SEATTLE — Xavier McDaniel's eyes narrow when he thinks about last season. It's an experience he doesn't want to go through again.
The Seattle SuperSonics forward suffered through his first losing season in 10 years.
"Last year was really tough," said McDaniel, runner-up to New York's Patrick Ewing for Rookie of the Year. "My last losing season was in the eighth grade, when we went 0-14. I promised myself then I'd never have another losing season, so last year was tough."
The Sonics agreed, and after their second consecutive 31-51 campaign began wheeling and dealing to chart a new course.
First they traded All-Star center Jack Sikma to Milwaukee for center Alton Lister and two future No. 1 draft picks. Then they unloaded Al Wood, Tim McCormick, Danny Vranes and Frank Brickowski from last year's team and picked up Clemon Johnson, Dale Ellis, Terence Stansbury, Russ Schoene and another future No. 1 pick.
For a team that's been wafer-thin the past two years, the Sonics are looking at a fat future. They have two first-round picks next June, one in 1988 and three in 1989.
But the Sonics expect improvement -- even a playoff spot -- this season, said Bob Whitsitt, team president.
"We're excited about the future, but we're also excited about the present," Whitsitt said. "We think we've made solid improvements this season. We have what we wanted to have -- a transition team that can run up and down the floor."
The future draft choices are like money in the bank.
"Now, we've got six over the next three years, putting us in a position to get strong, quality players," Whitsitt said. "But having a surplus of draft choices also allows us to decide at any point if we see a glaring weakness we can take one of those first-round picks and make a trade that will strengthen us in that particular area.
"We put together a plan to get better now so we'll be competitive and make a run for the playoffs this year, but just as important we have roster flexibility to make our team stronger and make an even more serious run in the next couple of years."
Coach Bernie Bickerstaff already has seen the improvement. The Sonics were 5-3 in preseason, compared to 1-7 last season.
"They were only exhibition games but winning breeds winning," the second-year coach said. "The chemistry seems to be there."
But Bickerstaff is not living in a dream world.
"The game moves up to another level in regular season," he said. "The veterans will shift gears. We're not naive. But we've got people from winning programs -- Maurice Lucas, Dale Ellis, Clemon Johnson and Alton Lister. Hopefully, that's infectious."
Lucas, acquired by Seattle on waivers from the Los Angeles Lakers during the offseason, said the Sonics have the raw talent to rebuild.
"This team has the nucleus to be a playoff team," said Lucas, who has played in 64 playoff games in seven years with Portland, Phoenix and the Lakers, including the Trail Blazers' 1977 championship season. "Now, we've got to put it together."
The Blazers acquired Ellis from Dallas for Al Wood and got Johnson, a member of Philadelphia's 1983 championship team, and a first-round pick from the 76ers in exchange for Tim McCormick and Danny Vranes. They also traded John Long to Indiana for Terence Stansbury and Russ Schoene.
Still, many pick the Sonics to finish last in the Pacific Division.
"That's great," Bickerstaff said with a smile. "We have nowhere to go but up."
The acquisition of Lucas does make for a strange combination. He and Seattle forward Tom Chambers squared off as often as Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier last year.
Now they're fighting together to convert the Seattle SuperSonics from a rag-tag collection of castoffs into a playoff contender.
Chambers, who fought with Lucas three times last year, is glad to be on the same side as one of the NBA's leading "enforcers" for a change.
"At least I won't have to fight him anymore," Chambers said with a smile.
Lucas said past hostilities are forgotten.
"We're both professionals," he said. "We're not here to fight each other. Together, we're going to make this team a playoff team."