2007 Western Conference Preview

Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com
Coach: Karleen Thompson (first year)
2007 Record: 18-16
Expected Wins: 18.9
Off. Rating: 98.2 (8th)
Def. Rating: 95.0 (6th)

Starting 5
G Davis
G Hodges
F Swoopes
F Thompson
C Snow
Key Reserves
G Shields
F Williams
C Lyttle
Houston Comets

Change has come to the Houston Comets in full force. The last remaining original WNBA head coach, Van Chancellor, has moved on after 10 seasons and four titles. The league's most experienced backcourt, featuring veterans Dawn Staley, Tamecka Dixon and Dominique Canty, has been replaced by a group of rookies.

Chancellor's replacement is Karleen Thompson, an assistant in Houston the last two seasons and very successful as the interim head of the Sparks in 2004. Thompson inherits the league's best frontcourt. All-Decade Teamers Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson are joined by solid center Michelle Snow. All three players made the All-Star Team last season. They combined to use 72% of Houston's possessions when they were on the floor last season, a number that might even go up this year.

Barring injuries, Thompson can write in her starting frontcourt for all 34 games. The backcourt will be more challenging. Only Roneeka Hodges, a second-round pick in 2005 who started eight games during a solid sophomore season, has any experience. Hodges made 44 three-pointers last season, shooting them at a 36.7% clip.

storm.wnba.com 2007 PREVIEW
storm.wnba.com is previewing the 2007 WNBA season:
Monday: Storm Has All the Pieces in Place
Tuesday: Rejuvenated Jackson Ready for 2007
Wednesday: Palmer Back to Lead Improved Bench
Eastern Conference Preview
Friday: Check back for predicted finishes in both conferences and awards.

Houston drafted guards with its first two picks in the draft. Ashley Shields, the first player ever selected in the first round out of junior college, was a surprise pick. Shields showed off her talent at the Pre-Draft Camp, but the leap in competition she faces is immense. Shields can play either guard position. Either Shields or second-round pick Dee Davis, a more polished prospect and a four-year starter at Vanderbilt, will likely start at the point.

Despite the imbalance in talent between the frontcourt and backcourt, Houston's best backups play up front as well. Sancho Lyttle, now a year removed from a torn ACL, is an outstanding rebounder behind Snow. Second-round pick Mistie Williams impressed as a rookie, showing the ability to thrive in a pick-and-roll game. The Comets added Hamchetou Maïga-Ba, an outstanding defender and rotation player in Sacramento, as a free agent.

Houston's trio of stars is strong enough that the Comets will be competitive as long as those players stay healthy. However, their guards will likely be their undoing. In the competitive Western Conference, that will probably be enough to keep Houston out of the playoffs.

Coach: Michael Cooper (sixth year; previously 2000-04)
2007 Record: 25-9
Expected Wins: 20.2
Off. Rating: 99.4 (6th)
Def. Rating: 94.8 (5th)

Starting 5
G Johnson
G Fernandez
F Mabika
F Holdsclaw
C McWilliams-Franklin
Key Reserves
G Willis
F Thomas
C Page
Los Angeles Sparks

For the Los Angeles Sparks, Lisa Leslie has been a constant presence. Leslie has been on the court for 307 of the 322 regular-season games in franchise history and all 40 of L.A.'s playoff games. In 2007, the Sparks will experience life without Leslie for an extended period for the first time in franchise history.

Due to give birth in June, Leslie is officially out for the season. Unofficially, the vibe around the league is that Leslie might return at some point. Recent history provides mixed messages about whether Leslie can return. San Antonio's Marie Ferdinand-Harris gave birth in late June last season and never made it back. DeMya Walker missed a little more than two months after giving birth last April; that timetable could get Leslie on the court in time for the playoffs.

The Sparks did as well as could possibly be expected in replacing Leslie, dealing their first-round pick and the rights to center Erika De Souza, who hadn't played a regular-season WNBA game since 2002, to Connecticut for veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin. At 36, McWilliams-Franklin still has plenty left, averaging 12.8 points and a career-high 9.6 rebounds per game in 2006.

Of course, those averages still pale in comparison to what Leslie did in her MVP campaign - 20.0 points and 9.5 rebounds on 51.1% shooting. Los Angeles outscored opposing teams by 6.2 points per 100 possessions when Leslie was on the floor in 2006. When Leslie was on the bench, L.A. was outscored by 8.0 points per 100 possessions. Clearly, she will be missed.

Alongside McWilliams-Franklin, the Sparks have incredible depth in the frontcourt even without Leslie. There are nine post players on L.A.'s training-camp roster who played in the WNBA last season, meaning someone talented is probably going to have to be waived and potentially meaning some big lineups along the lines of what the Sparks used in last year's playoff series with the Storm, including a starting lineup with 6-2 Chamique Holdsclaw at small forward and 6-2 Murriel Page at shooting guard.

Holdsclaw becomes the go-to player in Leslie's absence. She's scored fewer points since coming to the Sparks from Washington, where she was the go-to player, but that's corresponded with an improvement in her shooting percentage. L.A. has done more to take advantage of Holdsclaw's versatility and ability to defend, at times, any of the five positions (she defended Sue Bird at times last season).

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.

Los Angeles will also be missing another key starter as the season opens. Guard Temeka Johnson underwent microfracture knee surgery sometime last fall and won't likely return before mid-June. How Johnson recovers is an open question. My NBA research shows that younger players have usually come back strong, but there's not a lot of data with the WNBA. Bird is the only player known to have undergone a microfracture, and her recovery went very well - she led the Storm to the championship the following season.

The Sparks have three point guards with WNBA experience in camp. Incumbent reserve Doneeka Hodges-Lewis is a threat from three-point range, feisty Megan Duffy was effective as a rookie in Minnesota and Seattle native Sheila Lambert was a starter in Houston in 2004 before being out of the league last year. However, none of the group is as effective as Johnson, the 2005 Rookie of the Year and one of the league's top distributors.

A wild card in the backcourt is 26-year-old rookie Marta Fernandez, a star in her native Spain playing in the WNBA for the first time. Other such imports have taken time to adjust to the American game, but Fernandez has had a spectacular debut, scoring 37 points on 15-of-26 shooting in L.A.'s three preseason games, starting two of them. UCLA product Lisa Willis also figures to command more minutes in her sophomore season as the best outside shooter on the Sparks roster (36.5% from downtown as a rookie).

There's another wild card here, and that's the return of Michael Cooper to the Sparks sidelines. Joe "Jellybean" Bryant was the runner-up for Coach of the Year honors in his lone full season at the helm, but Cooper might just be the best coach in league history. L.A. outperformed its Expected Wins based on point differential by more games (+4.8) than anyone else in the league, but that's nothing new for the Sparks. Four of the 10 largest differentials in league history came during Cooper's four-plus years at the helm in L.A. (including 2004, when Cooper was replaced at midseason by Karleen Thompson). The Sparks have always won the close games under Cooper - but, then again, that was a lot easier with Leslie on his side.

No WNBA team is more difficult to project in 2007 than the Sparks. How much will they miss Leslie? How much will McWilliams-Franklin contribute? Is Fernandez's preseason performance indicative of what she'll add? When will Johnson return? Will Leslie come back? The answers to those questions will go a long ways toward determining the outcome of the 2007 season not only for the Sparks but for the WNBA as a whole.

Coach: Don Zierden (first year)
2007 Record: 10-24
Expected Wins: 10.1
Off. Rating: 97.3 (10th)
Def. Rating: 105.7 (12th)

Starting 5
G Harding
G Augustus
F Quinn
F Raymond
C Ohlde
Key Reserves
G Jacobs
F Abrosimova
F Mann
Minnesota Lynx

What happened to the 2004 Minnesota Lynx? Once upon a time, the Lynx were a scrappy band of overachievers who earned Suzie McConnell Serio Coach of the Year and made the playoffs on the strength of their defense. Star guard Katie Smith is gone, of course, but the Lynx ably replaced her production last season with Rookie of the Year Seimone Augustus. Still, with little help for Augustus and a defense ranked 12th in the league, Minnesota was headed to the lottery. The season cost McConnell Serio her job.

Key to the 2004 squad was a rookie who played well beyond her years. Nicole Ohlde drew comparisons to Lauren Jackson with her polished post play and averaged 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Her sophomore season was more of the same, but her game stagnated in 2006. Ohlde averaged just 9.6 points per game; nobody's making the comparisons to Jackson anymore.

Ohlde's fellow rookie, Vanessa Hayden, came on late in the season and showed promise to become a force in the paint. Hayden too backslid in 2006, starting just three games after 25 starts in 2005. She averaged 16.7 points and 10.8 rebounds per 40 minutes, but shot a paltry 40.2% from the field and has always been liable when it comes to fouls and turnovers. Hayden won't play in 2007 due to pregnancy.

Kristen Mann, Minnesota's first-round pick in 2005, did show some improvement in her sophomore campaign, moving into the starting lineup. Even Mann, however, slumped in the second half of the season. Shooting 45% from three-point range at the end of June, she finished the season at 37.5%.

The common thread in the struggles of the Lynx's young players might be the team's lack of a true point guard. Teresa Edwards - now an assistant to new Minnesota Coach Don Zierden - retired at the end of the 2004 season. In 2005, Australian Kristi Harrower manned the position. Last season it belonged to Amber Jacobs, an excellent three-point shooter (39.2% last season) who coughs the ball up way too often (2.7 turnovers per game, eighth in the WNBA).

Now the Lynx have their long-term answer at the point - for the first time in franchise history. Minnesota sent Tangela Smith, taken from Charlotte in the Dispersal Draft, to Phoenix in exchange for the rights to the top overall pick, Lindsey Harding. The Duke product won the Naismith Award as a senior and is an outstanding defender, distributor and leader. She should be a huge upgrade at the point, especially with Jacobs able to play more of a combo guard role off the bench.

Minnesota also had its own first-round pick, fourth overall, used on UCLA guard/forward Noelle Quinn. Quinn is a talented, versatile athlete who can play anywhere on the perimeter. Adaptability should be a strength of the Lynx; other than Harding, who should exclusive play point guard, and Ohlde, who will see time almost always at center, everyone else should play at least two positions.

The new talent should be a great help for Augustus, who was asked to create her own offense almost exclusively as a rookie. Augustus was one of three players in the league (Leslie and Diana Taurasi were the others) to use at least 30% of their team's possessions while they were on the floor. Minnesota also had the league's lowest percentage of assists on their made field goals. Augustus was still a fairly efficient scorer as a rookie, but her shooting percentages should improve dramatically this season.

The Lynx should be much more competitive in 2007, but in the deep Western Conference a playoff berth seems unlikely. This year, the main goal is to show improvement and move in the right direction - something Minnesota has been unable to do in years past.

Coach: Paul Westhead (second year)
2007 Record: 18-16
Expected Wins: 19.7
Off. Rating: 108.5 (1st)
Def. Rating: 104.7 (11th)

Starting 5
G Miller
G Pondexter
F Taurasi
F Taylor
C Smith
Key Reserves
G Mazzante
F Lacy
C Schumacher
Phoenix Mercury

For the Phoenix Mercury, the end of the 2006 season was déjà vu all over again. For the third consecutive season, the Mercury finished within one game of .500 and was eliminated from playoff contention on the final weekend of play. For the second consecutive season, Phoenix finished strong after starting the season slowly. So, for the second time in the last three years, Phoenix is a trendy pick in the Western Conference. Got it?

There are certainly plenty of reasons for hope in the Valley of the Sun that the Mercury can break the WNBA's longest streak in the lottery (six seasons and counting). 2006 saw the debut of Paul Westhead at the helm in Phoenix. The Mercury took some time to adjust to "Paul Ball," his unique high-octane, offense-first (and second) attack. Phoenix started the year 0-4, including a 27-point embarrassment on national TV at Sacramento in the opener.

By season's end, it was Westhead and company who had the last laugh. Phoenix's Offensive Rating of 108.1 points per 100 possessions was far and away the best in the league. The Mercury offense was 9.2 points per 100 possessions better than league average, a mark bettered only by the Houston Comets of 1998 and 2000 and the 2001 Los Angeles Sparks.

Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi proved virtually unguardable for opposing defenses. Taurasi averaged a WNBA-record 25.3 points per game and did it while shooting 45.2% from the field and 39.7% from downtown - both career highs. Pondexter's best skill as a rookie was taking care of the basketball. Despite averaging 19.5 points and 3.1 assists per game, Pondexter turned the ball over just 1.4 times per game.

Combined, Pondexter and Taurasi scored 50.1% of Phoenix's points. The rest of the Mercury offense was hardly lacking, but there should be more help this season. That starts with Penny Taylor. Oh, Taylor played last season, averaging 13.6 points per game as Phoenix's third option on offense, but she did not arrive until the end of June. The team was 12-8 when Taylor played, 6-8 when she did not. This year, Taylor is expected to return in time for the Mercury's opener. Taylor is arguably the league's most underrated player, a deadeye shooter who is a fine passer and passable defensively at power forward, where she'll start this season.

Phoenix also added a pair of former Charlotte Sting players. Tangela Smith came via Minnesota in a trade for the rights to the first overall pick when the Mercury won the lottery for the second time in four years. Smith replaces former Storm center Kamila Vodichkova, who will miss this season to have a baby. Smith is a better scorer than Vodichkova, who averaged 9.7 points per game last season.

Kelly Mazzante was Phoenix's pick from Charlotte in the Dispersal Draft. After two pedestrian seasons, Mazzante emerged as a top reserve guard in 2006. Her 38.3% shooting from downtown in 2006 means the Mercury remains dangerous when Westhead goes to the bench.

The concern for the Mercury has to be - surprise! - defense. Phoenix finished 11th in the league in Defensive Rating but improved dramatically over the course of the season, thanks in large part to Westhead's decision to scrap the trapping defense he brought with him in favor of more conventional man-to-man. Now Phoenix has lost two of its top hustle players in the steady Vodichkova and Kristen Rasmussen, who signed with Connecticut as a free agent. Neither Smith nor Kelly Schumacher, added in a trade with New York, is likely to replace that kind of scrappy play.

A full year of Taylor, a year of experience under Westhead and the dynamic duo of Taurasi and Pondexter make the Mercury likely to end the playoff drought this season. Phoenix is a dangerous team who could be a nightmare opponent in the postseason, but defensive woes may keep the Mercury from advancing deep into the postseason.

Coach: Jenny Boucek (first year)
2007 Record: 21-13
Expected Wins: 21.4
Off. Rating: 100.1 (5th)
Def. Rating: 94.5 (4th)

Starting 5
G Penicheiro
G Newton
F Powell
F Walker
C Griffith
Key Reserves
G Haynie
G Lawson
F Brunson
Sacramento Monarchs

After taking over midway through the 2003 season, John Whisenant put his stamp on the Sacramento Monarchs almost immediately, leading the Monarchs on a late-season run that culminated in the Western Conference Finals. Whisenant's unique white-line defense, extended rotations and ample use of the step through move on offense made Sacramento one of a kind in the WNBA. The results speak for themselves. The Monarchs advanced at least to the Western Conference Finals in each of Whisenant's four seasons and were a good quarter away from winning back-to-back WNBA Championships.

Now Whisenant has left the bench, finally moving into the GM-only role that he initially was supposed to play in Sacramento. With the opportunity to pick his own successor, Whisenant picked former Storm assistant Jenny Boucek, impressed by the quality of her mentors - Anne Donovan in Seattle and Ron Rothstein in Miami - along with Boucek's intelligence.

Based on the preseason, it appears that Boucek will be fairly faithful to Whisenant's defense, heavy on pressure and strong-side defense. There may be some tweaks coming on offense, where the Monarchs were less creative under Whisenant (though not necessarily ineffective).

On the court, there have been a few changes, though Sacramento retains its core players after Yolanda Griffith was convinced to give it another season. Erin Buescher, last year's Most Improved Player, left for San Antonio as a free agent while long-time reserve forward Hamchetou Maïga-Ba has moved on to Houston. To replace them, Whisenant dealt for a pair of players. Veteran Adrian Williams offers more size as a reserve inside and is coming off of a surprisingly strong season in Minnesota. Second-year forward La'Tangela Atkinson is an aggressive defender in the Maïga-Ba mold who could fit in very well in Sacramento.

The other Monarchs newcomer is a familiar face. Chelsea Newton, a starter on the 2005 Championship team, is back after spending a season with the Sky, who took her in the Expansion Draft. Whisenant believes Newton is more valuable in Sacramento than anywhere else because her defensive ability is a good fit for the white-line defense.

Griffith, Sacramento's anchor since coming to the WNBA in 1999, may finally be showing signs of her age at 37. Last year, Griffith's per-game averages were career lows virtually across the board. Griffith played just 25.1 minutes per night, also a career low, but her shooting slid as well - 45.7% from the field after never being below 48.5% previously. It remains to be seen whether Boucek will play her starters more minutes than Whisenant (no Sacramento player averaged more than 26.1 minutes per game last season, a mark which would have ranked fifth on the Storm), but 25 minutes a night is probably about right for Griffith at this stage of her career.

There's an outside shot the other cornerstone in Sacramento, 10-year vet Ticha Penicheiro, could relinquish her starting job at some point. Penicheiro split time almost evenly with backup Kristin Haynie during the WNBA Finals, and Haynie, the team's 2005 first-round pick, was far more effective. Penicheiro shot just 20.6% from the field in the series. Penicheiro averaged only 3.4 assists per game during the 2006 regular season, a paltry number for the league's all-time leading assister.

While the Monarchs may feel the loss of Buescher's excellent production, this team remains as deep and as loaded as ever. The question, then, is whether there will be a transition period because of the coaching change. If not, Sacramento is poised to do big things once again.

Coach: Dan Hughes (third year)
2007 Record: 13-21
Expected Wins: 14.3
Off. Rating: 97.9 (9th)
Def. Rating: 102.3 (10th)

Starting 5
G Hammon
G Ferdinand-Harris
F Johnson
F Young
C Riley
Key Reserves
G Crossley
F Wecker
F Buescher
* Statistics from 2005
San Antonio Silver Stars

The San Antonio Silver Stars were busy over the off-season. After contending for the playoffs in the team's best finish since moving to San Antonio, Dan Hughes aggressively made over the roster to bring in more experience and bigger names. Only four players who played in 2006 return, and the Silver Stars have turned over 53.2% of last season's minutes.

The newcomers are led by All-Star guard Becky Hammon. It was shocking that New York would consider trading Hammon, the face of the franchise in recent seasons, but she was dealt to San Antonio on Draft Day in a deal where the Silver Stars gave up the rights to the second overall pick, Jessica Davenport, and a 2008 first-round pick. Already, San Antonio had given Detroit the right to swap first-round picks in 2008 in a deal that returned Ruth Riley.

Marie Ferdinand-Harris isn't a newcomer, having player her entire career with the Starzz/Silver Stars, but Ferdinand-Harris missed all of 2006 after giving birth in June and is back on the court. San Antonio signed Erin Buescher, the WNBA's 2006 Most Improved Player as a free agent, dealt for Phoenix center Sandora Irvin and drafted Helen Darling in the Dispersal Draft. There are also a pair of rookies, 2006 third-round pick Khara Smith (who dropped that far only because teams did not want to wait for her to miss the 2006 season) and 2007 second-rounder Camille Little, considered a possible mid-first-round pick.

There is no question that San Antonio has added a ton of talent. However, the Silver Stars also incurred some serious losses. Starter Shannon Johnson and top reserve LaToya Thomas departed as free agents, while starting forward Agnieszka Bibrzycka will not come to the WNBA this season. San Antonio lost one center, Katie Feenstra, in the Riley deal. The other, Chantelle Anderson, tore her Achilles playing overseas, ending her season.

To try to understand the bottom-line impact of the changes, check out a chart of the Silver Stars rotation for 2006 and 2007, rated by Wins Above Replacement Player in my rating system:

2006 Player
2007 Player
PG S. Johnson
PG Hammon
SG V. Johnson
SG V. Johnson
SF Bibrzycka
SF Ferdinand-Harris
PF Young
PF Young
C Anderson
C Riley
PG Ivanyi
PG Darling
SG Crossley
SG Crossley
SF Wecker
SF Wecker
PF Thomas
PF Buescher
C Feenstra
C Irvin

* 2005 stats

The problem with this exercise, beyond the difficulty of rating players, is that there is far from 100% correlation between past stats and future performance. Two ratings jump out as unlikely to be repeated. Hammon's value was limited in 2006 by a sprained left ankle; she missed 12 games in all. Meanwhile, Buescher came virtually out of nowhere to post an incredible season. Her mastery of the step-through move taught in Sacramento means she'll remain a top reserve, but it's unlikely be quite as valuable as she was in 2006.

For the Silver Stars to make the playoffs for the first time since they were the Starzz, the San Antonio defense will have to improve. Hughes' Cleveland squads were annually very tough defensively, but the Silver Stars had just the 10th-best Defensive Rating in the WNBA last season. Riley should help in that regard. While her offense has never returned to the level it was in 2003, when she won Finals MVP in her first season in Detroit, Riley remains a very good defensive center who can anchor the team from the paint.

Young is an excellent defender, and Vickie Johnson was a solid addition on the perimeter, but Hammon has never been known for her defense and Ferdinand will be one of the league's most undersized small forwards at 5-9.

The Silver Stars have improved their talent this season, and stand to be very competitive in the Western Conference. However, with the depth of the conference, San Antonio could be better but still be left on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin.