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Sonics still aim for lofty goals

Associated Press

SEATTLE – With All-Star guard Ray Allen returning, the Seattle SuperSonics think they can be an NBA championship contender – but now they have to find the right coach to replace the departing Nate McMillan.

“We’ve got the nucleus of our club pretty well intact so that we can go for it,” general manager Rick Sund said Thursday.

After coaching the Sonics to a 52-30 regular-season record, the Northwest Division title and into a Western Conference semifinal playoff series against eventual NBA champion San Antonio, McMillan surprised the team by accepting the head coaching job with the Portland Trail Blazers.

“We’re going to try to bring in the best guy,” Sonics president and CEO Wally Walker said. “We thought we had the best situation for Nate.”

McMillan’s departure, announced late Wednesday by the Blazers, came a day after Seattle signed Allen to a five-year, $85 million contract extension.

“We wanted to get both of them,” Walker said. “That’s the bottom line. What we said to Nate was, ‘Hey, our goal here is different than it has been the last couple of years. We’re going to go and try to win a title here the next few years.’ “

McMillan is leaving Seattle after a 19-year stay with the Sonics as a player, assistant coach and head coach. He earned the nickname of “Mr. Sonic” and Walker acknowledged his departure was a public relations blow.

“That’s not a dream PR scenario for us,” he said.

Sund signed a three-year contract extension with the Sonics on June 22. He spent Thursday morning on the phone talking to Sonics players, including eight free agents, explaining the details of McMillan’s departure.

“They’re understanding,” he said. “Most of the free agents, it probably didn’t matter who was coaching. They’re looking at the team, what’s the direction and how do they fit in.”

Walker would like to get the coach search resolved as soon as possible.

“We’re not going to bring in six or seven guys,” he said.

Principal Sonics owner Howard Schultz and Walker have told Sund to compile a list of candidates to succeed McMillan, who replaced the fired Paul Westphal as coach of the Sonics in November 2000. Schultz is out of the country, but will return to Seattle in the middle of next week.

One Seattle media report suggested the leading candidate is Marc Iavaroni, an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns who is a close friend of Walker. Like Walker, Iavaroni played college basketball at Virginia.

“He’s a guy that’s qualified,” Walker said.

Walker said Seattle’s new coach won’t break the team’s bank.

The Sonics reportedly offered McMillan an $18 million, four-year contract.

“We’re going to be budget-cognizant,” Walker said. “We always are.”

The Sonics’ free agents include starting center Jerome James, key reserve forward Vladimir Radmanovic and reserve guard Antonio Daniels.

With Allen returning, the Sonics are going to try to keep as many free agents as they can, Walker and Sund said.

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