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Ball Don't Lie

Gary Payton is still irked by his 2003 departure from Seattle

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Gary Payton in his Bucks jersey, a longtime favorite of Lollapalooza attendees (Getty Images)

Gary Payton was set to become a free agent in the summer of 2003, and the Seattle SuperSonics’ front office was not exactly keen to spend big money on a guard that was going to turn 35 during the offseason, in spite of Payton’s All-Star-level play. In order to grab some sort of return for their franchise player before his career ran out, or before he ran elsewhere as a free agent, the team decided to deal Payton to Milwaukee at the 2002-03 trade deadline in February.

Payton would be reunited with former SuperSonics coach George Karl in Wisconsin, heading up an intriguing backcourt already featuring (fellow soon-to-be free agent) guard Sam Cassell. To hedge their bets against Payton leaving after the season ended, the Bucks also took in Desmond Mason in the deal, while giving up a first round pick and Ray Allen – who was about to turn 28 and hit his prime.

Karl’s Bucks would go out in the first round that year, with Payton playing just 34 combined regular and postseason games as a Buck. Karl was let go after the season ended, Larry Harris was elevated to general manager, while Cassell and others were shepherded out. And to hear Payton tell it, he wanted absolutely nothing to do with any sort of deal from Seattle, though he felt the writing was on the wall when former Seattle owner Barry Ackerley sold the team to Starbucks [comment redacted] Howard Schultz. From a talk with Gary Washburn at the Boston Globe:

“When the Ackerleys sold the team it went from being a family team to a business,” said Payton. “The people who took over the team ran their team like a business, like how they made their money, and you can’t do that.

“The Ackerleys ran the team like a family. When we had problems, they would call us in and talk to us. They would call us in and ask us what’s the problem, not try to trade you and tell you, ‘No, you don’t need a contract.’ You see where [Schultz’s style] got us, leading to another owner moving the team. And we knew he would move it to Oklahoma, we knew that. The Schultz group should have known that, too. We were the longest-standing team in Seattle and we let a guy just come in here and take it.”

[…]

“He just messed up our whole [franchise] and people did leave Seattle alone when he owned the team,” said Payton. “That’s why he had to sell it again, because he was struggling. He made a lot of silly moves and the first silly move was getting rid of me.”

Well, no. The first silly move Schultz made was pretending to be a Mark Cuban-sort of spender upon taking over the SuperSonics during the 2000-01 season, a hilarious inference (for everyone but Seattle fans). He then followed that up with several other devastatingly silly moves, before selling his adopted hometown of Seattle out by selling the team to a pair of owners from Oklahoma City.

Again, Howard Schultz is the worst. And any NBA fan that still buys their coffee at Starbucks should know just whose pockets they’re lining when they queue up at that place.

This particular trade, though, did wonders for the Seattle franchise. After a fitful 2003-04, Seattle roared back into prominence in 2004-05 with a 52-win run featuring one of the league’s best offenses. Nate McMillan’s rotation was an incredibly efficient crew led by Allen, Rashard Lewis, and guard Luke Ridnour – the player taken with the first round pick that Seattle acquired in the Payton trade. The team ran a slowed-down offense that took advantage of Allen and Lewis’ acumen from the corners, and made it to the second round – the best showing since George Karl’s final year in 1997-98.

Payton joined what was thought to be a surefire NBA champion in Los Angeles during the summer of 2003, pairing with fellow free agent Karl Malone to team up with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Injuries (Malone), age (Payton), conditioning (O’Neal) and attitude (Bryant) issues dogged the Lakers all season, leading to yet another blowup the following summer as Payton was traded to a rebuilding team in Boston.

As we discussed when Payton made the Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month, it was yet another instance of unlucky timing on Payton’s part, no fault of his own.

The Bucks would work through two mediocre seasons before vaulting up the lottery ranks in 2005 to secure the top pick in the draft despite a 30-win year. The move allowed the franchise, currently working with injured waterbug point man T.J. Ford, to have the pick of the point guard class that summer, and a choice between either Chris Paul or Deron Williams.

The team responded by drafting Andrew Bogut.

At least the Milwaukee’s owner didn’t sell the franchise to a couple of guys from Oklahoma City, I guess.

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