Friday, May 11, 2007
Updated: May 14, 11:07 PM ET
10 questions before the 11th season opens
By Nancy Lieberman
Special to ESPN.com
Before the season tips off May 19, we check in with 10 burning questions:
1. Who are the preseason favorites?
As the defending WNBA champion, Detroit certainly must be considered a favorite for the 2007 title. The Shock only got better with their additions, bringing on such players as eight-year veteran guard Shannon Johnson via free agency, drafting Ivory Latta from North Carolina and acquiring Katie Feenstra in a trade with San Antonio.
The East is very strong, and the Fever should also be considered a favorite after adding a lot in the offseason, including veterans Sheri Sam and Tammy Sutton-Brown via free agency and drafting 6-foot-7 Alison Bales of Duke. The Fever also re-signed their own free agents: guards Tully Bevilaqua and Anna DeForge -- the latter of which I suspect will have a better season than she did a year ago. Add in Tamika Whitmore, who's coming off her best season ever and perennial MVP-candidate Tamika Catchings, and Indiana is shaping up to be a contender. The Fever filled every spot that might have been perceived a weakness a year ago.
Sacramento, which lost to Detroit in the WNBA Finals last season, also comes back strong. Though the Monarchs lost Erin Buescher, the 2006 sixth player of the year, they brought back Chelsea Newton, a defensive stalwart who was very important to Sacramento's title run in 2005. Newton will provide a boost to first-year coach Jenny Boucek's defensive-minded philosophy.
|Katie Douglas and the Sun have what it takes to reach their third WNBA Finals in four seasons.|
2. What do the Detroit Shock need to do to repeat?
The Shock need to play with the same effort and inspired basketball they did in the last two games of the WNBA Finals, when they fought a 2-1 deficit to win their second championship. This is a very emotional group, led by a very emotional coach in Bill Laimbeer, and the Shock are at their best when they are playing with something to prove or a chip on their shoulder.
Detroit is very talented in all the right areas and got even better in the offseason. Though the Shock traded away Ruth Riley, they got a young, very skilled and smart player in Feenstra. Johnson also is a great addition and will play well in the minutes she is given.
With an outstanding backcourt, I'm not sure how many minutes Latta will see, but Laimbeer said the former North Carolina star, who led the Tar Heels to the past two Final Fours, is one of his top five guards and is expected to remain on the roster.
3. How will the Sparks do without Lisa Leslie?
Simply put, there's no replacing Lisa Leslie, a three-time regular-season MVP who has scored more points than anyone in the league. But the Sparks did as well as they could in finding a "replacement" for Leslie, who's pregnant and will sit out the 2007 season.
In one of the most brilliant offseason moves, Sparks general manager Penny Toler traded for Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a five-time All-Star in Connecticut. McWilliams-Franklin is consistent at both ends of the floor but also a great leader and nurturer for her teammates.
There's no doubt Los Angeles will be good, but the Sparks are on the bubble in terms of whether they can be a playoff team. Chemistry is a big question. Yes, they're getting back Michael Cooper, who led L.A. to back-to-back titles in 2001 and '02. That's another savvy move by Toler, but keep in mind there's only one holdover on the roster from his previous stint with the Sparks (Mwadi Mabika). Also, after being hampered by several injuries the past few seasons, how well is Mabika feeling? She started all 32 games last season after appearing in just 17 in 2005, but she hasn't been 100 percent healthy for some time.
The biggest question in L.A. is when the Sparks' point guard will be back. Temeka Johnson is out indefinitely after undergoing microfracture knee surgery. Johnson on Thursday said the Sparks don't have a definite timetable for her return; it just depends on how the knee is feeling day-to-day.
Chamique Holdsclaw, however, appears to be healthy and playing very well and should be expected to be more of a focal point on offense with Leslie gone. Holdsclaw, who averaged 16 points and 6.5 rebounds in L.A. the past two seasons, just helped lead her offseason club team to the Polish league championship.
Frontcourt mate Christi Thomas must continue to develop. And in the biggest signing of late, L.A. added free agent LaToya Thomas, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2003 who spent the past three seasons in San Antonio.
4. Is Lauren Jackson healthy, and how's Seattle expected to do?
Lauren Jackson not only is healthy, she and Storm teammate Sue Bird (and Houston's Tina Thompson) just helped Spartak Moscow win the Russian Superleague championship in a decisive Game 5 of their finals series. In fact, Jackson also helped Australia win the FIBA World Championship and played for the runner-up in the Korean league this offseason. Jackson, who turns 26 on Friday, has played through foot problems the past couple of years.
I've always said contenders need three solid players to build around, and the Storm fit the bill with Jackson, Bird and Betty Lennox, a trio that led Seattle to the 2004 WNBA crown. The Storm also scored in the draft in picking up Purdue's Katie Gearlds, who brings immediate size and versatility, and have the benefit of getting back a healthy Wendy Palmer, who played only five games in 2006 due to injury.
|After four seasons with the Sun, Taj McWilliams-Franklin suits up for L..A., which is missing Lisa Leslie.|
5. Can the Sun make their third WNBA Finals appearance in four seasons?
Connecticut is always a legitimate title contender, especially with great coach Mike Thibault leading the way. The Sun's strength has always been their backcourt, and that remains the case with Katie Douglas, Nykesha Sales and Lindsay Whalen on board. Guard depth did take a hit when backup point guard Erin Phillips was lost to a torn ACL in the offseason, but Thibault is steadfast in the fact that Jamie Carey is his go-to point guard off the bench.
Though McWilliams-Franklin was traded away, I like the Sun's frontcourt of Margo Dydek, Kristen Rasmussen, Asjha Jones and Erika Desouza, who was part of the trade that sent McWilliams-Franklin to Los Angeles. But with McWilliams-Franklin gone, Jones gets a shot at becoming a full-time starter. She was one of the best players off the bench last season, averaging 11.1 points in 22.7 minutes (starting just two of 34 contests). It's Jones' chance to show what she can or cannot do when playing quality minutes.
The Sun are a definite threat to get back to the WNBA Finals, which they reached in 2004 and '05 before losing to Detroit in last season's Eastern Conference finals.
6. What was the biggest offseason move and how will it affect the teams involved?
McWilliams-Franklin's move to L.A. was huge, but another big trade was New York sending Becky Hammon to San Antonio. Hammon had spent all eight of her WNBA seasons in the Big Apple and is a huge fan favorite, not only in New York but across the league.
Hammon, who's excellent at creating her own shot, didn't want to leave New York and said she was blindsided by the trade. She is, however, very much looking forward to playing for Dan Hughes (he put together a super deal and Hammon is a great fit for his system, by the way), being reunited with former Liberty standout Vickie Johnson and finally getting the opportunity to play with pal Ruth Riley in the WNBA. Riley, meanwhile, heads to San Antonio from Detroit with two championship rings (three if you count her NCAA title at Notre Dame). Her move wasn't a surprise; she seemed ready for a change.
The bottom line? The Western Conference race is always a little uncertain, but the Silver Stars are going to be much improved, and my prediction is they'll be a playoff team.
As for New York, the Liberty now have a much younger roster. But they're essentially starting from scratch since there's no one left from the original roster. There's a tremendous amount of potential, but New York is rebuilding, not merely reloading.
7. Who are the top three rookies to keep an eye on?
The best rookie last season was in Minnesota, and the Lynx might be home again to the league's best addition in 2007 as former Duke point guard Lindsey Harding lines up alongside '06 rookie of the year Seimone Augustus. For as good as Augustus is, Harding will make her better. Harding is a natural point guard and fantastic distributor who will find Augustus and deliver. Yes, the Lynx also have Amber Jacobs (she started 34 games last season), but realistically, she is better suited for the 2 guard spot.
In New York, Jessica Davenport will get a chance to play a lot of minutes and establish a post presence for the Liberty.
And in Chicago, Armintie Price will help make the Sky better. If you missed her during the NCAA Tournament, when Price led Ole Miss to the Elite Eight, you might not know how fast and explosive she is. But Price already is one of the top defensive players in the league. She has amazing tenacity, intensity and athleticism, not to mention a total understanding of defense.
Also keep an eye on Gearlds in Seattle.
|Whether on the hardwood or lending a hand to Habitat for Humanity, Indiana's Tamika Catchings is always an MVP candidate.|
8. Who's the team on the rise?
We alluded to it above, but this season, San Antonio could really be headed to new heights. In addition to adding Hammon and 2003 Finals MVP Riley, the Silver Stars also get back Marie Ferdinand-Harris (she missed all of last season after giving birth to a son in June 2006), picked up guard Helen Darling in the dispersal draft and added Buescher, who ranked fifth in the league with 53.7 percent shooting from the field last season. Sophia Young also returns after a stellar rookie season last summer.
San Antonio lost guard Shannon Johnson to free agency and center Chantelle Anderson suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in February.
9. Who's the preseason MVP?
Catchings has a game like nobody else. She is so versatile, with the skills to go inside or outside, and makes you pay whether she's scoring, passing or rebounding. She's a matchup nightmare at the 3 or 4 and is one of the top two defenders (if not the best) in the league. Her aggressiveness and spirit also set her apart, as well as her understanding of the game and a very humble mentality, despite being a bona fide superstar.
10. Who's the preseason pick to win it all in 2007?
Indiana has won 21 games each of the past two seasons and is only better entering this summer. The Fever filled every perceived hole and their returning players are coming back better, too. The backcourt is loaded (Bevilaqua, DeForge, Sam, Tan White, K.B. Sharp) and the frontcourt is solid, too (Sutton-Brown, Bales, Ebony Hoffman). Add in all-everything Catchings, and it's hard to find a weakness, especially with tremendous coach Brian Winters leading the way.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.