Off-season outlook, Part 1 of 2

Sustainable Success

Fresh off their third WNBA championship in six seasons, the Detroit Shock might not be finished yet.

Despite a few stars in the twilight of their careers, the Shock are positioned to make a serious run at a fourth title in 2009. Virtually the entire core of the championship squad is under contract to return, including All-Star forward Cheryl Ford, who was injured and missed the postseason.

“To now add a Cheryl Ford back into the mix and it becomes her team again, you’re looking at a situation where you say, ‘Look out,’” said Cheryl Reeve, Shock assistant coach and director of player personnel. “This is a pretty good roster.”

The Core Four Returns

Ford’s de facto replacement last season, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, requested and was granted a one-year extension upon her arrival from Washington in August. Despite turning 38 years old Monday, she looked plenty spry in the WNBA Finals. She averaged 15.3 points and 7.0 rebounds against San Antonio, shooting 52.6 percent from the floor.

Should Ford’s rehabilitation from knee surgery go smoothly, the pairing of her and McWilliams-Franklin sounds terribly formidable, especially when accompanied by the starting backcourt of Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan. The quartet has a combined 20 WNBA All-Star Game appearances. Clutch scorers and all-league defenders both, Smith and Nolan are entering the final season of their contracts.

Smith, 34, is probably thinking along the same lines as McWilliams-Franklin, looking at each coming season as potentially her last. “Katie’s at (that) point in her career. If she doesn’t play in Detroit, she’s not playing anywhere else,” Reeve said. “The question mark is more of what is the right exit point for her career.“

Reeve admits it’s hard to write a better ending than to win a championship and be named WNBA Finals MVP. “I’m sure it has crossed her mind,” Reeve said of Smith leaving on top after leading the Shock in scoring (21.8 ppg) during the Finals sweep. “But the indication at this point is we’re all moving forward with Katie Smith being back in a Shock uniform.”

While no contract extensions are imminent, Reeve is confident Ford and Nolan aren’t going anywhere either beyond 2009. Ford’s priority is her health after two straight seasons were derailed by injuries to both knees. Nolan, coming off her fourth All-WNBA campaign in 2008, is in the prime of her eight-year career.

“Deanna’s interested in signing up with the Shock for a long time, same thing with Cheryl Ford,” Reeve said. “They want to be Shock players.”

With most of the starting core intact, Detroit also has key reserves locked in. Former Sixth Woman of the Year Plenette Pierson has two years remaining on her current deal while last year’s rookies – WNBA steals leader Alexis Hornbuckle and center Olayinka Sanni – are signed through 2011.

Longtime vets Powell and Sam face similar decision

The Shock have four unrestricted free agents, including starting point guard Elaine Powell. Like Smith, the 10-year veteran Powell would likely retire rather than sign with another team. A member of all three Shock championship teams, Powell has more value in Detroit than anywhere else.

“EP is one of those players where the stat sheet is not where she earns her money,” Reeve said. “She’s a key part of the glue of the team, her overall presence of how we do things in Detroit. There’s no substitute for that.”

Powell opened the 2008 season with her most productive play in several years before a foot injury sidelined her for two months. “If she can maybe get back to where she was feeling at the start of this season, when she looked great, I wouldn’t be surprised if she made another go of it,” Reeve said.

Sheri Sam started 15 games while Powell was out, helping to solidify the small forward position in the middle of the season. Her role greatly diminished in the playoffs, however, when she played 31 total minutes.

Sam signed with the Shock during training camp because she liked her chances of winning her first championship since 2004 with Seattle. At 34, Sam could retire as a two-time champion or return for an 11th WNBA season, in which case she’ll explore what opportunities exist in free agency. Then both sides should be able to evaluate whether another season together is in the cards.

“She did everything she was supposed to do. We have nothing but great things to say about Sheri,” Reeve said. “I think both sides are unclear about what the future holds.”

Hang’em up or risk hanging on too long? That’s the question facing Powell and Sam this winter. What they decide will help shape the Detroit’s priorities in free agency as the Shock prepare to mount their title defense.

Coming in Part 2: The status of the team’s only restricted free agent, starting center Kara Braxton, her backup Kelly Schumacher and what the Shock might try to accomplish in free agency.