Post-Break Preview - East

After a month off to allow some of its elite players to turn their attention to the Athens Olympics, the WNBA is back, with the 18-day run to the playoffs starting Sep. 1. offers quick refreshers on what the league's teams have done so far and what can be expected from them the rest of the season. Check back tomorrow for the Western Conference, but today's focus is on the topsy-turvy East, where a couple of bad games are the difference between first place and last place and everyone is alive not only for a playoff spot, but home-court advantage as well, meaning a wild finish.

Charlotte Sting

Sutton-Brown has bounced back this season.
Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty
What happened: Leading the Eastern Conference entering the final weekend before the August break, the Sting dropped both games on a difficult West Coast trip to Sacramento and Seattle. In typical East fashion, that dropped them from first to fourth in the conference - but still just a game behind the conference-leading New York Liberty. Slowly, the Sting began the shift from its old guard - perimeter players Dawn Staley, Andrea Stinson and Allison Feaster - to its future leaders, Tammy Sutton-Brown and Nicole Powell. Staley is still the USA's starting point guard in the Olympics and Feaster earned her first All-Star berth, but Stinson saw her scoring average drop by more than a third over the first two months of the season. Sutton-Brown rebounded from a dismal 2003 to become one of the league's top four centers thus far, while Powell's quality performance in limited minutes forced Charlotte Coach Trudi Lacey to make more use of her. Forward Charlotte Smith-Taylor regained her starting job and was terrific through June before slumping in July, but Olympia Scott-Richardson didn't provide the expected lift as she recovers from ACL surgery.

What lies ahead: The Sting has to like its chances right now; no other Eastern Conference team has as much experience, playoff or overall, in its starting five, and the Sting has no juggernaut in the way of making the WNBA Finals. Then again, it wasn't juggernauts that tripped up Charlotte the last two seasons, it was lesser first-round opponents. The Sting's remaining schedule features no unwinnable games; Charlotte's most difficult road matchups are at Detroit and New York, opportunities to gain ground in the East. Over the break, Charlotte added new mothers Teana Miller (formerly McKiver) and Jia Perkins to the roster, but it's unlikely either player will have a major impact this season.

Key player: Powell. She averaged 13.3 points in the last four Sting games before the break. Can she maintain her momentum after a month off? Critics still question her defense, but Powell has scored double-digits every time she's played at least 20 minutes and has also been a terrific per-minute rebounder. Powell doesn't yet have a WNBA position, which means Lacey can be creative in using her off the bench.

Connecticut Sun

McWilliams-Franklin earned her fourth All-Star berth this season.
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty
What happened: Written off for the second straight preseason, the Sun has again "overachieved", leading the East throughout much of the first two months of the season and sitting in a tie for second place, a game back as of the break. Without a superstar, the Sun has boasted one of the WNBA's most balanced starting lineups, validated by the selection of three players - rookie guard Lindsay Whalen, forward Nykesha Sales and center Taj McWilliams-Franklin - to the WNBA All-Star team for "The Game at Radio City". The other two starters, Katie Douglas and Wendy Palmer, could have also made All-Star cases, and the Sun has a solid sixth woman in forward Asjha Jones. Whalen and Palmer have been the big surprises. Whalen has adjusted quickly to the WNBA and is third in the league in assists per game as of the break. However, Whalen tailed off a bit in July after her phenomenal June was a big factor in Connecticut's rise to the top of the East. Palmer was written off after being a non-factor in 2003 off the bench (fun note: Someone tried to take Palmer in's Fantasy League draft, and the pick was written off by everyone else in attendance as so bad she had to be replaced; ironically, Palmer then proved to be the best-rated free agent available after the first two weeks of play). She's not quite back to her All-Star prime, but has been a solid scorer and rebounder and has neatly complemented the quietly dependable McWilliams-Franklin, the world's best center not in Athens.

What lies ahead: The Sun has plenty of experience in its starting lineup, but not at point guard, and how Whalen holds up as the pressure grows in September will be critical. Of course, Whalen faced plenty of pressure in leading Minnesota to the Final Four this spring, and the month off will be particularly valuable for rookies like her who have played heavy minutes with only a month off between their NCAA and WNBA seasons. Connecticut benefits from being the only WNBA team without a player in the Olympics, giving them uninterrupted practices during most of August. The schedule is generally favorable, with a nationally-televised test against the Storm on the 12th.

Key player: Whalen is an obvious pick, but what about Douglas? A 44.9% and 43.8% shooter the last two season, Douglas is down to 36.6% this season. Given she's shooting 35.9% from three-point range, she's connecting on a dismal 37.2% inside the arc. Her turnovers have also increased by 60% to their highest point since her rookie season. Douglas shot just 32.6% in July. Can she get it turned around?

Detroit Shock

Cash and Riley represented the Shock in Athens.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty
What happened: Nothing good. A full analysis of the Shock's problems is beyond the scope of a single paragraph, but suffice it to say they've underwhelmed. At this point a year ago, the Shock was four games better than it is now and cruising in the East. Detroit has dipped despite a tremendous effort from forward Swin Cash, who has developed into the MVP-caliber player she was touted as because of her team's success a year ago. Cash has boosted her shooting percentage from 45.3% to 48.0% and is a couple of rebounds away from being in the league's top ten in scoring, rebounding and assists. An underrated reason for the Shock's decline is free-throw differential. Last year, Detroit was amongst WNBA leaders in both getting to and keeping opponents from the free-throw line. The Shock outscored opponents at the line by 6.2 points per game, more than making up the team's league-best +4.7 scoring differential. This year, without as favorable refereeing, that mark is down to +2.7 at the line. Several experts have also noted that the loss of guard Kedra Holland-Corn has left Detroit's perimeter shooting weak, and the Shock's three-point percentage is down from 38.7% to 32.7% and their threes per game down from 3.7 to 2.1. A lot of that goes on the shoulders of All-Star guard Deanna Nolan, who regularly made lists of the WNBA's top shooters entering this season but is connecting on just 33.0% of her threes (and 37.5% overall). Nonetheless, Nolan is attempting more shots per game (12.9, up from 9.8) than last year.

What lies ahead: For all the problems, Detroit is still tied for second in the East with Connecticut and in position to claim home-court advantage for the second straight season. The question is, are the Shock's problems fixable? If opponents and referees have caught on to the Shock's tricks, and if Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Ruth Riley can't get their shooting percentages to where they were in 2003, maybe not. Detroit also faces the hardest schedule of any Eastern Conference team, with a brutal four-game trip to Charlotte, Phoenix, L.A. and Seattle still on tap; a 2-2 performance on that trip would be a major success. Still, never count out the defending champs.

Key player: Nolan. Detroit isn't going to get three-point shooting from anyone else on the roster, so Nolan simply has to be better than she has been. During national broadcasts of Shock games, announcers love to make the comparison between Nolan and Michael Jordan and note how Detroit Coach Bill Laimbeer has said Nolan could lead the league in scoring. But Detroit doesn't need Jordan right now; the Shock needs the Nolan of 2003, meaning better shot selection from downtown and more catch-and-shoot instead of creating off the dribble.

Indiana Fever

Catchings' shooting percentage is down this season.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty
What happened: At times, the Fever looked to be making good on their promise of being one of the East's elite teams. After beating the Shock on Jul. 16, Indiana was 12-9 and playing well after Stephanie White had been inserted into the starting lineup. Then the Fever came west and everything fell apart. Indiana went 0-4 on a brutal road trip and dropped two more games to enter the August break with a league-high six-game losing streak. In reality, the difference between the Fever that was 12-9 and the one that went 0-6 wasn't that great; an easy schedule that saw Indiana play 13 of its first 21 games at home was coming due. In the past, a +/- system subtracting home losses from road wins has been used to account for imbalanced schedules. By this measure, Indiana was -1 over its first 21 games and -1 over the last six. Olympian Tamika Catchings remains an MVP candidate because of her versatility, but has seen her shooting percentage (43.2% to 37.1%) drop dramatically. Post Natalie Williams was an All-Star, but has been much less of a factor on offense. Guard Kelly Miller has been an upgrade in the backcourt, but woefully inconsistent; in one stretch, she sandwiched two-point games around a 20-point effort.

What lies ahead: Alas, the schedule doesn't get a ton easier, with only three home games left, one of them against the Storm. The Fever does get three games against two teams, the Minnesota Lynx and Washington Mystics, that are without their star players. Even with the losing streak, Indiana is just two games out of first place in the East and a game out of a playoff spot, so if the Fever can forget about the last two weeks of July, it certainly has the chance to turn its season around.

Key player: Ebony Hoffman. The rookie center from USC started 13 games early in the season, but played a much smaller role during the losing streak (coincidence?). Hoffman has been a phenomenal rebounder, ranking fourth in the league with 10.8 rebounds per 40 minutes, but she needs to shoot better than 32.3% to stay on the court. Getting to the free-throw line would help; Hoffman has attempted just four free throws in 260 minutes of action.

New York Liberty

Hammon earned a second straight All-Star berth in her first year at the point.
Jesse D. Garrabant/NBAE/Getty
What happened: No team illustrates the roller-coaster ride that is the WNBA's Eastern Conference better than the Liberty. New York started the season as one of the league's hottest teams, going 6-1, then lost seven of its next eight games to get Richie Adubato fired as coach. After alternating losses and wins the next five games, the Liberty won four of its last five before the break to claim sole possession of first place in the East at 13-12. Really, the reason for the turnaround probably lies less with Pattie Coyle's coaching efforts than the fact that New York has played seven of its nine games at home (including makeshift home Radio City Music Hall) under Coyle. The Liberty has done it despite Crystal Robinson missing six games, Tari Phillips and Ann Wauters 12 apiece. Phillips' return to the lineup is still uncertain, but she will boost what has been a makeshift front line (Wauters is out for the season after returning to Belgium for surgery on her fractured foot). The Liberty is the only WNBA team with four double-digit scorers, indicating good balance in the starting lineup when healthy. Guard Becky Hammon, who has demonstrated she can play the point capably, and center Elena Baranova, enjoying her best WNBA season, have keyed New York over the first two months.

What lies ahead: New York is one of two East teams (Charlotte is the other) with nine games left on the schedule, which has to be a disadvantage. Five of them, however, are in New York. The Liberty also has only one Western Conference game left on the schedule, that against woeful San Antonio. Besides for fatigue (three back-to-backs remain), the schedule sets up well for New York to claim home court in the East.

Key player: Baranova. Fortunately for the Liberty, she saw only limited action in the Olympics as Russia made full use of its frontcourt depth, a la the U.S. Still, Baranova did not get the month off, which may affect her. Beyond that, Baranova had been playing the best ball of her career at 32 (46.8% from the field vs. previous career-best 42.7%, for example), which might have been tough for her to keep up either way. Whether she does keep it up might decide whether New York stays atop the East.

Washington Mystics

Beard appeared to breakout during July.
Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty
What happened: Ah, it's never uneventful with the Mystics. Washington started the season horribly, rebounded to get back in contention in the East, and then watched All-Star forward Chamique Holdsclaw leave the team in late July with a "minor medical problem," return to play one game, and then disappear again. Everyone laughed when Washington Coach Michael Adams said his team could win without Holdsclaw, an opinion confirmed by a disastrous 70-41 loss at Charlotte, the Mystics first non-Holdsclaw game. But after losing again with Holdsclaw, Washington won its last two games going into the break, impressively crushing Phoenix by 20 points on Aug. 1. Rookie Alana Beard and Dispersal Draftee Chasity Melvin, the second overall picks of their respective drafts, were major disappointments early in the season, but Beard turned around her campaign in Seattle on Jul. 17, starting an eight-game stretch where she averaged 19.1 points per game. Washington also saw guard Coco Miller go from starter to bit player, averaging 4.4 points per game.

What lies ahead: Probably not Holdsclaw's return; the Mystics aren't publicly expecting her back this season, if at all. Washington has an even 4-4 home-road split the rest of the way and no back-to-backs, but three games against playoff contenders from the Western Conference. If Beard can continue her strong play and several players who were banged up in late July are back at full health, the Mystics will contend for a playoff spot.

Key player: Beard. While the Mystics are talking about a balanced team attack that would stand in contrast to the Holdsclaw era, they still need someone to create their own shots, and Beard is the player in the lineup most capable of doing that. Between the high scoring and her impressive perimeter defense, Beard was one of the league's best guards over the last two weeks before the break, and she falls into the Whalen category of rookies who could have used the month off.

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