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Originally published Tuesday, May 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Sonics' excitement far from over

So you think the Sonics' regular season was the most pleasant surprise you felt in this town since the Mariners won 116 games without Alex...

Seattle Times staff columnist

So you think the Sonics' regular season was the most pleasant surprise you felt in this town since the Mariners won 116 games without Alex Rodriguez?

And you say that the postseason, especially those three home games against San Antonio, were the most intense moments you've experienced as a Sonics fan since 1996?

Well, guess what: You ain't seen nothing yet.

You want drama? Wait until this offseason.

You want tension, apprehension, shock, pleasure? The Sonics' summer of '05 could have it all.

For Seattle fans, these past few days must have felt like the worst hangover after the best surprise party they've ever attended. But, as rotten as they must have felt last weekend and even into this week, the real fans can't wait for the next party to begin.

It's too bad their anticipation has to be diluted by so much uncertainty.

Rarely has a season this good bled into an offseason this unpredictable. Rarely has a team played as together as this season's Sonics, only to feel as if it might be on the verge of coming apart.

The franchise continues to hemorrhage money and is guaranteed another profitless season next year. And it has well-documented lease issues with KeyArena that aren't going to go away. Money always is an issue with this franchise.

Still, imagine the horror of losing free-agent All-Star Ray Allen, who emerged this season as the people's choice just as Lenny Wilkens, Fred Brown, Slick Watts, Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton have been in the past.

Imagine losing coach Nate McMillan.

In this his fourth season, McMillan, a Sonic since 1986, got this team nobody respected to believe in itself and believe in his philosophy of physical defense and aggressive, attacking offense.

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On the last year of his contract, he won a Northwest Division title with eight free agents and advanced to two wins from playing in the Western Conference finals.

But will he return?

The Sonics can't play on McMillan's loyalties to the franchise and expect to low-ball him into staying in Seattle. Next to Phil Jackson he is the hottest coaching commodity on the market, and McMillan isn't going to return on the cheap.

The most brutally honest and also most unsettling remarks at yesterday's postseason briefing came from team president Wally Walker. He acknowledged that signing McMillan may have an effect on how many of their free agents the Sonics can re-sign.

It was almost as if Walker was toying with McMillan's loyalty to the organization. As if he were telling McMillan, "If we give you a $5 million or $6 million deal, how can we afford Antonio Daniels, or Vlade Radmanovic?"

But signing McMillan can't become an either-or.

If the Sonics are going to maintain this momentum with their fans, re-signing McMillan should have nothing to do with re-signing the free agents.

This team has to return all of its key ingredients.

Allen has to be signed, no matter the $70-some million it will cost. He was the leader this season. The player the other players listened to in the locker room and followed on the floor. He is the face you want on next season's team. And he wants to come back.

Third-leading scorer Radmanovic, a restricted free agent who in his fourth season played as if he finally understood what the NBA game was about, must return, no matter how painful his price tag is.

And although his market value rose with his life-saving postseason, the Sonics need the return of guard Antonio Daniels.

In a perfect world, they all return and there is no lockout and Nick Collison, Luke Ridnour and Rashard Lewis raise their games even higher.

Decisions, however, will be based on dollars. Regrettably Reggie Evans might be expendable because of the development of Collison and the versatility of restricted free agent Damien Wilkins.

Enigmatic center Jerome James might price himself out of Seattle, making it necessary for the Sonics to re-sign Vitaly Potapenko and start playing Robert Swift, this season's first-round draft pick.

Everything was hugs and giggles inside the Furtado Center yesterday, as it should have been. The good vibes from a rejuvenating season in wonderland shouldn't fade quickly.

But reality, like an Arctic wind, eventually will slap this franchise out of its revelry.

Now the Sonics' ownership must face the difficult decisions. Do they do what's right? Or what's economical?

Do they keep the core of this team together and keep the fans crowding into cramped KeyArena? Or do they let this season's momentum float away like a soap bubble? Or will a lockout ruin all the good will they built this year?

Losing, say, Evans and James would be disappointing. But losing either McMillan or Allen would be disastrous.

The offseason is about to begin. It might be agony. It might ecstasy. But it certainly will be dramatic.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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