But no matter how much I read, no matter how many players I talk to, no matter how many "experts" I consort with... something or somebody shocks me each and every WNBA season. And 2007 was no different as a number of surprises have kept things interesting all season long (and gave us plenty to write about).
With all of the changes that they made in the offseason, everyone knew that the San Antonio Silver Stars were going to be an improved team. There was even a chance they might sneak into the playoffs for the first time since moving to Texas in 2002 (and dropping the zz's). The first big move came back in February, when the Shock traded center Ruth Riley (a two-time champion and former Finals MVP) to the Silver Stars for Katie Feenstra. A week or so later, they inked 2006 Most Improved Player Erin Buescher to a free agent contract.
But the final bomb was dropped when the New York Liberty sent Becky Hammon, the face of their franchise, along with a second-round draft pick in 2008 to San Antonio for the rights to No. 2 draft pick Jessica Davenport and a first-round pick in 2008. (Hammon spent eight seasons with the Liberty.)
I remember sitting in that hotel ballroom-turned-studio set in Cleveland as subsequent picks were made, the room still buzzing about the fact that Hammon was no longer a member of the Liberty (apparently she was as shocked as anyone).
That alone could have qualified as the biggest surprise of the season, but then the 5-6 point guard got to San Antonio and immediately took charge. Not only have the Silver Stars won 19 games with four still to go, but Hammon is averaging career highs in scoring and assists. Her 19.2 points per game is third best in the WNBA this season and her 5.2 assists per contest lead the league. Her performance has been beyond what GM/coach Dan Hughes was hoping for when he pulled the trigger on the trade.
It isn't as much a surprise that Hammon is having a good year. I mean, she is a four-time WNBA All-Star. But she had never before scored more than 15 ppg in a season and an ankle injury forced her to miss much of 2006. Oh, and she turned 30 in March (the other four players in the top five on the scoring list are all 26 years of age or under).
But is she the Most Valuable Player? Seattle's Lauren Jackson had been the leading contender with Fever forward Tamika Catchings, but Catchings went down with an injury after the All-Star break. But Jackson's team is below .500 and has underperformed, which could affect voters' decisions. The award does say "Most Valuable," not "Most Talented" or "Best All-Around Player." I don't get a vote, but stats cannot (and should not) tell the whole story.
The reunion with former Liberty teammate Vickie Johnson seems to have turned back the clock for both of them. At 35, Johnson is shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc, is leading the WNBA in assist-to-turnover ratio and is averaging nearly 5.0 rpg. Those around the team also talk about what a great influence Hammon has been on younger stars like Sophia Young and Shanna Crossley. (Crossley and Hammon, two of the top shooters in the league, are said to have been "separated at birth" for their off-court antics.)
At the very least, they're having a good time entertaining each other (They love to quote lines from A Few Good Men... "Colonel Jessep, did you order the Code Red?!?"), not to mention the fans in San Antonio and across the league.
A Penny Earned
It's hard to say that anything that Mercury forward Penny Taylor (a once and current WNBA All-Star) does on the court is much of a surprise at this point in her career. She has been an important contributor over the first six years of her stay here in the States (the first three of which were spent in Cleveland). But it is fair to say that the 26-year-old Aussie's emergence as a go-to star on a team already bursting with go-to stars was unexpected.
Or was it?
Not only did she lead Australia to gold at the 2006 FIBA World Championship for Women, she was also named Most Valuable Player (averaging 27 ppg in the medal rounds). In fact, since coming off the bench as a rookie in 2001, Taylor has scored in double figures every year (averaging around 13 ppg). So getting Taylor re-signed as early as possible was a top priority for Mercury general manager Ann Meyers-Drysdale.
“She’s the MVP of the world championships, a vital piece of our plan
here, and we had to have her back," Meyers-Drysdale said
back on March 8. "Offensively, with Diana [Taurasi], Cappie [Pondexter]
and Penny, we feel like we have a ‘Big Three.’ We’re ecstatic.”
But getting Taylor to arrive on time was another priority for the Mercury after Taylor's decision to show up late to work in 2006 may have cost the Mercury a spot in the playoffs. (She missed the first 14 games last year, and despite winning seven straight to close out the regular season, the Mercury were on the outside of the postseason looking in.) This season, Taylor did make it back to the States for Opening Day and has played in every game. She is averaging a career-best 18.1 ppg (No. 6 in the WNBA this season) and 6.4 rpg ( No. 11). Taylor, Taurasi and Pondexter are all in the top 10 in scoring and are averaging a combined 53.8 ppg. (No three teammates have ever finished in the top 10 in scoring in the same season in WNBA history.)
The Mercury are already in the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and Taylor's performance has already helped the team to two franchise firsts: 21 regular season wins and 10 games above .500. Look for another first, too, in a few weeks... Penny Taylor, All-WNBA.
The Heat of the Moment
At the midpoint of the season, the Connecticut Sun were sputtering along with a 6-11 record and were all but out of the postseason picture. They then proceeded to win 10 of their next 11 games, all but assuring themselves of a spot back in the postseason (actually, they have since clinched). All of this without one of the most popular players in the history of the franchise. Gone from the Sun is Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who was traded to the Sparks this past offseason. Her departure meant that Asjha Jones (previously the team's Sixth Woman) would replace Taj in the starting lineup. Thirty games later, the gamble has paid off. Jones' 15.3 ppg and 6.1 rpg averages are personal bests and Jones even made her first All-Star apperance.
Putting Down His Roots
Remember when the Washington Mystics were winless two months ago and I wrote that I thought they were still going to make the playoffs? (OK, I'm also the guy who thought the Sparks would make the playoffs at the beginning of the season.) Despite getting out to an 0-8 start and replacing coach Richie Adubato in the process, the Mystics went on to put together two separate four-game winning streaks and are right back in the playoff chase. One of the primary reasons for that has been steadying influence of interim coach Tree Rollins. Rollins is an NBA veteran whose teams advanced to the playoffs in 15 of his 18 pro seasons. Washington and New York are battling for the fourth (and final) spot in the Eastern Conference Playoffs (Washington holds a 1.5 game lead as of tonight), but the fact that Rollins has the Mystics where they are should be enough to earn him the full-time coaching gig in 2008.
By now, they should be household names. But three months ago? Not so much. L.A. Sparks rookies Sidney Spencer and Marta Fernandez are currently second and third on the rookie scoring list (Lindsey Harding is still first, but hasn't played since mid-July after tearing her ACL). With these two back in 2008, not to mention the return of Lisa Leslie and a Lottery pick in the 2008 Draft, L.A. should be right back in the thick of things. But these are not the only surprising rookies in the WNBA this season. Back on June 8, I remember getting an e-mail with a new Connecticut Sun transaction. "The Connecticut Sun sign Evanthia Maltsi. " I wasn't sure what an Evanthia Maltsi was, but now I know.
More Things That Make You Go Hmmmm
The rise and fall and potential re-rise of the New York Liberty (all in an eight-game span)... the Chicago Sky already winning more than twice as many games as last season (13 to five)... the starting lineup for the Eastern Confence All-Stars (Shock and awe)... the Seattle Storm's sub-.500 record (no clue on this one)... Janel McCarville leading the league in field goal percentage (much improved, but Most Improved?)... Chamique Holdsclaw's retirement (premature)... Rick Mahorn's weight loss (Less Thump. Or was he Bump?)... Buescher, Bird, Harding, Walker, Griffith and Temeka Johnson's knees, Catchings' foot, Beard's shoulder, Ford's femoral chondral defect (huh?), Sales' ankle, Swoopes' back, Hughes' Achilles', Burse's wrist (ouch!)... Rebekkah Brunson's nine double-doubles (ferocious)... Diana Taurasi's two-game suspension (disappointing)... my being allowed to write columns (groundbreaking)... the new WNBA.com (breathtaking)... the Comets and Sparks combined 19 wins (remember their 45 combined wins in 2000?)... and, of course, the 2007 WNBA champion (maybe)...