Start of Season Conference Call With ESPN Analysts Doris Burke and Carolyn Peck
Burke: Having Michael Cooper back in the league is a huge story. He brings instant credibility having been to the Finals three times with Lisa Leslie and with back-to-back championships. The addition of Taj McWilliams-Franklin off the Connecticut roster helps with the temporary absence of Lisa Leslie.
Becky Hammon being traded out of New York was a huge trade. She had been the face of the Liberty for several seasons, one of the most popular players in the league and certainly in that market. She goes to a San Antonio team that has a real opportunity to make huge strides and be really competitive in the West. The have great veteran play. Ruth Riley at the center position gives them an immediate force in the middle.
There's a lot of new coaches. It's striking to me that you have more and more NBA presence coming in. Don Zierden's presence in Minnesota automatically ups the credibility of that staff.
I'm anxious. Armintie Price is my favorite rookie and I can't wait to watch her play. Athletically she's among the most gifted players right now in the League. When she gets a jump shot I don't think people will be able to guard her.
Peck: I'm extremely excited about sitting on the other side of the floor and being able to watch this great game, especially with the WNBA. I concur with Doris with so many great stories. In addition to the ones she named, it will be interesting to watch the trades from Detroit to San Antonio with Ruth Riley and PeeWee Johnson and how that will help both teams. With Michael Cooper coming back, that is exciting. It's a thrill for me to be able to get back involved at the pro level and especially with ESPN.
On players who have gone on to be coaches:
Peck: A primary example is the job that Dawn Staley has done at Temple. She has shown that you can be a quality player and then make that transition into being a quality coach. Jen Rizzotti has done the same thing. Jenny Boucek now has that opportunity at Sacramento. I think that is an even greater example of former players being able to come into the head coaching positions. Cynthia Cooper at Prairie View has done a great job. It shows that the women have played the game and are now bringing their knowledge now and stepping into the coaching positions.
Burke: I think it's a matter of timing and evolution. I'm thrilled to see Teresa Edwards on the sidelines in Minnesota. I concur with Carolyn's thoughts that these are capable women who given the opportunity will be successful. I was thrilled to see two women join the coaching ranks this WNBA season. I thought there was a time when we went away from that as there was an influx of NBA guys coming into the League. To be honest with you, I thought that was terrific for the League. Coaching in college and coaching in professional leagues are distinctly different jobs. There was a time in the WNBA where coaches relied on coaching the college system in a professional league. Now there is a distinct line drawn between the college game and the professional game. As women serve in various roles throughout these organizations, whether its GM or assistant coaching, there is a learning curve. There is a learning curve to how a pro league works. It's in the 11th year now, so women have had an opportunity to serve in these roles. Pat Coyle is an example in New York, having served under Richie Adubato and then taking over. It's a matter of timing and opportunity. As they get experience in different roles, they will be better prepared for their jobs. I'm thrilled to see it start to come back.
On the legacy of players like Swoopes, Thompson and Leslie who have played
in the League since its inception:
Burke: You are talking about three of the most accomplished women in women's basketball history in Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson and Sheryl Swoopes. Not only as incredible basketball players, but as consummate professionals. Each of them has answered the call in terms of media responsibility and being role models to young women.
When I was a kid, I watched men's college basketball and the NBA. I aspired to be whomever I watched - Mo Cheeks, Kyle Macy. That's who I went out and tried to emulate. Those three women - by virtue of their ability, work ethic and who they are as people - have set a great standard for future WNBA players. I think their best legacy will be who they are as people.
How will WNBA get into the mainstream in sports landscape:
Peck: The WNBA is getting closer and closer to finding the key to turn that lock. Continuoud exposure and opportunity. More exposure will come because of the increased talent level. It used to be that going through the legs or dribbling behind the back was flashy or showing off. But its become a fundamental part of the game. Players are able to shoot the ball. The speed of the game and going to the 8 second back court continues to increase the temp of the game and makes it an exciting sport to watch.
Burke: Great question, not an easy answer. I would echo some of those sentiments. We are getting to a point where the level of ability has risen to where the players now have crossover ability in terms of their gender appeal. When you look at a player who has the skill and personality of Diana Taurasi or Lauren Jackson or Deanna Nolan, these are women who are incredibly skilled and play the game with a great love and edge about them . Any basketball fan watching those players can't help be captured by their skills. As the league gets more talented, more skilled, more personality-driven, we will have a cross over appeal and the game will continue to grow.
Which teams fared well or didn't fare well by virtue of offseason moves:
Burke: The team that had the biggest job, clearly, was the Chicago Sky. Building an expansion franchise is never an easy thing to do. That said, it helped that there was contraction and they picked up a player of Monique Currie's caliber. They bettered themselves in that and in the collegiate draft by getting Armintie Price. But because the League is at an all-time high in terms of its competitive nature, I think they are still going to have a hard road. Armintie is terrific, but I'm not sure that acquisitions after the first round are really going to help anybody to the point where they can raise the level of a team. The one team I'm still concerned about is Chicago.
You look down the rosters, Indiana kept everybody and looks terrific. Washington has got great potential. New York will be young and on the verge of competing for the playoffs. The only team that didn't really have an opportunity to get better via the draft is LA. Michael Cooper's influence on that team will inspire that team to be able to compete. They added Taj, probably the best post defender in the League, but she's not a 20-point scorer like you have in Lisa Leslie.
With all the offseason moves, what teams have a better chance of winning
a title in 2007:
Burke: I am very anxious to watch Detroit play this year, and see how well they defend their 2006 WNBA title. The first time Detroit won a title, (Bill) Laimbeer acknowledged that they were too young to know how to defend a title, that isn't the case anymore. They (Detroit) have an incredibly strong starting five, and it will be interesting to see if Kara Braxton will be able to become a dominant force inside and also to see what physical shape she is in. Pee-wee Johnson has always been a star and a starter; it will be interesting to see how she adapts to her new role in Detroit. Generally, a perspective that a player has before they retire is that they want to win a championship, I am sure that is in the forefront of (Pee-wee) Johnson's mind. Detroit definitely has a chance to repeat.
Indiana has always been a team that has been on the verge for several seasons. I think every meeting between Indiana and Detroit will be terrific. Connecticut is so well-coached, and such an unselfish team, they will always be in the hunt for an Eastern Conference Finals berth.
San Antonio in the West is an intriguing team to watch. They (San Antonio) now have a healthy Marie Ferdinand, a scoring threat from Becky Hammon, the constant professionalism in Vicki Johnson, and Ruth Riley who has multiple titles. San Antonio is extremely well-coached and has an abundance of talent.
Sacramento is also in contention under new head coach Jenny Boucek. I am interested to see the new offensive wrinkle that she has put in. I don't think they should lose sight of their defensive game. Their defense has always been the team's strong point, especially winning them a title and bringing them back to the finals last year. Those are the teams that are at the forefront. The other team I find interesting is Houston. Anytime you have Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson in your lineup, you always have a chance to compete for titles. I thought Karleen Thompson did a great job of stepping in for Michael Cooper when she took over for him in Los Angeles. For Houston, Karleen is a capable coach, but it will all depend on the dynamic between her, Sheryl (Swoopes) and Tina (Thompson). If they blend and gel together quickly and well, then Houston will also have a chance for a 2007 WNBA title.
Which rookie will have the biggest influence on her new team this season:
Peck: Ashley Shields, if she can mesh well with the veteran players such as (Sheryl) Swoopes and Tina (Thompson), I think she will be very good. I also agree with Doris (Burke), I think Armintie Price at Chicago will have a strong rookie season as well.
On whether or not the WNBA game will rise above the rim and make that transition:
Burke: I think eventually yes the WNBA will be above the rim, I don't think it will be on a daily basis yet. The most important event that triggered that idea was Candace Parker dunking the second time two years ago. With Candace (Parker) it was on a give and go in the half court, when Lisa Leslie dunked it was on an open floor with a transition opportunity. Those seem to be the safest times when dunks are tested out; Candace (Parker) changed that when she did it in the half court. I see dunks being a ways away. I do think it would increase the games appeal, I think there is an audience out there that simply wants to see phenomenal athleticism and exciting plays.
On the elevation of Candice Dupree's game that will take place during the
Burke: I think Candice Dupree was outstanding; she is a comparison of Tim Duncan, they both are very fundamentally sound. She has a variety ways of hurting you, doesn't make many mistakes, she plays at her own pace and is unflappable. I never had the feeling that she was overwhelmed her rookie year and I think having a year under her belt will only help her. Candice was very well-coached and prepared as much as you could be coming into the WNBA and playing at such a higher-level of competition.