The Jury Is Still Out
The postseason will begin in approximately three weeks and teams have only seven to nine games remaining on their schedules. In that time, several outstanding issues will be settled. In addition to the four teams to represent each conference in the postseason, teams are fighting it our for home-court advantage, players and coaches are battling it out for the individual awards, teams are working to break attendance records, coaches are evaluating talent for postseason rosters (and 2008 training camps) while others are indirectly going head-to-head in the 2008 Draft Lottery sweepstakes (though the very nature of the Lottery discourages teams from deliberately losing games down the stretch).
As a fair and impartial representative of the court who is trained to weigh the the facts objectively (doesn't NBA stand for Nothing But Attorneys?), I will hear these cases and deliberate based on a fair preponderance of the credible evidence in each case.
The People vs. Detroit Shock
First up, the defendant. The 2006 WNBA champion Detroit Shock have clinched another postseason berth and are well on their way to locking up home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and the Finals. They were the first team to 20 wins (and the first to 21 wins, too). Despite the loss of All-Star MVP and the league's leading rebounder in Cheryl Ford with a knee injury for the rest of the regular season, the Shock have won nine of their last 10 games, including last night's gutty road win over the Western Conference-leading San Antonio Silver Stars (Finals preview?).
The Shock are the second most potent offense in the WNBA behind the Mercury and feature five players who are averaging in double figures in points per game (including their Sixth Man, forward Plenette Pierson, who matched her season high with 22 points last night). Their starting lineup is a veritable All-Star team and they have one of the deepest benches around. Yet the best piece of evidence tipping the scales in their favor might just be their experience. With two titles in the past four years, this team knows how to stand and deliver.
Indiana had posed the biggest threat to the Shock, but the injury to Tamika Catchings just after the All-Star Game has broken the Fever and exposed a number of weaknesses (like not having eight more Tamika Catchings). That said, Catchings is expected to be back in the next week or two and the Fever could have some time to regain their composure before the elimination rounds begin. Their latest losing steak may have taken them out of contention for home court (before finally winning last night at home against the Mystics), but the road team has won both games in the Shock-Fever season series so far (played when both teams were at full strength). The two teams will meet twice more this season, on Saturday, August 11 in Detroit and on the final day of the season, Sunday, August 19 in Indiana. The Shock will play four of their remaining seven games away from home.
The Connecticut Sun, once 6-10 and in jeopardy of dropping out of the picture, may be the only other legitimate contender to the Shock's run to the Finals. They have won nine of their last 11 games (after trouncing the fourth-place Sky last night) and lurking in third place. The Shock and Sun have built up the best rivalry in the game for the past three or four seasons and they could very well meet again with a trip to the Finals on the line. After all, these two teams have represented the East in the Finals every year since 2003 (of course, the Shock are 2-0 in the Finals and the Sun are 0-2).
New York vs. Washington vs. Chicago
With three spots all but locked up in the East (see above), the one remaining postseason berth is very much up in the air and may remain that way until the final day of the regular season. That may be because no one really seems to want in as badly. The other three teams, the Chicago Sky, New York Liberty and Washington Mystics, all lost last night (by double digits) and continue to drop back from the lead pack (down, but not at all out).
The New York Liberty made a strong opening statement by starting off the season with five straight wins, but the Sky objected vehemently to the Liberty's hot start and went on a run of their own. The Sky, with only seven games remaining, are sitting prettiest despite losing their last two games. Not only are they up in the wins column (by two games), but they will play four games at home against Detroit, Indiana, Connecticut and New York, and three more on the road (at Washington, Houston and New York). New York and Washington each play nine more times this season (both will play four at home, five on the road).
Chicago is looking to make the playoffs for the first time in just their second season and coach Bo Overton is getting great things out of young studs like Candice Dupree (17.8 ppg on the season) and Jia Perkins (10.1 ppg) as well as veterans like Stacey Dales (19.0 ppg in her last three games) and Chasity Melvin (10.3 ppg). Of course, the fans in New York have yet to give up... The miserable faces of those sitting around waiting to be either selected or dismissed in my jury room here at the courthouse stands in stark contrast to the excited screams of those who were at the Liberty-Sparks game at Madison Square Garden last night.
The People vs. Lauren Jackson
Let's just put it this way. If you're going up against Lauren Jackson in just about anything right now, good luck. You're going to need it. Whether it is the MVP race, the scoring title, the rebounding title, a chicken wing eating contest or even the first person that the Australian guy sitting next you on the plane is likely to ask about when he finds out what you do for a living, Jackson has the leg up (and at 6-5, that's a big leg).
Jackson just earned her second consecutive Player of the Week award, her fourth this season and the 11th of her career (2006 MVP Lisa Leslie also won the award four times last season) and is up by 1.3 points per game over Lynx guard Seimone Augustus in the scoring table. She is currently posting averages of 24.2 ppg (her previous best was 21.2 ppg back in her 2003 MVP season) and 10.0 rebounds per game, the highest in her career. She will likely cruise to the rebounding title now that Ford is done for the season and won't play the required minimum number of games to qualify. (The last player to lead the WNBA in scoring and rebounding in one season was Chamique Holdsclaw, who accomplished the feat as a member of the Washington Mystics back in 2002.)
Of course, considering the Storm's mediocre play and inconsistency all year long, Jackson cannot really be considered a lock for the MVP (at least not yet). Not that the award should go to the best player on the best team, but several candidates continue to challenge for the title of most valuable. Catchings had a legit claim in the MVP race before getting injured and both Becky Hammon (go look at her numbers, seriously) and Deanna Nolan are still putting up a good fight, but the trophy is L.J.'s to lose (not that I have a vote). Of course, all of this assumes that Jackson can stay healthy, too. (Considering the rash of injuries going around the WNBA, nothing is guaranteed.) In fact, Jackson had an MRI on her sore right knee just two days ago and sat out practice earlier this week. Her teammates Betty Lennox and Janell Burse both have sore left wrists, all of which could limit the Storm's chances down the stretch.
The Haves vs. The Have Nots
In the Western Conference, the top four teams in the standings have built up a sizable lead over those on the outside looking in, but it's not over yet. Within the top four battling it out for home court advantage, just who will emerge on top is anyone's guess. The San Antonio Silver Stars and Phoenix Mercury are two of the hottest teams in the WNBA in the second half of the season (Phoenix has won five in a row) and the Monarchs are not too far behind (just one game). In total, only four games separate first place and fourth place as the first round matchups are far from set (even more reason to keep watching down the stretch).
Neither the Mercury nor the Silver Stars made the playoffs last season (or in any of the past four seasons, for that matter), yet they find themselves on top of the conference standings with two and a half weeks to play. San Antonio, despite the loss at home to Detroit last night, will still play six of their final nine games at home (including the next five in a row). Meanwhile, Phoenix (just one win away from matching last season's total already) has three at home and four on the road, the Monarchs have four at home and five on the road and Seattle will finish with four at home and three away from home. Whether due to the injuries or not, the Storm are the only team mildly in jeopardy here. Seattle has never really been able to keep its head above water and has fallen below .500 with a home loss to the Monarchs last night (and the unstoppable force that has been Nicole Powell of late).
Los Angeles is only three games behind Seattle now and not necessarily out of the race, having kept its hopes alive with a win in New York last night, but they will need some help. Houston and Minnesota, while not mathematically eliminated, would have to catch fire down the stretch (we're talking miracles here). The Lynx, the only team not to play last night, have already lost 20 games this season and are on the verge of elimination.
These teams and players all have but fleeting opportunities to make their final arguments in the aforementioned cases before the final verdicts are handed down. Now please pardon me while I go deliberate.
(And yes, I am more intelligent than you are).