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Monday, December 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Percy Allen
With the win-now mentality of pro sports, their slow-developing plan hardly draws much attention among fans focused on the team's ho-hum 12-13 record and, at times, dismal December display.
But in the NBA, in which three blockbuster in-season trades have already occurred and many more are rumored each day, the Sonics are positioning themselves for a deal that could be comparable to last season's swap with Milwaukee that delivered Ray Allen.
Banking on the sweet-shooting Allen, their highest-paid player at $13.5 million this season, makes sense for the Sonics. But Ronald Murray and Richie Frahm have more than earned their paychecks while Allen recovers from right-ankle surgery.
At minimal cost, the Sonics have received maximum dividends from the high-scoring reserve guards.
"What we've always said is that this is a year of exploration," general manager Rick Sund said. "We want to see what they (Seattle's young players) can do given some real minutes."
Murray, a 6-foot-4 second-year guard, is coveted by league GMs because he's a mature 24 and ranks 21st in the league at 18.6 points per game despite coming off the bench in 10 contests.
Perhaps equally attractive is Murray's cap-friendly salary. He earns $563,679 this season and is due a slight increase next season.
And the emergence of Frahm, who scored a career-high 31 points in Saturday's 115-106 victory at Denver, gives the Sonics another inexpensive chip $366,931 this season that they can parlay into a big haul.
Frahm, a 6-5 guard, was the last Sonic to earn a roster spot during training camp but has worked himself into the rotation and is gaining fans across the country.
"The guy can shoot," Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik said. "He came in as a 50 percent shooter on three-pointers and we knew that as a coaching staff, but our players didn't. ... Now they do."
Said one GM: "They (the Sonics) could dump some of those bad contracts if they parted with Murray."
Reserve center Vitaly Potapenko is making $5.7 million, the third-highest salary on the team. He's scheduled to make $6.2 million next season, after which his contract expires.
The Sonics accepted Potapenko's bloated deal so they could free themselves of Vin Baker's maximum contract.
Still, Seattle signed centers Calvin Booth and Jerome James as free agents, and it appears the Sonics overpaid based on current contributions.
James, who will earn about $9 million over the next two seasons, has started the past seven games. But at the first sign of trouble during games, he's banished to the bench.
Booth is a better fit at the moment, but he has three seasons after this one remaining on a contract that will pay him $34 million in total.
He is developing into a respectable shot blocker and would seemingly play better next to a back-to-the-basket power forward.
Since trading Baker, the Sonics have been linked to forwards Juwan Howard, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Al Harrington and Kwame Brown.
Sund, however, appears hesitant to orchestrate another trade like the one that dealt Gary Payton and Desmond Mason to Milwaukee and landed Allen, Murray and a draft pick, which Seattle used to select point guard Luke Ridnour.
He acknowledged Murray could be packaged with less-desirable players in a trade, but declined to say if teams have inquired about Murray or if a deal is in the works.
Sund is often said to be infatuated with Dallas' model of building a championship contender, but the Sonics' GM is also a fan of Sacramento.
The Kings built trade currency with offensive-minded players and dealt them for Chris Webber, Doug Christie, Mike Bibby and Brad Miller.
Allen's return gives the Sonics four shooting guards. Murray, Frahm and Brent Barry are the others.
Moving one of them for a power forward is a logical short-term solution considering lottery pick Nick Collison's expected return next season from shoulder surgeries.
Sund said he's committed to the plan and often talks about development.
"The worst thing we could do is move too soon," he said.
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