PG: Tully Bevilaqua/Danielle Robinson
SG: Becky Hammon/Jia Perkins
SF: Scholanda Robinson/Roneeka Hodges (yeah they’re both mostly guards. Someone‘s gotta play here)
PF: Sophia Young/Danielle Adams/Porsha Phillips
C: Ruth Riley/Jayne Appel
Head Coach: Dan Hughes
Significant additions: Perkins, maybe Robinson, maybe other Robinson, and throw Tully in there as the latest in their line of point guards who don’t score. Hughes back as coach could be the most important change.
Significant losses: Chamique Holdsclaw, Michelle Snow, and purely because they’d been there so long, the two-headed pointless point-guard pairing of Helen Darling and Edwige Lawson-Wade.
So considering I’m writing to this two days late, and as a result we all got to see San Antonio win by 20 last night, I should be all upbeat and positive about their season, right? Right? Yeah, not so much. Back in 2008, a team led by Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, coached by Dan Hughes, won 24 games and made the WNBA Finals. All those pieces are in place this year as well. But you know what else they had back then? Help. This franchise got old in a hurry, and although some steps have been made to improve matters, including bringing Hughes back down onto the sidelines, the roster still has some dangerous cracks that they’re going to have difficulty papering over.
The two San Antonio stars are still elite talents. Hammon’s getting older (aren’t we all), and seems to end up fighting off niggling little injuries every year, but she still produces at a very high level (and got some time off before the season this year, which can only help). The long-range shooting, the crafty little drives into the lane before somehow finishing by putting eighteen different kinds of spin on the ball, the orchestration of their offense – even the neverending mastication – it’s all still there. Pretty amazing for someone who’s probably about 5-3 before the effect of ‘officially listed height’ inflation. Complementing Becky, Sophia Young’s got a wonderfully smooth offensive game as well. A strong finisher inside with legitimate range out to 20 feet, she’s probably been San Antonio’s most consistent performer the last couple of years with Hammon in and out of the trainer’s room. The only thing I don’t like about Young’s game is that at a listed 6-1 (and that’s probably generous), she’s essentially a small forward masquerading as a 4, and it’s reflected in her rebounding numbers. For a power forward she’s an awful rebounder, and when there isn’t anyone else around to take on that burden, the team’s in trouble.
And in 2011, they’re in trouble. Who the hell is going to rebound for this team? They’re going to have to shoot 10% better than their opponents in any given game, because the other team is going to end up with at least 10 extra shots every night. In terms of rebound percentage (far more useful than raw rebound totals because it’s not affected by differences in the number of possessions), San Antonio were 10th in the WNBA last season, ahead of only Tulsa (terrible at everything) and Los Angeles (who lost their only competent rebounder after 9 games). In fairness they’ve been an awful rebounding team for years, including the season they went to the Finals, but the issue seems to have become increasingly glaring and increasingly debilitating. Last season, Young at least had Chamique Holdsclaw at the 3 and Michelle Snow at the 5 to help her out. Not this year. Now they’re back to Ruth Riley starting at center, who hasn’t broken 5 rebounds per game since 2004, and either Scholanda Robinson or Roneeka Hodges at the 3, both of whom are essentially scoring guards. Jayne Appel, their first-round pick from last year, is at least big and was expected to help this year, but got hurt yet again in the preseason and had knee surgery. She’s not expected to be out too long but after struggling to recover from injuries throughout last season (and playing pretty atrociously as a result), it’s not a promising way to start the new year. The other backups are rookies – the rotund Danielle Adams, who’s barely 6-0 and surely going to have to lose a lot of weight to survive in this league, and Porsha Phillips, a 3rd round pick I admit to knowing nothing about (but she didn’t exactly look like a devoted rebounder last night). San Antonio have some offensive firepower this year, but if you can’t get the ball back until the other team has put it through your hoop, you’re going to need a hell of a lot of offense.
Out on the perimeter, Hughes has at least got this franchise moving in the right direction. They’re younger, quicker and deeper than last year, which is a good thing considering that they’re going to have to run around or past teams to win this season. The point guard spot has been overhauled, with Darling and Lawson-Wade replaced by Tully Bevilaqua and Danielle Robinson. Tully is the steady veteran hand, similar to Darling, but despite her advancing years a better shooter and stronger defender. Robinson is a rookie, quick and pesky with long limbs for her size. Guards like her are always hit-or-miss in this league but bringing in some youth who can develop at the point, rather than persisting with decaying vets, is definitely a positive move. Plus Hammon will of course spend plenty of time running the offense. Acquired in the Snow trade with Chicago, Jia Perkins has been a top-level shooting guard in this league in the past. She had a miserable 2010 season with the Sky, but hopefully with less pressure on her in San Antonio and a more competent coach, Perkins can return to her previous form. She’s the best player they’ve had to back up Hammon in that scoring guard role since she arrived in Texas. Scholanda Robinson and Roneeka Hodges will both get minutes at either wing spot as well, and can both be effective as role players. Robinson is a speedy penetrator, Hodges a perimeter gunner, and while neither is great both will have occasional nights where they impress.
It’s an unfortunate place to be when your leading light is 34 years old, but the Silver Stars are rebuilding. They might not admit it, and they’re not afraid af signing the odd veteran to fill holes (see, Tully), but it’s true. Rebuilding the guard corps was the right way to go (they’d waited too long, in fact), but the job’s only half done. Unless Appel’s going to get healthy and show up looking like the second-coming of Ann Wauters (which is about as likely as Hammon throwing down a dunk), they’re so thin down low that teams are going to kill them on the glass. In a six-team conference where one is Tulsa and four make the postseason, San Antonio might hang around in the playoff hunt as the regular season progresses. But it’ll likely be more by default than because this team is actually good enough to have designs on winning anything. Maybe next year.