The Daily W, 07/21/2014

 

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.

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Losses Outweigh Gaines: No defense for Corey as Mercury make a change

 

Sitting at 10-11 and clinging to third place in the WNBA’s Western Conference, the Phoenix Mercury decided enough was enough on Thursday, and fired head coach and general manager Corey Gaines. Russ Pennell, former men’s head coach at the University of Arizona and Grand Canyon University, was named interim head coach, while Chief Operating Officer Amber Cox will take over the general manager duties.

 

While many were surprised at the timing – changes at head coach, especially for playoff teams, tend to happen in the offseason rather than during the regular season – the decision itself can’t be a huge shock at this point. After the desperate season last year, where endless losses piled up (by design or misfortune, depending on your perspective), this year was meant to be the bounce-back. They were adding a game-changer in rookie center Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi was healthy, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner were still in the fold, Penny Taylor was on her way back, even their young point guard was now a year more experienced – they were loaded. Injuries to Griner and Taylor provided yet more excuses for Gaines, but the team weren’t good enough whoever was on the floor. And considering teams across the league were dealing with major injuries to their stars and finding a way to survive, the Mercury’s struggles were made to look even worse.

 

Defense has always been Gaines’s achilles heel. In his five seasons in charge, the Mercury were second-last, last, last, third-last, and last in the WNBA in defensive points per possession (that’s how many points they concede, adjusted for the pace at which their games are played). They’re last again this year, by a considerable margin. The other 11 teams all sit somewhere between 91.4 and 101.4 points per 100 possessions; Phoenix have given up 104.3. Whenever this has been brought up over the years, his defenders have talked about how the Mercury offensive style leads to the defensive failings. But that’s always been a fallacy. You can play fast-paced, attacking basketball on the offensive end, and still play defense. Just because you like to concentrate on one end of the floor, doesn’t mean you can completely ignore the other. There are some poor defenders on the Mercury squad, but they’ve been so bad for so long that it’s completely inexcusable. There’s been a dismal lack of rules and consistency within their defense for years, and then this year they added the most dominant defensive center to emerge from the NCAA in a very long time. The hope was that they could install her at center, and she could cover for the flaws in Gaines’s system and coaching. But they were still terrible. Griner had her issues adapting to the pick-and-roll based pro game, and then the knee problem slowed her progress, but there were no signs that Gaines knew what he was doing in utilising her. You couldn’t help but feel that virtually any other coach in the league would’ve been doing a better job turning her into a true force on the defensive end.

 

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WNBA Today, 08/29/2012 (Part One): The Drama

Edited to add: After writing, the Associated Press stated that Fred Williams had given Angel McCoughtry a written list of requirements she must sign and comply with before he will consider reinstating her. None of that changes anything written below.

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There’s been so much off-court nonsense going on around the WNBA this week, that we’re splitting today’s coverage into two parts: first up, the soap operas.

Back in Atlanta yet again, even with Marynell Meadors removed from her position as head coach and general manager, the drama continues unabated. Just as last night’s home game against Tulsa was tipping off, the broadcasters revealed that star player Angel McCoughtry had been suspended indefinitely by the team, news that was quickly confirmed by the franchise.

Beyond adding to the impression that the Dream are in disarray, all this does is raise more questions. Primarily, if McCoughtry was going to be suspended for whatever she’s done in recent days and weeks, why was Meadors fired in the first place? The widespread impression has been that there was a power struggle which was won by McCoughtry when Meadors was forced out, but apparently there’s still dissatisfaction or conflict remaining. Alternatively, McCoughtry did something else – on top of whatever she’d done to aggravate Meadors – in the 24 hours following the promotion of Fred Williams as the new head coach and GM. Which seems ridiculous, but at this point would hardly be a surprise.

Of course, this could just be a small effort by Williams and/or the Dream ownership to try to suggest that McCoughtry isn’t running the franchise. Get rid of the coach just like she wanted, suspend her ‘indefinitely’ for a couple of games, then bring her back with everything forgiven. Watching from the outside, it certainly seemed like Meadors was dumped at McCoughtry’s behest. If that was the case, any coach coming in – whether Williams or someone else in future – would’ve known that they had to kowtow to McCoughtry to keep their job. A suspension at leaves gives some mild sign that maybe – to borrow Geno Auriemma’s choice of metaphor – the inmates aren’t completely running the asylum. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 08/27/2012: McCoughtry Mess Moves Meadors Out

Reports on last night’s games are featured in this piece as well. Please scroll down beyond the opening section if that’s what you’re looking for.

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The big news around the WNBA today was that Atlanta Dream coach and general manager Marynell Meadors has parted company with the franchise, replaced with immediate effect by her assistant Fred Williams. The Dream’s official release carefully avoided using the terms ‘fired’ or ‘resigned’, although they did later confirm that she was ‘released by ownership’ and did not resign. The news initially leaked via UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s twitter page, who openly stated ‘@marynellmeaders gets fired atlanta owners cave in inmate in charge #coachingisaBitch’. Ignoring the horrible grammar and punctuation, along with his misspelling of Meadors’s name (in a Twitter handle that doesn’t exist even if he’d spelled it correctly), the message was clear. Geno was putting the blame for her departure squarely on a specific Dream ‘inmate’, and that’s where most of the discussion around this move will inevitably focus.

Angel McCoughtry has been the star attraction for Atlanta for several years now, but her attitude and personality have often made things difficult. She’s clashed with Meadors before, and her me-first approach rubs a lot of people the wrong way. There are rumours of teammates not particularly enjoying her attitude as well, although much of that is based on supposition and hearsay. When McCoughtry missed two games last week due to undisclosed ‘personal reasons’, including one where she spent the game sitting opposite the visiting bench and barely interacted with her teammates, it was clear that something strange was going on. She returned for the ESPN2 game against Minnesota on Saturday night, but was used sparingly by Meadors in a strange rotation, which seemed to be more focussed on making points than scoring them. Apparently, something had to give, and that ended up being the coach.

To a lot of people, this will look like another example of player power winning out – just as Auriemma seemed to be suggesting. We’ve seen it a thousand times before in a whole variety of major sports. In a lot of ways it makes sense – it’s much easier to replace a coach than it is to find a new superstar player, or get equal value for that player in a trade and reshape your team. But it always looks bad. As far as we, the viewing audience, are concerned, the players aren’t supposed to run things. They’re the employees. They’re supposed to show up and do what the coach says, play as hard as possible for the team, and that’s it. But in all walks of life, the talent usually rules the roost. From an ownership perspective, you can understand that.

Plus, of course, it’s never as simple as it looks, and there are always (at least) two sides to the story. Meadors has clashed with other players over the years, with more than one leaving the franchise on less-than-favourable terms. Chamique Holdsclaw was one notable example, although as with McCoughtry, she’s had issues with plenty of people besides Meadors in the past. There’s also always been a perception around the Dream that Meadors was a manager and figurehead, who hired others to do the nitty-gritty of the coaching, which led to people dismissing her skills. If you’re not drawing up the plays or coming up with schemes yourself, then people start to wonder if you’re a necessary part of the structure. There’ve also been some strange decisions over the years in terms of contracts handed out and even just her the bizarre and fluctuating playing rotations. At 69 years old – today was her birthday, in fact – Meadors may also not have had too many years left. Blowing up the team to appease a coach who could be gone in a year or two anyway wouldn’t make a great deal of sense either. Continue reading

WNBA Today, 07/11/2011: When the Spark is Gone

Two games in the WNBA yesterday afternoon, but we’ll get to those later. The big news late last night was the second head coaching casualty in the last few days, with the Los Angeles Sparks deciding that Jennifer Gillom’s time was up, replacing her with assistant Joe “Jellybean” Bryant (or “Kobe’s dad”, as ESPN insists on calling him). Gillom’s foibles and failings have been well-chronicled in this space, so any regular readers will know how I felt about a lot of her moves. Nonetheless, it’s still something of a surprise that LA would make this move quite so quickly.

The Sparks started the season so well. Not only were they 4-1 out of the gate, but the players looked like they were having fun on the court, appeared united, and seemed like a cohesive unit. Gillom herself even looked like she’d grown as a coach, finding her veterans more rest, and actually utilising the deeper bench that had been provided for her this year. There was a heavy reliance on Candace Parker, but when you’ve got one of the best players in the world on your squad, that’s what you’d expect. Who wouldn’t place most of their faith in Parker on that squad?

It would be easy to put the Sparks’ negative turn (and Gillom’s demise) down to Parker’s injury. LA were 4-2 when she hurt her knee, and was ruled out for six weeks. But to simply throw that out as an excuse would be missing the point. Continue reading