Sonics micro, but not soft

For the better part of 15 years, the Seattle SuperSonics have been one of the
softest, least intimidating teams in the NBA.

Part of that is due to personnel, having had Benoit Benjamin, Ervin Johnson,
Jim McIlvaine, Vin Baker, Billy Owens, Predrag Drobnjak, Vladimir Stepania and,
of course, the inimitable Calvin Booth roaming the paint, providing as much
fear as a group of Bel-Air Cub Scouts in south central L.A.

The closest thing the Sonics have had to an enforcer over the years was Frank
Brickowski the year they went to the NBA Finals (1996), until Brickowski was exposed
by Dennis Rodman as a marginally talented hack who could be suckered into
self-implosion. And that was the end of Frank. Bye bye.

But the other reason the Sonics have been so putrid in rebounding is because
George Karl employed the trapping defense that proved so successful through
the 1990s.

While it was a nice defense, to be sure, once players rotated in their traps
they often were left out of position to grab rebounds, something that didn't
matter so much when the team was loaded with talent but started to have a
dismal effect when the players got older.

When Karl left and Paul Westphal took over, the lockout-shortened season
forced Westphal to adopt many of Karl's strategies, but without the talented
players that Karl had during his run.

And then when Westphal got axed, Nate McMillan took over. And of course
McMillan played for George, and was part of the teams that experienced success, so McMillan naturally went with what he knew.

And as difficult as it may be to believe, Shammond Williams and Jelani McCoy
and Ruben Wolkowyski and Kenny Anderson and, dare I say, Calvin Booth could
not execute the concepts as well as Payton and Hersey Hawkins and Detlef
Schrempf and Vinny Askew and Shawn Kemp and Kendall Gill could.

So this season, McMillan, needing to do something to save a job that he was
almost certain to lose, made a somewhat subtle switch, deciding not to trap,
instead playing straight-up man-to-man defense with every player responsible
for his own man. He also employed the zone more, which kept players in their
more natural positions on the floor.

None of that would amount to much without three new players: two undersized power forwards, Reggie
Evans and Danny Fortson, who could be called hooligans and a third, Nick
Collison, who is a prime example of what David Stern is talking about when he
recommends players' going to college for four seasons.

At 6-8, if that, Evans is a small power forward who went undrafted out of Iowa. He was invited to the Sonics'
training camp in 2002 more to fill out the camp roster than anything else.

But when Booth was injured in camp, Evans was invited
to stick around until Booth got better. Little did anyone know that Booth would
never get better. Ba dum bum.

Seriously though, what happened was that Evans played well enough to earn a
job, throwing around his body on defense, grabbing enough rebounds to matter
and infuriating opponents with a style that could best be described as
aggravating. At worst, it could be called assault and battery, but that's a fine line we'll leave alone.

Also listed as a 6-8 power forward, though certainly not that tall, Fortson has kicked around from team to team, averaging a double-double for
two consecutive seasons in Golden State before finding himself unwelcome in Eric
Musselman's locker room.

He went to Dallas, where he was labeled a "thug" by Suns chairman Jerry
Colangelo after Fortson broke the wrist of Zarko Cabarkapa, a comment that prompted
Fortson to file a $25,000 lawsuit against Colangelo for defamation.

He soon found himself out of Don Nelson's rotation, and his career seemed to
be coming to an end.

That's when the Mavs and the Sonics decided to trade problem for problem,
PR nightmare for PR nightmare – Booth finding his
way back to Dallas, while Fortson picked up and moved again, this time to the
Pacific Northwest.

(By the way, Fortson's arrival meant that the Sonics now have had on their
roster at one time or another each of the three University of Cincinnati players
who was in the car that dreary night when Art Long infamously punched the
police horse. Besides Fortson and Long, the other was Ruben Patterson – who wanted to punch the horse too
because he thought the horse looked like Kobe Bryant.)

The final piece of the triumvirate is the 6-9 Collison, whose entire rookie season
was lost when he dislocated a shoulder in training camp. He went in for an MRI
after that dislocation, and doctors told him that he had two bum shoulders and
that he needed surgery on both of them. Sonics fans were up in arms that their
lottery pick was down in arms, but they couldn't really blame him
for faulty hardware.

Nobody really knew what to expect of this power forward trio this season,
given their histories. Well, people knew what to expect, and it was a morass of
ineptitude. After all, Evans can't shoot, Fortson can't keep his head and
Collison can't stay healthy, the reason that everybody – and I mean everybody – predicted the Sonics to finish 14th or 15th in the West.

No Nobel Prize-winning chemist could have created the interesting mix that
has endured this season and helped the Sonics to the fourth-best record in the
league and an insurmountable lead in the Northwest Division.

While Fortson and Evans could have, and probably should have, hated each
other this season for all the illegal tactics they pull on one another in
practices, instead they have forged an idyllic bond in which each cheers the other
from the bench.

And while Collison is too short, too aerodynamically challenged and too
inexperienced in a league where power forwards have become high flyers, he has found a niche for himself that was discovered probably because he is the son of a basketball coach.

Not one of the players is even close to being an All-Star. But together, they
average 17.8 points and 19.3 rebounds per game, which is more than anyone could have hoped for out of the power forward position on a team that flaunts its outside shooting prowess.

They are effective because McMillan has discovered the perfect rotation.
Evans starts the game alongside center Jerome James, and he goes about his
business of beating up and beating down whomever he faces. I can't tell you how many
star players like Chris Webber and Amare Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki and
Kevin Garnett find themselves apoplectic over Evans' tactics, which distract
them out of their own games.

Evans is averaging 9.3 rebounds in just 23 minutes a game. His average per 48 minutes is 19.2, best in the league.

When opponents have had enough of Evans, McMillan then inserts Fortson, who
really lays the wood, leading the league in both personal fouls and technical fouls. He has established himself as a bruising entity on a team that badly needed that
personality adjustment, and his teammates gladly feed off it. (Fortson, James and Collison are 1-2-3 in the NBA in fouls per 48 minutes.) No longer are they
sissies, because if you call them that, Fortson wanders over and pulls you to
the ground, sliding in a subtle kick for good measure.

Take Amare Stoudemire's description of the play of Evans and Fortson: "They
are known for coming out and being overly aggressive, and once you are
aggressive back they will flop on you. There is a lot of false play out there."

Fortson is no choirboy, to be sure. He has been late several times, and fined a
bunch, but as one teammate said, "As long as big fella keeps cracking heads,
we're OK with it."

The addition of Fortson has been invaluable this season not just for his
ruffian ways, but also because of his free throw shooting. When the Sonics needed
the presence of Evans in the fourth quarter of games last season, they could
not put him in because he is a 54 percent free throw shooter.

But Fortson shoots 88 percent from the line, and so when the Sonics need a
tough rebounder in the fourth quarter, they also have a player who can knock
down free throws.

Collison, meanwhile, is raw, but skilled. He has, as McMillan says, "a feel
for the game," which is another way of saying he produces even though we don't
know how.

But it's true. Technically still a rookie, Collison invariably comes up with
a key block. Or a nice defensive stop. The other night against Detroit, he
blocked a Ben Wallace dunk from behind that turned the tide of the game.

Unlike Fortson and Evans, Collison can guard players on the perimeter as well
as inside. He has such a knack for making plays that McMillan now uses him in
the fourth quarter, oftentimes alongside Fortson, comfortable that Collison
will come through.

Listen, these three players are not stars. Never will be. They do not have
the games. But there is a place in this league for role players, and on a team
that already has a lot of scorers, these guys fill their roles perfectly –
unless you are on the other team, and then it's a tad bit maddening.

Frank Hughes, who covers the NBA for the Tacoma (Wash.) News-Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.