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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

Losses Will Fit Seattle Like a Glove

February 21, 2003|Mark Heisler

Give that man a triple grande, extra-foam latte. He's going to need it.

Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz, who made a fortune despite requiring customers to say "tall" when they want "small," started rebuilding his Seattle SuperSonics in a similarly curious way, shipping his franchise player, Gary Payton, to Milwaukee in the highlight of thin trading at Thursday's deadline.

Going with Payton was guard Desmond Mason, a well-regarded prospect. Coming from the Bucks were sharpshooting Ray Allen, reserve guard Kevin Ollie and a little-known rookie named Ronald Murray, who might have been thrown in to carry Allen's luggage.

"Looks like to me, Seattle's giving up the ship," said Sacramento personnel director Jerry Reynolds.

"Of course, if they know something I don't know about their proverbial pursuit of Jason Kidd, that's wonderful."

It's also unlikely. The 29-year-old Kidd, a soon-to-be free agent, wants to win a title, which certainly won't happen soon in Seattle, and is expected to stay in New Jersey, or sign with another actual contender, such as the San Antonio Spurs.

However, with Payton, 34, nearing the end of his contract too, Schultz began schmoozing Kidd personally, infuriating Payton, who is volatile enough in the best of circumstances.

Payton demanded an extension before the season. Schultz put him off. Insiders say Payton swore he was done in Seattle at that point.

In a surprise, the SuperSonics, who had overachieved all the way up to No. 7 in the West last season under promising Coach Nate McMillan, looked as if they might do it again, starting 8-2.

Then their three-pointers stopped dropping and reality asserted itself. Seattle is 14-28 since, No. 11 in the West.

McMillan recently publicly challenged the front office to do something about the woeful chemistry, noting that Payton barely talked to anyone on the team, aside from Brent Barry.

There has also been speculation in the Seattle papers that McMillan would like to be released from his contract to go to the expansion franchise in Charlotte.

Wednesday night, in what turned out to be Payton's final game in Seattle, he scored 31 points in a victory over the New York Knicks, although it was obvious something was up. He left the bench during the game and went back to a hallway under the stands to comfort his wife, Monique, who was weeping.

There was always a lot of emotion around the motor-mouthed, trash-talking, hard-partying Payton, but he remains a bona-fide gamer, still in the NBA's top 20 in scoring (20.8 a game), assists (8.8), steals (1.8) and minutes (41).

Of course, Payton's arrival in Milwaukee presents more challenges for Coach George Karl, who got an $8 million-a-year extension when he made the Bucks a force in the East, after which he took them right back into the middle of the pack.

Now, having traded Allen, a great shooter with a soft label -- he takes 6.6 three-pointers per game versus 4.1 free throws -- and Glenn Robinson, Karl has only one member of his old Big Three left, Sam Cassell, who is as outspoken and volatile as Payton. Now the Bucks have the NBA's most explosive backcourt but are yet to see who is in the most trouble, their opponents or them.

Desperate for size, the SuperSonics also traded backup point guard Kenny Anderson to New Orleans for former Laker and perennial disappointment Elden Campbell, but that's probably a double marriage of convenience. Both players' contracts are expiring and both are expected to be renounced after the season to get both teams under the luxury tax threshold.

Insiders think the SuperSonics might have been left high and dry, unable to get Indiana's Al Harrington or Jonathan Bender -- the Pacer owners nixed a new contract for Payton -- underwhelmed by other offers (Charlie Ward and Kurt Thomas from the Knicks) and resigned themselves to getting what they could for Payton before he walked away in the summer and left them with nothing.

The situation remains fluid. There's speculation in Milwaukee that the Bucks' owner, Sen. Herb Kohl, made the trade just to get under the tax threshold, saving himself a $4-million payment and making himself eligible for an expected $7 million in players' escrow money, a net gain of $11 million. Kohl is trying to sell the team and that would make it easier.

Whether Kohl is buying or renting remains to be seen, but in any case, Payton is through in Seattle, as, for the time being, are the SuperSonics.

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