From this point on, SuperSonics president-general manager Wally
Walker should again be known as Wally Wonder, as he was during
his playing days. On Sept. 25 he traded unhappy power forward
Shawn Kemp, who had vowed to sit out the season rather than play
with the Sonics, in a three-way deal that brought to Seattle the
Bucks' power forward Vin Baker, who is deliriously happy, an
inch taller than the 6'10" Kemp, two years younger (at 25) and
possibly a better all-around player.
In one attitude-cleansing move, the Sonics were transformed from
a troubled team to one that's very capable of making one last
title run in what will probably be the final season for
37-year-old swingman Dale Ellis, 33-year-old guard Nate McMillan
and 36-year-old forward-center Sam Perkins. "There's an
excitement that hasn't been here the last three or four years,''
says coach George Karl. "Seattle has been a team of
perseverance. Now, with our young people and the guys we've
added, we have the emotion that had been missing."
The reason is Baker. He's a better passer than Kemp: He averaged
2.7 assists last year to Kemp's 1.9. "Vin will pass," says Karl.
"Vin likes to pass." He's a better ball handler: He had 3.1
turnovers a game last year to Kemp's 3.5. He's as good a jump
shooter, although Kemp, whose hero is Dr. J, stopped shooting
the 15-footer after apparently deciding that slam-dunking on the
break to make the nightly highlights was his thing. "Shawn is a
dominant player when he rebounds the ball," says Karl. "When he
was spectacular, he didn't have as much to do with winning as he
did when he was rebounding." Moreover, Baker will be less likely
to disappear during a game, as Kemp sometimes did. Over one
three-game stretch last season, Kemp had 19 points and 22
rebounds. He scored fewer than 10 points in a game nine times;
Baker did it twice.
Few fans appreciate the fullness of Baker's game because he was
stuck with the Bucks, steady and near-invisible losers in the
Midwest Division, during his first four years in the NBA. "Not
many people have seen him play, especially people on the West
Coast," says Walker. So here's an introduction: Baker is a
three-time All-Star. Last season he, Lakers center Shaquille
O'Neal and Wizards forward Chris Webber were the only players in
the league to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds and
shoot at least 50% from the field. For his career Baker has
averaged 18.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game, and shot 49.4%.
Only seven other active players (minimum: 5,000 career points)
are able to match all of those numbers.
November 10, 1997
"Now it's time to start chasing championships," says Baker of
his role with the Sonics, who have won 55 games or more for five
straight years and reached the Finals two seasons ago. "I get a
chance to flip the script here in Seattle. Now my game is going
Igniting Baker's game will be the West's best guard, point man
Gary Payton. Last summer, when Baker was still a Buck, he spent
two weeks in Europe on the Nike tour with, among others, Payton.
Baker kept saying, "I'd love to play on the same team with that
guy." As for pairing at forward with 6'10" Detlef Schrempf, who
is a superb passer, Baker says, "When I call home, I don't tell
everyone how much it rains in Seattle. I tell them that I'm
playing with Detlef."
The Sonics love players with long, athletic bodies and fast
games. Says Baker, as if on cue, "I love to run. The Western
Conference is perfect for my style." Baker has two things to
prove in Seattle: that he can deliver during the postseason, in
which he never played as a Buck, and that he can adjust to
Seattle's gambling, pressing defense.
"I'm so excited about this trade because it's just like it was
in Milwaukee when I was drafted so high [No. 8 out of Hartford
in '93] and no one knew who I was. Then I surprised them," Baker
says. "They won't be as surprised here, but they will be
surprised. I'm not worried about being compared to anyone."