2007 Eastern Conference Preview

Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | May 16, 2007
Coach: Bo Overton (first year)
2007 Record: 5-29
Expected Wins: 5.0
Off. Rating: 92.0 (14th)
Def. Rating: 106.6 (14th)

Starting 5
G Canty
G Price
F Currie
F Wyckoff
C Dupree
Key Reserves
G Perkins
G Dales
F Lassiter
Chicago Sky

The Chicago Sky enjoyed - that term is used loosely - a fairly typical expansion season. Short on talent and experience, the Sky finished with a league-low five wins.

For year two, the Sky has made dramatic changes, starting on the sidelines. Dave Cowens resigned after just one season in the WNBA to join the Detroit Pistons coaching staff. It was clear during Cowens' lone season that he was never entirely comfortable coaching women. He's been replaced by Bo Overton, who had not been on the WNBA's radar. An assistant at Oklahoma, his alma mater, for six seasons, Overton most recently was the head coach at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Overton could put an entirely new starting perimeter trio on the court this season. The Sky started rebuilding its roster in the Dispersal Draft, getting the first pick of former Charlotte Sting players and choosing the third overall pick in 2006, Monique Currie. Currie wasn't an instant star as a rookie like the two players picked ahead of her, Seimone Augustus and Cappie Pondexter, but flashed plenty of potential.

Chicago went into free agency to bring Dominique Canty home. The combo guard, a Chicago native, developed into a standout role player her last two seasons in Houston. With the Sky, she'll be asked to play something of a leadership role and provide a steady hand at the point.

Expected Wins - Based on point differential; one extra point advantage per game equals about 1.1 extra wins
Offensive Rating - Points scored per 100 possessions (POS = .96*(FGA+(.44*FTA)-OR+TO)
Defensive Rating - Points allowed per 100 possessions
TS% - True Shooting Percentage, the best measure of scoring efficiency
Reb% - Rebound Percentage, percentage of available rebounds grabbed
Pass - A measure of passing ability, AST/MIN^2 * AST/TO * 100

For more on these stats, check out storm.wnba.com's Statistical Analysis Primer.

The backcourt makeover was completed in the WNBA Draft, when the Sky used the third overall pick on Mississippi's Armintie Price. Price rocketed up Draft boards with a great NCAA Tournament and gives Chicago another excellent one-on-one perimeter player. The downside of the group is outside shooting; Currie shot threes at a sub-30% clip as a rookie, while neither Canty nor Price almost ever attempt triples.

The weakness for the Sky is in the middle. Congo native Bernadette Ngoyisa did a solid job last season, averaging 10.1 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. However, it's considered unlikely she returns to the Sky this season after a shoulder injury that apparently sidelined her for the majority of the off-season. Even if she returns, Ngoyisa is probably not the long-term answer in Chicago because she something of a defensive liability and prone to turnovers.

If Ngoyisa doesn't report, Chicago would probably have to play Candice Dupree out of position at center. After a very good rookie season, Dupree is the Sky's go-to player and only sure thing up front. Beyond her, there are veteran role players Brooke Wyckoff and Kayte Christensen as well as Chicago's second first-round pick, Carla Thomas.

The Sky has clearly upgraded its talent and seems to be headed in the right direction. In the here and now, leapfrogging New York to get out of the cellar is a realistic goal. The playoffs can wait.

Coach: Mike Thibault (fifth year)
2007 Record: 26-8
Expected Wins: 25.7
Off. Rating: 104.1 (3rd)
Def. Rating: 93.5 (2nd)

Starting 5
G Whalen
G Douglas
F Sales
F Jones
C Dydek
Key Reserves
G Carey
F Rasmussen
C De Souza
DNP in WNBA in 2006
Connecticut Sun

The fear in Connecticut has to be this: When the Sun was upset at home by Detroit in Game 3 of last year's Eastern Conference Finals, the last best chance to win a championship might just have slipped away as well.

Over the last two regular seasons, nobody has been able to match the Sun, which has won a league-high 26 games each year. In 2006, Connecticut was far and away the league's best team, outscoring opponents by 7.8 points per game. Nobody else in the league had a differential better than 4.2. However, a poorly-timed injury to Katie Douglas and a bad matchup with the Shock conspired to send the Sun home early. Combined with losses in the 2004 and 2005 WNBA Finals, Connecticut has to feel star-crossed.

Now, the Sun is without the veteran anchor of those squads. Taj McWilliams-Franklin, looking for a change, requested a trade. Connecticut Coach Mike Thibault complied, sending McWilliams-Franklin to the Los Angeles Sparks in exchange for center Erika De Souza and a first-round pick.

Top reserve Asjha Jones, overqualified for reserve duty, is ready to step into the lineup, meaning McWilliams-Franklin's loss won't be felt much in the starting unit. However, Connecticut's depth has taken a serious hit. Not only will the bench no longer have Jones, but reserve guard Erin Phillips, an energizer as a rookie, will miss the season after tearing her ACL while playing in Australia.

In 2006, the Sun saw little drop-off when going to the bench. That will not be the case this year, despite the addition of underrated forward Kristen Rasmussen to the group. Holdovers Jamie Carey and Megan Mahoney are vying for the role of backup point guard during training camp, but neither player is nearly as explosive as Phillips, who started 13 games as a rookie.

storm.wnba.com 2007 PREVIEW
storm.wnba.com is previewing the 2007 Storm season:
Monday: Storm Has All the Pieces in Place
Tuesday: Rejuvenated Jackson Ready for 2007
Tomorrow: Check back for a look at the Western Conference.
Friday: Orange & Oatmeal predicts the East and West as well as awards.
The biggest concern for the Sun could be replacing McWilliams-Franklin in the middle. While Margo Dydek is more than capable there overall, certain matchups give her trouble at 7-2, especially when she is asked to step out and defend the pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor. That's when Thibault would go to a frontline of Jones and McWilliams-Franklin that was more athletic. Thibault is presumably counting on De Souza to fill that role. It's almost impossible to say what she will bring; the Brazilian last played in the WNBA in 2002 and has just 41 career minutes to her name. If De Souza doesn't work out, Connecticut is in trouble. Rasmussen and Jones is too small a frontline to work against most opponents.

Things are hardly all doom and gloom in Connecticut. The Sun's starting lineup of Lindsay Whalen, Douglas (coming off of a career season), Nykesha Sales, Jones and Dydek is as good as any in the WNBA. Whalen should be due to bounce back this season. After off-season ankle surgery, Whalen was not 100% at the start of 2006 and shot just 38.9% from the field and 12.9% from three-point range as compared to 2005 marks of 46.6% and 34.8%.

Another 26-win season seems far-fetched for the Sun, but 20 wins is perfectly realistic and Connecticut has a chance to get to the WNBA Finals for the third time in four years - and maybe, just maybe, actually break through and win the thing.

Coach: Bill Laimbeer (sixth year)
2007 Record: 23-11
Expected Wins: 21.7
Off. Rating: 98.3 (7th)
Def. Rating: 93.5 (3rd)

Starting 5
G Smith
G Nolan
F Cash
F Ford
C Braxton
Key Reserves
G Johnson
F Pierson
C Feenstra
Detroit Shock

The Detroit Shock entered the 2006 WNBA Playoffs as the Eastern Conference's third seed. They ended the postseason as WNBA Champions for the second time in the last four years. Bill Laimbeer's squad took out Indiana in two games, won a deciding Game 3 on the road at Connecticut and then outlasted Sacramento in five games to add another title to the one brought home in 2003.

Ready for a scary thought? This year's Detroit group might be even better.

The Shock brings back six of the top seven players from last year's squad. The lone casualty is center Ruth Riley, traded to San Antonio for Katie Feenstra and the right to swap first-round picks next year. Dealing Riley gave Laimbeer the space under the cap to re-sign restricted free agent Cheryl Ford, who was due for a big raise after completing her bargain rookie contract.

The trade also allowed Detroit to go out into free agency and add veteran guard Shannon Johnson to improve the depth at guard. Laimbeer has been fond of making the comparison between Johnson, who will step into a reserve role behind Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan, and his old Bad Boys Pistons teammate Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson.

In the end, the Shock essentially swapped Riley and guard Kedra Holland-Corn (who has retired from the WNBA after being phased out in favor of Elaine Powell in the postseason) for Feenstra and Johnson. Whatever Detroit loses in the veteran presence of Riley, who has never entirely been the same since winning MVP of the 2003 Finals and stepping into the WNBA spotlight (Riley was largely a non-factor in last year's run to the title), might more than be made up for by the upgrade in the backcourt.

Detroit is now counting on a pair of third-year centers. The expectation is that Kara Braxton, who backed up Riley the last two seasons, will step into the starting lineup. Braxton had an uneven sophomore season, falling into some of the bad habits that kept her from superstardom at Georgia. The shot-happy Braxton hit just 40.6% from the field and committed a turnover every seven minutes. Feenstra, meanwhile, can be prone to turnovers herself and is occasionally a defensive liability at 6-8, but she's an extremely difficult matchup in the post and has acquitted herself nicely during the preseason.

As for Johnson, she's coming off of a bounceback season in San Antonio. The days where she was the league's best offensive point guard are gone, but Johnson got her field-goal percentage back up over the 40% mark for the first time since 2003, making her a dangerous scorer. Facing reserve guards with shooters alongside her to space the floor and good ballhandlers to allow her to play off the ball, Johnson could be very effective.

Under Laimbeer, the Shock has consistently been outstanding at the defensive end of the floor. Even with the change in the middle, that should almost certainly continue this season. If Johnson and Feenstra, a high-percentage scorer, can slightly upgrade Detroit's offense, a repeat performance is no big stretch.

Coach: Brian Winters (fourth year)
2007 Record: 21-13
Expected Wins: 20.9
Off. Rating: 96.4 (11th)
Def. Rating: 92.2 (1st)

Starting 5
G Bevilaqua
G DeForge
F Catchings
F Whitmore
C Sutton-Brown
Key Reserves
G White
F Sam
C Hoffman
Indiana Fever

An argument could be made that no single off-season addition will have more impact on the WNBA in 2007 than the Indiana Fever signing Tammy Sutton-Brown. Without giving up anything (Sutton-Brown was an unrestricted free agent with no former team after the Charlotte Sting folded), the Fever addressed a big weakness (size in the post), helped out their biggest weakness (a surprisingly awful offense) and improved their depth (by pushing incumbent center Ebony Hoffman to the bench).

For a team that has been competitive in the Eastern Conference the last two seasons, the addition of Sutton-Brown could be the difference. Oft-maligned in some circles for her dispassion, Sutton-Brown is a high-percentage scorer in the post (48.8% from the field last season) and one of the league's most consistently strong shot-blockers (1.8 per game last season, second in the league).

An Indiana frontline that was once positively Lilliputian (Hoffman and Whitmore, both 6-2, were the team's tallest regulars in 2006) has now added not only the 6-4 Sutton-Brown but also 6-7 Duke product Alison Bales, the Fever's first-round pick. In addition to Hoffman and Bales, Sheri Sam is also new to the bench. The well-traveled WNBA veteran (Indiana is her sixth team) was selected in the Dispersal Draft.

The goal of the newcomers is simple: Improve the Indiana offense. Last year, only two WNBA teams (lotto-bound New York and Chicago) scored fewer points per possession than the Fever. Still, the Fever earned home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference postseason thanks to a dominating defense. Indiana's 92.2 Defensive Rating was far and away the league's best (Connecticut was next at 93.5).

The Fever has a pair of defensive anchors in guard Tully Bevilaqua and Tamika Catchings, both selected to the All-Defensive First Team each of the last two seasons. Catchings and Bevilaqua finished one-two in that order in the WNBA in steals in 2006. Catchings was the only Fever player to average more than half a block per game last season; now the Fever defense has a premier shot-blocker to clean up messes.

So how about the offense? Sutton-Brown will help, but Sam likely will not. She's shot less than 40% the last two seasons, but still isn't shy about shooting. Therein lies an issue Indiana Coach Brian Winters will face this season - finding enough shots to keep everyone happy. Sutton-Brown is far more of an option on offense than Hoffman, while Sam is much more scoring-minded than the reserves whose minutes she will take.

Chemistry concerns aside, the Fever has upgraded a team that was already very competitive in the Eastern Conference. Indiana enters the 2007 season with the best roster in franchise history. We'll know by late summer whether that will be enough to emerge from the trio of contenders in the East.

Coach: Pat Coyle (fourth year)
2007 Record: 11-23
Expected Wins: 7.6
Off. Rating: 93.4 (12th)
Def. Rating: 105.8 (13th)

Starting 5
G Moore
G Baker
F Christon
F Jackson
C Davenport
Key Reserves
G Thorn
F Battle
C McCarville
New York Liberty

The youth movement is on in full force in New York. After an 11-23 season filled with blowout losses, the Liberty traded the face of the franchise, veteran guard Becky Hammon, to San Antonio. In exchange, the Liberty got the rights to Ohio State center Jessica Davenport, the second pick of the draft. Davenport will team with New York's own first-round pick, Texas forward Tiffany Jackson (fifth overall), to make up the Liberty frontcourt of the future.

Already one of the league's youngest teams, New York has managed to get even younger in 2007. The Liberty's most experienced starter will probably be forward Shameka Christon, entering her fourth WNBA season. Christon, Jackson and Davenport could well make up the frontline for the next great Liberty team, though questions exist about each of the three players.

Christon averaged a career-high 12.4 points per game last season and will probably improve that again this season as New York's go-to player on offense. However, the more telling sign for Christon's development will be whether she takes better advantage of her athleticism. Despite the kind of phenomenal physical talent that has earned her the nickname "Baby Swoopes," Christon has never attempted more free throws in a season than three-pointers. That would be okay if she were an elite shooter, but last year's 33.3% mark from downtown was a career-best.

Davenport offered more questions than answers during a senior season that ended in a stunning first-round exit from the NCAA Tournament. She must prove that she is mobile enough to defend the high post in the WNBA. Both Davenport and Jackson have to show they can stand out from the talent in a rookie class that is considered deep but not star-studded.

In the backcourt, 2005 and 2006 Liberty first-round picks Loree Moore and Sherill Baker will likely team up. While both have outstanding secondary skills, neither player is much of a scorer. Moore posted a 46.5% True Shooting Percentage last season, Baker 45.5% (league average was 51.2%). Moore is one of the league's best rebounding guards and takes good care of the basketball. Baker is a one-woman full-court press; both players will rack up steals.

Beyond the rookies, the Liberty has great depth up front with five capable post players. Veteran Barbara Farris started last season, while Lake Washington High School product Cathrine Kraayeveld played big minutes as both a starter and a reserve, stretching the floor with 31 three-pointers. New York also added the top pick of the 2005 Draft, Janel McCarville. After an injury-plagued rookie season, McCarville showed enough as a sophomore to indicate she could easily be a starting post.

The best 2006 PER of any current Liberty player actually belongs to reserve guard Erin Thorn. The NCAA's all-time leading three-point shooter when she finished up at BYU (later passed by Washington's Laurie Koehn), Thorn never really found her shot in spot minutes at the WNBA level before breaking out last year. She averaged a career-best 6.1 points per game and shot 43.1% from downtown - second in the league to, you guessed it, Koehn.

New York is starting to amass some serious talent, but the loss of Hammon, the team's best player, will take its toll this season. The Liberty is at least a year away from contending for the postseason.

Coach: Richie Adubato (third year)
2007 Record: 18-16
Expected Wins: 19.9
Off. Rating: 105.0 (2nd)
Def. Rating: 101.4 (9th)

Starting 5
G Teasley
G Beard
F Robinson
F Milton-Jones
C Melvin
Key Reserves
G Miller
F James
C Sanford
Washington Mystics

In their second season under Richie Adubato, the Washington Mystics topped the Eastern Conference in offense last season, pushing the tempo and letting new point guard Nikki Teasley create for her talented teammates. Teasley's 5.4 assists per game led the league, and her playmaking helped four of her teammates finish in the WNBA's top 20 in True Shooting Percentage.

The Mystics bring the entire crew back for another season, with little change to the roster. That means opponents will again have to find a way to contend with Alana Beard, who averaged a career-high 19.2 points per game and shot nearly 50% from the field. Washington is equally dangerous up front, where Chasity Melvin is one of the league's better post scorers, shooting 52% last season, and DeLisha Milton-Jones stretches the floor with her ability to shoot the ball (Milton-Jones shot 43% from downtown in 2006, averaging a career-high 14.6 points per game in her second season in Washington after a long run with the L.A. Sparks).

It also means the Mystics will have to find a way internally to shore up a defense that was the team's weakness. Washington's 101.4 Defensive Rating was worst amongst the WNBA's playoff teams. That may start with improving defensive rotations. Nobody in the league allowed more three-pointers than the Mystics (204), indicative of the fact that opposing teams were allowed to drive and kick with impunity.

Washington's starting front line of Melvin (6-3), Milton-Jones (6-1) and veteran Adubato fave Crystal Robinson (5-11) is definitely undersized. That changed to some extent when 6-4 Nakia Sanford was on the floor alongside Melvin. Sanford started 19 games due to injuries to Milton-Jones and Robinson and the defense was better with her on the floor - though offense dropped off as well.

A healthy Milton-Jones for a full season would be a huge asset for Washington. The Mystics were 7.0 points per 100 possessions better with Milton-Jones on the floor last season. At 32, Milton-Jones is likely to always be bothered by her knees after tearing her right ACL while playing overseas in 2004, but she certainly could play more than the 23 games she did last season (missing 11 due to a sprained MCL in the other knee).

The Mystics won't get much help from newcomers. They did add some depth up front in the Dispersal Draft, picking up center Teana Miller, who is back after missing last season to give birth. Washington picked Baylor forward Bernice Mosby sixth overall in the WNBA Draft. Mosby is making the transition from power forward to small forward this season. Along with Adubato's intricate offense, that could limit her contributions this season.

Washington is hoping either Mosby or wing Tamara James, last year's first-round pick who played sparingly as a rookie, will be Robinson's eventual replacement at small forward. An old 33, Robinson has openly talked of retirement and is no longer the feared perimeter shooter she once was, hitting but 28.3% of her three-point attempts last season. However, she remains a very capable wing defender despite giving up size to some of the WNBA's bigger small forwards.

The Mystics should be a lock to maintain their playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but a step forward this season would require a surprising improvement on defense. Washington is a cut below the East's three elite teams, and another first-round exit seems the most likely outcome.