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2008 WNBA Preview

WINDS OF CHANGE:
STORM.WNBA.COM'S
2008 PREVIEW
Check back all week as storm.wnba.com gets you ready for the 2008 season, looking at the changes made by the Storm and throughout the WNBA.
Monday: Fresh Start: Cash Begins Anew in Seattle
Tuesday: Bird Returns to Revamped Storm
Wednesday: The Centerpiece: Storm Looks to Ease Pressure on Jackson
Eastern Conference Preview
Thursday: The Veterans: Griffith and Swoopes Looking for Familiar Result with New Team
Western Conference Preview
Friday: Is This "The Perfect Storm?"

2008 Preview Homepage

Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com and Stephen Burt, special to storm.wnba.com | May 16, 2008
The theme of storm.wnba.com's preview is "Winds of Change," and one unfortunate one came off the court. My Orange & Oatmeal partner in crime, John Maxwell, has left the Detroit Shock to work as an SID at the University of California-Riverside. O&O might reunite for a greatest hits tour later in the season, but for now I've had to recruit a newcomer.

Stephen Burt should be familiar to readers from his contributions to the Women's Hoops Blog and Fullcourt.com. He's also, so far as I know, the only published author of a book of WNBA poetry (Shot Clocks: Poems for the WNBA). He's ranked the Western Conference and I've picked the East and we've both made Finals and awards picks.

Western Conference (Team-by-Team Analysis)

Because the Olympics will put so much pressure on stars who have already (most of them) played all winter (the ones who haven't are the ones who spent the winter rehabbing earlier injures), and because so many of the stars on which the teams in the West depend (Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, Lauren Jackson, even Becky Hammon) are recently injury-prone or in their mid-thirties or both, this year will be determined even more than most years by who gets hurt, who comes back, who stays healthy, and who calls in sick. (Phoenix may have been the West team with the most talent last year, but they were also the team whose starting lineup stayed healthy all year.)

WEST
1 Phoenix
2 Los Angeles
3 Seattle
4 Minnesota
5 San Antonio
6 Sacramento
7 Houston
It seems to me that Phoenix has the momentum, even with their coaching change: they've won games when Penny Taylor played badly before, and if they can keep doing so they'll keep outrunning the league. Diana Taurasi, moreover, has the stamina to play through the year: maybe they all do.

If Lisa Leslie looks as good in 2008 as she did in 2002 the Sparks will take it all. It says here she doesn't, at least not after the Olympic break. Candace Parker really is only one person: I'm not sure who rescues her if Lisa's hurt and CP3 gets triple-teamed. I'm not even sure who will get her the ball: Both Temeka Johnson and Sherill Baker have looked better (in the pros) as one-on-one players than as passers - TJ had an assist-to-turnover ratio under 1.0 in 2007, and she's been much-injured of late as well.

If Lauren Jackson and Sheryl Swoopes and Sue Bird stay healthy all year Seattle is almost a lock for the WNBA title. But if LJ and Her Majesty and Sue Bird stay healthy all year, I'll buy you a pony. It hasn't happened in a while, and it's not likely in an Olympic year. Brian Agler's in-game coaching could be an upgrade over Anne Donovan's, though his tenure at the Lynx suggests that he'll have trouble handling any chemistry issues that arise: Will that affect the team, especially on the road, late in the season?

As for Minnesota, everyone says this young team has plenty of firepower on the perimeter - Candice Wiggins, Seimone Augustus, and now Anna DeForge (losing Lindsey Harding isn't as big a deal as you might think) - but a big hole in the center, where Nicole Ohlde - a soft power forward, really - has been misplaced, displaced and pushed around. The Lynx will miss the playoffs yet once more if they have to misuse Ohlde again on the low block; that is, if Nicky Anosike doesn't make the transition to the pros, and if Vanessa Hayden-Johnson is no better than she has been. Recent press suggests that V will be much better: not just physically (rehab from childbirth) but psychologically. If motherhood has given Hayden focus, self-control, and the ability to play alongside her team, if Anosike (who will probably start many games) can defend and rebound adequately, and if Augustus stays healthy, the Lynx make the playoffs. If not, the Lynx won't.

San Antonio is just the reverse: they make the playoffs unless ... unless Becky's stint with the Russian Olympics creates chemistry problems and/or wears her body down ... unless the SASS lose multiple starters to injury yet again (Crossley's already down) ... unless we learn that the SASS's win streak last year had a lot to do with Agler's in-game coaching, and that Dan Hughes can't run an offense as well ... unless Vickie Johnson (who was effective enough last year) has lost her effectiveness ... unless Erin Buescher, who is still coming back from last year's ACL tear, can't repeat her career highs of 2007. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Stars repeat last season's success, but it wouldn't surprise me to see them miss the playoffs entirely: that's a lot of "unless" for SASS fans to live through.

Sacramento has lost DeMya Walker (again). They'll always defend well, but Nicole Powell will always be streaky: If she's having an off night, who scores their points?

Houston appears to consist of Michelle Snow, who had trouble last year just getting the ball; of Erica White, who will have to do a lot, right away; and of much-injured, admirable veterans on the downward slope of their careers, some of whom (Pee Wee Johnson and Tot Byears) created chemistry problems at their peaks. If Thompson stays healthy all year and the veterans all get along, this team could overperform everyone's expectations. (See above under: pony.)

Playoffs
Phoenix over Minnesota
Los Angeles over Seattle
Phoenix over Los Angeles
- SB

Eastern Conference (Team-by-Team Analysis)

EAST
1 Detroit
2 Indiana
3 New York
4 Chicago
5 Connecticut
6 Washington
7 Atlanta
I've said much of what I've had to say about these teams in my team-by-team previews, but let's put it together. When healthy, Detroit and Indiana are clearly the class of the East and the only teams in the conference apparently capable of competing with the top teams in the West. That when healthy qualifier is important in the East, too. The Shock needs Ford to be 100 percent less than the Fever needs a healthy Catchings, so figure Detroit to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

I wouldn't be surprised if either Connecticut or even Washington sneaks into the playoffs, but New York and Chicago appear to be the more talented and complete squads.

By the time the postseason rolls around, both Catchings and Ford should be near 100 percent, producing an epic Eastern Conference Finals rematch. Call it a hunch, but I think the Fever will go into The Palace of Auburn Hills and steal Game 3 much like the Shock did against Connecticut two years ago.

Playoffs
Detroit over Chicago
Indiana over New York
Indiana over Detroit
- KP

Finals Picks
Steve: Phoenix over Indiana
Kevin: Indiana over Phoenix

MVP
KP: Lisa Leslie, Los Angeles - I suspect the Storm's star-studded lineup is going to split credit and take some away from Lauren Jackson. Plus voters don't like repeat winners. I like one of Leslie (who could split credit with Candace Parker), Becky Hammon or Diana Taurasi.
SB: Lauren Jackson, Seattle - Past performance is the best predictor of future performance: it's hard to think of anyone now on a roster who will do more, in more ways, to help her team. Tamika Catching (who will miss the early part of the season) and Becky Hammon come close: if the Stars do well and the Storm does poorly, look for Becky to win this award.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
KP: Candace Parker, Los Angeles - The upset of the season so far was WNBA GMs voting Sylvia Fowles, not Parker, as the rookie likely to be best in five years. Really?
SB: Candace Parker, Los Angeles - No surprise there.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
KP: Ivory Latta, Atlanta - Buried behind veteran guards in Detroit, figures to have the chance to start and play heavy minutes for the Dream.
SB: Vanessa Hayden, Minnesota - And if she doesn't improve this year, she won't.

COACH OF THE YEAR
KP: Michael Cooper, Los Angeles - He'll get credit if the Sparks improve as much as everyone expects they will. Cooper has mastered the art of managing multiple egos and provides a toughness to his team.
SB: Steven Key, Chicago - Because it usually goes to the coach of a team that's good this year but was bad last year, unless there's an obvious candidate who got passed over the year before.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
KP: Lauren Jackson, Seattle - Jackson won Defensive Player of the Year last year on a poor defensive team, never an easy feat. The Storm should be improved defensively this season, making Jackson a clear choice.
SB: Katie Douglas, Indiana - Could be LJ again, could be LLL, but I think it goes to a player who hasn't won a major award and plays for a good team with a focus on defense... that would be Katie Douglas, Indiana Fever, if she stays healthy. At some point, probably '09, it will go to Fowles.

SIXTH WOMAN AWARD
KP: Anna DeForge, Minnesota - My pick is whichever Lynx guard capable of starting comes off the bench because of the team's depth in the backcourt. At this point, that figures to be DeForge.
SB: Katie Gearlds, Seattle - This needs to be a player who will look good off the bench for a team that will likely be good all year, and whose starting lineup therefore seems fixed (because a player who shines coming off the bench for a bad team will likely be rotated into the starting lineup). I really have no idea (did anyone expect Plenette Pierson to be as good as she was last year): let's say ... Katie Gearlds, who will finally have the focus to play as well in big games as in the rest of them, now that she's not the focus of opponents' defense. (But for all I know she'll sometimes start.) Hayden is going to get some starts if she's improved as I think she will, and if she hasn't the Lynx won't be very good. So I'll go with Gearlds. If New York are as good as they were last year (or better) and the Lib go with the starting lineup of Davenport/ McCarville/ Christon at the 3-4-5, however, Cathrine Kraayeveld becomes the clear choice. How's that for the hedging of bets?.