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Not yet booming
by Marc Narducci / January 11, 2006

The plays are different. The atmosphere has certainly changed. Practices are longer, film study more detailed.

The only thing that has yet to change is the frequent entries in the loss column, although to be honest, it's too early to make any type of assessment.

All that can be determined is that after a 52-30 season, and a trip to the conference semifinals, the Seattle SuperSonics are not having much fun this season. Or very much success either.

First they started losing games, then their confidence went and finally their coach was dispatched, just 30 games into his tenure.

Long-time assistant Bob Weiss was fired following a 13-17 start and his replacement Bob Hill was 1-3 following Monday's 107-98 loss at Philadelphia. The players are trying to cope with the sudden change, in coaches and
temperament. Weiss had replaced Nate McMillan, who bolted to Portland with a big contract and his rough edge intact.

McMillan wasn't one to soothe egos and the players were in unison that the gentler command of Weiss is what the team needed. Instead, the country club atmosphere that pervaded during Weiss' short tenure, wasn't a good mix.

Now Hill, whose hide is as thick as McMillan's, is in command. No more light practices for a team that statistically has the worst defense in the NBA, allowing more than 105 points per game.

The players want to please their new coach, but they can be excused if their heads are spinning slightly.

"You have to learn on the fly when a new coach comes in," said Sonics forward Rashard Lewis, the team's second leading scorer. "It might be easier if he wants to keep the same offense and defense, but he is changing
everything."

The players aren't complaining. It's just that this is foreign territory to many. Ray Allen, still playing at an All-Star level in his 10th year, has never had a coach fired during the season.

And if the news of Weiss' firing wasn't enough, the players rediscovered what it meant to run hard during an entire practice.

"We all crave discipline and he (Hill) has injected a lot of things we haven't been doing into this team over the last week," Allen said. "When you lose games, you can't do the same things you always have done."

So Allen, while shocked at the news despite the loud rumbling of rumors prior to Weiss' ouster, he has embraced new leadership, hoping something will get the Sonics back on track.

"As a leader and captain of this team, I just have to fall in line and do what the coaches ask and go with a different perspective to try to have success that we haven't had early," Allen said.

So the players don't mind the rough-and-tumble approach brought by Hill. One thing that seems apparent is that there probably weren't many players mourning the departure of McMillan, who has taken on the Herculean task of attempting to revive the Portland Trail Blazers.

"Nate always had an ax to grind," explained Allen. "Whether in game or practice, we didn't' get many days off."

Then again, most NBA teams don't get a lot of days off during the season. Allen, however felt the team needed an occasional mental breather.

"When we won, he was over there yelling and saying we didn't do this the right way and there was never any reward," Allen said about McMillan. "The things I've seen of Bob Hill, while he doesn't spare the punches with any one of us, but he also knows how to reward."

That means when players do something positive he tells them about it, something that was missing last year, according to Allen.

Still, the team won 52 games with McMillan ranting and raving and now they may lose that many with a slightly milder approach.

Seattle was expected to take a slight tumble after losing center Jerome James and guard Antonio Daniels to free agency. Ironically, both are having disastrous seasons, James with the New York Knicks and Daniels with
Washington.

Hill is attempting to work in two centers, Robert Swift and Johan Petro, who were first-round picks in each of the past two years. Both are raw, and young, a combined 39 years old between them. Still, they represent the future and whether it includes Hill will likely be determined at the end of the season.

The Sonics are a perimeter team that can be competitive against anybody when shooting well and lose to any opponent when off the mark. It's a team that could use some toughness, which Hill is trying to introduce. The only problem is that Hill can't go out there and rebound in traffic.

If there is any salvation, it's that the Sonics compete in the Northwest Division, where a .500 record could win it all. It's also likely that the division winner will be the only team from the Northwest to make the playoffs, but for now, the Sonics aren't worried about that.

"Even though we're not playing the best basketball now, we still have a chance to win our division," said Flip Murray, who like many of the Sonics is much more gifted on the offensive end than the defensive side of the
ball. "We're not out of the race. We are still right there, and we have to take care of small things and we will become a better team."

Whether that happens this year is subject to debate. For now, the players are adjusting to change, looking to please their new boss and avoid the pitfalls that earned their old one his walking papers so early into an NBA season.

Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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