Balanced bench bolsters Shock as playoffs near

Depth Charges

Shock general manager and head coach Bill Laimbeer tweaked his roster plenty during Plenette Pierson’s suspension. He had to wait more than a month to see how the pieces would come together.

Then it took one weekend with Pierson back in the fold for Laimbeer to like what he saw: a well-rounded bench that he can trust with substantial playing time when the playoffs arrive.

“This is what I anticipate having [for the postseason]. I like what I can bring off the bench at different positions,” Laimbeer said after the 22-point home win over Indiana Friday, which was by followed by a 15-point victory at Washington Saturday. “I think we’re in good shape.”

The Shock bench had talented players in 2007, headlined by Pierson, the WNBA’s inaugural Sixth Woman of the Year. But it lacked balance and depth, and reserves like Pee Wee Johnson, a shoot-first point guard, didn’t appear to have a definitive role.

Rather than drafting and signing players merely for depth’s sake, Laimbeer, assistant coach Rick Mahorn and director of player personnel Cheryl Reeve identified backups that would complement the starters’ strengths. They also found a bona fide backup for each starter, a departure from previous seasons when subs like Pierson and Johnson covered multiple positions.

Already a clearer postseason rotation has emerged, especially in the backcourt, which didn’t consist of much more than Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith in 2007. The depth chart is defined: Elaine Powell-Alexis Hornbuckle at the 1, Deanna Nolan-Ashley Shields at the 2 and Katie Smith-Sheri Sam at the 3.

The veteran Powell sets the tone as the starter while the disruptive rookie Hornbuckle will likely play more minutes. Nolan and Smith both average more than 34 minutes a game, and closer to 37 in the playoffs. That means a diminished role for Sam, but her versatility (she plays the 2 and 3, like Smith) and championship experience (2004 with Seattle) is an invaluable backup plan. As a unit, Laimbeer seems to have a greater trust in these backups than he did in Johnson and 2007 first-rounder Ivory Latta, neither of whom returned this season.

The frontcourt has a dynamic new look on all fronts, beginning with the starting forward spot vacated by Cheryl Ford’s season-ending knee injury. Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who played 34 minutes in her 21-point, nine-rebound performance at Washington, should be able to play a full speed longer than a hobbled Ford could last season. But that won’t mean fewer minutes for Pierson, who is as likely to pair up with McWilliams-Franklin in the lineup as take her place. Shock coaches and players agree that this rotation revolves around the versatile Pierson, a truth that became self-evident by the Shock’s 1-3 showing in her absence.

“It makes it easier because she plays more than one position, at the 3 and 4, which gives a lot of people more time at their rightful position,” Nolan said. “With her back it gives us an extra post player and an extra guard that we need for different matchups during the course of the game.”

Pierson averaged 25.5 minutes per game in the 2007 playoffs, third most on the team behind Nolan and Smith, a stunningly high number for a reserve. While Pierson’s minutes were dictated by necessity - she was the team’s most consistent scorer in the post (11.4 points per game) - she should see just as much action this postseason, if not more. “She’s very difficult to guard, she’s a great defender so those are two great traits to bring off the bench,” Laimbeer said.

When Pierson is at the 4, McWilliams-Franklin could move to the 5, which, by the numbers, is Detroit’s deepest position after a timeshare between Katie Feenstra and Kara Braxton in 2007. Braxton’s play has markedly improved this season - validating Laimbeer’s decision to protect her over Feenstra in the expansion draft - but she’s still susceptible to landing on the bench for long stretches with early foul trouble. That’s why multiple backups best serve Braxton, who averaged 12 minutes in her two starts Friday and Saturday.

The 6-foot-2 rookie Olayinka Sanni can finish around the basket and is an energetic offensive rebounder, an ideal complement to the seven-year veteran and Kelly Schumacher, who at 6-foot-5 provides a better defensive presence and outside shooting touch. The two newcomers embody the front office’s emphasis on making sure each member of the bench brings something unique to the table.

“This year is nice because in addition to Plenette, we have two young players in Hornbuckle and Sanni who are giving us a presence off the bench,” Reeve said in an e-mail. “Round the bench out with Sam and Schumacher, who are veterans with championship experience, and you have a bench with alot of buttons to push.”