SEATTLE -- Even if the rest of the NBA can't possibly catch you, the schedule can. It will slow your roll and horizontal your rise. And then some scavenger will sneak up and snip a piece of your waning confidence.
As the Houston Rockets did two months ago and as the Phoenix Suns did two weeks ago, the Seattle SuperSonics met with the inevitable over the past few days. A three-game losing streak, their longest of the season, was punctuated by Tuesday's home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. It didn't spoil their season as much as it did their mood.
Inside the team's Coliseum locker room, things were about as lively as a mausoleum. The boom box sitting catty-corner to Shawn Kemp's cubicle starved for a cassette tape. Michael Cage shuffled by and uncharacteristically said nothing. Other players whispered their responses to the mini-cams and notepads. Only the canary-yellow blazer hanging in Gary Payton's locker spoke loudly.
The Clippers shot 56 percent in the eight-point upset victory, their first in Seattle since 1985. They barely allowed the Sonics a whiff of the lead in the second half. Ron Harper, a 43-percent shooter, made 15 of 21 shots, which caused Sonics guard Nate McMillan to hiss, "Michael Jordan is gone. He's the only guy who should be capable of doing that to us."
Just outside the door, Coach George Karl is mumbling. His Sonics, despite the slide, still held the league's best record. But Karl, who is hard to please and often difficult to figure out, is busy nitpicking.
"Our weakest defensive game of the year," he said. "My whole thing is we've got to play eight or nine guys, we've got to play hard, and we've got to wear people down."
For the most part, the Sonics have done that this season. They play frenetic defense, swarming and shifting and always keeping the ballhandler guessing and perspiring. They're on pace to shatter the single-season record for steals. Are they the league's best defenders? "I guess we'll find out," said Payton, eyeballing the Knicks on the schedule.
They're able to grind it out between the baselines because their bench stretches from here to Tacoma. And Karl reaches so deep for help that he must roll up his sleeves. About nine players deserve to see 25 or so minutes a game, and usually, that's the case.
"It takes a special kind of player to deal with it," reserve center Cage said. "There are guys around the league who complain about getting only 30. Here, that's high for most of us."
This is the no-star system at work. Sure, Kemp is the team's obvious draw, with his made-for-SportsCenter dunks and improved inside game. He has been elected by fans to start in next month's All-Star Game. But there are times, four during this season, when Kemp hasn't even started for his own team.
"Not too many coaches have that style," Cage said, "where you don't have a set pattern, where you're not so predictable. That's why it's so difficult for teams to prepare for us."
Kemp said: "I know I could shoot 50, 60 more times, but it's not necessary. We've got guys who can do the job as well. It makes it fun. It's a challenge."
Mostly, the players sacrifice the minutes and the personal glory because there very likely will be a precious reward in the end. The Sonics, despite the company they keep atop the Western standings, are this year's favorites to win in June.
They are a beautiful blend, a combination not unlike Mount Rainier and Puget Sound and the sea that surrounds this jewel of a city. They have frisky, energetic and certainly boastful youngsters in Kemp and Payton. There is Ricky Pierce, who at 34 is still automatic from a foot inside the three-point line. McMillan, the oldest Sonic in tenure, plays three positions and may be this team's Most Valuable Player. And there are Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf and Kendall Gill, all acquired in the past year.
The man responsible, baby-faced team president Bob Whitsitt, is informed of a team meeting the Knicks had the other day. Something to do with being predictable and one-dimensional. It was as good a time as any for Whitsitt, satisfied that that's one thing the Sonics can never be accused of, to explain his theory.
"We don't have the Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing," he said. "It's not like there's one guy the whole team is built around. That's the only way we could do it. We've never had a No. 1 pick."
Playing the market like a deft Wall Streeter, Whitsitt sent the eternal enigma, Benoit Benjamin, to the Lakers (and sacrificed unsigned forward Doug Christie in the process) for Perkins last season. Gill came in a three-team swap in which the Sonics unloaded the 76ers' No. 1 pick next season, Eddie Johnson and Dana Barros. Schrempf was lifted from the Pacers for Derrick McKey to give the Sonics a much-needed shooter and alternate scorer. The Sonics, as constructed, have about a three-year window of opportunity because of the depth.
The Sonics won 10 straight, 16 of 17 and 26 of 29 to open the season. They bought into Karl's no-prisoners style and bludgeoned opponents, winning by a margin of 12 points a game. Karl seemed to have as many different rotations as neckties. Schrempf, who starred at a nearby high school and the University of Washington, had virtually no adjustment problems on the court, either. McMillan and Payton froze ballhandlers and forced turnovers.
But in the past 10 games, the Sonics were only 5-5 and looked beat. Right now, they're probably a victim of their own exhausting system, a tired team that could use an All-Star break.
There may be other worries by spring. Can they live much longer without a natural center? Perkins fills that role by floating around the perimeter, and admits, "I'm embarrassed to be called a center." A potential distraction may be Pierce, who wants a contract extension before the year's through.
"I don't think much of all these so-called problems now," Payton said. "We're having a good season."