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||Doris Burke is an original member of the WNBA's broadcast team, signing on as radio analyst for the New York Liberty in 1997. She also broadcasts WNBA, NBA, and men's and women's college basketball games for ESPN and ABC and is also a regular contributor to NBATV. After her career as a player at Providence College, where she set marks in career assists and free throws and is currently ninth in total scoring (1,372 points), Burke served as an assistant coach for her alma mater and was inducted into the Providence College Hall of Fame. She was the first woman to ever broadcast a New York Knicks game and has been nominated for an Emmy.||
The Finals Countdown
Posted - Sept. 5, 2007, 10:52 a.m. ET
These are the two teams people wanted to see. We wanted to see Indiana and Detroit in the Eastern Finals because they were the best teams there. And now, it's great to see Phoenix and Detroit here in the Finals because over the second half of the season, the Mercury proved they were the best team in the West.
These teams will both get up and down the floor, but Phoenix really wants to play its up-tempo game. It should really be an entertaining, fast-paced series played by two talented teams.
Read more from Doris in her latest Playoff blog entry
Who is the Beast of the East?
Posted - August 31, 2007, 7:32 a.m. ET
Detroit vs. Indiana: I think this series is going to be an absolute war. These teams were the best in the East all season long, and this is the matchup everyone wanted to see. They were walking down the path toward a great regular season race before they were hit with injuries to their stars, Tamika Catchings and Cheryl Ford. It might have been an epic battle for home-court advantage in the playoffs, but after the injuries, it was not to be.
Read more from Doris in her latest Playoff blog entry
Who Will Win the West?
Posted - August 30, 2007, 12:15 p.m. ET
Phoenix at San Antonio: Clearly the tempo at which this series is played will have an impact. Phoenix is so comfortable and so capable of getting the game going at their speed. Whether the opposing team makes or misses its shot, it doesn't really matter to the Mercury. They're incredibly quick to the basketball and they're quick to their transition lanes. So it will be a tough task for the Silver Stars to pick their spots to run their transition offense, while really trying to slow the pace when they can.
Read more from Doris in her latest Playoff blog entry
Eastern Conference First-Round Matchups
Posted - August 21, 2007, 11:49 p.m. ET
Injuries could be the biggest story at the start of this postseason, and I think it's huge news that Cheryl Ford could be coming back. As well as Katie Feenstra and Kara Braxton have played, whether it's in the first round or beyond, when you can bring back a rebounder as dominant as Cheryl, that would be a huge gain for the defending champs.
Read more from Doris in her latest Playoff blog entry
Western Conference First-Round Matchups
Posted - August 19, 2007, 7:33 p.m. ET
Though the Mercury come in as the top seed in the West, this is not an easy matchup for them. Lauren Jackson has had what I believe is the best individual season I've seen in the history of the WNBA. She faces multiple defenders and takes a physical beating on a nightly basis, and to put up the kind of numbers she has put up is amazing. She's been virtually unstoppable.
Phoenix plays a lot of zone. It's called a "rover" defense. Diana Taurasi sits in the middle and shadows the opposing team's most dangerous player. And she has done a great job in that role, but Lauren has still put up amazing numbers against the Mercury. Frankly, I don't think there's a defender out there who's going to put a significant dent in Lauren's numbers. And in a short, best-of-three, first-round series like this, any single player can carry a team to victory.
Read more from Doris in her latest Playoff blog entry
My All-League Picks (At Least for Now...)
Posted - August 10, 2007, 11:58 a.m. ET
With nine days remaining in the regular season, it is time to start putting together the major award winners for the 2007 WNBA season.
As my official ballot is not due until noon on August 20, I reserve the right to make changes before their entry. Also, on my official ballot, I will be forced to choose by position. But for the purposes of this blog, I will vote by performance.
This has been by far the toughest year for these selections. I go back and forth between many players, weighing so many different things. Team performance in the end may be what separates my selection.
One of the hardest things for me right now is what to do with Tamika Catchings. Prior to her injury, Tamika was putting together one of the finest individual performances in league history (as, of course, was Lauren Jackson). I would have liked to see the Indiana Fever at full strength to challenge Detroit for the best record in the league. Early on, that was shaping up as one of the most intriguing storylines of the year. For now, Catch, having played in 21 games, will figure into my ballot. But where? Below are my choices for the all-WNBA teams:
Becky Hammon: My runner up for MVP, Hammon made a seamless transition to a new organization and has helped San Antonio achieve new heights this season. Before it is all said and done, the Silver Stars could challenge for a championship. In addition to averaging a career best in points with 19.2, Becky is leading the league in assists at 5.2 per game and shooting 41% from deep and 94% from the free-throw line.
Diana Taurasi: Prior to the season, Diana pretty much said it is time to put up or shut up… well, maybe not shut up… BUT, Phoenix has qualified for the playoffs behind a high level of play from Taurasi and Penny Taylor. Last year's scoring champion has seen her points production go down from a season ago, but that's only due to the emergence of Taylor. And Taurasi's line is still impressive: 18.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Dee has by far the most threes attempted in the league with 228 and is shooting at a 36% clip. She is fourth in scoring, sixth in the efficiency rating and seventh in assists.
Penny Taylor: The MVP of the Australian National Team's World Championship last summer, Taylor is playing the best basketball of her career. With Taylor playing a full season, the Mercury easily reached the playoffs and have a legitimate chance to make some noise in the postseason. Perhaps the most impressive stat, Taylor is third in the efficiency category, with an impressive line of 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game.
Tamika Catchings: As we await word on whether Catch will play Saturday in the ABC game at Detroit, we must look at some impressive numbers. As it stands now, Tamika is second to Lauren Jackson in the efficiency ratings. She is leading the league in steals at 3.0 a game, while posting 16.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists. An MVP and three-peat as Defensive Player of the Year are both possibilities.
Lauren Jackson: What a season for LJ: another scoring title, 23.8 points, first in rebounding at 9.7 per game, first in blocks at 2.0 per game and first in double-doubles with 16 so far. Her shooting percentages -- while drawing the opponent's best defender and often multiple defenders being as physical as the officials will allow -- are ridiculous: 53 percent on field goals, good for third in the league, 40 percent from three-point range and 87 percent from the free-throw line. For me, the MVP race isn't close. Becky Hammon has had a GREAT year, no question… but Lauren is the best player in the world right now and without her, Seattle would be in a world of trouble.
Katie Douglas: I had a hard time not finding a place for KT on the first team. Should Catch not play the rest of the year or not be able to play at the level we have come to expect from her, Douglas would vault right onto my first team. Considering what is expected defensively from her night after night, her offensive numbers are even more impressive: 17.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Connecticut is playing its best basketball of the season and looks once again to be a threat for the Eastern crown.
Deanna Nolan: With Detroit on pace for the best record in the league and Nolan averaging a career best in points, she is an easy choice. Plenette Pierson has been a major factor for the Shock and Swin Cash has quietly had a very good year, but Nolan leads Detroit in scoring at 16.2 points, and is eighth overall in the league in assists at 4.2 while contributing 4.0 rebounds a game. An excellent defender, Nolan and backcourt partner Katie Smith play major minutes, both averaging 35-plus per night. The Shock, despite the injury to Cheryl Ford, appear more than ready to defend their title.
Alana Beard: Since Tree Rollins took over, Washington has vaulted back into the playoff picture. With two legitimate All-Stars in Beard and DeLisha Milton-Jones, the Mystics are playing themselves in despite a horrific 0-8 start to the season. Beard is fifth in the league in scoring with 18.4 and third in steals at 2.0 per game. Along with Jackson, Catchings, Douglas and Nolan, Beard is among the league's best at impacting the game on both sides of the ball.
(The easy thing for me to do here, at least statistically, would be to put Tina Thompson and Seimone Augustus on the second team. They are easily two of the top individual performers in the league. But the more I look at the numbers, and more importantly their teams' successes, the more I have to look at Sophia Young and Asjha Jones. What do all of those already selected have in common? Their respective teams are, as it stands now, in the playoffs. Thus…)
Sophia Young: No one can question the impact Becky Hammon has had on the Silver Stars. But where would San Antonio be without Sophia's 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds a night? She is playing the exact number of minutes as Hammon, 33.3, and she is shooting a very respectable 48 percent from the field. Sophia's desire and work ethic are helping turn her into a major player.
Ashja Jones: Jones was an easy selection as an All-Star. In her first season as a starter in Connecticut, Jones has been impressive with averages of 15.5 points and 6.1 rebounds a game. In addition, her versatility on the defensive end helps the Sun immensely. Despite being outsized in many matchups, she can guard a back-to-the-basket threat. She is also capable of chasing post players with face-up skills. Jones also possesses inside-out abilities on the offensive end making her a matchup problem for Connecticut's opponents.
In addition to Thompson and Augustus, I had a hard time keeping Lindsey Whalen off All-League status. But Beard's defensive abilities and Whalen's struggles from deep are what separated these two candidates.
Cappie Pondexter and Candice Dupree also would have been worthy selections. At the end of the day, I guess it is a good sign for the league when making my picks for the All-League teams is this difficult and competitive.
Heading Down the Home Stretch
Posted - July 28, 2007, 10:37 p.m. ET
Let's begin with the Chicago Sky, who picked up a monster win versus Eastern Conference foe and league-leading Detroit their last time out. For now, this catapults the Sky into fourth place and in control of the final playoff spot in the East. Stacey Dales drilled seven threes to help the Sky get a critical win. Armintie Price continues to help Chicago in any number of ways, whether she is out in transition, using her incredible athleticism on the backboards, slashing to the rim or passing the basketball. And the acquisition of Chasity Melvin as a legitimate post threat may help vault the Sky into the playoffs in the franchise's second season. If that happens, Bo Overton should be a leading candidate for coach of the year honors.
Indeed, with three weeks remaining in the regular season, fourth place in the East may be the most interesting race. Washington has a tough out as they will play six road games, all of which come against teams with winning records. The Mystics, however, have played their best basketball of late under interim coach Tree Rollins. New York is getting stellar play from former No. 1 overall draft pick Janel McCarville. McCarville is one of the most gifted young posts in the league. She has tremendous feel and skill as a passer, coupled with great hands and inside-out ability. McCarville has matured and now has a better understanding of how to be a pro. New York has two games apiece remaining against both Washington and Chicago. Can that young team sneak into the playoffs a bit ahead of schedule? If not, the Liberty are learning valuable lessons along the way.
Injuries, as always, may have their say before all is said and done. The loss of Tamika Catchings seems to have sent the Fever into a bit of a tailspin. The team has yet to win, going 0-4 without her. Any coach will tell you that the timing of an injury is almost as important as the player the team is missing. Brian Winters finds himself trying to adjust without an MVP-caliber player who sets the tone with her relentless style. That will be complicated by the competition, which includes two games against both Detroit and Connecticut and single matchups with Sacramento and San Antonio. Can the Fever find their footing and keep what looked like a breakthrough year going?
Even without Cheryl Ford, Detroit seems poised to seal up not only first place in the East but also home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Bill Laimbeer stressed the importance of this to his team from the first day of training camp. The Shock boast the best road and conference records to this point. The recent emergence of Katie Feenstra could go a long way toward easing the loss of the league's leading rebounder. In a tough road win at Connecticut last week, Feenstra and Kara Braxton combined for 21 points and 19 rebounds. If that duo can provide some consistent scoring and rebounding, the pressure won't have to rest solely on either one's shoulders.
Connecticut's Mike Thibault had said at the start of the year that it could take some time for his team to adjust to the departure of Taj McWilliams-Franklin and the injury to Erin Phillips. Indeed it did. But the Sun, behind the new and improved Lindsay Whalen, are playing their best basketball. Whalen's ability to aggressively attack the basket opens up a ton of options for Connecticut. Asjha Jones and Katie Douglas have been at a high level all season. Depending on the matchups, Margo Dydek and Erika DeSouza are going to have to find a way to consistently produce in the post. Nykesha Sales is apparently set to return Sunday and Evanthia Maltsi has given the Sun another guard who can make shots. Depth is crucial when a player is providing a specific skill or simply buying some rest time for the starters.
Twenty one days and yet there's still so much to be decided. Next week I'm off to one of my favorite cities, Seattle. The Storm are sitting right around .500. Since capturing the title in 2004, Seattle has not played to the level I would have expected, despite the recent heroics of Lauren Jackson. I am anxious to see how they close this season.
Middle of the Road Here in Washington
Posted - July 14, 2007, 4:18 p.m. ET
All-Star Weekend in the nation's capital - wow. This is the second time the very best of the WNBA has played in our nation's capital and it will be a very special experience for players and fans alike. It will be especially exciting for Eastern Conference starters Kara Braxton (Detroit) and Anna DeForge (Indiana) who will be playing in their first All-Star Games (and are starting to boot!). Other All-Star rookies Asjha Jones (Connecticut), Rebekkah Brunson (Sacramento), who can't play due to injury, and Kara Lawson (Sacramento) will enjoy the acclaim of being recognized as the league's best.
For Brunson, who went to Georgetown and Lawson who grew up in nearby Alexandria, Va., it will be a very special homecoming. Lawson knows her way around the Beltway better than anyone in the league as she has met and befriended countless high-ranking elected officials (including multiple presidents) and other D.C. notables.
As much as I love having the fans select the squads, I worry that their charge is to vote for their favorites more than voting for All-Stars. They did a terrific job in forming both starting fives, but it might be nice to include the players, head coaches and media in selecting the entire team. I know it has been the prerogative of the selected head coach to fill out the roster, but it might involve more people, while still giving the players a voice, if there were four equally weighted votes (fans, coaches, media and players). My guess is that most years each voting bloc would come up with the same teams, but the inclusion would be nice. Hey, this is Washington… they're big on elections in this town.
One of the things I really like about the game is the pomp and circumstance. Donna Orender and the league do a terrific job of staging this game. Condoleezza Rice was honored at a luncheon on Friday and there is a Welcome Reception where everybody in the women's game gathers for this great event. There is a terrific fanfest and, maybe most importantly, the players get into the community and participate in a myriad of charitable events. ESPN does it big as well: we'll have my partner Dave Pasch, sideline reporters Rebecca Lobo and Heather Cox as well as studio hosts Linda Cohn and Nancy Lieberman there to make it a great television event.
As for the game, the East (finally) broke through last year and has a terrific shot again this year. The balance of the league has shifted with the recent strength of Indiana, Detroit and Connecticut. This is a fun game without the pressure of standings and playoff pictures, but make no mistake, these women have great pride and they all want to perform well. They all want to show off a few skills that their in-season coaches might not regularly allow in the pressure of a regular-season game, so watch for some fireworks! Of course, the ultra-competitive Bill Laimbeer wants his first All-Star coaching trophy to go with his two WNBA titles (and an NBA plaque or two) so look for some real motivation from the East bench.
I've said previously that the West would win the game on the strength of great individual scorers (and the leadership of Becky Hammon), but the more I look at the lineups, the more I believe the East has just as good a chance. So there I am, right in the middle of the issue. Hey, this is Washington… I fit right in.
Things I Think I Think
(aka, Thoughts I Had While Rounding Up the Herd of Dust Bunnies Under my Bed)
Posted - June 24, 2007, 5:17 p.m. ET
Well, hello! Since I haven't worked a game in 12 days and don't have another for 15 days, I thought I'd take a break from my break and report in. It is very unusual for me to have this much time off, especially from the WNBA, but between cleaning under beds and in closets (aha, that's where that Spinners' Greatest Hits soundtrack was) and playing golf with my family, I've kept busy. I've also kept my eye on what's happening in the league.
Suffice it to say that the retirement of Chamique Holdsclaw was a surprise. It was a relief too, because when I first heard the news, I prayed that it wasn't for a health-related reason. It was just Chamique being Chamique and perhaps looking for some new and different things. (Who of us wouldn't like that every once in a while?) It was her time and she will do something else and be a champion there, too. I've heard a lot of folks say she wasn't as good as she could have been. Nonsense. The expectation that she would be the Michael Jordan of our sport was hope, not the minimum she had to reach to be successful. She finished 6th all time in points per game. Not bad in my book.
There have been another couple of surprises. First, the Liberty are playing terrific basketball under Patty Coyle. I've always had faith in her but I didn't think they'd be this good this early after the trade of Becky Hammon. Good for them. On the other side, I never thought Connecticut would be struggling this much (although I just had a feeling that the Sun would miss Taj McWilliams-Franklin more than people thought). I think Mike Thibault is as good a coach as the league has ever had, so the 1-5 home record is a huge surprise to me. Turnovers hurt and that's been a challenge for the Sun thus far.
Two non-surprises to me are Detroit and L.A. Bill Laimbeer has his team playing terrific basketball. Their six road wins already is more than a bunch of franchises will get all year. L.A. is just over .500 but with the loss of two of the all-time greats in league history, 6-5 is unbelievable. In both cases, the teams have taken on the personality of their coaches -- champions both. I'm not sure if San Antonio is a surprise or not, by the way. Becky is just a special, special player who makes everyone around her better. I think she's the reason San Antonio is as good as it is right now.
Speaking of good players thus far, how about Tamika Catchings and Lauren Jackson? Wow. Both are having MVP seasons. I think Tamika has rounded into the player we all believed she'd become. She brings so much more than her physical gifts to the game now and she's on her way to being considered among the best ever. Obviously, Diana Taurasi, Candice Dupree, Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan are having standout seasons as well. I'm happy to see Candice playing so well because Chicago is an important franchise to the league. New coach Bo Overton had the tough job of replacing an NBA legend and has brought even more excitement to the Windy City.
Going forward, I think the East has some very, very good basketball teams with Indiana and Detroit being the class of the field. Indiana is averaging nearly 10 points more a game than its opponents. That's a pretty big separation. The only other teams in the league with significantly more points than their opponents are the Shock and the Monarchs. I know defense wins championships but being able to score is the object of the game. Indiana is vastly improved in that regard. The team that impresses me is San Antonio because it averages just 74 points per game yet is just a half game out of first. Keep your eye on them.
I can't leave you without a word about two players in particular, Kara Lawson and Stacey Dales. In addition to being ESPN colleagues, they are two very wonderful and hard-working people. The discipline they have shown in caring for their bodies while working 15-16 hour studio days is nothing short of remarkable. Couple that with the inevitable exhaustion and frustration that accompanies travel, and their ability to find the time and energy to work on their game (to be among just 169 players in the WNBA!) simply amazes me. How they can be as good as they are on TV and play as well as they're playing this season is beyond me.
Finally, a word about WNBA.com. If you haven't fully explored it, do yourself a favor and look around. One of my favorite features is the Efficiency Stats. Among my many challenges is anything to do with math… so to really study the efficiency ratings is a lot of fun for me. I'm not sure how someone came up with the formula but it is amazing how much of a story it tells. I just hope no one comes up with an efficiency rating for my housework. If the things I've discovered on my "break" are any indication, I'd be in trouble.
See you at the All-Star Game!
Big Shot Makers and Takers
Posted - June 1, 2007, 12:17 p.m. ET
While covering the San Antonio at Houston game for ESPN2 this past Tuesday night, my partner Terry Gannon and I talked a bit about big shot makers. I mentioned three players, Lauren Jackson, Diana Taurasi and Tina Thompson, as the players I'd most like to take a shot with the game on the line. While thinking about the telecast after the game, it dawned on me that there are some other players I'd also be completely comfortable with in that situation.
Before talking about some of the other players, it would make sense to describe the attributes that are helpful in game-winning situations. Clearly, an ability to create one's own shot is invaluable. Any player who can use the dribble to either drive to the rim or back a defender off, stop, elevate and release a jump shot is someone the coach will look to in these instances. Beyond that, the player must have a certain mental makeup. There can be no fear of failure. Take enough of these shots and the reality is that you will make some, AND you will miss some. The weight of that responsibility is real. Whether in the NBA or the WNBA, there are players who relish the opportunity and players who avoid it.
It was silly to leave Deanna Nolan off that list on Tuesday. Shoot, she has made enough game winners against New York alone to belong. Along with her athletic gifts that allow her great elevation, even against larger defenders, Nolan has an unflappable air about her at all times. Detroit teammate Katie Smith has made it routine to make big plays in big spots. Smith is someone you could trust in any late-game situation. She is smart, tough, physically talented and strong enough to find a way. Tamika Catchings also has the kind of relentless mindset that vaults her into this conversation. The special part of Catchings is her ability to turn her defense into offense quickly. She has an uncanny ability to shoot gaps, pressure from behind or block shots and the handle to get into the open floor quickly.
This is by no means a definitive list. There are plenty of players around the league who have proven themselves over and over in tight spots. Nykesha Sales and Betty Lennox had a memorable scoring duel hitting one big shot after another in Game 3 of the 2004 Finals. That remains one of my favorite moments in WNBA history. Can't wait to see what's next!
This weekend, we'll get our first up-close and personal look at the red-hot Phoenix Mercury. Paul Westhead's club will travel to Connecticut to take on the Sun in a 3:30 p.m. ET matchup on ABC. The Mercury are out to a fast 4-1 start and are once again leading the WNBA in scoring at over 88 points per game. The Sun gutted out a win on the road at Chicago on Thursday night to even their record at 2-2. After struggling to make shots in the Sun's first three games, Asjha Jones erupted for 31 point on 11-18 shooting. Nice to see you again, Ashja! It was just a matter of time.
Both teams want to get up tempo so this should be fun!
Sparks-Sun: A Fiery Clash
Posted - May 25, 2007, 7:30 a.m. ET
So, Week 1 in the W is about to come to a close. We don't know much at this point except that there are 13 weeks remaining in the regular season. Thirteen weeks, that's it! It has been said many times but it bears repeating. The WNBA season is a sprint, though I imagine there are times it seems like anything but to the players. I have no idea what it is like to play three games in four days, or how hard it is to play the 2nd game of a back-to-back, with or without travel.
I realize this may be an odd time to bring this up, but let me explain. Think back to the Phoenix Mercury last season: New coach, new system, new players and late arrivals all contribute to a slow start. The team gets out of the gate 0-4 and eventually just misses the playoffs. The final playoff spot in both conferences, many times, can come down to a game or two. So, a three- or four-game streak, winning or losing, is magnified in a season of only 34 games.
Before this season started, I picked Washington to earn the fourth and final playoff spot in the East. And despite their rocky 0-3 start, that remains a possibility. Certainly the trade with Chicago reuniting Monique Currie with former Duke teammate Alana Beard should help (Chicago, in exchange, gets a proven veteran post in Chasity Melvin). But the road back to .500 will not be easy as the Mystics face Detroit and Indiana in three of their next four games, two of which are on the road. A hot-shooting, young, surprising New York team will try to keep some early pressure on Washington as well.
The feature game ending the first week of the season is L.A. at Connecticut Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC. As if the matchup of two playoff teams weren't attractive enough, the game features the national television return of Michael Cooper and the return of Taj McWilliams-Franklin to Connecticut after she was traded from the Sun to the Sparks. The only thing it lacks is the presence of Lisa Leslie, who is in the final weeks of her pregnancy.
The Sun's last outing was among the strangest the team has ever played. Coach Mike Thibault sat a couple of starters -- All-Stars Lindsay Whalen and Margo Dydek -- for virtually the entire second half for, in his view, a lack of urgency on their part. Mike does not suffer lack of focus and determination well and he's hopeful the message came through loud and clear. Make no mistake, even without Leslie, L.A. is a dangerous team. Cooper may the best coach ever at getting the most out of whatever lineup he has and getting his team to play fiercely on defense.
Opening Day 2007: We're Back
Posted - May 17, 2007, 9:02 p.m. ET
As the league begins its second decade of play, story lines abound. The action tips off Saturday and my colleagues and I will be courtside for the usual opening day rematch between last year's title contenders, Sacramento and Detroit.
Despite their successes in 2006, both teams underwent significant changes in the offseason. Detroit's major additions include Katie Feenstra, Shannon Johnson and Ivory Latta. The 6-8 Feenstra joined the Shock via the trade that sent two-time champion Ruth Riley to the San Antonio Silver Stars. The Shock are deep and talented in the post -- even without Riley, the frontcourt still features Cheryl Ford, Swin Cash, Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton -- so Feenstra will have time to continue her development.
Detroit's backcourt has plenty of talent as well with Finals MVP Deanna Nolan, professional basketball's all-time leading scorer Katie Smith and quality reserve Elaine Powell.
Johnson, a four-time All-Star, gives Detroit depth at the guard spot. Coming off the bench will be new for Pee Wee, but she gives the Shock athleticism and scoring with combination-guard abilities. With age comes perspective, and at this point, I would imagine that a championship is at the forefront of her mind.
This may make it hard for rookie Ivory Latta to find minutes in the rotation. But Latta brings range and scoring ability along with great energy to the game. She will be a player in this league.
In Sacramento, Jenny Boucek takes over the head coaching duties from John Whisenant. Whisenant remains on as the GM, but the team's on-court performance now rests in the hands of Boucek, a rookie head coach. She is no stranger to the league having coached for several franchises, most recently the Seattle Storm. She also coached with Ron Rothstein on the now defunct Miami Sol. (Rothstein is now a highly respected assistant with the Miami Heat.) Word out of Sacto is that the players have taken well to Boucek, who will add some new offensive wrinkles while maintaining the "white line" defense that has been the calling card of the highly successful Monarchs.
A key returnee from the Monarchs' 2005 championship team is defensive stalwart Chelsea Newton. Newton was lost to the Sky in the 2006 expansion draft but returns as a versatile, lock-down defender. With lethal shooters Kara Lawson and Nicole Powell, Newton provides the stickiness necessary to check dangerous perimeter players.
Getting an early look at two teams with legitimate title hopes will be fun.
Looking elsewhere, I am anxious to see the Houston Comets. New head coach Karleen Thompson has all-timers Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs never hesitates in sayings the Spurs have competed for championships because Tim Duncan allows Popovich to coach him. How well Swoopes, Thompson and Karleen Thompson blend could determine whether the Comets again become a force in this league. Like Boucek, Thompson is familiar with the league having been an assistant on both Los Angeles Sparks championship teams and, most recently, with Houston under Van Chancellor. Coach Thompson surprised some people on draft day, selecting an unknown in Ashley Shields. Shields posted big-time scoring numbers on the junior college level. Will it translate?
A healthy Lauren Jackson and Wendy Palmer may help the Seattle Storm get back into the championship picture. A draft day trade between Phoenix and Minnesota saw a first in league history as No. 1 overall selection Lindsey Harding was sent to the Lynx in exchange for Tangela Smith. Smith, when healthy, is the kind of athletic post the Mercury need in their up-tempo system. Will her addition along with the maturity and brilliance of Diana Taurasi be enough to get Phoenix into the playoffs?
These are just a few of the story lines that will develop over the course of the next four months. From all of us at ESPN, we wish the coaches and players a healthy and successful 11th season in the WNBA. We are thrilled to have the chance to cover such extraordinary athletes and compelling individuals.
2006 WNBA Season
Eastern Conference Finals Preview
Posted - August 22, 2006 8:02 PM
So everyone seems to be predicting doom and gloom for the Connecticut Sun now that All-Star guard Katie Douglas is out of the lineup, but winning the series and going to their third straight Finals is not an impossible task for the Sun. Granted, things become more difficult.
SUN vs. SHOCK
The place they will miss Katie the most is defensively. Detroit's most dangerous perimeter player is Deanna Nolan. She is electric in transition, she has great finishing skills, goes left and right off the bounce, her elevation allows her to get up and over people and she is a good enough spot-up shooter that you have to respect her out there. That defensive matchup in a half-court set becomes a question for me. It becomes an even bigger question if Katie Smith is knocking down her 3-pointers. Detroit has two perimeter players that Connecticut needs to defend. Douglas consistently defends the other team's best perimeter player, and Alana Beard's first round performance is a prime example of how effective she can be. It becomes hard to get a touch when Katie is checking you. She forces her mark to make tough catches. Then she applies constant pressure. If you are able to get by her on the dribble, she is smart enough to know which side she can get beat on, pushing the play in the direction of Taj or Margo.
Erin Phillips will likely replace Douglas in the starting lineup. There are two things I love about Erin: her energy and her guts. She never stops moving, yet she has a physical toughness because of the way she is built. She also has a mental toughness and an aggressive nature that you don't see with younger players. So Erin must find a balance against Detroit and avoid costly mistakes. The turnovers that Connecticut made against Washington cannot happen against Detroit. The Sun cannot afford to make the mental mistakes or suffer lapses in focus, such as not being aware of the time and not executing or cutting properly. These are the things that you have come to respect about Connecticut.
Asjha Jones, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Lindsay Whalen have to score for the Sun to be successful. Nykesha Sales has to shoot the ball better, but she also has to contribute in other areas. She is a sneaky defender with a knack for making big steals and also has to maintain her own rebounding level. That said, if Cheryl Ford dominates the glass and keeps scoring at the pace she has been scoring, Deanna and Katie shoot at a respectable clip from the perimeter and Braxton and Pierson contribute off the bench, the Sun face a monumental challenge without Katie Douglas.
But Nykesha Sales is the important piece of the puzzle for Connecticut, not just because she shot 1-17 in the first round. Nykesha Sales' make up is such that she does not get frazzled. Her confidence might be slightly affected by her performance last round, but not so much that it will paralyze her or render her completely ineffective. We saw that in Game Two against the Mystics. Washington gave Connecticut everything it could handle on the glass, but the one Sun player who continued to make plays down the stretch was Nykesha Sales. She rebounded and ended up with a double digit point total. So I really do believe 'kesh needs to play an important role in this series.
With Detroit fully engaged in the game and the players on the same page mentally and physically, the Shock are as good a team as there is in the WNBA. Over the past month or so, the one player who has raised her game and made a significant impact on the success of the Shock has been Plenette Pierson. You have to give a lot of credit to Bill Laimbeer and rick Mahorn for working with her and facilitating her development. She has played better basketball this season than I have ever seen her play. She has worked on her explosive first step and she attacks the basket assertively. She adds a different dimension to an already-strong front line for the Shock. Not only is she a quality post player off the bench, but she brings a completely different look than Cheryl Ford, Ruth Riley and Swin Cash. Like the role Asjha Jones plays off the bench for the Sun, these two bring an edginess into the game when they are on the floor.
At times during the season, the Shock disappeared offensively. They couldn't score, couldn't execute and looked lost. But right now, there is a grittiness about this Detroit team. But against a very good defensive team, the Indiana Fever, the Shock averaged 83 points per game. So Laimbeer's proclamation that this is the best team in the WNBA may not be that far off. I'm not saying they are, but when they play as well as they did in the first round, there is some credence to what he is saying. Yet the Shock have not been able to put together a long run of games where they have dominated consistently. This is still a relatively young team and they sometimes want to rest on their physical ability because they are so talented and gifted athletically.
Both teams are locked in defensively (to borrow a term from Mike Thibault). They are committed, they understand their scheme. Connecticut has been so consistent all season. They are really focused. Detroit has a dominant rebounding force in Cheryl Ford and can compete with any team on that side of the ball when they want to. This may sound like a cliche, but Game One is huge for Connecticut. I don't think they have to win the game to win the series, but I do think they have to be really competitive. It has to be a tit-for-tat game where the teams exchange buckets. They cannot go down big and rely on a run to get back into it. This has to be a respectable game for the Sun from the opening tap.
The most important challenge that the Sun face is the mental aspect of playing without Katie Douglas. She exploded as an M.V.P. candidate and the Sun relied on her both offensively and defensively in big moments. The Sun have to convince themselves that they can win games without her. They have won without key players all season, Sales, Taj and Lindsay, but they have to believe that they can do it and play that way. So how Coach Mike Thibault, who I think is the best coach in the WNBA, prepares his team mentally will be the key to this series.
2006 WNBA Playoffs Preview
Round One: Western Conference
Posted - August 15, 2006 7:44 AM
As the first round gets underway on Thursday, we will look at all four first round series. Yesterday we looked at the Eastern Conference. Today we will look a tthe great series out West...
LOS ANGELES SPARKS vs. SEATTLE STORM
In the first quarter of the first game of the season, Seattle's Sue Bird came out on a mission offensively. She was very aggressive, pushing the ball in transition looking like she was more into the offense. She showed that at times this season, but Sue needs to become even more assertive on the offensive end. It is incredibly important to the team that she does not pass up any open shots.
Another key issue with Seattle is that the Storm have a lot of injuries that may dictate the outcome. With Betty Lennox and Lauren Jackson, the rigors of playoff basketball are more strenuous than the regular season and players are playing harder. Nothing comes easy, these are injuries that don't go away. That being said, Lauren Jackson is still one of the most dangerous players in the league. If Seattle can get points from her and contributions from Iziane Castro Marques, Barbara Turner and the bench, they will be competitive in this series.
I think with Seattle, the one key roster addition that they made at the start of the year was ten-year veteran forward Wendy Palmer. She set the tone in practice on a daily basis and her leadership skills were evident in the locker room. But with her injury, the lack of continuity of the leadership has put the pressure on Sue and Betty. If you look strictly at the names on the roster, you have to believe that Seattle has a chance to contend not only in the first round, but also in the Conference Finals, as well. Perhaps they are ready to make a statement and the playoffs will energize them.
For the Sparks, Lisa Leslie's is greater than just points and rebounds and blocked shots. She provided great leadership and was a huge rock for a first-year coach to build around. She was scoring 25 points a night before Chamique Holdsclaw returned to the lineup about eight games in, but now with two players of such a hugh caliber, it kind of reminds me a little bit of when Shaq and Kobe were together in Los Angeles. They carried the team on their combination of skills, and when you combine them with Temeka Johnson, that's a great triumvirate of talent.
I thought that trade worked out well for both teams. Nikki Teasley hadn't been as productive in L.A. since Michael Cooper left and needed a fresh start. Temeka Johnson had an outstanding rookie season in Washington, but the Sparks, who have a ton of talent in terms of scoring the basketball, provided very good fit for her skills. The two finished the season with the most assists in the WNBA. Johnson can get anywhere she wants off the dribble, she plays bigger than her size, knows how to run a team, can knock down some perimeter jump shots and is comfortable running a half court set.
But If Mwadi Mabika gets 20 points or even averages 15 per game, and Chamique
and Lisa average their career numbers, I think it will be very hard for the
Storm to compete with the Sparks. Those three players require so much attention,
and if you close on them, that leaves Temeka Johnson, Doneeka Hodges or Christi
Thomas to get double digits. Los Angeles has star power and support players,
and there is a great chemistry about that team. When they won those two titles,
you saw that they were truly a tight team. You also cannot say enough about
Joe Bryant and the job that he has done. Instead of clouding the message, he
has allowed them to play to their physical abilities and lets them make the
decisions. When you give a team the ownership to make decisions, they take pride
in that. And that starts with Lisa Leslie.
SACRAMENTO MONARCHS vs. HOUSTON COMETS
Despite winning the championship last season, Yolanda Griffith and the Monarchs have made it known that they feel their team is still the underdog. I agree with Yolanda Griffith about Sacramento being unappreciated. She is a player who thrives on being underappreciated. In the way she conducts her business, she is overlooked by nature. She is no flash and is all substance, without a whole lot of style (and I mean that as a compliment).
In order to be successful against Sacramento, a team has to do a few things. The Comets have to keep floor space and maintain their composure against their pressure. The Monarchs thrive on putting on a lot of pressure, taking away the passing lanes and taking teams outof their comfort zone. So a team's ability to keep the floor space and not get caught in a quick double team or off balance with the ball in their hands is really key. The Monarchs have not been quite as successful with it this year, but it is still quite effective. The rule changes this year were designed to increase scoring and that might have played a role in Sacramento's slight dip this season.
The interesting thing about Houston is that they make no secret about the fact that their offense is designed to get Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson shots. More specifically, the offense is designed to get the ball in the spots where Sheryl likes to shoot the ball. On the flip side, the Monarchs pride themselves on those same types of shots away, like the pick-and-roll on the left hand side of the floor. Everybody knows that Sheryl wants to go left and nine times out of ten, she gets left. The other place she likes to operate is the middle of the floor. The Comets run a lot of screens that get Swoopes to the elbow area, where she likes to go one-on-one. Sacramento also prides itself on taking that middle of the floor away, as well as that high post.
Because of Dawn Staley, Sheryl and Tina, the Comets are going to play at the pace they want to play at. For that reason, this series is really intriguing to me. I was worried that Tina was not going to come back from her injury and be very sharp, but she is really playing well as we saw in that triple-overtime game against Phoenix.
So I think depth is the key factor in this series. Sacramento goes legitimate ten deep, and I think the Monarchs relentless style and their ability to stay fresh will ultimately wear Houston down, not to mention the Comets injuries. The Monarchs just bring so much pressure. Now if the Comets were a really high scoring team, you could say that Houston could outscore them. But that is not the case. I think that this series will come down to depth and Sacramento will have the advantage. Houston's injuries contribute to that lack of depth factor. Tamecka Dixon and Tari Phillips have missed time, as has Dominique Canty. Canty has the ability to play so many positions and was very valuable defensively for Houston, yet the loss of Thompson overshadowed Canty's injury. Clearly they will miss her, especially when playing a team with so much depth like Sacramento.
WNBA Playoffs Preview
Round One: Eastern Conference
Posted - August 14, 2006 6:13 AM
As the first round gets underway on Thursday, we will look at all four first round series. First up, the Eastern Conference...
CONNECTICUT SUN vs. WASHINGTON MYSTICS
I am not sure that I can come up with enough adjectives to give an accurate descriptiion of the Connecticut Sun. Balanced, versatile, deep, cohesive, unselfish, well-coached. Maybe the most important thing, though is that they are experienced and tested as a team. At these moments in the playoffs, you cannot anticipate that they will self destruct in any situation.
The only thing that two things that have hurt Connecticut this year have been rebounding and turnovers. Coach Mike Thibault hold his team to such high standards so there were games this season that even though they were wins, he expressed frustration because of turnovers, careless passes, unsuccessful "home run" passes that had no chance of ever reaching their intended target. Those are the things that Connecticut has to be careful of. Those are season-long habits that are hard to break. The Playoffs are a time when things come into sharper focus and teams cam capitialize on them.
The interesting thing about this matchup is that Washington has potential in those two areas. When they beat the Sun earlier this season, they rebounded the ball well, particularly on the offensive boards. It enabled them to stretch the lead. That will be very important in Game One on their home turf. They would love to get a big cushion and put the defending Eastern Conference Champions on their heels. Chasity Melvin was absolutely huge in that game and I believe she needs to have a great series and be highly productive in rebounding at both ends of the floor.
In DeLisha Milton-Jones, Crystal Robinson and Alana Beard, the Mystics have three outstanding defenders. They are long, smart and quick. At times this season, Coach Richie Adubato was unable to use his full-court pressure. Beard had some injury issues, then Milton-Jones got hurt and Robinson has been banged up because of her age. When all three are healthy and can get into that full-court set, bringing Coco Miller off the bench, this can be a very dangerous team. Healthwise, Milton-Jones is as close to 100% as we can expect her to be.
Washington's best chance at stealing a win will be with good rebounding and forcing Connecticut into making turnovers. The Mystics need to take Game One if at all possible. The Mystics have been a strong home team this year and while I think Coach Thibault is the best coach in the league, Richie Adubato is a master at game perparation. The Mystics will mix their coverages against Connecticut's three best offensive weapons, perhaps as well as any team in the league. They will mix defensive looks on the pick and roll, on the skip passes, the lob passes and the high-lows inside. They will try to come with doubles and maybe go under the screen-and-roll with Beard. It should be interesting. These are two very good X-and-O coaches going against one another. It's going to be a lot of fun and I think Connecticut will ultimately prevail.
DETROIT SHOCK vs. INDIANA FEVER
This matchup fascinates me. The regular season series split at two games apiece with the winner of each of those four games had the home court and the rebounding differential. . The largest margin of victory in any of the four games was only 10 points. The highest shooting percentage from the floor by either team in any game was 41 percent by Detroit in a 71-63 win. That is pretty amazing.
Detroit remains to me the most physically overwhelming team, especially up front. They are, of course, followed by Connecticut and Sacramento. I recall talking with Mike Thibault earlier this season where he said to me that the Sun would love to see Indiana and Detroit meet in the first round because it will be a knockdown, drag-out fight.
Tamika Catchings is so gifted and the Fever completely revamped their roster in the offseason, but the acquisitions of forward Tamika Whitmore and guard Anna DeForge have had a major impact. These two players are so offensive-minded that they do not really pass up shots that they know they can make under any circumstances. In the past, the Fever had players around Tamika Catchings who, because of Catchings' great skill, were willing to defer to her. What makes Whitmore and DeForge such special additions to that unit is that the fact that, yes, they recognize Tamika Catchings' amazing talent, but understand that their strength is also putting the ball in the basket. You can definitely anticipate scoring from them in this series.
The one key for the Fever is rebounding the basketball. In Indiana's two wins against Detroit earlier this season, center Ebony Hoffman had 10 and 13 rebounds respectively in the game. When you play Detroit, you have to come with big bodies. Hoffman gives the Fever interior strength to contend with the likes of Ruth Riley, Cheryl Ford and Kara Braxton. Detroit has enough offensive weapons now and has really taken a step forward. Their field goal percentages from 2- and 3-point range are up, they are getting to the free throw line a little bit more. Detroit has the capability to produce more offensive explosiveness than the Fever, but Indiana knows who it is.
To me, the player who sets the tone, the first player you are going to meet when you come across half court is guard Tully Bevilaqua. She plays so hard and tough, setting the tone. I do not think she gets enough credit. I'll admit that I have sold short in the past. She is just a hard-nosed, gritty player who understands her strengths and weaknesses. Indiana wins games based on its defensive prowess. The question becomes, who do you match Bevilaqua up against? Last season, she took Becky Hammon out of their first round series, but Tully and Becky are roughly the same size. Becky could not out-muscle or tower over Tully, but the fascinating thing about Detroit is that they are big and strong at every position. Even Swin Cash and Deanna Nolan, although their frames are thin, they are strong and explosive athletes. Swin is getting back to where she was before her injury, especially in her free throw attempts.
The question for Detroit coming into this season was could they win without a true point guard. Early on, I was very impressed with Detroit's ability to guard opponents. They are big and strong at every position, athletic enough on the wing to get our and guard people out there, Katie Smith is a much better defender than people give her credit for and she is so smart. She understands angles, knows how to use her physical strength for a little lack of speed. But this team is unselfish, they are finding themselves and they can defend incredibly well.
I honestly think this series could come down to home court advantage.
for the Fans
2006 WNBA All-Star Picks
Posted - July 5, 2006 8:46 AM
The great wonder, the great attraction, of sport is that everyone posseses two things - a favorite and an opinion. More often than not, they come from considerable and equal passion. Several years ago, some marketing type figured he could capture both of those by having the fans vote for the all-star team. Fans vote their favorite, others give their opinion. It is an uneasy but wonderfully productive alliance.
The fact that people like me in the media who see tons of games, coaches who are charged with evaluating and developing talent, and players who compete with each other every game have a considerably broader base of experience to select the all-star roster matters not. This is the fans' game. The media, coaches and players should never forget that.
So, in this case (and probably more cases than I would care to know), my opinion is no more or less valid than anyone who cast a vote.
Below are my selections for starters in the 2006 WNBA All-Star Game.
F - Tamika Catchings: As I try to conjure up an image of what it means
to be a competitor, Catch is what I see. When Sheryl Swoopes calls you her toughest
matchup, you know you are good.
F - Tamika Whitmore: While averaging career highs in points and rebounds, Whitmore's play has been a huge factor in Indiana being just half a game out of first in the East.
C - Cheryl Ford: Ford is the most dominant force on the boards in the game today and her offensive game is coming. Look out. In the future, whatever it takes, I want her on USA Basketball.
G - Katie Douglas: Is there anything she doesn't do for the Sun? In the past, even when Douglas struggled offensively, she was always on the floor for Connecticut because she typically is guarding the opponents best Player. This year, she continues to wreak havoc on the defensive end while leading the team in scoring. Her 16.2 points if 4 points better than her career best.
G - Alana Beard: Like Douglas, Beard gives you impact on both ends of the floor. My bet is Olympic Coach Ann Donovan would like Beard to fill one of the four remaining spots on the World Championship team. Putting the bisquit in the basket is the name of the game. But, when an opponent is lighting you up, Beard is a stop gap!
F - Lauren Jackson: Like Tamika Catchings, Jackson is the perfect combination
of great skills and competitive toughness. Certain players inspire confidence
in tough spots. I'll take L.J.
F - Tina Thompson: After working her way back into shape last season, Thompson is clearly back among the elite. Averaging a team leading 17 points per game, Tina has helped the Comets to a very solid second in the West.
C - Lisa Leslie: The snub of Lisa by the fans surprised me more than any other. Hampered by injury through much of 2005, Leslie has given LA the best record in the league, in spite of the fact that Holdsclaw had to miss six games while attending to family matters. It goes way beyond skillsas a basketball player, which remain amongst the best in the world. Lisa's leadership has steadied a new staff navigating their first full seasonin the WNBA.
G - Diana Taurasi: Despite new players, new coaches and a new and demanding system, Diana continues to flourish. Despite drawing an opponents best perimeter defender on a nightly basis, D leads the WNBA in scoring and is shooting 41% from deep.
G - Seimone Augustus: I thought Seimone would be highly productive right away. Her skill set and maturity were ready for this level. What has surprised me is her consistency. This league is full of talented and competitive players and it will challenge the best both physically and mentally. You better bring it every night. She has!
Sky's National Television Debut
Previewing Los Angeles at Chicago
Posted - May 30, 2006 6:46 AM
LOS ANGELES SPARKS:
Los Angeles is in the midst of a six game road trip to start the season. A very respectable 2-1, the Sparks would love a win vs the Sky as they face a back-to-back with the wounded Minnesota Lynx up next. (Lynx are 0-3 and desperate for a W.) While Madonna rocks the Staples Center, the Sparks have a chance to put themselves in great position early. It is VERY possible for the Sparks to go 4-2 and then have 14 of their next 15 games at home in the City of Angels. As I have said many times, the WNBA season is a sprint. Confidence and momentum generated early can really help a team. Free agency has reshaped the league and as we turn to the roster, it is strange not to see Nikki Teasley or Tamecka Dixon with the Sparks.
Lisa Leslie has been dominant to start the season averaging 25.3 points and 12.3 rebounds. With two championship rings, multiple MVP awards, four 1st team, two 2nd team All-WNBA selections and career averages of over 17 points and 9 rebounds, Leslie is a LOCK for the WNBA All-decade team. (Even Seattle and NY fans have to vote her on or they lose all credibility.) Chamique Holdsclaw has yet to play in a game this season as she attends to a 'family matter.' According to the Los Angeles Times, she was scheduled to practice with the team in Los Angeles this past Saturday. Our thoughts are with 'Mique' and her family as we look forward to her return to the court. Mwadi Mabika has played in two of the three games thus far and is averaging 10.5 points and 4.0 rebounds. When healthy, Mabika is a dangerous long distance shooter and one of the best athletes in the league. Temeka Johnson, last year's rookie of the year, is a player! Off the bounce, she can get anywhere she wants. At just 5-3, her decision making must be timely and precise. But I love her demeanor and skills. On a team with Leslie, Holdsclaw and Mabika, her pass first mentality is key.
With a win on Tuesday, the Sky would become just the third expansion franchise to open their history with a 2-2, .500 record, joining Indiana in 2000 and Minnesota in 1999. In 1998 the Detroit Shock had the highest winning percentage among expansion franchises with a 17-13 record, translating to .567 percentage. Welcome to the league, Hall of Famer Dave Cowens (1990). A former NBA MVP (1973), and Rookie of the Year (1971), Cowens lends instant credibility to the league's newest franchise. As a player, he was a consistent, versatile, skilled and highly-respected center with a great work ethic. Look for the Sky to mirror the traits of their two-time NBA champion head coach.
Clearly we must start with first round draft pick Candice Dupree. With averages of 13 points and 5 rebounds, Dupree has comported herself well. This should surprise no one. Her collegiate head coach, the Houston Comets' Dawn Staley, has made comparisons between Dupree and San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan. Dupree, like Duncan, has an unflappable demeanor to accompany a fundamentally sound skill set. She helped Staley turn Temple from an after thought in the Atlantic 10, to a perennial participant in the NCAA Tournament. At 6-2, Dupree has inside-out skills. While at Temple, she had to deal with double and triple teams and as a result, developed solid passing skills. Elaine Powell, the starting point guard for the 2003 WNBA champion Detroit Shock, leads the Sky with 4.3 assists per game. The biggest challenge for Chicago will be contending with the size and skill up front inside the WNBA. Stacy Lovelace is off to a solid start and Ashley Robinson leads the team with 6.0 rebounds per game. Both will be challenged on a nightly basis. The Sky need both to stay out of foul trouble.
Los Angeles, behind Leslie, gets to 3-1.
Previewing Detroit at Sacramento
Posted - May 26, 2006 4:01 PM
Clearly the talent level on the Shock is very high. Anytime a team can boast of five All-Stars, you feel as though you have a chance to win. Talent, however, is not always enough. After a surprisingly successful title run in 2003, Detroit has underachieved over the course of the last two years. Coach Bill Laimbeer and the players have cited a number of reasons for the subpar performances: lack of effort, lack of heart, little attention to detail, lack of concentration and chemistry (read: ego) issues. Whatever the problems in the past, this team certainly should contend for a title. With no bold proclamations from Laimbeer about distancing themselves from the Eastern Conference and averaging 80 points per game, the responsibility is squarely on the roster.
There are two questions I have about Detroit. First, can a team win a championship without a true point guard. Deanna Nolan has polished her skills and is a Top 5-7 player in this league. She is an explosive athlete with tremendous offensive skills. Katie Smith has got to be a lock as an All-Decade performer in the WNBA. She is one of the purest shooters the game has seen. Kedra Holland-Corn brings speed and range back to the team on which she won a championship. None of these players, however, is a pure point guard.
In an ideal world, all would play on the wing at either the shooting guard or small forward position. This would allow all to best showcase their respective abilities. Deanna is so dangerous in transition, spotting up from deep or attacking the rim with her outstanding leaping ability. Katie puts pressure on defenses by getting deep into the corner, or anywhere on the floor for that matter, stretching the defense to open interior space for Ruth Riley and Cheryl Ford. Kedra uses her speed to blow past defenders and, when on, can shoot the three.
Second, can the bench provide enough support? Specifically, the talented but inconsistent duo of Plenette Pierson and Kara Braxton must be a big part of Detroit's season. Pierson has speed around the rim and a knack for scoring over bigger players. She can use her speed to beat opposing posts up the floor or take them away from the rim and use a quick first step to get by. Braxton has size and skills. What Detroit needs from both players is solid, consistent effort and performances.
Rock Solid. Those two words come to mind when I think of the Connecticut Sun organization. From ownership, to general manager, to the head coach and his staff, right on down through the players, this team seems to have a clear vision of what it is trying to accomplish and exactly how to get there. And oh-how-close they were just a year ago. As a team must have more than talent, a head coach must be so much more than just an X and O person. Mike Thibault seems to have all the intangibles that make a successful head coach. In addition to the preparation, scouting and in-game adjustments that go into winning games, Thibault has been able to clearly communicate and sell his vision to the players. While allowing the players a 'voice' in strategy, he is still clearly in charge. No player I know, at any level, is comfortable without feeling a coach has complete confidence at all times (even if he/she may not feel it). There is a high level of belief and selflessness on this team and that translates well on the court.
Nykesha Sales must be given serious consideration for the All-Decade team as well. She has been named an All-Star in every season she has been eligible. Taj McWilliams-Franklin flourished last season at the four spot. Asjha Jones provides excellent post defense and is ready to take the next step offensively. Katie Douglas gives the Sun a lockdown perimeter defender and timely scoring. The arrival of Erin Phillips gives the Sun 'pop' at the point guard position and will allow Lindsey Whalen a cushion to get completely healthy. The Sun are positioned to make another strong run at the title.
At home, I like the Sun.
Again in 2006
Previewing Opening Day: Phoenix at Sacramento
Posted - May 19 2006 12:01 AM
Storylines abound as we get set to begin a very special anniversary year in the WNBA. Congratulations to all of the former and current players, coaches, team personnel, league personnel and so on. It has been an historic journey.
Dawn Staley will finish out her illustrious playing career over the course of the next 86 days. Make no mistake, Dawn will do everything in her power to ensure there is another Comets world championship trophy at the end of this victory lap. Sheryl Swoopes is the reigning M.V.P., clearly still motivated. She can't be the only one. Tina Thompson will look to reassert herself as one of the Top 5 players in this league. Four-time WNBA coach of the year Van Chancellor is in the final year of his contract. What does all this mean for Houston? We'll see.
Paul Westhead, Dave Cowens and Joe Bryant join the fraternity of coaches in the WNBA. At this point, 7 of the 14 league coaches have experience at the NBA level as either a coach or player. Among them, only Westhead has won an NBA title as a head coach in that league.
New rules will continue to have an impact on the style of play. Moving from a 30 second to a 24 second shot clock should help speed up the game and feature players with an ability to create their own offense. With athleticm and skill constantly on the rise, I love this change. Instead of two 20-minute halves, the league moves to four 10-minute quarters. This provides further differentiation between the collegiate game and the pro game. From a strategy standpoint, I am anxious to see the coaches implement both changes.
The Chicago Sky brings the team total to 14. On so many levels, this is a great addition, not the least of which is competitive balance between conferences. Since the Sky is up, allow me to take a moment on behalf of the entire ESPN family to wish our colleague, Stacey Dales, the very best in her return to the league. Her work ethic as an announcer is unquestioned and judging by the kind of shape she was in at the Final Four in Boston, she is ready.
And now to preview our first game...
OVERVIEW: Paul Westhead brings 24 years of coaching experience at both the collegiate and professional level and a unique style to the sidelines for the Mercury. The 24 second shot clock is probably about 18 seconds too long in Westhead's book. The highest scoring average in WNBA history was set back in 2000 when the Houston Comets scored 77.3 points per game en route to their fourth title. The Mercury hope to challenge that mark by running at every opportunity.
CONCERNS: Clearly the health status of three possible starters must be on the minds of Mercury fans. Diana Taurasi, Kelly Miller, and Kristen Rasmussen did not play in either of the teams two exhibition games due to injury concerns. Kamila Vodichkova joined the team on Monday of this week and must adjust the pace at which this team will now play.
POSITIVES: Number 2 overall pick Cappie Pondexter has been as good as advertised. At 5-9 with a wealth of offensive skills, Pondexter is both physically and mentally prepared for this level. Having played collegiately for Vivian Stringer at Rutgers, she will have spent much of her time focusing on the defensive side of the ball. Her skill set on the offensive end is complete and the open, free-flowing offensive style should highlight her abilities.
OVERVIEW: The defending champions will raise the banner and don their rings. They will also begin their quest to repeat and change recent in history in the WNBA. The last two respective champions, Seattle and Detroit, lost in the first round of the playoffs. For the Monarchs, the only key off-season loss was the departure of Chelsea Newton. The Chicago Sky snatched up the lock-up defender in the expansion draft. The additions of Scholanda Dorrell and Kim Smith should ease that departure.
CONCERNS: Kara Lawson's contributions to the Monarchs are crucial. En route to Sacramento's first title, Lawson did whatever was asked. She can stretch a defense with her deep shooting ability. She can play the point position and make quality decisions with the ball. Her team first mentality fosters great chemistry. Her energy and enthusiasm are infectious. I could go on and on. She has missed much of preseason with an as yet undiagnosed illness which has made her lethargic. Get well, Kara.
POSITIVES: With the exception of Newton, the defending champions return all of the core pieces. This team is loaded with athleticism. Finals M.V.P. Yolanda Griffith and Rebekkah Brunson are a tough tandem up front. Look for Brunson to continue to make strides on the offensive end. Clearly, this staff helped DeMya Walker become an All-Star. I believe they will do the same for Brunson. Rookie Scholanda Dorrell should help fill the defensive stopper role played by Newton. Rookie Kim Smith brings an inside out skill package to offensive end.
It is early to judge teams. But, clearly, the champions are at home celebrating
last year's magical season. Sacramento remains one of the best home courts in
the league. The Monarchs start the year with a win.
2005 WNBA Season
Initial Thoughts on the 2005 Postseason
Posted - Aug 26 2005 7:53AM
six of the eight teams set as of Friday morning, here are some initial thoughts
heading into the weekend. I will be back once the rest of the matchups are set
to give my take.
Sacramento is an impressive team to watch in person. Sacramento's formula for success may not be sexy, but it is effective. This team's defensive philosophy is to keep fresh bodies on the floor at all times to apply great ball pressure, take away the high post/middle of the court, deny reversal passes and play very active post defense. Coach John Whisenant says he never watches the ball when his team is on the defensive end. Rather, he watches the feet and hands of the players off the ball. If he sees inactivity of any kind, he is making substitutions. The Monarchs thrive on rattling their opponents into mistakes and turning those into scoring chances. With Ticha Penecheiro playing perhaps the most well-rounded basketball of her career, a healthy Kara Lawson knocking down perimeter shots alongside Nicole Powell, Yolanda Griffith dominating the paint on both sides of the ball and a vastly improved Rebekkah Brunson filling in admirably for an injured DeMya Walker, Sacramento looks like the team to beat coming down the stretch.
Seattle is clearly a talented, well-coached basketball team, and until someone takes it away, they remain WNBA champions. However, inconsistency has plagued this team and it just doesn't seem to have the same feel as a season ago. The concerns you must have if you are a Storm fan are these:
1. a defense which has been porous at times this season
2.an inability to win on the road, just 6-11 away from Key Arena. The good news for the Storm, Betty Lennox made her return this week. A first round match-up would be challenging.
Houston boasts four Olympians with Swoopes, Thompson, Staley, and Arcain. With all that experience, this is a team which, despite its maddening inconsistency, that has got to worry teams. Swoopes is having yet another MVP season and has the ability to get hot and carry a team to wins. Thompson is a player that any coach would love to have in big spots. Dominique Canty continues to play solid basketball and has held down the starting job despite the addition of Staley. Staley, in tight spots, knows how to run a team and put the ball where it needs to be. Michelle Snow continues to improve and can be a factor in the paint on both ends. This is not a match-up I would want to face early in the playoffs.
Phoenix and Los Angeles are still duking it out. Even if the Mercury are able to secure a spot in the playoffs, winning without Maria Stepanova would be tough. In a home loss to Houston on Thursday evening, the Mercury were outscored 42-22 in the paint. Having a 6-8 presence in the post relieves some of the pressure on the backcourt tandem of Anna DeForge and Diana Taurasi. Without a legit post, shots for this duo are harder to come by. L.A. is getting healthier. Lisa Leslie's production has risen steadily all year and when all is said and done, she will once again be among the league's leaders in several major categories. Chamique Holdsclaw has been Chamique Holdsclaw in purple; her numbers are outstanding. I'm just not sure that this team can pull itself together and have the chemisty necessary in time to provide a serious challenge in the playoffs.
Connecticut has its concerns now after an impressive regular season. Coach Mike Thibault's frustration boiled over and led to his ejection after two technical fouls in their loss to Indiana on Tuesday. The Sun had been among the league leaders in scoring throughout the year, but have lost a bit of their flow or mojo on that end. In suffering only their second two game losing streak of the year, Connecticut scored only 58 and 63 points against New York and Indiana. Remaining is a home match-up with a desperate Washington team on Friday before closing out the regular season at Charlotte. With Sacramento's loss to Seattle on Thursday, all the Sun need to do is win one of their final two games to clinch homecourt throughout the playoffs by virtue of their tiebreak advantage over Sacramento. With Thibault at the helm, look for Connecticut to be ready.
Indiana and New York will square off in round one of the playoffs. Indiana is a team that wins games on the strength of their defense. Tamika Catchings should be the Defensive Player of the Year in the WNBA. But lets give some credit to this organization for the acquisition of Tully Bevilaqua. She helped Seattle win a championship last year as the first person off the bench and made Sue Bird a better player in practice everyday. Bevilaqua is a tough on-ball defender and, along with Catch, gives the Fever the top leaders in steals in the WNBA.
New York has been impressive in the absence of injured All-Star center Ann Wauters. Guard Becky Hammon has performed at a First Team All-WNBA level all season, but when Wauters went down, Hammon raised her level even more. Vickie Johnson, when healthy, is still a capable scorer. When she is putting points on the board, the Liberty go to another level offensively. Elena Baranova suffered an ankle sprain in the loss to Charlotte on Thursday evening... the Liberty need her in the postseason to be successful. Hats off to G.M. Carol Blazejowski and the coaching staff for the acquisition of La'Keisha Frett in '04 and Catherine Kraayeveld in '05. Both players fit into Coach Coyle's system and stay within their box. Both don't mind the dirty work, setting screens, playing defense or boxing out. And neither takes bad shots. Experience is on the Liberty's side.
Detroit picked up a big, if not pretty, win on Thursday evening, beating Indiana 55-40 at the Palace. Washington has a tough out with a game in Connecticut on Friday before facing Detroit at home on Saturday. The early losses at home will, I think, eventually cost Washington a spot in the playoffs. This would set up a first round meeting between Detroit and Connecticut. Oh, the possibilities. Detroit is 3-1 vs Connecticut in 2005 and has outscored the Sun in the paint, 146-74. Detroit is one of the most
physically-imposing teams in the league and one has the feeling this would be both a physical and mental challenge for Connecticut. If this series happens, it could be great!
We'll know everything in 48 hours. In the meantime, enjoy these final games and get ready for another wild postseason.
How the West Was Won
Previewing Seattle at Sacramento at 4 p.m. ET Saturday on ABC
Posted - Aug 19 2005 11:41AM
two teams will square off twice in a five day span. The West title has been decided,
but there is still plenty on the line. As Seattle has not proven it can consistently
win on the road (5-10), the Storm would like nothing better than to gain some
confidence for the postseason by beating the Monarchs at Arco Arena while also
keeping the pressure on Houston in the race for second place in the West. The
Monarchs are trying to keep winning games with a chance for homecourt throughout
the playoffs, though Connecticut is clearly making that difficult.
In the only prior meeting between these teams back on July 3rd, Lauren Jackson lit up the Monarchs with 31 points, 13 rebounds. She was joined in double figures by Suzy Batkovic who had 14 points. The Storm tries to blow teams away with scoring, averaging a league-leading 73 points per game. The Monarch reign by giving up a league-low 68 points per game. Which will prevail, offense or defense?
DeMya Walker's return from a knee injury experienced a hiccup with a sprain in the Monarch's latest win, a 64-57 victory over San Antonio on Thurday night. Although Rebekkah Brunson seems to get better on a nightly basis, Walker's availability in the postseason would make Sacramento's chances for a title better. With Walker's quick first step in face-up situations, along with a legit 15-foot jumpshot and competitive attitude, the Monarchs are a much harder team to guard with her in the lineup.
Though I usually pick a winner, this game is a toss-up.
Out the Hardware
the end of the regular season a week away, it is time to narrow selections for
postseason hardware. Usually at this point, my selections for all of the major
awards, MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach and Rookie of the Year, are firmly
established in my mind. It is just a matter of putting pen to paper before the
deadline. Not so in the Summer of 2005. Coach of the Year and MVP candidates abound.
Thankfully, there is another full week before ballots are due. In the meantime,
here are some thoughts.
War of Words
the aftermath of Detroit's 66-57 home win over Connecticut on July 20th, Bill
Laimbeer and Mike Thibault exchanged words.
of the Last Two Champions
matchup features the last two WNBA champions and, yet, as we approach the stretch
run, neither team has put itself in solid position for a playoff spot. Prior to
the season, expectations were high for both teams. Seattle had just won its first
championship behind young stars Lauren Jackson, Sue Bird and Betty Lennox. Detroit
won the league title just 2 seasons ago behind its young stars, Swin Cash, Cheryl
Ford and Ruth Riley. The key phrase in each of the last two sentences, 'young
the Curtain on Act II, continued
now for the Western Conference:
the Curtain on Act II
up, the Eastern Conference:
Dads and Daughters in New York
2004 Finals Rematch
an opening game loss to the Detroit Shock, the Connecticut have rebounded with
a three-game winning streak to keep pace in the Eastern Conference. Any concerns
over the knee injury (hyperflexion) that forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin suffered
in their home-opening win against Pheonix were laid to rest with 15 points in
18 minutes in Saturday's 80-69 win over San Antonio. Taj has been stellar for
Returns to Connecticut
is off to a 1-1 start as it pursues its defense of last year's Eastern Conference
Championship. You'll remember that they were just a Nykesha Sales jump shot from
the title a year ago and I believe they have all the ingredients to be right there
again this year.
Improved: While we can debate whether a former #1 overall pick with career
averages of 11 points, 6 rebounds and nearly 3 blocks per game should even be
considered for a most improved award, I believe this is exactly what will happen.
After suffering through a long losing season in San Antonio that saw decreased
production in every category, I believe MARGO DYDEK will re-emerge under Mike
Thibault. Connecticut can now put a SKILLED 7-2 player in the midst of quality
passers and scorers, all of whom have a team first mentality.