San Antonio the surprise 'buzz' team
After the first half of the WNBA season, we're talking about most of the things we expected we would be: Minnesota's attempt at maintaining mojo, Los Angeles' talent-fueled resurgence and Connecticut's predictable maturation. Also, the impact of the Olympic absences and injury issues. Plus the continuing struggles of Tulsa and Washington, the teams that finished last in their respective conferences in 2011 and may be on the way to repeating that in 2012. (And potentially getting the best chance of drafting Baylor center Brittney Griner in 2013).
Yet the story with the most buzz as we head into the break for the London Games is about a team that wasn't even constructed to be all that "buzz-worthy."
To the contrary, the San Antonio Silver Stars are as blue-collar as their coach, Dan Hughes, a native of Ohio who loves that term used to describe his team.
"The league is so good, we were looking for a niche -- how can San Antonio have something that other teams have to deal with?" Hughes said. "We've got good players, but one of the things that is special with us is there's a consistency throughout our rotations that I think puts pressure on teams."
Meaning that no matter what combinations Hughes puts on the floor, the quality of play stays basically the same. Everyone is willing to do her part, even if that means coming off the bench when you have starter talent. In regard to that most magical word in the WNBA -- chemistry -- San Antonio gets an A-plus.
The Silver Stars have built a franchise-record nine-game winning streak going into the Olympic break. That puts San Antonio (13-5) in second place in the Western Conference, behind defending champion Minnesota (15-4) and in front of Los Angeles (15-6).
The Sparks have played more games, 21, than the rest of the league; they and the East-leading Sun (15-4) are the second-hottest teams in the WNBA with five-game winning streaks.
But now the league goes into a state of suspended animation, if you will, with the standings frozen for the next month. The WNBA won't play again until Thursday, Aug. 16, as the focus of pro women's basketball shifts to the upcoming Olympic tournament, in which only one of the Silver Stars will take part.
Becky Hammon is playing for her native, uh & yeah, scratch that.
Once again, the South Dakotan will be part of Team Russia, just as she was -- with a little more controversy surrounding it -- in 2008. One of the many Americans who've competed in Russia over the winter/spring for several years, Hammon got the "citizenship" required to play for that country because she never had much of a realistic chance to don the Stars and Stripes.
We won't rehash the whole thing here, but this is one of those things that looks more like a mistake in retrospect by USA Basketball than it did in real time.
Hammon was a year out of Colorado State and establishing herself in 2000. In 2004, she was coming off an ACL injury the year before. And in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, Hammon was way too far off Team USA's radar -- again, in hindsight not justifiably -- for her to believe she had any shot at making the American squad for Beijing.
Hammon had a lifelong love for the idea of competing in the Olympics, so she did it the only way she could. And now it's an Olympic year again, and here she is having another fantastic WNBA season.
Hammon turned 35 in March, but is still a peak performer: She's averaging 16.2 points and 5.7 assists, while shooting 46.8 percent from the field overall and 48.5 from behind the arc. She's already hit 50 3-pointers, putting her on pace for topping her season best of 77, which she did in 2008.
That was the year the Silver Stars made the WNBA Finals, where they were swept by the Detroit Shock. But if San Antonio survives as the West's representative in the Finals this year, it might be better-equipped to make a title run.
Not that they are even thinking about that right now. Hughes is proud almost to the point of bursting about this group of players, talking about them the way an exuberant college coach might. And part of that pride? He thinks the Silver Stars have the "blinders" thing down just as well as the chemistry part: They don't look at anything but the next game. He's also thrilled with team leaders Hammon and Sophia Young (16.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), and the attitudes of players like Jia Perkins, who is the team's third-leading scorer (11.7) despite coming off the bench.
Barring a very large surge from injury-ravaged Phoenix or still-figuring-it-out Tulsa, the West's playoff teams are Minnesota, Los Angeles, San Antonio and Seattle. Exactly what order they'll be will be in, though, seemed clearer a few weeks ago.
The Lynx picked up where they left off last fall, winning their first 10 games and 13 of their first 14. Then came Minnesota's first bumpy "stretch" since losing consecutive games in June 2011. The Lynx lost three in a row -- to San Antonio, L.A. and Connecticut -- before rallying with the tonic of back-to-back matchups with last-place Tulsa.
Is anything really wrong with Minnesota, save for facing three highly motivated opponents who are essentially certain to be playoff teams? Not really; the Lynx knew this season might present some challenges in terms of staying as hungry as they did last year, when they were battling for the franchise's first championship.
"I love how every game, you've got to come and be extremely focused," said Minnesota's Maya Moore, one of three Lynx players on the U.S. Olympic team, along with Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen. "Not that we didn't last year, but I just feel like this year it's even more of a grind for us to try to improve because teams are better.
"They're starting to hit their stride. I think teams were trying to figure out their rhythm in the beginning, and now they're starting to really elevate."
Seattle fits that pattern; the Storm began this season 1-7. For good reasons: They played six of those games on the road and won't have Australian star Lauren Jackson back until after the Olympics. Seattle's players knew they needed to keep their heads above water until the break; at 9-10, they've done that.
It's helped the Storm that Phoenix (4-15) and Tulsa (3-15) have anchored the bottom of the West. The most telling part of the Mercury's box scores has been "DNP:" all the players who have played very little or not at all.
Penny Taylor is out for the season and will also miss the Olympics, where she would have starred for Australia. Diana Taurasi is expected to play in her third Olympics for the United States, but she's missed all but two games for Phoenix. Other Mercury players who've been sidelined for four or more games include Candice DuPree and Nakia Sanford.
But one player who's started every game and is getting valuable trial-by-fire time is rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis, whose averages of 12.4 points and 4.7 assists put her in contention for rookie of the year.
The favorite for that award at the break, though, is Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike, the No. 1 draft pick whose 14.1 points and 7.6 rebounds lead all rookies. Ogwumike and Prahalis are among four rookies averaging in double figures in scoring, along with Tulsa's Glory Johnson (12.4) and Riquna Williams (10.2).
While the West has four teams that are pretty clearly on the postseason path, the East is a bit more uncertain. The pieces have come together in Connecticut as predicted by coach Mike Thibault, whose Sun have two players -- Tina Charles and Asjha Jones -- on the U.S. Olympic team.
Charles was the league's rookie of the year in 2010 and is having her second consecutive MVP-caliber season, averaging 18.7 points and 11.3 rebounds. Meanwhile, guard Kara Lawson isn't with Team USA like she was for the Beijing Olympics, but so far is having the best season statistically of her career: 14.5 ppg, 3.5 apg, 3.5 rpg.
Lawson won a WNBA championship in 2005 as part of now-defunct Sacramento, and she seems especially inspired to repeat that experience with the Sun -- the team that lost to the Monarchs in the '05 Finals.
The Sun haven't made the Finals since their back-to-back trips in 2004-05, but this could be their year to get that far again. Thibault built this team as part of a long-range plan that seems to be coming to full flower.
Indiana at 10-7 appears headed toward the playoffs for the eighth year in a row, although the Fever still may not have what's needed to win a championship. Indy's Tamika Catchings, who will play in her third Olympics, was the league's MVP last year. She's right in that mix again with averages of 18.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.0 steals. As has long been the case, nobody stuffs a stat sheet any better. But what she really wants most, of course, is a WNBA title.
Atlanta has had a chance at that the last two years, but was swept in the Finals both times. The Dream are in third place in the East at 9-10. While Angel McCoughtry is having another fine season statistically -- a league-best 22.6 points -- she's played just 13 of Atlanta's 19 games because of a knee injury. It doesn't appear, however, that it will keep her out of the London Games with Team USA.
Meanwhile, the No. 2 scorer behind McCoughtry -- Chicago's Epiphanny Prince at 22.3 ppg -- has played just nine games because of a foot fracture and will benefit in recovery time from the Olympic break. The Sky are attempting to make their first playoff appearance.
And what of the East's last two teams, 6-12 New York and 4-14 Washington? They're certainly not out of the playoff picture, although with the Mystics, especially, it pretty much feels that way.
Is Washington, in fact, already looking toward 2013 and the infusion of talent that could come especially at the top of the draft? No team would acknowledge such a thing, but you have to wonder if the Mystics' eyes are already on next year's prizes.
That's certainly not the case, though, with San Antonio. The Silver Stars know they are a team where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts, and that's just fine with Hughes.
And as hot as the Silver Stars are, he's OK with the break in the season.
"I don't see it as negative or positive," Hughes said. "The thing I like about it is that there are some similarities with our season now and in 2008, and back then I thought the break was good for us.
"I like that most of the players will get some rest. These women play all year around. And I think our practice time, even without everybody, will be beneficial. The mixture of rest and reasonable practice is a good thing. It's the reality of an Olympic year, and we'll be able to accomplish some things with the break that might do long-term good for us."