While the All-Star festivities were taking place in Phoenix over the weekend, the Los Angeles Sparks were making moves that might affect actual meaningful games in the WNBA. They relieved head coach Carol Ross of her duties on Sunday night, replacing her with long-time Sparks general manager Penny Toler until the end of the season.
As has been mentioned here several times this season, Ross’s job was inevitably going to come under threat as a team that was supposed to contend for a championship sat under .500 and barely clinging to a playoff spot. The Sparks have been a disjointed team all season, inconsistent at both ends of the floor, and the head coach is invariably the person who has to pay. Ross floated between different lineups and systems this year, searching for something that would click and have the Sparks playing closer to their potential, but never managed to find it. Injuries and absences didn’t help, primarily Candice Wiggins (knee) and Kristi Toliver (missing several games due to joining the Slovak national team), the two guards on the roster with remotely consistent three-point range. But either the team had tuned her out, or Ross had run out of ideas – either way, it’s a little surprising that the decision took this long.
Toler taking over is a shocking move. She has absolutely no coaching experience, having gone directly from playing the game to the LA front office. Assistant coach Gail Goestenkors resigned in apparent solidarity with Ross, but Gary Kloppenburg is sticking around to help out while Steve Smith returns after previous stints as an assistant with the Sparks several years ago (not the NBA player with the Hawks and several other teams, by the way – different Steve Smith). Without being inside the franchise, it’s hard to know what the process was here. Maybe Goestenkors and/or Kloppenburg were offered the top chair, and didn’t want to touch it with the state the team are currently in. Maybe the relatively new Sparks owners told Toler to go down to the bench and sort out her own mess, refusing to pay a second head coach on top of whatever Ross is still getting. Maybe Toler’s just a complete egomaniac who feels like the roster she assembled should’ve been playing much better, so she’s pushed Ross out of the way in anticipation of being able to do better herself. Regardless of the process, putting the team in the hands of a complete coaching novice – assisted by one of the people who helped create the current situation and guy even Sparks lifers would struggle to remember – seems a hell of a hail mary. When Phoenix dumped Corey Gaines in midseason last year, and didn’t want to hand the reins over to an existing assistant, they at least went out and found an experienced coach to take over for the rest of the year. They didn’t just send someone down from the office, hand her a whistle, and tell her to get on with it.
Arguments still persist about exactly whose fault the current state of the Sparks is, and how good they can be with the existing roster. It’s certainly not the most perfectly balanced group in the history of basketball, with the lack of outside shooting being an issue all season, and leading in part to Candace Parker sliding over to play more small forward. The leadership and cohesion among the players is also a big question mark, something you hope a strong head coach can engineer, but which also has to come from within the roster. Ever since Lisa Leslie retired, while Parker has been in place to take over the superstar spot, they haven’t had that same driving force and focussed heart to the team. Of course, we don’t know whether some of the players wanted Ross gone, and will be happier now they’re playing for someone else – or if they might even get a spark from the realisation that their poor performance got her fired.
I continue to feel that this roster can produce much better results than they’ve managed this season. While they gave up some role playing shooters like Marissa Coleman and Jenna O’Hea in the offseason, the core of this team is still the same group that went 24-10 in both 2013 and 2012. When healthy – as they pretty much are right now – they’re actually deeper than in previous years, with Jantel Lavender developing, and Wiggins, Armintie Price and Sandrine Gruda added to the existing nucleus. Whether Toler is the one to rescue their season is highly questionable – and she’s likely trying to save her job as GM as well – but there’s a lot of talent here for someone to work with in future.
That’s essentially what got Ross fired – they added talent to a 24-10 team, and got worse rather than better. But even after their inconsistent, rollercoaster season, they’re in a playoff spot with 12 games to play, and only half a game behind San Antonio for third place in the Western Conference. And last season, just like this year, it was meant to be a ‘big three’ at the top of the West but turned out to be a big two for most of the year – only for the third-placed team that floundered for much of the season to pull an upset in the first round of the playoffs. Last year LA were the victims of the Mercury, this year they’ll be hoping to fight their way into the postseason and pull the upset themselves, or Toler will likely be looking for a new job rather than handling two.
The Atlanta Dream announced today that their head coach, Michael Cooper, will take a temporary leave of absence to be treated for early stage tongue cancer. He’ll undergo surgery this week, and recovery is expected to take only a couple of weeks. Assistant coach Karleen Thompson will take over the team in his absence.
Obviously, we all wish him the best and hope he recovers fully and as quickly as possible. From a basketball standpoint, this probably isn’t too big of a deal. The Dream are well clear at the top of the Eastern Conference, and they have a system in place that shouldn’t be hard for Thompson to take over temporarily. Also, she actually has head coaching experience. It might be tough emotionally for the team to see their coach requiring surgery for such a potentially serious issue, but he should be back on the sidelines pretty soon. Let’s hope everything goes as smoothly as anticipated and Cooper’s back before we know it.
Oh yes, there was a game this weekend, too.
As all-star games go, this one was shockingly entertaining. Brittney Griner produced the dunk that everyone wanted to see, even if it was a fairly perfunctory baseline slam that hardly got anyone’s pulse racing. It was much scarier for opposing coaches around the WNBA to see her step outside and pop home a three-pointer early in the second half. Her stroke looked remarkably smooth and natural from that kind of range.
Many of the highlights of the game came from a player determined to take it at Griner every chance she got – Atlanta rookie Shoni Schimmel. She fired away from three-point range, tossed in some ridiculous shots inside – including a spinning half-hook off the glass over Griner – and threw her typical array of no-look showtime passes. As mentioned by many of us before the weekend, all-star games are made for Schimmel. She has all the flash in the world, loves to shoot, and the games involve no defense whatsoever.
That said, it was a defensive play – combined with some offensive flash, naturally – that presented us with five extra minutes that no one was complaining about. Skylar Diggins snuck around to poke the ball away from Tamika Catchings, and Sue Bird managed to save the ball from going out of bounds and flip it behind her head to Diggins for the breakaway layup that tied the game late in regulation. Catchings couldn’t convert on a drive or a putback to win the game before overtime.
But Catchings got another chance in OT, and this time she didn’t let it slip. With the West leading by a point, Maya Moore missed on a late drive and Nneka Ogwumike couldn’t tip-in the second chance. Catchings grabbed the rebound, and went the length of the court for a driving lefty finish to take the lead for the East with seven seconds left. After a timeout, Diggins drove into traffic and lost the ball, and time expired to hand the victory to the East.
Diggins would’ve broken the record for points in a WNBA All-Star Game, except that Schimmel broke it by a little more on the same night. A lot of fun was had by all, and even us embittered viewers who tend to prefer their basketball with a little more defensive effort were entertained. It shouldn’t – and won’t – result in Cooper/Thompson seeing Schimmel any differently from how they saw her before the weekend. But if she felt the need to remind them of what she can do, this was a pretty nice way to go about it.
In positive injury news, Minnesota’s Rebekkah Brunson is expected to return for the Lynx in tomorrow night’s game against Atlanta. It’ll be her first appearance of the season after surgery on her knee, and gives her 11 games to get back into the swing of things before the playoffs. Seimone Augustus isn’t expected to play tomorrow, but may well return on Friday against San Antonio – giving Minnesota their full roster for the first time all season.
Tulsa @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
Atlanta @ Minnesota, 8pm ET
Indiana @ Chicago, 8pm ET
Phoenix @ Seattle, 10pm ET