Before we tackle last night’s game, first let’s take a look at all the roster movement that’s been going on today. As I mentioned here a couple of times this week, any non-guaranteed contract that is still on a team’s roster at the mid-point of the WNBA season automatically becomes guaranteed for the rest of the season. We hit that mid-point today, so several teams waived players late last night and the names have been trickling out all day long. In alphabetical team order:
Angie Bjorklund was waived by the Sky, which wouldn’t have been a huge surprise even if it wasn’t the day before deals became guaranteed. Rookie wing Bjorklund really hasn’t done much all year, and has barely played. On the rare occasions she’s appeared, she’s looked like the old version of Erin Thorn – the one who couldn’t do anything except stand around and shoot – only with less talent. That’s a fringe WNBA player at best.
There’s been no sign yet as to who the Sky will fill the roster spot with. It’s quite possible it’ll simply be Bjorklund returning, because the mid-point of the season is also when seven-day contracts become an option. Cutting Bjorklund means they’re not locked into paying her deal for the rest of the season, but could fill that 11th spot with, say, a point guard if Courtney Vandersloot got hurt, or a center if Sylvia Fowles went down. They’ve got plenty of cap space to cut Bjorklund later in the year, pay off the balance of her salary and then sign that necessary player, but this way is much cheaper. The only risk would be losing Bjorklund if some other team wanted to offer her a full deal for the rest of the year. Not much of a risk in this case.
If it’s not Bjorklund coming straight back, it’d be nice to see them sign someone who can actually get to the rim. As I’ve been harping on all season, their attack is largely Fowles in the post and jump shots from everyone else, which means they take far too many low-percentage shots. Someone who attacks the basket off the dribble would be a nice addition to their arsenal, if they can find her. They still hold the restricted free agent rights to Shay Murphy, for what that’s worth. I’m not convinced that someone who got comprehensively beaten out by Anna DeForge for a place on the Montenegrin team at this year’s EuroBasket Women is exactly the answer to all the Sky’s problems though.
The Sun waived veteran post DeMya Walker. That’s all they’ve officially announced, but tweets from the woman herself and this page suggest that the replacement is Jessica Breland. Taken 13th in this year’s draft and surprisingly waived by New York nearly three weeks ago – in a move that still doesn’t make any sense to me – Breland’s a rookie post who flashed some skills in her brief opportunities with the Liberty.
She had stamina issues in college after missing an entire year receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and those physical limitations may well have played a part in New York releasing her, but it’s not like the Sun need her to play heavy minutes. Behind Asjha Jones and Tina Charles, with Kelsey Griffin and Jessica Moore already there to help out as backups, Breland is only going to be playing 10 or 15 minutes a night maximum. Given that, she can provide additional depth to their post options, and could develop into a solid WNBA rotation player given time. That’s certainly more useful to Connecticut than Walker, who’s very much on the downswing of her career and no longer really fit with the Sun (if she ever did).
Assuming she’s reasonably healthy, someone might find a use for Walker’s veteran smarts and strength this year, maybe even her old head coach John Whisenant in New York. At the same time, I also wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve seen the last of her on a WNBA court. If so, she’s had a pretty good career for a player that didn’t even make the league out of college. She was a central part of those mid-00s Sacramento Monarch teams, won a ring, and if it hadn’t been for a multitude of injuries would’ve piled up even stronger numbers over her WNBA career.
At first it seemed odd that rookie post Krystal Thomas didn’t appear in the Storm’s game last night. Not that Brian Agler leaving her on the bench would’ve been remotely unusual, but even he usually finds minutes for everyone in complete blowouts. Then I remembered the date, and that if she got hurt in the game they wouldn’t have been able to waive her and remove her salary from the books (you have to agree a buyout figure if the player’s injured). So it all made sense when news trickled out after the game that Thomas had been waived.
It’s not a surprise considering that Agler seems reluctant to trust her, recent signing Ewelina Kobryn instantly moved ahead of her as Seattle’s “pull in case of emergency post”, and the Storm are one of the two teams in the league right up against the salary cap. It made sense for them to create some flexibility by opening up a spot before all 11 players were guaranteed their money. That means that they may well simply be going to re-sign Thomas on seven-day contracts, unless they have anyone in mind they consider a better option. The Storm really needed the extra cap room and options that the free roster space creates – unlike the other teams that were mostly just trying to save a few bucks.
If Agler feels that the development of Ashley Robinson and presence of Kobryn gives him enough cover down low, shooter Allie Quigley may be the most likely perimeter option. She was training with the Storm last week, so presumably adding her to the roster is at least under consideration. Even with Katie Smith knocking down a few shots lately, they could use some guard depth as well.
In Storm fans’ dreams, the eventual 11th player would be Svetlana Abrosimova, their first guard off the bench last year when they strolled to a championship. Signing Svet later in the season was always an option, and I’m sure Agler would be very open to it, but Svet would have to be interested. As far as I know she’s still resting after her endeavours for Russia in EuroBasket Women, helping them win that tournament and qualify for the Olympics, despite playing most of it out of position at point guard. I’m not sure she’ll fancy dragging herself back out on the floor so soon to help out Seattle.
Washington technically haven’t announced anything today, hence they don’t get their own section. Still, news drifted out of Tulsa that they’d waived recent pickup Doneeka Lewis, and various press outlets are reporting that they’ve signed Karima Christmas as her replacement. Probably the first time I’ve ever heard of someone being signed by a WNBA team before I’d even heard they were released by their previous franchise. It makes perfect sense that the two teams involved are Washington and Tulsa, who’ve both been an organisational mess in recent times.
For Tulsa it makes sense, solely because Christmas is a young player who might develop into something more given time. Lewis looked okay in her brief time with the Shock, but she’s had several cracks at the WNBA, just turned 29, and is unlikely to ever be much more than she already is. Christmas has struggled to get off Trudi Lacey’s bench lately in Washington, but she had a couple of good games back in June as a shooter and reasonably mobile wing with decent size. As with the Abi Olajuwon addition for Marion Jones, I like the effort to get younger. If you’re going to suck, suck with players who might develop into something better in a year or two. Not aging vets who’ll be long gone by the time you turn the franchise around.
For Washington, who knows what the hell’s going on. It might mean that Alana Beard is finally on the edge of making a return, which would require ending Kerri Gardin’s emergency hardship contract, and they want to retain Gardin in the spot that’s now opened up by releasing Christmas. It might mean there’s someone else Lacey wants to bring in. I might mean they forgot how many players they’re supposed to have on the roster. At this point, I’d believe practically anything.
And that’s about your lot for releases, as far as I know at this point. Considering the shroud of secrecy that the WNBA sometimes seems to work under, it’s possible that more will leak out over the weekend. I will, of course, let you know if that’s the case.
On to the actual basketball. The first game last night was Chicago’s trip to Indiana. The Fever were looking to arrest the mini-slide they were on after losing their last three games, while Chicago are still searching for some consistency after bouncing from win to loss to win to loss all season long. The Sky have also been a horrible road team, going just 1-6 on their travels, and the win was in Washington so it barely counts. New head coach Pokey Chatman has them playing better basketball than in previous years, but they’re still not exactly good a lot of the time. With Atlanta showing signs of life from the fifth spot in the East, Chicago may need to learn how to win on the road to hold on to their playoff spot.
Facing the Sky’s big front line of Sylvia Fowles and Michelle Snow, the Fever went back to a more traditional starting lineup after going small against Atlanta on Tuesday. Tangela Smith was back in at power forward, with guard Shavonte Zellous returning to the bench and Tamika Catchings swinging back out to her natural small forward spot. Tammy Sutton-Brown kept her newly-reclaimed starting spot ahead of Jessica Davenport at center. Chicago continued with their usual five.
The good thing for Indiana about playing Chicago with Catchings at the three is that it matches her up against Cathrine Kraayeveld. As this season’s gone on, we’ve seen more and more teams hide their worst perimeter defender on Kraay, because everyone knows that all she’s going to do offensively is jack up a few threes. That’s about the extent of her offensive arsenal. For the Fever, it was the opposite approach – they had arguably the best defender in the women’s game on Kraay. Catch knew that she could gamble away from Kraayeveld and essentially play free safety, causing even more havoc around the floor than she usually does on defense. It freed her up to do whatever she wanted defensively, as long as she was within about ten yards of Kraayeveld to challenge her on the occasional kick-out.
I started from that point because Indy’s defense is really what this game was about. It was a contest for about seven minutes of the first quarter because the Fever were struggling to score themselves, but eventually they found a way to put some points on the board. The game was all but over from there. Indiana’s gameplan was fairly simple – someone beat us besides Sylvia Fowles. Apart from the occasional outburst from Epiphanny Prince, no one on the Sky has proven they can do that all year, so it’s a solid foundation to come out with against Chicago. Whenever the ball went in to Fowles in the post, Indiana instantly double-teamed hard, leading to Fowles kicking the ball back out. She didn’t have much choice. Indiana trusted their other defenders to rotate when necessary, and trusted Chicago to miss most of their outside shots even if the rotation didn’t get there. Also a solid plan, given all the evidence so far this year.
When Chicago brought Fowles out to set screens for pick-and-rolls instead of just trying to feed her in the post, Indy hedged hard, double-teaming and trapping the guard who was coming off the Fowles screen. Instead of putting them on the back foot – which is what going under the screens and following Fowles on the roll would do – the Fever’s approach made the pass back to Fowles very difficult, however open she was. A couple of times, Chicago exploited that defensive tactic by passing away from the trap quickly to any other teammate, then feeding to Fowles under the hoop before rotation help could get there. Most of the time the Fever traps led to Sky turnovers or an offensive possession that ground to a halt, while defenders had time to get back into position on Fowles. Chicago were flummoxed.
Any Sky possession that wasn’t a feed to Fowles in the post or a high Fowles screen simply ended in a perimeter jump shot, usually with a Fever defender in the shooter’s face. Chicago have been missing plenty of those all year, whether anyone’s up on them or not. Nothing changed last night. Indiana were up 18-11 by the end of the first quarter, and when Shannon Bobbitt came into the game and drove both Courtney Vandersloot and Erin Thorn nuts with her pesky on-ball defense it got worse. Bobbitt stripped both of them for steals that became breakaway layups, then hit a three, and with balanced scoring from around the rest of the team the Fever were 41-27 up at halftime. Fowles had 12 points at the break but she’d had to work damn hard for every last one of them, and no one had offered her any help.
There’s nothing much worth saying about the second half. The main note I made was “this is over”, written very early in the half. I added “really over” a couple of minutes later. The lead was only 15 or so at most points in the last 20 minutes, but it never felt like Chicago had a prayer of getting back into it. Indiana were too smart, too well organised, and too good defensively to let that happen. Plus Chicago still take too many shots from outside and not enough of them go in. Indiana ran out 77-63 winners, and it was far more comfortable than that sounds.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – this is a really mediocre Chicago team. Fowles finished the game 9-11 from the floor for 21 points (and only one rebound, bizarrely, but we’ll put that down as a single-game aberration). Typically you’d want her taking more than 11 shots, especially when she’s shooting that efficiently, but Indiana just didn’t let it happen. They’re too good for this team. Chicago can’t shoot well enough to keep playing the way that they are. They don’t hit enough of the mid-range and long-range jumpers that end up being a central part of their offense to be consistently effective against decent teams. I still think they’re ultimately a barely .500 team because the flaws in their young roster are going to keep them there. I’d be worried about that three-game winning streak Atlanta have just struck up, if I were Pokey Chatman.
Back to winning ways for Indiana, and they did it like the Fever teams of old. Play strong, hard-nosed, annoying defense for 40 minutes and find enough offense from somewhere to take care of the rest. Jessica Davenport had 20 points off the bench, responding to her benching by taking the game to Chicago’s post players, including Fowles, whenever she was on the floor. Katie Douglas only had nine points, but added seven rebounds and seven assists, and the Fever spread the ball around nicely all night. There was no need for Douglas to try to shoot her way out of the semi-slump she’s been in lately. Plus the game was finished so early that the pressure was off the stars to have to produce offensively. Zellous barely played, and her minutes have been bouncing around strangely lately, but maybe she’s carrying some kind of injury which Lin Dun is trying to help her nurse along. If so, the All-Star break can only help her. The Fever’s first game back next week is in Connecticut, against their closest current rivals at the top of the East. Should be interesting to see if Indiana only performed better in this one because they’re so noticeably superior to the Sky – or if they’ve really re-found their groove.
Who would’ve thought that after that painfully one-sided affair, we’d have ended up with an even bigger blowout in the night’s other game? Seattle were undoubtedly happy to be home, after a three-game road trip through San Antonio, Minnesota and Chicago that resulted in three losses and featured sub-40% shooting by the Storm. That’s not good. At the same time, this team still has only one home loss in the last season-and-a-half, and they’ve won all their home games since Lauren Jackson got hurt. Key Arena may not be completely impenetrable, but it’s still pretty damn close. San Antonio came in having won their last two games, but one was a narrow home victory over this same undermanned and recently dishevelled Seattle team, and the other was over an LA Sparks team in disarray. Before that, the Silver Stars had lost three in a row. A win over Seattle in the Key, even without LJ, would’ve provided a significant extra boost before they headed back home for the All-Star game.
Ashley Robinson retained her starting spot at center for Seattle, after her excellent performance against Chicago in her first start a few days earlier. San Antonio continue to start Scholanda Robinson at small forward, with Jia Perkins coming off the bench. As it turned out, there were a lot of similarities between this game and the Indiana-Chicago matchup earlier in the evening. It was close early, then the home team’s defense took over the contest, and it was blowout-city.
Some pretty moves from Sophia Young kept San Antonio involved in the first quarter, but as we’ve established throughout the year, besides Young and occasionally Danielle Adams, this is a jump shooting team. Seattle played physical defense, they shut down cutting lanes and passing angles, they closed out strongly on shooters, and as a result San Antonio simply couldn’t score. It was that basic. A Young free throw gave the Silver Stars a 14-13 lead with 1:46 left in the first quarter. By halftime, Seattle were ahead 38-22. In nearly 12 minutes of basketball, San Antonio had scraped together only eight points. And one of those was a technical free throw.
This was the Seattle team we watched last year. Jackson may have been in street clothes on the bench acting as the highest-paid cheerleader in the arena, but the team ethic and performance was the same. The defense shuts the opposition down, the Storm confidence builds from there, and then the offense gets working. And for once, it really was. They were actually hitting layups, for crying out loud! The layup has seemed like a dying art in Storm games of late, because they couldn’t create anything down low or find any seams in opposition defenses. Largely speaking they weren’t missing at the rim – they couldn’t even get there to try in the first place. The likes of Camille Little, Le’coe Willingham and even Robinson were sealing defenders off like they’re supposed to, receiving the ball in the paint, and finishing the play. That’s how it’s meant to work. And when you see those kind of baskets dropping in, you work up a rhythm and start hitting the jumpers from further out. Seattle were 48% from the floor in the first half, against San Antonio’s horrendous 22%. The Storm were up 22-13 on the glass as well, but it was those shooting numbers that made the difference against typically one of the best defensive teams in the WNBA. Even the Storm bench was showing up San Antonio’s ballyhooed reserve corps, up 15-0 in the first half behind Katie Smith, Belinda Snell and Willingham. The Silver Stars didn’t have any answers.
The second half was essentially an enormous amount of garbage time. Seattle came out of the locker room, forced five straight turnovers on the first five San Antonio possessions, hit four buckets of their own and the game was toast. If it wasn’t already. The lead reached a high-point of 28, San Antonio made a few inroads once Agler started using his bench and the game ended 73-55. Once again, it was hardly that close.
That’s Storm basketball. Tough defense, moving the ball, and physically dominating opponents, even without much size. They don’t need it. Because of the defense, and because her teammates were so lively, Sue Bird only took four shots all night. She had zero points in that strong first half, and I’m sure she couldn’t care less. Yes, on a lot of nights they’ll need more points than usual from Bird with LJ out of the lineup, but when her teammates play well enough to let her stick with her natural game, dictating the pace and conducting the offense, they’re a vastly better team. Bird’s a vastly better player. Tanisha Wright showed up with 17 on 7-11 shooting; Swin Cash was raining in threes as the game went on without a care in the world; and the bench, as a group, went 7-12 for 25 points. That’s practically unheard of for Seattle this season.
Hopefully it’s a turning point for the Storm, but the key question is whether they can take this form on the road. They’re a Jekyll and Hyde team right now, playing decent stuff at the Key (rising to the level of excellent last night), but looking lost and toothless in other arenas. August could be a good month anyway, because 8 of their 12 games are in Seattle, but before that there’s a three-game road trip featuring Phoenix and Minnesota as the first two stops. They’ll feel a hell of a lot better heading into August if they can produce a performance like this on one of their rivals’ floors before the end of July.
San Antonio are still a good team. One night of 28% shooting against a superior defensive team who finally performed up to their potential doesn’t negate that. I’m sure if you’d offered Dan Hughes a 9-5 record going into the break at the start of the season he’d have bitten your hand off. But I still worry about their lack of rebounding and lack of post offense. It’ll probably take a massive collapse to drop them out of the playoffs at this point, but even with the shooting skills of players like Hammon, Young and Adams, they take a lot of shots that are relatively low-percentage. And they regularly get killed on the boards. You’ve got to play very good defense and/or light it up from outside to compensate for those issues, and frequently the Silver Stars do both of those things. But can they keep it up for the rest of the season and into the playoffs?
In other news…
Brian Agler announced today that Rebekkah Brunson will replace Candace Parker as the starter for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game tomorrow. She’s a worthy choice for her performances this season, especially as there isn’t a true five on the team who deserved to slide into the spot. The crowd will enjoy cheering for Danielle Adams when she enters the game off the bench as she does for San Antonio anyway, so there was no need to push the home-team rookie into the starting lineup.
ESPN’s ‘experts’ (the quote marks are there for Graham Hays and Carolyn Peck – I actually quite like Mechelle Voepel and have no opinion on Michelle Smith) selected their All-Time WNBA Top-15, which for the record had two differences from the 15 I selected a few weeks ago. They have Deanna Nolan and Taj McWilliams-Franklin instead of Teresa Weatherspoon and Chamique Holdsclaw, which is at least defendable. Very surprised that not a single one of them voted for Claw though, or even mentioned her in their brief comments. Maybe they hold her walkouts and diva moments against her even more than the fans.
Eastern Conference @ Western Conference, 3.30pm ET, live on ABC