Last week saw one of the legends of the WNBA, the sole remaining player from 1997’s inaugural season, announce that this would be her final year. Tributes and glowing assessments of Tina Thompson’s career rightfully flooded in, but because I’m an unsentimental soul my first thought was “does this make it more or less likely that she’ll be traded?” On reflection, it seems like the retirement announcement probably doesn’t make much difference – there was always a strong chance that this was her last season anyway, so any move for her would’ve been primarily about what she could offer in 2013. But it does seem like an appropriate time to look at whether Seattle might find a new home for Tina before the trade deadline on August 15th.
Before we look at where she might fit, a few elements that make the possibility worth examining:
a) The Seattle Storm aren’t winning a championship this year. Thompson herself made some noises in preseason about whether Seattle was where she still wanted to be. She signed on for two years, expecting to make championship runs alongside Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson. She ended up on a squad that suffered through all kinds of injury issues in 2012, and now is missing both Bird and Jackson for the entire 2013 season. While there was a hard-fought win over the ballyhooed Phoenix Mercury on Sunday night, this is a rebuilding year for the Storm without their two superstars. If they make the playoffs it’ll be a surprise to many, and developing their young players is really a bigger priority than wins. That makes a trade potentially appealing to both the Storm and Thompson herself. The franchise could get some kind of return for a player who’s about to retire, plus the karma boost of giving her a last shot at “one for the thumb”; Thompson gets to make that final run at a title with a team closer to the prize.
b) Thompson might not want to go. Despite those preseason comments, she’s starting in her 17th WNBA season, by all accounts Seattle is a nice place to live, and she seems to have a nice rapport with her teammates and the fans. The return on a trade for her also probably isn’t going to be huge for Seattle – a draft pick, likely second-round unless someone is incredibly desperate, or maybe a fringe player who isn’t fitting in somewhere else – so it seems unlikely they’ll be forcing her out the door unless she wants to leave.
c) But one last shot at a ring would have to be tempting. Thompson was a central part of the Los Angeles Sparks team that lost in three games in the Western Conference Finals in 2009, but she hasn’t been to the WNBA Finals since the Houston Comets’ streak of four titles from 1997 to 2000. Sitting on someone’s bench playing 5 minutes a night in garbage time probably wouldn’t appeal to her much, but if there’s a more significant role available off a thin bench or even starting due she’d surely be interested. It’s not like she’d have to be there for very long.
Of course, trades don’t happen very often in the WNBA, and meaningful ones are even more rare. With only 12 teams there aren’t many options to trade with, and there are even fewer when you’re only looking at teams with some kind of chance to win a championship this season. That crosses off Washington and Tulsa immediately, leaving just nine teams to consider. In increasing order of likelihood:
Distinctly unlikely: Indiana, New York, San Antonio
With all their early-season injuries, Indiana could almost work, and the 3/4 combo-forward who defends in the low-post that Thompson has become would fit in the Fever’s system. But they’ve got a settled core of players, and they’re the one theoretical option who’d have some issues fitting Thompson’s salary under the cap. So I can’t see it.
New York have already had injury issues in the post as well, but they’ve got their young projects (Kelsey Bone, Toni Young), and their veteran teachers (Plenette Pierson, Cheryl Ford, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Barb Farris on the sidelines) in place. It seems like they don’t really have a need for someone like Thompson.
The Silver Stars had an obvious hole open up at power forward in the offseason, when Sophia Young blew out her knee. But they already brought in a veteran option to help fill it, in Thompson’s former teammate DeLisha Milton-Jones. Finishing her career back in Texas would add a little poetry, but it’s hard to see the fit on Dan Hughes’s squad.
Well I guess there’s a backup role available: Phoenix, Minnesota, Los Angeles
Phoenix probably have enough issues to sort out at this point without introducing another new piece. Their bench isn’t deep (at least it never seems to be – it can be hard to tell with Corey Gaines running the rotation), but assuming Penny Taylor returns at some point there would probably only be limited minutes available for Thompson. Although at least she’d give them someone who’d inevitably toss up some deep threes – the current Mercury group seemed to have forgotten how on Sunday night.
Minnesota is a little intriguing, because their only post backups are largely unproven and they’ve only got two of them left. With McWilliams-Franklin and Jessica Adair gone, Devereaux Peters and Amber Harris are the only bigs available off the Lynx bench. Harris in particular got off to a nice start in their opener, but one swallow doesn’t confirm a beautiful summer just yet. We also can’t be sure that Janel McCarville is going to be a total success as the new starter inside. It seems like the Lynx wouldn’t be interested right now, but have some potential to become interested as the season progresses, depending on how their current options perform.
LA would be weird. Thompson had a pretty poor season in 2011 when the Sparks were a mess, then left for Seattle and was more-than-adequately replaced by Nneka Ogwumike. Going back there again would therefore seem a little strange, plus they already have Ebony Hoffman providing a vaguely similar skillset, and Jantel Lavender as an alternative backup post option. But if someone got hurt, Thompson obviously knows a lot of the Sparks players and could probably fit in without too much trouble. So you never know.
Now it’s getting a little interesting: Atlanta, Chicago
The Dream seem like they could be an option. Aneika Henry has developed into a serviceable backup for post starters Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza, but they don’t have a great deal else. Le’coe Willingham was signed in the offseason to offer whatever she has left – but that hasn’t looked like much in the last couple of years. Anne Marie Armstrong is a desperately raw rookie. Plus there’s always a fear with Lyttle that she might break down. She plays so much basketball and does so much travelling between the Dream, her European club teams and the Spanish national team that there always seems to be an increased risk (and she’s played through a variety of niggling injuries in recent years). Any injury to a key post player around the league would obviously make that team more interested in someone like Thompson as a stop-gap solution.
Chicago have opened the season with a bang, and a renewed sense of optimism generated by rookie Elena Delle Donne. She’s an instant matchup nightmare for opponents at 6’5” with the skills to score inside and out, but that also presents her own team with the need to deal with matchup issues. They’re using Swin Cash and Tamera Young to defend one forward spot while Delle Donne takes the other, flipping the assignment depending on who the opponents are on a given night. It’s worked fine so far, but they’ve played two teams with zero threat at power forward (Connecticut and Cambage-less Tulsa), and a Phoenix squad still figuring themselves out. Thompson could join Cash as the forward balance to Delle Donne, defending bigger players while allowing the rookie to attack offensively. And Thompson’s 37% career three-point percentage tells us she could certainly stretch the floor for the Sky.
It’s probably a move Chicago wouldn’t feel the need to make while things are going well, but there’s definitely a potential fit there if the balance needs some help later in the season. And we all know how desperate they are to finally make the postseason, and hopefully make a splash once they get there.
The most blindingly obvious fit: Connecticut
Where do you look first for potential trade destinations for a power forward looking for one last run before she rides off into the sunset? How about a team whose starting power forward was a key piece and is taking the year off, and who hasn’t been in any way replaced? The Sun brought Ann Donovan in to win a championship, but that was before they knew that Asjha Jones would be skipping the 2013 WNBA season to rest a variety of body parts in need of recuperation. The offseason saw them bring in essentially no one to replace her, relying on last year’s backups Kelsey Griffin and Mistie Bass to step into the gap. Just to make things worse, Bass posted an x-ray on instagram yesterday with the message “My hips and low back is jacked up!!! Rotated to the right and spine twisted at the bottom….painful people!!! Prayers for quick recovery!!!” Which isn’t going to help.
Griffin has done okay in the Sun’s opening games. She’s shown some renewed confidence in her outside shot, and hit a few of them, but she’s also missed plenty. She’s also still undersized, a weak rebounder, and completely unproven at WNBA level in three seasons in this league. In three full years, you’d hope to have seen more signs of development if it was ever going to happen. Essentially, Thompson could start for this team on Friday if the trade happened today, and there’d be little argument. Even with what she has left – and Thompson certainly isn’t the player she once was – she’d offer much greater security and confidence at power forward than Connecticut currently possesses.
The wild card here is Sandrine Gruda. The French center is a premium talent, and there’ve been some hints that she might be interested in playing in the WNBA this season once EuroBasket Women is out of the way at the end of June. The Sun still own her rights, even though Gruda hasn’t deigned to show up since 2010. If she arrives, Griffin and Bass revert to their backup roles, and the Sun probably have no interest in Thompson. If Gruda says “non”, then it seems like the most obvious fit in the league.
On a non-Thompson note, the Connecticut Sun’s Renee Montgomery has been ruled out for 3-4 weeks with a high ankle sprain suffered in Friday night’s game against Chicago.
Wednesday June 5th (tomorrow):
Indiana @ New York, 11am ET
Yes, don’t forget it’s an early one if you want to catch this game live. The line is New York +4, and I’ll take Indiana to cover that on the road. Even in front of thousands of screaming kids.
Thursday June 6th:
Phoenix @ Minnesota, 8pm ET