WNBA Preview 2009: The Eastern Conference

June 6, 2009

As the WNBA enters its thirteenth year, the league's young stars and compelling rivalries will all take a backseat to the biggest storyline of the 2009 season - the termination of the Comets organization in Houston.

The most obvious ramification caused by the dissolution of that once-dominant Houston franchise, is that each of the remaining 13 teams will downsize from a 13-woman roster (11 active players, 2 inactive) to an 11-woman roster (with no inactive roster). As a result, the shortened rosters could cause teams to deal with player injuries and daily wear and tear issues in a much different manner than in past years.

With that being said, let's take a closer view of each team, and see how things should unfold in 2009:


Key Losses: G Elaine Powell, G Sheri Sam, G Ashley Shields, C Kelly Schumacher

Key Additions: G Tiera De La Houssaye, G Kristin Haynie, G Shavonte Zellous, F Barbara Farris, F Sequia Holmes, F Kristen Rasmussen

Looking Back:
If there were any doubts as to the Shock's claim to Dynasty Status, they surely ended that debate last season. By sweeping San Antonio in the WNBA Finals, the Bill Laimbeer-led Shock won their second title in three years and their third championship in six years, a feat equaled only by the great Houston Comets' teams of the late 90's.

The Shock remain one of the most hard-nosed, talented, and athletic teams in the league, as head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer has done a marvelous job of developing a constant winner in the Motor City.

Looking Forward:
The Shock head into 2009 as the favorites to yet again rule the East and represent the conference in the WNBA Finals. The team features a stacked frontline consisting of Taj McWilliams, Plenette Pierson, Kara Braxton, and possibly Cheryl Ford, should her health permit. Ford has been been medically cleared to play, but has not appeared in the preseason.

As daunting as the Shock's frontline can be for opposing teams, their backcourt is just as formidable. Although nearing her 35th birthday, Finals MVP Katie Smith has shown no signs of slowing down, and continues to play at an All-World level. She is joined in the backcourt by arguably the best pure athlete in the entire league, Michigan native Deanna Nolan.

Biggest Challenges for 2009:
If the Shock are to qualify for their fourth straight Finals appearance, they will have to stay healthy - something that has proven to be no small task for players such as Ford in years past. The importance of this point is magnified by the fact that virtually every team in the East has improved their ballclub since last year, as Atlanta, Washington, Connecticut, and Chicago all appear poised to dethrone the reigning "Beasts of the East."

What to Expect:
As is the case every year with a Bill Laimbeer team, most expect the Shock to play a smart, disciplined, hard-nosed, and solid brand of deliberate basketball. However, this year there could be an added element to the Detroit attack, as the coaching staff has already stated that they intend to run a bit more this year in order to fully utilize the open floor talents of Smith, Nolan, Alexis Hornbuckle, and rookie scorer extraordinaire Shavonte Zellous, the team's first round draft pick out of Pitt.

Detroit also made a very shrewd move by adding point guard Kristin Haynie in the off-season. More of a pure point than a scoring guard, Haynie will also allow the team to show some different looks and confuse their opponents.

Prediction: The Shock do what the Shock do, coming out of the gate and just flat out punishing teams in the early going. However, after a rash of injuries severely hampers the froncourt, Laimbeer and his staff are forced to switch things up on the fly. Showing a much more diversified offensive attack than has been seen in years past, Detroit even employs 3 and 4 guard lineups at times, en route to cruising to the best record in the League and yet another birth in the League Finals.


Key Losses: G Betty Lennox (leading scorer in 2008), G Katie Feenstra, F Anne Strother, F/C Kasha Terry.

Key Additions: G CoCo Miller, G Nikki Teasley, F Chamique Holdsclaw, F Sancho Lyttle, #1 overall draft pick Angel McCoughtry, C Michelle Snow.

Looking Back:
The Dream's first season was one that saw the expansion franchise struggle mightily, as they went winless through their first 17 games. Atlanta's front office then left many scratching their heads when they waived the team's leading scorer from 2008, Betty Lennox.

Looking Forward:
However, it now must be said that the Dream's brass has arguably done more than any other team in the WNBA to improve their ball club, as they have made a number of smart moves to transform the team. While last year Atlanta's attack centered around a decent core of guards in Lennox, Ivory Latta, Tamara Young, and the surprising Iziane Castro-Marques, the upcoming season will feature an Atlanta squad that should be led by a number of proven veterans brought in during the offseason, including Chamique Holdsclaw, Nikki Teasley, CoCo Miller, and Michelle Snow.

In addition to those key signings, Atlanta also wisely selected Louisville's Angel McCoughtry with the first overall pick in the 2009 WNBA Draft. When viewed collectively, Teasley, Miller, Snow, and McCoughtry all constitute quite an upgrade from last year. Throw in the coup that was accomplished by successfully coaxing the enigmatic Holdsclaw out of retirement, and this team certainly has a more potent lineup on paper at least, with a good mix of vets and promising youngsters.

What to Expect:
With all of the new talent, Atlanta should be able to play a high-tempo, crowd-pleasing, attacking style heavy on quick passing and fast breaks. The plethora of talented perimeter players assembled would certainly seem to indicate that head coach and GM Marynell Meadors will institute an attacking system similar to the one so successfully employed in Phoenix.

Biggest Challenge for 2009:
The most difficult task for Meadors will be successfully incorporating all of her new weapons, while simultaneously managing the egos and expectations of those new players.

That also includes figuring out how to divide the minutes for an abundance of talented wing players, as Holdsclaw, McCoughtry, Young, and Castro-Marques can all make a case for staying on the court.

It will also be interesting to see how the situation at the point guard spot plays itself out, as incumbent starter Ivory Latta is sure to be pushed by Teasley and CoCo Miller, both heady veterans and proven playoff performers.

Prediction: Although arguably fielding the most talented team in the League, 1 through 11, the Dream are plagued by chemistry issues and undefined roles early in the season. Despite these issues, Atlanta overcomes a shaky start, and ends up winning 10 of their last 14 games to finish a surprising 20-14. The strong finish secures the franchise's first-ever playoff birth, and makes Chamique Holdsclaw the favorite for WNBA Comeback Player of the Year.


Key Losses: G LaToya Bond, G Doneeka Lewis, F Allison Feaster, F Kristenn Mann, C Bernadette Ngoyisa

Key Additions: G Erica White, G Tamecka Dixon, F Christina Wirth, F Briann January, F/C Yolanda Griffith

Looking Back:
The Fever qualified for the WNBA playoffs the past four seasons, but in each of the last three years, they have been eliminated by the powerhouse Shock. However, with the addition of two proven stars, the Fever are now hoping that they have finally found sufficient aid for superstar Tamika Catchings. If so, Catchings might just hoist the franchise's first championship trophy in 2009.

Looking Forward:
The Fever showed a definite commitment to winning by signing former WNBA MVP and seven-time All-Star center Yolanda Griffith. The 35 year-old Griffith has already announced this will be her final season. It certainly appears that the Fever are hedging their bets that Griffith can help get the team over the Detroit "hump" by providing the same tough interior play, rebounding, and inside scoring that has characterized her play throughout her career. The team is also hoping that after 11 years of dominant inside play, Yo-Yo still has one more year of solid production left in her. She should work well with Canadian Tammy Sutton-Brown, a center who really uses her big body and wide frame to her advantage.

Indiana coupled the signing of Griffith with the acquisition of veteran guard Tamecka Dixon. Dixon is a three-time All-Star who is 21st on the league's all-time scoring list with 3,368 career points. She has been with the WNBA since its inception.

Both ladies also have championship rings, which could translate into valuable leadership for their new team.

What to Expect:
Indiana's front office has to hope that Griffith and Dixon can bring to the Fever this season what guard Katie Douglas brought them in 2008 – a big-name off-season acquisition who pays instant dividends. Douglas will return to the starting off guard spot, where last year she produced in excess of 15 points per contest, to go along with four boards. She will once again be working alongside lead guard Tully Bevilaqua, a crafty ball handler who is usually found among the league leaders in steals.

One area where second-year head coach Lin Dunn has little to worry about is in the Griffith-Catchings frontcourt. Tamika Catchings is a five-time league All-Star, member of the WNBA All-Decade Team, and arguably the best all-around player in the league. Also, WNBA 2008 Most Improved Player Ebony Hoffman will be back to knock down jumpers on the perimeter and provide her solid D. Catchings, Hoffman, and Sutton-Brown each averaged over 10 points and six rebounds a game last season.

Biggest Challenges:
Dunn's biggest question mark will be how to establish a regular rotation. Most likely, Dunn will lean heavily on guards Tan White and Erica White, and forward Khadijah Whittington. Tan White, the second overall pick in the 2005 draft by the Fever, started 22 games last season and averaged 9.9 points per game. Erica White was picked up in the Houston Comets’ Dispersal Draft and spent last year learning the guard spot under Dixon. Dunn will have to find playing time for both ladies as Dixon, Douglas, and Bevilaqua will get a majority of the minutes.

Whittington appeared in 22 games during her freshman season, displaying a toughness that has led some to compare her to current teammate Catchings. Indiana also wisely added some depth via the draft, selecting versatile guard Briann January out of Arizona State with the sixth-overall pick. Dunn believes January is the Fever’s point guard of the future with Bevilaqua’s career winding down at the age of 36.

Prediction: If history is to repeat itself, the Fever will once again put together a solid year and be back in the playoffs. But if Dunn has found the right combination of veteran players and young blood, and they all manage to stay healthy, then this year’s ballclub could change their typical path of years past, and potentially even bring home a title to the Hoosier State.


Key Losses: G Jamie Carey, F Svetlana Abrosimova, F Tamika Raymond

Key Additions: F Carrem Gay, F Lauren Ervin, F Lyndra Littles, C Chante Black

Looking Back:
The Sun shocked the WNBA last year with a surprisingly successful season, even after losing core veterans Katie Douglas, Nykesha Sales, and Margo Dydek. By keeping the team in contention for the number one seed in the East for virtually the entire season, Sun Head coach Mike Thibault did a fine job in guiding his team into a new era without so much as a year to rebuild. The team effectively carried out Thibault’s game plan all season on both ends of the floor, and Thibault was deservedly rewarded with his second Coach of the Year award in the past three seasons.

Aside from Thibault's superior work on the sidelines, the play of Lindsay Whalen was probably the number one reason the Sun remained among the Eastern elite. Whalen put up career-best numbers across the board, and led the league in assists, at nearly six dimes a contest. Following the season, Whalen was honored for her outstanding year by being selected All-WNBA First Team, and also finished second in the MVP voting behind LA's rookie phenom Candace Parker.

While Whalen received most of the attention, forward Asijha Jones quietly turned in another phenomenal season, leading the team in scoring (17.0 PPG) and rebounding (6.1 RPG). For her efforts, she merited the first All-WNBA recognition of her career, as she was named to the All-League Second Team.

Looking Forward:
With both stars entering their primes, Whalen and Jones are certainly the leaders of the team, but there are several other spots in the lineup that could remain unsettled heading into regular-season play. One such hole could be found in the frontcourt, as F/C Tamika Whitmore struggled in the playoffs after putting together solid regular season averages of 12.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Add to that the fact that Whitmore will turn 32 on June 5, and perhaps Thibault and his staff shouldn't depend too heavily on the 10-year vet out of Memphis.

What to Expect:
Amber Holt - the team’s top draft pick from a year ago - endeared herself enough to Thibault and his staff with her defensive intensity and enthusiasm that she ended up starting all 34 games at the shooting guard spot in her rookie campaign. Despite her solid year, she’ll likely have competition for the starting job from Erin Phillips, a veteran who returned to the team late last season after a hiatus. Phillips is a valuable combo guard who can handle the ball and take some pressure off Whalen.

At the small forward position, Thibault has options in former UCONN standout Barbara Turner, Kerri Gardin, or maybe even rookie Lyndra Littles.

Biggest Challenges for 2009:
There are two players in the running to replace Whitmore down low - second-year Frenchwoman Samdrine Gruda, or draft pick Chante Black. Gruda certainly has two desirable attributes on her side - height (she stands 6' 4") and youth (she is 21 years-old). As such, she has the potential to be a force in the middle.

Black was selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2009 WNBA Draft, out of Duke. Despite going a bit lower than most might have expected, Black remains a defensive stopper in the middle and a big that can and will run the floor. Her offensive game still needs to be refined.

Prediction: The Sun have stockpiled a few more tools at their disposal than in past years, which should allow Thibault to use a variety of different looks and keep opponents guessing. However, Connecticut was not the only team in the East to have made such upgrades, and thus, the battle for playoff contention should again be closely contested. Look for the Sun to be right where they belong, among the top "Beasts in the East", as either a 1 or 2 seed.


Key Losses: G CoCo Miller, G Laurie Koehn, G Crystal Smith, F Crystal Vaughn

Key Additions: G Matee Ajavon, G Lindsey Harding, G Kiesha Brown (*Second stint with team*), F Marissa Coleman, F Kristen Mann, C Chastity Melvin

Looking Back:
The Mystics have a good nucleus of perimeter players, and will look to improve upon a disapointing 2008 season. They return a solid core of players including former Duke teammates Alana Beard and Monique Currie, and several talented newcomers in Guards Matee Ajavon, Lindsay Harding, and Kiesha Brown. They also made a wise selection with their first choice in the 2009 Draft, nabbing local Maryland Terrapins' standout forward Marissa Coleman.

Looking Forward:
New GM Angela Taylor brought with her a new coaching staff and a number of new players, in the hopes of altering the entire culture that surrounds the Mystics. Taylor spent the last two seasons as the Vice President of business development for the Minnesota Lynx, and thus, she did not have to look far to find her new Mystics coach, as she brought in former Lynx' assistant coach Julie Plank.

An assistant coach in the WNBA for the past nine years, Plank now will be a head coach for the first time in her career. In a position that has seen quite a bit of turnover recently, the success of Plank will be imperative to Taylor’s goal of turning this program around. Plank plans to install an up-tempo style of offense in Washington, which should help the Mystics improve on their League-worst 69.6 points per game average from 2008.

Reports around Washington leading up to the Draft had the Mystics' brass mentioning that their biggest off-season needs were at the point guard and center positions. By adding Lindsay Harding and Chastity Melvin, the Mystics filled those needs prior to the draft, allowing them to simply select the woman they believed to be the best player available - Marissa Coleman of Maryland (#2 overall).

What to Expect:
The Mystics made several good moves this offseason, adding talent, depth, and youth to their roster. However, their success in 2009 will ultimately be determined by how quickly the players and coaching staff successfully blend together. One thing is certain - the Mystics definitely have the right kind of players to "right the ship," as their roster is now packed with such "winners" as Beard, Currie, and Harding.

With a potential starting lineup consisting of Lindsey Harding or Matee Ajavon at the point, Alana Beard at the two, and Monique Currie, Crystal Langhorn, and Chastity Melvin up front, the Mystics will certainly be fielding a team that knows how to compete and win.

Biggest Challenges for 2009:
With so many players that have been the focal points of their past teams, will the Mystics be able to "play nice" and get along? Will having so many gifted and versatile players on the roster turn out to be more of a curse than a gift, due to a lack of clearly defined roles? Will the notoriously snake-bitten Harding be able to stay healthy for the entire season? Only time will reveal the answers to these burning questions.

Prediction: The Mystics start slow, but once Plank realizes that the team plays its best when employing an uptempo, 3-guard lineup, things really start rolling for Washington. The "small ball" lineup produces a 19-15 record, and earns a playoff berth.


Key Losses: G Tye'sha Fluker, C Chastity Melvin

Key Additions: G Kristi Toliver, G Danielle Gant, G Jennifer Risper, F Mistie Williams, F Shyra Ely, C Chen Nan

Looking Back:
Last year everything revolved around 6'6" Sylvia Fowles. The powerful pivot from LSU was widely lauded by many as the second coming of Living Legend Lisa Leslie, and, despite being plagued by some injuries, she proved to be a nice consolation prize for the Sky after superstar Candace Parker went number one overall to the Sparks at the 2008 WNBA Draft.

The addition of Fowles brought a top-notch post defender, outlet passer, shot blocker, and offensive rebounder to the Sky, and helped solidify the team's talented young nucleus. Included in that nucleus is 2007 Rookie of the Year Armintie Price, and All-Star G/F Candice Dupree, a former Temple product.

Looking Forward:
The young core of Dupree, Price, and Fowles, are joined by steady backcourt performers Jia Perkins and Dominique Canty. In particular, Perkin's development has been crucial to the Sky's progress as a one-time expansion franchise. After becoming a regular everyday starter, Perkins proceeded to lead the team in scoring (at 17 points per game) and steals (with nearly two thefts a game), while having the second-highest assists per game average at nearly 3 a contest.

Perkins, Price, Dupree, Canty and Fowles certainly have the Sky secure in one department – defense. Last season, Chicago allowed just 73.8 points per game, the fourth-best mark in the league.

That number could be improved this season with the Sky's big offseason acquisition of 6'5" Chen Nan, an imposing post player from China. Nan was named the MVP of the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association last season, and was a standout performer for the Chinese National Team the past several years. Against the world's best, Nan averaged 14.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks for China in the Beijing Games.

Perhaps the most intriguing lineup for followers of the Sky will be the possibility of teaming Nan with Fowles. If the two are on the floor together, they should create some very difficult matchups for their opposition.

Biggest Challenges:
Despite their defensive success, the Sky struggled to put up points. Chicago was the second-worst offensive team in the WNBA last season, mustering only 72.7 points a contest.

The lack of offensive pop no doubt sparked the Sky's offseason moves. Key additions included long-range bomber Erin Thorn, and Maryland point guard Kristi Toliver, the third overall selection in this year's Draft. Toliver famously knocked down the game-winning shot with the clock winding down to secure a National Championship for her Terrapins in 2006, and thus, she is not one to shy away from taking the big shot.

Still, the new-found depth caused by Toliver's addition will probably do more than just foster more competition among the guards, as it will also bring forth a new set of questions.

First, who starts? More importantly, who will have the ball in her hands at the end of games?

The answers to these questions will take a while to fully materialize, but ultimately they will play a big role in determining whether the Sky can finally break through and earn a postseason berth.

What to Expect:
As expected, it takes a while for the new players to gel with the team. However, with the excellent play of Fowles and Dupree, along with solid spot duty contributions from newcomers Shyra Ely, Nan, and Mistie Williams, the Sky frontcourt proves to be quite good. Add in great backcourt play from the 3-headed monster of Canty, Perkins, and Toliver, and Chicago ought to enjoy a great deal more success then they have seen in past years.

Prediction: With 10 of their 19 games in the season's opening two months on the road, Chicago will have to be good early. If they can make it through this stretch with a .500 record or better, they will qualify for the post-season. If not, another disappointing season will have the Sky's supporters once more asking "Why?"


Key Additions: G Sidney Spencer, G Abby Waner, C Kia Vaughn

Key Losses: G Megan Duffy, G Erin Thorn

Looking Back:
Despite having the youngest team in the League during 2008, head coach Pat Coyle made very few big moves to alter the Liberty roster heading into 2009. The Liberty will again be led by the formidable tandem of forward Shameka Christon and center Janel McCarville.

Christon, the team’s resident veteran and most dependable player on the low block, was the Liberty's leading scorer at just under 16 points per contest.

Her front court mate, McCarville, took her game to a new level in ‘08, establishing new career-highs in points and rebounds, at 13.7 and 5.4 per game, respectively, while also setting new personal bests in steals and assists. McCarville led the team by shooting an impressive 53% from the field - the third-best mark in the league.

In 2008, the Liberty started first-year guard Essence Carson from day one. The Rutgers alum showed a high basketball IQ and a willingness to learn, while becoming acclimated to the faster tempo of the pro game. Carson will likely be joined in the starting backcourt by five-year veteran Loree Moore.

Looking Forward:
Coyle has to be ecstatic with the addition of Kia Vaughn to the roster. Vaughn, a 6'4" former standout at Rutgers, was New York's first-round draft pick, and the 8th overall selection in the Draft. The Bronx native will called on to provide the team with a strong interior presence. Vaughn, a former teammate of Carson's at Rutgers, will likely work under McCarville until she can step in full-time.

Although New York didn't elect to make any major changes on the court, it certainly did make at least one on the sideline, shrewdly adding Hall of Fame coach Anne Donovan to its coaching staff. Donovan led the Seattle Storm to its only WNBA League championship in 2004.

Biggest Challenges for 2009:
Playing in an Eastern Conference that features no shortage of rugged frontline players, McCarville and Christon will have to bring their "A games" on a nightly basis, and Vaughn will have to adjust to the faster, more physical pro game in a hurry. Furthermore, Christon will have to undertake a greater leadership role in the hope that she can inspire her younger 'mates to follow her consummate professionalism.

Prediction: Despite showing improvements, Coyne's team still appears to be a year or two away from really making noise. New York just misses qualifying for the playoffs.

By Kweku Turkson
Staff Reporter for TheDailySportsHerald.com

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