Last Friday, Gary Payton returned to Seattle. Payton is in a pretty good place right now, as the point guard for the best team in the NBA. Still, there still seems to be some bad blood between Payton and management. Last week Frank Hughes wrote a column on ESPN.com that called for Seattle to retire Payton’s jersey despite the bad blood but also accused Payton of fomenting some bad vibes in Seattle. But before we tackle the issues raised by Hughes head on, it would be instructive to review Payton’s career in some detail to provide a background to the larger questions about his place in team history.
The Early Years: Payton Develops Slowly
Payton spent four years at Oregon State steadily developing from solid player to star by his senior year. Even at that young age, Payton had earned a rep as a great defender and as a loud talker, both of which would be his trademarks later.
Seattle took Payton with the second pick in the 1990 draft. Payton did not become an instant star in Seattle. Instead, he steadily developed from backup to starter to good player to star. The process actually took five years. Check Payton’s first five years:
Year PPG FG% APG
1990-91 7.2 .450 6.4
1991-92 9.4 .451 6.2
1992-93 13.5 .494 4.9
1993-94 16.5 .504 6.0
1994-95 20.6 .509 7.1
Since 1994-95, Payton has not averaged less than 19.2 ppg or 7.1 apg. That’s nine years in Seattle at an All Star level. Of course, he will break that streak this year but he’s on a team so filled with stars that statistical drop off is unavoidable and not an indicator of lost ability.
Seattle’s Peak: 1992-98
Payton’s peak neatly coincided exactly with Seattle’s peak as a franchise. From 1992-93 to 1997-98, the Sonics were a major player in the West and averaged 59.5 wins per season. The Sonics of that era were anchored by two developing talents in Payton and Shawn Kemp. The team seemed to grow with them but the growth came in spurts, followed by some regression. Kemp was an All Star on the excellent 1993-94 team that won 63 games but was upset by Denver in the first round. Payton was still not quite a star yet.
The actual apex of the Kemp-Payton Era came in 1995-96 when they won 64 games and went to the NBA Finals. Payton and Kemp were both about at their career bests and the addition of Hersey Hawkins fit the team perfectly. The Sonics ran into the Bulls 72-win buzz saw in the Finals but it was as great a season as Seattle has ever had.
Gary Payton, Tough Teammate
Payton has had his moments where he wore thin on coaches and teammates . Even as a rookie part-time player, he was always talking trash and yelling. You need look no further than the Sam Smith’s classic “Jordan Rules” description of Payton: “The Bulls had played Seattle three times during the exhibition season, winning two. In the one loss, brash SuperSonics rookie guard Gary Payton had played well, and told USA Today‘s Peter Vecsey that he could defend anyone, including [Michael] Jordan. Later that night the two met by chance at a Seattle nightclub and Payton began to taunt Jordan: ‘I’ve got my million and I’m buying my Ferraris and Testarossas, too.’…[Later, when the Bulls and Sonics met in the regular season for the first time] Jordan [told teammates in] the locker room [that] he promised, ‘I’m going to show that little sucker.’ The first time Payton had the ball, Jordan stole it, drove for a lay-up, and was fouled. The next time Payton had the ball, Jordan stole it again and drove all the way down court and slammed for a 6-0 Bulls lead. The third time Payton had the ball, Jordan destroyed his dribble…It would be an easy Bulls win, 116-95, as Jordan had 33 points and 7 steals before the end of the third quarter.”
Despite the fact that he developed slowly, Payton also told the media early in his career that point guards like he and Magic Johnson come around once a decade, which confounded the media a little bit. GP also butted heads with coaches most of his career, in particular Paul Westphal, for whom Payton seemed to have little respect. Payton also had famous incidents where he (1) berated Detlef Schrempf for not shooting and costing him assists, (2) got in a full-scale brawl with teammate Vernon Maxwell, resulting in the two trying to assault each other with blunt objects (chairs and free weights) and injuring teammates Chuck Person and Horace Grant when they tried to break up the fight, and (3) was suspended for screaming at Ruben Patterson on the bench during a game.
But despite all his woofing, Payton was a hell of a player and he won regularly. He did develop into the player he thought he was and at his absolute peak from 1995-97, there was no better point guard (he thoroughly outplayed John Stockton in the 1995-96 playoffs and did a credible job on Jordan in the Finals). Still, you can’t separate Payton the character from the player and for that reason alone, there is ample evidence for a GM to prefer Jason Kidd or Steve Nash (Isiah is another story in that he had such a short career and wasn’t exactly loved by teammates either). If I had to choose one of this bunch as my point guard to lead my team for 15 years, Payton would be my top choice–provided that I had a strong enough coach to keep him somewhat in check.
1995-96 Sonics v. 1978-79 Sonics
I know some fans will point out that the 1978-79 Sonics were better by the virtue of that fact that they won it all but don’t believe. The 1995-96 mode was superior. Look at the numbers:
W-L Record 64-18 52-30
Point Differential +7.8 +2.7
The Sonics of 1995-96 were much more impressive in record and point differential. But the record is probably even better than it looks. The 1978-79 season had a bit of parity, with no team winning more than 54 games. In contrast, the 1995-96 Sonics had to contend with the 72-win Bulls, the 60-win Magic (of Shaq and Penny vintage), and a 59-win Spur team. I know that there are arguments that parity is an indicator of a higher degree of competitiveness but I don’t buy it. The late 1970s are well known as one of the low points in talent concentration for the NBA. Some of the stars of the 1970s were aging and the Magic and Larry Bird were a year away.
In fact, the Sonics of the early 1980s quickly fell out of competition after the Magic Johnson Lakers came and dominated the West. The Sonics fall from grace in the early 1980s was partly due to some bad moves (trading Dennis Johnson for Paul Westphal; trying to win with a burnt out David Thompson) but their talent and the talent of the league around them seemed inferior to the 1995-96 versions. Let’s compare key players from the two teams:
PG: Dennis Johnson (19.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.1 apg) Gary Payton (19.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 7.5 apg)
SG: Gus Williams (22.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4.8 apg) Hersey Hawkins (15.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.7 apg)
SF: John Johnson (11.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 5.2 apg) Detlef Schrempf (17.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 4.4 apg)
PF: Lonnie Shelton (13.6 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.9 apg) Shawn Kemp (19.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 2.2 apg)
C: Jack Sikma (14.3 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 3.4 apg) Sam Perkins (11.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.5 apg)
The numbers make the teams look pretty close but the earlier team has no one who could come close to matching up with Kemp on the inside. Further, Schrempf is far superior to John Johnson. As great as DJ was, Payton has always been a better player too. Positional comparisons are a very imprecise way of determining the better overall team but Kemp and Payton are the two best players of these ten and that means something about quality of the team. So no disrespect to the underappreciated 1978-79 Sonics but the equally underappreciated 1995-96 team was the better squad.
The Payton-Kemp Run Reconsidered
As great as the 1995-96 Sonics were, one can’t help but feel, at first glance, that they did not accomplish all they should have. They were quite good most of the time but with some painful playoff losses, most notably the series they blew to the eight seed Nuggets in 1994. The next year, the Sonics also lost in the first round. That loss was more explainable, the Sonics lost to a solid Laker team while Payton played with a broken wrist (he still averaged 18 ppg and 5 apg for the series). So those two tough losses in back-to-back years hurt. Looking at the Payton-Kemp run as a whole, you won’t see so much underachievement outside the admittedly ugly Nugget loss:
1992-93 Sonics loss to the one seeded Suns 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals
1993-94 Sonics are one seed but lose to the eight seed Nuggets in the first round
1994-95 Four seed Sonics lose 3-1 to five seed Lakers
1995-96 Sonics win 64 games, lose to the 72-win Bulls 4-2 in the NBA Finals
1996-97 57-win Sonics lose to 57-win Rockets 4-3 in the second round
1997-98 Sonics win 61 games but lose 4-1 to the 61-win Lakers in the second round
Outside of 1993-94 and 1994-95, the Sonics did not lose to an inferior playoff team. The loss to the Rockets was hard fought and came down to the wire. Despite their equal records, the 1997-98 Sonics were not nearly equal to the Shaq-led Lakers. Still, the 1993-94 loss to the Nuggets casts a pall over the Payton-Kemp Era. The team was the best in the West that year and their only real competition was the eventual champion Rockets, whom the Sonics matched up very well with (they upset the Rockets in the 1992-93 playoffs and swept them in 1995-96). With Jordan gone that year, the Sonics best chance at winning was wasted because they couldn’t shoot over Dikembe Mutombo and they couldn’t stop Robert Pack and Laphonso Ellis. I can’t say that completely ruined the George Karl years but that loss has to stick in the craw of Sonic fans.
The End of the Payton-Kemp Run
The fun started to end in the summer of 1996. Right after losing to the Bulls in the Finals, the Sonics sought to bolster their front line by signing shot blocking prospect Jim McIlvaine to a big contract, bigger even then Kemp’s. This enraged Kemp who was a disruption the whole next year. Kemp played well but it was clear that he wanted to go. To compound the problem, Kemp had already renegotiated his contract a few years earlier and was thus prohibited by the CBA from redoing it again. So, Kemp was traded for Vin Baker. Baker was good for one year (19.2 ppg 8.0 rpg) but then fell off after that. Even at his 1997-98 level, Baker wasn’t a good as Kemp and, when Baker declined quickly, the Sonics were a fringe playoff team and not much else. (It is tough to condemn trading Kemp because he had his own problems with his weight and drugs, see below).
Aftermath of the Payton-Kemp Era: The Trade
The Sonics have not won a playoff series since 1997-98. Instead, the team has floundered around .500 with a perimeter-oriented offense. Payton gave them five All-Star years over that time but, by mid-2003, the Sonics were faced with the dilemma of re-signing Payton who is/was a franchise icon. The problems were (a) Payton was not young and the team wasn’t that good so they didn’t really need him for a playoff impact and (b) Payton would not come cheap. Payton also had no interest in a giving a franchise discount to the Sonics. Rather, Payton wanted one of those huge franchise lifetime award contracts like the one an older Patrick Ewing got from the Knicks in the summer of 1996.
The issue was further complicated by Payton’s claim that owner Howard Schultz orally promised him that they would give him a contract extension. On top of that, Payton piqued management by skipping some of the 2002-03 training camp and just generally complaining about not getting an extension. Ownership considered the promise to extend to be a completely fabricated story. Since the team was rebuilding and Payton was bitching, it was an easy decision to trade Payton.
Payton did receive some criticism for his outbursts (though management took some hits too). In reality this was just high stakes jousting for negotiating positoin. Payton knew that Sonics didn’t really need him talent-wise because the team wasn’t good enough to need an aging but still very good point. He hoped his complaining would either drum up enough sympathy from fans to force an extension or get him traded to a team that would be willing and able (as per the Larry Bird exception) to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him. That didn’t happen. Payton went to the Bucks a team that didn’t really want him (they made the trade to clear some long term deals) and that he didn’t want to play for either. Bummer. So, all that is left from last season is the acrimony between Payton and management. That is why there has been speculation as to whether Payton’s number will be retired.
Does Payton Deserve to Have His Jersey Retired in Seattle?
Yes, he is the best player in Sonic history. Only, Shawn Kemp is in Payton’s ball park. By the time Payton’s career is over, which will be likely be at least another five years or so, most of the clashes of 2002-03 will have faded and all that will be remembered was Payton’s great 14 years.
The All-Sonic Team
Incidentally, my All Time Sonic is thus:
PG: Gary Payton
SG: Dale Ellis (Dennis Johnson didn’t play long enough as a Sonic and Gus Williams was close too)
SF: Detlef Schrempf (Tom Chambers is close, as is Xavier McDaniel)
PF: Shawn Kemp (Spencer Haywood was close)
C: Jack Sikma
Payton is probably the best player in Sonic history and is neck-and-neck with John Stockton for best point guard of the 1990s. The hullabaloo of his exit will be forgotten and all parties, including management and Payton, will consider this water under the bridge. Time has its way of fixing this type of stuff..