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Sonics / NBA

Tuesday, October 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fresh start for Sonics?

Seattle Times staff reporter

What an awkward place for Luke Ridnour. He doesn't do self-promotion and often replaces the words "me" and "I" with "we" and "team."

When talking about how a Sonics team that advanced to the second round of the playoffs in 2005 suffered a meltdown and finished 35-47 last season, he noted that constant distractions wormed their way into the cohesive unit and created feelings of separation and jealously.

"We really didn't have it at the start," Ridnour said. "We had too many things going on. I don't want to pinpoint what it was, but it just didn't seem like we were the same team.

"The key is to get rid of the distractions. Last year, we had a lot of guys that signed those one-year deals. I don't know if that was a factor, but it might have played a part."

So you can understand Ridnour's uneasiness these days because he's unwittingly in the middle of not one but two potentially divisive situations that threaten to spoil the Sonics' season before it starts.

Ridnour has come under fire from coach Bob Hill for his defensive liabilities, so the starting job Ridnour has held for the past two years may be given to backup Earl Watson during training camp, which starts today.

"I haven't heard that, but competition is good and it's just going to make our team better," Ridnour said.

No one questions his ability to run the offense, although he needs to improve a woeful .289 three-point shooting percentage. At issue is Ridnour's ability to defend the pick and roll.

Ridnour's response: "It wasn't an issue when we were winning. It's not like I'm the only one guarding the pick and rolls. There's more than just one person. You can't pinpoint it to one person. We've won and I know I can do it. I just kind of laugh at everything."

While Ridnour fights for his starting spot, his agent, Lon Babby, is haggling with the Sonics over an extension. Negotiations will continue throughout training camp and the exhibition season.

A deal must be reached before Oct. 31 or Ridnour will become a restricted free agent next summer.

Meanwhile, Nick Collison, who is also eligible for an extension, said he and the Sonics agreed to suspend contract talks.

"There's always risks that you can get hurt. The deals that they wanted me to sign or put forth, there was no sense in doing that deal early," Collison said. "I understand it on their part. They can wait."

Other key issues surrounding training camp include:

How will the sale of the team impact the season?

Not one bit, according to Ray Allen. "If it affects somebody, then you should not be playing this game," he said. "We're basketball players. What happens off the court, has no bearing on how we practice and play."

Coach Hill plans to get tough

There's only so much he can do in training camp because the collective bargaining agreement regulates how much time players practice and prohibits contact in more than one practice each day. Still, Hill will emphasize defense from the start, which is prudent because the Sonics finished last in points allowed, surrendering an average of 105.6 points.

Center of contention?

Not yet at least. The fascination around rookie Mouhamed Sene is purely hype at this point. For now, second-year veteran Johan Petro is still the starter and third-year pro Robert Swift is the backup.

Will Rashard Lewis play in another All-Star Game?

Only if the Sonics are at least 10 games above .500 when the coaches make their selections. Even if he improves from last season, when he averaged 20.1 points and 5.0 rebounds, Lewis doesn't have the clout to garner enough fan votes. Insiders know he's one of the top forwards in the league, but that position is stocked in the Western Conference.

Will Danny Fortson keep his cool?

Unlike his previous stops in Golden State and Dallas, he has never been a problem for the Sonics off the court or in the locker room. It's on the court where he has his issues with referees and opposing coaches.

Still, Fortson told management that he won't make a fuss this season if he's not in the rotation. He continues to rehab a sore left knee, which caused him to miss 46 games last season. Even if he's healthy, Fortson doesn't fit into Hill's up-tempo schemes, and the Sonics have been unable to trade his $6.6 million salary.

Can Allen do it again?

At 31, he's showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he has increased his scoring average in the past four years. Last season, he averaged a career-best 25.1 points. Over the past two years, Allen has missed just five games because of injury.

Which of the nonguaranteed guys is going to make the team?

Teams must carry at least 13 players, so the Sonics will add at least one to the roster because they have 12 with guaranteed contracts. There's no apparent need, but Hill wants a third point guard, which is a higher priority than keeping a veteran scorer or another power forward.

Guard Mike Wilks and forward Noel Felix played sparingly in Seattle last season, but shooting guard Kareem Rush, who played last season in Charlotte, is the odds-on favorite even though he doesn't play the point. Point guard Milt Palacio would be the leading candidate, but he reported to camp heavy, and offseason knee surgery won't allow him to participate in the second practice of two-a-day drills.

Note

• F Ron Mercer worked out with the Sonics in the offseason and was supposed to report to training camp before suffering a back injury that will force him to retire.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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