A Question of Age
"We have so many players competing for limited spots, and yet the ones that stick will be young. Not only does it give us players to develop for the future, but they're players we have the rights to for several seasons, which is very important. After going through last year, I'm not looking to get nine free agents - at the same time, anyway." - Anne Donovan, April 25, 2005
When the Seattle Storm took on the Houston Comets at KeyArena last Friday, it was not only a battle of WNBA foes but also a clash of generations.
At an average of 29.2 years of age, the Comets boast the WNBA's oldest roster. The Storm doesn't have the youngest, at an average of 25.1 years (see chart at right), but is closer to that extreme despite coming off winning the 2004 WNBA Championship.
|TEAM AGE COMPARISON|
|Calculated based on age in years as of Opening Day of players currently on rosters, including injured list and those yet to return from overseas commitments.|
Coming off of a run to the championship, the Storm lost a trio of veteran free agents in 31-year-old Sheri Sam and 32-year-olds Tully Bevilaqua and Kamila Vodichkova. All three have been replaced by players with little WNBA experience, Sam two-year vet Iziane Castro Marques and Bevilaqua and Vodichkova rookies Francesca Zara and Suzy Batkovic.
"They're kind of the same as us," said Storm Coach Anne Donovan before Friday's game. "They're trying to piecemeal a team together, only they've done it with older players and we've gone with youth. There's a beautiful thing about experience. There's a beautiful thing about veteran smarts, but there's also a beautiful thing about youth and the potential that creates down the road. Hopefully we're making the right choice there."
So far, the decision looks to be paying dividends for both teams. Houston is one of the season's early surprises despite surrendering a 14-point lead in the second half of Friday's game, a 79-69 Storm victory. At 3-1, the Comets are second in the Western Conference after Sunday's double-OT win over Indiana. The Storm, meanwhile, has started 2-1 despite still awaiting the arrival of Batkovic from overseas. Castro Marques also arrived in camp late, but has already claimed the starting job at small forward. And while the young Storm bench has struggled at times, it showed signs of breaking out in Sunday's win over the San Antonio Silver Stars.
The only Western Conference team with a better record than the Comets and the Storm, the undefeated 3-0 Sacramento Monarchs, underwent an age makeover of its own this winter. The WNBA's oldest team last season, the Monarchs waived 38-year-old Ruthie Bolton, saw 34-year-old Lady Grooms retire, allowed 36-year-old Edna Campbell to depart for San Antonio as a free agent and traded 28-year-old Tangela Smith to Charlotte for 22-year-old Nicole Powell. Sacramento is now the fourth-youngest team in the WNBA, but the change hasn't hurt on the floor thus far.
All of that raises some interesting questions about age's role and importance in the WNBA. Can a young team compete for a championship?
Along with the Storm, the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury, the two youngest teams in the WNBA but still Western Conference playoff contenders, hope so. The Lynx was one of the WNBA's youngest teams last year as well, but still finished tied for the third-best record in the league. Despite seeing 34-year-old Lisa Harrison come out of retirement after a season as an assistant coach and signing Vodichkova away from the Storm, the Mercury has only aged last year's youngest roster in the WNBA slightly, with only one other player on the roster (guard Anna DeForge, 29) over 25.
Clearly, there are tough decisions that must be made.
"We had an aged team," Sacramento Coach and General Manager John Whisenant told the Sacramento Bee before the season. "And I was reluctant to make any changes with our elder statesmen. But the salary cap forced my decision."
Ah, the salary cap. One of the most difficult things for professional sports leagues is balancing the desire to guarantee veteran players more money with the goal of keeping those veteran players on rosters, not replaced by younger, cheaper alternatives. The NBA seems to have balanced those two issues by paying part of the salary of players with more than five years of experience making the league minimum for their experience level. From a team's perspective, that makes a 15-year veteran potentially just as cheap as a five-year vet while still padding the salary the more experienced player actually receives.
The current WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement is more difficult for veteran players. The minimum salary for players with at least four years of experience is higher than for players in their first through third seasons. While the difference isn't enormous, there also isn't as much flexibility as in the NBA because of the WNBA's hard salary cap.
It's no coincidence that the veteran-laden Comets have been forced by the cap to carry only 11 players this season, a number that includes forward Tina Thompson, who is out indefinitely after giving birth. Because of the thin roster, early injuries could be devastating for Houston.
|OLDEST WNBA PLAYERS|
"Not only does it give us players to develop for the future, but they're players we have the rights to for several seasons, which is very important," said Donovan. "After going through last year, I'm not looking to get nine free agents - at the same time, anyway."
Another issue is the age of core players. While there is certainly no lack of urgency to bring another WNBA Championship to Seattle, Donovan could afford to take a long-term view because Storm superstars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson are both only 24. Houston stars Thompson (30) and Sheryl Swoopes (34) are older, making older players who can still play like Goodson and Phillips appealing to Van Chancellor.
Here, the Monarchs are the exception, putting younger players around veteran Yolanda Griffith.
"I'm 35 now. I want to make the Finals. I want to win," Griffith told the Bee - but, she added, "I feel very good about our chances."
So far, so good for the Monarchs. And the Storm. And the Comets. Perhaps, then, it is not a question of age, but instead production and coaching.