Around the WNBA: Mercury, Silver Stars Make a Deal

The WNBA had its first trade of the season Monday, when, as had been rumored briefly beforehand, Phoenix swapped post Adrian Williams to San Antonio for forward Gwen Jackson. At its most basic level, this is a swap of players who had seen their roles diminished this year.

An All-Star a year ago, Williams saw her role on the Mercury shrink before being traded.
A year ago, Adrian Williams was an All-Star as one of the Phoenix Mercury's only offensive options. With Phoenix going small early in the year, Williams was left to fight for playing time with Plenette Pierson, Slobodanka Tuvic and Kayte Christensen before suffering a strained right knee. Williams was activated earlier this month, but a case of strep throat kept her out of the lineup. In her absence, with Penny Taylor returning to small forward, Pierson and Tuvic have stepped up as Phoenix's starters up front.

Jackson, meanwhile, started 26 games last season as a rookie for the Silver Stars, but her job was usurped by fellow second-year player LaToya Thomas, San Antonio's Dispersal Draft pickup. Thomas started the season on the injured list and Jackson had 17 points and nine rebounds in the opener as a starter, but she hasn't been nearly as productive since then. In 15 games as a reserve, Jackson averaged 2.5 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.

For Phoenix, this move can only be understood in the context of the expectation that center Maria Stepanova will be returning to the Mercury lineup after the Olympics. Stepanova last played for Phoenix in 2001, when she averaged 10.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Since then, she's remained in Russia. If Stepanova can perform like that, she substantially upgrades the Mercury in the middle.

"We are working with her agent," Phoenix General Manager Seth Sulka told the Arizona Republic. "She has agreed to return."

Stepanova and Tuvic would give the Mercury a pair of centers, while Pierson and Williams are 4/5s, so trading Williams for Jackson, a pure power forward who has more of a perimeter game, balances the Phoenix roster. It also should help the Mercury clear salary space for Stepanova's contract.

The Mercury's paradigm this season has generally been to get scoring production out of the perimeter trio of Diana Taurasi, Anna DeForge and Penny Taylor, and have the other two players on the court provide defense and rebounding. Jackson fits right into that mindset. She ranks in the bottom ten of WNBA regulars this season in shots attempted per minute - and joins four of her new Phoenix teammates (Tuvic, Christensen, Nikki McCray and Tamara Moore) in that group.

Jackson told that she embraces providing defense and rebounding.

"Iím going to give 100 percent," she said. "Iím going to work hard. That doesnít mean Iím going to go out every game and get a double-double, but Iím going to go out and play my game. Rebounding, defense, getting the team going and keeping people motivated when theyíre down. Thatís something that Iím known to do."

While Williams has historically been a solid rebounder, she'd pulled down just 5.8 rebounds per 40 minutes this season (Jackson is at 7.4). She also was surprisingly quick to pull the trigger when active this season, averaging 16.6 shots per 40 minutes, nearly as many as Taurasi and more than DeForge and Taylor.

The Silver Stars got the more proven of the two players in this trade. Williams was an All-Star, to reiterate, and while her strong 2003 first-half looks like something of a fluke, she's demonstrated she can be a productive starter in this league, a level Jackson failed to reach as a rookie. While Williams doesn't project as a starter for San Antonio at this point, the Silver Stars probably aren't done retooling a disappointing team that could see a makeover in time for 2005.

If used at power forward, Williams gives San Antonio more height at that position. Both Thomas and Jackson are 6-2, meaning the Silver Stars were one of the shortest teams in the WNBA at the four before the trade. The Storm's 6-5 Lauren Jackson exploited her height advantage (as well as San Antonio not double-teaming her) to average 24.0 points per game against the Silver Stars this season. With 6-4 Jessie Hicks and the 6-4 Williams handling backup duties at both post spots, San Antonio has the chance to match up with bigger frontlines the remainder of the season.

West Pulling Ahead

One of the more interesting stories earlier this season was the Eastern Conference actually outplaying the West head-to-head despite the West's perceived superiority. On the heels of the Detroit Shock's Finals victory last September, it suggested the balance of power in the league might have been shifting. Well, not so fast. With Los Angeles' 82-51 demolition of the Indiana Fever in a battle of the top teams in each conference (oddly, Indiana's first loss against the West all year), the West now leads the season series 28-27, and it looks like things might get worse for the East before they get better.

For one thing, the WNBA's hottest teams all reside out West. Only New York in the East has won even two straight games at the moment, while four West teams have streaks that long, including Minnesota's five-game winning streak.

Another point in the West's favor is that it has dominated inter-conference matchups more than the record would indicate. No East team has outscored its opponents on the season, and the conference's combined point differential is -138. Since, by definition, intra-conference games have a point differential of zero, the West has been an average of +2.5 in inter-conference games. By's John Hollinger's Expected Wins technique to relate point differential to wins and losses, the West should be 34-21 in inter-conference games, a whopping seven-game shift.