Firstly, apologies for the lateness of this update. It’s still Saturday if you’re in LA or Seattle, so I’m claiming it counts as just about on time. If anyone hasn’t heard by now, Nolan Richardson stepped down as head coach and general manager of the Tulsa Shock late last night after the loss to Phoenix. It sounds like one of those ‘allowed to resign’ situations where the owners asked him to go and granted him the semi-dignity of not being fired. The timing’s a little odd, considering they’d just had eight days off and then he went right in the middle of a home-and-home against the Mercury (they play again back in Phoenix tomorrow), but let’s face it – it was well past time. The team’s bad. He hasn’t done well as a GM; he’s junked his coaching system because it didn’t work but replaced it with practically nothing; and fans and players alike are increasingly losing any interest in this franchise. Something had to be done.
Teresa Edwards, hired as Director of Player Personnel and assistant coach during the offseason, will take over on an interim basis. She was a player-coach for a while back in the ABL without a great deal of success, but she was the obvious short-term option from the moment she joined the organisation. It would be practically impossible for her to do any worse, but unless the team conjures up a dramatic turnaround under her stewardship, a real coaching search would be nice to see. There are a whole bunch of decent candidates available, even just among the assistants and recently unemployed staff from other WNBA teams, so they should be able to find someone who can take them forward. There are only 12 head-coaching jobs available if you want to work in women’s pro basketball in the US, so even with the state this franchise is in, I doubt they’ll be short of applicants.
Nothing much Richardson did worked in this league. He came in admitting that he knew nothing about the players or the women’s game, but that isn’t necessarily a death sentence. Bill Laimbeer was in essentially the same position when he took over in Detroit, and became one of the most successful coaches the WNBA has ever seen. But put in an admittedly difficult position when several players jumped ship before a single game had even been played in Tulsa, the Shock went backwards. His system didn’t work, and several players didn’t want to be there and certainly didn’t want to play in such complete chaos. He made bad trades (and a couple of decent ones that get forgotten, actually), took too long to realise his ’40 Minutes of Hell’ wasn’t working and never would, and the first season in Tulsa ended an awful 6-28. Which probably flattered them.
He should’ve gone then, to be honest, but the owners stuck with him and brought Edwards in to try to help. But this team has still been a mess. There are too many players on this roster who shouldn’t even be in the league, and while they’re better now than they were to start the season, that’s more because they were so bad that it was hard to get any worse. Everyone seems to say he’s a lovely guy, so we all wish him well, but the main reaction to the departure was “finally”.
The team probably won’t get much better this season. There are too many holes on the roster, and there’s too little time between games in midseason to make wholesale changes to what you’re doing on the court. But hopefully, Edwards can at least get them moving in the right direction. Maybe add a little more structure to the offense, with a bit more effort to actually get people open for shots. Maybe drum any belief that they’re running a press out of her players, so that they’ll actually run back down the floor when the other team has the ball – because their transition defense has been abominable all year.
There also needed to be a simple change of culture and atmosphere around this franchise. There’s a pervading feeling that players just don’t want to play for the Shock. That prevents trades, makes free agent pickups of any decent quality impossible, and just generally hamstrings the franchise from making moves. With Richardson gone, they can try to change that perception around the world of women’s basketball, and improve the roster. Systems and coaching are important, but when it comes down to it, the teams that win are usually the ones with the most talent. If you can’t attract players and improve your roster, you’re going nowhere.
Anyway, there was a game last night (well there were two in fact – New York-San Antonio was covered in yesterday’s column), and although it feels a bit like a eulogy, we should probably still cover Tulsa’s trip to Phoenix. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it, purely because I consider myself at least a little bit of a purist, and these are the worst two defenses in the league. Still, when you cover all the games, you cover all the games, so I watched.
It was a strange one from the start. Tulsa’s starting point guard and one of their few bright spots this year Ivory Latta didn’t appear, and I heard both ‘infection’ and ‘shoulder injury’ as reasons why. Given the craziness with this franchise I wouldn’t be too surprised if she was five minutes late to shootaround and got sent home by Nolan, leading to the resignation later in the day, but who knows. Rather than replacing her with Andrea Riley, chucker-extraordinaire, who’s been on the roster all season, Doneeka Lewis was in the starting lineup. She’d been with the team less than a week after signing as a free agent. hadn’t played in the WNBA for three years, isn’t a point guard, and didn’t even start in Europe for Galatasaray this year. So something of a surprise starter, even if the alternatives were very, very limited. Also starting for Tulsa was Amber Holt, who hadn’t played in a month due to a broken thumb. Rookie center Liz Cambage was back to coming off the bench, for some reason.
Phoenix got off to their typical quick start. Kara Braxton was scoring at will, although it wasn’t really with the brute strength underneath that you might expect against a team essentially starting without a center. No, she was just hitting layups on cuts and in transition, and even threw in a three for good measure. It’s fair to say that Tulsa’s defense has holes. So Phoenix led 12-4 inside three minutes, but then couldn’t pull away. You see, Phoenix’s defense is horrible too, so Tulsa started doing some scoring of their own. Cambage came in, and the Mercury couldn’t remotely deal with her in the paint so that got the Shock a few easy points. Lewis actually did a pretty nice job for someone who barely knows her teammates’ names, and while she’s not afraid to shoot, she doesn’t brick threes from 35 feet like Riley, so that’s at least a bonus. Lewis is far from being a pure point, but she’s got a reasonable handle and she’s willing to move the ball, so she’s useful to this roster.
Tulsa managed to score enough points to be within one at the end of the first quarter, and only a run keyed by Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor late in the second took back the advantage for Phoenix, who went into the break up 46-39. The one hilariously unbalanced stat at halftime was the 20-2 advantage the Mercury held in fastbreak points Like I said, Tulsa are awful in transition.
The Phoenix starters broke off another run to start the second half, and at 55-39 it felt like this one could be heading for yet another blowout. The lead wandered along at around 14 or 15 for the entire third quarter without heading anywhere, and Tulsa had it down to 12 early in the fourth when Taurasi picked up her fourth technical foul of the season (don’t forget, number seven is a suspension). With 7:15 left in the game, a Jen Lacy layup made the score 78-71 and it looked like we might have a contest down the stretch.
Phoenix got themselves in trouble partly because head coach Corey Gaines was obviously hoping to get his key players some rest in this one. His bench got heavy minutes in the second half, and that was when their offense completely died. Without Taurasi or Taylor spending most of it on the pine, the Mercury only scored two points in the first six and a half minutes of the fourth quarter – but Tulsa couldn’t score either. Cambage was still on the bench, jumpers were rimming out, layups were rolling off and they just couldn’t get that lead under seven. The scoreboard was stuck at 78-71 for nearly four minutes of gametime, and it was Phoenix who eventually broke it with a DeWanna Bonner layup off a missed Taurasi three. Ultimately, the lead didn’t drop under seven until a Cambage free throw with 30 seconds left. By then it was too little too late, and the Mercury ran out 86-78 winners.
Yet another case of the ‘nearlies’ for Tulsa. They were in the game throughout the first half, gave up the big lead but worked their way back into it in the second, but just didn’t have the firepower or the composure to finish anything off in the closing minutes. There’ve been a lot of games like that. It wasn’t a horrible way to go out for Nolan. His girls played hard until the end, and his most recent free agent pickup, bizarre on the face of it, had a reasonable debut with seven points, 6 rebounds and nine assists (five turnovers and shooting 3-13 from the floor, but we’ll gloss over that). In a lot of ways though, it was a typical Nolan’s Shock kind of game. Weird lineup changes to start; someone who’d been playing a bunch of minutes disappears off the end of the bench (Chastity Reed, in this instance); and the team gives up 38 fastbreak points while being incapable of doing anything in crunch time. Good luck Teresa – you’re going to need it.
Phoenix really did seem to try their best to keep Nolan’s job. Taurasi had 17, Taylor 16, but apart from Bonner’s double-double and Braxton’s first-quarter salvo, they didn’t get much help. Gaines got away with playing his starters limited minutes but ended up having to work harder for the win in the fourth than he should’ve done. Still, they all count one in the win column. It’s going to be interesting to see if this matchup looks any different when the teams meet again tomorrow back in Phoenix.
In other news…
Nothing much. Considering how late this already is, I’m not going to waste everyone’s time scouting around for extra tidbits.
Today’s Games (already completed):
Washington @ Indiana, 7pm ET
Connecticut @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Atlanta @ Chicago, 8pm ET
Los Angeles @ Seattle, 10pm ET