Sunday, June 29, 2008
Sheryl Swoopes, one of the sole survivors of the 1997 Initial Allocation Draft.
The biggest question facing the WNBA was probably how the new teams would be put together. One thing that the WNBA didn't want was a massive free-for-all where any team could sign any player for any amount of money. Furthermore, the owners were NBA owners who were undoubtedly looking towards their own labor history with their male players. Salaries would be capped in the WNBA.
At the beginning, the WNBA was not alone. There was already a professional women's basketball league -- the American Basketball League (ABL). The ABL had signed most of the stars from the 1996 US Olympics Women's "Dream Team" leaving the WNBA with fewer quality players to go around among its eight teams.
Therefore, the WNBA decided on a three-pronged draft in 1997. The first part of the draft would be an allocation draft. Sixteen star players representing both recent college graduates and established players would be allocated to the eight teams. I've never learned whether this allocation was purely random, or whether it was motivated by other factors. I think people were so happy to have a league that was assisted by the NBA that they never thought to ask.
The second part of the draft was an "elite draft". Elite players, usually those who played overseas, would be subjected to something like a traditional draft. It would be very much like a traditional draft, with players choosing from a common pool.
The third part of the draft would be like the other drafts that would follow it -- the player pool would be a pool of recent college graduates. However, the draft would follow a "reverse snake" pattern, where the order of draft would be reversed in subsequent rounds -- the eighth team picking in one round would be the first picking in the following round.
How do you evaluate a player's contribution?
I'm using a stat obtained at basketball-reference.com called "Win Shares Above Average". The idea is that a player earns "win shares" for her team, with one win share being a third of a win. The formula -- a complex one -- is listed at the site. The goal of the formula is to put defensive players and offensive players on the same page.
However, a player can do things wrong. These wrong things are converted into "loss shares". This makes up for showy offensive players who do so many things wrong (turnovers, personal fouls) that their offensive value is limited.
Win Shares Above Average is simply (win shares - loss shares)/2. Having a positive WSAA means that your overall contribution to your team was positive. Having zero means that you contributed no more than the hypothetical average player, and having negative WSAA means that you were a detriment to your team.
Furthermore, players are evaluated only for the period that they were on the teams that drafted them. It doesn't matter if you draft Lisa Leslie if you let her go two days later.
1997 Initial Allocation Draft
Comets: Sheryl Swoopes (54), Cynthia Cooper (35.5)
The heart of Houston's four straight championships came right here. Swoopes was a member of the 1996 "Dream Team", having graduated from Texas Tech in 1993. She was a three-time MVP, three-time Defensive Player of the Year. Oddly enough of the sixteen, she didn't provide the most in WSAA but she has probably added more value to her team than just about anyone. At 37, Swoopes is still playing, now for the Seattle Storm. She is third in lifetime WSAA.
Cynthia Cooper is seventh on the WSAA all-time list, despite playing only five years in the WNBA. She graduated from USC in 1986. She was the Finals MVP during all four of the championships of the Houston Comets. I think it's safe to say that if you give me Swoopes and Cooper at the height of their skills, I can build a championship team around that. Having Tina Thompson only made Houston more dangerous.
Sparks: Lisa Leslie (64), Penny Toler (-7.5)
The WSAA active list (complete to 2007) has Lisa Leslie in second place. If she knows when to retire -- that is, if she quits playing when her loss shares begin to exceed her win shares -- she might surpass Yolanda Griffith at the #1 spot. Leslie has two MVPs and two finals MVPs over her own. Leslie graduated from USC in 1994 and was a member of the 1996 "Dream Team".
However, by the time Penny Toler came along, she had already played in the pros overseas for eight years. She graduated from Long Beach State in 1989. Toler would score the WNBA's first basket, but that was one of the few highlights of her WNBA career. She would move from player to general manager, and she would help put together a Sparks team that would win the WNBA championship in 2001 and 2002. As a player, she couldn't contribute much but her skill as a manager more than made up for it.
Sting: Andrea Stinson (15.5), Vicky Bullett (15)
Poor Andrea Stinson. She got her jersey number retired in Charlotte, and then the team folded at the end of the year. This 5-10 guard out of North Carolina State, a 1991 graduate, led the Sting to six playoff appearances, including a WNBA Finals in 2001.
As for Vicky Bullett, she would only play three seasons in Charlotte. She was a graduate of Maryland in 1989 and helped the US win a gold medal in 1988. Before playing for the WNBA, she played in the Italian leagues. In all three seasons that Bullet played for the Sting, they went to the playoffs. She would retire from the WNBA in 2002, continue playing overseas, and finally end her pro career in 2007.
Liberty: Teresa Weatherspoon (10), Rebecca Lobo (2.5)
Weatherspoon was a fantastic ball-handler and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. She graduated from Louisiana Tech in 1988. From 1997 to 2003, she would have an amazing streak of starting in every WNBA game. In 2003 she was released from the New York Liberty, and Weatherspoon was bitter about it -- but it was time for her to go. She played one more year with the Sparks, and then retired.
As for Rebecca Lobo, she was the face that the WNBA wanted to put on billboards and on commercials. She was a popular college player, graduating from Connecticut in 1995. Despite being named to the All-WNBA Team in 1997, she only had one good year, that in 1998. In the very first game in 1999, she suffered an anterior cruciate ligament tear in her left knee and never recovered. Out for the rest of 1999 and all of 2000, she was traded to the Comets in 2002. She would finish her career in 2003 with the Connecticut Sun.
Monarchs: Ruthie Bolton (9), Bridgette Gordon (-3)
Ruthie Bolton was an efficient three point shooter, and she took one of the fundamentals of basketball at heart, namely hang on to the ball. She's second all time in smallest turnover percentage, second only to Lauren Jackson of the Storm as of the end of 2007. Bolton graduated from Auburn in 1990 and was a member of the 1996 Olympic "Dream Team". However, with no pro outlet in the United States, she had to go to Italy to play before the WNBA was founded. She would spend her entire WNBA career as a Monarch, retiring at the end of the 2004 season.
Bridgette Gordon was a larger-than-life player, loud clothes, loud jewelry, loud personality. She graduated from Tennessee in 1989, and would end up playing eight years in Italy before coming to the WNBA. She would be a major part of the Monarchs roster in 1997, but start only five games in 1998 and was waived by the Monarchs in 1999.
Mercury: Jennifer Gillom (9.5), Michele Timms (-4.0)
Gillom graduated from Mississippi in 1986 and had played for several European teams before coming to the WNBA in its inaugural year. She would only play six years for the Mercury (and one for the Sparks), but would average 13.4 points a game. Her best years were probably behind her as she was already 33 when the league started.
As for Michele Timms, the Australian was 32 when she was drafted. She averaged 12.1 points a game in 1997, and never broke the 10 PPG barrier for the rest of her career, due to her usually poor field goal shooting. (She shot 31 percent from the field in 1998.) She only lasted five years in the WNBA. However, she would lead the Phoenix Mercury in career assists and the Mercury would end up retiring her number.
Rockers: Janice Braxton (10), Michelle Edwards (-9.5)
Braxton only made it three years in Cleveland. She had graduated Louisiana Tech in 1984, so she was 34 when the WNBA 1997 season started and already sort of had one foot out the door, but put up good numbers all three of her years.
Michelle Edwards graduated from Iowa in 1989. She would only play four seasons with the Rockers before being traded in the middle of the 2000 season to the Seattle Storm. Why is Edwards ranked so low? Because she was death at the free throw line. She shot only 61.3 percent from the charity stripe during her career. Furthermore, her field goal percentage declined every year she was in the league.
Starzz: Elena Baranova (1), Lady Hardmon (-6)
Baranova could block shots and she could rebound. Being the greatest Russian women's basketball player of the 20th century didn't hurt, either. The problem for the Starzz was that Baranova's best years came after her tenure in Utah.
After three years in Utah, she was traded in 2000 to the Miami Sol for Kate Starbird and a second round draft pick. She would pick up 6 WSAA in Miami in 2001 after sitting out all of 2000 with an ACL tear. In 2002, she decided to sit out the entire season to train with the Russian national team. The Sun would fold, Baranova would be picked up by the Liberty in the dispersal draft, and she would earn 9.5 WSAA for the Liberty over three years. The problem with Utah is that they got the stub end of Baranova's WNBA years. Her last WNBA year was 2005…but Baranova is still playing in Europe.
As for Lady Hardmon (also known as Lady Grooms), she only played one year in Utah where she scored only 5.5 points per game. Grooms graduated from Georgia in 1992. Back when she was still known as Lady Hardmon, she shot horribly from the field and had a lot of turnovers that first year in Utah. Utah traded her to Sacramento for Chantel Tremitiere and Grooms she settled down in Sacramento to became a near-average player. She would spend the rest of her career in Sacramento, her last year being 2004.