Things To Watch Down The Stretch: Part I
We never intended for this to be a two-parter. Honestly. We didn't set out to achieve some cliffhanger gimmick like The Simpsons' "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" just to milk a story idea during a break in the WNBA season.
It's just that with a handful of regular season games left for each team, there's still a lot that needs to be decided and thus a lot of things to watch down the stretch. So instead of leaving out some of the many story lines crucial to setting the table for the remainder of the 2008 WNBA season, we're including them all and splitting them into two parts.
So enjoy Part I today and check back for Part II early next week. The season resumes August 28.
Taj McWilliams-Franklin in Detroit
The biggest non-Olympic story to come out of the break was Detroit�s acquisition of veteran big Taj McWilliams-Franklin. In an attempt to shore up their frontcourt, the suddenly slumping Shock pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade last week that sent rookie Tasha Humphrey, Shay Murphy and a 2009 second-round pick to the Mystics in exchange for the 37-year-old. With that one move Detroit once again became the favorite in the East � a perch they had seemingly relinquished thanks to a season-ending injury to Cheryl Ford and a four-game slide � and a viable threat to win it all. McWilliams-Franklin, who averaged 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in 26 games so far this year for Washington, is still regarded as one of the best post players in the game and brings a wealth of experience to a team already loaded with it. She�s also a strong personality headed to a team already teeming with those as well. It should be interesting.
It�ll also be intriguing to see how the other end of this deal plays out in Washington. The move seemed to signal that the Mystics are in the process of rebuilding, or at least getting younger, but if the new additions click with their teammates from the get-go, it�s not impossible to imagine the Mystics sneaking into the playoffs. Humphrey has already shown herself to be a versatile offensive force that should be productive in this league for a number of years. Partnering her with Alana Beard gives the Mystics a nice foundation for the present as well as the future.
So far this season, many rookies have been asked to play big roles for their teams, and in most cases they haven�t disappointed. Candice Wiggins, Nicky Anosike and Charde Houston have helped bring the Lynx back to respectability, Matee Ajavon has been a spark off the Comets bench, Sylvia Fowles has been a force for Chicago when healthy, and, of course, L.A.�s Candace Parker has made herself a candidate for league MVP. These teams have set themselves up so that if they want to achieve success in September and possibly October, stellar play from these precocious ballers will be a necessity.
That may be asking a lot since the basketball is starting to pile up for them, especially those partaking in the Olympics (Parker and Fowles). Playing their first full WNBA season after a college campaign could soon catch up to the rooks, although some might say that almost all players, not just rookies, play basketball year round and are just fine come playoff time. But keep in mind that the veterans have conditioned themselves over the years to handle such physical and mental demands. This is all new to the newbies.
If you had to choose one player that has exceeded expectations for the U.S. in Beijing, it�s probably Fowles. The 6-6 center has recovered nicely from a knee injury that has kept her out of 17 games during her rookie campaign, dominating the likes of China, the Czech Republic, South Korea and others. The international competition has had simply no answer for her deadly combination of size and skills down low, and as a result, Fowles has scored in double figures in four games and posted two double-doubles. Such a display on the world stage even provoked an NBA.com writer to make a bold (and perhaps hasty) statement in one of his blog entries from Beijing.
But it�s tough to decipher if Fowles is improving at a furious pace or just benefiting from inferior opponents. Let�s face it, going up against the post players of South Korea isn�t quite the same as matching up with the frontcourt talent in the WNBA. Still, the Sky would love to see her recent surge carry over into the remaining regular season games as they chase their first ever postseason berth. Right now, Chicago sits only three and a half games out of a playoff spot despite owning an uninspiring 8-17 record. But if Indiana continues to play inconsistent ball, who�s to say Fowles can�t help the Sky steal a playoff spot?
|Strength of Schedule|
|* = East|
We sometimes forget that who you play is just as important as how you play. Well, maybe not as important, but it�s still not to be discounted, especially in a year with so many solid teams.
With that in mind, it�s interesting to note that San Antonio, which leads the West by a half game over Seattle, has the toughest remaining schedule (in terms of opponents� winning percentage) of all teams in playoff contention, including a pair of matchups with both L.A. and Connecticut. Meanwhile, the Storm appear to have the easiest slate.
And the four playoff teams in the East might already be set if strength of schedule is any indication. While Connecticut, Detroit, New York and Indiana own four of the five most forgivable roads, both Chicago and Washington face more formidable opponents and thus an uphill battle if they hope to crack the East's top four.
It�s a similar scenario for Phoenix, which has a lot of ground to make up to even get the chance to defend its title in the postseason. The Mercury do resume their schedule with four straight home games, but they also finish with three consecutive road tilts.
Considering how tight the races are in the East and West, road play will be instrumental in determining the playoff seeding. That much we know. The problem is, there aren�t too many teams out there making strong cases as road warriors.
Last season, five teams played better than .500 on the road, with Detroit leading the way with an impressive 12-5 mark. This year, no team has a winning record on the road and Minnesota is the only team playing .500 ball away from home (6-6). To give you a better sense of just how dismal squads have been as the visitor this season, take a look at these road trends that were carried into the break:
The only team playing well on the road of late is the Liberty, who have won three straight and four of their last five. Considering New York is just a half game behind first-place Connecticut and locked in a virtual tie with Detroit in the East, road play could be the factor that gives Pat Coyle's bunch the edge for the top seed down the stretch. The Liberty and Sun each have four road games left, while the Shock have only three. However, Detroit�s last game of the season is on the road� at New York.
Stay tuned for Part II.