In no way am I suggesting that Seattle--or any team, for that matter--has the option of signing a player of Larry Bird's caliber. But it is time to start talking about next year, and what's going to transpire during NBA downtime between April 18 and next November. As my friend Paul said recently, when a team's playoff chances are spoken of in "mathematical" terms, it's over. That the Sonics won't be seeing the post-season does come as a grand relief, and not only for exhausted fans; the erosion of hope for a squeaky playoff appearance has had something of an inverse effect upon the team. Since their March 4 loss to Minnesota, which all but gutted any theory of a Cinderella title run, the Sonics have loosened up. Sure, they've still been losing, but they don't look quite so defeated. There have been some close, tough, exciting games, with isolated moments of brilliance. Payton's been on fire. When the Sonics--thanks to Desmond Mason's game-saving tip-jam--swept the Lakers last Sunday, Nate McMillan actually smiled. As Henry Miller wrote in Tropic of Capricorn, "Once you've given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos."
One can only hope that Sonics ownership doesn't cap this season's chaos by dealing away Payton, per fickle opinion. A move like that would be a terrible, terrible shame. Payton's still running at the top of his game, and he's gaining some needed composure. It's an absolute blast to watch him play. He's not letting up any time soon. Not only that, but he's indicated that given the right conditions, he does indeed want to remain in Seattle--perhaps, as he's also hinted, playing second fiddle to an acquired All-Star more willing and able to take the team's reins.
The Sonics are, however, going to try mightily to dump Vin Baker, who (come August) can be swapped for his full $87 million salary--though, obviously, they're going to take a hit on that one. Sans a playoff slot, the team will also have a lottery draft pick, which they'll need to ribbon around Baker just to get rid of him.
Ruben Patterson, unfortunately, might have to go, too. What CEO Wally Walker and new owner Howard Schultz need to do, at any rate, is use all possible leverage to garner a Sonics savior. It doesn't need to be a Larry Bird--just a good, consistent power forward to build some necessary ballast up front. It's not inconceivable that one smart acquisition could turn the team around.
Don't hold your breath, but don't give up either. A lot could happen in five months.