WNBA 2014 In-Depth Previews: Tulsa Shock

 

Skylar Diggins/Angel Goodrich
Odyssey Sims/Riquna Williams
Roneeka Hodges/Jordan Hooper
Glory Johnson/Tiffany Jackson-Jones/Jennifer Lacy/Theresa Plaisance
Courtney Paris/Vicki Baugh

 

Significant additions: Sims, Jackson-Jones is further removed from her pregnancy and hopefully won’t be quite so useless, new head coach Fred Williams
Significant losses: Elizabeth Cambage yet again, Candice Wiggins, Nicole Powell’s theoretical veteran presence

—–

 

The rebuilding – or just ‘building’, if you don’t count the Detroit variant of the franchise – continues for yet another year in Tulsa. They’ll tell you they’re aiming for the playoffs, but it’s going to be hard work achieving that barring some serious collapses elsewhere in the West. Especially after yet another difficult offseason for the Shock. There’s a new head coach, lots of youth and hope for interior development, but there’s also the usual plethora of roster holes and limited talent. If Fred Williams drags this squad up to the realms of .500 and serious playoff contention, he’ll be at the head of the Coach of the Year race.

 

First the bad news – Elizabeth Cambage is gone again. The on-off Big Liz saga at least ended with something resembling a straight answer this year, but unfortunately that answer was ‘no’ to returning to the WNBA in 2014. They wouldn’t keep going through this if she wasn’t such an impressive potential talent. Size like that with the ability to finish – even if it comes with an immature personality – just doesn’t grow on trees.

 

Cambage’s absence leaves the Shock with a lot of questions in the paint. Glory Johnson is the one reliable option, a strong interior presence with a streak of nasty in her that only makes her more effective. She’s still developing as a player, adding some range and variety to her offense, but it’s a shame we won’t get to see her partnership with Cambage continue to evolve this season. She also sprained an ankle late in her Russian season and hasn’t played again since, but reportedly should be ready to start the season. Beyond her Tulsa have no idea what they might get from their posts. Tiffany Jackson-Jones had a pretty miserable half-season after returning from pregnancy last year, and is expected to miss at least the first six weeks of this season anyway after surgery on her shin. Courtney Paris is back again and will likely produce her usual combination of breakout games where she dominates the glass and finishes inside, before five games where she’s never heard from again. Her defense against WNBA-level competition is still a major issue. Jennifer Lacy’s a decent backup who’ll hit a few shots from time to time, but no more. And then they’re down to completely unproven options like Vicki Baugh and rookie Theresa Plaisance. It’s patchwork at best for the Shock down low – Swiss cheese might end up a more appropriate term.

 

The guards are where there’s at least some hope on offer. Social media maven Skylar Diggins spent the offseason making appearances on every red carpet available and in several magazines, but hopefully also working on her game. She had a difficult rookie season, struggling to finish in the paint or hit consistently from outside. Some nice stat-lines in preseason have some people excited, but everyone should know by now that preseason means exactly nothing. Skylar needs to take a big step forward this season to start paying off on her promise and earning some of her reputation. Candice Wiggins is gone, but Diggins has a new running mate in the backcourt in #2 overall pick Odyssey Sims from Baylor. A quick, dynamic guard who can score in bunches, the possibility of Sims being a true star on the pro level is perhaps Tulsa’s best chance for speedy development into a decent team. Even if she’s not a superstar, or at least not yet, Sims and Diggins should be able to help each other out in the backcourt, sharing the point guard duties and releasing some of the pressure from each other.

 

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WNBA 2014 In-Depth Previews: Seattle Storm

 

Sue Bird/Temeka Johnson
Tanisha Wright/Jenna O’Hea
Noelle Quinn/Shekinna Stricklen/Alysha Clark
Crystal Langhorne/Nicole Powell
Camille Little/Angel Robinson

That’s it for now. When your roster is old, it tends to be expensive – hence why they can only fit 11 players under the salary cap.

 

Significant additions: Bird back from injury, Langhorne, O’Hea, Robinson if they’re really lucky, Powell if this is at least five years ago
Significant losses: Another shred of hope that Lauren Jackson will ever play in the WNBA again, Tina Thompson, Tianna Hawkins

—–

 

I may have been the only person on Earth who predicted the Storm would make the playoffs last season (I kept pointing it out when analysts claimed no one had, because it’s nice to be right once in a blue moon). They made it by clawing their way to frequently ugly wins, slowing games down and grinding out enough points to sneak over the line. This year’s squad is probably more talented overall, but Brian Agler is going to have to pull off a similar trick to keep them around .500 and chasing the playoffs again. It might not be pretty, but the Storm never go away without a fight.

 

There are two major additions to last year’s team, one through a return to health and one via trade. Point guard Sue Bird has been a leader on this team for a decade, but missed the whole of last season due to a knee injury. Temeka Johnson was a useful replacement, but Agler and Storm fans will be delighted to have one of their favourite daughters back on the floor. Bird’s a smart, heady player, Agler’s ‘coach on the floor’, who’s also known for her tendency to step up and make big time shots when they’re required. Even if she’s not as quick as she once was, or as fearless driving into traffic, she knows how to affect a game (and unlike many players returning from injury for the 2014 WNBA season, she’s been playing in Europe so there’s greater certainty that she’s physically ready).

 

Crystal Langhorne is the entirely new addition, acquired in return for Tianna Hawkins and the #7 pick in the draft (which was Bria Hartley for Washington’s purposes, but reportedly would’ve been the injured Natalia Achonwa if Seattle had kept it). Seattleites are going to enjoy Langhorne. She’s a hard-working, physical post who likes to score in the paint but can hit jumpers out to the elbow as well. With Lauren Jackson missing once again due to a combination of the need for rest and national team commitments, Langhorne gives them a post they can run their offense through. She’s a very different player from the retired Tina Thompson – Lang won’t be setting up for any 28-foot threes – but she’s over a decade younger and can be just as effective. Given how little Agler tends to trust youngsters, and the opportunity to acquire an all-star calibre post, it was a trade they had to make.

 

Bird can be a useful option off the ball as well as running the offense, so we’ll likely see her playing alongside Johnson at times, or just sliding over like the old days while Tanisha Wright runs the point. Wright is still one of the better perimeter defenders in the league, and a capable scorer when the mood strikes her. She and Bird have developed good chemistry over the years, and it’ll be nice to see them reunited. The other definitive starter will be Camille Little, a reliable and versatile post who can defend virtually anyone and provide her share of production in the paint. It might take a little while to develop the Langhorne/Little pairing so that they’re complementary rather than getting in each other’s way, but they’re both smart enough to work it out.

 

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WNBA 2014 In-Depth Previews: San Antonio Stars

 

Danielle Robinson/Davellyn Whyte
Becky Hammon/Jia Perkins/Heather Butler
Kayla McBride/Shenise Johnson/Shameka Christon
Sophia Young-Malcolm
Jayne Appel/Danielle Adams/Kayla Alexander

Significant additions: Hammon and Young-Malcolm back from injury, McBride
Signficant losses: ‘Silver’

—–

 

San Antonio’s season last year was an uphill struggle from the beginning. Sophia Young (now Young-Malcolm after her marriage) tore her ACL before the season even began, and Becky Hammon played a grand total of 12 minutes before suffering the same fate. Any team, shorn of their two veteran leaders and best players, would’ve struggled from that point on. So given that both are now back in the fold, the youngsters have an extra year of experience, and there’s another high draft-pick to add to the mix, they should bounce right back to being the 21-13 team from 2012, right? Well, maybe.

 

There’s definitely a fair bit of talent here. People seem to forget just how good Young-Malcolm was, after just one year away. There’s always the question of how successfully players will return from serious injuries, but ACL recovery tends to be a much smoother process these days than it used to be. Young has always been on the small side for a power forward – if the Stars had won the lottery and added Chiney Ogwumike, Young-Malcolm might easily have made the full-time switch to small forward – but that can help her offensively. She’s too quick and mobile for many opposing 4s to handle, and she finds a variety of ways to score. She also improved her rebounding noticeably in the year before her injury, something this team dearly needed.

 

Hammon’s 37 now, so concerns about her recovery from injury might be more significant (or about other injuries cropping up while she compensates – she’s going to miss a couple of games to start the season with an ankle sprain). Hopefully there’s still a little left in the tank before she moves to the sidelines to begin a coaching career. Her game’s never been built on elite speed or athleticism, so a knee injury might not knock her back as much as some. She’s a crafty scorer and creator, capable of contriving finishes that don’t seem possible on drives through traffic. Or just bombing away from deep and killing you from beyond the arc. It should be fun seeing San Antonio’s stars back on the floor again.

 

While they were gone, Dan Hughes still managed to draw some decent performances out of the players he had left. Danielle Robinson continues to develop as a floor leader, with a mid-range jump shot that’s become pretty solid, and ridiculous speed that few in the WNBA can compete with. Danielle Adams remains one of the more unique talents in the league, a big, big girl who’s surprisingly light on her feet and has started to add more of an interior game to her long-range shooting. Jayne Appel was a little more appreciated for her work last year, providing solid interior defense and rebounding – although she still seems reluctant to actually take shots however close to the rim she might be. Jia Perkins is still a scorer who can hurt you if you give her an inch of space, and will return to her bench-injection role after being forced into a starting spot last season.

 

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WNBA 2014 In-Depth Previews: Phoenix Mercury

 

Erin Phillips/Tiffany Bias
Diana Taurasi/Anete Jekabsone-Zogota/Shay Murphy
DeWanna Bonner/Penny Taylor
Candice Dupree/Mistie Bass
Brittney Griner/Ewelina Kobryn

 

Significant additions: Phillips, Bass, Jekabsone-Zogota, Murphy, maybe more from Taylor, new head coach Sandy Brondello
Significant losses: Briana Gilbreath, Krystal Thomas, Charde Houston, Alexis Hornbuckle and Lynetta Kizer are all gone – but like the changes in LA, no one’s exactly weeping for what’s been lost

—–

 

After being the darlings of many experts and fans in preseason a year ago, the Mercury have been lost in the shuffle a little bit this time around. The Lynx have the proven track record, LA have the new owners and refreshed depth, even New York and Atlanta have engendered more discussion with their changes since last year. But like the Sparks, Phoenix have retained their core while rebuilding the pieces around them and attempting to upgrade the supporting players. They’ve got a new head coach in place from the start this time – rather than finally realising they needed to make that change in midseason – and Brittney Griner’s got a year under her belt as a pro. Maybe coming at this season as a little bit of an underdog is just what they need.

 

The first and most important addition – the only one who’ll start, barring injuries – was Aussie point guard Erin Phillips. After spending last season with Diana Taurasi constantly on the ball running the offense – because there was no one else around who was a viable option – the key need in the offseason was someone else who could handle the point guard spot, and hopefully hit some open shots. Phillips should be a good fit. She’s not a pure point by any means, but she’s feisty, she’s quick, she can get the ball up the floor, and she’s a 38% three-point shooter over her WNBA career (including 45% over her last three seasons). That’s just about exactly what Phoenix needed, especially considering they’re in win-now mode, and there wouldn’t have been anyone available at the 9th pick in the draft (the pick they traded for Phillips) who could’ve filled the spot to the same standard.

 

Health is going to play a major role in determining how good Phoenix can be this season. That’s always true for every team in this league, of course, but it’s more of a concern for the Mercury than most of the others. Phillips battled knee problems last season, being troubled by recurring pain even once she returned from a torn meniscus. Griner kept picking up minor issues that limited her play and prevented her from settling in as a pro. And of course, Penny Taylor is a constant question mark at this stage in her career. Apparently Taylor’s been a participant in much of their preseason work and is looking good, but won’t start the season in uniform. We’ve heard the ‘looking good’ and ‘returning soon’ messages with Penny so many times now that it’s hard to take them seriously until we actually see her on the floor, and even then there’ll be constant fears that she’ll break down. She was a wonderful player in her prime, capable of doing pretty much everything from either forward spot, but sadly that player is probably gone. Still, if she can get healthy enough to provide solid backup minutes late in the season and into the playoffs, she could be a significant contributor to the Mercury’s success again. But it’s reached the point where no one’s counting on it.

 

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WNBA 2014 In-Depth Previews: Minnesota Lynx

 

Lindsay Whalen/Lindsey Moore
Seimone Augustus/Monica Wright/Tan White
Maya Moore/Tricia Liston
Rebekkah Brunson/Devereaux Peters/Asia Taylor
Janel McCarville/Damiris Dantas

 

Significant additions: White, Dantas, Liston, more jewelry
Significant losses: Injury luck (Brunson, Wright and Peters all out to start the season due to knee surgeries)

—–

 

At some point, there’s not much more to say about the Minnesota Lynx. If you’re reading this, you probably watched them play last year, and the year before, and the year before that – you’ve seen how overwhelming they can be. Their top seven players from last year’s charge to another championship all return, and they’ll be looking to do it all over again. They were easily the best offensive team in the league last year, and their usual cohesive selves on the defensive end. Despite the slip-up in the 2012 Finals, this has been the dominant squad in the WNBA for the last three years, and the team everyone else is striving to challenge. Of course, the one thing that can derail any team is faltering health, and you can only stay so lucky for so long. Heading into this season the Lynx already have some injury issues, and Cheryl Reeve and her team are going to have to show they can handle those. That said, it’s a lot better to be working through injuries in May than in September.

 

The physical problems are with Rebekkah Brunson, Monica Wright and Devereaux Peters, all of whom returned from overseas requiring knee surgeries of various descriptions. Brunson could miss at least half the season; the others should be back sooner, but won’t be rushed. The absence of Wright shouldn’t be felt too severely. They still have an all-world trio on the perimeter ahead of her, and they added veteran guard Tan White in free agency who can offer a lot of the same things that Wright provided off the bench – ballhandling, some scoring, an extra dose of attacking off the dribble. The more significant questions arise in the paint, where Peters would’ve been the natural replacement for Brunson – so losing both at the same time complicates matters.

 

One thing Reeve has never been great at is developing her depth and her bench. She plays such a tight rotation that the reserves, beyond a couple, rarely feature in games. Without those opportunities to play in meaningful moments, development can be slow or nonexistent. So the Lynx tend to cycle through backups fairly frequently, searching for the newer, better option behind their stars. Amber Harris is gone this year (to the surprise of no one, and with no one mourning the absence). In her place are rookies Damiris Dantas and Asia Taylor, both of whom will probably get a chance to prove themselves while Brunson and Peters recuperate. Dantas was drafted back in 2012, a Brazilian youngster that the Lynx were willing to wait on. She hasn’t had the greatest couple of season overseas in the time since, but the raw talent they saw in her in the first place is still there – and she’s still only 21. Taylor was the 36th (and final) pick in the most recent draft and doesn’t have the size of Dantas, but could be a more mobile option. We’re also likely to see Maya Moore playing more power forward than usual while Brunson and Peters are out, with White sliding in as an extra guard on the perimeter.

 

The Lynx have never run much of their offense through their post players – or at least when they have it’s usually at least 15 feet from the basket – so the rhythm of their offense shouldn’t be disrupted too much. But they’ll miss Brunson’s activity and rebounding, the chemistry won’t be quite as good with important pieces missing, and the defensive cohesion is likely to take a hit. Reeve and her assistants will have some work to do early in the season to keep the machine running as smoothly as it typically has in the past.

 

Which isn’t to say that this team is exactly in need of anyone’s prayers. They still have probably the best perimeter trio in the history of the WNBA in Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore, which is a pretty nice foundation to work with whoever the hell is playing in the post. Whalen is a strong, smart point guard, running the offense exactly as Reeve wants it, and willing to drive into the teeth of the defense for her own points when her team needs it. Augustus has one of the purest jump shots you’re ever likely to see, and scores with remarkable efficiency for someone who takes most of her shots from at least 15 feet out. Moore has slowly taken over from Augustus as the brightest light among this star-studded team. Like Augustus she’s an outstanding jumpshooter, and actually has a little more range, which makes her even more productive. Moore also fills the stat sheet in other areas to a greater extent than Augustus, piling up rebounds, assists, steals and even a few blocks to go with the scoring. She easily could’ve taken the league MVP award ahead of Candace Parker last season.

 

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WNBA 2014 In-Depth Previews: Los Angeles Sparks

 

Lindsey Harding/Candice Wiggins
Kristi Toliver/Armintie Herrington
Alana Beard/Farhiya Abdi
Nneka Ogwumike/Sandrine Gruda
Candace Parker/Jantel Lavender/Nikki Greene

That’s it. This vet-laden team couldn’t even dream of fitting a 12th player in under the salary cap.

 

Significant additions: Gruda, Herrington, Wiggins
Significant losses: Marissa Coleman, Jenna O’Hea, Ebony Hoffman and A’dia Mathies are all gone. No one’s too upset.

—–

 

The Sparks were a very good team last year. They had their flaws, and some ugly nights, but based on points per possession over the course of the regular season they were the second-best offensive team in the league, and the second-best defensive team. Of course, with the way American sports works, their season was defined by the disappointing first-round playoff exit at the hands of Phoenix, rather than any success they’d had before that point. Even worse than an upset playoff defeat, the franchise looked like it might be dropping out of existence – or at least moving to a different city – during the offseason. Then a new ownership group led by Magic Johnson swooped in to save them and keep them in LA, and the planning for the 2014 season began. Being the Sparks, of course, they weren’t content to bring everybody back and try again with what they had. They were going to go out and pursue as many veteran upgrades as they could possibly acquire, to make the squad as imposing as possible. And it worked. They’re deeper and scarier than ever with a significantly improved bench, and they’ll be taking another run at the Western Conference. Anything less than a championship will be a disappointment – again – for this group.

 

The core of last year’s strong squad remains intact – the five starters and first post off the bench all return – but first let’s look at what they’ve added. On the perimeter Candice Wiggins and Armintie Herrington came over from Tulsa and Atlanta respectively to deepen their options. Wiggins hasn’t developed into quite the player she once looked like she might become, and she didn’t have a great season with the Shock last year. But she’s still an energetic defender, can do a serviceable job at either guard spot, and she can still knock down open threes at a pretty good rate – and this roster needed someone besides Kristi Toliver who could do that, especially after letting Marissa Coleman and Jenna O’Hea leave. Wiggins is also a player who might not have looked great as a starter that was expected to help lead Tulsa out of the basement, but will look like a luxury bonus coming off the bench in LA. Herrington can’t shoot, but she can run like the wind and she’s an elite perimeter defender. She has a history with Sparks head coach Carol Ross, so it wasn’t a big surprise to see them reunited, except that fewer minutes might be on offer for her in LA than were available with the Dream. In fact, one of the few problems Ross might have with this roster is keeping everyone happy with enough playing time. They’ll be hoping that winning will keep everyone content regardless of how the minutes are distributed.

 

They added a nice piece in the paint as well, with French post Sandrine Gruda making her return to the WNBA after three years away. Gruda’s a long, talented player at either spot down low, with some range on her shot and useful mobility. She’s also played alongside Sparks superstar Candace Parker with UMMC Ekaterinburg for several years now in Europe, so the chemistry should already be there. Considering the pairing of Parker and Nneka Ogwumike was already one of the strongest in the WNBA, with center Jantel Lavender a very useful third option, adding Gruda makes LA’s post rotation start to look a little ridiculous. Ross should be able to rotate them enough to keep everyone fresh and constantly on the attack, and they should be able to exploit opposing benches. The starters have to rest at some point for their opponents, and during those sequences LA should have significantly more interior talent on the floor than practically any team in the league.

 

That’s why adding these new pieces makes the Sparks look so imposing – they were already so good, and the meaningful pieces are all back (and all healthy, as far as we know). Parker won the MVP award again last year, carrying the offense at times with her all-around game and remarkable agility for her size. She has her flaws defensively, but when she’s in full flow there aren’t many offensive talents in the women’s game on her level. Ogwumike continues to quietly develop into an all-star calibre talent alongside her, leaping out of the gym to grab rebounds and scoring efficiently in the paint whenever she gets the chance. Lavender has been somewhat inconsistent as a pro, unguardable one night and invisible the next, but part of that comes down to the talent in front of her keeping her off the floor. She’s a big body with range to 15 feet who gives a slightly different look from the others, and she can affect games when given the chance.

 

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WNBA 2014 In-Depth Previews: Washington Mystics

 

Ivory Latta/Bria Hartley
Kara Lawson/Kalana Greene/(Tayler Hill)
Monique Currie/Tierra Ruffin-Pratt
Emma Meesseman/Tianna Hawkins/Jelena Milovanovic
Kia Vaughn/Stefanie Dolson

plus maybe the suspended Quanitra Hollingsworth at some point as an extra big, if she ever deigns to show up.

 

Significant additions: Lawson, Hawkins, Dolson, Hartley
Significant losses: Crystal Langhorne, Matee Ajavon, Michelle Snow, Hill for at least part of the season

—–

 

After a couple of embarrassingly terrible years, Mike Thibault took over and made this franchise respectable again last season. He turned over half the roster, created a cohesive and deep team, and just flat-out got them playing again. They didn’t have the most talent in the league, but they were organised and they worked hard, and finished the season at exactly .500. That’s a big step up when you were 11-57 combined in the previous two years. Now there’s a new test – whether they can take the next step. A risky trade gave up a player they’ve built around for a long time, but there are some other new pieces on a young team that’s still hoping to improve from within. Sometimes becoming ‘decent’ is a relatively straightforward first step. Getting to ‘good’ can be much trickier.

 

The Crystal Langhorne trade on draft night means that Monique Currie is now the only remaining player from the pre-Thibault era. But continuing the roster turnover wasn’t a good enough reason to give up a still relatively young all-star calibre player, unless Tianna Hawkins or Bria Hartley turn out to be very, very good. Hartley joins a backcourt that’s now going to have to be the driving force for this team. Ivory Latta will team with Kara Lawson as the starters in a pairing that will be hard to guard, with both players capable of running the offense or scoring in bunches. Latta’s a quick, dynamic player who’s learned how to distribute a little more rather than always looking for her own shot. Lawson’s one of the best outside shooters in the women’s game, and will be delighted to reunite with Thibault after being unhappy that he was dismissed in Connecticut. Hartley can do a little of everything as the backup to both, and they recently added Kalana Greene – another former Sun player – to be an extra defensive option on the wing. Sometime during the season Tayler Hill may also return from her pregnancy to provide another option – although after a disappointing rookie season and the baby, it’s probably best not to expect much from that avenue until 2015.

 

At small forward they’ve got a strong, physical pair in Currie and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who impressed last season after being picked up as an unrestricted free agent. Neither is entirely reliable on a night-to-night basis, but between them they can cover the spot competently and break out at times. Ruffin-Pratt should be more comfortable in her second season, and might take another step forward. Greene could get some minutes at the 3 as well when necessary.

 

Down in the paint is where they’re going to have to work things out as they go along. Langhorne may not have produced in the last couple of years quite as well as she had beforehand, but she was reliable. Now the only big on the opening day roster with significant WNBA experience is center Kia Vaughn. She’s a solid pivot, a decent defender, and capable of providing some interior scoring and rebounding, but you can’t consistently run your offense through her. She’ll be backed up by rookie Stefanie Dolson, another graduate of the UConn production line, just like Hartley. Jayne Appel was the most common comparison for Dolson, but Dolson’s a little more aggressive in looking for her own offense. She’s also a good passer from the high and low post, and Thibault will make use of that.

 

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