2008 Western Conference Preview
The Houston Comets had two very different 2007 seasons. The team started the year a league-worst 0-10, losing former MVP forward Sheryl Swoopes to a back injury that would ultimately end her season after just three games. Thereafter, sparked by the return of veteran guard Tamecka Dixon, the Comets were quietly very competitive. Houston went 13-11 over its last 24 games, though it was far too little to make a run at the postseason. The Comets found success with an unorthodox lineup that paired centers Sancho Lyttle and Michelle Snow up front, pushing Tina Thompson to forward and 6-1 Hamchetou Maiga-Bä to guard.
The trouble with the strong start to the season was it appeared to convince Houston to try to win now. The Comets lost Swoopes as an unrestricted free agent, but added other veterans - Shannon "Pee Wee" Johnson to play the point and Mwadi Mabika to offer depth on the wing. The latter signing continues the trend of Houston Head Coach Karleen Thompson bringing in players she's familiar with from her days as an assistant (and interim head coach) in Los Angles. The ex-Sparks contingent includes Dixon, Mabika and Latasha Byears - all of them 31 or older.
In all, five Houston rotation players and three starters are on the wrong side of 30, indicating the Comets better win now. And, despite the strong start to last season, that's a tough order in the loaded Western Conference.
In Thompson, Houston has a legitimate star to build around. Last season, the Comets put heavy pressure on Thompson to create her own offense early in the season because the team's backcourt was so weak. Once she got more help, Thompson's efficiency went up, and she put together a standard season. Thompson did play more minutes per game (36.3) than any other player in the WNBA, and that's a lot to put on her at 33.
Dixon bounced back from a poor 2006 to play solid basketball last year. Her scoring average (12.0 ppg) was her highest since 2003. It remains to be seen whether Houston will get the Dixon of 2006, who averaged 7.0 points per game and missed 11 games due to injury, or last year's version. Maiga-Bä is a terrific defensive player who has developed into a much more dangerous scorer. Moving from Sacramento to Houston, she nearly doubled her minutes per game and did a decent job of handling the ball while playing at guard.
First-round pick Ashley Shields had a rough season making the transition from community college to the WNBA, and saw her minutes cut as the season went on. The Comets drafted another guard, Rutgers product Matee Ajavon, in the first round of this year's draft. Ajavon has had a solid preseason. Combined with the veterans, that might make it tough for Shields to crack this year's rotation.
A .500 record or better certainly isn't out of the question for the Comets. The question then becomes one of depth in the Western Conference. Last year, .500 would have gotten Houston in the postseason, but with other West teams loading up in the off-season, that might not be enough this year. If the Comets end up in the lottery for the second straight season, they will be the worst kind of lottery team, one that's relying on veterans instead of youth.
2007 must already seem like a bad dream for the Los Angeles Sparks. With former MVP center Lisa Leslie missing the entire season after giving birth to daughter Lauren, All-Star forward Chamique Holdsclaw abruptly retiring weeks into the campaign and starting point guard Temeka Johnson missing 23 games after microfracture knee surgery, the Sparks were a poor imitation of the Los Angeles team that had won a West-high 25 games in 2006. Los Angeles started 5-2, but collapsed after losing Holdsclaw. The Sparks won just three games in July and August, finishing tied for the WNBA's worst record at 10-24.
The rough season paid off handsomely in the October WNBA Draft Lottery, when L.A.'s ping-pong ball came up number one. That meant the opportunity to add Tennessee forward Candace Parker, the WNBA's next big thing. Rumor had it other teams were willing to throw crazy packages together to pry the top pick away from the Sparks, but Los Angeles stayed in place to pair Parker and Leslie in a frontcourt of WNBA stars older and new.
The Sparks had another move in store after drafting Parker. Days into training camp, Los Angeles dealt veteran post Taj McWilliams-Franklin and a 2009 first-round pick to Washington in exchange for DeLisha Milton-Jones, bringing Milton-Jones back to the Sparks and reuniting her with Leslie and Head Coach Michael Cooper.
The additions give Los Angeles the opportunity to replicate the worst to first turnaround pioneered by the Detroit Shock in 2003. WNBA GMs chose the Sparks as the overwhelming favorites to win their third WNBA championship.
Certainly, in Parker and Leslie, Los Angeles starts with an All-Star core. Analysts love to say the WNBA isn't a rookie league, but players of Parker's caliber have been able to make an immediate impact. As recently as two years ago, four rookies made the All-Star team and Seimone Augustus and Cappie Pondexter both ranked in the league's top four in scoring. Parker's NCAA resume, which includes two national championships and multiple player of the year awards, is impeccable. Beyond that, she's already starred on the U.S. National Team alongside some of the WNBA's brightest stars. The only thing which could hold Parker back as a rookie is the shoulder she injured during the NCAA Tournament, but it hasn't apparently been an issue since the Final Four.
As for Leslie, even at 35 she remains a force in the post. Before missing last season, Leslie won her third MVP award in 2006. She's had nearly an entire year to work her way back into shape and played well for the National Team during its off-season training. GMs made Leslie the favorite to win another MVP this season.
WINDS OF CHANGE:
Though the Sparks have combo guard Sherill Baker and veteran point Kiesha Brown and drafted point guards Shannon Bobbitt and Sharnee Zoll in the second and third rounds, respectively, none of them are capable starting point guards. Therefore, the team will depend on Johnson to bounce back a year removed from knee surgery. There's not a lot of history with microfracture in the WNBA. Before Johnson, only Storm point guard Sue Bird was known to have had the surgery. She went through the following season (2004) trouble-free, but had the advantage of having the surgery shortly after the season. Johnson was forced to try to rehab and come back midyear. Now she's got a full training camp and should be closer to her Rookie of the Year level of play.
The performance of the guards will go a long ways toward determining whether the Sparks can live up to the preseason hype. The Western Conference is loaded, but Los Angeles has as much talent as any West team.
When drafting, teams in every professional sports league face the challenge of deciding between picking based on need or going with the so-called "best player available," going for talent even at the risk of redundancy. Rarely is that choice so extreme as with the Minnesota Lynx in last month's WNBA Draft.
The strength of last year's Lynx team was its perimeter group, what with Minnesota getting guard Lindsey Harding and wing Seimone Augustus, both the No. 1 overall pick, in consecutive drafts. The Lynx also had rookie Noelle Quinn, who capably filled in for Harding after she tore her ACL midway through the season. To complement the extremely young group, Minnesota signed veteran guard Anna DeForge on the first day of free agency. That moved Augustus to forward and left the team with three capable guards ... until the draft rolled around.
Having tied for the worst record in the WNBA in 2007, the Lynx hoped to end up with one of the top two picks and have a shot at frontcourt stars Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles. Instead, Minnesota ended up third. By consensus, Stanford guard Candice Wiggins was the third-best prospect available, but early in the process it looked likely that the Lynx would pass on Wiggins and bolster their frontcourt with a player like North Carolina's Erlana Larkins. After Wiggins led the Cardinal to the championship game with a pair of 40-plus-point efforts, however, there was no way Minnesota could let her slip away. There was talk of a trade involving Harding, but nothing ever materialized.
As a result, the Lynx head into the season with five perimeter players amongst their six most talented pieces. For the first month of the season, the logjam will be eased because Harding will be out with a stress fracture left patella (she had also torn her ACL in the same knee). Thereafter, Minnesota Head Coach Don Zierden will have to find playing time for everyone.
The upside is the Lynx have some awfully good guards. In her first two seasons, Augustus has proven to be a scoring machine, averaging 22.8 points per game last season to finish as the league's scoring runner-up for the second straight season. Minnesota gave Augustus more help as a sophomore, helping her increase her shooting percentage from 45.6% to 50.8%. Wiggins is a can't-miss prospect whose electric tournament run capped an outstanding senior season. Ultimately, Augustus and Wiggins could develop into a matchup nightmare for opponents, either capable of exploiting the weaker perimeter defender on the other team.
Minnesota re-signed restricted free agent Nicole Ohlde, the team's anchor in the paint, but Ohlde continued to see her game go the wrong direction in 2007. Ohlde shot just 37.4% from the field. Given she had been above 44% each of her first four WNBA seasons, last year's shooting is unlikely to be repeated, but Ohlde hasn't grown her game since an impressive rookie season.
The starting spot alongside Ohlde is open after Minnesota left Kristen Mann unprotected in the expansion draft. The Lynx sent the team's longest-tenured player, Tamika Raymond, to Connecticut in exchange for Kristen Rasmussen and Rasmussen figures to have a good shot of starting at power forward. The deal was a coup for Minnesota; the well-traveled Rasmussen isn't flashy but offers solid workmanlike production.
Another option is a twin-post lineup of Ohlde and Vanessa Hayden-Johnson, the Lynx's two first-round picks in 2004. Hayden-Johnson returns after missing 2007 to give birth. Her size, foul trouble and proneness to turnovers have kept Hayden-Johnson from averaging more than 20 minutes per game in her first three seasons, but she's one of the league's premier shot-blockers and a force on the glass. Rookie second-round pick Nicky Anosike also figures into the mix up front after a strong preseason.
The Lynx have upgraded their talent as compared to the last two seasons, but in the Western Conference Minnesota remains too young and too imbalanced to seriously contend. This year will be important for the Lynx to figure out which point guard to build around and how to get a better mix going into the 2009 season.
The Phoenix Mercury doesn't have much experience with it, but the team has got this playoff thing down pat. Phoenix entered last season with the WNBA's longest postseason drought, having last advanced in 2000 under then-Head Coach Cheryl Miller. The Mercury snapped the streak as the top seed in the Western Conference, swept through Seattle and San Antonio to advance to the WNBA Finals and rallied from the brink of elimination in Game 4 to beat the Detroit Shock and win the first championship in franchise history.
Repeating won't quite be as simple. Days after hoisting the trophy, Phoenix lost Head Coach Paul Westhead, who joined close friend P.J. Carlesimo as an assistant with the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics. The Mercury maintained continuity on the sidelines by promoting Westhead's lead assistant, Corey Gaines. Gaines, who was a point guard on Westhead's teams at Loyola Marymount, will continue to utilize the fast-paced "Paulball" style that was so effective for Phoenix last season.
The Mercury brings back almost the entire championship rotation intact, but that one loss was a big one. Forward Penny Taylor, an All-WNBA First Team pick last season, opted to stay in her native Australia to rest and train with the Opals National Team in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. Phoenix hopes to get Taylor back after the Olympic break, but Taylor has yet to even commit to that.
Last year, I wrote a couple of times about the difficult debate as to which Mercury starter was the most valuable. From a statistical perspective, Taylor was the answer during the 2007 regular season. She finished first amongst Phoenix's players and third in the league in PER, her combination of efficient shooting (62.5% True Shooting Percentage) and ability to create her own shot being virtually unmatched around the league. What makes Taylor especially valuable to the Mercury - and especially problematic to replace - is her combination of deadeye shooting with enough size and strength to keep Phoenix from being killed by opposing power forwards. That allows the Mercury to keep the floor spaced and get up and down the court quickly.
There are few players in the league who could capably fill in for Taylor, and none of them is on the Phoenix roster. The Mercury signed post players Barb Farris and Le'Coe Willingham as free agents and both could see time at power forward, but they combined in 2007 to hit a grand total of zero three-pointers in four attempts. Farris and Willingham bring many skills to Phoenix, but spacing the floor is not one of them. Nor is Willingham in particular suited to a fast-paced game.
Because the three newcomers surely won't use as many possessions as Taylor, the Mercury will turn to stars Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi for more scoring. The potent duo combined for 44.8 points per game in 2006 and saw that fall to 36.4 points a night last season, in part because Taylor stepped up but also because neither shot the ball as well. Pondexter's postseason scoring average of 23.9 points per game was highest in the league and nobody has ever questioned Taurasi's ability to put the ball in the hoop, so both players should be perfectly capable of making the adjustment.
The Mercury felt disrespected this week when the Sparks were made the favorite to win the title by GMs, with the defending champs finishing tied for second in the poll with Seattle. Anything else seems a little disrespectful to Taylor in my opinion. Two years ago, when she arrived late from Australia, Phoenix was 12-8 with Taylor in the lineup, 6-8 without her. Last year, the team was 14.7 points better per 40 minutes with Taylor on the floor, the league's fifth-best mark and tops on the Mercury. Taylor may not always be treated like it, but she's an elite player in the WNBA and Phoenix will miss her badly.
If Taylor returns for the postseason, the Mercury has a championship-tested formula that could be even stronger with the addition of Pringle. In the regular season, though, Phoenix's bid for home-court advantage will be severely hampered by Taylor's absence.
The Sacramento Monarchs lost only one player from last year's rotation, but it still feels like the end of an era in Sacramento. That's because that player is Yolanda Griffith, the anchor of the Monarchs for nine years which included five trips to the Western Conference Finals, two to the WNBA Finals and the 2005 WNBA championship. Point guard Ticha Penicheiro has actually been in Sacramento longer than Griffith was, but Griffith was the team's rock and seemingly the lone constant as players and coaches changed.
After seeing Griffith sign with the Storm, the Monarchs also took a blow when former All-Star forward DeMya Walker fractured her patella while playing overseas, costing her the entire 2007 season. Though Walker played just five games in 2006 before tearing her patellar tendon to end her season and had battled multiple knee injuries, she would have stepped into a more important role without Griffith. Instead, Sacramento waived Walker Thursday, a move made to clear her salary from the team's cap.
With Griffith and Walker both gone, this feels like a youth movement in Sacramento, though the starting lineup still includes the 10-year veteran Penicheiro and seven-year vet Adrian Williams-Strong while none of the other likely starters have fewer than four years of experience. The difference is the team is now officially led by its young core of forwards Rebekkah Brunson and Nicole Powell and guard Kara Lawson without Griffith as a leader and focal point.
All three players are perfectly capable of shouldering the increased responsibility. Lawson and Powell offer three-point production, while Brunson is a workhorse in the paint. Lawson's All-Star selection last year was a stretch and her True Shooting Percentage (49.5%) was surprisingly low for such a talented shooter, but when she's on few in the league are more dangerous. The same is true of Powell; while she hasn't developed into the kind of versatile threat she was at Stanford, Powell's three-point threat is pretty good. Neither player turns the ball over much. Brunson finished fourth in the league in rebound percentage a year ago and thrived as a full-time starter after starting part-time the last two seasons.
Sacramento's depth, the team's trademark when John Whisenant paced the sidelines, has taken a hit this season. The Monarchs still bring defensive stalwart Chelsea Newton and shooting specialist Scholanda Robinson off the bench at guard (presuming Newton doesn't start with Lawson in the role of sixth woman), but the rest of the reserves produce a lot of question marks.
Lawson might be able to handle some backup point, but otherwise the responsibility of backing up Ticha Penicheiro falls to rookie third-round pick A'Quonesia Franklin, a 5-4 waterbug. At forward, the Monarchs are hoping for a breakout season from 2006 first-round pick Kim Smith, a non-factor in her first two pro seasons. Smith has had a solid preseason, but her athleticism is an issue against WNBA opponents. In the middle, Sacramento hopes to have found a long-term answer in Maryland center Laura Harper, the team's first-round draft pick.
The Monarchs are also young on the sidelines. In her first season as a head coach, Jenny Boucek guided the team to within a bucket of the Western Conference Finals and quelled fears the team's defense would fall apart without Whisenant there to direct his trademark "white-line defense." Boucek's task gets more difficult this year. Even at 37, Griffith anchored the Sacramento D; the Monarchs allowed 9.3 more points per 40 minutes when she was on the bench. Without lockdown defense, the Sacramento offense (seventh in the WNBA in Offensive Rating a year ago) isn't good enough to win games on its own.
Sacramento would be in the mix in the Eastern Conference, but in the West the Monarchs will be challenged to keep up with the playoff contenders as they establish a new identity in the post-Griffith era.
SILVER STARS CAPSULE
Entering last season, the Silver Stars had won 30.1% of their games since moving to San Antonio in 2003. When the team went 13-21 in 2006, it set a San Antonio-era record for wins. But Silver Stars Head Coach Dan Hughes had been building a foundation for success. Last year, San Antonio signed Erin Buescher as a free agent and dealt for Becky Hammon and Ruth Riley. Buescher played at an All-Star level before being lost to a torn ACL, Hammon emerged as an MVP contender and the Silver Stars won 20 regular-season games and advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Going into the off-season, however, San Antonio had two factors working against the team's chances of duplicating the success. The first was the fact that the team's performance in terms of point differential didn't match up to its record on the court. The Silver Stars outscored opponents by only 1.0 points per game. While that reflected in part a late-season blowout after San Antonio had clinched, the Silver Stars still had the worst point differential of the West playoff teams, one more typical of an 18-win team.
The other factor is a trend Bill James coined as "the Plexiglass Principle," which holds that teams that improve dramatically from one season to the next tend to go backwards slightly in the third season. After improving by seven games, the Silver Stars were poised to slip based on the Plexiglass Principle.
Part of the reason the Plexiglass Principle holds is that successful teams tend to be more willing to stand pat while other teams address their weaknesses and jump ahead of them. Not so in San Antonio. On draft day, Hughes made another bold trade, sending second-year forward Camille Little (an All-Rookie Team pick) and the 2009 Silver Stars first-round pick to Atlanta in exchange for center Ann Wauters (and swapping second-round picks). Wauters hasn't played in the WNBA since 2005, but was ready to return to the league. San Antonio seems like an ideal spot; Hughes coached Wauters in Cleveland, and she played with Silver Stars starters Hammon and Vickie Johnson in New York. Hammon was also Wauters' teammate with CSKA Moscow this past off-season and helped talk her into playing in San Antonio.
San Antonio's other addition of sorts is Buescher, who missed the last 16 games of the season after tearing her ACL. The WNBA's Most Improved Player in 2006 in Sacramento, Buescher started last season in a reserve role but quickly moved into the starting lineup. Since being taught a step-through move by John Whisenant while playing for the Monarchs, Buescher has become a skilled scorer who lives at the free-throw line and hits the occasional three. The combination makes her an efficient scorer, and Buescher has always been a valuable hustle player.
The holdovers are pretty good as well, starting with Hammon. The Silver Stars made sure Hammon kept the ball more in her hands last season, and while that resulted in a league-leading 4.1 turnovers per game, it also meant career highs in both points (18.8) and assists (5.0). Hammon finished as the runner-up in MVP voting, and while that probably owed in part to voters giving her more credit than she deserved for San Antonio's turnaround, she put together arguably the finest season by a point guard in league history, posting a stellar 59.0% True Shooting Percentage.
Quietly, Hammon's backcourt-mate was also key. Johnson helped with ballhandling duties, was great on the glass and shot 42.9% from three-point range. On top of all that, she's an excellent defender capable of guarding either wing position. The other relatively unsung hero was second-year forward Sophia Young. Young's athleticism allows her to play bigger than her 6-1 height and makes her a tough cover for many of the league's power forwards.
The Silver Stars suffered a hit earlier this week when backup guard Shanna Crossley tore her left ACL in a preseason game, ending her season. Crossley was instant offense off the bench last season, ranking fifth in the league (just behind Hammon) in the percentage of her team's possessions she used while on the floor. Crossley tied Hammon for second in the WNBA with 74 three-pointers.
Losing Crossley also exposes San Antonio's limited depth. The Silver Stars only had enough cap room to keep 11 players on their final roster, and without Crossley only 10 of them are healthy. Meanwhile, the team only goes about seven deep. After Riley and Helen Darling, the veteran defensive specialist who stepped into the starting lineup alongside Hammon after Buescher's injury, there is not much WNBA experience. Edwige Lawson-Wade, another Hammon/Wauters teammate with CSKA Moscow, is a steady hand at the point, but Sandora Irvin has played sparingly in her WNBA career and the only other healthy player is rookie second-round pick Morenike Aturnase.
Depth could prove to be the undoing of the Silver Stars, especially if they suffer another major injury. Still, there's as much talent in San Antonio as anywhere else in the WNBA and the Silver Stars can certainly aspire legitimately to advance to the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history and potentially win the whole thing.