WNBA Today, 06/30/2011: Now what do we do?

No games last night, so I thought we’d take a closer look at the major injuries that have struck around the WNBA lately and how the respective teams might deal with the holes that have suddenly appeared on their rosters. Injuries always play a significant role in the destination of the WNBA championship, and less than a month into the 2011 season they’re already starting to take their toll. However, as always, one person’s misfortune can be another person’s opportunity, so who can the teams find to step up and fill the gap?

 

LA – Candace Parker

The good thing here is that it’s ‘only’ six weeks that Parker is expected to miss with a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee. In this case, six weeks would cover over a third of the Sparks’ season, but given the ever-present fear of a torn ACL whenever someone goes down clutching their knee, it could’ve easily been worse. The other positive is that four out of the five real basketball teams in the Western Conference have to make the playoffs. Even last year, when only one of them deserved it, the rules said we had to have four. All LA have to do is cling on to one of those other teams and sneak past sometime before September 12th, and then a presumably Parker-led squad can attack the postseason. It’s not like home court is that big an advantage in this league anyway.

We already got a taste of how LA are going to play without Parker on Tuesday night, with that weird game against Connecticut. They got murdered on the boards in the opening quarter – as expected when playing without their star and strongest rebounder – gave up 23 rebounds to Tina Charles, but somehow got 19 offensive boards of their own and ended up with a .492 rebounding percentage. One game is obviously a miniscule sample size, but that’s a decent start in one of the key areas you’d expect them to struggle in without Parker. Of course, they still lost, and the team looked kind of ‘off’ for most of the night.

They’re a deeper team than they were last year, when they just about survived after Candace got hurt (but in a hideously weak Western Conference). Ebony Hoffman deepens the frontcourt, as should Jantel Lavender if Jen Gillom ever puts her on the floor. Even LaToya Pringle showed there might be some life in her against Connecticut. They’ll need help down there because somebody has to go after those boards – and the Sparks don’t have the speed and offense to cope without rebounding like San Antonio is managing so far this year.

The perimeter corps is stronger this season as well, with Ticha Penicheiro healthier than last year, Kristi Toliver a more developed all-round player and rookie Australian Jenna O’Hea a useful addition. But how much do all these players lose when defenses don’t have to worry about Parker? She obviously attracts multiple defenders, whereas no one else on the Sparks roster really does any more. Tina Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones both have their nights, but neither is the threat they once were at either end of the floor. If LA end up relying on the production they got from the likes of Natasha Lacy and Pringle on Tuesday night they’re heading for trouble.

I think LA can probably just about stay in touch while Parker’s gone, but it’s not going to be easy. Gillom has made some baffling coaching moves in recent games, which doesn’t seem to be helping the confidence of her players. Now that Parker’s gone for a while, she needs to find something resembling a regular rotation, because too many members of her roster look confused and upset. The schedule doesn’t help either, sending them on the road for eight of their next ten games. But if LA can scrape together at least four or five wins over the 13 Parker is scheduled to miss, they should still be in touch with at least one or two other teams in the West. Someone will lose enough to hang around with them. They just have to hope that Parker makes it back on schedule and doesn’t need too much time to get back up to speed, because they’ll need her for the stretch run. Gillom might need her back just to keep her job.

 

Seattle – Lauren Jackson

As Kevin Pelton already ably illustrated, the Storm are well-versed in playing without Lauren Jackson and have been successful in the past. They know they can still win without her, even if they’d rather not have to prove it. The surgery to repair the labrum in her left hip is estimated to keep her out for 8-12 weeks, which means she might be back this season. But the Storm can’t afford to wait around and expect her to come charging in and save them, because they’ve got an absolute minimum of 20 games to play before she’ll return. They might well not see her in a Storm jersey again until late-August 2012.

I have no problem believing that the Storm can win games and stay in the playoff hunt without Jackson. Agler’s defensive system still works without her, and that’ll keep them in games. Obviously it doesn’t work as well when you remove a 6-5 MVP center who’s also an All-WNBA level defender, but it still keeps the other team missing an awful lot of shots. Their offense is going to require some people to step up from what they’ve been producing so far. Even before LJ got hurt, there were a lot of players misfiring on the Storm roster, and the margin of error naturally gets smaller without your star player. The amount of room you get to shoot goes down too, when the opposition don’t have to worry about that big Aussie with 20-foot range. Sue Bird can become more of an offensive threat when she needs to be, and will likely need to step up in that role. Swin Cash, Tanisha Wright and Katie Smith going back to the last place they saw their jumpshots and retrieving them would be useful too. Still, I believe this team can find a way to score enough points to win quite a few games.

Beyond rediscovering the offensive rhythm that has deserted them this season (even when Jackson was playing), there are two obvious issues Seattle has to face: size and depth. Agler’s rotation has always been about as tight as is humanly possible, and he’s been down to a seven-player group since Jackson got hurt. And the only one of those taller than 6-1 or so is Ashley Robinson, who has no offensive game to speak of and shouldn’t be spending too many minutes on the floor. Polish post player Ewelina Kobryn joined the team today after they signed her to replace Ify Ibekwe in the hope that it would deepen their options down low. She’s serviceable, but it remains to be seen if Agler will actually use her. He’s got six and a half players right now that he actually trusts (with maybe another half to add if Belinda Snell can finally recover fully from her ankle sprain). It’s going to be tough to survive the next two or three months of games unless he finds some belief in one or two more.

Even though Jackson’s expected to be gone for longer than Parker, I trust this squad to cope far more than I do LA’s. They’re battle-hardened, they believe in their coach and his system, and they’ve shown they can do it in the past. Still, every Storm fan knows that while their team has often made the playoffs without Jackson, they’ve never gone anywhere in the postseason without her. Unless LJ can make it back and be up towards full power around 10 weeks after her surgery, a second-straight championship run looks a longshot. You won’t have much fun getting rid of them though, Jackson or no Jackson.

 

Indiana – Briann January

This is perhaps the most intriguing of the three situations in terms of projecting how the team will cope, precisely because it’s not a star, but is a key player. January has been the Fever’s ‘point guard of the future’ ever since they drafted her three years ago, and with Tully Bevilaqua gone this year the role was all hers to assume. She was doing okay. Her shooting percentage was once again down around a miserable 36%, largely because she takes too many terrible shots that have barely any chance of going in, but in recent weeks Indiana had found a rhythm and she was part of that. The other starters had a comfort level with her, and while she was never going to morph into the next Sue Bird, she was generally doing a solid job.

Now what can Indiana do to fill the spot? Shannon Bobbitt has become January’s regular backup again over the last four games, after a strong showing in their first game against Phoenix when Katie Douglas’s injury opened up some minutes. The problem is that Bobbitt can’t shoot, at all, or finish at the rim, which has generally made her something of a liability on the WNBA level. She’s also tiny, which means that some opponents take advantage of her defensively, although to others her speed and feistiness can drive them nuts. Erin Phillips got her first ‘Did Not Play – Coach’s Decision’ of the season in the most recent Fever game, but will likely get another chance now January’s gone down. She’s quick herself but a more physical player than Bobbitt and significantly taller. She can run an offense, when you need her to, but it’s not necessarily the best role for a player that likes to attack offensively. She can be a pest defensively as well. Dunn may have concerns about how well both Bobbitt and Phillips understand her system at either end of the floor after only ten games, but she’s about to find out.

There are other options available to Dunn as well. The final moments of the game on Tuesday night when January was already out, Katie Douglas was essentially running the point. Considering that the Fever want the ball in Douglas and Tamika Catchings’s hands when the game’s on the line, expect to see lineups like that late in plenty of games over the rest of the season. However, it’s doubtful that they’ll want to put that responsibility on Douglas for the majority of games. She’s too valuable and too effective as a scorer off the ball to have her at the point for 30 minutes a night. Rookie Jeanette Pohlen also ran the point for Stanford last year, but has been used almost exclusively as a wing by Indiana so far. She may get a chance to run the offense a little now January is hurt, but probably not unless Bobbitt and Phillips make a mess of their opportunities. Pohlen’s been very effective as a wing-gunner, and if Dunn trusted her at the point she likely wouldn’t have had three point guards on the roster in the first place.

I’m not sure how Indy are going to cope with this loss, which is why I see it as the most interesting situation created by the recent major injuries. In the abstract, I don’t think Erin Phillips is much worse of a basketball player than Briann January, if any worse at all. I also don’t think January is that great to start with, as my frequent comments on the drawbacks of her game over the years have illustrated. But she’s still their starting point guard, she’s been part of this unit for three years, and there are question marks over the replacements. Briann may not have been great, but she was at least a known quantity. Now Indiana are taking a step into the unknown, and they’re going to have to figure it out as they go along.

 

And the others

Phoenix have played their last three games without starting point guard Temeka Johnson, and you could barely tell the difference. That doesn’t say anything good about TJ, considering the replacements are consistently erratic Ketia Swanier and rookie Alexis Gray-Lawson. It hurts coach Gaines’s depth and options, but apart from that Johnson’s been mediocre enough in recent times not to be particularly missed. It looked like a minor sprain when it happened, which makes it a bit of a surprise that she’s been gone so long.

Chicago are actually missing Dominique Canty, at least a little. She wasn’t playing all that well before her knee injury, but she does attack opposition defenses fairly consistently, which they don’t get from most of their other guards. They’ll welcome her back, enjoy her ability to go past people for a moment, and then remember why she was only playing 13 minutes per game when she blows the layup.

Washington continue to miss Alana Beard, and given that the league granted the Mystics another hardship exception to allow them to sign Joy Cheek, they’ll probably be missing her for a while yet. It’s been so long since Beard actually played, it’s hard to quantify what they’re missing. She was a very good scoring guard a couple of years ago, but who knows if she still will be when she returns. Chances are, this team would’ve been pretty bad even if Alana were healthy.

Atlanta’s Sancho Lyttle doesn’t qualify for this article – yet – because she was missing due to overseas commitments, not injury. She does seem to be carrying multiple minor ailments though, so the next time I write a piece like this, she might be part of the list. Considering their record so far this year, Dream fans will be desperately hoping that she isn’t.

 

In other news…

The first All-Star voting returns were released today, and to be honest I was pleasantly surprised. If voting ended today we might not get the ‘right’ starting-fives, but there’d be no one going to the event who’s completely ridiculous. That’s a step in the right direction compared to some previous years. Well done everybody.

Turkey beat Montenegro and France beat Lithuania in their respective EuroBasket Women quarter-finals today, meaning the winners qualify for at least the Olympic Qualifying Tournament next year. The losers play each other for the right to play Croatia for 5th in EuroBasket, which comes with the all-important last European spot in that qualifying tournament.

Ewelina Kobryn is in the US, and officially signed with Seattle today. Tulsa still haven’t filled their 11th roster spot. I have no idea why; they’re already under the league’s minimum salary cap.

 

Today’s Games:

New York @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET

Minnesota @ Tulsa, 8pm ET

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