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Thursday, April 27, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Westphal hears whispers

Seattle Times staff reporter

Sonic Coach Paul Westphal seems to have gone from being considered a genius to a dunce. All in one tumultuous season.

Starting the 1999-2000 season with 10 new players, Westphal guided the Sonics, a franchise considered on the decline, to one of the league's best records in the first half and earned early support for NBA Coach of the Year honors.

But for Westphal, the Sonic boom turned into a bust the second half of the season.

His nadir came in a Game 2 blowout Monday night against the Utah Jazz, when Westphal used wacky rotations that seemed to demoralize his players.

The loss brought questions - even from some Sonic players - about Westphal's coaching style, decision-making and communication skills.

"It's been stressful," Westphal said as he sat in his office yesterday after practice. "It's been a stressful year, first of all. There have been all kinds of wild things to deal with. Nobody likes to be criticized, and that's certainly what happens after you lose the first two games of the playoffs."

Westphal has heard the criticism mount, and yesterday he called KJR-AM, a sports talk-radio station, to defend himself.

But his critics point to the 2-0 deficit his Sonics find themselves in their best-of-five series with Utah, with game No. 3 Saturday. Those critics question whether Westphal should return next season.

Westphal dealt with such criticism last season after the Sonics didn't reach the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade.

Last year, he dealt with rumors from ESPN Magazine that he might be fired and replaced with Nate McMillan, a Sonic assistant. Since former Sonic coach Lenny Wilkens resigned Monday as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, he has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Westphal.

"I know that rumors are inevitable," Westphal said. "You sign up for this business, you have to deal with a certain amount of that. The main thing I try to do is the best job I can and make the people I work for understand what I'm doing.

"But I think I'll be back. I don't have any reason to think not."

General Manager Wally Walker will make any decision about Westphal's future. If Sonic history is any indication, Walker will lean toward the side of caution.

"There has to be some period of time at the end of the season to let the emotions calm down and have a chance to look at it with a real clear head," said Walker, whom owner Barry Ackerley holds in high regard. "I'm hoping that evaluation period won't be for some time yet. Our future runs to Saturday afternoon. That's what we have to be focused on.

"My decision will be based, as they always are, on what's best on the franchise going forward. Nothing else."

The Sonics don't appear to have the talent to make a title run anytime soon, so Walker must decide whether Westphal remains the right coach for the franchise.

In not rehiring George Karl and hiring Westphal in 1998, Walker made his boldest decision in six seasons as general manager. He signed Westphal, the ex-Phoenix Sun coach, to a four-year contract at $2 million per year, with a club option after the 2000-01 season.

Westphal arrived with a reputation for being a laid-back coach who emphasized a free-lance offense. But late in this season and in the Utah series, his offense has resembled that of a pick-up team, lacking fluid movement and basic spacing.

He has found the late season far more difficult than early part of it.

Even Walker conceded Westphal has overcome several hurdles.

"We gave him 10 brand new players, six of whom are in their first or second year in the league," Walker said. "And we said: `Win and make the playoffs and be a competitive team, and we also wanted to develop our young players for the future.' Those things are very difficult to do simultaneously, and he has."

Nonetheless, Walker had higher expectations for the Sonics, based on Westphal's contract incentives, which are heavily tied to the postseason.

As those hopes seem as if they'll be unmet, some players have criticized Westphal's communication skills.

The latest is small forward Ruben Patterson. He started 74 games during the regular season, yet didn't play in the first half against Utah in Game 2.

"It's really frustrating," Patterson said. "I don't know what I did wrong. If I did anything wrong, I want him to tell me. Getting to the playoffs, and then not playing, I don't understand that."

Some of Patterson's teammates said they didn't understand why Westphal rarely communicated with them one-on-one, with star guard Gary Payton as the exception. Instead, they said, Westphal usually addressed problems or announced decisions in front of the entire team.

"That's not totally true," Westphal said. "The door is always open, and players can always talk to me if they have a question. And I encourage that. I think that's the best kind of communication. So no player has an excuse for not knowing anything.

"And if something needs to be addressed privately, I do address it privately and will do that quite often. But things that pertain to the whole team will be discussed in front of the whole team. I think that's good communication."

His decision to leave guard Vernon Maxwell off the playoff roster has drawn criticism from two veterans. Maxwell's experience might have been useful against the experienced Jazz backcourt of John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek.

But Maxwell disagreed with Westphal's decision to demote him to fourth guard. Maxwell retaliated by claiming his right knee wasn't healthy enough to play. Westphal, in turn, removed Maxwell from the playoff roster, though he allowed Maxwell to sit on the bench.

Given the circumstances, Walker supported Westphal's decision.

"He's always done what is the right thing for the organization," Walker said, "even if it's something where he realizes he may even take some criticism."

And Westphal has taken criticism, but not from some players.

Center Horace Grant said the players bear more blame than Westphal for the way the season is ending.

"The coach is not out there running up and down," said Grant, who won three NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls. "We are. We, as players, should take some responsibility. The coaches coach. The players play. And I don't think we should blame the coach."

Of the Sonic players, one who might get most of the blame is Vin Baker. Seattle's swoon seems tied to Baker, who averaged 18.3 points and 8.5 rebounds over the first half of the season.

There is some sentiment that Westphal mishandled the ultra-sensitive Baker: being too lenient early in the season and then too harsh toward the end of it.

According to a source close to Baker, Westphal got personal when he questioned Baker's lifestyle and then ended up using the power forward as a crutch. Westphal then drastically cut the number of plays he called for Baker, which shook his confidence.

"I've said it before," Westphal said, speaking generally about his players. "It's not my job to make them happy. It's their job to make me happy.

"If encouraging someone to do what they are capable of doing is some kind of a fault, then I'm guilty. But I think I try to create an environment where players can perform with confidence and enthusiasm."

The approach didn't work on Baker, leaving the Sonics without a second star needed for playoff success.

Westphal's approach toward Payton, his marquee player, has also led to clashes. The point guard butted heads regularly with the fiery Karl, but winning helped ease the tension.

If the Sonics lose this series, as expected, Payton may demand a new coach, if not a trade.

Walker wouldn't respond to that scenario, but he did say he would evaluate Westphal partly based on the opinions of players.

Of course, Westphal can return to being a genius if his Sonics win three games against the Jazz.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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