Sure, it’s easy to make fun of commercials like this, even if Candace Parker’s among the most physically stunning human beings to ever pick up a basketball.
But maybe, just maybe, you can expect this WNBA to…well, not grate. And because I’ve got a soft spot for women’s basketball, I wrote a season preview.
Since no one really knows anything about the WNBA, other than it’s what happens when too many UConn and Tennessee players graduate from college (not exactly a worry on the men’s side, thank God), here’s the bare minimum you need to know.
- There are two conferences, the Eastern and Western, with seven teams apiece.
- Each team plays 34 games in the regular season, which, this year, runs from mid-May to mid-September, with a break for most of August for the Olympics.
- The playoffs take the top four teams from each conference and power seed them, so the top team plays the fourth and the second-place team matches up with the third. Conference playoffs are best-of-three, with home court switching each game, and the WNBA Finals are best-of-five, in a 2-2-1 format.
- The defending champions are the Phoenix Mercury.
- Only one Eastern Conference team, the Detroit Shock, has won a title in the league’s years, capturing the championship in 2003 and 2006.
Now that you’ve glazed over that, how about quick, snap judgments that will be horrifically wrong?
- Detroit Shock: Coached by sometime Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer, the Shock are the WNBA’s answer to those late ’80s/early ’90s Pistons squads, hard-nosed and bruising inside. Their guards, though, will be the key to this season, as stalwart but fragile big Swin Cash departed for Seattle after a rather vocal falling out with Laimbeer; that means Katie Smith and 2006 Finals MVP Deanna Nolan, the only two players to hit a three-pointer for Detroit last year, will need to take some of the scoring load off Cheryl Ford, who will continue making Karl Malone proud of two-thirds of his illegitimate progeny. Still, in a weak East, that could well be enough.
- Indiana Fever: They boast maybe the league’s best one-woman show in Tamika Catchings, but she’ll be out for much of the season, rehabbing a torn ACL and working towards the Olympics. It’ll be up to Katie Douglas to keep the Fever in the playoff mix, but Catchings could be fresher for a playoff run than she’s ever been after Allen Iverson-like shoulderings of the load, and that’s promising.
- Connecticut Sun: Yeah, they’re owned by the same tribe that owns the Mohegan Sun casino, and yeah, they’re the only show in town in Connecticut as far as professional sports go, but they have four former Huskies from down the road, the gritty Lindsay Whalen at guard, and a coach, Mike Thibault, whose name rhymes with a certain messianic quarterback from the University of Florida. So there’s that. Seriously, though, the Sun are perennial playoff entrants, but probably don’t have enough to seriously contend for a title.
- Washington Mystics: None other than Tree Rollins coaches this group, and after he rose to the position midway through the 2007 season, the Mystics ran off a 14-8 stretch run. This season, they’ll depend on Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who seems like she’s played forever, and ranger Amber Jacobs, and will have just enough to edge New York for the final playoff spot in the East. However, they’ve got the greatest growth potential of any team this season, because I think Agent Zero is just nuts enough to pull a Juwanna Mann.
- New York Liberty: Nothing against a team with bruiser Janel McCarville inside and Tiffany Jackson helping her out, but adding sparkplug Essence Carson and Erlana Larkins isn’t enough to bring a mostly nondescript roster up to the .500 mark, and I think that might be the magic number for the playoffs in the East. I wonder, though, if Isiah has to stay away from these players, too…
- Chicago Sky: Everyone’s favorite women’s basketball analyst Stacey Dales played in the WNBA last year, though no one knew it, given this team is about the most invisible in the league, playing at the University of Illinois-Chicago’s court and drawing just under 4,000 fans per game, the league low and well short of the league average of 7,742. They’ll benefit greatly from Sylvia Fowles’ towering presence, but she, Candace Dupree, and 2007 Rookie of the Year Armintie Price have to get help to take this team anywhere but the upper steps of the cellar, and that may take another year of struggling and the subsequent draft pick.
- Atlanta Dream: On the bright side, the Sky pretty much can’t finish last in the East, because this expansion team is light on the inside with unproven Katie Feenstra the most promising big and full of undersized gunners in Betty Lennox, Ivory Latta, and rookie scorer Tamera Young on the perimeter. It’ll be a while before this team contends for anything but the ignominious title of “Least Adored Atlanta Sports Team,” though, given attendance figures, that might not be saying much.
- Los Angeles Sparks: The West is where all the firepower is this year, and Los Angeles has more of it than anyone else in two-time MVP Lisa Leslie, returning after missing 2007 for the birth of her first child, and Candace Parker, one of the all-time greats at Tennessee and in women’s college basketball. It’ll be frequently compared to the San Antonio Spurs’ situation, and the parallel is good: Aging vet misses season, team is awful for a year, and team gets vet and prize of draft back. But Parker, if she’s fully healed after shoulder trouble in the NCAA Tournament, is even better than Tim Duncan was coming in, and Leslie’s a proven winner even without a sidekick inside, winning titles in 2001 and 2002. Temeka Johnson and DeLisha Milton-Jones will provide support, but look for Parker’s point guard on Rocky Top, Shannon Bobbitt, to impress and surprise with defense and energy.
- Seattle Storm: 2007 MVP Lauren Jackson may be the best player in women’s professional basketball, a legitimate center with the requisite post moves and a soft shooting touch, and she’s had maybe the best point guard in the league in Sue Bird, but the Storm only have one title to their name, in 2004. So they picked up a trio of fantastic players in Sheryl Swoopes, Swin Cash, and Yolanda Griffith, giving them more than half of the 11 MVP Awards in league history (three for Swoopes, two for Jackson, and one for Griffith) and enough rings to make Jared jealous. It’s a lot of firepower and versatility, but it could only be assembled because the three newcomers have all fallen from their peaks due to injuries, age, and, for Cash, possible psychic cracks, and the potential for greatness is matched by the potential to fall flat, especially with a tissue-thin bench. Maybe their best news, though, is that Seattle’s favorite pariah, Clay Bennett, sold the team to a local group and it will stay in Seattle, a win for the WNBA, which keeps one of its liveliest home atmospheres alive.
- Phoenix Mercury: This is probably a mistake, rating a defending champion as good as this as low as this. Both peerless scorer Diana Taurasi and 2007 Finals MVP Cappie Poindexter are back after great off-seasons in overseas leagues, and their trademark fast pace (make the racehorse/Rebecca Lobo joke at your own peril), the same one that produced a 108-92 routon the road, in Game 5 of the Finals, against the two-time champion Shock, shouldn’t change much. But it’s really tough for a champion to improve in this league, and the Mercury lost coach Paul Westhead in the off-season; history’s against them, too, as the last repeat champions were the Sparks in 2001 and 2002. All that, though, means nothing if this team can get into the playoffs, because they may well run rings around everything in their way.
- Minnesota Lynx: This is a rather high ranking for the ladies from the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but I’m a big fan and believer in rookie Candice Wiggins, who threw Stanford on her back and carried them to the NCAA Championship Game before succumbing to Tennessee, and I think she, Seimone Augustus, and Lindsay Harding give this team enough artillery to hang with the West’s best. The supporting cast, including bigs Nicole Ohlde and Vanessa Hayden-Johnson, back after missing 2007 while pregnant, and bombers Anna DeForge and Nikki Anosike, is good, too, but there are concerns that there won’t be enough shots to go around; my guess, though, is that playing this Big Three together stretches the floor and improves shot quality and shooting percentage.
- San Antonio Silver Stars: Thankfully, when the Utah Starzz came to the Lone Star State, they dropped the Zs from the most lamentably “trendy” name in pro sports. Unfortunately, they had, until last year, left much of their success there, too: 2007’s playoff berth, which ended in a sweep by eventual champs Phoenix, was their first in San An. But Becky Hammon and Sophia Young’s inside-out combo doesn’t have much help, and with the West getting tougher, the Silver Stars will probably find themselves muscled out of the playoffs despite adding one of the best names in sports, Morenike Atunrase. It’s pronounced More-EN-ik-EE ah-TUN-rah-SHAY, and it’s fun.
- Houston Comets: Tina Thompson was the league’s first MVP, and here she is, 11 years later, with the same team and the same respect she had then. Still, Houston’s simply not a great team this season, but has the potential to be solid, with Michelle Snow returning from injury to form a strong tandem inside and a mix of veteran savvy and youthful moxie giving this team a chance to surprise, but little more than that.
- Sacramento Monarchs: For a team that was always tougher than its NBA counterparts in Yolanda Griffith’s heyday, the Monarchs have the largest identity and talent crisis outside of Atlanta in this year’s WNBA. It should be a bright future for a young team led by old hand Ticha Penicheiro, sort of the league’s Steve Nash, but this year will be mostly devoid of joy.
- Shock over Mystics in 2
- Sun over Fever in 3
- Shock over Sun in 3
- Sparks over Lynx in 2
- Mercury over Storm in 3
- Sparks over Mercury in 3
- Sparks over Shock in 4
- MVP: Lauren Jackson, Storm
- Rookie of the Year: Candace Parker, Sparks
- Defensive Player of the Year: Sylvia Fowles, Sky
- Most Improved Player: Lindsay Harding, Lynx
- Sixth Woman of the Year: Shannon Bobbitt, Sparks
- Coach of the Year: Michael Cooper, Sparks
- Finals MVP: Candace Parker, Sparks
And there you have it. Tip-off of the opener is today at 3:30.
I’m not telling you to drink the David Stern Flavor-Aid and start painting your cheeks Phoenix Mercury chartreuse (it’s one of their team colors, folks), but check it out. You don’t know what you’re missing.