- Frank Hughes
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As the Seattle SuperSonics' 2003-04 season fizzled away in a maelstrom of mediocrity (37-45), an airplane circled the skyline of downtown Seattle before the final home game of the season, lugging along a banner.
You know the kind. Usually you see them as you lie on the beach, bulging belly pointed to the sky, slathered in SPF 1,045 suntan lotion. A 1945 World War II fighter totes a sign that reads, Buddy's Crab Shack: $2 drink specials; David Lee Roth appearing at 9 p.m.
The banner that was chasing this bi-plane read: Fire Wally Walker. Go Sonics!
There is little love, it seems, for the team's erstwhile general manager turned CEO whom many fault for dismantling the roster that went to the 1995-'96 NBA Finals and subsequently latching onto the likes of Olden Polynice, Billy Owens, Vladimir Stepania, Ruben Wolkowyski and Lazaro Borrell.
There have been lean times since '96, to be sure, but the Sonics have seemingly turned around their fortunes, though one would never know it by the tone of the anti-Walker sentiments.
I was doing a radio show this past week, and only a scarcity of callers rang the station on this particular day. Suddenly, a caller questioned why Walker was so disliked by the fans' team base. In a scant second the phone lines were lit up like the Ginza District in Tokyo.
"He hasn't done one thing to help the team," one caller said.
But, I countered, "They just went to the second round of the playoffs."
"Well they haven't done anything this summer."
So goes the perception that Seattle's management team is a bumbling bunch of Key(Arena)stone Cops whose jobs were saved last season by former coach Nate McMillan and superstar guard Ray Allen, who was fighting for a new contract.
And nothing, I dare say, could be further from the truth.
That the Sonics lost Jerome James to the New York Knicks for $30 million and Antonio Daniels to the Washington Wizards for another $30 million were, in my mind, shrewd moves by a Sonics team intent on not repeating the expensive yesteryear mistakes of Jim McIlvaine, Vin Baker and Calvin Booth.
I predict that Isiah Thomas will be harassed by Larry Brown on the third day of training camp to trade James, who somehow conned the Knicks into bestowing upon him a coffin full of money on the strength of four good playoff games.
Daniels is a decent player, to be sure, but he had knee problems last season and will be 35 years old by the end of a contract that pays him $6 million a season -- a pretty penny for a guy who has career averages of 7.8 points and 3.3 assists, while almost always playing a backup role.
The Sonics' first, second and 20th priorities this summer were to re-sign Allen, which they did, to a five-year deal for $80 million plus (unreachable) incentives; that should be enough to consider this summer successful.
That they have not done anything since but sign journeyman point guard Rick Brunson is not an indication they are doing nothing, but rather an indication that they have played their hand perfectly.
They are, according to a source, on the verge of re-signing center Vitaly Potapenko, which is not necessarily a bonanza but certainly a more solid decision than signing DeSagana Diop or Andrew DeClerq.
Potapenko gives them an experienced, burly and serviceable starter who can fill the void until second-year player Robert Swift and rookie Johan Petro are ready. The Sonics figure that in a conference that Shaq has left for South Beach and Kwame Brown may be the third-most talented center, they can rotate in Nick Collison and Danny Fortson behind Potapenko and make do.
Seattle's remaining free agents -- Vladimir Radmanovic, Reggie Evans, Ronald Murray and Damien Wilkins -- all are restricted and, likely, all are coming back, barring a stunning offer to Wilkins that the Sonics choose not to match.
The question, of course, is when are they coming back? And the answer is that it may take a while.
Radmanovic, the sweet-shooting, 6-foot-10 Serbian with the rising bell curve, has been offered, according to sources, a six-year contract worth $42 million plus incentives that could push the total to $50 million.
Radmanovic, citing the excessive contract signed by Bobby Simmons, wants the $50 million all guaranteed, and he and his agent are threatening that he'll sign a one-year tender offer for $3.2 million and become an unrestricted free agent next summer, which means the Sonics could lose him to another team and get nothing in return.
The Sonics are banking on two things: First, $42 million is a lot of money to pass up, particularly for a player who was seriously injured twice last season. And, if he becomes a free agent, the new collective bargaining agreement allows the Sonics to re-sign Radmanovic for six years with 10.5 percent raises, while other teams can give him only five years with 8.5 percent raises.
Oh yeah, the Sonics also are telling Radmanovic that if he signs the one-year tender, it will be a sign that he does not want to be in Seattle, and if he does not want to be in Seattle, they do not want to develop him, which means fewer minutes, fewer stats and -- you guessed it -- ultimately fewer offers and less money. Ah, the joys of negotiation.
Murray, who had a spectacular season two years ago, when Allen was injured, then fell out of the graces of McMillan last season, is getting little interest from anybody other than Denver. He will wait it out to see if any other team makes him a sizable offer, then probably re-sign with Seattle in September for $2 million.
Evans is going to be interesting. The insanely maddening but talented power forward who led the league in rebounds-per-minute last season is represented by the notoriously difficult -- and often successful -- Dan Fegan.
Fegan says Evans is worth about $5.5 million a year. The Sonics say he is worth about half that. This one could get ugly. And it may last all the way up to training camp, if not longer.
Finally, there is Wilkins, son of Gerald, nephew of Dominique, who hit a couple big shots in the playoffs last season and who is about to go from outcast to Outkast.
He already has turned down an offer from Portland, where McMillan now coaches, and is being recruited by Minnesota (where former Sonics assistant Dwane Casey now coaches), Atlanta (where 'Nique works in the front office) and Denver, which badly needs a perimeter presence.
If Wilkins gets an offer for $2 million a year from one of those teams, the Sonics will match. If he gets one for $3 million, they probably will match. If he gets one for $4 million a year, they have some serious thinking to do.
Just don't tell Sonics fans that, because despite the likelihood that six of their eight free agents are returning to a team that was the surprise story of the NBA last season, the faithful of the green and gold think their decision-makers are dunderheads.
Contrary to the evidence.
Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
4dEthan Sherwood Strauss
5dMatt Walks, ESPN.com