The only area of consistency in Seattle’s season thus far has been its inconsistency, from 32-point losses and three-game losing streaks one week, to turning around and looking like a legitimate playoff contender the next; then turning around 180 degrees in the opposite direction the next. Frustration, thy name is Sonic.
Like most of you, I have been puzzled as to what has caused the drop-off from last year’s glorious springtime dash to this year’s plodding jog. I won’t go into all of them at this point, but here’s the first of a few-part series on Why The Sonics Are Struggling.
1. Opposition FG%/Defense. You simply cannot let opponents shoot 49% and expect to win. Only the Raptors have a greater FG% disparity than the Sonics’ 5.5% (compare to last season’s -1.5% difference). Obviously, when you get outscored by more than seven points a game you won’t win very often, yet that’s exactly where the Sonics stand, a full 10 points behind last year’s +2.5 ppg advantage.
The question jumps out at you, why are opponents so successful against Seattle’s defense this year? After all, the offense is scoring only a point below last year’s pace, so it’s not as though Seattle is running a Phoenix-style offense that generates more opposition points merely via increased possessions.
Of course, the first item of business is one Antonio Daniels. AD averaged 27 minutes per game last year, 27 minutes of strong defense and ball-control offense. AD’s minutes have been divided up, as best as I can figure, among Ridnour, Murray, Cleaves, and Wilkins.
Obviously, it’s more complicated than that, with different rotations and so forth, but the reality is that those three guys are replacing AD on the court. What does that mean, though? For one, none of those three can shoot worth a damn, or at least they have yet to this year. Both Ridnour and Wilkins have been horrific this year, shooting below 35%, which means more fast break opportunities for opponents since the majority of their shots come from the outside. Murray’s deficiencies have been outlined all over the web, but the Omen can’t be spared the rod, either, as his stats look almost as bad. Add in Ridnour’s long-bemoaned inadequacies at defense, and you’ve got three guys with horrible defensive stats and one guy, Cleaves, who will always need help on switches. Add in the usefulness of AD in this very area (he can guard PGs, SGs and SFs) and you’ve got a hidden area that is continually hurting Seattle.
And, yet, the departure of Daniels masks another area – the poor performance of the big men. A quick look at this site reveals that the position that is killing the Sonics is center. In fact, to make things easier, here is how the scoring differential breaks down by position.
PG – (-1.5) 2004-05 (-4.4) 2005-06 Difference: -2.9
SG – (+6.5) 2004-05 (+8.5) 2005-06 Difference: +2
SF – (+2.5) 2004-05 (-0.2) 2005-06 Difference: -2.7
PF – (-4.2) 2004-05 (-4.9) 2005-06 Difference: -0.7
C – (-0.9) 2004-05 (-6.5) 2005-06 Difference: -5.6
If you look at the PER (a complicated rating formula devised by John Hollinger), it becomes even more obvious that power forward and center are the twin Achilles’ heels of the Sonics this year on defense. To further illustrate, here are the worst offenders when we compute how many points the Sonics’ defense allows per 48 minutes with them or without them.
Danny Fortson, 124 on-court, 116 off
Mikki Moore, 148 on-court, 116 off
Damien Wilkins, 123 on-court, 115 off
Flip Murray, 133 on-court, 113 off
Moore’s stats are skewed by the fact he’s only played a few minutes, but the other three are all culpable. It’s surprising, though, that Wilkins makes the list, in that he’s supposed to be some kind of defensive stopper. Looking deeper into the stats, you can see it doesn’t matter if Wilkins is at the 2 or 3, he’s getting beat either way. Likewise, Murray stinks at PG and SG, although he stinks less at SG, for whatever that’s worth.
The bottom line is the Sonics are getting killed at center and their point guard can’t defend a team of girl scouts. Ridnour is a fixture and we’re going to have to live with him. At center, though, it seems to me the best alternative is to start the Potato. His offense has been spotty at best this year, but I’m convinced that if the Sonics get him a solid 25-30 minutes a night, he can help offensively while providing more than adequate help on defense. As Weiss alludes to in a great article on supersonics.com, guard penetration is hurting the Sonics, and one Jerome James would be a welcome addition. Weiss’ hope is that Petro and Swift can keep guys from scoring in the paint, and that an improved attention to team defense will be a tonic. My concern is that if these guys haven’t figured it out a fifth of the way through the season, exactly how much time do they need?