Two games in the WNBA yesterday afternoon, but we’ll get to those later. The big news late last night was the second head coaching casualty in the last few days, with the Los Angeles Sparks deciding that Jennifer Gillom’s time was up, replacing her with assistant Joe “Jellybean” Bryant (or “Kobe’s dad”, as ESPN insists on calling him). Gillom’s foibles and failings have been well-chronicled in this space, so any regular readers will know how I felt about a lot of her moves. Nonetheless, it’s still something of a surprise that LA would make this move quite so quickly.
The Sparks started the season so well. Not only were they 4-1 out of the gate, but the players looked like they were having fun on the court, appeared united, and seemed like a cohesive unit. Gillom herself even looked like she’d grown as a coach, finding her veterans more rest, and actually utilising the deeper bench that had been provided for her this year. There was a heavy reliance on Candace Parker, but when you’ve got one of the best players in the world on your squad, that’s what you’d expect. Who wouldn’t place most of their faith in Parker on that squad?
It would be easy to put the Sparks’ negative turn (and Gillom’s demise) down to Parker’s injury. LA were 4-2 when she hurt her knee, and was ruled out for six weeks. But to simply throw that out as an excuse would be missing the point. Fans, viewers and front office personnel don’t expect you to be as good when your best player gets injured, but they don’t expect everything to fall to pieces either. So little that Gillom has done lately has made any sense. The frequent bizarre lineups and odd substitution patterns. Putting Kristi Toliver back in the game against Phoenix after she’d been called for a flagrant foul and a technical, then continued melting down on the bench. It was a 19-point game with under five minutes left, for crying out loud. You didn’t have to know anything about her history or the WNBA to wonder if Gillom knew what the hell she was doing at that point. The couple of Sparks games on ESPN2 lately didn’t do her any favours either, because they mic up the coaches. Not having any clue when your team needs to foul in the final seconds, and being caught on live audio asking your own players who’s in the game doesn’t help your chances of keeping your job.
Saturday night was probably the final straw. Not only was it LA’s fifth loss in a row, and a second-straight painful fourth quarter collapse, but Gillom benched both Tina Thompson and Ticha Penicheiro. Two of the league’s legends, both strong candidates for the WNBA’s All-Time Top-15 list being announced in a couple of weeks, were replaced by a) the kid who’d blown up in the previous game, and b) a rookie who’d done essentially nothing in her first nine games as a pro. Maybe something happened in practice or the locker room that led to Gillom making the moves (the vets talking back or showing her up, something like that), but as far as we know it was just another coaching decision. In a long line of decisions that have been hard to fathom. As I said in yesterday’s column, it felt like a last desperate throw of the dice by a coach who’d run out of alternatives and didn’t know what else to try. Maybe when LA lost by 19 for the second straight game and the Sparks hierarchy responded by pulling the trigger, they were putting her out of her misery just as much as the fans who were increasingly calling for her head.
The thing with Gillom is that we’ve never actually had any real evidence that she was any good at this job. She was in Minnesota for a year, and got a partial pass for going 14-20 and missing the playoffs because it was her first year and Seimone Augustus blew out her knee after six games. After parting ways with the Lynx – the fact that they didn’t try all that hard to keep her was probably a clue as to how they viewed her skills – she jumped into the job in LA, and finished one game worse at 13-21. Again, she got something of a pass because her best player got hurt early on – Candace Parker this time – and they even made the playoffs (although that was only because the Western Conference was so atrocious). Minnesota were a mess in the year she was in charge over there, and LA weren’t much better last season. There was also a sense among many observers that the Sparks only improved last year when veterans like Thompson and DeLisha Milton-Jones stopped paying any attention to her and took over themselves. Parker getting hurt yet again this year obviously didn’t help Gillom out, but a career record of 31-47 isn’t impressing anyone, whatever the excuses.
When LA brough in Bryant and Sandy Brondello as Gillom’s assistants in the offseason, there was a distinct hint of “your replacements are ready and waiting if you don’t sort things out” to the hires. Everyone knew they weren’t going to have to look hard for someone to take over if the Sparks felt the need to make a move. The lineup changes, the embarrassingly inept TV-soundbites, the increasingly frantic and erratic minutes for most of the roster – the writing was on the wall in the last couple of weeks. Considering the in-built excuse of Parker’s injury, I expected them to take a little longer to make the switch, but you can’t blame GM Penny Toler and the LA owners for moving quickly. It’s a short season, and like Nolan Richardson’s ousting in Tulsa, it’s a move that could easily have been made quite some time ago. Good luck in your future endeavours, Ms. Gillom, but I’d be surprised if you got another WNBA head coaching job any time soon.
Unlike Teresa Edwards with the Shock, Jellybean actually has a chance to turn things around in LA pretty damn quickly. Firstly, I fully expect Thompson and Penicheiro to be reinstated in the starting lineup tomorrow night. Even if they did say something to Gillom, it’s a new era, a clean slate, and you go back to the veterans that are most comfortable starting. The kids can still be effective off the bench. Hopefully, he’ll also find a more consistent, solid rotation for his roster. This is the deepest squad the Sparks have had in years, and the likes of Toliver, Lavender and O’Hea should be part of the solution, but it helps if everyone has some idea when and how they’re going to play. Yes you can stick with the hot hand on any given night, but players need to have a comfort zone, and Gillom had taken a lot of her own players out of theirs.
On top of those immediate moves, Parker should be back in a few weeks to help turn the tide. Any honest coach will tell you – the main thing that makes them look good is good players. Start out with more talent than the other guys, and you’re usually in decent shape. Bryant was successful with the Sparks back in 2006 (finishing the regular season 25-9 and making the Western Conference Finals) mostly by staying out of his own way. He let his talented players carry the team and didn’t overly complicate matters. While there’s no Lisa Leslie or Chamique Holdsclaw on this squad, there’s a pretty solid array of talent, even if some of them are past their prime. This team can still win some games, even before Candace walks back through the doors.
Besides all the Sparks drama, two games were actually played yesterday. In all honesty, I was happy for the coaching move, because for the most part the games weren’t exactly thrilling. The first was Chicago’s visit to New York (or New Jersey, technically), the second night of a back-to-back for the Sky after beating Atlanta at home on Saturday. It was a chance to see if New York were really improving or if their two wins over San Antonio were merely a result of matching up well with the Silver Stars. On the other side, it was an opportunity to see whether Chicago could take their show on the road after two home wins over struggling Eastern Conference rivals.
Throughout the first half, it looked like the Liberty were going to have to petition the league to let them play San Antonio at least 20 times this year if they wanted to make the playoffs. The defense was awful, especially on the perimeter, and Chicago were knocking down wide-open jumpers at will. This is a Sky squad that does nothing except take jump shots, whenever they can’t create turnovers or get the ball into Sylvia Fowles inside, so leaving them all standing in several feet of space to shoot whenever they felt like it seemed like a bad idea. Chicago were 27-14 ahead after only the first quarter, and already 4-6 from three-point range.
This wasn’t really the fault of the standard holes in John Whisenant’s ‘White-Line Defense’. The big fear there was that Sylvia Fowles would take advantage of them down low as several teams have this year, and the other weakness is quick ball reversal to players who are wide open on the weak side. The Sky didn’t need to make difficult passes across to the other side of the floor – they were just standing there wide open anyway. Ball movement didn’t have much to do with it and Fowles only had four points.
The second quarter was a little better for New York. They extended the defense out slightly, Chicago unsurprisingly went cold – they tend to miss quite a lot from outside, even though they love the jump shot – and the game evened out. The Liberty weren’t making much of a comeback just yet, but at least the lead wasn’t getting any bigger. It was 49-38 Chicago at halftime. The positive for the Sky, beyond simply hitting some shots and being in front, was that they’d kept the turnovers down. After giving the ball away 21 times in their previous game against Atlanta and a similarly ridiculous number in several other games, six in a half was a significant achievement. The positives for New York were only being down 11 and having kept most members of the sparse crowd just about conscious. Franchise player Cappie Pondexter had just five points on four shots.
New York came out more aggressive in the second half and made a run, started by the much-maligned (often by me) Nicole Powell. The other central pieces to the New York comeback in the third quarter were Essence Carson and Quanitra Hollingsworth. Carson was making her first appearance in a while after missing two games due to an eye injury, playing in a funky pair of shades to protect the damaged area. Her offense was still just as good as it had been this season before she got hurt. Hollingsworth was having probably the most effective game of her professional career, considering she spent two years as a complete afterthought in Minnesota. While she’s done okay as a backup in New York this season, the main thing that could be said about her was “she’s certainly big”. It’s nice if people can come up with something complimentary to say about you that’s a bit more detailed than that. Yesterday afternoon Q was dropping in layups and short jumpers, playing a key role in getting the Liberty back in the game, all while going up against Big Syl and Michelle Snow in the Chicago frontcourt. You can’t ask for much more than that.
New York finally tied the contest at 60-60 early in the fourth quarter, before Snow quickly put Chicago back ahead on a driving layup, a mid-range jumper and the foul shot that came with the latter when Plenette Pierson fouled her. New York made another little run and finally snuck in front with just over three minutes left on a pair of Pondexter free throws, and after trading more buckets a Pondexter three tied the game with barely a minute to play. Fowles, looking a little fatigued after the load she’s been asked to carry for the Sky this season, couldn’t convert over Nicole Powell down low. Epiphanny Prince then quickly gave up on trying to get the ball inside to Fowles, choosing to drive instead only to miss a double-pump layup attempt. That was followed by the play that won the game. Pondexter drove the left side past Erin Thorn, who couldn’t guard Cappie if she was allowed to use a harpoon. Fowles rotated down to cut Pondexter off, and she kicked out to Carson for a wide open three from the top of the arc, which she knocked down without a second thought. Chicago’s defense had completely lost Carson on a very simple loop around the baseline before she swung back around.
The rest of Chicago’s attempts weren’t pretty. Kraayeveld missed a three attempt badly from the corner, before they had to start fouling. Pondexter extended the lead to five at the line, and after a couple more ugly attempts from behind the arc by the Sky, the home crowd got to make the long trip home happy. Two more from the line in the final seconds left the final score as 80-73 New York.
Once they got that horrible first quarter out of the way, this was a decent performance by the Liberty. After letting the Sky go 4-6 from three-point range in the first quarter, they held them to 1-11 for the rest of the game, and that was the difference. Chicago aren’t good enough to make those shots if you can stay close to them outside, and they’ll start giving the ball up as well, as the 15 second-half turnovers illustrated. Pondexter woke up in the fourth quarter, finishing the game with 18 points, and Essence Carson matched that with 18 of her own. Having Carson back is huge for this team, because they have no bench scoring at all without her (assuming the 11 from Hollingsworth isn’t going to become a regular occurrence, which seems a safe guess). She gives them someone besides Cappie who can create offense for herself, which is very useful for a team that struggles to find easy shots on a regular basis. The defense still has holes, but it’s looking better. The baby steps continue.
Not a pleasant second half for Chicago. The turnover problem returned with a vengeance yet again, and once again Sylvia Fowles finished a game without enough possessions where the ball was in her hands. In fact, anyone remember me writing “if they turn the ball over 21 times and only get Big Syl eight attempts on too many more nights, that record will start sliding backwards again” just yesterday? Guess how many shots Syl had, and how many turnovers the Sky finished with? Yep, right on the nose.
I’ve talked about the issues with rookie point guard Courtney Vandersloot before, but they also have some questions to deal with in regards to her backcourt partner, Epiphanny Prince. It’s become a double-edged sword. They need Prince to be aggressive, take a lot of shots and provide perimeter offense, because there aren’t many other options on the roster. Someone has to score out there. But she’s taking too many shots, including several that are forced and have a low probability of success, because she knows that the onus is on her to produce. They need her to be a touch more selective about her shots, and get back to force-feeding Fowles more than they have been lately. I know it’s hard, because every gameplan for facing Chicago centers on stopping Big Syl, but they still have to keep her as their focus. Prince is a Most Improved Player candidate, but Fowles could be in the running for MVP. It’s pretty clear who needs to be more central to the offense.
The other game last night was literally over inside five minutes. In fact, it might’ve been the most ridiculously one-sided opening to a professional basketball game I have ever seen in my life. And while I’m not that old, I’ve watched an awful lot of basketball.
Tulsa knew that they hadn’t taken Phoenix’s best shot when they faced them two days earlier back in Oklahoma, before Nolan Richardson ‘resigned’ and was replaced by Teresa Edwards. Still, they can’t have been expecting the onslaught that came at them from the opening tip yesterday afternoon. The Mercury did not miss a shot in the first six and a half minutes of action, were 21-3 ahead before five minutes were up, and when DeWanna Bonner hit a three in the final seconds of the quarter it closed the opening period out at 36-9. Marie Ferdinand-Harris was the only Mercury player who missed in the first quarter, going 0-2. The rest of the team was 15-15, including 5-5 from three-point range and 18 points in the paint, mostly on fastbreak layups. The Shock players, the crowd, people watching at home – everyone was just stunned. Phoenix’s speedy offense and Tulsa’s miserable transition defense can lead to things like this, but it’s rarely this overwhelming. Comebacks have obviously happened in basketball from 27 points behind, but you would’ve bet your house on this one being done. There was no way the Shock were coming back from that.
You can’t blame this on Edwards, who’d only been in the job for a day, most of which was spent travelling. Starting point guard Ivory Latta was still out, with what is now being reported as a staph infection in her shoulder (so ‘infection’ and ‘shoulder injury’ both turned out to be true). Edwards made a switch from Richardson’s final game, putting Andrea Riley in ahead of Doneeka Lewis at the point. Promoting Riley into my starting lineup wouldn’t have been the first act I’d have wanted to make as a WNBA head coach, but she has been with the Shock for a lot longer than Lewis. Still, it was an odd move considering Lewis had done a reasonable job against the Mercury on Friday. Regardless, I doubt it would’ve made much difference.
The Shock looked horrible in that opening quarter, but they were the same problems we’ve seen for the last year and a half under Richardson – lack of organisation, atrocious transition defense, and a general deficit in talent compared to their opponents. It’s going to take Edwards – or whoever comes in – quite some time to sort out most of those issues. You’ll have to forgive me for not paying too much attention to the rest of the game. It was literally 30 minutes of garbage time. At halftime Phoenix were up 60-28, and still shooting over 77% from the floor. In the second half, the starters only came back on the floor because the bench players needed an occasional break. If this was a fight, the ref would’ve been waving his arms and awarding the TKO long before the final bell rang on the 102-68 Mercury win.
I don’t know what you can take from this game. Tulsa are awful, and Edwards has a lot of work ahead of her, but we knew that. Phoenix can run away from teams – especially bad ones – when they’re on song, but we knew that too. It’ll be recalled as one of the most extraordinary opening quarters in WNBA history, and no one will bother remembering the other 30 minutes for longer than it took them to drive home. Welcome to the WNBA coaching ranks, Ms Edwards, and good luck. You’re going to need it.
In other news…
Cappie Pondexter and Sue Bird were named Player of the Week in their respective conferences. Very solid choices, although Cappie almost left it too late to start racking up the numbers in yesterday’s game. I expected Bird to be beaten out by someone from Phoenix, who went 3-0 this week (vs. Seattle’s 1-1), but the official release didn’t mention any Mercury players as ‘other candidates’. So maybe Phoenix felt that beating up on Tulsa twice shouldn’t lead to a P.O.W. award. Or maybe they just forgot to get the nominations in. Either way, I’m happy because I would’ve given it to Bird anyway.