Laimbeer restores title hopes in wake of Ford injury with bold trade

A Win-Now Move

Bill Laimbeer didn’t put his championship expectations for 2008 on hold after Cheryl Ford’s season-ending knee injury. And he didn’t expect role players to match the All-Star forward’s production, either.

Instead, the Detroit Shock general manager and head coach acquired six-time All-Star forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin from the Washington Mystics Tuesday, a move that should reassert Detroit as the favorites to win the East.

McWilliams-Franklin is averaging 13.3 points on 52.5 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds in 2008, her 10th WNBA season. Ford was averaging 10.1 points on 48.1 percent shooting and 8.7 rebounds before tearing her right ACL on July 22 against the Sparks.

To land an elite frontcourt scorer and rebounder for the present (her contract expires after the season), Laimbeer had to sacrifice some of the future: starting forward Tasha Humphrey, guard Shay Murphy and a second-round draft pick went to Washington in return.

“While (the players) are very disappointed Tasha went away because she was well liked, they’re also excited about what Taj can do for us right now, for our ball club this year with her experience, her knowledge of the game, and just her skill level,” Laimbeer said. “It’s very high.”

Always intrigued by frontcourt players that can shoot from the perimeter, Laimbeer took a chance on the 6-foot-2 Humphrey when she unexpectedly slipped to the 11th pick in the 2008 draft. In only her second career start, Humphrey set a franchise rookie record with 28 points at Phoenix. She played in 22 games, starting 16.

Humphrey averaged 7.3 points on 50 percent shooting, including 38.5 percent from 3-point range. But she grabbed only 2.9 rebounds per game, and with Ford, perhaps the most skilled rebounder in the women’s game, no longer present to offset the disparity, Humphrey’s offensive prowess was a luxury the Shock could no longer afford. The 6-foot-2 McWilliams-Franklin, like the 6-foot-3 Ford, plays almost exclusively in the paint; she’s only a 28.4-percent 3-point shooter for her career.

“That was a very difficult decision,” Laimbeer said of dealing Humphrey. “Tasha has done all we’ve asked her to do. She’s been successful so far and she’s got a good future ahead of her. And that was the most difficult decision, and I told her that… It’s unfortunate.”

Acquired from Minnesota in June, Murphy shot 30 percent from the field in 13 games with Detroit. Laimbeer said Murphy would be one of the players “under the microscope” during the Olympic break training sessions. In the four games leading up to the month-long hiatus, Murphy made just two of 12 field-goal attempts (16.7 FG%). She’ll get a fresh start with the 10-16 Mystics, who appear to be entering a rebuilding phase after firing head coach Tree Rollins following a 37-point loss to Detroit on July 18.

Already one of the league’s most seasoned squads, the Shock got older by adding McWilliams-Franklin, who turns 38 in October. But in the here and now, Detroit’s revamped rotation has the potential to send the Shock to a third consecutive WNBA Finals. The team’s most probable lineup come Aug. 29 – their first game since July 27 – is Elaine Powell and Deanna Nolan in the backcourt, Katie Smith at the 3 and McWilliams-Franklin teamed with Kara Braxton in the frontcourt. Returning Braxton to the starting center position she held to open the season allows Laimbeer to continue bringing 2007 Sixth Woman of the Year Plenette Pierson off the bench.

“We think we have a pretty good basketball team,” Laimbeer said when asked about his 2008 title hopes. “We have some quality guards, we have some quality forwards, we got a big center in Kara, and we just needed another big veteran presence out there with experience in the playoffs, and Taj fills that role.”

The Olympic break makes experience more vital than energy at this point in 2008. The Shock come back from the extended layoff with only seven games left in the regular season, so Laimbeer doesn’t have to worry about keeping his starters fresh for the playoffs. He can ride his starting five as far as they can take him.

And with McWilliams-Franklin in the mix, that appears to be a lot farther than it looked Monday.