Commentary

Can league ride All-Star momentum?

Originally Published: July 22, 2014
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

What an interesting past weekend in the WNBA. In Phoenix, the league's All-Star contest Saturday gave the Mercury organization and its fans a chance to shine. The game itself was a showcase for youngsters such as Atlanta's Shoni Schimmel and Tulsa's Skylar Diggins.

[+] EnlargePenny Toler
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesSparks general manager and executive VP Penny Toler has no previous coaching experience.

Yet it also reminded us that the superstars such as Maya Moore and Tamika Catchings are never to be underestimated. The 125-124 East overtime victory against the West was the kind of game that really gave the WNBA a positive boost going into the last month of the regular season.

Then -- bam -- Sunday, the news came that the Los Angeles Sparks had fired head coach Carol Ross and that assistant Gail Goestenkors had resigned. Penny Toler, longtime general manager and executive vice president of the Sparks, will take over as head coach.

Toler has never coached before. And while there has been more than one first-time coach in the history of the WNBA, we sort of hoped the league was past that. Then again, this does give Toler pretty much complete control, so the ultimate responsibility for the Sparks' performance the rest of the season will be hers.

Now, here are the Week 10 power rankings.

1. Phoenix (18-3; last week: No. 1)

It's important to enjoy the good times, and the Mercury are doing that. Heck, it was just two years ago they had the worst record in the league. Now, they enter the stretch run of the season in the driver's seat, having won 12 games in a row. Phoenix beat Washington and Connecticut last week, and Penny Taylor scored a season-high 23 points in the latter game. This week, the Mercury travel to Seattle on Tuesday (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET) and Los Angeles on Thursday, then are back home Saturday against New York.

2. Minnesota (17-6; No. 3)

Maya Moore said she doesn't mind having the Mercury fill the role of "favorite" right now, as it's a bull's-eye the Lynx carried the past three years. That said, the Lynx want to gear up for a strong finish and still hope to have injured Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson back for that. Augustus has been practicing, and things look positive for her. Brunson's target date to return was sometime after the All-Star Game, so we'll see if that's anytime soon. The Lynx are at home this week against Atlanta and San Antonio.

3. Atlanta (15-6; No. 2)

Angel McCoughtry remains the Dream's MVP candidate, and Erika de Souza their best interior player. But Schimmel's All-Star game MVP performance -- 29 points, albeit not against actual WNBA defense -- has to boost her confidence for the real games. The Dream lost on a buzzer-beater to New York last week. Now they will have to play for the immediate future without coach Michael Cooper, who is taking a temporary medical leave of absence to have surgery. He has early-stage tongue cancer, but the team said the typical recovery time is two weeks. Assistant Karleen Thompson will step in as head coach while Cooper is out. Atlanta this week travels to Minnesota and Washington and hosts Chicago.

4. Indiana (11-12; No. 4)

The Fever let one get away last week at home against Los Angeles but came back to beat fading Chicago soundly. Tuesday, they'll face the Sky again -- this time in Chicago (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET). That's the first of five consecutive road games for Indiana, the latter four against Western Conference teams. As she showed in the All-Star Game, Tamika Catchings is back to her old self, but the Fever will have to buckle down on defense -- Catchings' favorite thing -- during this long road swing.

5. Washington (10-13; No. 6)

Was the Mystics' win at Los Angeles last week -- the Sparks' seventh loss at home this season -- the last straw that contributed to Ross getting fired? Maybe so, but from Washington's point of view, it was a victory built on what they had not done well two nights earlier at Phoenix. Against the Mercury, the Mystics were pounded in the first quarter and then played even with Phoenix the rest of the way. Against Los Angeles, the Mystics started better, took control in the third quarter and then held off a Sparks' rally. For the Mystics to hold on to a playoff spot, they need to continue to defend well. They have three games at home this week, against Connecticut, Tulsa and Atlanta.

6. Los Angeles (10-12; No. 5)

Just when it seemed the Sparks had turned a corner by beating Indiana last week for their third consecutive victory, Los Angeles lost at home again. And Ross lost her job despite being the WNBA's coach of the year just two seasons ago. Now, Toler -- who still has Gary Kloppenburg, a former WNBA head coach, on staff -- will try to fix what has been ailing the Sparks all season. To wit: overall inconsistency, a lack of on-court leadership, unreliable guard play and too much sloppiness/confusion in half-court sets. The Sparks have five games in seven days starting Wednesday, so they are not going to get a lot of work done in practice.

7. San Antonio (11-12; No. 8)

The Stars fell to Tulsa last week and have lost three in a row. Post play is an area of concern for San Antonio, which gave up a career-high 22 points to Shock center Courtney Paris. The Stars are reliant on their guards for most of their offense, led by All-Star Danielle Robinson (13.4 ppg). And while they might try to get more production from their interior, it just might not be there. However, they could get more guard firepower if Jia Perkins is able to return from a hamstring injury that has sidelined her since late June. This week, San Antonio will host Tulsa and Indiana and travel to Minnesota.

8. New York (8-13; No. 9)

Was the Liberty's emotional win over the East-leading Dream last week a sign of things to come? Tina Charles (19 points) was the quiet standout at the All-Star Game, and this week should be an interesting test for her. The Liberty have road games at Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix. If New York is going to catch up and grab a playoff spot, the Liberty will have to get something done away from Madison Square Garden. They have six of their next seven on the road.

9. Connecticut (10-14; No. 10)

The Sun has lost eight of their past 10 games but for now are still holding on to a playoff spot. Connecticut misses injured Allison Hightower, but All-Stars Chiney Ogwumike and Katie Douglas continue to carry big loads for Connecticut. But now is the time when someone else really needs to step forward for the Sun, who travel to Washington and host Minnesota this week.

10. Tulsa (8-15; No. 12)

Diggins and teammate Paris are strong candidates for the league's most improved player award, but it's going to take a lot from both to get the Shock into the postseason. Tulsa has lost more than its share of heartbreakers this year but had a close game go its way last week when the Shock beat San Antonio by five points. The question again with Tulsa is can the Shock consistently finish off games? They will have a chance to show that this week, as they travel to San Antonio and Washington, and then host Chicago.

11. Seattle (9-15; No. 7)

After such a difficult start to the season, schedule-wise, the Storm now have their chance to finish very strongly with so many games at home. Eight of their last 10, to be exact. There is no magic formula, though, for the Storm. They have to defend at a very high level to stay in games and could really use a very strong performance by post player Crystal Langhorne to close out the regular season. Seattle takes on Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles this week.

12. Chicago (8-14; No. 11)

The question everyone is asking is when/if Elena Delle Donne is coming back. She was voted an All-Star Game starter but had to miss the festivities as she continues to battle the recurrence of Lyme disease. Because so many of the teams are really packed together in the East standings, it's not as if Chicago is out of the playoff hunt despite currently being in last place in the conference. But, especially with point guard Courtney Vandersloot also still out, the Sky must weigh whether it's best for EDD's long-term health to shut her down for the rest of the season. The Sky have some heartwarming stories this year, such as the play of All-Star Jessica Breland. But they have a rough road to the finish line, starting Tuesday at Indiana.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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