This week's review of the Eastern conference includes games through Sunday, June 21; statistics as of Saturday, June 20.
1. Washington, 4-1
(June: Wins over Connecticut and Detroit on the road, and over Atlanta and Chicago at home; loss to Atlanta on the road)
The Mystics continue to prove that something important has changed in D.C. this year. Alana Beard is on fire, averaging about 17.3 points, but scored 27 and 20 points in wins over Atlanta on June 7 and 19, followed by 31 in the victory over Chicago, June 20.
But the real difference is that this year, Beard finally has some help, and it is coming from the youngest players on the team. Former Maryland teammates Crystal Langhorne and Marisa Coleman, have both been regular contributors off the bench. Langhorne has settled in during her second year, averaging 10 points and 8.3 rebounds per game, while improving her free-throw shooting dramatically. Coleman, meanwhile, started the season as hot as she ended her college career, shooting over 50% from the field and 67% from beyond the arc. She injured her left ankle in the Mystics' June 10 victory over Detroit, and has now missed two games, including Washington’s only loss of the season (to Atlanta on June 19). Matee Ajavon is coming off the bench, and has forced Coach Julie Plank to increase her playing time game by game by her solid defense and torrid three-point shooting.
The Mystics have not been overwhelming, but their defense has been a strong, and they lead the conference in steals. Nakia Sanford is workmanlike and adequate in the middle, and Lindsay Harding has been feasting off the scorers, averaging 6.5 assists per contest.
Up this week: Phoenix at home (Tuesday), Chicago away (Sunday).
2. Indiana, 4-2
(June: Losses at Atlanta on the road and to Minnesota at home; wins over Seattle and Los Angeles, both at home, and twice over Detroit, both at home and away)
As we noted last week, Tamika Catchings is in a funk at least, shooting a miserable 25% thus far this season. Is this due to injury? The team has not reported one. Is it just a loss of quickness after several injuries over the last few years? No one is answering the question.
But one of the league’s superstars is anything but, and the Fever have been fortunate to have won four in a row. On the other hand, Catchings has scored 31 of her 65 points from the free throw line (.838) and is still averaging 13 points a game. So is it just poor scouting or is something wrong with the defenses of the Fever's opponents that has Indiana sitting in the number-two spot in the East despite Catchings' limitations? If you force Catchings to shoot, the chance is just one in four that she will tally some points. Foul her, and she will scored 80% of the time. So, keep her out of the lane, force her to the perimeter. Zone her. Don’t let her shoot free throws. (“That’s why they’re called ‘free.’”)
|What's wrong with Fever super-star Tamika Catchings -- and why aren't opposing teams exploiting the weakness more effectively? Catchings, shown here being defended by Detroit Shock's Katie Smith (who is a step slower herself so far this season) during the fourth quarter of Shock-Fever WNBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Sunday, June 21, 2009, has been shooting just 25% from the field this season. Most of Catchings' 13 points per game come at the foul line. |
Katie Douglas is holding this team together, playing like the All-Star she is: 16.6 points at 47% (the best of her career), 39% on threes, and getting to the line for a quarter of her points, and indication that she is more aggressive than ever before. But riddle me this: Who is the best three-point shooter on the Fever? The surprising answer: Ebony Hoffman, at .462 (6-13).
Tammy Sutton-Brown has maintained a consistent nine points and six boards, pretty much her career numbers. Then there is the bench, or rather six players filling seats. Shay Murphy leads this group with a .333 shooting percentage; no one else manages even .300. The entire group manages 13 points a game, six of them from Briann January, who shoots just .286, but scores a few points from the line each game.
Up this week: At New York (Friday), New York at home (Saturday).
3. Chicago, 3-3
(June: Beat Atlanta, Seattle, Connecticut at home; lost to Minnesota, Connecticut, Washington, all on the road)
With Jia Perkins on fire, Sylvia Fowles coming into her own, and nearly everyone hitting threes, Chicago rolled off three in a row, then lost back to back road games, one by missing half their free throws, the other to a great defensive effort by the Sun which shut down the starting lineup. Nonetheless, the Sky seem to have a solid starting five which, absent injury, should keep them in the mix in a relatively competitive East.
Perkins has picked up where she left off last year, averaging 17.2 points, 3.7 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. She is shooting nearly 60% from three-point land (10-18). Her leadership skills are improving, and she should be an All-Star this year. Fowles, whose future was never in doubt, seems to have made that future into the present. She is shooting over 60%, averaging 13 points and 8.3 rebounds a game. Candice Dupree has turned herself into a true three-guard, developing a reliable (6-10) three-point shot for the first time. Oddly, she is missing far too many of her other shots (shooting just .370 from the field), a dramatic change from the past, and reason for concern.
Brooke Wycoff, the first player of the franchise, continues to start and garners 17 minutes a game despite producing just two points and two rebounds a game. On a young team, the 29 year-old Wycoff and 32 year-old Dominique Canty are the “oldsters,” and one of them can be found on the court to provide stability most of each game.
Chicago’s team field-goal percentage is the best in the conference (.460), and the bench in general does not hurt the numbers. Leading the bench is Kristi Toliver, scoring 6.8 points per game in just under 12 minutes per game on the floor. She is also second to Perkins in assists per game despite limited minutes. Why are those minutes limited? It can only be a lack of defensive skills, as she could easily absorb the 14 minutes of KB Sharp and Erin Thorne and improve the offense considerably. And defense has been the problem for Chicago, as opponents have outscored the Sky by nearly seven points a contest.
Up this week: At Atlanta (Tuesday), Washington at home (Saturday).
4. Atlanta, 3-3
(June: Wins over Indiana and Washington at home, Connecticut on the road; losses to Washington and Chicago on the road, and New York at home)
The personnel coup of the year was Atlanta’s signing of Chamique Holdsclaw out of what seemed to be nowhere. The reality, however, is that the move had been in play for almost a year, since Holdsclaw, who now lives in Atlanta, began attending Dream games last season. Coach Marynell Meadors began to chat her up, and the two reached an agreement that ‘Mique would join the team.
Holdsclaw is relaxed, happy, and committed to a leadership role on the young team. She leads the team in scoring, and on this squad is becoming a true wing player, rather than the forward she has always played as. (Even though Holdsclaw was listed as a “three,” in the past, she did not function as a wing, instead playing mostly in the paint.) On this team, with two big posts, Holdsclaw is on the perimeter more often. She is shooting threes with modest success (2-6 on the season), but still has a way to go to be complete the transition to a true wing.
With Sancho Lyttle and Erica DeSouza playing inside, Holdsclaw does not need to rebound as she has in the past. Lyttle has started the season looking like the league’s most improved player: She leads the team with 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds, has been active and athletic in the paint, and is shooting almost 60%. She is complemented by the much more solid and powerful DeSouza, who has made the most of her starting role with 10 points and eight boards a game.
With all that production in the paint, the Dream have not required a lot from the guards, which is just as well: The trio of Nikki Teasley, Coco Miller and Inez Castro-Marquez has not been especially productive. Miller, with the fewest minutes, has actually been the best offensively, shooting 50% from the field and leading the team with 2.8 assists in just over 18 minutes per game. Teasley is the only successful three-point shooter in the backcourt, but she still disappoints as a point guard, with just 2.4 assists in 25 minutes a game. Marquez is a decent defender, but is getting the bulk of the minutes at the two despite a miserable .348 shooting percentage.
The Dream's inside game, however, is second to none, and Atlanta leads the league in rebounding with 39 a game. The vastly improved second-year Dream have won three of six this season. They won a total of just four games all last year, with the first win in game fifteen.
Up this week: Chicago (Tuesday) and Detroit (Friday) at home, Connecticut (Saturday) away.
5. Connecticut, 3-3
(June: Beat Chicago and San Antonio at home, New York on the road; losses to Washington and Atlanta at home, and at Chicago)
Coach Mike Thibault often said last year, “I don’t worry about this team scoring enough points.” This season started as the exception to that rule: Everyone was missing their shots, and the Sun lost a series of close games. To remedy the situation, Thibault signed Keisha Brown, then, this week, grabbed Tan White at the expense of Kristi Cirone, a walk-on rookie and a player he really liked. White scored 13 in her first game, the day after she arrived in Connecticut, and the Sun pounded Chicago, 91-61, on Friday for their first home win, just three days after a tough, 75-78, loss to the Sky.
Even in the loss, however, the Sun had shown some offensive improvement, and the interior defense against Sylvia Fowles and Candice Dupree was outstanding. Things were somewhat upbeat heading into the weekend, even though the team was 2-2 on the week.
The rock of the team thus far has been Ashja Jones, whose seems the paradigm of constant improvement. Her 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds are just slightly better than her career averages, but that’s how Jones does things -- steadily, almost stealthily. She plays so smoothly that, like Maya Moore of that other Connecticut team, it is easy to be shocked that she is once again in double figures. This season, Jones has become a top defender, routinely shutting down the opposing forwards, and at times also taking on, and limiting, the opponant’s center. Her shooting percentage has been down, but was on the rise this week.
Lindsay Whalen leads the team in rebounds (5.8) and assists (5.0 apg), and is second in scoring, with 12.4 points. Her points and shooting percentage are down slightly, and her 25% shooting from three-point range is dismal. The real disappointment has been Erin Phillips, expected by the Sun to be an offensive and defensive star. Phillips is just 5-23 from long range, and just 35% overall. Although Thibault would probably deny it, the signing of White was mostly a reaction to Phillips’ ineffectiveness.
The wings, Kerri Gardin and Barbara Turner have also been timid and poor shooters. Gardin is slightly better, and is an excellent defender, so Turner has shot herself (.233) out of a job when shooter Jakobsone-Zagota arrives around July 1.
Up this week: Atlanta, at home (Saturday).
6. New York, 2-3
(June: Wins over San Antonio at home and over Atlanta on the road; losses to Connecticut at home, and to Phoenix and San Antonio on the road)
The Liberty are shooting .239 as a team from beyond the arc. That is why they have lost three of the last four. Catherine Kraayeveld, Loree Moore, Ashley Battle, Leilani Mitchell, and Erlana Larkins are all shooting below .300 from the field. That is another reason why New York is two-for-five for the season.
The closest the Liberty have to a star is Shemeka Christon, a consistent scorer and excellent defender. Christon has averaged a team high 16.3 points. But the Liberty have won games with balanced scoring in recent years, and that has been seriously absent so far in 2009.
Undersized center Janelle McCarville leads the team in assists with 3.5 a game, and also contributes a 12.8 points and team-leading 6.3 rebounds. Essence Carson also has been a regular contributor with 11.5 points.
What is glaringly obvious? Lousy guard play. The Liberty, desperately in need of a point guard for years, continue to rely on Moore and Mitchell. This is not a recipe for success. They passed up on Ketia Swanier when she was waived by the Sun. Maybe they should consider Kristi Cirone, now without a team. She has to be better than these guys.
And who’s the two-guard? When Kraayveld was making shots, they could pretend that Christon, a natural wing, was the two. But with shooting woes galore, the Liberty stood pat while Connecticut grabbed two shooters, Keisha Brown and Tan White.
Of course, Carol Blazejowski has frequently shown herself to be a poor judge of talent, and slow to change. This season is becoming a testament to that stubbornness. The Liberty did grab a win over San Antonio (playing without Becky Hammon and Vicki Johnson), and the shooting was a little improved. But Christon, Carson and McCarville still contributed sixty percent of the scoring, with little-used Tiffani Jackson kicking in nine and six in relief of Kraayeveld.
With last year’s team underperforming, and Kia Vaughn the only rookie on the squad, the Liberty’s troubles look to continue. Vaughn has a lot of potential, but at a position this team does not need now. Perhaps the Blaze should have looked to trade for a talented guard or two.
Up this week: At Minnesota (Tuesday), Indiana at home (Friday), at Indiana (Saturday).
7. Detroit, 1-4
(June: Win over Los Angeles at home; losses to Los Angeles on the road, Washington and Indiana at home, and to Indiana on the road)
The Shock are in disarray. Katie Smith is shooting .333, can’t hit a three, and is a step slower. Cheryl Ford seems to be a player who will never get healthy. Plenette Pierson played five minutes this season before reinjuring her shoulder in a wrestling match with the Sparks’ Tina Thompson. Alexis Hornbuckle can’t hit a shot (26%). Shavonte Zellous is even worse (24%). Kara Braxton is suspended for six games for a drunk-driving conviction. Bill Lambier abandoned ship last week, ostensibly to pursue NBA coaching options (none apparent on the horizon) but perhaps realizing that this team is aging, and has few prospects who are performing well. (Laimbeer did not leave the team for another job; he just up and left the team after three games.)
The bright spots in a rather bleak picture: Deanna Nolan continues to be one of the premiere players in the league, shooting 41% from the field and from beyond the arc, averaging 16.5 points. Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the grandmother of the league now that Yolanda Griffith’s injury has ended her season (and probably her career), continues to perform (8 ppg, 6 rpg, .517 from the field). And in a huge surprise, undersized center Olayinka Sanni is averaging 11 points, a team-leading 6.8 boards, and shooting fifty percent in 25 minutes of play.
But nobody else on this team is doing anything right. So Detroit finds itself at the bottom of the league. Obviously, the loss of Pierson and Ford has been a major factor in the futility of the Shock this season. Pierson is expected to be out four-to-six more weeks. And while Ford is back, how much can be expected from the forward, who saw her first minutes of action last week? Though her performance was not bad for a debut after this much time off, neither did Ford look to be the savior the Shock so desperately need -- in two games, one at home and one away, against Indiana, she put up seven points and pulled down two boards in 19 minutes in the first, and notched five points and five rebounds in 23 minutes in the second. Ford has not been healthy for years, and the chances of her playing a full schedule are not great.
Although McWilliams-Franklin and Sanni have been decent scorers, neither is a defensive wizard, and the Shock have been vulnerable in the middle. Nolan cannot do it alone.
As for the coaching situation, Rick Mahorn is far too nice a guy to maintain the us-against-them toughness that has become the hallmark of the Shock. The East teams are doing a good enough job of beating up on each other, that the Shock could come back late in the season if the injured players return and perform up to career standards. Right now, however, the old are fading and the young mostly can’t shoot. Detroit is in trouble.
Up this week: At Atlanta (Friday), Sacramento at home (Sunday).