WNBA Today, 08/27/2012: McCoughtry Mess Moves Meadors Out

Reports on last night’s games are featured in this piece as well. Please scroll down beyond the opening section if that’s what you’re looking for.

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The big news around the WNBA today was that Atlanta Dream coach and general manager Marynell Meadors has parted company with the franchise, replaced with immediate effect by her assistant Fred Williams. The Dream’s official release carefully avoided using the terms ‘fired’ or ‘resigned’, although they did later confirm that she was ‘released by ownership’ and did not resign. The news initially leaked via UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s twitter page, who openly stated ‘@marynellmeaders gets fired atlanta owners cave in inmate in charge #coachingisaBitch’. Ignoring the horrible grammar and punctuation, along with his misspelling of Meadors’s name (in a Twitter handle that doesn’t exist even if he’d spelled it correctly), the message was clear. Geno was putting the blame for her departure squarely on a specific Dream ‘inmate’, and that’s where most of the discussion around this move will inevitably focus.

Angel McCoughtry has been the star attraction for Atlanta for several years now, but her attitude and personality have often made things difficult. She’s clashed with Meadors before, and her me-first approach rubs a lot of people the wrong way. There are rumours of teammates not particularly enjoying her attitude as well, although much of that is based on supposition and hearsay. When McCoughtry missed two games last week due to undisclosed ‘personal reasons’, including one where she spent the game sitting opposite the visiting bench and barely interacted with her teammates, it was clear that something strange was going on. She returned for the ESPN2 game against Minnesota on Saturday night, but was used sparingly by Meadors in a strange rotation, which seemed to be more focussed on making points than scoring them. Apparently, something had to give, and that ended up being the coach.

To a lot of people, this will look like another example of player power winning out – just as Auriemma seemed to be suggesting. We’ve seen it a thousand times before in a whole variety of major sports. In a lot of ways it makes sense – it’s much easier to replace a coach than it is to find a new superstar player, or get equal value for that player in a trade and reshape your team. But it always looks bad. As far as we, the viewing audience, are concerned, the players aren’t supposed to run things. They’re the employees. They’re supposed to show up and do what the coach says, play as hard as possible for the team, and that’s it. But in all walks of life, the talent usually rules the roost. From an ownership perspective, you can understand that.

Plus, of course, it’s never as simple as it looks, and there are always (at least) two sides to the story. Meadors has clashed with other players over the years, with more than one leaving the franchise on less-than-favourable terms. Chamique Holdsclaw was one notable example, although as with McCoughtry, she’s had issues with plenty of people besides Meadors in the past. There’s also always been a perception around the Dream that Meadors was a manager and figurehead, who hired others to do the nitty-gritty of the coaching, which led to people dismissing her skills. If you’re not drawing up the plays or coming up with schemes yourself, then people start to wonder if you’re a necessary part of the structure. There’ve also been some strange decisions over the years in terms of contracts handed out and even just her the bizarre and fluctuating playing rotations. At 69 years old – today was her birthday, in fact – Meadors may also not have had too many years left. Blowing up the team to appease a coach who could be gone in a year or two anyway wouldn’t make a great deal of sense either.

But this was still a coach/GM who’s taken the franchise to the WNBA Finals in both of the last two years, building this squad into what it’s become. While she benefitted from some luck in a couple of drafts, she has to be given significant credit for that, and it’s a shame to see her exit like this in such murky circumstances.

Fred Williams had essentially a .500 record as coach of the Utah Starzz many years ago, a team that finally made the playoffs in the year that he was fired. It was always thought that Carol Ross was the chief person in control under Meadors, but with Ross in Los Angeles, Williams was the most straightforward option remaining. It was interesting that the word ‘interim’ wasn’t used in relation to his appointment today, but that may not mean anything. How the team plays over the remaining weeks of the regular season and in the playoffs will likely determine whether he keeps the job for next year.

Whether she deserves it or not, McCoughtry doesn’t come out of this looking great. Auriemma doesn’t appear to be a fan, and that’s despite impressive performances from McCoughtry at the Olympics (where he was the head coach, and Meadors an assistant). The perception from outside, until and unless more emerges, is that McCoughtry forced Meadors out. Whether that turns out to be a positive move for the franchise or not, it’s a move that will never endear you to the general public. At the same time, if the Dream start playing as a team for the rest of the year, and somehow plough through the playoffs to a WNBA Championship, all will undoubtedly be forgiven. Whatever the effect on her public perception, Angel would seem to have gotten what she wanted.

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There was also some basketball played last night, just in case anyone still cares.

The one remaining playoff spot in any doubt – unless Meadors’s departure somehow causes a complete meltdown in Atlanta – is being fought over by New York and Chicago. The Liberty went into last night ahead by half a game in the standings, with both teams facing difficult games on the road. Neither was expected to add to their win totals, but that may be what decides who snatches that final ticket to the postseason – who can steal a game or two they weren’t supposed to win.

Chicago were in Connecticut for the early game, and things didn’t look good before tip-off. Both Sylvia Fowles and Tamera Young were ruled out due to ‘personal reasons’, stripping a starting wing and the star center from the squad. Sky head coach and GM Pokey Chatman revealed after the game that Young was absent due to a death in her family, but there was no explanation offered for Fowles. Big Syl had sat out the final 20 minutes of the previous game (an overtime loss in Tulsa), despite showing no new or aggravated injury. But she’s also looked a little gimpy in general recently and missed a couple of games during the Olympics, so may have simply been told to rest. If Chatman’s been fired by this time tomorrow, we can start coming up with alternative theories.

The Sun were still without Asjha Jones due to her achilles injury, leaving Mistie Mims to deputise yet again. Chicago brought Epiphanny Prince back into their starting lineup to replace Young, while second-year center Carolyn Swords came in for Fowles.

The very first possession of the game for Chicago was horrifying – it was that same 4-out, 1-in set that we’ve repeatedly seen them run all year while trying (and usually failing) to feed Fowles, only with Swords in the middle instead. Inevitably it ended in a turnover. The game wasn’t going to go well for the Sky if this was the gameplan. Fortunately, things improved.

But it took a while. Connecticut were in charge early on, with Chatman freely switching between lineups in a search of anything that would work. There was a little too much one-on-one play from the Sky, as players tried to compensate for Fowles on their own, although Swords converted a couple of decent moves. Useful minutes from Ruth Riley on the defensive end and offensive cameos from the likes of Sonja Petrovic and Courtney Vandersloot pulled Chicago back into the contest. Tina Charles resting on the bench and the Connecticut shooters going cold from outside helped as well.

Chicago were taking a lot of threes, but several of them were decent shots, created by ball movement or penetration rather than thrown up in desperation after the offense couldn’t work the ball inside. A Shay Murphy triple gave the Sky an unlikely 4-point lead midway through the second quarter at 30-26. Chicago were making regular use of their 2-3 zone, a defense which has given Connecticut problems at times this season, but the Sun finally kicked into gear in the closing minutes of the first half. They used their defense to lead into their offense, and with Renee Montgomery, Allison Hightower and even Kelsey Griffin hitting from outside, Connecticut made a run. When you push the ball quickly down the floor, a zone doesn’t have time to set up, and can’t cause you as many problems. That allowed the Sun to hold a 43-39 advantage at halftime.

In the early stages of the second half, it was looking like another of those games where Connecticut can’t blow out a weaker opponent, but eventually drag out a victory. They were crawling along with a lead that never went above 9 points, but considering Chicago had lost 13 of their last 14 games and were without their star, a strong push from the Sky seemed unlikely. Still, sometimes the unlikely happens. Led by Swin Cash, who’s been significantly more direct and attacking in recent games, driving more and making things happen, the Sky became the aggressor. They were the ones moving the ball, slicing into the defense and hitting threes. Connecticut, meanwhile, had once again forgotten how to attack a zone defense.

We’ve seen this before from the Sun in the face of a 2-3, just passing the ball around the perimeter, failing to penetrate either with passes or drives. Then you end up with shot clock violations or jacked up threes – not threes in rhythm or wide open off kick-outs, but forced up under pressure.

Chicago had also started to dominate on the glass, especially at the offensive end. And this is a team who often rebound fairly poorly, outside of Fowles. Swords was doing her job as the big in the middle, working hard and making the easy, simple plays when she needed to. Cash, Le’coe Willingham and everyone else were chipping in on the boards, and making a mockery of their recent record. Offensively, there was ball movement and penetration the likes of which we’ve rarely seen from Chicago in recent months. No one would ever want to see their franchise center taken away from them, but the offense seemed released somewhat by Fowles’s absence. It gave them more freedom to create something, rather than constantly trying to feed her inside and run the few sets they have to make that happen. Plus, as always, confidence is huge. Once Cash started making shots, and Petrovic and Willingham joined in, the Sky were rolling.

You kept waiting for the Connecticut charge (or the Sky collapse) in the fourth quarter, but it never came. From 53-46 behind in the third, the 19-4 Chicago run led by Cash turned the game on its head, and the Sun couldn’t score enough against Chicago’s zone to spin it back. The Sky eventually eased home 82-70, for their first win since July 1st – their first road win since June 10th.

This could be a huge win for Chicago, but it could also end up being a complete false dawn. It was an impressive performance, with better ball movement and creation than we’ve seen from this team in a long while. Swords had probably her best game as a WNBA player (7-10 for 14 points, 6 boards), Cash was strong (6-16 for 14 points, 6 boards), and the backcourt that was supposed to be the future of this franchise stepped up like it was once expected to. Epiphanny Prince wasn’t the extraordinary scorer she performed as to start the year, but 5-14 for 15 points, 2 boards and 3 assists was still useful. Meanwhile, Courtney Vandersloot came off the bench again, and was 2-5 for 6 points, 4 steals and 11 assists (with only 3 turnovers). But it means nothing if Fowles comes back, and they return to playing the same way as before. This is where the doubt comes in. You want Fowles back, but you have to carry over the speed, teamwork and aggression from this offensive performance. Not regress back to the same rubbish that led to 13 losses in 14. Then this win becomes meaningless.

Yet again, Connecticut struggled against a simple zone. It’s a system that helps teams double and triple-team Charles – so obviously the absence of Asjha Jones as an alternative threat hurts – but it’s also one that they should be better at dealing with by now. They can’t just assume that Kara Lawson, Montgomery or Hightower are going to knock down enough threes over the top of the zone to break teams out of it. Cutting into the seams, using the gaps at the free-throw line and along the baseline, pushing the ball down the floor so the zone can’t set up – these aren’t complicated concepts. At the same time, regardless of systems, you simply can’t lose 38-26 on the glass to a Sky team without Fowles. That’s just embarrassing.

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So the Sky’s unlikely victory moved them into a tie with New York in the standings, before the Liberty tipped off two hours later in Seattle. New York have been better since the Olympic break, but considering how dismal they were before the Games that’s not saying much. The main reason they’ve slipped back into the playoff hunt is Chicago’s collapse, rather than their own improvement. They were also playing the second half of a back-to-back, after being comprehensively beaten in Los Angeles on Saturday, and closing out an 8-day, 5-game road trip. You wouldn’t have blamed them for being exhausted, and their chances didn’t look good. That said, there’d already been one shock result, why not two?

Seattle were rather happier with their current status. While they’d lost three games in a row, all on their own floor, the scoreboard flashed up a screen before tip-off that drew a resounding cheer – Injury Report: None. For the first time all season, the Storm had 11 players in uniform and available to play. Tina Thompson and Ann Wauters might still be recovering from injuries, and Lauren Jackson is still trying to fit in after her recent arrival, but they were all there. And unlike previous seasons, head coach/general manager Brian Agler now has a little faith in more than 7 or 8 players. Forced to use his bench by all the absences, Agler has discovered the concept of depth, and realised he’s got some backups who can play. Now he just has to work out how to fit all the pieces together.

The first quarter went pretty much exactly how Agler and every Storm fan dreamt it. There was an impressive combination of ball movement and dribble-penetration on offense, with speed and execution that’s been rather rare in Seattle this year. They weren’t shooting the lights out from outside, because they didn’t need to. They were creating good shots by moving the ball inside, with Camille Little particularly effective despite being matched up against the physicality and nous of Plenette Pierson. And whenever the opportunity was there they were pushing the ball, running the floor, and looking for quick scoring opportunities.

At the other end, the Storm defense was solid, although repeated turnovers from the Liberty often seemed as much their own fault as the result of Seattle pressure. Cappie Pondexter was barely in the game, and the issues that Jackson had struggled with in her previous appearance were largely negated by Kia Vaughn’s minimal involvement in the New York offense. When the player you’re guarding is rarely involved in pick-and-rolls or cuts, there’s little opportunity to get lost on switches or rotation.

Shekinna Stricklen joined the fun, entering earlier than usual for Katie Smith and contributing extra energy and pace to the Storm offense. By the end of the first quarter, Seattle led 28-9, Liberty coach John Whisenant had already picked up a technical while trying to wake his team up, and the Storm were rolling. Seattle, comfortably the worst rebounding team in the entire WNBA this year (especially on the offensive end), were even ahead 11-6 on the glass, with 6 offensive boards already. That first quarter was a 10-minute ass-kicking.

However, Seattle have shown a distinct capacity for throwing away leads this year. Just because things had started well, didn’t mean it would last. New York made a couple of shots to start the second quarter, through Alex Montgomery and Essence Carson, to at least suggest a comeback was possible. Then it all fell away again. Whenever New York made a play or two in the second quarter, Seattle had an answer, and it came from a variety of angles. Thompson and Wauters both got minutes, and both contributed, although Wauters in particular is clearly working her way back to full health. Storm fans got a brief glimpse of Jackson and Wauters on the floor together, a partnership that was initially seen for Ros Casares in Spain during the WNBA offseason. That much length and scoring ability on the floor simultaneously could be a useful weapon as we head towards the playoffs, if they can develop enough defensive chemistry to be effective at that end of the floor. By halftime, Seattle were up 51-30, and even the most pessimistic Storm fan must’ve been mildly confident of victory.

It was never really a contest for the rest of the night. Agler got to play around with lineup permutations to his heart’s content, and the gap was anywhere from 19 to 29 for most of the second half. After a virtually invisible first half, Pondexter had the opportunity to pad her stats and work her way up to her usual averages, but it meant nothing in the context of the game. Seattle coasted home for an 84-66 victory, and a much-needed boost in morale.

New York will probably throw away the tape of this one. It was the end of a long road trip, having travelled all the way up the west coast after the previous day’s game, and they played like it. They still need to find offensive support for Pondexter and Pierson from somewhere, but they were never going to fix that in this game after the horrible start. Now they play six in a row at home, including one against Phoenix, a couple versus awful Washington, and the final encounter with Chicago. This is the time to step up if they want to secure that postseason berth.

It’s not just the renewed depth that offers hope for the Storm, although that’s central to their plans for the rest of the season. It’s also the extra speed and rhythm that seems to have developed in their offense. Stricklen has improved as the season’s worn on, and her willingness to run the floor and leak out at every opportunity creates break chances that few other Storm wings have looked for in recent times. And Sue Bird will find her if she’s open. Bird had 8 assists by halftime of this game, in a variety of different fashions, and finished the game with 10 (while shooting 7-10 for 18 points). Jackson is still working on finding her shot – and it would’ve been nice to see her go inside more rather than continuing to fire up threes – but even with that caveat she earned 9 free throws and closed the game with 16 points and 6 boards in less than 25 minutes. There are three teams clear at the top of the Western Conference, and obviously they’d all like to finish top for home-court advantage throughout the Western playoffs. But the prize of facing the Storm in the first round could end up being a dangerous one if this team can keep building on performances like this.

 

Notes

Hilariously, Tulsa center Liz Cambage missed her flight back from Australia, according to the Shock. So she might not make her season debut on August 30th after all, although the team say they are rebooking her.

 

Upcoming Games

Monday August 27th (today):

None

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Tuesday August 28th (tomorrow):

Washington @ Indiana, 7pm ET

Tulsa @ Atlanta, 7pm ET

San Antonio @ Minnesota, 8pm ET

Connecticut @ Chicago, 8pm ET

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