Sonics Face Tall Order Next -- With Payton At Point, Attention Turns To Center Spot

By his own very humble admission, Gary Payton can perform a number of stunts for the Seattle SuperSonics.

Such as help them leap-frog much of the NBA: ``I can add nine or 10 wins to the Sonics and put them in (championship) contention.''

And start at point guard, immediately: ``I feel good about that happening.''

And be to the Seattle teams of the '90s, essentially, what Magic Johnson was to the Los Angeles Lakers of the '80s: ``I think I fell into a dynasty.''

But he cannot play center.

Or at least nobody's asked him.

As snugly as Payton seemed to have filled the primary need of the Sonics - point guard - when he was made the second overall selection last night in the NBA draft, at 6-feet-4 1/2, he may not cover every necessity of his new employer.

There promises to be more realignment this summer for the Sonics, who could begin next season with a new starter at every position.

Foremost on the shopping list of team president Bob Whitsitt is a center. Quality, available veteran pivotmen are rare, but Whitsitt said he plans to explore trade and free-agent avenues to find a successor to 6-9 Michael Cage, who manned the middle last season.

``We still need to get better,'' Whitsitt said. ``We've addressed the point-guard situation. But a center, low-post scorer, a shot blocker - we still need it. I don't know if we can get it.''

Whitsitt ruled out Moses Malone as a candidate. The Atlanta Hawks have offered their 35-year-old workhorse around the league as trade bait, but few teams have shown interest in the three-time MVP and his massive contract. Not among them is Seattle, which plans to emphasize the running game under new coach K.C. Jones. Malone is a plodder.

Free-agent options hardly rate as more promising, with Dallas' Sam Perkins, Cleveland's John Williams and Denver's Joe Barry Carroll heading the list of players able to solicit offers after July 1.

Jones said that, contrary to persistent reports, the Sonics were not involved in trade talks with Boston over the past week for power forward Kevin McHale, 32. But a deal for 36-year-old center Robert Parish - whom Jones says has three or four quality seasons remaining - may not yet be ruled out.

The key date in terms of a trade for Parish would be Aug. 1, when the salary cap increases from $9.8 million and the Sonics can accommodate his contract.

``Parish sounds like something we can talk about,'' Jones said yesterday morning. ``That's a good thought.''

The Sonics picked up 6-11 center Abdul Shamsid-Deen from Providence College with the 53rd pick, but Whitsitt did not tout the raw shot-blocker as the Sonics' answer in the middle.

In a complicated deal, Seattle's other second-round choice, forward Jud Buechler of Arizona, was sent to New Jersey for the Nets' promise not to take Payton or Dennis Scott with the No. 1 pick. That deal was tied to an arrangement with No. 4-choosing Orlando, which sought Scott and gave the Sonics second-round picks in 1993 and '95 for not taking him.

Jones, who has had a voice in player personnel decisions, backed Bernie Bickerstaff, vice president of operations, in pursuing Payton and refusing to trade the No. 2 selection. Whitsitt said decisions on how the team will be structured are the sole province of Jones.

Already, several key questions face Jones - whether to move Derrick McKey to small forward; whether 7-0 Olden Polynice should start at center in the event Whitsitt fails to obtain another player; and whether to return Cage to his natural position, power forward, or allow second-year-player Shawn Kemp a shot at that spot.

Jones said he has not made up his mind on many issues. But he plans to hand the starting job at point guard to Payton, a four-year starter in college.

``He gave Oregon State a lot of leadership right away, and he'll get the chance to do that here,'' Jones said. ``With his ability of getting players to fall in behind him, I have no reservations about him being able to do it from the get-go.''

Deadpanning, Jones said, ``He has a ways to go to get as great as I was. But he has time.''

Jones' design in the backcourt is to have Dana Barros as backup at both guard spots, and move incumbent point guard Nate McMillan to small forward off the bench.

Jones said he was not concerned about Payton's outside shot, the one consensus weakness in his game. He also disagreed with the notion that leaving perhaps the most important position on a team to a brash rookie, Payton, and a natural off-guard, Barros, was akin to operating without a net.

``Larry Bird was one of the most cocky players in the world. But he loves the game,'' Jones said. ``If you're too cocky, you lose your intelligence. But that's not the case with Gary Payton. He has a great deal of common sense.''

That's right, said Payton, the first guard to be taken as high as No. 2 since Isiah Thomas in 1981.

``I'm not going to come in talking all big,'' he said. ``I have a lot to learn. I'll save the talk for later.''

Payton is friends with several Sonics - another reason cited by Bickerstaff as to why he will blend easily on this team. But Payton, second to Syracuse's Sherman Douglas on the all-time NCAA assists list, cannot be assured to whom he will pass next season, for a glut of guards and forwards on the roster is certain to get scrutiny in trade talks for a center.

The status of guards Avery Johnson and Quintin Dailey appears shaky; but if Whitsitt is to swing a big deal, either Dale Ellis, Xavier McDaniel or Michael Cage likely will be included.

Without assurances that he will start again at small forward, McDaniel, 27, has requested a trade in the event Jones wants him to go to the bench for the second time in three years.

The answer to the Sonics' center dilemma may be as simple as Steve Johnson, the 6-10 former All-Star acquired in February for Brad Sellers. The Sonics must decide this month whether to pick up the option year on his contract, or he will join the free-agent ranks July 1.

Out of shape when traded from Minnesota, Johnson, 32, has vowed to report to training camp ready to contribute next season if the Sonics want him. A skilled low-post scorer when in shape - and potential backup to the defensive-oriented Polynice - Johnson averaged 5.6 points and 2.3 rebounds in 21 games with Seattle.

Barring a trade, a viable lineup to start the season appears to be Payton and Ellis in the backcourt, McKey at small forward, Kemp at power forward and Polynice at center.

``I wouldn't be embarrassed with the team we have,'' Whitsitt said. ``But you can always get it better.''




- GARY PAYTON (first round, No. 2 pick overall), guard, 6-4 1/2, Oregon State. No. 2 on the all-time NCAA assist list, he is expected to step into the starting point-guard spot.

- ABDUL SHAMSID-DEEN (second round, No. 53 pick overall), center, 6-11, Providence College. Considered a shot blocker who can cover the floor, he was the best big man available. He averaged 8 points and 7 rebounds as a senior.

(Note: In second round (38th pick overall) Sonics also drafted Jud Buechler, Arizona forward, but traded him to New Jersey in exchange for the Nets' agreement not to draft Payton or Dennis Scott with the No. 1 pick. The deal also involved Orlando, which sought Scott with the No. 4 pick and in return gave the Sonics second-round picks in 1993 and '95 for not taking him.)