September 16, 2008
2008 WNBA Playoff Preview Conference Call

ESPN analysts Carolyn Peck and Nancy Lieberman.
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty Images

Participants: ESPN analysts Nancy Lieberman & Carolyn Peck

Opening Statement, Nancy Lieberman:
"This has been one of the most incredible seasons of the 12 that we have had in the WNBA, especially since it came down to the last week of the season for teams to understand their playoff order. There have been pretty incredible teams. If you take a look at the West, Minnesota ended up with 16 wins and didn't even make the playoffs. If Chicago would have had fewer injuries in the beginning of the season, there could have been a good chance they would have made a run towards the playoffs. More importantly, the rookies had a very strong impact this year throughout the league."

Opening Statement, Carolyn Peck:
"It's been a great season with the newcomers and the changes that the coaches have made with their teams. Take a look at what Connecticut has done, especially after the trade for Katie Douglas, and Bill Laimbeer acquiring Taj McWilliams-Franklin during the Olympic break. The WNBA, overall, has taken a major step in the increase of talent this year."

Q: Can you talk about the teams in the playoffs this year? San Antonio is the only one that has a winning road record. How does that affect them in the playoffs?

NL: "To win in the WNBA, you have to be able to protect the home court and you also have to be able to win on the road. You must win crucial games on the road. With the three game format, it puts a lot of pressure on the team with the better record. That team has to start on the road and come in and win the first game to go up in the series. Anything can happen in a three-game series, whereas in a five-game series, the better team will most likely always win. Game 1 for either team is vital in a three-game series."

CP: "It could play out very similarly to the NBA with how well the Boston Celtics played at home versus on the road. The top-seeded team has less pressure, especially since they know they can come home and will have two games on their home court."

Q: Looking at Connecticut and all their offseason moves and changes, is this the most impressive coaching job that Mike Thibault has done since he's been with the Sun?

CP: "Mike Thibault is a terrific coach and he has proven that year in and year out. He recognized that Lindsay Whalen and Asjha Jones were ready to be stars in this league and the trades that Thibault made let them elevate their games. He has had to manage playing time, resting Whalen and Jones, and this makes them a dangerous team going into the playoffs."

NL: "The lack of expectations for the Connecticut Sun came from the media. Mike Thibault is a savvy basketball professional. Thibault kept it short and sweet, he wanted to transition this team from the veterans with youth, yet allow Whalen and Jones to have that leadership role. Tamika Whitmore is a straight-up winner when it comes to elevating her play especially during the playoffs. He will be Coach of the Year in the WNBA, for sure."

Q: Sacramento was picked sixth in the West, and here they are back in the playoffs. What are your thoughts on this transition year for them without Yolanda [Griffith]?

CP: "Sacramento's rookies have been tremendous for them and they [Laura Harper and Crystal Kelly] have filled the void. Kara Lawson has grown into her role and received the minutes that she deserves."

NL: "Sacramento, to me, is amazing. They have transitioned over the last two years. Jenny Boucek is one of the best young coaches in the league. Her players would do whatever it takes for her. I really believe the emergence of Nicole Powell and Kara Lawson has been huge for them. [Rebekkah] Brunson is now the star for them and now they have three scoring options (Lawson, Powell and Brunson) and a distributor in Ticha Penicheiro. They just need to tighten up their defense and be able to stop teams."

Q: Do you give Indiana any chance to beat Detroit in the first round this year? And do you think in acquiring Katie Douglas, the Fever gave up too much in return?

CP: "It will definitely be a tough road for Indiana, especially since Detroit is clicking on all cylinders right now. Detroit has incredible balance, they have a big inside presence and the benefit of having Taj McWilliams-Franklin is that it has only made Kara Braxton that much better. Plenette Pierson has been an even better player since coming off the suspensions. The problem with Indiana is that they are slim in the posts. The key part for Indiana is that [Tammy] Sutton-Brown needs to stay out of foul trouble and they need to be consistent with the ball."

NL: "I think Indiana has to be on their "A" game, there is no margin of error for them; they have to be able to defend the ball. Indiana has no bench, they are about six deep, and they get little production from the youngsters on their bench. The key to this series is Sutton-Brown. She has to elevate her game and be a presence on both the offensive and defensive ends of the game. I don't think they can stop Detroit in a three game series. Detroit has too much depth, energy and experience."

Q: Which two teams would make it to the Finals and who would win?

CP: "I predict a San Antonio-Detroit match-up. In the West you have Seattle who has been battling injuries and Los Angeles who has an issue with their perimeter game. San Antonio has too much of a balanced offense for Sacramento, which is why I believe they will make it out of the West."

"The Connecticut-New York series will be very interesting. Both have the capability to score points against Detroit's defense. The Eastern Conference Finals will go a full three games and Detroit will be there."

NL: "I also believe it will be San Antonio-Detroit. I agree with Carolyn, Seattle has way too many injuries. Sue Bird has been magnificent but she doesn't have enough around her to make it as far as the Finals. Los Angeles has to decide who their point guard is - I believe it's the most important position on the floor. San Antonio is big, smart and very deep. It's Detroit's to lose in the East. The fight taught them a lot about themselves and how much Pierson means to them as a team. The interesting match-up will be Connecticut and New York. I think Detroit is clearly the best team out of the East in terms of strength, depth and versatility."

Q: What do you think about what Bill Laimbeer has done in Detroit and how he has been able to re-load each year?

NL: "You build around superstars. You build your team around Katie Smith, Deanna Nolan and then you have moving parts. How does Bill Laimbeer get players like Plenette Pierson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin? He goes out there and lobbies for players. Detroit has gotten better by bringing McWilliams-Franklin aboard. Elaine Powell is a warrior and has stepped up into the starting line-up."

CP: "Katie Smith gives the coaching staff all the credit for what they do and she said that Laimbeer has brought in a winning mentality. From the day he walked into the job, he has talked championships. He has brought players that put winning first. His players just want to win championships. They don't care about their statistics; they play team ball."

Q: What is your assessment of the Sparks? Do you think they were over-estimated at the beginning of the season or would it be a disappointment not to advance to the Finals?

CP: "I think on paper it looked like a very strong team at the beginning of the year. They've got the "tri-pod" in DeLisha-Milton Jones, Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie. Most people were thinking there was no way you can lose with a team like that. But you have to have a driver - a captain that will steer the way in able to win a championship - and that starts with the point guard. That's been an issue with the Sparks and they haven't really had any leadership from the point guard position. I don't want to take away from Shannon Bobbitt and Temeka Johnson - they are both very talented players. With that said, when you are on a team with such talent, you've also got to have leadership from the point guard position. One of the main issues is that you give up size with Shannon Bobbitt and Temeka Johnson. What you lose in inches, you have to make up for in leadership. Michael Cooper has got to get that from one of those two players or make a change not this year but going into next year. They have perimeter shooting in Sidney Spencer, speed in Marie Ferdinand-Harris, versatility in Candace Parker and can extend the defense with DeLisha Milton-Jones. And Lisa Leslie, that just goes without saying, with all the things that she can do and has already done for the Sparks. You've got to get the ball across half-court and make things happen. They have to have fewer half-court set-up situations and score out of transition in the playoffs."

NL: "On paper, they certainly look like a championship contender, especially with their three Olympians: Milton-Jones, Parker and Leslie. They also have Marie Ferdinand-Harris who can knock down shots and take you off the dribble. You cannot win a championship with a two-headed point guard. Everything starts with your quarterback. And who is your quarterback - Shannon Bobbitt or Temeka Johnson? They don't stretch the floor; the opposing defense can sit in the lane. I think they lack on the perimeter. Margo Dydek is going to be a specialty-type player. She can come in the game in a zone or give someone a breather and just clog up the middle on a specialized possession. There's so much talent, but a lot of uncertainty. They're small, as Carolyn said. I think you are going to see Candace Parker handle the basketball more and get L.A. into their offense more than you did during the regular season. They have to defend and win the battle of the boards and get on the offensive glass. To me, that will overcome some of their offensive deficiencies. You have to value the basketball - I know I sound like a coach - but you have to value the basketball."

Q: Do you feel like this might be the right time for the LA Sparks in that maybe they can peak at the right time?

CP: "I do buy that. Shannon Bobbitt stepped her game up in the NCAA Championship game. We've beaten up their guards enough, so that may just be enough to motivate them to really take care of the basketball. I agree that Candace Parker will handle the ball a little more. Michael Cooper is no stranger to winning championships. His team responds to him and they will do so in the playoffs."

NL: "Cooper has an infectious way with his team and commands so much respect. My question to Cooper is, in all his years winning championships in the NBA, who had the ball in his hands? That would be Magic Johnson. There's a reason why they had so many rings: they had someone running the operation and being a coach on the floor. Temeka Johnson was Rookie of the Year [in 2005] and she is a really good basketball player. She might have lost some confidence or lateral speed with the injury. Bobbitt is very pesky player and an overachiever at every level she has played on. They need to figure out who is going to be the one to handle the ball. At the end of the day, they have to stop people, stop turning the basketball over and get easier shots in order to win."

Q: What is your prediction on a potential San Antonio-Detroit Finals match-up?

CP: "Detroit's experience gives them the nod. The players have to play and coaches have to coach. San Antonio has a great point guard in Becky Hammon and this year Sophia Young has emerged as a star in this league."

Q: What does the league need to do or improve on to make the next dramatic step up as a sport?

NL: "This year, the media has really rallied around the WNBA and in our 12th year we have had a record-setting 46 sell outs and an increase in ratings, which is very important to us. We are growing our sport. We are well beyond folding and we are growing a foundation of fans for the future. The newcomers are coming in to take jobs and win championships. They have improved the sport. You are getting a chance to see the newcomers play on this stage and play against the best players in the world. I would pay for tickets if I wasn't involved in the league already. I would take my son to a WNBA game to see the talent and to see how they handle their business and how they interact with the fans. The relationship between the fans and the players in this league is incredible. In the WNBA, you're playing for family and we are growing our family year after year."

CP: "The best thing the WNBA did this year was focus on the talent on the floor. The No. 1 thing that they want the audience to see is the "Expect Great" commercials. When people see them, they understand that these women are saying they can really play some ball. These commercial spots emphasize the talent of these players. [Mercury coach] Corey Gaines told me that many people have showed up to the Mercury games because of the commercials and that they want to see the talent these ladies have. The talent is worth being watched on a consistent basis; it is one of the prime sports now. The game is on great hands on the court and great off the court because of Donna Orender and her vision for this league."

Q: In the last couple of years, we have seen players take their team on their shoulders and carry them throughout the Finals. Do you guys see any players that can help their teams win in the 2008 WNBA Playoffs and Finals?

CP: "I think with Detroit it's going to be Katie Smith. She has a new focus and a great bounce in her step. I think she can will her team to win. I think in order for Connecticut to succeed, Lindsay Whalen has to lead the charge. For San Antonio, Becky Hammon will have to bring her team to its peak overall performance."

NL: "If it were Detroit, I think it would have to be Deanna Nolan because no one has her speed or can jump like her. She can go inside and outside and has a great jump shot. She has to keep mentally focused. Nobody in the playoffs, except maybe Candace Parker, has the skill set that Nolan has."

Q: Is this postseason so difficult to call because of the league's parity?

CP: "I don't think it's clear cut at all. We highlighted some of the great players that are in the playoffs and they are spread out throughout all the teams. You also have great coaches that will have terrific strategies. I don't know if it's exactly clear cut. What changes will Coach Cooper make? Look at Seattle and what Brian Agler has done with that team. Kara Lawson for Sacramento is playing great right now. Patty Coyle in New York has her team playing at its best and is a very dangerous team. It also depends on which Indiana Fever team shows up."

NL: "I think the team that [wins the WNBA Championship] will be the team that will commit to playing the best defense. I think the playoffs will be about defense, rebounding and low turnovers. The team that does that such as Detroit, will be the team that advances."

Q: Can you talk more about Patty Coyle and the job that she has done on a team with no superstars?

CP: "Janel McCarville is tremendous. She continues to get better and she passes the ball great. Even with the injuries, they have been able to sustain. Patty does a great job with helping her players understand their roles and their depth has been great for them."

NL: "Patty Coyle is an outstanding coach and has taken this franchise and brought them back to what New York used to be, a great franchise. She has a marvelous team; her players have gotten better and her young players know exactly what she needs from them. She's a very savvy coach. They compete, execute, and take care of the basketball and they are a great three-point shooting team."