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Silver Stars Still Struggling

Near the end of her media session the day before her Seattle Storm were set to take on the San Antonio Silver Stars, Storm Coach Anne Donovan was asked if she was surprised that the Silver Stars entered the game last in the Western Conference.


Brown is just one of many newcomers in San Antonio.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty
"Very much so," said Donovan. This is a team I really thought would make a lot of noise in the Western Conference."

Those listening to Donovan could agree. Seattle Times beat writer Jayda Evans picked San Antonio to finish second in the West, and while storm.wnba.com never published complete predictions, it ranked the Silver Stars third of the six teams besides the Storm in its Western Conference preview.

The Silver Stars popularity was a simple matter. While they were coming off of a sixth-place finish in the Western Conference, the Silver Stars had picked it up at the end of 2003, after Candi Harvey was replaced by Interim Coach Shell Dailey, finishing the season with a 6-6 push. To its All-Star core of guard Marie Ferdinand and center Margo Dydek, the Silver Stars added a third All-Star - point guard Shannon Johnson - and forward LaToya Thomas, the top overall pick of the 2003 Draft.

At the same time, it's just as easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to see the question marks that existed for San Antonio. In addition to Johnson and Thomas, the Silver Stars added three rookies who have seen regular minutes (Polish forward Agnieszka Bibrzycka, third-round pick Toccara Williams and undrafted post Mandisa Stevenson) and a new coach, former Orlando Miracle head man Dee Brown. That's a lot of change to integrate right away, and it didn't help matters when Thomas missed the start of the season with a strained left calf, being thrust back into the lineup three games into the year.

By acquiring Johnson and Thomas, who, at 6-2, is on the small side for a power forward, the Silver Stars also committed them to an up-tempo attack that would take advantage of Johnson's and Ferdinand's abilities in the open court. That didn't mesh with the 7-2 Dydek, who is more comfortable in a halfcourt setting. As a result, Brown benched Dydek at the start of the year in favor of journeywoman Jessie Hicks, who had previously started just 12 games in her five-year WNBA career.

After winning three of their first four games, the Silver Stars went into a tailspin, dropping eight games in a row to sink to the bottom of the WNBA standings. Most disturbing about the slump was that, according to Brown, it happened when San Antonio was hoping to get off to a good start because of its schedule.

"June was our easy month," he said before Thursday's game at KeyArena. "That was our worst month. (Now) we've got Seattle, L.A., come back, Seattle, L.A. again."

Still, the Silver Stars began their current road trip with hope. Just a year ago, the Sacramento Monarchs proved that a slow start to the season is not necessarily a death knell, going from 5-8 to a shot away from the WNBA Finals. Three years ago, Donovan's own Charlotte Sting started the season 1-10 and ended the year in the WNBA Finals.

San Antonio also followed the eight-game losing streak by winning two games in a row, a stretch that seemed to indicate they were turning the corner. The winning streak closely followed Dydek's return to the starting lineup because Hicks suffered a strained hamstring, while Johnson - who got off to a horrendous start to the season - also began picking up her play, putting up 13 points and 10 assists in the Silver Stars win at Phoenix for her second double-double of the season.

"They had two good wins, beat Minnesota, beat Phoenix at Phoenix, those are two great wins, so they're starting to find a rhythm," pointed out Donovan.


Johnson has had a tough season at the point.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty
"The last couple weeks, everybody's picked up their game a little bit, and that's how we've got some wins," concurred Brown.

San Antonio's momentum, however, looked lost in a 76-52 loss to the Storm. After scoring the first basket of the game, the Silver Stars never led again, with the Storm reeling off a 14-0 run after that basket to take control of the game. By late in the first half, Brown had benched his starters in favor of a lineup of Williams, Semeka Randall, Bibrzycka, Gwen Jackson and Stevenson. Combined 2004 points per game: 13.1. Before Randall suffered a fractured nose, that same group got a lot of run in the second half, and after the game, Brown praised his bench's effort - while at the same time criticizing his starters.

"The game was over in the first five minutes," Brown told the media. "Our starters just dropped their heads and said, 'Hey, weíre beat'. The second unit came in and played hard. They played the majority of the minutes in the second half. They kept fighting. Itís disappointing to see because (the starters) are better players, All-Star type players. Thatís the disheartening part because you think you have a group of five players who start the game that can compete with everybody, but we havenít done that."

What is especially surprising is how the Silver Stars have struggled on offense. Ferdinand was one of the WNBA's top ten scorers last year, Johnson in the top 20, Dydek the top 30. Thomas was the second-leading scorer amongst rookies last season, while Goodson against the Storm became just the third player in combined ABL-WNBA history to reach 4,000 career points. Still, the Silver Stars rank a distant 12th in the WNBA in Offensive Efficiency, averaging 89.5 points per 100 possessions.

Brown points to the difficulty of trying to share shots between all four scorers.

"We've got a surplus of scorers, and trying to find shots for everybody at certain times of the game (is an issue)," he said. "I wish I could say, 'so-and-so' is getting x amount of shots every game,' but it can't be, because you've got Margo, who has an advantage most times (on her defender); Marie; Pee Wee (Johnson); LaToya Thomas, who's a great scorer at the forward position. Our point is trying to find that blend of everybody playing within the system and also playing at a high level in their skill sets. We've been trying to do that as a coaching staff, trying to figure out, get the right combinations together."

Thursday's game illustrated the difficulties San Antonio has faced. After falling behind - and failing to score in a span of nearly five minutes - the Silver Stars resorted to creating their own offense in one-on-one matchups, and struggled to do so. Thomas, effective inside and out as a rookie, was forced to the perimeter by Dydek's presence, taking five of her eight shots from outside - and making just one.

While the San Antonio starting five combined for 60.1 points per game last season, this year they've managed just 49.7, even taking Dydek's average in starts. Dydek is shooting far less, Ferdinand has been unable to get to the free-throw line as effectively, and Johnson has struggled all season, shooting just 33.6% from the field, one of the worst marks amongst WNBA regulars.

There is still time for San Antonio to make good on its promise this season, but the Silver Stars need to get going quickly. At 5-11, they already find themselves two games behind the sixth-place squad in the Western Conference and three games out of a playoff berth. Making up ground becomes more difficult because the Silver Stars would have to pass three other teams to get into the playoffs.

"We've got enough players here to win games," Brown said before Thursday's game. It's time for San Antonio to do just that.

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