A Four-Gone Conclusion In The East

May 23, NEW YORK -There is absolutely no chance that the New York Liberty or the Chicago Sky will make the Playoffs in 2007.

At least that's what the "experts" (myself included) were saying and writing about the Eastern Conference playoff picture prior to the start of the season. Only four teams qualify and the Sky and Liberty are not yet up to the task...

Now the last thing I wanted to do was burst anyone's bubble or quash any excitement before games were actually played, so I apologize on behalf of the pundits out there who probably got a bunch of people in New York and Chicago upset (nothing like getting on the bad side of two of the three largest cities in the country).

But among those who were not affected by the preseason prognostications were the Sky and Liberty players (at least openly). At least that's what they're saying. But imagine how you would feel if everyone told you that you were going to fall short of expectations at your job. Would you go about a project or presentation with the same enthusiasm if you were expected to be a disappointment? Would you even start writing a column if you knew everyone was going to hate it (welcome to my weekly challenge)?

So what motivates these players to positive, upbeat and hungry to compete with everyone picking them to lose? How do they stay focused on the larger goals with the threat of another losing season looming over their heads?

"We really don't talk about that stuff too much," Sky coach Bo Overton said. "There is no negative focus. We talk about our stuff, the fact that we need to execute and focus on ourselves."

With the folding of the Charlotte Sting during the offseason, there are only six teams in the Eastern Conference this season. That means that the Liberty and Sky will actually play against the Detroit Shock (defending champions), Connecticut Sun (had the league's best record last year), Indiana Fever (21-win team in 2006 with key additions to the roster) and Washington Mystics (a playoff team in 2006 with a year more experience) more often now. Those teams may have actually gotten better in the offseason, too. Scary thought for the for the two youngest teams in the Eastern Conference (only the Minnesota Lynx have a younger average age in the WNBA than the Sky and Liberty).

Though I was pleasantly surprised at the future potential of these two teams after watching the Sky and Liberty play against each other on Sunday evening , I haven't necessarily changed my mind about them making the Playoffs (at least this season). The Sky improved their roster with the addition of the third overall pick in last year's Draft, Monique Currie, to complement the sixth overall pick from 2006, Candice Dupree. (This pair could be a very good 1-2 combo for years to come.) Dupree was an All-Star in her rookie season, but it was Currie (who came over in the Charlotte Sting Dispersal Draft), who starred for the Sky in Chicago's loss, finishing with 20 points and 11 rebounds (her first career double-double).

"If you saw that game, you know that we have a few pretty good players who can make a difference in this league," Overton said. "We are excited about them."

In the end, it probably won't matter. After all, this season is about gaining experience, developing relationships and building trust between players and coaching staffs. The Chicago Sky were an expansion team in 2006, but came into this season much better off than they were a year ago (when they won five games). They brought in a new coach, signed a few veteran free agents and drafted two players in the first round of the 2007 Draft.

"It's just a much different year," Sky forward Brooke Wyckoff told me after the game in New York, smiling despite the loss.

A look at past WNBA expansion teams shows that they can be successful in a just a few short years. Only one team in WNBA expansion history ended up losing more games in its second season than its first, the 1999 Detroit Shock. One of the reasons for that is that the 1998 Shock team won more games than any other expansion team in their first season (17). The Washington Mystics also entered the league in the same season as the Shock. They won only three games as an expansion team and went on to win 12 games in their second season.

In two additional rounds of expansion, the Orlando Miracle and Minnesota Lynx won 16 and 15 games respectively in their second seasons. The most recent expansion introduced four new teams in 2000, the Indiana Fever, Seattle Storm, Miami Sol and Portland Fire (the last two of which are now defunct). All four of those franchises won more games in their second season than in their first and the 2001 Miami Sol ended up with 20 wins and postseason berth.

And if they need further motivation, they can always look back at the Detroit Shock, who went from worst-to-first in 2003, winning the championship with a nucleus of young talent.

The New York Liberty find themselves in a different scenario, not exactly building a playoff contender, but re-building a team that has a proud postseason history. New York has played in (and lost) four WNBA Finals and qualified for the postseason as recently as 2005. Yet only four players remain from that team (Shameka Christon is the only starter at that).

So naturally, with all of the turnover and new faces on the roster, there are more questions than answers coming into the season. One of those questions that we will see answered over the next 13 weeks is whether teams with lower expectations placed on them play more relaxed or play to those expectations.

"Right about now, those things are the least of our worries," Liberty point guard Loree Moore said. "We're more focused on ourselves and what we need to work on and get better at. We keep things within our group and keep the outside comments out. That way we can avoid over-thinking things and keep the extra pressure off. We just want to prove ourselves."

But don't they read all the preseason analysis? How can they avoid it? After all, there is only so much WNBA coverage to go around (though we're changing that).

"We do read it, but personally, for me, even though we're young and don't have a lot of experience across the board, we do have experience in our own situations, whether it is at big college programs," Moore, a graduate of the University of Tennessee, explained. "We're not big names or anything like that, but we've all been playing for a long time. I came out of training camp thinking we are going to be good. We were all there together for the first time. I keep telling people to look out for the Liberty because I think we're going to surprise a lot of people and a lot of teams will be on their heels after they see that we can actually play."

Thankfully, it was not at all awkward sitting there talking with both of us knowing that I was one of those doubters. So how about any extra motivation to prove me wrong personally?

"Oh yeah, definitely," she laughed.

Well, whatever it takes, I guess.

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