Tangela Smith is averaging 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds in the 2007 WNBA Finals.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images
The Missing Piece
By Brian Martin, WNBA.com

PHOENIX, Sept. 11, 2007 – On July 22, 2006, the Phoenix Mercury defeated the Charlotte Sting on the road, 78-74. What seemed like a routine regular season game left a significant impression on Mercury head coach Paul Westhead.

“When we played Charlotte last year, Tangela Smith cut me up so badly I said if I ever had a chance to get this player, we’ll do it,” he said.

In the contest, Smith scored 25 points on 11-of-20 shooting (2-of-5 from 3-point range), grabbed five rebounds and recorded one assist, two steals and two blocked shots.

Nine months later, Westhead got Smith on his Mercury team with a draft-day trade with the Minnesota Lynx. This is how the improbable deal went down.

On October 26, 2006, the Mercury won the 2007 WNBA Draft Lottery despite having the worst odds (2.5 percent) of any of the six teams involved, to land the top pick in the draft.

On January 8, 2007, the Minnesota Lynx selected Smith with the second pick of the 2007 WNBA Dispersal Draft of Charlotte Sting players.

In the time between the lottery and the April 4 draft, Westhead and Mercury GM Ann Meyers Drysdale worked the phones in search of a trading partner. No luck.

On April 4, 2007, one hour prior to the draft, the Mercury’s phone rang. The Lynx were on the other end of the line.

“Minnesota called and said, 'We’ll do Tangela Smith. Are you still interested?' "

"' Very interested,' ” Westhead said.

With the top pick, the Mercury selected point guard Lindsey Harding, and about 15 minutes later the trade was announced sending Harding to Minnesota in exchange for the nine-year veteran Smith.

Smith found out about the trade while she was playing overseas in Turkey. However, rather than her agent breaking the news to her, she received text messages from her friends, which led to a moment of disbelief.

“They said, ‘You got traded for the first pick in the draft,’ and I was like, ‘What? Quit lying. Whatever.’ I really didn’t believe it at first,” she said. “I was shocked. But after the initial shock I was very happy and excited about it.”

The trade received its fair amount of criticism as many believed that Phoenix did not get enough in exchange for the No. 1 pick when they traded for a 30-year-old center.

"I knew Ann took a lot of heat for (the trade)," said Smith. "I knew things were being said. I just put it out of my head, because I knew what type of player I was and I knew Ann and Coach believed in me."

Westhead understood where some of the criticism came from, but he knew exactly what he was getting and was very pleased.

“In this league, maybe even more than the NBA, there is really a high priority on getting the best young college player that will be a player with your team for the next eight to 10 years and you don’t get that chance very often,” he said. “So we did not pass on that lightly.

“This team needed a presence in the center spot,” he continued. “I think everyone agreed that Lindsey Harding was the best player in the draft. This team didn’t need Lindsey Harding, thank goodness.

“So the alternative was to find an available, polished center who would fit what we do. We weren’t comfortable with the draft to help us this season. We felt that there was a couple of centers out there that were probably a year or two away. We had such a nice mix of (Diana) Taurasi, (Penny) Taylor, (Cappie) Pondexter and (Kelly) Miller that we wanted to try to capitalize on that now, this year, next year, the immediate future.”

The trade ended up paying dividends for both teams involved. For Minnesota, Harding was the lead candidate for Rookie of the Year prior to tearing her left ACL midway through the season. She will return next season as part of a young Minnesota core with Seimone Augustus. Phoenix, though, found the ideal post player to fit Westhead’s fast break style of offense.

“We needed the perfect center for my team, which is a quick moving, scoring big, who can come trailing everybody and make open jump shots from 15, 18, 20, 25 feet,” Westhead said. “She certainly has stepped into that role and she was spectacular (on Saturday).”

In Game 2 of the WNBA Finals, Smith showed off her complete repertoire as she scored 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting (4-of-6 from 3-point range), collected a team-high 10 rebounds and added two assists, a steal and a block in Phoenix’s 98-70 win over Detroit.

However, Smith did not put up these types of numbers since day one in a Mercury uniform. There was definitely an adjustment period and learning curve that she had to overcome.

“When I first got here it was kind of tough because I had to adjust to it,” Smith said. “I hadn’t been running like that in a long time; not since my Sacramento days. I had to get used to it. Training camp was tough. I would say right before All-Star is when I felt really comfortable.”

Once Smith became comfortable with Westhead’s offense and her role on the team, not only did her play improve, but so did the Mercury’s. Phoenix went a league-best 12-2 after the All-Star break and climbed to the top of the Western Conference standings.

“I just kind of realized my role on the team,” she said. “I guess I didn’t know it in the beginning, but now I know what my true role is, and that is just to be a big presence on the defensive end and get all the rebounds I can because our rebounds dictate what we do on offense. We need to get those rebounds and I decided to be the one to step up and do that.”

Westhead said that having the presence of Smith on the offensive end makes the Mercury more difficult to defend and makes everything else easier for the rest of the players on the floor. Her ability to make outside shots forces teams to guard her and not double Taurasi or pack the lane against Pondexter or Taylor.

“I don’t think we could have found a better fit as far as Tangela’s skill set and what she brings to the table every single day,” said Taurasi. “She truly is that veteran presence that you need on any team. She’s been through the mill; she’s been through the playoffs with Sacramento in tough series. She’s been an All-Star, she’s played overseas and she’s really been a steady force for us all year.”

When the Mercury brought in Smith on draft day, they did so to win in the immediate future. They currently sit just two wins from their first WNBA Championship.

“I just feel that it’s my time right now,” Smith said. “I want to win a ring so bad. I’ve been waiting for so long and I just feel like I don’t want to miss out on this opportunity and miss out on getting a championship ring. I’m trying to do whatever it takes to get that ring.”