I hate overreacting to early season results. Plenty of teams start off slowly and gain steam, and in a competition where a ridiculous two-thirds of the league makes the playoffs, finishing well in September can mean a lot more than starting hot in May. But barely a week into the WNBA regular season, some fans in Seattle and New York are showing signs of panic. And if you’ve watched their performances so far, frankly it’s not hard to understand why.
The Liberty faced Minnesota on Tuesday night, in their second ‘home opener’ (their first home game was shifted back to Madison Square Garden due to scheduling conflicts, so this was the first 2012 game in Jersey at the Prudential Center). For the few fans that showed up – and we’re talking a Mystics-sized crowd – it wasn’t pretty. Last year’s champs toyed with them for a while, batting them around like a kitten trying to decide what to do with a tasty little morsel it’d found in the garden, before pouncing to finish them off. The 80-62 final scoreline didn’t accurately represent how close the score had been through much of the game, but it was a fair reflection of the gap between the performances.
Now I was the one cautioning New York fans against panicking following their 0-2 start in back-to-back openers against Connecticut. And I hold to my basic view from the weekend – there’s talent on this roster, and I think they’ll win some games. But my definition of ‘some’ is starting to trend downwards. The energy and activity of the Lynx players, especially after head coach Cheryl Reeve got the chance to wake them up a bit at halftime, was simply higher than the Liberty group. There’s a much greater confidence and belief that just doesn’t sem to be there with the Libs. Of course, you’d expect last year’s champions – and this year’s favourites – to have a lot of confidence. This is more about how ineffective and aimless the Liberty seemed to be.
John Whisenant’s teams often take a while to get going, as everyone tries to work out what they’re supposed to be doing in his system. But most of this roster was there last season, and the likes of Nicole Powell and DeMya Walker played for him for years in Sacramento as well. There should be a comfort level there already. The infamous ‘White-Line Defense’ doesn’t work very well unless everyone really buys into it and works hard. Fronting in the post isn’t easy, because you have to be constantly aware of both your man and the passer, and cut off as many passing lanes as possible. Then on the weak side, you have to keep an eye on both your man and the ball, then rotate very quickly to help when necessary. But then, working hard and keeping your eyes open is pretty much a prerequisite whatever defense you’re playing. A lot of this has nothing to do with the system.
On a basic level, Minnesota have more talent than New York. Settling for an outside jumper often isn’t a big deal when it’s Seimone Augustus or Maya Moore shooting the ball. New York have Cappie Pondexter, and then the hope that she’ll get enough help from the cast of characters around her on any given night. Nicole Powell continues to hit the occasional shot to taunt the fans into thinking she might have one of her increasingly rare big nights – then fade into obscurity for the rest of the evening. Plenette Pierson will always give you everything she has, but can only do so much. Kara Braxton has plenty of talent, but will make at least a couple of dumbass mistakes in every game that make you want to throttle her. Plus she’s clearly not in shape to play too many minutes on any single night. Kia Vaughn is a complementary piece, whose confidence probably hasn’t been helped by losing her starting spot to Braxton. Essence Carson can score – and had a nice game against the Lynx – but she’s a bit of a ballstopper and rarely creates anything for anyone else. Her minutes also continue to be limited by Whiz’s fondness for Powell. The Kelly Miller/Leilani Mitchell pairing at the point doesn’t offer much firepower offensively whichever one you go with, and also won’t create much for their teammates. They’ve got a lot of pieces, but it’s not the easiest puzzle to assemble and gain results.
Plus they’ve just looked a little moribund early this season. Whether it’s because they don’t like the system, or they’re tired after seasons overseas, or they lack belief themselves that this roster’s good enough to win – it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of energy around the team. Even Pondexter seemed to drift through a lot of the Lynx game, before trying to turn it on late in the contest when it was already too late. Also, the ‘turn-it-on’ mentality isn’t helping this team much. They didn’t move the ball well against Minnesota, which leads to one-on-one attempts to score rather than rotation to open players and open shots. Five assists in the whole game told the story, and all five of those were in the first half. You’re not going to beat a team that plays solid defense like the Lynx with solo scorer mentalities.
Of course, all is not lost. After only three games, New York have plenty of time to find their groove, and gain some belief in themselves. While the top-end talent may not be as impressive, they’ve got more depth than a lot of teams in this league and that’ll come into play as the season progresses. They’re also one of the very few teams that will have an intact roster through the Olympic break, allowing them to both rest and practice together. The early stages of a WNBA season are often about staying in contention, more than building a lead, and one or two wins could quickly change the mood around the Liberty. The first chance arrives tomorrow, against an Atlanta team with issues of its own.
Over on the west coast, Seattle are only 0-2 so far, but some of their issues might be even more worrying than New York’s. Two games against a freshly energised LA team that are trying to impress their new coach – one of which Seattle absolutely should’ve won – may not be the most accurate way to judge the Storm. But some of their problems were eminently predictable, and aren’t exactly new. As with the Liberty, Seattle will be expecting to improve in the second-half of the season – in their case thanks to the addition of Lauren Jackson. But they can’t keep playing like this until the break and expect things to turn around. Keep going like this and Jackson might as well stay home.
Turnovers have been a key problem for the Storm in their opening games, and that’s something that constantly troubled them last year as well. However, it’s not so much a disease itself as it is a symptom of Seattle’s problems. The offense lacks motion and mobility, and it lacks people who’ll simply break someone down off the dribble and penetrate. As a result, they end up forcing passes into gaps that just aren’t there, which are easily picked off by active defenders. Three times in the opening minutes of Tuesday night’s game against LA, attempted entry passes from Tanisha Wright or Sue Bird to Ann Wauters were simply poked away and grabbed by defenders. The Sparks are playing significantly better defense than in previous years, but it’s not that good. Seattle were making it too easy for them.
The Storm backcourt has looked poor in their opening contests, and when that’s been one of your consistent strengths over the years it’s something that’s hard to overcome. Tanisha Wright doesn’t look like she was physically ready for the WNBA season to start, and maybe not mentally ready either. Her rotations aren’t quick enough, she’s making poor passes and decisions, and the Storm don’t really have anyone else to bring the things she’s supposed to add to their team. Sue Bird hasn’t been great either, leading people to wonder if her hip or nasal injuries from the offseason might still be troubling her. However, she’s played through pain in the past without a great deal of trouble, so I doubt it. Bird’s at her best when facilitating, and when the team and system around her isn’t working all that well it’s hard for her to be effective. Also, her poor defense becomes even worse when the help behind her isn’t exactly where it’s supposed to be, and playing with several new frontcourt players has led to some breakdowns. Off the bench, Katie Smith isn’t looking great either. Still capable of knocking down some shots and playing physical defense, she may have lost another half-step of speed since last year. And with that, we’ve essentially come to the end of the Storm’s guard options.
They’ve just looked, for want of a better word, old. The new veteran additions in Wauters and Tina Thompson obviously aren’t spring chickens, and they certainly haven’t upped the overall team speed. Wauters can score if you find her inside, but when the real Candace Parker showed up for Tuesday night’s game her athleticism and mobility distinctly highlighted what Wauters doesn’t have. Thompson’s shooting from outside has helped keep the Storm in both their opening encounters, and she’s still clearly willing to mix it up, but in a lot of ways she’s more of the same on the Storm roster. Aging, smart veterans, who know how to play, but who might not be quite what they used to be.
Brian Agler’s coaching and system has been one of this team’s strengths in recent years. Their defense has been hard to break down, and when it was at its best their offense picked apart other teams. Even the infamous Storm defense didn’t look that great at times against LA. It felt a little like the Sparks had played this team so often that they knew where all the help was coming from, and could find the open shooter as a result. The likes of DeLisha Milton-Jones and Alana Beard were missing a lot of those shots, but they were still open. We even saw some zone from the Storm in the second-quarter, which from a Brian Agler team is about as rare as a good Dane Cook movie. It felt like a small sign of desperation from the Storm, along with an admittance that they needed to conserve energy.
This team isn’t deep. That happens when you spend heavily on veterans and have to fill in the rest of the roster as best you can. But they’re probably not as thin as Agler continues to make them look. The likes of Shekinna Stricklen and Victoria Dunlap are going to have to play for this team. Stricklen had an ugly shooting night on Tuesday, but she was hardly the only one in a green uniform that applied to. Dunlap, for some reason, didn’t play at all. Ewelina Kobryn continues to look a little out of her depth at this level, so maybe there’s someone else out there that could help more than her in backing up the posts. And if Alysha Clark isn’t good enough to play – unless she’s some kind of demon practice player – why not cut her and try someone else? You can’t just sit around and wait for Svetlana Abrosimova to show up in a month or two and hope that changes everything.
There’s still every chance that this team will figure things out and start picking up wins. The veterans may not be as spry as thy used to be, but they all know how to win. And hopefully, Bird and Wright can play themselves into their more typical form. The team needs to rediscover its spark – and it needs to come long before LJ shows up in mid-August.
Now for the winners…
Some teams’ fans aren’t worried at all, of course. Without playing anywhere near their best, Minnesota have won their opening two games by an average of 20 points. Seimone Augustus showed no ill-effects from her crash into the crowd at the weekend, starting as usual and leading the Lynx with 22 points on 9-14 shooting. That jump shot looks just as gorgeous as ever.
Minnesota’s team defense hasn’t perhaps been as crisp in their opening games as head coach Cheryl Reeve would like to see, but it’s been more than enough to ease them to victory. They’ve also received a nice boost from an early burst of form from Monica Wright, who’s looked more aggressive and effective in two games than she did for most of last season. With depth that was a little bit of a mirage last season, this Lynx team becomes ridiculously scary if their bench players get rolling as well.
Los Angeles Sparks fans are cock-a-hoop about how their team has started the season, and are one step away from putting new head coach Carol Ross up for sainthood. The energy and activity they’ve shown on defense is a thousand miles beyond what we saw last season from this team, and that was always where they needed the most work. 24 steals in two games, regardless of how sloppy the opposition may have been with the ball, is a very nice start.
It took them a while to put the Storm away on Tuesday night, but even through the first three quarters it was always a case of “how the hell are Seattle still in this?” After a dodgy opening game, Candace Parker came out and carried them offensively on a night when they needed her to, playing nearly 37 minutes and shooting 9-20 for 21 points. Impressively, after Wauters made her look pretty silly a few times in the game last Friday, Parker seemed to come out determined to answer. She scored over or around Wauters on several occasions, and even had six blocks on the night. And they weren’t all her typical ‘flying over from the weak side’ blocks – at least two of them were on-ball, one-on-one defensive blocks. I said the day they hired Ross that if she could get Parker playing to her defensive potential, she’d have made a massive stride towards success with this franchise. It looked like she’d already made progress between games 1 and 2 of the season.
Kristi Toliver took over Marissa Coleman’s starting spot, and had another good game after lighting the Storm up off the bench on Friday. We’ve always known that Toliver could shoot, but it’s been a question of whether she could grasp all the other things she needs to do out on the court. The early signs are good that she’s exerting herself more defensively, and spending more time getting her teammates involved rather than firing up shot after shot. Alana Beard gives them a veteran defensive presence in the backcourt, but she probably can’t physically be what she once was. Toliver’s going to need to fill in the rest of the gap.
And partly that’s because of the one piece of bad news that Sparks fans have had to swallow in the opening week – Sharnee Zoll has torn her ACL and is done for the season. It’s desperately disappointing for a player who’d finally found a spot on a WNBA team that needed her, where she might even have had a chance to start. For the Sparks, it leaves them without a natural point guard on the roster. Toliver and Beard can handle the ball, and have shown in their games against Seattle that they can survive as combo-points, but a) they’d both rather play off the ball, and b) there’s not much backup behind them. The only backcourt options after those two are untested rookie third-rounder April Sykes, and Marissa Coleman sliding over from small forward. Coleman’s looked as slow and mediocre so far in LA as she did for three years in Washington.
Which leaves you wondering who the Sparks might pick up. Their salary cap situation is getting a little awkward, but it’s manageable with the right moves. Players who’ve been with the franchise before – Shannon Bobbitt, Loree Moore, Andrea Riley – are available, although obviously they played under different coaches and systems when they were in LA. They could also bring back one of the guards cut in camp, like Khadijah Rushdan, Ashley Shields or Darxia Morris.
Whatever answer they come up with, the new player would be joining a group that looks like they’re enjoying the fresh start that Ross has brought to the team. They should receive a real test tonight in their first game against anyone other than the Storm – a road game against the champs in Minnesota.
There was one other game on Tuesday night, but unfortunately WNBA LiveAccess issues prevented anyone outside of the BOK Center in Tulsa from witnessing it. The Phoenix Mercury just barely held on for an 89-87 win over the Shock, after a Scholanda Dorrell bucket at the final buzzer that would’ve sent the game to overtime was waved off on review. Judging purely by box score and play-by-play, Candice Dupree was the star, shooting 14-21 for 31 points and 9 boards. As I mentioned after their first game, expect Tulsa to be lit up by interior players for much of the year – they’re not strong in the paint.
The Shock made a spirited comeback after trailing 83-72 with under five minutes left, and even took the lead, but a pair of Sammy Prahalis free throws proved the winning points. Tulsa were led by Temeka Johnson and Ivory Latta with 16 points apiece, but once again couldn’t quite close out a game at the end. We’ll obviously look closer at both these teams when it’s actually possible to see them play.
Diana Taurasi started the game against Tulsa after missing the Mercury’s opening game with a hip injury, but played less than ten minutes and never returned to the game after subbing out early in the second quarter. While that was worrying initially she is at least still practicing, so there presumably hasn’t been any serious reaggravation of the injury.
Nicky Anosike (LA, knee) and Amber Harris (Minnesota, ankle) were still out for their respective teams.
Tonight (Thursday May 24th):
Los Angeles @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Tomorrow (Friday May 25th):
San Antonio @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
New York @ Atlanta, 7.30pm ET
Indiana @ Chicago, 8.30pm ET