third-leading scorer in the league on a rebuilt knee and making an All-Star team. I don’t think it gets much better than that.
“I’m happy for the players because of the fact they don’t have to go through what I went through. I hope that Derrick Rose is 100 percent this year. He has a unique skill.”
The Heat are hoping that veteran presence and leadership can help change the fortunes of Michael Beasley, whose contract was bought out by the Suns after yet another drug-related arrest. Beasley was Miami’s second overall pick in 2008 but returns to the Heat having flamed out in Minnesota and Phoenix. Rebuilding teams wanted nothing more than for Beasley to start and flourish. Beasley won’t start in Miami. What’s more, he won’t likely have a prominent role, but if he behaves himself and fits into the team concept he could carve out minutes. Beasley will also have to learn how to play defense . . . One of the highlights of Hall of Fame weekend was the acceptance speech by Brazilian great Oscar Schmidt, who was a 1984 draft pick of the Nets. Schmidt revealed during his speech that he passed on the NBA because he would have to relinquish his rights to play for the Brazilian national team. When professionals were allowed to play for their national teams during the 1992 Olympics, Schmidt felt at 35, he was too old to play in the NBA . . . Celtics coach Brad Stevens will participate in a panel of the state’s Division 1 basketball coaches on Sept. 26 in the Legends Room at TD Garden for the benefit of Coaches vs. Cancer. Tickets are $100. For more information, contact Katy Meagher at 508 270-4618 or email@example.com.To buy a ticket online, visit http://coaches.acsevents.org/tipoff . . . Rajon Rondo has rehabilitated quietly from his torn right anterior cruciate ligament, but could make headlines off the court by potentially changing shoe companies from Nike to Anta, the Chinese company that nabbed former Celtic Kevin Garnett a few years ago.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.