- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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The Minnesota Lynx have sort of motivated themselves with the notion that "nobody" was expecting them to three-peat as Western Conference champions this season. That is not even close to true, of course, but it's an age-old tactic: Use the whole overlooked underdog thing to keep you motivated. Everybody does it.
But the reality is, the Lynx are the furthest thing from underdogs. They've got four players on the Western Conference team for Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game: Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson. Minnesota has won seven games in a row, is undefeated at home and has the league's best record at 14-3.
Heck, if things were going any better, a Lynx player might get engaged to one of the most talented and popular players in the NBA. Oh, wait. That's happened, too! Minnesota guard Monica Wright and Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant are betrothed.
Wright has been a valuable asset for the Lynx, averaging 10.7 points and 3.6 rebounds, mostly in appearances off the bench. And when the Lynx needed her to start for three games with Augustus sidelined by an ankle injury, Wright scored a combined 50 points.
Three Lynx starters -- Augustus, Moore and Janel McCarville -- were No. 1 draft picks. But McCarville wasn't selected by the Lynx as the others were; she went to now-defunct Charlotte for two seasons, then spent the next four in New York. McCarville didn't play in the WNBA in the 2011 and '12 seasons, but the chance to return to Minnesota -- where she went to college -- lured her back to the league.
And it's been fun to see J-Mac with former Golden Gophers teammate Whalen again. For the Lynx, McCarville has taken over the role of retired Taj McWilliams-Franklin: dependable defender inside, solid passer, comfortable with not being a big point producer. She's been a very good cog to go along with the All-Stars in the starting lineup.
The Lynx were stung by last season's loss to Indiana in the WNBA Finals, when they were trying to repeat as league champions. Then there was a lot of preseason attention given to Phoenix, with No. 1 draft pick Brittney Griner. Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve loved that, because she'd just as soon the Lynx fly under the radar.
Sorry, though, that's not happening. All eyes should be on the Lynx: They are statistically one of the league's best defensive teams, while still being one of the most aesthetically pleasing and cohesive offensives to watch.
So as we give out grades for their performances so far to the league's dozen teams on the eve of the All-Star Game, we'll say this: You can't spell "Minnesota" without an "A."
Other than two trips to Los Angeles in which they lost by a combined 58 points, the Lynx have looked championship-caliber the rest of this season. (Their other defeat was by five points at Washington in their third game of 2013.)
So what's the deal with the Lynx and L.A.? Maybe the smog? Something has to account for the fact that Minnesota was blown out twice at Staples Center but returned the favor (winning by 24) when the teams met in Minneapolis' Target Center.
The talent on these two teams makes it seem like the Lynx versus the Sparks is the marquee matchup of this season, but the three games so far have all been routs. Will their two meetings in September be closer?
Los Angeles: B+
The Sparks took a little while to really ignite, losing their first four games on the road, all in June. But save Thursday's upset loss to Seattle, July has gone pretty well for a team that really has the bases covered in terms of personnel. Which is good news for All-Star center/forward Candace Parker. She is in her sixth season in the league but is still seeking her first appearance in the WNBA Finals. She won't have to carry all the weight for the Sparks to get there.
With the addition of point guard Lindsey Harding this year, Parker feels the Sparks finally have the right combination of perimeter/interior attackers. Kristi Toliver has worked well with Harding in the backcourt. Wing player Alana Beard is a defensive stopper. Forward Nneka Ogwumike is not having a sophomore slump after her rookie of the year season. Those starters, plus the reserves, all understand their roles.
Too harsh a grade considering the Mercury are in third place? Well, they're lucky to avoid a D. You know the line, "To whom much is given, much is expected." That's why we're being hard on the Mercury. Even their ultra-supportive fans at times have been perturbed. Phoenix has had injuries, yes. But who thought the Mercury would be a .500 team at All-Star time? That said, Phoenix still could have a very good team by playoff time.
Phoenix won the draft lottery and the prize of Griner, and she is an All-Star as a rookie. But she's played just 12 games because of knee issues. And even when she's on the floor, Phoenix still needs to outscore foes because its defense doesn't stop them.
Veteran standout Penny Taylor, who missed all of last season, returned June 29. When she is playing, it helps a lot. Diana Taurasi is back to her usual form -- technicals included -- after a subpar injury-plagued 2012, and she leads the league at 22.4 points per game.
First came the news that 2001 top draft pick Lauren Jackson would sit out 2013 with injury. The Storm have weathered large chunks of seasons before, though, without Jackson.
But this season, for the first time since she was the No. 1 pick in 2002, point guard Sue Bird is not competing, as she also recovers from injury.
Minus their longtime dynamic duo, the Storm weren't expected to do a lot, frankly. But players like Camille Little and Tanisha Wright -- who were key parts of the Storm's 2010 WNBA title team but tended to be underappreciated -- are battling hard to take up the slack. And Tina Thompson, the only remaining active player from the WNBA's inaugural year of 1997, hopes to make the playoffs one last time before retiring. For the Storm to extend her career until the postseason, though, they'll have to rely heavily on their defense; even after Thursday's impressive upset of the Sparks, the Storm are averaging a league-low 69.1 points.
Their early schedule did not help the Shock, who are looking for their first winning record since the franchise relocated from Detroit before the 2010 season. Tulsa played five of its first six games on the road and started this season 1-7.
Still, coach Gary Kloppenburg felt Tulsa was making progress, even if the results didn't show it. Recently, though, the results have started to show it, which is how the Shock got their grade.
Tulsa had won three in a row before Thursday's loss to defending league champion Indiana, and has an All-Star in second-year forward Glory Johnson. She and center Liz Cambage, the former No. 2 draft pick out of Australia who didn't play with Tulsa last season, combined to score 102 points and pull down 70 rebounds during the Shock's three-game winning streak.
And guard Riquna Williams -- who fell to the 2012 draft's second round, in large part because she'd been suspended from her Miami team during the NCAA tournament -- looks to be a bigger and bigger steal for the Shock.
San Antonio: C
As with Seattle, it's hard to grade the Silver Stars harshly, because they also have been decimated by injuries to the organization's signature duo. Our least-favorite ligament, the ACL, is responsible for taking out Sophia Young (hurt overseas in January) and Becky Hammon (hurt in early July in her first game back from a finger injury).
How important have Hammon and Young been to San Antonio? They were the team's top two scorers six seasons in a row: 2007-2012. With both out, the Silver Stars' top scorers are guard Jia Perkins and post player Danielle Adams. San Antonio also has an All-Star this year in point guard Danielle Robinson, who is averaging a league-best 6.6 assists.
And San Antonio is still in the hunt for a playoff spot, especially since the Silver Stars have so many games left against the two teams close to them in the West standings. They have four meetings with both Seattle and Tulsa.
The Sky have been knocking on the door of the franchise's first playoff appearance for a while now. And this looks to be the year, as they will enter the All-Star Game in first place.
But Wednesday, they got a scary reminder -- not that the hard-luck Sky needed such -- of how quickly things can go wrong. Rookie sensation Elena Delle Donne (18.2 ppg) suffered a concussion in a game in which the Sky lost a 21-point lead and fell to Washington. Delle Donne, the top All-Star vote-getter, may miss that game, which would be a disappointment for the league and fans.
The important thing, though, is that she gets healthy for the remainder of the season for the Sky, 12-5. Chicago now has a "Big Three" in Delle Donne, Sylvia Fowles and Epiphanny Prince -- all of them All-Stars -- with veteran Swin Cash and third-year point guard Courtney Vandersloot rounding out a strong starting lineup.
They have played well together, with no issues of being led in scoring by a rookie. Delle Donne immediately earned respect, and the Sky veterans have gladly given it to her. This team doesn't care who the star is. It just wants to finally taste the postseason -- and maybe stay around for a while.
The season actually started surprisingly well for the Dream, despite their having lost point guard Lindsey Harding to free agency. But after winning 10 of their first 11, the Dream hit a rough patch and lost four in a row, including a 27-point blowout at Tulsa on Sunday. Admittedly, all four of the losses were on the road. They got a good pick-me-up in facing downtrodden Connecticut before the All-Star Game for a victory Wednesday.
A big culprit is injuries to starting forward Sancho Lyttle and reserve guard Tiffany Hayes. Lyttle also had missed six games because of her commitment to the Spanish national team before she returned, only to break her foot. The earliest she's expected back is September; Hayes may return in early August.
All-Star forward/guard Angel McCoughtry has been outstanding, averaging 20.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.9 assists. The Dream also have to be pleased with second-round draft pick Alex Bentley, who has helped out starting guards Jasmine Thomas and Armintie Herrington. And the Dream, who had a lot of drama last year, seem not to have that this season.
So far, so good for the third-place Mystics, despite some ups and downs. Considering this team was so woeful (East cellar-dweller) the past two seasons, things are looking pretty promising at .500. They had a five-game losing streak in June, but they go into the All-Star Game coming off a big win against East leader Chicago.
Coach Mike Thibault, who was fired by Connecticut in the offseason and grabbed by the needy Mystics, reshaped the team. One of his key acquisitions, point guard Ivory Latta, is an All-Star who is following up her career-best season of 2012 with an even better one (team-best 14.6 ppg, 4.4 apg) in 2013.
She's provided an energy boost that the franchise needed -- much to the delight of the team's other All-Star, post player Crystal Langhorne, and the other three who returned from last year's Mystics horror show: Monique Currie, Matee Ajavon and Michelle Snow.
Thibault, who passed Van Chancellor to become the WNBA's leader in career coaching victories this season, has four rookies who made the roster. Led by No. 4 overall draft pick Tayler Hill, they all have contributed something.
The Fever didn't get to bask long in the glow of the franchise's 2012 WNBA championship, thanks to an avalanche of injuries. Among the injured has been Katie Douglas, who missed the WNBA Finals last season and has played just two games this season.
In all, eight different Fever players have missed time with ailments, which greatly contributed to their 1-7 start. And for the first time since 2002, Indiana will enter the All-Star Game with an under-.500 record.
Yet the Fever are still firmly in playoff position. They may actually deserve a little better grade considering that fact. If they can get healthy, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, they could have a pretty good report card when the regular season ends.
All-Star Tamika Catchings missed two games with a back injury, but otherwise has been her usual superstar self. Shavonte Zellous, a fifth-year player going to her first All-Star Game and averaging 15.5 points, has blossomed.
To some degree, the Fever have just needed to tread water while waiting to heal. They've done that pretty well.
New York: C
Despite its bumps, Bill Laimbeer's return to the WNBA has gone better than Connecticut coach Anne Donovan's has. The Liberty lost a key player in guard Essence Carson (ACL in June), who was a very good fit in Laimbeer's system. That put even more of a scoring load on All-Star Cappie Pondexter, who already was the focus of all defenses.
But Pondexter has risen to the occasion, as evidenced by her 24 points in a big comeback victory at Indiana on Tuesday. Other than Pondexter, this is mostly a team of cogs, and the Liberty veterans are wise enough to realize that. That includes Katie Smith, who's closing out her career and still grinding away, trying to make the postseason with another team.
Smith is one of the former Detroit Shock players who excelled under Laimbeer's direction when that franchise was still in Michigan. Another is Plenette Pierson, third on the team at 11.7 points per game.
Laimbeer would like New York to be better offensively and defensively, for sure. But considering where the team is now development-wise, he can't be too displeased.
The Sun dumped Thibault after they finished first in the East last year, but then lost to Indiana in the conference finals. He was the franchise's only coach the franchise since it relocated from Orlando for the 2003 season. Thibault took Connecticut to the WNBA Finals twice, but didn't win. He wanted to finish the job there, but the Sun brass decided to go a different direction.
Which, unfortunately for them, has meant "down." They've gone from first to worst in the East, despite the best efforts of 2012 league MVP Tina Charles and 2013 most-improved player candidate Allison Hightower. They are both All-Stars who'll play on their home court at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday.
Perhaps the East All-Star team will give Sun fans something more to cheer about, since Connecticut has lost three in a row and nine of its past 11. It's been a downer return so far for Donovan, the veteran coach who won a title with Seattle in 2004 and has a long history in the WNBA. She coached at Seton Hall before coming back to the league.
Asjha Jones, an Olympian last year, decided to sit out this season to recover from injury, which definitely has hurt the Sun's interior game. And guard Danielle McCray, a contributor off the bench, is out with an Achilles injury.
The Sun will need a big turnaround if they want to get into the playoffs. Right now, their season looks more like it's on the way to an "F" finish.