Perhaps it’s the abundance of women’s basketball talent in this country that kept initial conversations about USA Basketball’s 2016 Olympic team selections targeted on the omissions.
No Candace Parker. No Nneka Ogwumike.
But the focus wasn’t merely on the frontcourt. There was also the discussion about the point guard position, where Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen will return to lead the team as floor generals yet again. This is Bird’s fourth Olympic appearance and Whalen’s second.
The question wasn’t whether either of them should have been included, but whether USA Basketball should be preparing for the future by including one of the WNBA’s dynamic young point guards – someone like, for example, Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot.
But Bird and Whalen, ages 35 and 34 respectively, have proven that they are hardly ready to be referred to in the past tense. Bird is shepherding a young Seattle Storm team into a new era, leading the WNBA with 5.8 assists per game and averaging 12.0 points, her highest scoring average since 2012. Whalen, meanwhile is one of the key components to a Minnesota Lynx team that is 17-4 over its first 21 games this season, playing well enough to stay within striking distance of the 18-1 Los Angeles Sparks.
Whalen is coming off her biggest games of the season Saturday against Dallas, scoring a season-high 22 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists. The 13th-year guard, who became the first player in league history to record at least 5,000 points, 2000 assists and 1,500 rebounds, is averaging 9.5 points and 3.6 assists per game and most importantly, is shooting 51.8 percent from the floor.
Both Bird and Whalen have seen their games limited by injury in recent seasons. And both decided that heading into this season, which would include the Olympic tournament in Rio, they would take a break from overseas play.
“Those are the things you have to think about as you are getting up there (in age) and you want to continue to be productive,” Whalen said. “Last year, I was playing injured and rehabbing and trying to get back. But you don’t feel like yourself. You just want to have that feeling again, of feeling 100 percent, and not feel like something is holding you back.”
Bird has not played overseas in two seasons, resting her body after needing three surgeries between 2011-13 (two hips and a knee). “I don’t think I realized the toll that had taken on my body,” Bird said. “And the older you get, the harder it is to get back.”
This past winter, she spent time training with Susan Borchardt, the former Stanford point guard who has served as the Storm’s strength and conditioning coach. Bird said she returned to the WNBA in the spring in her best shape in many years.
“For me, personally, the last couple of years haven’t been my best seasons, so I was very motivated this offseason,” Bird said. “The No. 1 factor in a basketball players’ career is their health. After I missed 2013, I didn’t get back to the form I needed to be in. And [this year] is an Olympic year and that’s my extra motivation.”
Whalen did some broadcasting last offseason and used the time to recover from the ankle injury that limited her playing time and effectiveness down the stretch of Minnesota’s 2015 championship season.
Both players admitted it is a difficult decision to forgo the salary that comes with overseas play.
“There is also the value of staying sharp and staying in rhythm and timing,” Bird said. “But the time off also has big benefits. For me, at this point in my career, maybe it’s better to get the rest.”
Whalen said saying no to a big salary is “one of the hardest things to do.”
“It is a lot of money to make while you are still playing,” Whalen said. “But money isn’t everything. Being healthy and having fun with what you are doing while you are still playing also counts for a lot.
“I wanted to be healthy, I wanted to be at my best for the Olympic team, and to make a run at another (WNBA) title, and that outweighed any financial decision for me. I think it was the right one.”
CLOCK TICKING IN PHOENIX
The Phoenix Mercury’s stumbling start out of the gate was just that. A bad start, right?
Things would get better. How could they not? When you’ve Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Candace Dupree, Penny Taylor and DeWanna Bonner on a roster – a group of players that dominated the league just two seasons ago – it’s only a matter of time before the winning begins.
Except that, save for one stretch of four wins in five games in late June to early July, the switch hasn’t flipped yet. Filling needs with recently acquired Kelsey Bone and recently signed Lindsey Harding hasn’t yet provided the necessary shot in the arm.
Instead, the Mercury have lost three straight and have fallen to 8-13 overall. Rather than making a move toward the league leaders, Phoenix has tumbled back. If the season ended today, the Mercury wouldn’t be in the playoffs.
Phoenix is giving up a league-high 88.1 points a game on the defensive end. On Sunday, the Mercury surrendered 100 points to Chicago. It’s too easy to say that defense is the Mercury’s only issue. But it’s a pretty darn big one.
The season doesn’t end today, but time is getting short. Thirteen regular season games remain for one of the pre-season favorites to win it all to make a run at a postseason bid.
Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on WNBA.com throughout the 2016 season.
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