SuperSonics enter season with one missing piece to roster puzzle

SEATTLE — SEATTLE -- As time passes quickly, you have to wonder if they are complete, or just a deal away from being the Seattle SuperSonics of the 1990-91 season.

"We're all kind of looking at the team right now, not knowing who we really are," Sonics president Bob Whitsitt said. "We've got a good team, a competitive team. We know what we need, but getting it is easier said than done."


That need, which is so painfully obvious, is a proven low-post player. Getting him will be no easy task. But the Sonics did take a step to alleviate other roster problems Wednesday when they traded third-year guard Avery Johnson to the Denver Nuggets for a second-round draft choice in 1997 contingent on Johnson being on the Nuggets roster 56 days this season.

"Avery is a burner and he has a good chance to make their team," Whitsitt said. "We obviously have too many guards and we wanted to get him somewhere where he could play.


"If you had some of the guys with all the talent in this league with his work ethic and personality, it would change the face of the NBA. This guy is at the top of the list quality-wise."

Johnson, 25, started in 10 games for the Sonics last season and played in 96 during his two-year stint averaging 2.2 points and 1.7 assists. He led the nation in assists his junior and senior seasons at Southern University in New Orleans.

"I know this is a business and it's my job to go on and do the job for whatever team I'm on," Johnson said. "That's the only thing I know for sure."

The move drops the Sonics roster to 13. Dave Corzine a likely candidate for the injured list, making the Sonics intact at 12 by their Nov. 3 opener. Corzine, whose knee surgery kept him out of action most of last season, continues to rehabilitate. His contract guarantees him $150,000, with $30,000 for not further injuring his knee during training camp, and another $40,000 for each 10-game increment he is on the active roster.

So that sorts out the numbers game. The minutes are a different story.

With Quintin Dailey not quite fitting into the rotation despite his guaranteed contract believed to be worth $325,000, and Corzine and Scott Meents not expecting minutes either, that leaves the other 10 players. All of them expect minutes, and the logjam still remains at guard. Nate McMillan is playing small forward, but the minutes still are fragmented. He and Sedale Threatt are the most talked-about players on the market.

In fact, the New York Knicks reportedly were at the Kingdome on Tuesday night to watch McMillan. They, along with the Sacramento Kings, are talking about a late first-round draft choice for McMillan. Realistically, at 26 and capable of playing three positions, he is worth a lot more than that.

Meanwhile, the Sonics are more than $1.5 million below the $11.87 million salary cap, leaving room for a big-man deal. If it's there.


"It would be stupid to make a deal just to make a deal," Whitsitt said. "We need a big man, but who's out there? Between our need, the salary cap and the other team's needs, it's really difficult.

"But having room under the cap is not a bad word. I don't think any team should be at the cap unless they're a 50-win team or more. It's very important to have the flexibility. If you're not a 50-win team and you don't have flexibility, it shows why you're struggling to work your way up."

The Sonics salary structure begins this year with rookie Gary Payton, who will make $2.1 million this year including a $500,000 signing bonus, followed by leading scorers Xavier McDaniel ($1.4 million) and Dale Ellis ($1.25 million). They no longer have the $800,000 on their cap of Steve Johnson, who was expected to sign with the Golden State Warriors shortly. But they do still hold the rights to Russ Schoene, who is playing in Italy, because of a qualifying offer made before last season.

And whether they take another stab at players such as Robert Parish, Otis Thorpe or Kevin Willis is speculative. The point is, they were able to take a run at John "Hot Rod" Williams and his $5 million salary this year. If he hadn't utilized his restricted free-agent right to veto the deal that included McMillan and McDaniel, this subject would be moot.

The only free agent available right now is Adrian Dantley, and his need to monopolize the ball doesn't fit in with K.C. Jones' system. The same goes for aging center Moses Malone, whom Atlanta is making available to anybody who will listen.

That doesn't rule out a trade by the Sonics all the way up to the February deadline, however. Somewhere along the line, somebody might become available. At least that's what Whitsitt is counting on.


"We wouldn't even have been talking about Hot Rod if we didn't have this flexibility," Whitsitt said. "We have to have it so if a deal does pop up, we've got the ability to do it. On the other hand, if everybody on our team works out, we won't need to make a deal."