2013 WNBA Season Previews: Los Angeles Sparks

On to the Western Conference, once again in alphabetical order. No favouritism shown at WNBAlien.

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PG: Lindsey Harding

SG: Kristi Toliver/A’dia Mathies

SF: Alana Beard/Jenna O’Hea/Marissa Coleman/Farhiya Abdi

PF: Nneka Ogwumike/Ebony Hoffman

C: Candace Parker/Jantel Lavender

 

Significant gains: Lindsey Harding, maybe Mathies and/or Abdi.

Significant losses: DeLisha Milton-Jones (and they cut Nicky Anosike by choice).

 

For a team that went 24-10, had its superstar finally last a full season, featured the runaway Rookie of the Year and had both a breakout star and an impressive comeback story in the backcourt – there was a hell of a lot of whining about the Los Angeles Sparks last year. Much of it prior to them being swept by Minnesota in the Western Conference Finals. After Sharnee Zoll tore her ACL prior to the season, they had to make do with Kristi Toliver and Alana Beard sharing the point guard duties – something neither is entirely comfortable with. The defense was a constant work in progress, flipping through multiple systems and often having to compensate for breakdowns from Toliver and Candace Parker. The bench was inconsistent at best, often dropping to the realms of awful. So fans found plenty to complain about. Yet they were in the battle for the Western Conference lead all year, and won a playoff series for the first time since the Lisa Leslie era. Imagine what they might do in Carol Ross’s second year at the helm, after adding yet another important piece to the puzzle?

 

The major addition is point guard Lindsey Harding, signed as a free agent from Atlanta. Despite joining her fourth franchise in seven WNBA seasons – good players don’t tend to move that much – Harding is a smart point who can run a team, solidly part of the second tier of point guards in the women’s game behind Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen. She gives Ross a steady hand to steer the ship, another player who can penetrate and score a few points, and a useful perimeter defender. Her presence also takes Toliver and Beard off the ball, which is where both ideally want to be. On-ball pressure caused LA a lot of problems in the playoffs last year – especially for Toliver – which shouldn’t be as much of an issue this season. Now Toliver can concentrate on scoring, which is something she can be exceptionally good at, while Beard becomes a primary defender and secondary ballhandler. It’s a better fit.

 

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2013 WNBA Season Previews: Washington Mystics

 

PG: Ivory Latta

SG: Matee Ajavon/Tayler Hill

SF: Monique Currie

PF: Crystal Langhorne/Emma Meesseman

C: Kia Vaughn/Michelle Snow/Jessica Moore/(Quanitra Hollingsworth to arrive later)

(plus two of Gs Shay Peddy, Nadirah McKenith and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, pending a final cut)

 

Significant gains: Ivory Latta, Kia Vaughn, Tayler Hill, Emma Meesseman (maybe), and Mike Thibault on the sidelines.

Significant losses: Trudi Lacey (well they ‘lost’ her and it was significant, right?), and over half the terrible roster from last year.

 

It was good news/bad news for the Mystics after last season’s excruciating crawl to 5-29 was finally over. The horrible news came quickly, when the lottery dropped them from the highest chance of landing Brittney Griner to #4 in what most saw as a three-player draft. But then Connecticut decided they’d had enough of solid seasons and consistently being pretty good under Mike Thibault, and gave him his walking papers. After two years of Trudi Lacey, resulting in a combined record of 11-57, Washington fans would’ve given their right arms for ‘solid’ or ‘pretty good’. So Thibault got the job, and a mild sense of optimism returned to the Mystics. The situation is similar to Tulsa’s last year – no one’s expecting miracles, and not even necessarily a playoff challenge. But they finally feel like someone competent’s in charge of the operation, and they’re moving in the right direction. It’s a positive step.

 

It’s hard to turn over an entire roster in one offseason – and not necessarily advisable, even when the team’s awful – but Thibault’s done what he could. He found an upgrade at point guard, signing Ivory Latta as a free agent to replace Jasmine Thomas (who was traded away). Latta will give them an extra scoring threat in the backcourt, and simply speed up the offense with her attacking mentality. The jump in the draft from the Thomas trade led to a subsequent trade with New York for Kia Vaughn, who deepens the post options. Then there was Tayler Hill, a guard taken with that 4th pick they ended up with in the lottery, who offers another backcourt scoring option and the potential to become a key piece. Finally, under the radar, 20 year-old Belgian post Emma Meesseman went as the 19th pick in the draft and could be a steal if she adapts to the WNBA and develops. She could have trouble with the physicality of the WNBA to begin with, but she’s skilled and long, with some range on her shot. And the Mystics have time to wait for her to grow.

 

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2013 WNBA Season Previews: New York Liberty

 

PG: Cappie Pondexter/Leilani Mitchell

SG: Essence Carson/Kamiko Williams

SF: Katie Smith/Alex Montgomery

PF: Plenette Pierson/Toni Young

C: Cheryl Ford/Kelsey Bone/Kara Braxton

 

Significant gains: Cheryl Ford, Katie Smith, Kelsey Bone, Toni Young, and Bill Laimbeer on the sidelines.

Significant losses: Nicole Powell, Kia Vaughn.

 

New York weren’t a bad team for the last two years under John Whisenant. Well okay, they were pretty poor for much of last season, but they were decent in 2011. However, they had become pretty painful to watch, with the ‘white line’ defense that the players never seemed to enjoy, and a bedraggled offense that relied on Cappie Pondexter to do virtually everything. Combined with the exile to New Jersey caused by renovations to Madison Square Garden, it led to a distinct lack of interest and excitement among what remained of the Liberty fanbase. So the franchise made a change. Out went Whiz, and Bill Laimbeer was tempted back into the WNBA fold as the potential saviour. Then Evil Bill quickly started reshaping his roster.

 

The initial moves led to a lot of jokes about ‘getting the band back together’, as Laimbeer acquired various pieces he was familiar with from his days in Detroit. Plenette Pierson (a key sixth woman on those Shock teams, and New York’s best post player for the last couple of seasons) and Kara Braxton (a talented yet wildly inconsistent center for her entire career) were both already on the roster. Laimbeer added Katie Smith as a free agent from Seattle, and tempted Cheryl Ford back into the WNBA for the first time since 2009. He also acquired the rights to Deanna Nolan from Tulsa, but she won’t be playing in the US until at least 2014. Smith isn’t the player she used to be, but she’s still smart, physical and knows all the tricks. She’ll help show her younger teammates exactly what Laimbeer expects from his players. Ford has been playing in Europe, and been very productive doing what she’s always done – fill the paint, and grab every rebound in sight. She won’t be quite the interior beast that she was in her younger days, but she can still be a significant contributor. The fear with Ford will always be whether her body can hold up under the rigors of the WNBA grind, playing an average of three games a week against top competition. Laimbeer will have to look after her and manage her minutes. Continue reading

2013 WNBA Season Previews: Indiana Fever

 

PG: Briann January/Erin Phillips

SG: Shavonte Zellous/Jeanette Pohlen/Layshia Clarendon

SF: Katie Douglas

PF: Tamika Catchings

C: Erlana Larkins/Jessica Davenport

(plus two of SF Karima Christmas, PF Jessica Breland and C Sasha Goodlett, pending a final cut. All three may start the season in Indiana if a hardship exception is granted due to injuries)

 

Significant gains: Confidence and rings from winning a championship

Significant losses: The monkey off their back from finally winning that championship. Oh, and Tammy Sutton-Brown’s gone.

 

Fever head coach Lin Dunn and general manager Kelly Krauskopf approached this offseason with a pretty straightforward mindset – when you’ve found something that works, don’t screw it up. After a solid regular season, Indiana kicked it up a notch in the playoffs and rode the wave to their first WNBA championship. So they re-signed every significant piece that was out of contract – Tamika Catchings, Briann January, Shavonte Zellous, Erlana Larkins – and kept their nucleus intact. Smallball won them a title in 2012, and they’ll be riding it again in 2013.

 

Catchings remains the heart and soul of this franchise, and one of the best players on the planet. The move to play her full-time at power forward last season looked risky initially, but she took it in stride and the benefits ultimately outweighed the drawbacks. She had more space to attack, created immediate mismatches against virtually every opponent, and her own strength and activity allowed her to stand up to whoever she had to guard defensively. They were a poor rebounding team all season as a result, but they overcame that in other areas. The Fever jumped to another level in the playoffs when Erlana Larkins moved into the starting lineup at center, creating an even more undersized group than they’d been working with all season. It leaves them short of inches, but the energy, mobility and effort made up for it, and the collective team defense worked like a charm. The question is whether what worked for a playoff series or two can succeed through the course of an arduous regular season. If they need to go big with a more traditional post, Jessica Davenport is still around, and Sasha Goodlett may have more to offer in her second year (if she makes the roster). With Catchings at the core of it all, they’ll probably work it out.

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2013 WNBA Season Previews: Connecticut Sun

 

PG: Kara Lawson/Renee Montgomery

SG: Allison Hightower/Tan White

SF: Kalana Greene/Kelly Faris

PF: Kelsey Griffin/Mistie Mims

C: Tina Charles

(plus SG Johannah Leedham or SG Natasha Lacy, and PF Ashley Walker or C Latoya Williams, pending final cuts)

 

Significant gains: Faris and Leedham/Lacy – so not much. Ann Donovan on the bench, if you happen to be a fan.

Significant losses: Asjha Jones, Danielle McCray, and Mike Thibault if you prefered him to Donovan.

 

Much like Atlanta, there’s been very little turnover in Connecticut since last year – bar the one big hole that’s opened up. Power forward Asjha Jones is taking the season off to rest a variety of injuries, leaving a glaring issue in the post alongside last season’s league MVP Tina Charles. The front office made a change on the sidelines, replacing long-time head coach Mike Thibault with Ann Donovan, in the hope that she could take them to the championship that always eluded her predecessor. But whoever’s in charge, covering the gap left by Jones isn’t going to be easy.

 

Ever since Tina Charles was drafted and created a two-way debate between herself and Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles for the title of ‘best center in the world’, she’s had a nice balance with Asjha Jones. In a lot of ways their offensive skills overlap, both possessing the ability to finish inside and hit a mid-range jumper, but they managed to become a complementary pair rather than get in each other’s way. That’s gone now. Charles will still be a prominent force, but defenses will be able to collapse on her even more than before. The remaining options aren’t great. At all. Kelsey Griffin has been in the league for three years now, is yet to shoot over 36% for a season, and is still just as undersized to play the 4 as she’s always been. Mistie Mims was a solid contributor as a 4/5 backup last year, but she’s limited offensively and distinctly slower than Jones. Mims is one of those players you love on your team as a 15 mpg backup, but scares the hell out of you as a 30 mpg starter. The one potential option who could replace Jones without much drop-off is French post Sandrine Gruda, who hasn’t been seen in the WNBA since 2010. She’ll be with the French national team through EuroBasket Women, which ends on June 30th, but there’ve been some signs that she might have interest in joining the Sun after that. If so, she’ll be welcomed with open arms. Because without Gruda – unless Griffin or Mims make a big leap – it’s going to be a case of papering over the cracks all season alongside Charles.

 

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2013 WNBA Season Previews: Chicago Sky

 

PG: Courtney Vandersloot/Sharnee Zoll

SG: Epiphanny Prince/Eshaya Murphy

SF: Elena Delle Donne/Tamera Young

PF: Swin Cash

C: Sylvia Fowles/Carolyn Swords/Ruth Riley

(plus SG Allie Quigley or PF Michelle Campbell, pending a final cut)

 

Significant gains: Elena Delle Donne, Sharnee Zoll might be significant if they’re lucky.

Significant losses: Sonja Petrovic, Le’coe Willingham and Ticha Penicheiro are all gone, but none will be missed much on the floor.

 

There was only one significant change for the Chicago Sky over the offseason, but it was a doozy. The #2 pick in the draft produced Elena Delle Donne, a 6-5 scoring marvel from the University of Delaware, providing yet another ray of hope for the Sky that they might finally become a contender in the WNBA. Beyond that, this is the same group of players and the same coaching staff that flattered to deceive last year before tailing off and missing the playoffs yet again.

 

It feels like we’ve all been saying this for years about the Sky, but if they can put all the pieces together they ought to be a very good basketball team. Shooting guard Epiphanny Prince was in the midst of a breakout season last year before injury slowed her down, but if she can touch those heights again she becomes one of the scarier perimeter scorers around. In the post, center Sylvia Fowles has been a remarkably efficient scorer ever since she was drafted – whenever they can get her the ball – and remains a powerful defensive presence around the rim. However, she had injury problems last year as well (not for the first time) and followed it up with a very disappointing season in Turkey. With Prince blossoming and Delle Donne joining up, maybe some of the pressure will come off Fowles and she can work through the season without so much weight on her shoulders. Her ability to stay in one piece is almost as important to the Sky as head coach Pokey Chatman figuring out smarter ways to feed her the ball.

 

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2013 WNBA Season Previews: Atlanta Dream

With the start of the WNBA season arriving on Friday, it’s time for the annual in-depth WNBAlien season previews. As tradition dictates, it’s the Eastern Conference first, in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

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PG: Jasmine Thomas/Alex Bentley

SG: Armintie Herrington/Courtney Clements

SF: Angel McCoughtry/Tiffany Hayes/Anne Marie Armstrong

PF: Sancho Lyttle/Le’coe Willingham

C: Erika de Souza/Aneika Henry

 

Significant gains: Jasmine Thomas, Le’coe Willingham, Alex Bentley (all stretching the term ‘significant’).

Significant losses: Lindsey Harding.

 

Last season was a tumultuous one for the Atlanta Dream. There was all kinds of drama surrounding star player Angel McCoughtry, which precipitated a midseason change at head coach. Then after a decent run to close the regular season they were dumped out of the playoffs by Indiana, despite winning the opening game on the road. Rather than the trade which seemed inevitable when the Dream were imploding last year, McCoughtry was quietly re-signed in the offseason, retaining their key piece and avoiding an ugly rebuilding job.

 

However, there was one remaining kick in the teeth from the Marynell Meadors era still lurking in the shadows waiting to damage the Dream this offseason. The core designation in the WNBA is like the ‘franchise tag’ in the NFL – it allows each team to ‘core’ one player, preventing her from leaving the team as a free agent. However, when you’re cored and sign a multi-year contract, you remain the team’s core player for the length of that deal (unless you’re traded or retire). After the 2011 season, Meadors used the core designation on post player Erika de Souza, then signed her to a multi-year deal. So when point guard Lindsey Harding became an unrestricted free agent this offseason, the Dream could do nothing to prevent her from testing free agency. And she decided the sunshine and glitz of Los Angeles was preferable to staying in Atlanta. It leaves a glaring hole in Atlanta’s lineup at the point.

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