Monday, May 11, 2009
It's been a good seven months since the Detroit Shock won their third WNBA title. Seven months is too long for an off-season, and even though there is the minor manner of training camp most WNBA fans can't wait that long to peer into their crystal balls and attempt some sort of divination through the murky clouds of injuries and unanswered free agent questions. The reality of the WNBA is that the entire season for a team can hinge on a smart trade or an injury in training camp, and no amount of number crunching can replace conjecture.
Imperfect knowledge, however, has never stopped humankind from making predictions before. It won't stop us.
1. Detroit Shock (24-10) - WNBA followers seem more worried about the machinations of "Trader Bill" Laimbeer than they are about the intact core of players he brings to the 2009 season. The only question marks involving this team deal with age - everyone is one year older and one year slower. Picking up Taj McWilliams-Franklin was the big trade for the Shock in 2008, and it was the final piece of the puzzle. Normally you'd expect the 38-year McWilliams-Franklin to lose a step, but Taj has had some very good seasons in her late 30s. Katie Smith will be 35 this year, but she's managed to remain productive since her days in the ABL. Cheryl Ford has hopefully recovered from the knee injury she suffered during the infamous Detroit-Los Angeles brawl. Even if the Fairy Dust runs out and some of the ancients of the Shock turn into pumpkins, expect Laimbeer to make another diabolic trade to restore the magic.
2. Indiana Fever (17-17) - In the weak Eastern Conference, finishing .500 can put you in second place. The Fever has shored up its roster with the addition of Yolanda Griffith, who should be a good fit for coach Lin Dunn's do-it-with-defense Fever. Last season's Most Improved Player - Ebony Hoffman - should improve yet against this season. Tamika Catchings went from a great player to merely a good one in 2008 due to foot and heel injuries - the Fever need Catch fully recovered to break past a .500 season.
3. New York Liberty (17-17) - From a #3 seed last year, the Liberty took the Detroit Shock to the full three games in the Eastern Conference finals. The Liberty will probably need another run of luck this year as well. Janel McCarville finally played up to expectations last year, but can she put the Liberty on her back for two years in a row? The problem is that McCarville doesn't have much help - when the next best player you have is Loree Moore, it means that McCarville will have to force the Liberty into greatness. Don't expect first-round draft pick Kia Vaughn to contribute much that first year.
4. Connecticut Sun (16-18) - Coach Mike Thibault had a young team playing above expectations last year - it earned him Coach of the Year honors. I'm still expecting Lindsay Whalen to regress back to the mean, but if she plays as well in 2009 as she did the previous two years, move Connecticut a notch higher. Asjha Jones played her most minutes ever last year and had her highest field goal shooting percentage ever as well. Is this a sign of great things to come or is it just an aberration? A lot is riding on Amber Holt to improve beyond a good rookie season and give Whalen and Jones some help because Tamika Whitmore won't be the answer.
5. Chicago Sky (15-19) - Finally, Sky fans have some hope. Chasity Melvin was traded but Sylvia Fowles will finally be healthy enough to play a full season…well, Sky fans hope so, anyway. Even playing only half the season "Big Syl" was good enough to make the WNBA's All-Rookie Team and her overseas performance with Russian team Spartak is good enough to make any WNBA GM take notice. With Candice Dupree, Jia Perkins and Armintie Price there is just enough there to make Chicago a playoff contender. If Syl is healthy and Kristi Toliver has a great rookie year then the Sky might become The Little Engine That Could in the playoffs.
6. Atlanta Dream (13-21) - Good news Dream fans! You will win at least three times as many games as you won last year (4). The bad news is that it won't get you into the playoffs. Atlanta's biggest move in the off-season was acquiring Chamique Holdsclaw, but a playoff season for Atlanta depends on three things: a) that Chamique will return to her previous form, b) that Nikki Teasley's knee problems are finally resolved, and c) that Tamera Young's second season will be an improvement over her first. Two of the three items listed might happen, but I wouldn't bet that all three would be true.
7. Washington Mystics (7-27) - Washington should just put up a sign outside the Verizon center - "Permanently Under Construction". New coach, new general manager, same lousy team…at least for 2009. Chasity Melvin isn't the solution to the loss of Taj McWilliams-Franklin and any hope of .500 is going to depend on the "Maryland Mafia" of Crystal Langhorne and Marissa Coleman. One ominous sign for 2009 - after Taj was traded the Mystics lost the final eight games of the season. If it was a tank job, then my sad counsel to Mystics fans is that it's just too much to expect for Coleman to turn the team around in her rookie year.
1. Minnesota Lynx (25-9) - WHAT?? For most WNBA followers, a 25-9 Lynx season would be something out of science fiction - yet it could happen. The 2008 Lynx got off to a great start winning six out of seven, but in the post-Olympics segment of the season the only teams they could beat were Washington and Indiana. This team lost close games due to youth, but that won't happen in 2009. Rookie Nicky Anosike started every game in her rookie season and should only be better this season. The Lynx have Seimone Augustus and WNBA Sixth Woman of 2008 Candice Wiggins, and there's a very good chance that Phoenix might regret the trade of Kelly Miller and rookie LaToya Pringle for Nicole Ohlde. Miller and Pringle bring real value to the Lynx, and the Lynx also picked up Renee Montgomery in the draft - a player many said should have been drafted #1. I didn't have Minnesota as much worse than the Sparks last year, and if there's any team that has been waiting for the chance to break free from mediocrity, it's the Lynx.
2. San Antonio Silver Stars (24-10) - Without the distraction of the Olympics and Becky Hammon playing for the Russkies, the Silver Stars can devote their total focus to more winning basketball. There's really not much difference between last year's Silver Stars and this year's Silver Stars. Hammon, Erin Buescher, and Sophia Young are all back, and when you have a core of good players unchanged from year to year, good things happen. However, my understanding is that Ann Wauters won't be in training camp…and has she signed that contract yet? If she doesn't, I'd drop the Silver Stars to fourth. Katie Mattera isn't even half of an Ann Wauters.
3. Phoenix Mercury (18-16) - Phoenix, we feel your pain. First, we find out that Penny Taylor probably won't be back in 2009. Then, the attempt to pick up Lauren Jackson fell through when she returned to play another year in Seattle. If either of those two scenarios had happened, it might have been a conference title for Phoenix in 2009; now, you're in third place and looking up. Of course, any team that has Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter can't be all bad, but beyond that, the cupboard is bare. Something to ease the pain: Alison Bales will be a lot better than many think she is.
4. Seattle Storm (17-17) - Seattle Storm fans need to gather on center court and give Lauren Jackson a collective hug - her return might have saved the Storm from a last-place finish. Jackson returns with Sue Bird, and Shannon Johnson is still a good player even though she'll turn 35 this season. Beyond those three players, however, it's unlikely that any one else will step up, except maybe Camille Little.
5. Los Angeles Sparks (16-18) - Coach Michael Cooper will be leaving the Sparks after this year to coach the USC women's basketball team. Lisa Leslie has stated that she'll retire after this year. They got out while the getting was good. Lisa is going to hit 36 this year, and her heir apparent, Candace Parker, will miss part of the season due to pregnancy. The Sparks will find out that Betty Lennox can be just as miserable with a big time team like Los Angeles as she was with an expansion team. Tina Thompson will enjoy Lisa Leslie's company, but that might be the only enjoyable part of Los Angeles's season.
6. Sacramento Monarchs (13-21). So who replaces Yolanda Griffith in the hearts of Sacto fans? Rebekka Brunson, who is on the verge of moving from good to great? Ticha Penicheiro, who is still quite capable of great seasons? Crystal Kelly, who had a pretty good rookie season? I hope that the Monarchs fans take one of these three players - or all of them - to heart, because beyond that, they're strictly playing for a lottery spot.