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Sunday, November 26, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham

Use record to evaluate Westphal

Times Associate Editor

Firing Paul Westphal now as coach of the Sonics would simply vindicate the ability of a player to overthrow a coach.

Gary Payton doesn't deserve a new start with a new coach. He needs to deal with the mess that this Seattle season has become.

If Westphal is fired, which may happen soon, it ought to be for failing to win games. He shouldn't be fired because he can't get along with Payton.

Who can?

Nate McMillan doesn't need the job under these circumstances, with Payton as troublemaker and kingmaker.

Payton needs to take the responsibility that comes with money and maturity, not to mention the rare leadership position he has been accorded.

"You have to draw a line between coach and player," said Coach Mike Holmgren of the Seahawks, who is also the team's general manager and whose players lack guaranteed contracts.

The Sonics have guaranteed contracts, and a problem. They have $170 million tied up in Payton and Vin Baker, neither of whom has gotten along with Westphal.

In these situations, coaches get fired. They make less, they are easier to replace, they become fall guys.

But not this time. And not now.

A year ago, the Sonics were 11-2. They were 6-8 entering last night's game in Sacramento even though they have Patrick Ewing and Desmond Mason, even though Rashard Lewis is a year older and Baker a few pounds lighter.

A year ago Westphal coached them, too. He did a nice job with a young, evolving team. This season held more hope. That was lost in the first 10 minutes of the first game, when they looked unprepared and uninspired against Vancouver.

They've been tentative defensively and careless offensively ever since. They've had their nights of good basketball, but beating the Los Angeles Clippers once a week isn't enough for Westphal to keep his job.

Payton blew it by blowing up in the game last week in Dallas. Westphal likely blew it appealing to get Payton's one-game suspension reversed.

Westphal did it because of the way Payton handled himself in a 90-minute meeting. The Sonic star was apparently contrite to the point of tears.

In the company of Payton, Westphal asked team president Wally Walker to rescind the suspension. Walker had to support his coach, or emasculate him.

This is not a lost season yet. In 1977-78, the Sonics started with a 5-17 record but went on to play in the NBA Finals.

That was also a season, however, when they made a coaching change. They may have to make one this season.

This can't be a rebuilding season, not when Ewing makes $14 million and Payton is getting on in age. A fan base that ebbed last season needs hope.

The Sonics have enough talent to win. They should win. They can't continue to play with intensity one night and apathy the next. They can't spill their emotion on the sideline instead of on the court.

Payton wants to lead but questions leadership when it doesn't please him. He plays hard but embarrasses his coach in front of not only teammates, but the world.

Payton can't keep this up. The eventual answer may be to get a new coach, but only after Payton has served time with this one trying to fix what is broken.

Or the answer may be to trade Payton.

Professional sports should get a grip. The salaries create kings out of princes. The Sonics aren't alone in trying to deal with a disgruntled player who makes much more than his coach.

The Sonics won't win if Payton and Baker don't talk to Westphal, or avoid eye contact with him. The coach does more than decide the lineup.

Westphal and Payton are on trial, Payton because he upstaged the coach and Westphal because he went to bat for Payton anyway.

Let them find a way to settle differences. Let them be judged on whether the team wins games.

Both of them.

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

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