Four Teams Aiming to Start a New Trend
You are either in or you are out. So goes the signature line on the fashion reality TV show Project Runway, which is set to kick off its new season Thursday. And "in or out" will soon be the reality for teams currently engulfed in the chaos that is the WNBA playoff chase, which is already well underway.
A lot of the cast members from last year's playoffs are once again in the mix, but there are a few that are struggling to recapture that magic in 2009, which has opened the door for some new contestants. In the East, Indiana is pretty much a lock to get in at this point, and the same could be said for the Mercury and Seattle in the West. That leaves six teams in the East battling for three open spots and let's say three teams in the West going for its remaining two spots since Sacramento is pretty much out of contention with a 7-18 mark.
As it stands now there are five teams that didn't make the playoffs in 2008 that have a legit shot at getting in this time around and those teams are the Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky and Washington Mystics in the East and the Phoenix Mercury and Minnesota Lynx in the West. And since the Mercury have virtually secured a playoff berth at this point with a conference-best 18-8 record, we'll leave them out of the discussion as we attempt forecast which of the non-playoff teams from 2008 will make the cut at regular season's end.
Atlanta Dream (13-11, 2nd in East)
Working for them � After winning four games in its inaugural campaign, Atlanta is already at 13 victories this year and seems to be getting stronger and more confident as the season goes on. The Dream have won two straight and six of their last seven and have settled on a rotation that is hitting on all cylinders right now and appears to be as formidable as any in the league. Of course, the Dream aren�t your typical second-year team, as a variety of fortunate circumstances have allowed them to stock up on talented veterans and up-and-coming youngsters, like All-Star forward Sancho Lyttle, who just earned Atlanta�s first-ever Player of the Week honor. So experience isn�t as much a problem as you might think. And coming up, the Dream play their next three games at home, which gives them an opportunity to put themselves in prime position before things start getting really tense.
Working against them � After Atlanta plays three straight at home, six of the team�s final seven games will be on the road, including a five-game swing that could make or break its season, as it makes stops in L.A., Phoenix, Detroit, Seattle and Sacramento. And sure, if you go player by player the Dream may have a lot of experience on their roster. But as a group they are going through a stretch run for the first time, and driving it all from the point guard position is an unheralded rookie, Shalee Lehning, who has a second-year player in Ivory Latta as her backup. How the tandem handles the pressure both on the road and at home should be interesting to say the least.
Verdict � In.
Chicago Sky (13-13, 4th in East)
Working for them � July was a tough month for the Sky, with the team posting just a 3-7 mark, and you had to assume that slide would continue into August as Chicago began the month with four of its first five games coming on the road. Yet behind the inspired play of their two cornerstones -- Candice Dupree and Sylvia Fowles -- the Sky have held strong. Dupree has averaged ridiculous numbers this month of 17.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, while Fowles has been nearly as dominant if you throw out her first game of August with averages of 14.0 apg and 10.4 rpg. The team has gone a respectable 4-3 in August so far to sit at .500 on the season. And Chicago, which is the third-best home team in the entire league (9-3), plays two of its next three games in its backyard and five of its final eight.
Working against them � Let�s get the big one out of the way: The Sky franchise has never made the postseason since its inception in 2006. And the team has had its chances. The last couple seasons, with parity or mediocrity gripping the East (take your pick), the Sky were in the hunt until fading down the stretch. So it has to be in the back of their minds that it could happen again, especially when you factor in all the veteran-laden teams with a legit chance of snagging a playoff spot in the conference. And lately Jia Perkins hasn�t been the All-Star she was in the first half of the season. Over the past five games, Perkins has averaged just 10.4 points, 2.0 assists and 2.2 rebounds. If she doesn�t step up, there really isn�t another guard on this team that is capable. Finally, Fowles, who has been hampered by injuries since entering the WNBA last year, just missed the team�s last game with a sprained ankle. That can't be good.
Verdict � In.
Minnesota Lynx (11-13, T-3rd in West)
Working for them � With only six teams in the West, four playoff spots up for grabs, and one team virtually out of contention at this point (Sacramento), Minnesota is in a much more favorable position than its counterparts in the East just in terms of probabilities. It appears that Phoenix and Seattle are essentially in, which means Minnesota must contend with the two teams from last year's Western Conference Finals -- San Antonio and Los Angeles -- for one of the final two spots. There�s more good news in the form of Candice Wiggins, who seems to finally be coming around after her game regressed in July. In five games this month, Wiggins has averaged 15.4 points while shooting 46 percent from the floor and also averaging 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Working against them � Of all the playoff contenders the Lynx are struggling the most at the moment, having lost three straight and six of seven. Perhaps Minnesota is finally feeling the effects of being without a weapon like Seimone Augustus for an extended period of time, or having a first-year coach or being the youngest team in the league. Whatever the case may be, the Lynx need to get their groove back soon, as they finish up the regular season with a brutal slate, playing seven of their final 10 games on the road. Yikes. The Lynx may be 5-5 on the road this season � a mark that is good for third-best in the entire league � but winning in someone else�s gym during the stretch run is never an easy task, especially when you consider that two of those games will be in San Antonio and Los Angeles. Oh, and Minnesota has also lost six of its last seven at home. Yikes!
Verdict -- Out.
Washington Mystics (12-13, 5th in East)
Working for them � It�s rather difficult sorting out the positives for the Mystics right now, a team that started off the season on a high note but has been sliding ever since. One thing you can point to though is the talent steering the ship. Alana Beard has been an MVP candidate all season and has been sensational in August, averaging 18.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.0 steals in seven games. And Beard�s been through this before, having led the Mystics to postseason berths on two previous occasions (2004, 2006). Point guard Lindsey Harding and power forward Crystal Langhorne have also kept up their phenomenal play lately. Harding has averaged numbers of 13.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg and 4.6 apg in August, while Langhorne has posted averages of 10.4 ppg and 7.1 rpg this month while shooting a blistering 60 percent from the field.
Working against them � If it weren�t for the Lynx, the Mystics would be the coldest team vying for a playoff spot. Washington has dropped two straight and four of its past five. Since opening the season with three straight wins the team has posted back-to-back victories just once. And despite all the talent on its roster, scoring has also been a problem lately, as Washington has reached 80 points only once in its past eight games. And then there�s the Mystics� remaining schedule, an imposing stretch which they must battle through under a first-year head coach. Washington just kicked off a four-game West Coast road trip on Tuesday with a loss to the Sparks. Six of its final nine games come on the road, where the Mystics are just 4-7 this season.
Verdict -- Out.