Monday, October 02, 2006

Bob Hill Talks Sensibly

I met Bob Hill once, almost 25 years ago, when he was an assistant under Larry Brown at Kansas and lived down the street from my under-6 basketball coach. Hill's magnificent head of hair, arguably even more impressive in the days before it turned silver, must have had an impact on me as I've had something of a fondness for Hill for no good reason ever since.

The disastrous end to Hill's tenure with the Spurs and his sunsequent failure to create a competitive basketball program at Fordham have overshadowed his NBA record. Hill has coached teams into the playoffs five teams: all four of the full seasons he's coached (two in Indiana, two in San Antonio) plus the first Indiana team he took over from Dick Versace (taking a 9-16 team to a 41-41 finish and the Celtics to the brink in their first-round playoff matchup).

Hill isn't a great coach, both Larry Brown (in Indiana) and Gregg Popovich (in San Antonio) had to build on Hill's work to get to the Finals, but I think he's good enough to get the Sonics back in the playoffs this year.

Seattle's defense last year was awful last year. They were last in the league, a point-and-a-half worse per 100 possessions than 29th-placed Toronto, six-and-a-half points worse than 25th-placed Milwaukee, almost nine points worse than the league average, and four points worse than their own, fourth-ranked offense. If Hill can get the Sonics to approach mediocrity defensively, they can improve by the 5 to 10 games necessary to challenge for the final playoff spot in the West. Hell, with a five to ten game improvement, they'll probably challenge for the Northwest Division title.

That assumes that the team's defensive improvement doesn't sacrifice offensive efficiency. I think that's possible. Radmanovic's minutes (1088 before the trade) almost have to go to someone who is a better defender. Wilcox and (especially) Collison should both fare better defensively if one of Swift, Petro, or Sene allows them to stick to guarding opposing power forwards. Most importantly, though, Hill has the option of replacing one of the worst defensive point guards in the league, Luke Ridnour, with one of the best, Earl Watson. Hill seems willing to do so:
"I like Luke starting and getting us into games, because he's very good at that, and I like Earl coming in behind him because he speeds the game up and there's more unpredictability when Earl comes into the game, but I'm not married to that, because Luke needs to play better defense."
Watson is unlikely to shoot over 40% on threes again this year, but if he can improve on his career 34.8% standard, he'll allow the Sonics to play 5-on-5 on both sides of the ball. Ridnour makes for an excellent backup. His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 3:1 for his career and, unlike Watson (67% for his career), Ridnour is a good free throw shooter, 87% for his career.

Watson and Ridnour's skills complement each other nicely. Even better, their respective weaknesses might force Hill to platoon them late in close games, effectively keeping neither one from monopolizing important minutes and preventing an out-and-out benching and (possible) subsequent complaining.

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