2016 WNBA Team Previews: New York Liberty

 

PG: Brittany Boyd/Lindsey Harding/Shoni Schimmel

SG: Tanisha Wright/Sugar Rodgers/Ameryst Alston/(Epiphanny Prince)

SF: Shavonte Zellous

PF: Tina Charles/Adut Bulgak

C: Kiah Stokes/Amanda Zahui B./Carolyn Swords

Presumably, Prince will be temporarily suspended, allowing the Liberty to carry 12 players plus her. They have the cap space to manage that, thanks to the youth of much of the roster.


Significant additions
: Zellous as a free agent from Indiana, Harding as a vet option to help at the point, and both Schimmel and Zahui B in trades for minimal cost during training camp.

Significant losses: Prince tore her ACL overseas and is far and away the most meaningful loss. Essence Carson left for LA and Candice Wiggins retired, but neither will be hugely missed. Swin Cash was a late cut when the roster crowding forced a tough decision.


Overview

The Liberty were a surprise last season. After a couple of years in the lottery, then an offseason of turmoil where head coach Bill Laimbeer was fired and re-hired, and Isiah Thomas joined the front office, few were expecting such a dramatic turnaround. But Laimbeer finally got his squad playing as a unit, hit a shock home run in the draft with Kiah Stokes to help knit together a league-leading defense, and somehow they finished with the best record in the entire WNBA. It all ended in disappointment when Indiana upset them in the Eastern Conference Finals, but overall it was a dramatic step forward from where they’d been. Now the question is whether they can repeat the trick, and how much damage Prince’s injury will do to their prospects.

Tina Charles remains the fulcrum for everything New York does offensively, and while she still had her moments of drifting too far away from the basket and firing bad shots last season, it was better than in the previous couple. But the loss of Prince could hurt her, allowing defenses to pay even more attention to collapsing around her and forcing her teammates to make shots. Zellous was the best replacement they could’ve hoped for in free agency, with players of her calibre rarely available on the open market in this league, but they’ll need the Zellous of a couple of years ago to return. Last season she was limited by injuries and an aborted trip overseas, and never really got going.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Indiana Fever

 

PG: Briann January/Erica Wheeler/Brene Moseley

SG: Shenise Johnson/Tiffany Mitchell/Maggie Lucas

SF: Marissa Coleman

PF: Tamika Catchings/Devereaux Peters/Lynetta Kizer

C: Erlana Larkins/Natalie Achonwa

And that’s it. Thank you Indiana for being the rare team that makes their cuts early enough for me to preview the actual roster. Unless they cut one of the guards to save cash and preserve some extra flexibility.


Significant additions
: Mitchell adds to the guard corps, Peters to the posts. That’s it.

Significant losses: Shavonte Zellous left for nothing in free agency (and I’m still not really sure why they didn’t core her and extract some value in a trade); they gave up on Natasha Howard to acquire Peters; and Layshia Clarendon was traded to Atlanta after three years of trying to convert her into something resembling a point guard.


Overview

While she won’t really want it to be, this season will likely be all about Tamika Catchings for the Indiana Fever. When one of the greats announces their retirement with over a season to go, it inevitably becomes something of a farewell tour. But Catch has always been the ultimate competitor and she won’t be fading away with a whimper, or with a trainwreck season like Kobe Bryant and the Lakers (although based on last year, her shooting percentage might not be that much better than Kobe’s). While Catchings remained the leader of this squad last season, for the first time they looked capable of surviving and winning games without her always being at the controls. It looked like the pieces were starting to move into place for when she’s gone. So one last hurrah while she’s still part of the equation is certainly in play.

The Fever haven’t always been the prettiest team to watch in action. While they were one of the first WNBA teams to embrace ‘smallball’ when Catchings slid down to power forward full-time a few years ago, they’ve always been more about guts than glitz. The approach changed a little last year when Stephanie White took over from Lin Dunn, and demanded that her team speed things up a little. They won games with depth, and with contributions from a variety of different places on different nights. Shenise Johnson looked more comfortable and effective than she ever did in three years in San Antonio. Marissa Coleman had her best season in the WNBA in her seventh year. They pieced together a post rotation with the likes of Kizer, Achonwa and Howard helping out a limited Catchings and a beaten up Larkins. It felt like there was smoke and mirrors involved at times, but as the Fever have been doing for over a decade under Catchings’s leadership, they battled through and won games. Then tossed in a playoff run that came up just one game short of another title.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Chicago Sky

 

PG: Courtney Vandersloot/Jamierra Faulkner

SG: Cappie Pondexter/Allie Quigley

SF: Elena Delle Donne/Tamera Young/Betnijah Laney

PF: Jessica Breland/Cheyenne Parker

C: Erika de Souza/Imani Boyette/Clarissa Dos Santos

Guard Yvonne Turner is still in camp, but seems unlikely to beat out any of the 12 above.


Significant additions
: Boyette, they hope. That’s literally it.

Significant losses: Also virtually nothing. This is a rinse-and-repeat squad, hoping for internal growth and a little more luck than last year.


Overview

The Sky haven’t changed much from last year because they didn’t feel like they had to. And that’s understandable. Elena Delle Donne made that extra leap from star to MVP, stayed largely healthy over the course of the season, and if that repeats they’ve got every chance to be one of the best teams in the league once again. Courtney Vandersloot has developed into one of the better point guards in the WNBA, both as the manager of Chicago’s offense and as a shooter willing to fire away when the opportunity presents itself. Cappie Pondexter fit in nicely last year as Delle Donne’s second-banana, looking happy to have the weight taken off her shoulders rather than annoyed at no longer being her team’s star. And when they need more perimeter scoring, Allie Quigley’s still there coming off the bench.

The questions for Chicago come on the interior, and at the defensive end. Delle Donne will play plenty of power forward, so they don’t need 80 minutes from their collection of posts, but they do need some modicum of rim protection and an attention to detail that was lacking at times last year. They don’t have the distraction of Sylvia Fowles’s holdout hanging over their heads this year, but they also don’t have anything resembling the interior presence she used to provide. Erika de Souza is back, but looked a shadow of her former self even before being acquired by the Sky midway through last season. Jessica Breland offers some range with her elbow jumper and some hard-nosed play at the 4, but in some ways is an awkward fit with Delle Donne. The superstar’s most effective position, at both ends of the floor, is probably also power forward, so matching up the defensive assignments can be awkward with Delle Donne, Breland and a big all on the floor. Beyond that, you’re hoping for the young bucks to step forward and demand time. Cheyenne Parker showed occasional flashes as a rookie, but little that looked deserving of being the #5 overall pick. Boyette is long and athletic, but looked raw even in college. As in various previous years, Pokey Chatman is going into the season not knowing quite what she’ll get from several pieces, and hoping they add up to enough to get the job done.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Connecticut Sun

 

PG: Jasmine Thomas/Rachel Banham

SG: Alex Bentley

SF: Alyssa Thomas/Shekinna Stricklen

PF: Chiney Ogwumike/Camille Little/Morgan Tuck

C: Kelsey Bone/Jonquel Jones/Aneika Henry-Morello

Plus one of the Jamie Weisner, Kelly Faris and Jennifer O’Neill guard trio that are still hanging around in camp.


Significant additions
: The return of Ogwumike from microfracture knee surgery, assuming she’s actually healthy; yet more promising kids in top-six picks Banham, Tuck and Jones; and a new head coach in Curt Miller, replacing the somnolent and unsuccessful Anne Donovan.

Significant losses: They gave up on Chelsea Gray and Elizabeth Williams after only one season, trading them for draft picks. But that’s about it.


Overview

After a great start to last season, the wheels fell off for Connecticut and they regressed back to the messy team we’d been watching ever since the franchise dumped Mike Thibault and handed the reins over to Donovan. But there was positive growth. In the absence of Ogwumike, Kelsey Bone had room to flourish as the main low-post threat, while Alex Bentley had another strong year as the primary scorer on the perimeter. Now with Ogwumike back and yet more young talent piled on what they already had, there are reasons for legitimate optimism around this franchise for the first time in years.

Ogwumike was a star in the making before her knee injury, and if she’s back at anything like 100% she’ll be a big piece of the puzzle for the Sun in the paint. It’s worrying that she hasn’t appeared at all in the preseason, even if the Sun claim they’re just being careful, so it’s a case of waiting to see what she can do. There should be less of a load for her to carry than in her rookie year in 2014, with Bone a distinctly improved player, veteran options like Little and Henry-Morello, and fresh youngsters Tuck and Jones. This could be a deep, powerful rotation inside, health permitting.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Atlanta Dream

 

Yes, I’m back, hopefully with more content this year. We’re kicking off with the usual team-by-team previews, in the traditional Eastern Conference first, alphabetical order (even though the WNBA essentially destroyed conferences this offseason – more on that later). Enjoy, and as always feel free to comment underneath or contact me at @RichardCohen1

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PG: Matee Ajavon/Carla Cortijo

SG: Tiffany Hayes/Layshia Clarendon/Meighan Simmons

SF: Angel McCoughtry/Bria Holmes

PF: Sancho Lyttle/Reshanda Gray/Cierra Burdick

C: Elizabeth Williams/Rachel Hollivay


Significant additions
: Williams and Clarendon, to be generous. Cortijo is virtually new after playing two games last year. Holmes was their first-round pick. But nothing much to get excited about.

Significant losses: Shoni Schimmel’s gone, after head coach Michael Cooper finally grew tired of her issues with staying in shape. Damiris Dantas has been suspended for the season, presumably after choosing to stay with the Brazilian national team rather than show up in Atlanta. They also chose not to match the restricted free agent offer sheet Connecticut handed Aneika Henry-Morello.


Overview

The Dream were a mess last year, and there aren’t many signs that they’re likely to drag themselves out of it in 2016. McCoughtry’s a star, Hayes and Lyttle are two very good pieces, and there are some youngsters dotted around that might make progress, but you need to be a distinct optimist to be hopeful about their upcoming season. The revolving door at point guard remains a gaping question mark, with no one quite sure how Cooper’s going to try to fill it. In recent days they waived a couple of drafted options in Niya Johnson and Ariel Massengale, picked up another off waivers in Jordan Jones (before waiving her as well), and traded for a pseudo-point in Layshia Clarendon. All after dumping Schimmel for a second-round pick to New York. Ajavon isn’t a point guard, Cortijo’s a virtual unknown, and if they’ve signed a couple more options by the time you’re reading this it wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s a shambles.

In an Olympic year they’re also likely to lose Lyttle for several games midseason to help Spain qualify, assuming she shows up in the first place (having already lost fellow post Damiris Dantas to Brazil). They sent the 4th overall pick in the draft, who could’ve provided some hope and excitement for the fan-base, to Connecticut for Elizabeth Williams. After giving up on the deteriorating Erika de Souza last season, the Dream needed a new option at center, but Williams looked pretty ordinary in her rookie year with the Sun last season. She’ll probably fill the hole well enough, but dumping the #4 pick for her was a high price to pay.

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Last-Minute 2015 WNBA Predictions: Awards and Standings and Playoffs, Oh My!

 

Most Valuable Player

 

In trying to come up with a shortlist of MVP candidates, I only ended up with eight names that seemed plausible. Obviously injuries can push certain players to the fore, or take them out of the running entirely, but with so many players sitting out or taking time off this year it cuts down on the candidates. And if you think anyone on the rosters in Washington, Connecticut, Seattle or San Antonio have a realistic MVP shot then you’re more positive about their chances than I am.

That left me with, in alphabetical order, Tamika Catchings, Tina Charles, Elena Delle Donne, Skylar Diggins, Brittney Griner, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore and Nneka Ogwumike. I don’t trust Catchings to stay healthy and play close enough to 34 games. It’s probably too soon for Diggins, plus the Shock may not be good enough (it takes something extraordinary to win an MVP on a poor, or even mediocre, team). Charles’s focus and intensity has been too inconsistent in recent years, although she should pile up raw stats this year in New York. Ogwumike may take a little time to settle in as a more central offensive figure in Los Angeles without Candace Parker around, and Parker’s possible return could affect her as well.

That leaves four. Moore will inevitably be a strong candidate again, and her history suggests breaking down due to injury is unlikely. Oddly, winning consecutive MVP awards is very rare in the WNBA – despite multiple multi-time winners, no one’s won two in a row since Cynthia Cooper in the league’s first two seasons. But breaking records and accomplishing unusual feats is nothing new for Moore. McCoughtry is apparently more settled and focussed this year, according to media reports, after talking openly about her sexuality. She should be as impressive as ever on the floor, although her base shooting percentages can count against her. Griner will be more in the spotlight than ever this season, with Diana Taurasi out of the picture and her marriage splashed across the news. Missing seven games due to suspension at the start of the season will make it difficult for her to win MVP though, even if she’s exceptional for the rest of the year. That’s 21% of the season she’s missing, right off the bat. Delle Donne will have to take on more of the load in Chicago this year with Sylvia Fowles out, and looks a strong contender – assuming she stays healthy. That has obviously been a significant concern in previous years.

So, boringly, I’ll take Maya Moore to repeat. Delle Donne second, McCoughtry third, for what that’s worth. It should be fun seeing them all fight it out.

 

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All-WNBA

 

Well I made most of the arguments for this in the MVP discussion above, so let’s just skip to the picks:

 

First Team

Skylar Diggins
Angel McCoughtry (yes, I fully expect them to fudge the positional requirements)
Maya Moore
Elena Delle Donne
Brittney Griner

 

Second Team

Lindsay Whalen
Seimone Augustus
Candice Dupree
Nneka Ogwumike
Tina Charles

 

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2015 WNBA Season Previews: Tulsa Shock

 

PG: Odyssey Sims/Brianna Kiesel

SG: Skylar Diggins/Riquna Williams

SF: Karima Christmas/Jordan Hooper

PF: Plenette Pierson/Tiffany Jackson-Jones/Vicki Baugh

C: Courtney Paris/Amanda Zahui B./Theresa Plaisance

 

Significant additions: Zahui B., Christmas, Pierson.

Significant losses: Glory Johnson, Roneeka Hodges, Jennifer Lacy

 

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At one stage, this looked like a thoroughly positive offseason for the Tulsa Shock. They added two veteran campaigners who both know how to win and how to play hard-nosed defense in Karima Christmas and Plenette Pierson. They lucked into a much better player with the #2 draft pick than they expected, when both Jewell Loyd and Amanda Zahui B. unexpectedly declared. They had Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims returning as the most exciting young backcourt in the league, after a season spent working out how they fit together. Then they suddenly found themselves embroiled in yet another mess with one of their young post players. After all the time and energy they’ve wasted chasing after Elizabeth Cambage, this time it was Glory Johnson causing all the drama. First it was the arrest after her fight with then-fiancée Brittney Griner, which led to a seven-game suspension from the league. Then she couldn’t be bothered to show up for training camp on time (or even to call the team to let them know she’d be late). Over a week into camp she deigned to drive to Tulsa from halfway across the country – only to reveal that she’s pregnant the day before the regular season begins. A player who’d been a pleasant surprise for the Shock since they selected her 4th overall in 2012 now won’t play for them this season (maybe ever again), and it leaves a hole in a frontcourt that already had some issues. That wasn’t what they needed on the eve of a season where they’re hoping to finally make the leap into being a truly competitive team.

 

First the good news, which starts with the backcourt that has the potential to scare the hell out of opponents for years and years to come. Diggins improved dramatically in her second WNBA season, learning how to finish at the basket under pressure and playing a generally far more composed game. She could still improve significantly from outside, but the fact that there’s still so much room for growth only makes her scarier. Sims increasingly took over initiating the offense as last season progressed, taking some of the load off Diggins’s back, and she can be just as electric as a scorer. Very few teams have enough backcourt defenders to handle the pair of them. With Riquna Williams hopefully healthier this year to be the bench sparkplug behind them, and Jordan Hooper and Christmas both happy to fire away from outside when defenses forget about them, there’s plenty of scoring to come from Tulsa’s perimeter this year.

 

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