WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade Catchup: Charles forces her way to New York, Sun make the best of it


The biggest news of the WNBA’s draft night this year had nothing to do with the players being selected. The Connecticut Sun had the #1 overall pick, and everyone had known Chiney Ogwumike was heading there from the moment the lottery ping-pong balls handed it to them. But the Sun still managed to be involved in the central story of the night, sending malcontented star center Tina Charles to the New York Liberty for center Kelsey Bone, the #4 pick (which immediately became Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas), and New York’s first-round pick in next year’s draft.


Charles being traded wasn’t really a big surprise. Last season in Connecticut was an absolute disaster, with several players upset about Mike Thibault being fired as head coach, Anne Donovan unable to take control or win key players over after being handed the reins, and then various injuries (and ‘injuries’) piling on top. As a result, a franchise that had won 25 games and been inches away from the WNBA Finals in 2012, finished with the worst record in the league and became a punchline in 2013.


Charles herself had a dismal season last year. She looked half-interested much of the time (at best), and reluctant to join the scrap under the basket when she had limited help around her. Donovan’s schemes, which seemed to encourage her to play further away from the basket, didn’t help. The raw numbers of 18 points and 10 rebounds per game were pretty impressive in a strange way – Charles was still piling them up even while playing on auto-pilot. The 40% field-goal percentage, for a freaking center, was staggeringly atrocious.


Some of her quotes towards the end of last season showed how unhappy she was with the way the year had gone, and hinted at a wish to get out – or to sit out. As always, that’s the primary negotiating tool for any WNBA player remotely near star-level. They make significantly more money overseas, so simply sitting out the WNBA season to rest their bodies before heading back to Europe or Asia is always an option. More often, it’s a threat. Trade me (sometimes ‘trade me to the specific city I want to play in’) or I just won’t play, has become a fairly common refrain around the WNBA.


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WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade Catchup: Storm swipe Langhorne, Mystics go young


In merely the second-biggest trade of 2014’s draft night, an All-Star power forward was traded for two youngsters with no WNBA pedigree whatsoever. Described like that, you have to wonder why Washington’s Mike Thibault – generally considered one of the smarter guys working in the WNBA – would be willing to give up Crystal Langhorne for two unknown quantities on the pro level in Tianna Hawkins and Bria Hartley. Certainly from the perspective of his counterpart in Seattle, Brian Agler, the move seemed like a no-brainer.


When Langhorne came into the league in 2008, taken by the Mystics with the sixth overall pick, many people had their doubts about her. She had limited success in her first year, due to defensive issues and a complete lack of range offensively. But even then there were signs of something pretty impressive, and by her second season she was already starting to look like an all-star talent. She worked on her shot, developing reliable range out to at least 15 feet, and while she’s never going to be a shut-down defender, she’s become solid enough on that end of the floor. She’s always been an impressive finisher around the rim and a decent rebounder, and with Lauren Jackson missing yet another season in Seattle that was something the Storm sorely needed. When you consider Agler’s well-known preference for veterans over youngsters, upgrading to Langhorne in the post for the cost of just Hawkins and the 7th pick in the 2014 draft made a lot of sense for Seattle.


There are a couple of factors that you can point to as to why Thibault might’ve been willing to let Langhorne go. While she’s missed very few games (just six in total over six years in the WNBA), she’s been troubled by various minor injuries in recent year. That includes back problems, which can be a persistent nightmare for posts that have to battle away in the paint. Maybe he felt she was starting to break down, and was willing to give her up a year too early in order to avoid moving her a year too late, when her value might’ve fallen more significantly. She’s also become less of a focal point of Washington’s offense in the last couple of years, and her numbers have dropped off a little as a result. Thibault got the Mystics playing as more of a collective last year, improving their results but somewhat minimising Langhorne’s role. They didn’t need, or want, to just dump the ball to her in the post every time down the floor. But she’s only 27, and Seattle will be hoping for several good years from her yet. Meanwhile Washington’s front-line suddenly has a much more questionable look about it.


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WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade Catchup: Dream Cash in when Sky cave


Over the years, I’ve heard it referred to as a lot of things. A bag of chips. A bucket of balls. A hill of beans. Plenty of other things I’m probably forgetting. It’s what you metaphorically receive when you trade someone for essentially nothing. WNBA rules require something to go in both directions in a two-team trade, and we actually saw a deal earlier this offseason that came as close to nothing as something can get – when Sugar Rodgers went from Minnesota to New York for the right to swap third-round picks in next year’s draft. Given that as a comparison, Swin Cash and a third-round pick going from Chicago to Atlanta for Courtney Clements and a second-round pick wasn’t quite a bag of chips. But it was no more than a bag and a half, and it was one of those flavours that no one actually likes.


The story behind this deal goes back a little way. Cash was cored by the Chicago Sky when the offseason began in earnest, after the WNBA and the Players’ Association finally agreed a new collective bargaining agreement. The core designation is like the WNBA’s version of the NFL’s franchise tag – teams can place it on one of their outgoing players who would otherwise become an unrestricted free agent, restricting that player to only being able to negotiate or sign with their existing team. In return, the player automatically receives a one-year, maximum salary contract offer – although she and the team can negotiate a deal of up to four years at any salary from the minimum to the maximum.


Here’s where we get into rumours and whispers, which typically carry a grain of truth but often with a bunch of supposition thrown on top. Chicago reportedly didn’t want to give Cash any more than that automatic one-year max deal. Part of the problem there may have been that any contract signed when a player is cored ties up that team’s core spot for the length of the contract (or until the player leaves the team via trade or retirement). So if, for example, Cash had signed a three-year deal with the Sky, they wouldn’t have been able to core anyone else until 2017 (unless they traded her away). That could’ve been a big problem, considering Sylvia Fowles is out of contract after this year, and losing her would be a vastly bigger deal than losing Cash. Of course, the Sky may also not have wanted to give Cash more than a year because they felt like she was getting older and wouldn’t deserve the money in later years of a longer deal.


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WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade: Three-way deal sends Lawson to D.C., Bentley to Connecticut, and confusion to Atlanta (with Matee Ajavon)


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.

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WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade: Phoenix filch Phillips from Fever for 1st


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).

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WNBAlien Feature: Trading Tina Thompson


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.


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Grading the Trade: Hornbuckle Finds a Home

The Minnesota Lynx signed-and-traded Alexis Hornbuckle to the Phoenix Mercury for a 2013 second-round draft pick.

The first signing of the true free agency period turned out to also be a trade. Exactly why it turned out to be a trade, your guess is as good as mine. There’s no way that Alexis Hornbuckle was going to be playing for the Minnesota Lynx in 2012. They had only three free agents left, all restricted, and Hornbuckle played the fewest minutes of the three last year. They’ve also got six draft picks, including the #3 overall selection, and the only open roster spots are going to be created by the departure of those free agents. Hornbuckle was gone.

She was especially gone at the inflated contract number Phoenix threw at her. With Temeka Johnson traded away, Marie Ferdinand-Harris an unrestricted free agent (and not particularly good), and Penny Taylor’s status for next season up in the air thanks to the Olympics, Phoenix needed help on the perimeter. That’s not in question. But holy mackerel did they decide to overpay a backup guard who barely played last season and shoots 36% for her WNBA career. This isn’t exactly the kind of player that Merc fans had in mind when they saw their team clearing cap space for 2012 free agents, even with the caveat that you usually have to overpay for restricted free agents. Continue reading

Grading the Trade: On a Wing and a Prayer

The Los Angeles Sparks trade Noelle Quinn to the Washington Mystics for Marissa Coleman.

The first move of the WNBA free agency signing period turned out to be a trade that would’ve been perfectly legal back before free agency started. LA and Washington decided that their underperforming backup wings might do better if they swapped them around, so Noelle Quinn and Marissa Coleman both face a change of scenery next season. Given how they played in 2011, it probably can’t hurt.

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WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade: Mercury swap starting PG for 4th-worst player in WNBA

Okay, so the headline is a little bit reductive. But for those who believe in John Hollinger’s PER statistic, that’s precisely what happened yesterday when the Phoenix Mercury traded Temeka Johnson straight up for Andrea Riley of the Tulsa Shock. Of the 121 players who appeared for at least 150 minutes in the WNBA last season, Riley rated 118th. And for those who’ve read my columns over the last year or two, you’ll be aware that 118th might actually be slightly higher than I’d rank her. So what on Earth possessed the Mercury to make this move?

In fairness to Phoenix, Johnson hasn’t exactly been lighting it up herself for the last couple of years. After arriving as Kelly Miller’s replacement in 2009 and playing her part in the charge to a championship, TJ’s effectiveness has diminished in the last two seasons. While she retained her starting spot, she was often sat on the bench in crunch time when head coach Corey Gaines went to bigger lineups, and her scoring average dropped three full points to only six per game in 2011. And that’s before we even consider her matador brand of defense, which occasionally stood out even among the deplorable Mercury team defense as especially poor. However, her shooting averages have remained pretty decent, especially compared to the likes of Ketia Swanier and Alexis Gray-Lawson who were coming off the bench behind her. Plus Johnson was always a veteran option who knew what her coach wanted and how the team was supposed to be playing on the floor. Search back a couple of years and you’ll read a swathe of comments from the likes of Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter about how much they loved playing with a true point guard who knew how and when to get them the ball. Johnson’s game really hasn’t changed much since then – the roster’s simply weakened around her while their competition has improved.

Don’t expect many comments from Mercury players about Riley’s ‘true point guard’ skills in 2012. If she even makes the roster. Continue reading

WNBAlien Special – Grading the Trade: Storm Blows it Up

The Seattle Storm got 2012 off to a surprising start in the WNBA on Monday, sending Swin Cash, Le’coe Willingham and a late-second round pick in the 2012 draft (#23 overall) to Chicago for the #2 overall pick in that same upcoming draft. It’s been pretty apparent for a while that Seattle needed to freshen up their roster and get younger, but this was still a somewhat shocking way to open up the offseason transactions. Two key parts of your rotation for a pick in what’s generally seen as a weak draft class – for a coach/GM who’s shown no interest in using any young, inexperienced players in recent years – is a bold step. Time will tell whether it’s one step back to eventually move two forwards, or just a hop in the wrong direction.

Cash didn’t have a great season in 2011. She went through long stretches where she wouldn’t have hit water shooting off the side of a boat, and the 41% three-point shooting she discovered in the Storm’s 2011 championship season disappeared entirely. But she was still a strong defender, a physical presence who could defend the perimeter and fight down low on switches, and occasionally her scoring touch returned, leaving her overall 2011 numbers at nearly 40% from the floor and right around her career average of 13 points per game. At 32 years old, and with a chequered injury history, she’s probably starting the downslope of her career trajectory, but there’s a good few years left on those legs. Big, true small forwards aren’t easy to find in this league – just look how long Chicago have needed one, for example – and the Storm could have serious problems replacing her. Continue reading