Itís Not How You Start

The Washington Mystics are making me look bad. (More importantly, they are making themselves look bad.)

Along with just about everyone else, I thought that Washington would follow up on its success from last season and be even better in 2007. At the very least, I figured they were a lock to make the playoffs again in a tough Eastern Conference.

But they haven't exactly started off on the right foot, losing their first six games to start the season. Just two weeks into the season, the Mystics are already 5.5 games behind first-place New York and are currently the only team in the East with a losing record (even the Chicago Sky are 3-3 in just their second season). Only the Minnesota Lynx have lost more games.

But I still think they can make the Playoffs. That's right. In fact I think they WILL make the playoffs (hey, I already look bad, so why not go down with the ship if wrong again). This team is not done because, well, they haven't really gotten started yet (and we know that every team makes a run in the WNBA).

In six games, the Mystics are averaging only 70.5 points per game, which ranks 12 out of the 13 teams (they are giving up 79.8 points game, hence the losing).
They also rank last in the WNBA in rebounding (outrebounded by more than nine rpg) and assists (12.0 pg) and are shooting below 30% from 3-point range. Their 19 turnovers per game is also worst in the WNBA.

What makes the inconsistency from the starters (four different leading scorers in the six games) so incomprehensible is that they are a veteran team who has been together as a nucleus for a few years now. Alana Beard is a perennial All-Star averaging 17.6 ppg (almost two points fewer per game than last season). But she came into training camp with a significant shoulder injury that she got training with the U.S. National Team in Italy during the spring. She missed a lot of training camp, preseason and even the first game of the season. so while her scoring, rebounding and assists are down this year, she is probably now just back into game shape.

Nikki Teasley has not done her part in the scoring or assist categories and just about every player on this team has under-performed so far. Another All-Star veteran, forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, has struggled this season as well despite having a great winter in Spain. She is averaging 12 ppg (and scored on seven and eight points respectively over the weekend) and shooting .342 from the floor. Like a true leader, she has accepted her share of the blame for the Mystics woes and even addressed the home crowd before the game on Friday, asking the fans to bear with the team through the changes.

The changes that she is talking about have kept the Mystics in the headlines even though they haven't won. Trades, the retirement of an all-time great as well as the first coaching change of the young season have. The first big move sent center Chasity Melvin to Chicago in exchange for a younger, athletic scorer in Monique Currie. Currie and Beard were teammates at Duke and know each other's game well, but Currie has yet to start in her three games in Washington (while Melvin went off for 12 points and 15 rebounds against her former team on Friday night). Melvin spent three full seasons in Washington after coming over in the Cleveland Rockers Dispersal Draft in 2004. Nakia Sanford has filled in as the starting center (though she has career averages of 5.7 ppg and 4.0 rpg).

While the Mystics are not short on size, their new (interim) coach is not. Mystics head coach Richie Adubato resigned on Friday and was replaced by 18-year NBA center Tree Rollins, one of his assistants. (He is 7-1). The other big announcement was the retirement of forward Crystal Robinson on Thursday, a move that clears the way for younger players (like Currie) to get more playing time. Second-year wing/guard Tamara James has also gotten into the rotation in the past three games and really come through, scoring 8, 13 and 17 points.

So with all of these changes in the middle of a season, it still could take the Mystics a bit of time to adjust and get back on the winning track. But not too long. After all, they do have recent history that they can look to. For example, the last time Richie Adubato left in the the middle of a season (the 2004 New York Liberty), the team had lost six straight games, yet they still went on to make the playoffs. Last season, the Mercury started out losing four straight and was even 11-16 down the stretch before reeling off seven straight and finishing with an 18-16 record (they only missed out on the playoffs because of the tiebreaker). And let's not forget about the Charlotte Sting (though it is easy to do that), who started the 2001 season losing 11 of their first 12, yet rallied to make the Finals later that summer.

So we know it can be done.

Plus, the undefeated Liberty and Sky are probably not as good as their records indicate (though the Liberty keep proving me wrong). Can they sustain the level they have been playing at over the course of a long season? The law of averages is bound to catch up with them and propel the Mystics right back into the playoff picture. Even in the Western Conference, the winless Houston Comets and 1-7 Minnesota Lynx are just three and four games out of the playoff picture, so it's not like they should be giving up on the season yet either.

Yes, the WNBA season is short. But not six games short. So let's just be patient and give things a chance.

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