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A SuperSonic shake-up


Clay Bennett waited months to finally put his imprint on the basketball side of the Seattle SuperSonics.

Bennett, the Sonics' majority owner, did that on Tuesday by firing coach Bob Hill, as expected, and removing Rick Sund as general manager. But it came with little fanfare or explanation, and plenty of questions not involving the franchise's future in Seattle.

The overhaul of the Sonics' basketball operations was announced in a four-paragraph, 160-word release in the late afternoon. Bennett and team vice chairman Lenny Wilkens weren't made available for comment, and the brief announcement failed to give an explanation for the moves.

"Bob Hill and Rick Sund are fine individuals of excellent personal character and are basketball men through and through. They were both extremely helpful to us during this challenging year of transition. We are sincerely appreciative to them for their service and we wish them only the very best," Bennett said in the statement.

Why the moves were made is easier to decipher. The Sonics just finished a 31-51 season, their worst since ending the 1985-86 season with an identical mark. Only three times in the Sonics' 40-year history have they finished with a worse record.

Sund, with one year remaining on his contract, will remain with the franchise as a consultant. Hill's contract was set to expire in June. Both were brought in by the previous ownership group.

Now Bennett and Wilkens get to shape the Sonics' basketball operations how they want. Their parameters for finding a new general manager and coach are among the lingering questions.

Wilkens, the Hall of Fame coach, is likely to be rumored for both positions, but has reiterated a lack of interest in returning to coaching.

The duo's biggest challenge may be finding a staff willing to endure a lame-duck season in Seattle, before the franchise potentially moves.

Last week, Bennett announced the team likely would not play in Seattle after the 2007-08 season following the Washington state Legislature's decision not to consider plans for a new $500 million arena in suburban Renton. Bennett asked for $278 million in King County tax revenues to help pay for the new arena.

If Bennett doesn't get an agreement for a new arena in the Seattle area by Oct. 31, his $350 million purchase agreement allows him to move the team &

most likely to Oklahoma City. Bennett's ownership group bought the Sonics and the WNBA Seattle Storm last July.

"While there is uncertainty as to the future physical location of our franchise, our commitment to creating a culture of competitive excellence for this organization is unwavering," Bennett said. "We absolutely aspire to win championships."

Hill and Sund didn't return phone messages for comment to The Associated Press. But Hill told local papers he got the word from Bennett in a telephone call about two hours after undergoing outpatient surgery in San Antonio to repair a hernia that had bothered him all season.

Hill said he hoped to return to coaching in the NBA.

"I think for me the last two years have been great. I got to do what I loved to do," he told The News Tribune of Tacoma. "The NBA can be thankless and unforgiving, but I don't disagree with his decision. He should go in a different direction. I am all for it."

Hill's efforts to impress Bennett failed largely because of debilitating injuries. Robert Swift, expected to be Seattle's starting center, was lost for the season during an October exhibition game. Leading scorer Ray Allen was bothered by bone spurs in his ankles for much of the season and missed the final 16 games after opting for surgery. Rashard Lewis, who can become a free agent, was out 22 games with a hand injury.

Hill, who previously coached in New York, Indiana and most successfully in San Antonio, took over for Bob Weiss in the middle of last season and went 22-30 in his first pro head coaching job since 1996. Seattle closed last season 14-11 after Sund made moves to acquire Earl Watson and Chris Wilcox, earning Hill a contract extension and bolstering hopes for this season.

But there was little carry-over and the Sonics finished with the fifth-worst record in the NBA, losing 22 games by six points or less. Seattle also had a franchise record 15-game road losing streak that stretched from Thanksgiving to nearly Valentine's Day.

Sund, who began his NBA management career in the mid-1970s with the Milwaukee Bucks, was hired in 2001, and criticized in recent seasons for drafting unproven teenage centers three straight seasons, two with lottery picks.

Whoever replaces Hill will become Seattle's third coach since Nate McMillan left for Portland after the 2004-05 season. Experienced options are available, including former Sacramento coach Rick Adelman, former Sonics assistant and Minnesota coach Dwane Casey and former Milwaukee coach Terry Porter.

Even Sonics players felt moves were coming.

"I think this team is going to make a lot of changes," Watson said last month about his future. "One thing I've learned about the NBA is you can't comment about what-ifs."