Thursday, May 15, 2008
Breaking down the Eastern Conference
By Graham Hays
Before the season tips off Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), here's a look at the strengths and potential question marks for all seven teams in the Eastern Conference:
Strength: Well, at least the Dream have the element of surprise working for them. It's difficult to know what the first-year team's strengths will be before it ever plays a regular-season game, but unlike a lot of expansion teams, scoring points might at least be something other than a weakness. Coach Marynell Meadors wanted a team that could get up and down the court, and that blueprint seems to have yielded some building blocks. With Betty Lennox, Kristin Haynie, Ivory Latta and rookie Tamera Young on the perimeter, the only problem might be finding enough shots to go around.
Question mark: Is Katie Feenstra going to prove she's a post a team can build an inside game around? It didn't happen in San Antonio and it didn't happen in Detroit, but it could be argued it never really had a chance to happen in either place. The Dream have a couple of quality young prospects at forward with Camille Little and Carla Thomas, but it's up to Feenstra to give the team some kind of claim on the paint.
Strength: The Sky shot a significantly worse percentage from the floor than their opponents in each of the franchise's first two seasons. They're going to have to work really hard at missing shots for it to happen a third consecutive season. With the addition of Sylvia Fowles, the Sky have two players who could conceivably spend the better part of the next decade on the all-defensive team in Fowles and reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Armintie Price. And even saying that might be selling Candice Dupree short for her defensive contributions. At 8-8 near last season's midpoint, the Sky stumbled into a five-game losing streak, during which they gave up an average of 81.6 points per game. Don't expect a repeat of that this season.
Question mark: Defense is all well and good, but where are Chicago's points going to come from? Dupree has clearly established herself as a go-to player, but the rest of the picture is unsettled. Stacey Dales, the team's third-leading scorer last season, retired. Are Price and Fowles ready to get it done on both ends of the court?
Strength: Aside from an ever-increasing number of University of Connecticut alumni on the roster to appeal to local fans, the Sun still have Mike Thibault, Scott Hawk and Bernadette Mattox. The coaching staff has made the franchise a consistent championship contender during its existence in Connecticut. And while some of the offseason departures -- including Katie Douglas' desire to return home to Indiana, Margo Dydek's decision to stay in Europe and Nykesha Sales' choice to take a sabbatical -- might not have been of the staff's doing, the coaches did have an active role in grooming and selecting most of the players who will replace them. The Sun win with balance on offense and a commitment to defense, and the roster still has a lot of versatile parts to fit that equation.
Question mark: All right, philosophy aside, where exactly are the points and stops going to come from? Lindsay Whalen and Asjha Jones are givens and potential All-Stars, but just how ready are French import Sandrine Gruda, second-year European import Evanthia Maltsi and rookies like Amber Holt and Jolene Anderson? And will a return to the Nutmeg State revitalize Barbara Turner and Tamika Raymond?
Strength: Maybe it's just projecting the vestiges of his mischievous playing days onto his present position, but it's easy enough to get the feeling Bill Laimbeer believes there is such a thing as too much peace and harmony on a roster. Sometimes a little insurrection is good for the soul. That said, with Swin Cash gone the way of Ruth Riley and Katie Feenstra, could this be the least combustible Shock team in years? Laimbeer still has a championship core in place with Deanna Nolan, Katie Smith, Cheryl Ford and Plenette Pierson, and now he has an influx of young players to mold in his image with Alexis Hornbuckle, Tasha Humphrey and Olayinka Sanni. Like a poker player with the start of a good hand, Laimbeer has kept some cards in his hand and picked up some help from the dealer. History suggests it's usually the other person at the table who folds first.
Question mark: Small forward was up for grabs in the preseason, but the Shock have plenty of options there. That might not be the case when it comes to 3-point shooting after Smith and Nolan. They're the only two players on the entire roster who hit a 3-pointer for the team last season.
Strength: The Fever could have the best of both worlds if they find themselves with home-court advantage in at least the opening round of the playoffs and a rested Tamika Catchings. No player in the league plays harder on both ends of the court -- and in the middle of the court, for that matter -- than Catchings, but perhaps expending all that energy partly explains her so-so postseason performances the past few seasons. Catchings will miss the start of the regular season as she continues to rehab from the torn right Achilles tendon she incurred during the playoffs last year, but she should be at full strength for the Olympics and the subsequent WNBA playoff drive. With the addition of Katie Douglas to a roster that looks as deep as it has ever been -- especially if Allison Feaster can contribute in her return to the court -- the Fever should be able to survive without Catchings early on.
Question mark: The Fever weren't a good rebounding team a season ago. Now they're without Catchings for at least a while and Tamika Whitmore permanently. After missing last season with a shoulder injury, can newcomer Bernadette Ngoyisa work into a post rotation capable of holding its own in the paint?
Strength: The Liberty surprised a lot of people last season and established themselves as a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference by advancing to the playoffs. The catch is they did it without much of a bench. Just seven players averaged more than six minutes a game in the team's first-round playoff series and that wasn't because coach Pat Coyle suddenly shortened her rotation. With every key player back this season and with the addition of rookies Essence Carson and Erlana Larkins, there should at least be a few more opportunities for the regulars to catch their breath.
Question mark: Jessica Davenport wasn't one of those players spending much time on the court in the postseason, and a stress fracture this spring threatens to keep her out of action as the regular season gets under way. A year of experience should help Tiffany Jackson (who has also battled injuries in the preseason) stay out of foul trouble, but the Liberty can't afford to lose the battle of the boards by more than four rebounds per game again this season if they want to take the next step.
Strength: The Mystics proved they were on to something with coach Tree Rollins, closing the season on a 14-8 run after a disastrous start that brought about Rollins' ascension. But despite taking more 3-pointers than their opponents over the course of the season, they hit 12 fewer 3-point field goals. And despite missing one more shot than their opponents, they finished with nearly 50 fewer offensive rebounds. Enter Amber Jacobs and Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Playing a regular role for Minnesota two seasons ago, Jacobs hit 40 3-pointers, a total that would have put her seven behind Alana Beard for the team lead in Washington last season. And even in a slightly down year adjusting to life in the Western Conference, McWilliams-Franklin averaged twice as many offensive rebounds as any Mystics player other than Nakia Sanford.
Question mark: Having parted company with Nikki Teasley, the Mystics need to find someone, or multiples thereof, to play conductor for all the other pieces. Will that be a combination of Nikki Blue and Jacobs? Preseason numbers mean next to nothing, especially in a league where so many regulars aren't available due to overseas commitments, but Blue will have to do better than the 4.3 turnovers per game she averaged in three exhibition contests -- even if she matches the 5.0 assists she averaged.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.