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Wednesday, November 29, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Westphal: Baker was key problem

Seattle Times staff reporter

Paul Westphal says a primary frustration in his tenure as Sonic coach--and a key factor in his firing Monday--was forward Vin Baker.

Westphal's prickly relationship with point guard Gary Payton was also a source of rocky times in his 147-game regime as coach. But Westphal yesterday indicated the problems with Baker--caused in part by the player's long-term, $87 million contract--were bigger obstacles.

Westphal told The Times that Baker hasn't been in the physical condition in Seattle that he was in as an All-Star with Milwaukee.

"He was a double-digit rebounder and 20-point scorer," Westphal said of Baker. "For whatever reason, a lot of his quickness left him. It started when he got so far out of shape during the lockout (of 1998-99)."

Baker's ongoing struggles as a Sonic eventually colored Westphal's judgment on some decisions on playing time, particularly because of Baker's hefty contract.

"The reality of the NBA is that when you have certain high-paid players that have long-term commitments, it's a good idea to get something out of them," Westphal told KJR radio yesterday.

Westphal said two games with Dallas this year exemplified his conflict. In the first one, a loss to the Mavericks on Nov. 17, he reinserted Baker late in the game and Seattle lost. In the second game, a victory at Dallas four days later, he said he assigned minutes as he felt the game dictated, and, despite a celebrated blowup with Payton, "probably the best day I had as a Sonic was that day. That game, I finally stopped playing politics and coached the game the way I felt it should be coached."

Referring to Baker's difficulties with conditioning and motivation, Westphal said, "I couldn't get him to play hard. You can't look into somebody's heart. For whatever reason, he was never as effective at the defensive end as we needed him to be.

"There are some inherent problems in the NBA, concerning long-term contracts and being able to trade people. It creates some monsters that are pretty hard to slay."

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

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