For the second year in a row, Kara Braxton has found herself packing her bags just before the WNBA trade deadline. Less than 12 months ago she was brought in by Phoenix in the hope that she’d be the necessary final piece to win another championship, at the expense of a first-round draft pick. This time, they’ve given her away for the very last player on the end of the New York Liberty bench. What a difference a year makes.
Braxton is an enormously frustrating player. For someone with such a huge frame, she actually moves fairly well in the paint (although often not from one end of the floor to the other). She can be an efficient scorer inside, she’s got some range, and she’s not afraid to use that big body to fight it out for rebounds. But it comes at a price. While she’s been better in recent years, she was well known in her Detroit years for boneheaded errors that cost her team points, possessions and momentum. At times, she’s a turnover waiting to happen. It’s only so annoying because you can see frequent flashes of just how gifted she is, which makes the mistakes all the more disappointing. And that’s just the negatives on the floor.
Braxton missed Tuesday’s game in Minnesota due to a one-game suspension for ‘conduct detrimental to the team’. Exactly what that was still remains a matter of speculation, but some reports suggest she ‘mouthed off’ to head coach Corey Gaines. Reportedly she wasn’t at practice on Thursday, but there was no information as to whether she just didn’t show up, or if the team told her to stay away. It’s far from the first time that Braxton has had behavioural issues. She was thrown off the team at the University of Georgia after multiple suspensions for conduct issues. She’s been suspended twice in the WNBA, for a total of eight games, for DUI convictions. It’s left her with a reputation as something of a malcontent and headcase which can hardly be considered undeserved, and makes the recent events in Phoenix unsurprising. But they knew all this coming in. The Mercury traded for her despite all the baggage, considered her worth a draft pick that they knew was going to be mid-first round (eventually 7th overall, which became Kayla Pedersen), and then gave her a max-level contract extension through 2012. Either Corey Gaines’s skin has grown awfully thin, or there was more to this than a little mouthing off.
Braxton’s had a pretty good season. Until the suspension, she’d started every contest for the Mercury, averaged 20 minutes per game, over 10 points, five rebounds, all while shooting a career-best 56% from the field. At times she’s struggled to keep up with the pace Phoenix play at – stamina has often been a problem during her career – but she seemed to be fitting in with their style as long as her minutes were restricted. She gave them a big presence in the paint that the run-and-gun Mercury hadn’t had in recent years.
So New York are getting a talented player. Kia Vaughn, Plenette Pierson and even backup Quanitra Hollingsworth have been doing pretty well for the Liberty, but they’d definitely been stretched a little thin. When Pierson missed a game in mid-July with a patella tendon strain, they looked desperately short of backup. The recent addition of rookie Ta’Shia Phillips added some depth in the paint, but she’s a project and not entirely healthy, so Braxton is a significant upgrade to their options. Pierson and Vaughn deserve to retain their starting spots, but Braxton has come off the bench for much of her career so hopefully that shouldn’t be a problem. She may struggle with John Whisenant’s defense initially, but her offensive skills and physical presence will be a boost regardless.
The only question is whether Braxton’s personality and attitude issues will cause more trouble than she’s worth. She has a relationship with Pierson from their Detroit days which might help keep her under control, but the DUIs both happened back then and the headcase moments were common on the floor – it’s not like Bill Laimbeer and her Shock teammates kept her in check back then. As with Phoenix trading for her last season, it’s a bit of a flyer for New York, but one that they felt was worth taking. Given how little they gave up, they’re probably right.
In contract terms, it’s probably not a trade that will hurt the Liberty, but it might complicate matters a little. Braxton is probably overpaid – although anyone over 6-3 who’s mildly productive ends up with a max deal in this league. The Liberty have acres of cap room this year, but Essence Carson and Leilani Mitchell both come off their rookie deals at the end of this season, making them restricted free agents. They’ll need to be re-signed, and both will receive a significant raises. We don’t know for certain where next year’s cap will fall yet; it’s currently back up at the full level listed in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but that was a large jump from the previous year. If it was cut again, the Libs might regret taking on Braxton’s deal, but that’s something to worry about in the summer.
All New York had to give up for Braxton was Sidney Spencer, cheerleader extraordinaire. Spencer’s had a bizarre WNBA career. After a promising rookie season in LA where many people thought she’d be part of the Sparks for years to come, future seasons revealed her shortcomings in all their glory. Basically, she can shoot. That’s it. She’s not quick, at all, her defense leaves a lot to be desired, and she’s never really had a true position at the WNBA level. Too slow to guard perimeter players, too weak to play in the post. She’s become best known for being acquired by New York in a trade for the first-round draft pick that eventually became Tina Charles. At least now the Liberty can say they eventually received a talented center in return for that pick, even if it took a couple of years and she wasn’t exactly the calibre of Charles.
Spencer has barely played in the last couple of years in New York. Whisenant seemed to have found some use for her in his system, and she’s had a few productive cameo appearances, but nothing consistent. She’s also reportedly been carrying a back injury, but nothing that appears to be too serious. Phoenix could be her natural home. She should really have been in this system for years, and if she’s going to produce anywhere in the WNBA, it’ll be with the Mercury. All they do is play offense, and all Spencer can do is shoot, so she should fit right in. They may also be willing to let her play as a pseudo-power forward, the position I’ve been saying for years that she’ll have to settle at if she’s ever going to get consistent minutes at this level. She’s certainly bigger than Penny Taylor, who played a lot of 4 for the Mercury a couple of years ago, so we’ll see. Spencer’s also a bundle of positive energy, constantly jumping off the bench and cheering her teammates on. That should be a breath of fresh air after Braxton’s moodiness. It could be a great fit; it’s just that Spencer’s not really the kind of player you want to give up your starting center for.
What the Mercury are going to do at center now is the main question remaining. Nakia Sanford started on Tuesday and she’s serviceable, albeit an odd fit for the Mercury. She’s defensive-minded, has practically no range, and until recently Gaines seemed to have little use for her – despite the significant amount of money the Mercury signed her for in the offseason. Olayinka Sanni is another big body who may see more time now as well. What we’ll likely see a lot more of is DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree as the pairing in the post. Neither of them resembles anything like a true center, but it takes the Mercury back to how they looked when Tangela Smith was their theoretical center. Bonner’s the best defender on the team, so giving her more minutes certainly isn’t a bad idea, but it’s an awfully slim post duo and a very thin rotation. But then, if Braxton was really enough of an issue to warrant this move, maybe the improvement in the atmosphere around the team will be a significant change on its own.
It’s surprising that Spencer is all Phoenix could get. She might be a nice fit for them, but she’s been an afterthought in this league for a while, and Braxton is a talented starting center. Those are rare. Headcase or not, people are usually willing to take a chance on talent, and pay for it.
New York receive all that ability, wrapped up in a frustratingly enigmatic character. On paper it looks like they got a steal, and the move was a no-brainer. You just have to hope that Braxton’s personality isn’t more of a detriment to the team than the basketball skills she brings with her.
New York: B+ A skilled 6-6 center for practically nothing. That’s a win however moody she is.
Phoenix: D You traded for her, you extended her, you knew the risks. And then you dumped her for pennies on the dollar. Ouch.
Braxton: C Another stain on her record, and likely going from starter to reserve. But maybe she’ll be happier around an old friend or two, and at least it’s still a playoff team.
Spencer: A+ Going where she always belonged. On a team where defense is an afterthought. If you can’t make it here Sidney, you can’t make it anywhere.