Before the season began, back when expectations for the Sonics were lower than Ralph Nader's poll numbers, the coaching staff had a simple message to the players.

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Before the season began, back when expectations for the Sonics were lower than Ralph Nader’s poll numbers, the coaching staff had a simple message to the players.


“Nobody’s expecting you to do squat this season. So you have two choices: You can make all the pundits look good, become a self-unfulfilling 25-win prophesy. Or you can suck it up and shock the world.”


The Sonics were a team that began the year with very little job security. Foolishly, the Sonics’ management had decided to let coach Nate McMillan twist in the wind, refusing to negotiate a contract extension. And six of McMillan’s best players will be free agents next summer.


This season, they would be playing and coaching for their futures. And McMillan motivated his players, in part, by telling them there was money to be made if they were willing to listen to him and play his way.


In October, however, this seemed like a lame duck, as well as a lame season in the making. In October, even Sonics front-office personnel were telling friends and colleagues around the league the team would be fortunate to win 25 to 28 games.


Surprise, however, is one of the built-in wonders of sport. Some teams, some players, don’t buy into predictions. They don’t sink to the level of their expectations.


After last night’s pre-winter bash, a 112-110 loss to the equally smoking Phoenix Suns, the Sonics are 18-5.


Seattle has become a team that plays with passion, plays 94 feet, plays with one giant, motivating, free-agent chip on its shoulder. With respects to Stephen Stills, something’s happening here and what it is, game by game, is becoming clear.


• McMillan is doing one of the great all-time coaching jobs. The fact his bosses haven’t given him a three-year contract extension is a travesty. It speaks to a communication gap with the front office that has lingered for years.


• Luke Ridnour is emerging. After the last game of last season, McMillan sat alone in his office and wrote the starting lineup for next season. The first name he wrote was Ridnour’s. The point guard’s quickness has allowed the Sonics to pressure the ball and play fast: Nate Ball.


• Power forward Danny Fortson is the gamble that has worked. He has given the team an edginess. Fortson’s reputation was that he always was frustrated, always played out of control. That he believed every game devolved into Fortson vs. the officials. He believed they were out to get him. But unlike all of his previous coaches, McMillan has talked, almost daily, with Fortson. He’s reasoned with him. Made him better.


• The best thing that happened in October were the injuries to stars Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. It allowed the backups who believed they should be starters, like Vlade Radmanovic, to realize they weren’t as good as the players ahead of them. It put everybody in a pecking order and made it easier for McMillan to create a friction-free substitution rotation.


• Lewis, 25, grew up. He became a leader, a 20-and-8 All-Star. In his seven years, he has taken loads of abuse from people (including me), who sometimes forgot his youth. To put his age in perspective, Lewis is only a year older than second-year forward Nick Collison.


• Center Jerome James has reduced his body fat from about 17 percent to 11 percent, dropped his weight to 269 and become part of McMillan’s effective, diverse post rotation.


• McMillan’s approach is more relaxed. He is more patient when players make mistakes. He is more comfortable with himself, knowing the team is playing to his philosophy.


• The free-agents-in-waiting (most notably Allen, Antonio Daniels, Radmanovic and Reggie Evans) are playing as if this season is one long audition. The Sonics haven’t had this many free agents since their 1996 Western Conference championship team.


• Ray Allen is playing like, well, Ray Allen. He takes and makes big shots. He is playing big-time, level-headed basketball. He has earned the right to sign a max contract.


Still, with all of the success, everyone around the city and around the league wonders if this can last.


The Sonics don’t have all the pieces. They don’t have a 6-foot-5 to 6-7 lock-down defender, a Vincent Askew or Nate McMillan, which makes them vulnerable against scorers like Paul Pierce and Corey Maggette and makes a long playoff run seem unlikely.


They don’t have a legitimate post-up player they can go to in the fourth quarter when games slow to a half-court crawl.


Are they for real? Not quite as real as they’ve looked. Are they a playoff team? Absolutely. Are they a 60-win team? Let’s not get carried away.


They are a pleasure to watch and as surprising as any team this city has seen. And, for now, that should be good enough.


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