WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade: Three-way deal sends Lawson to D.C., Bentley to Connecticut, and confusion to Atlanta (with Matee Ajavon)

 

The offseason activity in the WNBA continued yesterday with more trade movement, this time with an extra level of complexity. In fact, it’s complex enough that the various press releases don’t entirely agree on the finer details. The Washington Mystics, Connecticut Sun and Atlanta Dream combined on a three-way trade (or two two-ways) that relocated a trio of guards to new homes, with a couple of minor draft picks thrown in to theoretically even the scales. Washington received Kara Lawson from Connecticut; the Sun got Alex Bentley from Atlanta; and the Dream collected Matee Ajavon and the #18 pick from the Mystics. Either Washington or Connecticut got the virtually-worthless #32 pick from Atlanta, depending on which release you believe.

 

Typically, you come out ahead in these multi-piece deals when you gain the best player involved – so let’s start with Washington. The Mystics were something of a surprise last season, with new head coach Mike Thibault engineering a turnaround from being the laughingstock of the league to a solid, competitive .500 team. But while they did a lot with organisation, effort and depth last year, Thibault knew as well as anyone that his roster needed more talent if they wanted to take the next step. His team also had a pretty glaring hole. Ivory Latta came in and did a useful job as the point guard last season, but it was a constant patchwork effort alongside her in the backcourt. They drafted Tayler Hill with the #4 pick, but she was a complete bust early on and only mildly useful off the bench as the season progressed. She’s now pregnant and due to give birth in May, so will probably be even less useful on a basketball court in 2014. The alternative last year was Ajavon, whose speed, aggression and willingness to take the big shot can be valuable – but her tendency to take a lot of bad shots and miss most of them distinctly mitigates that value.

 

Lawson always seemed a likely option to fill that hole. She grew up in the D.C. area; she has a relationship with Thibault from their time in Connecticut, where she had some of her best years; and her relationship with the Sun organisation broke down to such a degree last year that everyone knew she was going somewhere. She’s a superb outside shooter, 40% for her WNBA career from beyond the arc, including 43% over the last three years in Connecticut. But she can also be a steadying influence on an offense, running the pick-and-roll and getting the ball where it needs to be. Obviously, she’ll also be comfortable with Thibault’s sets and system after three years playing for him with the Sun. Playing alongside Latta could be a good fit, because neither will have to take on all the ballhandling responsibilities. Latta’s improved as a distributor but still likes to look for her own shot; Lawson had her best season in Connecticut when Allison Hightower was taking some of the point guard requirements off her hands – between them, they should be able to find a balance and help each other out.

Continue reading

WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade: Phoenix filch Phillips from Fever for 1st

 

After months waiting for the WNBA and the Players’ Association to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement finally ended last week, a compressed offseason calendar began on Monday. But teams have until March 15th to make qualifying offers (and core designations), then until March 19th to negotiate, before actually being able to sign players from March 20th onwards. So the only way teams can provide any entertainment for the fans at this stage is via trades of players already under contract, and the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever were the first to offer something for us all to talk about. The Fever sent Australian combo-guard Erin Phillips to Phoenix along with their second-round pick in the upcoming draft (17th overall), receiving the Mercury’s first-rounder (9th overall) and forward Lynetta Kizer in return.

 

The most prominent piece in the deal is Phillips, and it’s easy to see why the Mercury wanted her. The one obvious hole on their roster was in the backcourt, where Diana Taurasi was forced to become the de facto point guard far too much last season. While Taurasi’s certainly capable in that role, they desperately needed another reliable ballhandler who could allow Taurasi to play off the ball and focus on playing her natural game, rather than constantly having to facilitate for everyone else. It also became clear on several occasions last season that they simply didn’t have enough shooters to space the floor around Taurasi and Britney Griner – so it was important that whoever they found to fill their hole could shoot, not just bring the ball up the floor.

 

Phillips should be a good fit. She’s a feisty, aggressive guard, who’s never quite managed to solidify herself as a starting point guard in her WNBA career. But the Mercury don’t need her to be a pure point. They need her to bring the ball up the floor, hand it to the right people when she’s supposed to, and knock down open shots – all of which she should be capable of. She’s a career 38% shooter from three-point range in the WNBA, including 45% over her last three years in Indiana. The first figure’s well above average, the second’s truly elite – either should prove very useful to the Mercury. Heading into last season, Samantha Prahalis was supposed to be the Mercury’s answer at point guard, and one of the central reasons that didn’t work out was her inability to knock down the open shot (although her deficiencies in other areas also played a part). Phillips should be able to make those, and bring an extra edge to the Mercury’s backcourt defense that’ll be distinctly welcome alongside a sieve like Taurasi.

 

Of course, there are still some risks. Phillips tore a meniscus in her right knee last season, missing over a month, and then was repeatedly in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season. She generally looked fairly mobile when she played, but kept skipping games when pain flared up in the knee, or other ailments cropped up. In November she was released by her Polish team Wisla Can-Pack, again due to lingering injury – possibly the same one still hanging around – in favour of signing Danielle McCray. Phillips hasn’t played anywhere else since. The positive angle on that is that she’s had time to rest and recuperate, so should be ready for the WNBA season. The pessimist would say she might still not be healthy and it’s worrying when injuries won’t go away (or continue to mount up).

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/11/2013: Lynx complete sweep over Dream to finish unbeaten postseason and take another title

 

Heading into last night’s Game 3, the Atlanta Dream didn’t just have the weight of being down 2-0 on their shoulders. After suffering sweeps at the hands of Seattle and Minnesota in 2011 and 2012, the franchise was 0-8 in Finals games. Plus they hadn’t just lost the two games back in Minnesota – they’d been stuffed by 25 in each of them. They were fighting against history, against embarrassment, and against the all-conquering Minnesota Lynx team that was looking to complete an undefeated postseason with their third consecutive series sweep. It was a daunting task, and with Philips Arena hosting Disney on Ice, they didn’t even have their regular home venue to boost their chances.

 

At times in the first two games, it looked like Dream head coach Fred Williams had run out of ideas on how to challenge the Lynx. But he decided to try his third different starting lineup in three games, with Le’coe Willingham coming back in at power forward ahead of Aneika Henry (or Tiffany Hayes, if they’d wanted to go small again). It was a thoroughly random roll of the dice, seeing as Willingham isn’t really the kind of player who can turn a series, but you couldn’t blame him for trying something different. It didn’t work out too well in the opening moments, though. Janel McCarville – nominally being guarded by Willingham – decided to be particularly aggressive offensively, and drilled a series of jumpers. Willingham wasn’t doing anything particularly badly – helping away from McCarville is something you’re basically supposed to do against Minnesota – but the Lynx center fired away and refused to miss. It was clear around midseason this year that the Lynx coaching staff had asked McCarville to be more of a threat offensively, so that teams couldn’t cheat off her quite so egregiously, and she started taking some of those wide open jumpers teams offered her. Now she was stepping up in Game 3 of the Finals. This Lynx team really can hurt you from all angles.

 

It looked like we might be in for another blowout in the opening minutes. The McCarville barrage was backed up by a couple of buckets for Maya Moore, while Angel McCoughtry was out of control at the other end. She started with a hideous jacked three with 16 on the shot clock barely hit the rim, before an airball on a 1-on-3 baseline move and a couple of desperately soft turnovers when she drove into heavy traffic. There’s a thin line between ‘carrying your team’ and ‘trying to do too much’. Often, frankly, the difference is whether the bad shots you take go in or not. But Angel was dominating the ball, and it wasn’t working at all. Williams took a timeout after barely five minutes of play, with his team already trailing 13-3.

 

McCoughtry was summarily benched, in the hope that she’d calm down, or relax, or just get out of her own team’s way. And it worked. The Dream started running their offense through Erika de Souza in the low post, something that we should’ve seen more of in this entire series (although the Lynx admittedly make it very difficult with their heavy strong-side help). With McCarville resting on the bench, it was Rebekkah Brunson trying to guard her, and for a few minutes Erika was dominant. She was finishing inside, or hitting little turnarounds, or unbalancing the Lynx defense so much with her threat to score that gaps opened up for players like Armintie Herrington on cuts and offensive boards. Erika can also be an emotional leader for this team, and once she was involved in the offense she started jumping around, waving her arms and encouraging the crowd at Atlanta’s temporary home in the Gwinnett Center. The Dream had some life after all.

 

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/09/2013: Another day, another domination – Lynx blow out Dream again to move one win from title

 

Game 1 of the WNBA Finals was frankly a little embarrassing for the Atlanta Dream. They came into Minnesota on a high after a strong performance in the Eastern Finals, and were essentially blown off the floor by the home town Lynx. So Game 2 needed to be about responding and improving. They couldn’t afford to shoot 2-36 from outside the paint again, but they also needed to find ways to simply shoot fewer shots from outside. They had to craft better avenues to the rim, and create easier looks. And they had to do a better job defensively so that they could roll that momentum into their offense. All the Lynx needed to do was be ready for the potential response from Atlanta – more of the same from Minnesota would do perfectly nicely.

 

The Dream made one conspicuous move before Game 2 even tipped off. Aneika Henry started the game in place of Tiffany Hayes, replacing a guard with a post. Hayes had a nasty fall in Game 1, resulting in some lower back pain, but was ready to play off the bench. It was an attempt by Fred Williams to shake things up, try to capitalise on their size inside, and go with the option that worked the best in Game 1. Not that anything worked particularly well in Game 1, but Henry was one of the few bright spots. Minnesota had their regular starting five in place as usual, and made the defensive adjustments you’d expect. Seimone Augustus started on Angel McCoughtry instead of Rebekkah Brunson, who moved onto Henry. Janel McCarville stayed with Erika de Souza. Of course, with two true posts on the floor for the Dream, McCoughtry had to guard one of Minnesota’s star wings rather than hide on McCarville. She started on Augustus.

 

Atlanta looked better in the opening minutes than they had in the previous game. There was a clear intent to drive and attack at every opportunity – sometimes even when there wasn’t really much of an opportunity. McCoughtry and Armintie Herrington both went barreling into the paint on early possessions, and even Erika took a step or two outside, then attacked off the dribble when she glimpsed a gap, rather than settling for a short jumper. However, they were still running into a lot of traffic, and because the Lynx knew that Atlanta wanted to drive at all costs – and that the Dream were unlikely to punish them by hitting shots from outside – multiple defenders were waiting in the lane to block the route to the basket. The mentality was good from Atlanta, but the success was limited.

 

And they still couldn’t get any stops. The same things continued to work offensively for Minnesota – solid screens, effective and purposeful movement off the ball, unselfish passing, and making shots. Once again, the game was frantic early on – just the style Atlanta like to play – but once again it was Minnesota pulling away on the scoreboard. As the first quarter wore on, we even saw the Dream make a few perimeter shots – Hayes drilled a three with virtually her first touch after coming off the bench, while Alex Bentley and Jasmine Thomas both made jumpers from the top of the key. But those were just occasional breaks in the overall Lynx dominance.

 

Continue reading

WNBA Today, 10/07/2013: Lynx dominate Dream to roll to easy victory and 1-0 Finals lead

 

After what seemed like in interminable wait, last night the 2013 WNBA Finals finally got underway. After building the fanbase over three years of success, the Minnesota faithful was out in force to support their Lynx. They dropped the Finals opener at home last year, which ultimately played a key part in Indiana’s 3-1 upset victory in the series. So the Lynx were hoping for a much better start this time around, to set the groundwork for regaining the championship trophy. The Atlanta Dream were in town hoping to spoil the party – or at the very least do better than the sweeps they’ve suffered in their two previous visits to the Finals.

 

The first questions were answered by the opening lineups. Minnesota center Janel McCarville had reportedly been suffering from some back pain since Friday’s practice, but she was in the starting lineup as usual along with the regular Lynx group. Atlanta had decided to stick with the small lineup that had served them so well against Indiana in the Eastern Finals, with Angel McCoughtry as a pseudo-power forward alongside Jasmine Thomas, Tiffany Hayes and Armintie Herrington on the perimeter. The opening possessions quickly illustrated that Fred Williams had decided to go with the unusual defensive assignment I mentioned in my preview, with McCoughtry guarding McCarville while Erika de Souza took Rebekkah Brunson. Herrington started on Seimone Augustus, with Hayes on Maya Moore, but Atlanta had a general willingness to switch on the perimeter whenever necessary. As anticipated, Minnesota were happy to match up with Atlanta’s small lineup without changing anything about themselves – Brunson started on McCoughtry, McCarville took Erika, and they got down to work.

 

It was a pretty frantic opening period, with both teams feeding from the crowd’s energy and the action flowing from end to end. McCarville posted up on McCoughtry once, and managed to force the ball home, but the Lynx weren’t going to take themselves out of their offense in an effort to attack that potential mismatch. They were moving well off the ball, Moore was hitting jumpers, and Augustus was successful with a couple of those dive-in plays from the corner, both times finishing off nice feeds from McCarville. Their offense was rolling nicely.

 

But the Dream had a little early success too, doing some of the things we knew they’d need to do in this series. Herrington crashed for an offensive rebound, stealing the ball right from Brunson’s hands and dropping in a putback. Erika got a couple of touches in the low post, and found a way to finish over or around McCarville. McCoughtry opened her account with a ridiculous leaning jumper that she jacked far too early in the offense, but it somehow went in. The problem was that they weren’t having much success stopping the Lynx and when they finally did create a turnover, McCoughtry blew a wide open layup. The high pace suited the Dream, but the transition chances still weren’t really there. Minnesota were doing a solid job of taking care of the ball while running their offense, preventing those break opportunities for Atlanta.

 

Continue reading

2013 WNBA Finals Preview: Minnesota Lynx vs. Atlanta Dream – Part 2, Key Themes and Factors, and the Final Verdict

 

Now for the topics, trends, decisions and debates that are likely to decide the WNBA Finals, or are at least worth paying attention to as the series goes along. Many of them were touched upon in Part 1, where we took a closer look at the personnel involved, but now we’ll get more in depth. Then, just for fun, I’ll offer up a prediction. Although with the way it’s been going for me with picks this year in the postseason, you might want to go the other way.

 

Big or small?

 

Dream head coach Fred Williams made a move for the Eastern Finals that surprised me with its sheer boldness and willingness to be proactive. He often seems to spend games watching them drift by, including in the first-round where his most meaningful move was forced upon him by Le’coe Willingham’s injury. But he opened the series against Indiana with his small lineup, essentially featuring four perimeter players – Angel McCoughtry is generally considered the power forward because she’s the tallest of the four, but they’re basically all guards and wings. It proved to be an astute move, as their offense sliced through the Fever at will, and consistently looked far more effective than at any stage in the previous series against Washington. Now he has to decide what to do against the Lynx, because Minnesota are not the Indiana Fever. They don’t have a virtual perimeter player at power forward – they have Rebekkah Brunson, who might not be a traditional post-up threat, but she’s big enough and nasty enough to take advantage of a smaller player in the paint and on the glass.

 

So does Williams concede that his small lineup can’t defend the Lynx well enough, and go back to a more traditional lineup, with either Willingham or Aneika Henry at power forward? Probably not. Maybe, at times, we’ll see two Dream bigs together in this series. He threw that option away entirely against the Fever, but if Brunson starts dominating the glass, or Williams just wants to shake the Lynx up a little, it might be a more useful option against Minnesota. But we saw in the regular season game between these teams on August 20th that the Dream’s small lineup can both survive defensively, and succeed offensively against the Lynx. Atlanta will want to keep their pace high, and maintain the attacking mentality from the Indiana series, so I’d expect McCoughtry either to start at power forward, or slide there pretty early on.

 

Then it becomes a case of what either team does to handle the matchups. Minnesota can make everything nice and simple by going small themselves, shifting Maya Moore to power forward in a similar move to Atlanta with McCoughtry. Then the defensive assignments are simple. But Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve won’t allow Williams to dictate the action like that. Instead we’ll see Brunson defending McCoughtry – Brunson did an effective job in that role in the regular season game I mentioned – while forcing Atlanta to handle the opposing mismatches on the other end. Either McCoughtry has to defend Brunson, which is plausible for a while but probably not something you want to see for an entire series, or Williams has to get creative.

 

Continue reading

2013 WNBA Finals Preview: Minnesota Lynx vs. Atlanta Dream – Part 1, Match-ups and Challenges

 

By the numbers (over entire regular season):

 

Minnesota Lynx (26-8) vs Atlanta Dream (17-17)

 

Points scored per 100 possessions: 106.46 (1st in WNBA) – 95.19 (9th)

Points Conceded per 100 possessions: 94.55 (3rd) – 93.2 (1st)

Rebound percentage; .522 (2nd) – .503 (4th)

 

Season series between the teams: Tied 1-1

07/09 @Min, Lynx win 94-72 (no Augustus or Hayes, Lyttle’s last game this season)

08/20 @Atl, Dream win 88-75 (available players were as expected for this series)

 

—–

 

Here we go again, everybody. The Minnesota Lynx are in the WNBA Finals for the third consecutive season, looking to regain the title that they lost a year ago. The Atlanta Dream are back in the championship series for the third time in four years. The franchises clashed in the 2011 Finals, with relatively similar rosters – and the Lynx won in a sweep. But that feels like a long time ago, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. The 2013 regular season, which saw the Dream finish .500 while the Lynx were their typical dominant selves, is largely irrelevant now. So a series from a couple of years ago definitely can’t be considered particularly important. Everyone starts the Finals 0-0, and the Dream’s confidence should be high after a sweep of Indiana to win the East, where they went some way towards reestablishing their identity. The track record of the Lynx makes them worthy favourites for this series, but they won’t have things all their own way.

 

Let’s start out on the perimeter, where you’ll arguably find the strength of both these teams. The Lynx have one of the strongest perimeter trios the women’s game has ever seen. Lindsay Whalen is a consummate point guard, the classic ‘coach on the floor’ who’ll run everything for head coach Cheryl Reeve and get the ball where it needs to go. But Whalen’s also more than capable of attacking the defense for her own points, as we saw in the recent Game 1 against Phoenix, where her scoring helped take the game over. The strength of Minnesota’s wings only makes things easier for Whalen, because typically opponents have to use their stronger perimeter defenders to contain Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, leaving Whalen with whoever’s left. In this series, that’ll likely be Jasmine Thomas and some Alex Bentley. Both Thomas and Bentley have had their moments this season, playing their parts in Atlanta’s backcourt attack and occasionally getting hot, but they’ll need to at least compete with Whalen and try to stay in front of her as much as possible. Everyone gambles in Atlanta’s defense in search of steals, but they still need to hold their ground and prevent Whalen from getting into a flow that dominates the rhythm of the game.

 

Then there’s Moore and Augustus. After a couple of years settling into the league – where she was already impressive – Moore took another step this season and definitively moved past Augustus as the most valuable of the Lynx wings. She can do a little bit of everything, stuffing the stat-sheet in a way Augustus never really has, while continuing to be a remarkable scoring threat from all over the floor. She’ll rise up and shoot over the defense when you think she’s covered, and just score anyway, or create points by running the floor hard and working on the glass. Augustus is still just as dangerous as a scorer, will break out for points on the run just like Moore, or pull up for jumpers over anyone. She’s also developed a little more of an inside game this year, which we’ll undoubtedly see her break out at times in this series, especially if Atlanta try to guard her with a significantly smaller player. Armintie Herrington is a strong and long enough defender to trouble Augustus on post-ups or drives, but if they try to get away with Thomas, Bentley or even Tiffany Hayes for extended stretches, Augustus has more ways to attack them these days.

 

Continue reading