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2008 WNBA Season Re-launch Conference Call
August 26, 2008
Statement, Mike Thibault:
Everybody here is anxious to get restarted. The best part about the break for us was we got to stay in first place for about a month and that can change within a few hours on Thursday. Its going to be quite a race. When you have three teams like we have on this call, half a game apart from each other, its going to be interesting going down the stretch. All three teams have had great runs during the season and times when we struggled either with injuries or whatever. Im looking forward to see what happens.
Opening Statement, Bill Laimbeer:
Its going to be some challenging times for our ballclub, especially for the first few games. Cheryl Ford is out of the remainder of the season. For our first game back, both Elaine Powell and Plenette Pierson will still be suspended with Pierson out two games for the scuffle that we had with the Los Angeles Sparks. We did get some practice time but we missed Katie Smith for the whole month. Theres no doubt its going to take a Herculean effort by the coaching staff to pull this one out; I think overall the break was good for us. We really needed it and I think we got our minds and bodies right for the most part. Were looking forward to the last seven games. Weve made a couple changes. Weve got Taj McWilliams-Franklin and we also picked up Ashley Shields who is better than I expected, so were going to go out, have some fun and give it our best shot.
Opening Statement, Pat Coyle:
New York is ready to get going having spent the last couple of weeks going against one another, were ready to beat up on someone else. I think the break was good for us because we had a chance to rest some bodies and a chance to fix some things. Like Mike said, this race is going to be great race down to the wire and were looking forward to being a part of it.
Q: How will the Olympic break affect the league competitively? Also, how will it affect the league fan interest-wise?
MT: Having not been here, I cant speak for our market, but I know that going through this in 2004, because the Olympic team is featured on television and theres been good press coverage from what I can tell, I think weve been able to stay in front of the media during this time period with a lot of our great players playing in the Games and I think all the teams, from what I can tell, did a great job locally in getting their players in front of the community and having public events. I know in Connecticut, we had our charity golf event during that time and most of our players were involved in three or four appearances as well as practices. I think the teams did a great job trying to be involved in their communities to keep the season alive and the interest going and certainly you have three teams on here who are competing for playoff positioning, so we can speak to it from that point.
BL: I think it had its moments when were forgotten, but at the same time, I think the Olympic ladies winning the gold medal helps. It has been in our newspapers that were right around the corner. I think from our personal teams perspective, the break was good to defuse some of the publicity surrounding the incident with Los Angeles. From a league perspective I think it wasnt too bad. It might take a few games to ramp up, but once we get going in the first week, it will be right back to normal.
PC: Here in New York, there was a concerted effort to get out into the community more and to keep us out there. Winning the gold medal really helps, I think.
Q: Will winning the gold medal help increase interest down the stretch?
MT: I can only go on past history and I know in our market just reading the articles that there has been a lot of talk about it. There was daily coverage of every game that was played in the Olympics and features done on the various players and we didnt even have a player go to the Olympics. Im assuming in many of the markets with Olympic players, it would help.
Q: For Coach Laimbeer can you tell me what made you bring in Taj McWilliams-Franklin? Also, what does she bring to the table?
BL: We looked at our ball club with Cheryl Ford down and it was clear that we needed a veteran presence. We had three rookies who were going to be counted on and we thought that was too many. So we brought in Taj; we were fortunate to get her. Shes an experienced player and she can make our team better with her calmness and pointers to our players. They respect her. At our practice, the level of intensity and concentration has improved dramatically. I think we sized up the situation and saw that we had a good chance to compete for the Eastern Conference championship this year and the next year and thats why we made the deal. So far from what Ive seen, my players pat me on the back every day.
Q: For Coach Thibault Sylvia Fowles was joining the Olympic team after coming off injury and playing a few games with the Sky. Can you talk about her progression with the Olympic team and how much better the [Chicago] Sky will be with her back in good shape?
MT: Theres no question theyll be a lot better. Shes going to be an incredible impact player in our league. It was a very, very tough break for Chicago for that time because it seemed like she was getting better and better. In the first days with the Olympic team practices, she was testing out her knee even though physically she was cleared to play. Once she got her confidence back and she knew she wasnt going to do any damage, you could see her getting better every day. I thought she was a huge factor in how we played because of her strength and size; she could intimidate people on the defensive end and there were very few people who we played against that could stop her one-on-one in the post. Im glad that Chicago is far enough back in the race from us and we only play her one more time this season.
Q: The Olympic team is comprised of 12 players who will be future Hall of Famers. Im wondering if theres a lesson to be learned and brought upon your team about teamwork and playing roles on teams? Also, Mike, can you elaborate on how you plan to use Erin Philips?
MT: Those players are the featured players on their team. It was highly pleasing and impressive that many of them could submerge egos or roles into what we needed to win. I thought as a group they made a concerted effort to play better defense than they did in the 2006 World Championships. We had five or six players that were highly improved on the defensive end of the court. When youre only together for three weeks, its hard to become a cohesive offensive team with any kind of flow, but if you decide that youre going to defend and rebound, things come a little bit quicker. I think thats why we could do what we did. Certainly what those players probably learned from that reminds me to remind my own team about what we can do to win.
As far as Erin Phillips, she got here today on about three hours of sleep, but I think by playoff time she can be a big part of what we do. She can play both the 1 and 2. We can play her with Lindsay. Shes an above average defender and her offense has improved greatly since she was here before. It remains to be seen. I like the players we have here but she has a little more experience and she is a strong, physical player and hopefully that can help us.
BL: I can speak from a Katie Smith perspective who will be a Hall of Famer, obviously. It takes a special player to play as a group of that caliber and not get as many minutes and not get as many shots and not even start or not get in the game. You saw it on the mens side in the last few years how you need to get the right chemistry and right personnel willing to do the right thing and sacrifice and have no egos get in the way. All Katie Smith cares about is wining and Mike will tell you she loves to play defense.
PC: I dont have any future Hall of Famers yet but thats been our thing all year weve talked about all of it getting done. Weve used 10 or 11 people all season and well continue to do that.
Q: For Patty of the three teams, you had the best momentum going into the break; do you have some concerns about how fast you can get back to where you were going?
PC: I think more people have made a bigger deal of it that we have. We were ready for a break. I thought a lot of our players didnt have any legs. I thought they were exhausted. We won six or seven games [heading into the break] but I dont think we played all that well. Am I concerned about getting back? No, not really. Im just concerned that we stay healthy and keep doing what we do. Were not going to worry about anybody else; were going to just worry about ourselves.
Q: For all the concern going into the Olympics with scheduling, does it now appear that barring injuries that the WNBA schedule takes care of itself in terms of players getting ready to hit the floor right away?
MT: As a coach, I dont think were ever going to be in an ideal position in the WNBA to train properly for the Olympics. We were very fortunate that we had a group that bought in. If I could have a vote with the way our players play overseas and everything else, I would take a 10-day break every year just go get some rest and get our legs back. As far as preparing for the gold medal, I think you just have to have the right players that are committed to the right thing and hopefully we can go forward and our league can continue to produce the right kind of players who are aware of what they need to do compared to the other teams training periods.
Q: For Mike since you were with the squad, how much will jet lag affect the players who are coming back to the WNBA?
MT: Theres no question it will affect them. I think Los Angeles will be affected a lot because they had three players. It takes awhile to get adjusted. Youre talking about a huge time difference. The only good thing for this group was that because it was a deep team we didnt kill them with a lot of minutes. We were able to spread out the practice time. No player was playing over 22 minutes per game on a general basis and they had days off. Had it been a situation where seven players had the bulk of the playing and a ton of practice, it would be a little bit different, but it will certainly affect them this week.
Q: Bill, how much time off did you give your players during the break and was your approach to practice any different from the rest of the season?
BL: We gave them a lot of time off especially at the start. I didnt want to see their faces for awhile and Im sure they felt the same way about me. Plus we had just gone through an emotionally trying period and lost a few tough games. You cant grind them into the ground. We started slowly then we took a little side trip to a clinic about four hours away at a resort. We did some conditioning days with our trainer. Overall, we didnt practice very long. We practiced maybe an hour to an hour and twenty minutes. It was more relaxation/getting our minds right. Conditioning wise it was not an issue so it was more of a mental recharging than anything else and so far I think its worked pretty well.
Q: You come back now and its almost like a trophy-dash a sprint with seven or eight games remaining. How does your approach change, if at all?
PC: Our approach hasnt changed and it wont change in the sense that were just going to take it one day at a time and worry about whom were playing and ourselves. I think we have the most games left. We have nine left and I think thats the most. I like the fact that were going to play, travel and play. The next two weeks is definitely going to be a sprint for us, but weve had enough practice time that were ready to play games.
MT: Having not been here, my coaches stuck to the routine that we went through four years ago. I think whats been best about this team particularly being a young team is the one thing weve emphasized is to play in the moment and not look too far ahead. I think it would overwhelm a lot of young players to think, Oh we have to do this, and we have to do that. Weve tried very hard to stay within thinking about whatever the next game is, thats what were going to deal with -- thats what were going to work for. The habits we have on the practice court are things were trying to do that are long-lasting and its two things: 1. youre trying to prepare for the next team and 2. what you try to do on the court is to create habits that sustain you long-term. We wont treat this any different than we did before the break.
BL: What weve done is put in a whole new offensive structure at times. Weve tried to put in stuff that well be using particularly for the playoffs. Our stuff has been pretty stale over the past few years; everybody knows what we do. So hopefully, well be a little surprising coming out of the break.
MT: Bill, can you send me tapes of that? [laughs]
Q: Mike, what will you bring back from your experience in Beijing?
MT: I think there were two kinds of experiences. Most of it was a basketball experience and being able to coach all those great players at one time. The basketball part was very good. The camaraderie on that team was fantastic. We didnt have any negativity, people got along. We understood what we were there to do, so that was a positive experience all the way around. I thought Anne [Donovan] did a terrific job on selling them on what we needed to do to win going in. Outside the basketball part, I had never been to Beijing before. Its a pretty enormous and impressive place. Youre talking about a city that has over 17 million people in the space and size of Rhode Island. Its much more modern than I thought obviously a lot of the buildings were done for the Olympics. Its a pretty high-powered city in general anyway. The enormity is probably what strikes me. The people there did a great job putting on the Olympics. They were great hosts. Things went smoothly for the most part. I had nothing but a positive experience.
Q: Was the Opening Ceremony extra special for you having your family there with you?
MT: It was great to have my family share it. My kids are at the age where every part of it was great for them. The Opening Ceremony is different for a person watching than it is for the athletes and coaches participating in it. If youre in it, you dont really see much of it. Ill have to watch it on Tivo and see what it was like. We were standing outside the stadium waiting to get in, so we dont get to see much of it. But for everyone Ive talked to and clips Ive seen, whoever has the next one, I dont know if they can top what the Chinese did with it. I guess it was quite a spectacle.
Q: Looking at the Western Conference standings, what are some of the biggest surprises?
PC: Sacramento stands out for me and how well theyve done with what they lost.
BL: With all the buzzer shots that Minnesota has missed, if they make half of those, theyre substantially in the playoffs. I think the Western Conference has done a good job of attacking L.A.s weaknesses to keep them in the position that theyre at. However, they all realize that theyre the ones that are going to be eye-balling them come playoff time.
MT: The last thing I would add to that is that I dont think anyone is all that surprised about San Antonio being good. Whether they were going to be better than Los Angeles, I dont know. They have more experience than L.A. does and in terms of a cohesive starting unit; youre talking about terrific players who had a good experience last year and lost in a controversial game. We havent played them yet and Im already worried about preparing for them because I think theyre a terrific team.
Q: Given the tightness of the races in the East Bill, youve generally had some strong opinions about home-court advantage how important is it? How hotly will you pursue that ability to be the top seed in the East?
BL: We talked about winning all seven remaining games. That is our goal; that is what were focused on. Whether it happens or not, obviously the other team will have something to say about it. We know we can win all seven games and weve had the home court throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and thats carried us pretty far the last couple of years and thats what were focused on again. We like to play at home and we play well at home. Were comfortable. Were healthy, were rested; were mentally charged and were going for it.
PC: Home court is huge. Every year you see it in the playoffs. Being the youngest team in the league, I think its huge for us. Were much better at home. Its something were trying to change by getting better on the road, but its huge.
MT: I dont think I would disagree that its huge. Its different than the NBA with our best-of-three format being a 1-2, its huge if you get a good start, but its even bigger if you lose that first game on the road. Its good to have two home games. We havent talked about it as much as we have in the past because Ive tried to keep my young players just focused on the games ahead. I understand Bills position and for teams in the past weve talked about doing things like that winning seven in a row or six in a row. We havent done it much with this group because they are best served playing one game at a time. Though if it works out that way, great.
Transcript of Western Conference Head Coaches
Participants: Michael Cooper (Los Angeles Sparks)
Dan Hughes (San Antonio Silver Stars)
Brian Agler (Seattle Storm)
Statement, Michael Cooper:
Up until this point, we are playing good basketball. I think the Olympic break was good, especially for us. It gave us a chance to re-organize ourselves and get some of our role players to really break down our offense. It gave us a chance to do a little extra work and conditioning. This month was very beneficial for us.
Opening Statement, Dan Hughes:
I wasnt in the league four years ago in 2004 when the league went through this, so this is a new experience for me. My feeling is that we tried to get better during this period in several ways. We prioritized rest for the players, re-identified who we were, and most importantly, we got better. We didnt so much view it as training camp but as practice time that we dont always get at this point in the season. Im anxious for the season to re-start and we have a very challenging schedule ahead.
Opening Statement, Brian Agler:
We are excited to get back on the floor. I think most of the players are tired of practicing against themselves. Weve tried to get better in these 2½ weeks and we feel like we have made strides in certain areas. We have worked on some areas where we feel we could improve and weve tried to get the players some rest. I think everybody is excited about starting again on Thursday. This is a very, very competitive league, especially in the Western Conference.
Q: How important is the tie-breaker coming down the stretch, since so many teams have the possibility of making the playoffs, I think the most since the inception of the league?
BA: I think it is extremely important. All seven teams right now in the Western Conference have a legitimate shot and a strong chance to work themselves into the race. Its interesting if you see the match-ups and how one game even one you arent involved in - can impact how you play. Match-ups and tie-breakers could play a big impact in the placement of teams.
MC: Its very important that we do win these tiebreaks. Championships are won on the road. Its a lot easier when you are playing at home. Thats something we discussed even before the Olympic break. Its about what we need to do against teams in our conference. Its very important that we do win those tiebreakers. Playing against Seattle or San Antonio, youd want that advantage.
DH: We played Seattle three times very early in the season and tie-breakers were part of our dialogue at that point. The three-way tie also comes into play - not only in head-to-head competition but in three-way situations whether you are talking about making the playoffs or placement. Its about flat out winning games, especially in the West. Its going to be about winning games.
Q: What is Lauren Jacksons situation?
BA: Well theres no question Lauren is a great player. She has had some ankle issues all season long but never missed a practice and never missed a game. She experienced some trauma in one of the pre-Olympic tournaments. Basketball Australia knew she injured herself significantly. We understood she had a tremendous desire to win a gold medal and she fought through it. Shes made a decision to have surgery, which will take place on Thursday. We support her decision and want the best for her. Her health comes first. I think it would be a stretch for her to get back. She assured me shes a quick healer and has responded well to surgery in the past. I think it would be real difficult for her to get back onto the floor, even if we were fortunate enough to make the playoffs."
Q: How difficult will it be to re-incorporate players who were at the Olympics into your team and practices?
BA: Its been staggered for us. Kelly Santos got back last Thursday so shes had a few more practices. Sue Bird just got back in Sunday night. Obviously we tried to really listen to Sue and how she felt. Today was her first practice. In fact she looked even more tired today than she did yesterday when she was just in to watch practice. We are going to monitor that but shell get her feet back underneath her quickly and get back to top form. The travel and quick turnaround is something that has to be monitored.
MC: Incorporating our three, because our offense revolves around them, has been pretty easy. Today was their first practice and the jet lag may set in tomorrow with them. Our three seemed to adjust well. Our role players were helped during the Olympic break.
DH: The reality of our league is that when we start the season we see similar situations. Its not uncommon to the coaches or players or teams. Youve got to monitor the fatigue situation. Becky was in practice today and was in part of it. You can see her from a physical standpoint progress each day. Its a reality.
Q: How will jet lag affect the Sparks?
MC: Lisa Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones have done this in the past and I dont see it as being a big factor. The one Im concerned about is Candace Parker because in the last two years, she has played a lot of basketball. Ill be monitoring her more than the other two. Again, thats when your role players and people on the bench have to step forward. Thats why I enjoyed this off time because we really got a chance to do work with our post and perimeter players. They will give those three players a five or 10 minute breather through the course of a game and through the course of practice.
Q: How does losing Lauren Jackson affect the Storms playoff run?
BA: Theres no question its a challenge. Fortunately, or unfortunately, weve played the last six weeks without her if you take into consideration the last five games before the break. Its not something we want to get used to but weve gone through a series of days without her. We continue to learn more about our team each day and what we have to do to be competitive on the floor.
Q: Will Minnesota be a factor in the playoff run?
MC: Id like to think they are a legitimate playoff contender. Minnesota has made it tough on us in the two games that weve played them. They are definitely a team you have to reckon with and be prepared for. This makes for good coaching and good basketball that the fans can appreciate and enjoy and it takes the league to another level. Its all about getting your job done and being prepared.
BA: Minnesota has proven they are a quality team and they are definitely a contender for a playoff spot. Without question, they are one of the best offensive teams in the league. They have a lot of weapons they can put out there. With their youth, they are just going to continue to get better."