Small forward market promises to be busy for Shock, others

Preparing Without Pierson

The Shock proved last season they could win the WNBA championship without one of their top players. It looks like they’ll have to prove it again.

Plenette Pierson’s 2009 campaign appears to be over after the Shock forward underwent surgery this week to stabilize her twice-dislocated right shoulder. “It’s a big loss because Plenette was so valuable to us,” said head coach Rick Mahorn. “We’ve got to keep moving and go ahead forward.”

Pierson, who was named the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year in 2007 and averaged a career-high 11.9 points in 2008, would have helped address two of the Shock’s biggest shortcomings during its 1-4 start, scoring and bench production. “We’re pretty good defensively, but we got to make sure we can make some shots and play 40 minutes,” Mahorn said.

Detroit is last in the league in scoring (66.4 points per game), and has not had its full complement of 11 players available all season, with Kara Braxton serving a six-game suspension and Cheryl Ford (knee) missing the first three games. Relying heavily on starters, Mahorn acknowledged the Shock “ran a little low on the gas” in Sunday’s loss in Indiana, where they were outscored 28-10 in the fourth quarter.

Duplicating the success of 2008 - when the Shock overcame Ford’s season-ending knee injury to sweep the WNBA Finals - is possible, but could be a little trickier this time around.

The Shock were in a similar predicament last July when they lost four straight, during which time Ford suffered her season-ending ACL tear and Pierson received a four-game suspension for her altercation with the Sparks’ Candace Parker. Detroit’s fortunes changed in August when former GM and head coach Bill Laimbeer acquired six-time All-Star forward Taj McWilliams to reestablish a post presence without Ford. The Shock finished the regular season 6-1 en route to the championship.

New general manager Cheryl Reeve said it’s unlikely teams would be looking to make such a major swap so early in the season, but teams that fall out of postseason contention may look to move their unrestricted free agents. “That’s what happened with Taj,” Reeve said. “So those things show themselves later in the season.”

So the challenge remains for the Shock to stay in contention until the trade market perks up. Even when it does, however, many teams will be interested in the small forwards available. Reeve said it is the thinnest position in the league. “The Tamika Catchings of the world are hard to come by,” she said.

The Shock would settle for someone with even a sliver of Pierson’s unique skill set. Last season, the seventh-year forward was one of two players (Deanna Nolan being the other), to amass at least 300 points, 100 rebounds, 50 assists, 20 steals and 10 blocks with the Shock. (McWilliams also accomplished this feat but played her first 26 games with Washington.)

“She was our energy player off the bench and very special, could play multiple positions,” Mahorn said. “We’ve just to man up. We’re going to miss her; you can’t replace everything that she had. But we’ll do a good job of getting it there.”

Without Pierson, the Shock also lose some lineup flexibility. Before the season Reeve identified Pierson as the team’s only true small forward. The Shock often went with a three-guard alignment when Pierson was not on the court last season, so the coaches will surely consider that even more heavily now.

“We felt like having her spend 10-15 minutes there [at small forward], that would be less time where we would be guard-oriented,” Reeve said. “As our team stands right now we are guard-oriented, there’s no question about it.”

Acquired from Phoenix during the 2005 season, Pierson’s game jumped to a new level in 2007, when she averaged 11.6 points and 5.8 rebounds and was named the league’s inaugural Sixth Woman of the Year. She averaged a career-high 11.9 points in 2008, but will be remembered more for the run-in with Parker.

Since being labeled the “aggressor” of that incident by the WNBA, Pierson has been injured twice on questionable actions by opponents. She was initially injured in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals after Indiana’s Ebony Hoffman flipped Pierson over her back. Pierson missed Game 3 but returned to play in four of Detroit's last six playoff games. She was reinjured in the season opener at Los Angeles June 6. She had played just five minutes when dragged down by the Sparks’ Tina Thompson.

The WNBA does not have an injured reserve list, which means Pierson, who is under contract for two more seasons, must count against Detroit's 11-player roster even if she doesn't play again.