Remembering one of the Great Trades in Sonics History

A decade ago today, the Sonics traded Gary Payton, and it seems like the anniversary has mostly been melancholy in tone. I get that — after all, I did once start a movement to keep the Sonics from trading GP. But it’s worth remembering that Payton and Desmond Mason for Ray Allen, Ronald “Flip” Murray, Kevin Ollie and a conditional first-round pick was one of the great trades in Sonics history, and responsible for any success the franchise had in its last five years in Seattle.

Let’s use my WARP metric to take a look at the players in the trade, including that pick, which was used on Luke Ridnour the following June:

         2003  2004  2005  2006  2007  2008   Total
---------------------------------------------------
Allen     6.5  10.6  12.3  13.6   9.5          52.5
Murray   -0.1   2.2  -1.1  -1.0                 0.0
Ollie     1.1                                   1.1
Ridnour         1.1   5.1   5.6   1.8  -0.2    13.4
---------------------------------------------------
Total     7.5  13.9  16.3  18.2  11.3  -0.2    67.0

         2003  2004  2005  2006  2007  2008   Total
---------------------------------------------------
Payton    3.5   7.1   4.9   1.2  -0.9          15.8
Mason     1.3   0.7  -0.2                       1.8
---------------------------------------------------
Total     4.8   7.8   4.7   1.2  -0.9          17.6

During four-plus seasons in Seattle, Allen was 52.5 wins better than a replacement-level player. If the Sonics had traded an aging Payton for Allen alone, it would have been a coup — most teams don’t get stars in their primes for ones who are pushing 35. Beyond that, Ridnour by himself was nearly as valuable as Payton over the next four years, making the deal a real win.

Part of the issue was that Mason, who was beloved in Seattle (especially by owner Howard Schultz, who never quite got over the fact that Payton cost him Mason), wasn’t actually all that good through the prism of advanced metrics. Mason specialized in long two-pointers, the worst shot in the game, and rarely got to the free throw line, making him an inefficient scorer. After a decent first couple of seasons in Milwaukee, he cratered and was one of the league’s least valuable players after a trade to New Orleans.

Though cynics will note that the Sonics weren’t especially good with the Allen/Ridnour backcourt, they would have been much worse with a re-signed Payton and Mason in those spots. The difference was 11 wins in 2004-05, or the gap between a surprise division championship (and playoff series win) and another .500 season. The following year, the 17-win difference would have caused the Sonics to bottom out a year before they actually did.

It’s hard to envision a way Payton’s Seattle career could have ended gracefully. He was able to step into a smaller role with the Lakers and Heat, but the superstars he deferred to never would have existed for the Sonics. Most likely, Payton would have gone down with the ship, yapping all the way. I’m glad that never happened.

In the end, everyone got something from the trade. The Sonics extended their window of competing in the West, Payton got a championship ring and he’ll still go into the Hall of Fame as a Sonic. There are plenty of things to lament from the last five years before the Sonics moved, but the Payton trade isn’t one of them.

Slow Starts Plague Huskies

One of my least favorite basketball cliches is that you only need to watch the last few minutes of a game. Even games that are close in nature are often decided long before the finish, and such was the case in Sunday’s Washington Huskies loss at USC. Though the Huskies weren’t completely out of the game until they were unable to get stops down the stretch, they lost the game by falling behind 20-8 before the first TV timeout.

The slow start continued a disturbing trend from this year’s Washington team. In their other two worst Pac-12 losses, home against Utah and at Oregon State, they came out flat. The Utes opened the game with a 12-2 run and the Beavers led 13-3 early en route to both winning their first conference game of the season.

Overall, the Huskies haven’t played poorly early in games. KenPom.com conveniently breaks down each score line into four “quarters” for each 10-minute period. Washington’s best “quarter” is actually the first, during which UW outscores teams by 1.0 point per game. (Their worst “quarter” is the fourth, though that’s not especially telling because of the way teams trying to catch up late in games by intentionally fouling and shooting threes skews the numbers.)

The numbers get a lot more interesting when you account for quality of competition. Using Sports-Reference.com’s Simple Rating System and accounting for home court, I rated how the Huskies could be expected to play against each opponent on their schedule. Divide that by four and you have an expectation for each quarter to compare to actual performance. I then broke down the schedule into three types of games:

Likely wins (Washington favored by at least eight points)- Close games (Projected margins of five points or fewer)
Likely losses (Opponent favored by at least seven points)

Suddenly, a pattern emerges. In likely wins, the Huskies average 2.0 points worse than expected in the first quarter. They’re 1.6 points better than expected in the first quarter in close games, and 2.2 points better in likely losses.

There’s still an effect, though not quite as consistent, in the second quarter, and it entirely disappears in the third quarter before reemerging in the fourth quarter, largely for the reasons described above. (In likely wins, the Huskies were often ahead and playing reserves, for example.)

I’m normally hesitant to discuss quarter-by-quarter trends because I think they mostly represent statistical noise. (These samples, for that matter, are too small for statistical significance.) In this case, though, there’s an explanatory relationship. Lorenzo Romar talked after the Utah and Oregon State games about his team looking at the opposition’s record. USC isn’t as obviously a lesser foe — the Trojans now have a better conference record than UW — but that game still generated less excitement than the previous four games against the top four teams in the conference.

Washington wouldn’t necessarily have won any of those games without the poor start — USC and Utah had narrow edges over the final 30 minutes — but the Huskies certainly would have helped their chances of avoiding costly losses. Now that the team has, in Romar’s words, “zero margin for error,” motivation should not be an issue. It’s hard to imagine a team worse than .500 in conference play looking past anyone.

Tonight’s game against rival Oregon should generate plenty of excitement. We’ll know on Saturday when the Beavers visit Hec Ed whether the Huskies have been able to lick their problem with slow starts.

Let’s Talk About the UW Women

There are many annoying things about the men’s basketball schedule in the Pac-12 Network era, but one of the nice side benefits — on top of the additional national exposure — is that the new schedule has made it easier to follow women’s basketball during conference play, with fewer overlapping games.

I was happy to get out to Hec Ed for both games last weekend as the Washington women hosted the L.A. schools. Both games went down to the closing seconds, with UW missing a tying three inside the final minute against No. 17 UCLA but holding USC scoreless over the last three minutes to win on Sunday.

Sunday’s win assured the Huskies will finish .500 or better in Pac-12 play for the first time since letting long-time coach June Daugherty go six years ago. After a four-year drought with Daugherty’s replacement, Tia Jackson, Washington is headed in the right direction under Kevin McGuff, who has the team playing an exciting brand of basketball.

To Jackson’s credit, she left McGuff with a talented recruiting class. Dynamic guard Jazmine Davis was last year’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and Talia Walton has an excellent shot at making it two in a row for UW (she’s earned Freshman of the Week honors three of the last six weeks) after taking a medical redshirt because of knee surgery. Add in Aminah Williams and McGuff inherited 3/5 of a starting lineup, signed by Jackson.

Still, it looked like it would take time for McGuff to turn the program around because of injuries. The Huskies lost senior star Kristi Kingma to a torn ACL before McGuff’s first season, and highly touted freshman post Katie Collier — the first McDonald’s All-American in program history — suffered a torn ACL last summer. Other injuries have left McGuff with what is effectively a six-player rotation with no one taller than 6-2.

As Jerry Brewer detailed in the Seattle Times last week, McGuff and his coaching staff have made no excuses and instead adapted to the talent on hand, playing a style nearly opposite from last season’s. They’ve gone small, used heavy dollops of zone defense and picked opponents apart with their shooting.

The result is a team that is fascinating statistically. UW essentially cedes the rebounding battle every night — the Huskies’ rebound rate is worst among major-conference teams in the nation. But their three-guard lineup takes care of the basketball (their turnover rate is third-lowest in the nation), almost never puts opponents on the line (lowest free throw rate in the Pac-12, which is also whistle-happy on the women’s side) and averages nearly three more three-pointers per game than the opposition.

The formula wouldn’t work without versatile talent. The 6-2 Walton, asked to defend bigger opponents on a nightly basis, is something of a neo-Sam Perkins. She blocks shots like a center (her block rate is best in the Pac-12) but is far more comfortable outside the three-point line on offense and averages two triples a game. Williams, naturally a small forward at 6-0, has kept UW from getting beaten even worse on the glass. She’s averaging 10.9 rebounds per game and is the only starter shooting better than 40 percent on two-point attempts.

In Kingma, who has worked her way back after missing last season, and Mercedes Wetmore the Huskies have two veteran shooters and ballhandlers to complement Davis, the engine that makes the offense go. The 5-7 sophomore, averaging 19.9 points per game, has a chance to join Guiliana Mendiola and Jamie Redd as the lone players in school history to average 20 points.

The combination might not be enough for an NCAA tournament berth because the Pac-12 isn’t especially strong. Washington ranks just 63rd in RPI and is lacking in marquee wins. Still, it’s not bad for what looked like a rebuilding season.

If you haven’t seen the UW women in person this season, you’ve got several great opportunities. During the last weekend of February, Stanford and Cal — both ranked in the top 10 — will come to town for the marquee games of the season. Both schools are making their first visit to Seattle since 2011 because of the Pac-12’s imbalanced schedule.

The weekend after that, the Pac-12 Tournament will be played at KeyArena for the first time. If the Huskies can finish in one of the top five spots and beat Colorado at a not-so-neutral site, it would set up a fun semifinal against the Cardinal and legendary coach Tara VanDerveer that shouldn’t be missed.

Huskies’ Record Misleading, Except It Isn’t

After the Washington Huskies lost 71-60 Sunday night at USC, the stat everybody will cite all week is that the Huskies have lost six of their last seven after starting 4-0 in Pac-12 play. The narrative is easy: After a hot start, Washington has since nosedived and struggled badly. The reality is a bit more complex.

With the exception of the win at California, basically every conference game Washington has played has been in doubt during the final four minutes, meaning a couple of breaks here and there can make an enormous difference in terms of wins and losses.

Early in the season, the Huskies got those bounces at Washington State and Stanford. They easily could have lost one or both of those two. Lately, with the exception of the Arizona State game, they haven’t gotten the same breaks. Take away Larry Drew II‘s game-winning shot at the buzzer, and change one possession against Arizona, and Washington could easily be 3-4 in the last seven games.

Based on the typical relationship between point differential and record, the Huskies were really a 3-1 team during their first four games. They’ve really been slightly better than a 2-5 team during the last seven.

When you add the two segments of the season together, however, they fit. 5-6 is about where the Huskies should be at this point of the season, given they’ve been outscored by four points aggregate in their 11 conference games. On average, that should translate into a 6-5 record on occasion but most often a 5-6 record. So Washington is what its record says it is.

Huskies at the Halfway Point

Before the Washington Huskies take on UCLA this evening, we’re midway through the Pac-12 schedule, which seems like a good opportunity to take stock of where the Huskies are after the ups and downs of the first five weekends of conference play.

Washington is 5-4 and tied for fifth place in the Pac-12, which about reflects the way the team has played to date. The Huskies have outscored conference opponents by 0.02 points per possession, which is consistent with a record around 5-4. Colorado, the other team with a +0.02 differential, is 4-5 in the standings, but then we know that’s not their real record.

KenPom.com shows Washington playing the conference’s second most difficult schedule thus far. (Note that this, and all other conference rankings, does not include last night’s pair of games.) That seems a little odd given the Huskies still have two matchups left with UCLA and a trip to Arizona on the schedule, but they’re also finished with Cal and Stanford, the second-best travel pair of schools this year after Arizona and Arizona State. (Washington and Washington State rate as the easiest travel pair, ahead of Colorado/Utah, with whom the Huskies are also done.)

Offense

Washington sits fourth in the conference at 101.3 points per 100 possessions. Overall, this is a below-average offense by Lorenzo Romar stanards ranked ahead of just two UW teams in the last decade — 2007-08 and last season.

The presence of C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs means we tend to think of shooting as the Huskies’ strength, but the team is actually below average when it comes to effective field-goal percentage in conference play and marginally better than average from beyond the arc (33.8 percent, fifth). While Wilcox has kept up his end of the bargain, Suggs’ 36.8 percent three-point shooting is way down from the 45.0 percent he shot as a junior before his redshirt year.

Instead, Washington is better than the average Pac-12 offense largely because of a single factor, the most consistent one throughout the Romar era: Offensive rebounding. In Pac-12 play, they’re rebounding 36.9 percent of their own misses, miles ahead of No. 2 Arizona (33.9 percent).

If there’s one area the Huskies have struggled, it’s taking care of the basketball. They’re 10th in the conference in turnover rate, which is uncharacteristic of a team with a veteran backcourt. For all the grumbling about Tony Wroten‘s miscues, last year’s team was much better at taking care of the basketball. To find an equivalently turnover-prone UW squad, you have to go back to 2008-09, when Isaiah Thomas started at point guard as a freshman.

I think the issue is tied to the Huskies’ emphasis on feeding the post. For example, UW guards had three entry passes stolen by defenders fronting the post on Saturday against Arizona State. Scott Suggs also had a similar turnover when Aziz N’Diaye was rolling to the basket after the pick-and-roll, and two of N’Diaye’s four miscues came when he was in the post.

As appealing as the high-percentage looks N’Diaye post-ups can create may be, they come with a cost in terms of turnovers because he is not a good ballhandler. The post entries weren’t his fault — one was a pass to Kemp — but they still have to figure into the math on feeding the post. It needs to remain just one part of a balanced Husky offensive diet.

Defense

Until last weekend’s wildly different pair of games against the Arizona schools, the Washington offense had been highly consistent in Pac-12 play, netting between 0.97 and 1.05 points per trip every game. By contrast, the Husky defense has been wildly up and down, holding three opponents (Cal, Colorado and Arizona) below 0.85 points per possession while giving up more than 1.05 points per trip during four of the last five games.

Three-point defense regression didn’t really hit UW until Saturday, when the Huskies needed far and away their best offensive outing of the year to overcome the Sun Devils’ scorching 12-19 shooting from beyond the arc. But the defense still collapsed because of open looks in the paint and second chances.

The common denominator when the Washington defense breaks down is that N’Diaye gets pulled away from the basket, leaving it unprotected. This isn’t really anything that N’Diaye is doing wrong; teams are simply using the pick-and-roll to draw him to the perimeter or forcing him to step up in help defense. In basketball parlance, the Huskies have done a poor job of “helping the helper” — having another player step into the paint when N’Diaye is busy guarding the pick-and-roll or cutting off a drive to the basket.

That’s why I’m positive about Shawn Kemp, Jr. claiming the starting job at power forward. Part of the issue is that the other Washington players just aren’t big enough to pose a threat to most players in the paint. Desmond Simmons, the previous starter at power forward, isn’t really a shot blocker. Kemp gives the Huskies another rim protector when N’Diaye is outside the paint.

I was skeptical that the Kemp-N’Diaye combination was quick enough to play extended minutes together, but so far I’ve been proven wrong by the results in terms of plus-minus. The numbers from the last two games are stunning. Washington outscored the Arizona schools by a combined 19 points with both big men on the floor, but was -21 with just N’Diaye.

This came despite the fact that Arizona State’s Jonathan Gilling is one of the worst possible matchups for Kemp, who wasn’t able to protect the rim because he was glued to the sharpshooter. Gilling got his points beyond the arc, but the Huskies made him pay with Kemp’s post-up ability at the other end, turning the mismatch into a net positive.

Looking Ahead

To enter the Pac-12 Tournament with a legitimate shot at an at-large bid, Washington probably needs to finish 11-7 in conference play, meaning a 6-3 record over the second half. That’s doable, but it will require the Huskies to find a win on the road against either the L.A. or Arizona schools and win out at home, beating both Oregon and UCLA. And there certainly can’t be any missteps like a loss to Utah that isn’t looking much better a few weeks in the rear-view mirror.

Optimists can point to the growth of underclassmen Andrews and Kemp as reason for hope. Both are significantly better than they were even at the start of conference play (in Kemp’s case, partly because he was coming back from injury). Gaddy seems to have turned back the confidence issues that had him in a shooting slump a few weeks ago, but Andrews has still earned the right to play down the stretch like he did in both games over the weekends. The scoring punch he — and, to a lesser extent, Kemp — provides has made Washington somewhat less dependent on Wilcox’s production.

Pessimists can note this team is still one injury away from being reduced to a six-player rotation and becoming a significantly worse team, which could quickly derail any tournament talk.

We’ll know which group wins out in a little more than four weeks.

What’s Next for the Storm?

The Seattle Storm announced today that star post Lauren Jackson will sit out the 2013 season to rehabilitate after undergoing hamstring surgery last month in her native Australia.

We’ve been here before — all too frequently, in fact, and it’s tough to see Jackson deal with another intensive rehabilitation process. The upside of that is the Storm has plenty of experience playing without Jackson. She was limited to just 21 of the 68 games the team played the last two seasons because of injuries and training for the 2012 Olympics.

A consistent pattern has emerged under Brian Agler. Whether Jackson plays or not, the Storm has one of the league’s top defenses. When the three-time MVP is in the lineup, an above-average offense helps the Storm win about three-quarters of its games (even more in 2010, when Jackson played 32 games during a 28-6 season that culminated in a championship). Without Jackson, the Storm ranks near the bottom of the league in Offensive Rating. An elite defense and a weak offense translates into a record near .500.

As with last year, the Storm has the advantage of being able to plan for Jackson’s absence ahead of time. In fact, the situation is slightly better because Jackson’s salary won’t count against the cap because she is on the suspended list. That will allow the Storm to fill her roster spot with another highly paid veteran.

Who might be available?

Unfortunately, looking at the WNBA’s list of unrestricted free agents, quality posts are conspicuously lacking. The best of the group is probably New York’s Kara Braxton, who is limited in terms of her conditioning and has worn out her welcome quickly in other spots. (Besides, Bill Laimbeer may be looking forward to a Braxton reunion with the Liberty.)

After that, you’re looking at a number of veterans who are in various stages of decline. Taj McWilliams-Franklin can still start and would anchor the Storm’s defense, but it’s tough to see her leaving Minnesota if she returns at age 42.

I could see the Storm considering long-time Jackson nemesis DeLisha Milton-Jones, and it’s possible Ashley Robinson could return given that a tight salary-cap squeeze was one reason she was traded to Washington last offseason. But the Storm isn’t going to find a full-time center in free agency, which is why Ann Wauters‘ decision not to return — while hardly a surprise — will hurt the team. The Storm won’t be able to sign a post as good as Wauters.

So maybe the Storm will put the money to use elsewhere. There are a handful of quality veteran guards available, including Tulsa’s Temeka Johnson and San Antonio’s Jia Perkins. I could see the Storm spending its newfound cap space on the perimeter to offer more reinforcement to starting guards Sue Bird and Tanisha Wright, taking some of the pressure off two players who dealt with injuries last season.

That might make sense because the Storm has more low-cost options in the frontcourt. Forward Alysha Clark and center Ewelina Kobryn, who are reserved players and can negotiate only with the Storm, will probably be in camp on their minimum-salary qualifying offers. While Agler told Jayda Evans that guard Silvia Dominguez and forward Jana Vesela aren’t options because they will represent their countries in this summer’s EuroBasket competition, this is a quiet summer for the Australian National Team. That means Abby Bishop, who has been out of the WNBA since playing for the Storm as a rookie in 2010 at age 21, could be an option as well.

Today’s announcement gives the Storm clarity about what lies ahead. Jackson isn’t replaceable, but now it’s up to Agler to put the cap space her absence provides to good use.

Blog note: The Storm appearing in this space is probably a one-time thing as I figure out a new home for my Storm commentary.