Nobody Beats the Whiz!
Winning isn't easy in the WNBA. But John Whisenant is making it look that way in Sacramento. After a long and
storied career coaching in the college ranks, "Whiz" became the Sacramento
Monarchs' assistant general manager in 2003. Midway through the 2003 season,
he was also named the team's head coach. With Whiz at the helm, the Monarchs
celebrated four straight winning seasons and playoff berths, and they won the
WNBA title in 2005.
After a long and storied career coaching in the college ranks, "Whiz" became the Sacramento Monarchs' assistant general manager in 2003. Midway through the 2003 season, he was also named the team's head coach. With Whiz at the helm, the Monarchs celebrated four straight winning seasons and playoff berths, and they won the WNBA title in 2005.
Whisenant gave up his coaching duties prior to the 2007 season, but he remains the team's general manager and works closely with new coach Jenny Boucek.
Whisenant spoke recently with WNBA.com about the 2007 season in Sacramento, why his squad's success is such an anomaly in the WNBA and what the Monarchs are cooking up this offseason.
Q. How do you feel the 2007 season went for the Monarchs? Where do you feel you succeeded or didn't quite live up to expectations as an organization?
A. "I thought we had a really good year. We became one of only a handful of WNBA teams to make the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Jenny was the coach of the All-Star team, so at the All-Star break, you'd have to say we were playing pretty well. We had a really good first half, but losing DeMya Walker to her knee injury hurt us a lot. She was a key player for us. Especially with Yo(landa Griffith) aging a bit and playing slightly reduced minutes, losing DeMya was a big blow. But all in all, I think we had a good year. We reached the playoffs, we had a chance to get out of the first round and I was happy with the year as a whole.
"But on the other hand, we'd been to the Finals in back-to-back years, so there was some disappointment. But I think that change in the second half was largely due to DeMya not being around."
Q. Are there improvements that you feel the team needs to make, either by bringing in some different players or in an on-the-court, tactical way?
A. "We're always looking for ways to improve our personnel. But the one negative thing about making the playoffs for five consecutive years is that we haven't been in the Draft Lottery. And the team that did win it this year, Phoenix, had three lottery picks in its starting lineup. Having -- and then doing well with -- those early picks is the best way to build and improve in this league. But despite not having those lottery picks, we've continued to make the playoffs. That's not how the system is supposed to work! So we're constantly fighting that cycle.
"And again this year, we'll be picking 10th and we hope to find a useful player. Sometimes it's difficult to find what you really need when you're not picking near the top. And we have Yolanda, who has been a mainstay with the Monarchs, getting up there in age -- so we're always looking for more post depth. We also know that DeMya's knee injury is a hard thing to recover from. She's doing great and we hope for the best, but it's not something we can count on 100 percent. So we're looking for that kind of depth.
"We're also always looking for shooters. You don't find shooters like Kara Lawson or Nicole Powell every day of the week, but we'd like to improve at the offensive end. We feel like Rebekkah Brunson is going to be a serious force in the league and that she's going to continue to come into her own. So we just have to fill in the holes.
"And I'll spend most of the winter watching the college players, and as soon as the CBA is settled, I'm sure I'll do a lot of talking to the other GM's around the league on possible maneuvers."
Q. Do you see any issues on the court that you feel need to be addressed this offseason?
A. "Of course, there are always things you'd like to improve, moves you'd like to make, but you don't often see teams in this league just giving away good players without wanting good players in return. So it's not as simple as it might sound. The players that most people want in trades from the Monarchs are the players that we want to keep.
"That's why the draft is so important. Look at what Detroit did: they finished last one year, got a couple of great draft picks and those players made a great impact on the team and they went on to win a couple of titles. The trade to get Katie Smith also played a big part in that, but their team was built largely by the draft. Now you look at Phoenix, you look at San Antonio… those teams have succeeded because of the draft. And the Silver Stars didn't even use their pick this year, but they traded it for Becky Hammon. That's making good use of that pick.
"So if you win consistently in this league like we have in Sacramento, it's hard to build up collateral to make the trades that help you take that next step up. So we have to find some late bloomers, we have to find players we think will develop into good players. Rebekkah Brunson is a perfect example: we got her with the 10th pick in 2004 and I think she'll be one of the premier players in this league for the next couple of years. Knock on wood."
Q. Are there other players currently on your roster who you feel will step up and make a bigger contribution in 2008?
"Of course we hope Nicole Powell and Becky Brunson continue to develop. They're players who have grown up with us, and they're available soon to go out as restricted free agents. And I don't intend to let them go anywhere. We really think they'll get even better and become the best 3-4 forward combo in the league.
"And Kara Lawson is like our coach on the floor. She can play the point, she's a great shooter and we expect her to continue to get better, too.
"And everyone thinks she's old, but Ticha Penicheiro is as hard as a rock. She's just 32 and even though she's getting to the point where age might be a factor, I haven't seen any change in her game. She may never be a great shooter, but her ability to handle the ball and run the offense should continue to help us for a few more years."
Q. Defense has been your team's calling card for the last couple of seasons. Is the fact that the Mercury -- a run-and-gun sort of team -- won the title going to change your team's style at all?
A. "They're an impressive team. But do you know whose playoff scoring record they broke? It was ours. And before Paul Westhead's teams led the nation in scoring in college, it was my teams at New Mexico.
"My point is that yes, my teams here won with defense, but we're still capable of scoring 100 points a game. Playing good defense creates havoc and easy scoring opportunities. That's the key. Sure, we need more offense, but I still think that defensively-sound teams are usually going to win.
"Our defense has been disruptive since I've been in Sacramento, but that definitely doesn't preclude us from playing good offense. It's not like we're sitting around, holding the ball and slowing down the game."
Q. Finally, what are your goals for 2008? Are you focused on getting back to the WNBA Finals?
A. "Yeah, always. But first, we want to do well enough to make the playoffs and come in on a positive note. In 2005 and 2006, we played our best basketball in the second half of the season and came into the postseason a hot team. This year, we hit a rough patch and went only 7-7 after the All-Star break. And that's not good going into the playoffs.
"We hope DeMya will be able to come back and play for us, we think Brunson is really going to take that next step in her game and we hope Yo comes back for another season. We've reduced her minutes over the last few years, and if we continue to do that, I can see her sticking around for a little while longer. Her toughness and attitude are so valuable to this team.
"We hope we can find a nice player in our draft spot… someone who can come in and contribute. And this is supposed to be a deep draft, at least at the top. How deep does it go? We'll see, but there are probably at least a half-dozen players who can make rosters and play right off the bat. We hope someone like that drops to us."