Last season's final four are struggling in 2009

Back to the Pack

The WNBA scheduled a rematch of both 2008 conference finals for the league’s weekly showcase on ESPN2 Tuesday, with the Liberty visiting Detroit and the Silver Stars headed to Los Angeles.

Looking at their records in 2009, the conference finals are the farthest thing from anyone’s mind. The quartet is a combined 12 games under .500 (40-52) after the Shock’s home loss Sunday to Connecticut. At 6-10, Detroit’s still better off than the 6-12 Liberty, who dismissed head coach Pat Coyle during its current four-game skid.

Instead of battles for first place and home-court advantage, the ‘08 conference finalists are fighting merely to make the playoffs. If the postseason started today, only one – Western Conference champion San Antonio – would have a berth, and just barely. The Silver Stars (8-10) would back in as the West’s No. 4 seed, having already lost as many games as they did all last season.

Deanna Nolan could not recall a year when all four finalists had so many teams in front of them the next year. “I’ve never seen it before to the level where - I can’t even say it’s up and down; it’s just down,” she said.

In Detroit and Los Angeles, neither team has been able to put its best lineup on the floor. The Shock frontcourt was decimated in June without Plenette Pierson (injured in season opener), Kara Braxton (six-game suspension) and Cheryl Ford (missed first three games). The Shock stumbled into a 1-5 hole that they are still trying to climb out of.

The Sparks’ MVP tandem of three-time award winner Lisa Leslie and reigning MVP Candace Parker has yet to step on the court together. Parker missed the beginning of the season - including both meetings with the Shock - after having her first child, returning shortly after Leslie severely sprained her right knee June 19. Leslie, who has announced 2009 is her final season, has missed the Sparks’ last 11 games.

Without their star power (and a combined 33.2 points per game), the Sparks are the worst offensive team in the league, averaging 71.2 points and connecting on just 29.1 percent from 3-point range, despite the off-season additions of All-Decade Team member Tina Thompson and 2004 Finals MVP Betty Lennox.

Offense has been a problem for all four teams, which rank in the league’s lower half in field-goal percentage. Detroit is the best of the bunch at No. 7 (42.5 percent).

After L.A., New York is the next lowest-scoring team (73.7 ppg), despite fielding the exact same starting lineup and top three reserves that nearly upset the Shock for a trip to the Finals last season. The Liberty were sixth in scoring a year ago.

The Silver Stars are in a similar predicament, bringing back essentially the same team but enjoying nowhere near the same success, which suggests that the competition is a lot better than it used to be.

The two worst teams in the East a year ago, Atlanta (4-30) and Washington (10-24), are among the 10-win teams that have jumped ahead of New York and Detroit. Similarly, the bottom two in the West last season, Phoenix and Minnesota, are among the top four today.

“With the expansion draft and the [collegiate] draft the way it was, some guys obviously got loaded pretty quick,” Katie Smith said.

The four teams who have surpassed last year’s finalists each have a top-five draft pick playing a significant role in their respective turnaround (Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry, Minnesota’s Renee Montgomery, Phoenix’s DeWanna Bonner and Washington’s Marissa Coleman), and most acquired additional talent through the Houston Comets dispersal draft, accelerating their rise.

Improved competition notwithstanding, the point of no return has not been reached yet in this topsy-turvy 2009 season. “The other side of it is, nobody’s really out of it,” Smith said. “Obviously we’ve got ourselves a little bit of a hole [but] get a little run going and you’re right back in the mix, so yeah, we’ve got some work to do, and so do [the other finalists], but if you can get hot, you can get yourself right back in the top four again.”

The other three teams also have reasons to be optimistic U.S. Olympic coach and 2004 WNBA champion Anne Donovan takes over on the New York sideline, the Sparks play 13 of their last 18 games at home and the Silver Stars just re-signed Ann Wauters. The 6-foot-4 center started every game in the 2008 postseason, averaging 13.4 points and 5.8 rebounds.

Tuesday’s games won’t decide who is atop the standings, but a victory just might remind those teams how they got there in the first place.