But there's a new dynamic to this year's draft process that Laimbeer repeatedly touched on in a conference call with the media Wednesday, a sentiment echoed by his front-office colleagues from other teams. With the Houston franchise folding and the league slicing rosters from 13 spots to 11, a lot of veterans are looking for jobs, too - which means only the most elite rookies will make a WNBA roster in 2009.
"I can't emphasize that enough. The competition for jobs in this league right now is extraordinary, and extraordinary might be too soft of a word," Laimbeer said. "It's going to be very, very difficult for players to make a team in this league unless you have a team that is looking for a smaller contract. That might be why some player will make it over somebody else."
Besides their first-round pick, Detroit's only selection is in the third round, No. 37 overall. Only five of the 15 third-rounders in 2008 finished the season in the league, and matching that figure in the current climate is unlikely. Rather than searching for a diamond in the rough, Laimbeer noted his staff cut down on scouting trips and didn't mind the elimination of the pre-draft camp, where prospects attempted to boost their stock.
"It really doesn't make a difference, moving to an 11-player roster," Laimbeer said of the camp. "For a second-round pick or a third-round pick or for some obscure player to move up by showing themselves in the combine - it ain't gonna happen."
A guard or a small forward
Competition for a spot on the defending champions' roster is even more extreme. The Shock already have eight players under contract and a ninth, guard Ashley Shields, has signed a training camp deal. There are openings, however, specifically at small forward, where the Shock tried LaToya Thomas, Sheri Sam and a variety of three-guard lineups last season after the departure of Swin Cash.
Cash was traded to Seattle for the No. 4 pick in the 2008 draft, which Laimbeer used to select Alexis Hornbuckle. The Tennessee guard led the WNBA in steals despite playing just 22.0 minutes per game. Hornbuckle's role will be enhanced by the presumed departure of Elaine Powell, who now is an assistant coach at Grambling. But that still leaves available minutes behind starting guards Katie Smith (33.9 minutes per game) and Deanna Nolan (33.6), who ranked third and fifth, respectively, in minutes played last season.
"We're looking for a guard or a small forward. We've got a lot of bigs, we've got some quality bigs. We have three very good backcourt players in Smith and Nolan and Hornbuckle," Laimbeer said. "We're going to have to add to that depth, whether it's by this draft, hopefully, or signing or trading. We'll wait and see."
With so many high-priced veterans already on the books, the Shock probably couldn't trade the No. 11 pick for a proven backcourt commodity without including one of their own veterans in a package. The draft offers a riskier route, but one that comes at a minimal cost. "The fortunate part for an 11th pick in the draft is it's a small contract," Laimbeer said. "With the hard salary cap that our league has, that's a big bonus for a player to make a team."
Another consequence of the shortened rosters is an emphasis on versatility. Laimbeer might try to address both needs at once, as he did with Hornbuckle, a 5-foot-11 guard who split time between the 1, 2 and 3 positions as a rookie. "We believe in multiple-position players, that's why we always draft big guards," he said.
'Draft for leverage to move'
Versatility could factor heavily into determining the "best player available" at No. 11, as it did last year when Laimbeer selected Tasha Humphrey, a power forward with 3-point shooting range. The Georgia Bulldog was the second top-tier player to fall into the Shock's lap at No. 11, following North Carolina guard Ivory Latta in 2007. Both players had been expected to go in the first eight picks.
"I always take the best player available at 11," Laimbeer replied when asked if he'd consider 6-foot-4 Rutgers center Kia Vaughn - despite already having five players penciled into his frontcourt rotation. Although Humphrey and Latta did not ideally fit the Shock's scheme - Humphrey was not a natural rebounder while the 5-foot-6 Latta didn't measure up in a big backcourt - both selections were parlayed into more vital assets.
"You have to hit the right mix of a player (fitting) your team," Laimbeer said of drafting late in the first round, "or draft for leverage to move [that player] onto somebody else is another philosophy." After flashing glimpses of their potential in Detroit, both Latta and Humphrey flourished in expanded roles on rebuilding squads.
Latta was sent to Atlanta before the 2008 season for LaToya Thomas and the No. 18 pick, which was used on center Olayinka Sanni. Humphrey, who scored a Shock rookie record 28 points in her seventh game as a pro, allowed the Shock to acquire Taj McWilliams-Franklin from Washington in August. The six-time All-Star was a better fit to replace the injured Cheryl Ford's interior defense and rebounding, propelling the Shock to the '08 championship.
The draft's unpredictability has been to the Shock's advantage in recent years. While teams at the top of the draft have deliberated tirelessly over their options, Laimbeer has been content in taking the best of the rest. When asked about Auburn's two guards, DeWanna Bonner and Whitney Bodie, Laimbeer commented neither would be on the Shock roster. He later clarified that Bonner would be selected well before the Shock are on the clock at No. 11. He said the same thing about another player last year.
The player was Tasha Humphrey.