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The Game at Radio City: Preview

Do the WNBA All-Stars have a chance? Facing the juggernaut that is the 2004 USA Basketball Women's Senior National Team, which went 13-0 in this spring's exhibitions, winning by an average of over 32 points, many people think the WNBA's select team will be overmatched in "The Game at Radio City". As of around 2:00 Pacific Time Wednesday afternoon, 79% of the over 7,000 voters on WNBA.com's poll felt the U.S. team would emerge victorious. A whopping 60% felt they would win by five points or more. So, the question is begged, do the WNBA's best have a chance against America's best?

WATCHING THE GAME
Storm guard Sue Bird and the rest of the 2004 USA Basketball Senior Women's National Team will take on a team of WNBA Stars at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, Aug. 5, at 4:00 p.m. Tune into ESPN for all the action.
An easy way to estimate the talent levels in the game is to look at how the players on both sides score using WNBA.com's Efficiency Rating System, on both a per-game and per-40 minutes basis. While this system tends to favor inside players and particularly good rebounders, it works well as a rough cut at how talented the teams are. Here's how they rate (projecting Team USA's starting lineup):

Team USA   EFF/G  EFF40    WNBA         EFF/G  EFF40
-----------------------    -------------------------
Staley       9.9   12.1    Teasley       12.8   16.1
Swoopes     14.9   16.5    DeForge       14.3   17.2
Catchings   18.9   21.8    Sales         13.5   16.7
Thompson    16.2   18.0    Ford          13.5   18.6
Leslie      20.9   24.9    McWilliams-F  14.9   17.5

Bird        13.4   16.0    Hammon        13.5   16.6
Taurasi     14.6   17.7    Nolan         11.7   14.2
Cash        19.2   21.9    Feaster        8.4   10.7
Griffith    17.9   23.6    Mabika        13.1   16.8
Riley       13.0   16.8    Williams      12.4   18.0
Johnson      9.0   11.4    Whalen        10.7   13.7
-----------------------    -------------------------
Averages    15.3   18.2    Averages      12.6   16.0

The first thing that is evident is that the respective selection committees have generally done a fine job of securing the best talent available. Of the WNBA's top 20 players in efficiency per game, only Mystics forward Chamique Holdsclaw is not either playing in The Game or for a different country's national team, and she turned down an invitation to the WNBA team to conduct a basketball camp this week. The best player not to get invited, by this method, is Charlotte's Tammy Sutton-Brown at 16.9 efficiency points per game.


Based on her stats, Whalen was a deserving WNBA All-Star pick.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty
The addition to the WNBA squad of Connecticut point guard Lindsay Whalen, who was voted by fans onto the roster, has been credited more to Whalen's popularity than her game, but she was a deserving selection. There are no point guards sitting at home with better efficiency ratings. At the same time, the WNBA could have used a fourth post after coaches - who voted for two forwards, not a small forward and a power forward - took a pair of perimeter forwards in Los Angeles' Mwadi Mabika and Charlotte's Allison Feaster. It is Feaster, by this method, who appears the most questionable selection.

The WNBA All-Stars' advantage is clearly on the perimeter. While many of Dawn Staley's contributions are unrecorded in the numbers, the media voted Nikki Teasley ahead of her to the All-WNBA Second Team last season, and hometown hero Becky Hammon - the only Liberty player on either roster - has the best efficiency ratings of any WNBA point guard this season.

Shooting guard should have been a strength for the U.S. squad with Minnesota's Katie Smith, but a knee injury will keep her out of The Game. Smith's backup, rookie Diana Taurasi, is also battling a hip injury, though she is expected to play. The hunch here is that USA Basketball Coach Van Chancellor will go big, with Sheryl Swoopes shifting to shooting guard and Tamika Catchings replacing her at small forward. That could pay off, as Swoopes is adept enough at handling the ball to play guard and would have a major size advantage over Taurasi's Phoenix Mercury teammate, Anna DeForge.

The USA women's team has its advantage up front, where the WNBA's starters are just 6-3 (Cheryl Ford) and 6-2 (Taj McWilliams-Franklin). The U.S. has a pair of dominating centers in Lisa Leslie and Yolanda Griffith and an outstanding power forward in Tina Thompson. Ford is the league's best rebounder and McWilliams-Franklin is having a terrific season, but they'll be hard-pressed to match up, especially with only Indiana's Natalie Williams - who was on the other side four years ago - as a backup.

The U.S. squad's other major advantage is star power. While the WNBA actually has more players averaging 10 efficiency points or more, its top player by this method (McWilliams-Franklin) would tie for sixth on the USA women's team. How deep is the U.S. squad? Detroit forward Swin Cash, who ranks third in the WNBA in efficiency per game, comes off the bench.


L.A.'s Nikki Teasley will be a key player for the WNBA All-Stars.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty
The WNBA team's best hope would seem to be pushing the pace, as in a traditional All-Star game. Four of the U.S. squad's probable starters are older than 30, while Teasley, DeForge and Nykesha Sales thrive in an up-tempo style. The WNBA's four fastest teams this season, in terms of Possessions per 40 minutes, are Los Angeles (Teasley), Detroit (Ford and Deanna Nolan) Washington and Connecticut (Whalen, Sales and McWilliams-Franklin). They account for more than half of the WNBA All-Stars' players.

Teasley stole the show at last year's All-Star Game, and The Game could serve as yet another showcase for her dazzling ballhandling and passing skills. The general perception seems to be that Teasley is having a disappointing season, but she leads the WNBA in both assists and true shooting percentage (which measures how many points a player scores per shooting possession) at the break. If the WNBA All-Stars are to seriously threaten or beat the U.S. squad, Teasley is almost certainly going to have to play a big role. She should get a strong assist from Hammon, the player most familiar with the Radio City Music Hall setup and shooting background.

The script for a U.S. victory starts with taking care of the basketball and making the WNBA squad work defensively. As is typically the case for national and All-Star teams, selfish play is the enemy for the U.S. squad. With a number of fine ballhandlers on the roster, they should be able to find the weakness in the WNBA's defense and take advantage. The USA women's team would benefit enormously from foul trouble up front for the WNBA, and can limit the WNBA's running opportunities by dominating the boards, particularly when Ford is on the bench.

The WNBA All-Stars probably have more talent than almost anyone the USA women's team will face in Athens, with the exception being the Australian squad. There's a reason, however, those teams can even think of hanging with the U.S. squad, and it's that they are far more experienced in playing together and more cohesive. In this case, the WNBA team actually has far less experience together; both teams will practice together only briefly before The Game, but the U.S. squad had 13 games with largely the same players before the start of the season.

Given the USA women's team advantages in practice time and ability, they are pretty clearly the favorites in The Game. A blowout seems unlikely, and the level of disparity is probably similar to that of the WNBA's previous All-Star Games. While the Western Conference has had a clear advantage in talent and has won all five true All-Star Games, the East has been able to keep things close. The last three games have all been decided by eight points or less.

While a victory by the WNBA team would clearly be an upset, the talent on both sides should make for an exciting, competitive game.

More WNBA Analysis from storm.wnba.com