The offseason activity in the WNBA continued yesterday with more trade movement, this time with an extra level of complexity. In fact, it’s complex enough that the various press releases don’t entirely agree on the finer details. The Washington Mystics, Connecticut Sun and Atlanta Dream combined on a three-way trade (or two two-ways) that relocated a trio of guards to new homes, with a couple of minor draft picks thrown in to theoretically even the scales. Washington received Kara Lawson from Connecticut; the Sun got Alex Bentley from Atlanta; and the Dream collected Matee Ajavon and the #18 pick from the Mystics. Either Washington or Connecticut got the virtually-worthless #32 pick from Atlanta, depending on which release you believe.
Typically, you come out ahead in these multi-piece deals when you gain the best player involved – so let’s start with Washington. The Mystics were something of a surprise last season, with new head coach Mike Thibault engineering a turnaround from being the laughingstock of the league to a solid, competitive .500 team. But while they did a lot with organisation, effort and depth last year, Thibault knew as well as anyone that his roster needed more talent if they wanted to take the next step. His team also had a pretty glaring hole. Ivory Latta came in and did a useful job as the point guard last season, but it was a constant patchwork effort alongside her in the backcourt. They drafted Tayler Hill with the #4 pick, but she was a complete bust early on and only mildly useful off the bench as the season progressed. She’s now pregnant and due to give birth in May, so will probably be even less useful on a basketball court in 2014. The alternative last year was Ajavon, whose speed, aggression and willingness to take the big shot can be valuable – but her tendency to take a lot of bad shots and miss most of them distinctly mitigates that value.
Lawson always seemed a likely option to fill that hole. She grew up in the D.C. area; she has a relationship with Thibault from their time in Connecticut, where she had some of her best years; and her relationship with the Sun organisation broke down to such a degree last year that everyone knew she was going somewhere. She’s a superb outside shooter, 40% for her WNBA career from beyond the arc, including 43% over the last three years in Connecticut. But she can also be a steadying influence on an offense, running the pick-and-roll and getting the ball where it needs to be. Obviously, she’ll also be comfortable with Thibault’s sets and system after three years playing for him with the Sun. Playing alongside Latta could be a good fit, because neither will have to take on all the ballhandling responsibilities. Latta’s improved as a distributor but still likes to look for her own shot; Lawson had her best season in Connecticut when Allison Hightower was taking some of the point guard requirements off her hands – between them, they should be able to find a balance and help each other out.
After months waiting for the WNBA and the Players’ Association to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement finally ended last week, a compressed offseason calendar began on Monday. But teams have until March 15th to make qualifying offers (and core designations), then until March 19th to negotiate, before actually being able to sign players from March 20th onwards. So the only way teams can provide any entertainment for the fans at this stage is via trades of players already under contract, and the Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever were the first to offer something for us all to talk about. The Fever sent Australian combo-guard Erin Phillips to Phoenix along with their second-round pick in the upcoming draft (17th overall), receiving the Mercury’s first-rounder (9th overall) and forward Lynetta Kizer in return.
The most prominent piece in the deal is Phillips, and it’s easy to see why the Mercury wanted her. The one obvious hole on their roster was in the backcourt, where Diana Taurasi was forced to become the de facto point guard far too much last season. While Taurasi’s certainly capable in that role, they desperately needed another reliable ballhandler who could allow Taurasi to play off the ball and focus on playing her natural game, rather than constantly having to facilitate for everyone else. It also became clear on several occasions last season that they simply didn’t have enough shooters to space the floor around Taurasi and Britney Griner – so it was important that whoever they found to fill their hole could shoot, not just bring the ball up the floor.
Phillips should be a good fit. She’s a feisty, aggressive guard, who’s never quite managed to solidify herself as a starting point guard in her WNBA career. But the Mercury don’t need her to be a pure point. They need her to bring the ball up the floor, hand it to the right people when she’s supposed to, and knock down open shots – all of which she should be capable of. She’s a career 38% shooter from three-point range in the WNBA, including 45% over her last three years in Indiana. The first figure’s well above average, the second’s truly elite – either should prove very useful to the Mercury. Heading into last season, Samantha Prahalis was supposed to be the Mercury’s answer at point guard, and one of the central reasons that didn’t work out was her inability to knock down the open shot (although her deficiencies in other areas also played a part). Phillips should be able to make those, and bring an extra edge to the Mercury’s backcourt defense that’ll be distinctly welcome alongside a sieve like Taurasi.
Of course, there are still some risks. Phillips tore a meniscus in her right knee last season, missing over a month, and then was repeatedly in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season. She generally looked fairly mobile when she played, but kept skipping games when pain flared up in the knee, or other ailments cropped up. In November she was released by her Polish team Wisla Can-Pack, again due to lingering injury – possibly the same one still hanging around – in favour of signing Danielle McCray. Phillips hasn’t played anywhere else since. The positive angle on that is that she’s had time to rest and recuperate, so should be ready for the WNBA season. The pessimist would say she might still not be healthy and it’s worrying when injuries won’t go away (or continue to mount up).