WNBA Preview 2009: The Western 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 early 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.

Another point of interest will be whether more teams join in the recent trend of "branding" their jerseys with the logos of corporate sponsors a la the European Soccer clubs. Two teams, the Sparks and the Mercury, currently display this look.

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


KEY LOSSES: G Kiesha Brown, G Temeka Johnson, G Sidney Spencer, F Raffaella Masciadri, F Murriel Page, F Christi Thomas

KEY ADDITIONS: G Betty Lennox, G Noelle Quinn, F Tina Thompson, F Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, C Vanessa Hayden

After enduring the worst season in franchise history (a 10-24 record in 2007), the Sparks rebounded last year with a solid 2008 season powered by the arrival of rookie phenom Candace Parker and the successful return of WNBA legend Lisa Leslie.

Leslie,who had missed the entire 2007 season while on maternity leave, returned true to form in 2008, capturing her second Defensive Player of the Year award.

Parker, meanwhile was was even more impressive, as her scintillating play throughout the season earned her both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors. No other woman in league history had previously accomplished that feat in a single season.

Despite those accolades, the Sparks' season still ended on a sour note, as they fell to the San Antonio Silver Stars in the Western Conference Finals in three games.

To succeed, the Sparks must address three key questions facing this year's squad. First, what effect will Leslie's announcement of her impending retirement have on the team? Second, will coach Michael Cooper's announcement that he will coach at USC after this season, render him a lame duck within the locker room? Third, will Parker be able to recapture her game later this year after returning from maternity leave? This last question will be the most important of the three.

Although Parker's situation is one that is unique to women athletes, her situation is certainly not without precedent. In fact, should Parker need any advice on how to handle a comeback from childbirth, she will have to look no further than her own locker room, where she will find two women with practical experience in this regard.

The two women, Leslie and the newly-acquired Tina Thompson, each took decidedly different approaches to returning from maternity leave.

Leslie chose to sit out the entire 2007 season, and return the next season.

Thompson, meanwhile, elected to return to the court a mere 9 weeks after giving birth to her son. While Thompson played admirably by posting averages of 10 points, 4 boards, and 29 minutes per night during the 15 games of her return, a closer look reveals that those per game totals, although remarkable, were significantly lower than the 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 36 minutes per game that she averaged during the season prior to giving birth.

The Sparks' brass has said all along that ultimately, the date of return will be solely Parker's decision to make, and rightfully so. However, Parker has already stated her intent to return to the court at some point during the regular season, and Leslie potentially increased the expectations in recent weeks, by publicly voicing her expectation that Parker would rejoin the team by late June. A June return would be only six weeks after giving birth.

The Sparks will begin the season on June 6, playing host to Detroit at the Staples Center. Coach Coop will probably begin the campaign with a brand-new backcourt featuring off-season acquisition Noelle Quinn at the point, alongside a new 2 guard in veteran Betty Lennox. Moreover, Cooper will get a major talent infusion at the starting power forward, with the addition of perennial All-Star Thompson.

The newcomers will play alongside returning starters Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones. While the new additions certainly bring no shortage of talent, most assume there will also be the requisite period of adjustment that so often comes along with incorporating new players.

Other new faces for the Sparks in 2009 include valuable backup forward/center Vanessa Hayden, and draftee Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton (valuable, if only for her role as confidante to Parker).

Even without reigning MVP Parker in the lineup, the Sparks still possess enough talent to hold down a spot at or near the top of the Western Conference standings.

The addition of seven-time All-Star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Thompson certainly will help. And as always, Leslie can be counted on to provide top-notch scoring, rebounding, and defense night in and night out.

The key to the Sparks' success this season will likely depend on just how soon the new backcourt of Quinn and Lennox can gel into a cohesive unit capable of both running the offense effectively and locking down opposing guards.

Contributions from unheralded youngsters such as Wisdom-Hylton could also be crucial to the Sparks' success, since bench play is a potential concern for the team.

PREDICTION: Los Angeles has a predictably rough start to the season, as the schedule-makers inexplicably have them on the road for 11 of their first 14 games. If they are able to make it through this rough patch intact, they should be in good shape, as they will play only 6 more games away from the Staples Center for the rest of the regular season. Of course, at some point they will also get an inevitable boost in welcoming Parker back in some capacity. Either way, expect the Sparks to once again prove to be the class of the Western Conference.


KEY LOSSES: G Kelly Miller, F LeToya Pringle F/C Barbara Farris

KEY ADDITIONS: G Ketia Swanier, G Temeka Johnson, G/F Sequioa Holmes, G/F DeWanna Bonner

A year after capturing the first WNBA championship in team history, the Mercury made history in another less-prestigious manner, becoming the first team in league history to fail to make the playoffs after winning a title the year before.

However, in fairness, they were beset by injuries and simply weren't the same team as in 2007. Forward Penny Taylor, a two-time WNBA All-Star, elected not to play in 2008, so that she could prepare for the Beijing Olympics with her Australian mates.

Unfortunately, Phoenix may again be without Taylor's services once more, as she has been hampered by a nagging right ankle injury that will reportedly require surgery. If Taylor is able to return to the Phoenix lineup at some point, she will give them a "Big Three" that is superior to perhaps any other in the league. Without Taylor in the lineup, All-Stars Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter were 1-2 in the league in scoring last year, each pouring in well over 20 points a game.

Phoenix flirted with perennial All-Star and former league MVP Lauren Jackson, but were eventually beaten out for her services by Jackson's old club in Seattle.

Despite losing out in the Jackson sweepstakes, the team did make improvements in a few areas during the offseason, beginning with their acquisition of point guard Temeka Johnson from the Sparks. In addition, Phoenix dealt for power forward Nicole Ohlde from Minnesota.

Phoenix also may have gotten the steal of the draft by selecting Auburn's DeWanna Bonner with the fifth overall pick.

Aside from her freakishly long frame and ability in the open floor, Bonner brings a remarkably unique skill set that should allow her to complement the already well-established floor games of Taurasi and Pondexter quite nicely. Of course, Bonner will probably need some time initially to acclimate herself to the nuances of the quicker, more physical pro game.

As with any team featuring a dominant personality such as Taurasi, the main goal for second-year head coach Corey Gaines will be to get his star player to buy into the system and work for the common team goal. Taurasi - and, to a lesser extent, Pondexter - can get any shot she wants on the floor, at any time. This has proven to be both a gift and a curse at alternate times in years past. Should Taurasi fully buy into what Phoenix is trying to accomplish, and possibly sacrifice some of her touches in order to build and develop some of the youngsters' confidence, Phoenix will be a truly championship-caliber force.

PREDICTION: The potent, high-powered offense of the Phoenix Mercury will keep them in a neck-and-neck race for first place in the West with the Sparks. However, as the old adage goes, its defense that wins championships, and ultimately a lack of commitment and cohesiveness on the defensive end will ultimately prove to be their undoing.


KEY LOSSES: G Lindsey Harding, G Noelle Quinn, G Navonda Moore, F LaToya Thomas, F Kristen Rasmussen, F/C Vanessa Hayden, F/C Nicole Ohlde

KEY ADDITIONS: G Roneeka Hodges, G Renee Montgomery, G Kelly Miller, F Rashanda McCants, F Kristi Thomas , C Quanitra Hollingsworth

The way the Lynx began the season in 2008, it looked as if they could possibly be the Western Conference's representatives WNBA Finals. Five straight wins to open the season, including a win over the Shock on opening night, left many within the Lynx organization believing that this could be their year to finally emerge from the Western Conference basement.

Minnesota ranked among the top teams in scoring and accuracy in ‘08, but it was their deficiencies on defense that took them out of games. Head coach Don Zierden must focus on the team's defense if Minnesota hopes to improve upon last year's campaign which, despite such a promising start, saw Minnesota end the year two games under .500 at 16-18.

With the still-young and developing tandem of two-time All-Star Seimone Augustus and center Nickey Anosike, a twenty-win campaign complete with the franchise's first-ever playoff berth is not out of the question. The team's leading scorer at 19 points per game last year, Augustus deserves to be considered a legitimate MVP candidate.

Meanwhile, the athletic Anosike led the team in several offensive and defensive categories during her freshman campaign, posting respectable averages of 9 points and nearly 7 boards per outing.

Minnesota will be strengthened by the presence of former Stanford All-American Candice Wiggins, who will likely assume the starting off guard role. Wiggins took home Sixth Woman of the Year honors last season. A backcourt of Wiggins, Minnesota native Kelly Miller, and Renee Montgomery, could give the Lynx the luxury of having one of the most talented and deep guard rotations in the league.

Montgomery - the fourth overall selection in this year's WNBA Draft - will likely be at the helm of the Minnesota offense as the starting point guard from day one. A born winner and leader, Montgomery was the undisputed heart and soul of an amazing Connecticut Huskies team that went 39-0 en route to winning the NCAA National Championship.

Aside from being a vocal leader and solid defender, Montgomery's presence on the roster certainly will help allay the loss of Lindsey Harding, last year's top assist woman.

The team also has a pair of new forwards with which to attack opposing front lines, in Christi Thomas and LaToya Pringle. Thomas and Pringle will probably work into the rotation in much the same way that third-year coach Don Zierden utilized Charde Houston off the bench last year.

In addition to nabbing Montgomery with their first pick, the Lynx were also able to improve their depth considerably through the draft. They chose three times in the Draft's first 15 selections, and chose wisely. All told, aside from Montgomery, the team made solid selections in tabbing center Quanitra Hollingsworth from Virginia Commonwealth, and forward Rashanda McCants (sister of NBA guard Rashad McCants).

Minnesota will definitely field one of the more talented rosters in the league this year, on paper at least. Where the challenge will lie will be in Zierden establishing a consistently effective rotation that gets each woman to accept her role.

PREDICTION: While the abundance of talented youngsters on the roster certainly bodes well for the future, Zierden and the Lynx brass have made it clear that their club is poised to make waves in the West right now. Behind the heady play and leadership of Montgomery, the lights out scoring of Augustus, and the hard-nosed defense and hustle of Anosike, the Lynx should make a late push and qualify for post-season play for the first time in team history.


KEY LOSSES: F Shyra Ely, F Sheryl Swoopes, C Yolanda Griffith.

KEY ADDITIONS: G Shannon Johnson, F Ashley Walker, F/C Kasha Terry

The Storm had to play without its best player, two-time League MVP Lauren Jackson, for an extended period last season due to an ankle injury Jackson suffered while training with the Australian Women's National Team. Although Jackson famously played through the pain during the Olympics, the injury would require later surgery. As a result, Jackson missed the remainder of the 2008 season.

Despite her absence, the Storm still managed to earn the second seed in the Western Conference, with a 22-12 record. However, their playoff stint would be short-lived, as they were sent home by the Sparks in the first round.

Seattle's outlook for this season certainly got a lot brighter on May 4, when Jackson, an unrestricted free agent, chose to return to Seattle. Head coach Brian Agler probably had a small celebration to commemorate the Aussie's decision, as it would have been virtually impossible to replicate Jackson’s production in the lineup.

However, much was learned while Jackson was out, and All-Star performer Sue Bird proved to be more than capable of transitioning from facilitator to first-option on the offensive end for the Storm. When playing in a lineup featuring Jackson upfront, Bird led the league in assists, with 6 per game. When Jackson was injured, Bird’s scoring average jumped four additional points, up to 17.5 per contest. In fact, Bird elevated her play to the level of a legitimate MVP candidate, as she wound up finishing third in the MVP voting after Candace Parker and Lindsay Whalen.

With Jackson back, look for Bird to return to more of a facilitator role to open the season. Agler has to be pleased not only to have a healthy Jackson back in the lineup, but also a rejuvenated Swin Cash. Cash is a proven scorer from her championship days with Detroit, and is said to have overcome her recent back problems after undergoing offseason surgery.

Seattle also welcomes the return of a pair of solid post players in Suzy Batkovic and Janell Burse. Batkovic, a 6'4" center from Australia, previously played for the Storm back in 2005, while Burse, a 6'5" pivot, returns to the Storm after sitting out the entire 2008 campaign in order to rest a myriad of lingering shoulder, knee, and foot injuries.

Seattle also let go of a few frontcourt players, including Yolanda Griffith, Shyra Ely and Sheryl Swoopes. With the excess salary cap room that these moves freed up, the Storm was then able to re-sign Jackson and promising combo guard Tanisha Wright.

After winning the League Championsip in 2004, Seattle has qualified for postseason play in each of the last four years, but has failed to advance beyond the first round. Could this be the year that Seattle once again ascends to the top? It certainly won't be easy, as the fiercely-competitive West is stocked with such talent-rich teams as LA, San Antonio, Sacramento, and Phoenix.

PREDICTION: With the inexplicable and shameful departure of the Sonics, the Storm will be the only option for basketball junkies to get their hoops fix on in the Emerald City. Contrary to what many have claimed, Seattle is a good sports town that always supports and gets behind its teams, as even the Seattle Sounders soccer club has generated a great deal of local fan support. Unfortunately, those fans could be in for some disappointment, as the Storm will remain in playoff contention until the last week of the season, only to fall just short of their desired goal by failing to qualify for the playoffs.


KEY LOSSES: G Morenike Atunrase, F Brittany Wilkins

KEY ADDITIONS: G/F Megan Frazee, F Belinda Snell, F/C Katie Feenstra-Mattera

Led by their dynamic duo of Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, San Antonio streaked to a 24-10 record, the best mark in the league. The team then endured two tough playoff series against Sacramento and Los Angeles, en route to winning the West. In fact, Young provided one of the most memorable and dramatic moments in league history in the LA series when she hit an off-balance game-winner at the buzzer in Game 2.

However, the Silver Stars could seemingly do nothing right in the WNBA Finals, as they were routed and swept by the Detroit Shock in three games. Despite being totally outplayed in the Finals, the Silver Stars will probably begin the 2009 campaign with the belief that the WNBA title was within their grasp, as they no doubt have reminded themselves that if they had all of their stars playing to their potential, the WNBA Finals could have been a much more competitive series.

Most of the players that carried San Antonio to the Finals last season are back once again, including Hammon and Young, the team's two cornerstone stars.

For the first two months Ruth Riley will probably fill the void at center, as last year's starting center, Wauters, will be absent due to personal issues. Although she started just three games in the pivot last year for San Antonio, Riley is more than comfortable in that role, having started 29 in 2007. During that season Riley averaged 8.1 points, five rebounds and nearly 2 blocks a game, so she certainly is competent.

Young finished fourth in the WNBA MVP voting in 2008, only one year removed from a season in which Hammon came in second. Thus, the Starz certainly have a pair of celestial beings for their supporters to gaze upon.

Hammon was constantly in the news in 2008, mostly from the negative Stateside reaction to her decision to play for Russia in the Olympics. After that media circus, she will likley be looking to let her floor game be the only source of her news clippings this season.

Still, there will be pressure to win in San Antonio in 2009, especially after last year's playoff run. San Antonio returns some of the best players in the game in Hammon, Young, and upon her eventual return, Wauters.

To tackle such high expectations, the Silver Stars have one of the top coaches in the league in Dan Hughes, who very easily could have won his second straight Coach of the Year Award in 2008 were it not for the splendid job done by Connecticut's Mike Thibault.

Meeting the expectations. Hughes must look to maintain the upward arc that the franchise has been on since his arrival. Needless to say, the only logical step left in that progression is the most difficult - that of hoisting a championship trophy.

PREDICTION: The Silver Stars don't seem to be fazed by the weight of the lofty expectations that came with their near-title run, and execute with precision throughout the year. Following the lead of their two star players, San Antonio cruises to the conference finals, where they are ultimately dethroned by a gutsy and talented Los Angeles team in a series for the ages.

By Kweku Turkson
Staff Reporter for TheDailySportsHerald.com

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