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Previewing the 2012 WNBA season: The Eastern Conference

Published on May 14, 2012

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Atlanta | Chicago | Connecticut | Indiana | New York | Washington

Atlanta Dream

Perhaps the team that had the toughest offseason was the defending Eastern Conference champion Atlanta Dream. They lost assistant coach Carol Ross to the head coaching job in Los Angeles. Erika de Souza and Iziane Castro-Marques announced they will stay in Brazil pre-Olympics to train (Castro-Marques remains unsigned), and Alison Bales and Shalee Lehning both retired.

Do not feel all that bad for the Dream though, as Angel McCoughtry is back, as is a healthier Sancho Lyttle. The starting backcourt of Lindsey Harding and Armintie Price is also back, and center Yelena Leuchanka returns as well, and will most likely get Erika’s minutes to start the season.

Ketia Swanier was brought to her hometown of Atlanta to back up Harding, allowing Coco Miller minutes behind Price, and Cathrine Kraayeveld gives the team a nice stretch power forward should Lyttle need a few games off here and there. Tiffany Hayes will also get a chance to crack the rotation as a rookie off the bench.

Keys to Success

Good health and surviving the time without Erika will determine the fate of the Dream. July will be crucial, as all five games they play are on the road, starting with division rival Chicago before heading out west.

McCoughtry is a future Most Valuable Player in the league, with skills that may be unmatched by anyone else. Saying she can do it all is an understatement, but the problem is she sometimes tries to do it all instead of relying on her teammates. She needs to trust the talents of Harding and Lyttle in particular, control some of her negative emotions, and then she will be the best player she can be.

Lyttle needs to stay healthy. When she is healthy, she is an amazing defensive presence and sets the tone for the team. Her performance versus Connecticut in last season’s playoffs was the difference, and that will be needed again this season.

Player to Watch

Armintie Price. An assistant coach at Mississippi this past college season, Price seemed to have almost a direct contact to the thoughts of Ross on the bench. McCoughtry even joked that they spoke in some secret Ole Miss language. With Ross gone, can Price be an effective “coach on the floor” as she was last year. The team trusted her and listened to her. Will that happen again without Ross?

The Pressure is On

Angel McCoughtry. Like it or not, the cameras are always on Angel. Therefore, her successes and her meltdowns are exposed to everyone to see. McCoughtry needs to increase the success, and reduce the meltdowns. She has the ability, but to be the next big thing in the WNBA, she needs to control her emotions when things do not go her way. She needs to understand the crowd and fans love positive emotion, not so much negative emotion. Back to Top

Chicago Sky

Is there a team that goes into this season with more expectations than the Sky? The team finished last season a disappointing 14-20, and, rather than blow up the core of the team, Pokey Chatman has added strong veteran parts to a nucleus she hopes is due to breakout.

The trading of the second overall pick to Seattle for Swin Cash and Le’Coe Willingham may be the best trade since Detroit acquired Katie Smith. The Sky then signed Ticha Penicheiro, the ageless consummate point guard to mentor last year’s top draft pick Courtney Vandersloot, a move that will also solidify Epiphanny Prince as a two guard instead of the point. Finally, they added more championship experience to help Sylvia Fowles rebound, with Ruth Riley coming aboard.

All of these moves are designed to give Fowles the surrounding pieces to allow the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year the help she needs to carry this team not only into the playoffs, but make a deep run.

Keys to Success

Fowles put up ridiculous numbers last year, averaging twenty points, two blocks, and over ten rebounds per game but Prince was the only other player on the team to average over ten points per game. The athletic ability of Fowles may be unmatched at the center position in the league, so it only makes sense for Chatman to get players like Cash and Penicheiro to help push the tempo. That will also help Prince and Vandersloot, who both thrive in the open court.

The moves strengthen the bench considerably, and that will be strength of the team. Penicheiro, Tamera Young, Willingham, Shay Murphy and Riley all have starters’ abilities, and whoever comes off the bench will be a talented player.

Player to Watch

Courtney Vandersloot. Fowles may become the Most Valuable Player in the league, but it is Vandersloot that will have to put her there. In year two of her professional career, she has already commented how the game seems to have slowed down for her, and the tremendous ability that awed USA national team coach Geno Auriemma when she attended one of their camps should emerge. She will not put up numbers like she did at Gonzaga, but on this team, she should not have to.

The Pressure is On

Swin Cash. Cash was brought to this team to teach them how to win, and how to be a playoff team. Along the way, she will be counted on to show the young team how to reach out to the fans, build your team brand, and conduct yourself as a professional, all while giving back to the community. Along the way, she will also go try to win a gold medal in the Olympics. Still, if anyone can handle all of this and succeed, it will be Cash. Back to Top

Connecticut Sun

Many teams would have looked at last year’s accomplishments (tied for the second best record in the league with 21 wins), and thought a tweak here, a tweak there and the team is over the top. With the exception of making a brief run at free agent Tina Thompson, the Connecticut Sun resisted the urge to make changes, and brought back virtually the same team as last year. Head coach Mike Thibault’s hope is that a team that has only three players with more than five years experience will be better just by maturing another year, and staying together.

Keys to Success

Tina Charles emerged as a Most Valuable Player candidate last year, and together with Asjha Jones form an Olympic post combo that is hard to match in the league. Charles will need to build on last year’s success of 17.6 points and 11.0 rebounds per game, and Jones, totally healthy for the first time in several years, will need to return to the All-Star level she played at prior to Charles’ arrival. The signing of Mistie Mims gives the Sun the best backup post they have had since Jones came off the bench. Renee Montgomery showed she can be an All-Star point guard in the WNBA, posting career highs in both points and assists last season, but needs to be consistent in her game management, especially as the Sun try to become more of a running team.

Player to Watch

Kara Lawson appears to be in the best shape of her career, and has played outstanding ball through the first two preseason games. She is a veteran, stabilizing presence, and alongside Montgomery forms a backcourt that will be able to dictate pace while making it difficult for opposing teams to double on the ball.

The Pressure is On

Mike Thibault. He is the longest tenured head coach in the WNBA, but the Sun has not won a playoff game in three years. It was his call to bring in veterans Mistie Mims and Sidney Spencer, and to not take a “useable” first round draft choice this season. He has a team he likes, with talent that needs to be cultivated and pulled out of young players. Will it continue to improve or slide back in a very competitive Eastern Conference? Back to Top

Indiana Fever

The Fever were potentially a Tamika Catchings-injury away from a run to the WNBA championship, so it was difficult for the team to not say “what if?” and try for another run with the same basic team. The team did trade starting power forward Tangela Smith, but gets back point guard Briann January from injury. When healthy, January and Erin Phillips comprised one of the best point guard rotations in the East.

They did not, however, replace Smith another power forward, and that position became even more worrisome when Shyra Ely-Gash injured her knee and was subsequently waived. It appears the Fever will go into the season with Catchings at that spot, which limits her ability to defend the strong wings in the league, or playing two centers together, with Jessica Davenport, Tammy Sutton-Brown, and rookie Sasha Goodlett all candidates for roster spots and playing time.

Keys to Success

Indiana has a bit of a strange roster combination right now, as they begin to transition to some youth while still keeping their veterans. The shooting guard/small forward positions will be held down by a combination of Katie Douglas, Shavonte Zellous, Jeanette Pohlen and possibly Roneeka Hodges. While strong three-point shooting will come from this group, the rebounding and defending of larger players could be a problem.

Catchings, of course, is the unquestioned leader and superstar on this team, and no less than a return to complete health will be a big problem for this team. Catchings, Sutton-Brown and Douglas all have over ten years of experience, and one has to wonder when the trio will slow down. Coach Lin Dunn will have to resist the temptation to play big minutes all season for them, and will have to rely on her bench.

The Fever finalized their roster on Monday, May 14, the first team to do so. La’Tangela Atkinson and Shannon Bobbitt were the last two players waived.

Player to Watch

Jessica Davenport has a breakout season last year, with career highs in every category, especially minutes played. With no true power forward in the rotation, it will fall to Davenport to provide rebounding, interior defense, and to not get into foul trouble. It is crucial she continue to blossom as a player.

The Pressure is On

Briann January. She was off to a strong start before her injury last year, with over eight points and five assists per game. However along with that came over three turnovers per game. She will need to reduce that number considerably and show little to no side effects from her knee injury to run this team effectively. Dunn will not hesitate to give Phillips minutes in place of January instead of alongside her if January is not the answer. Back to Top

New York Liberty

The 2011 New York Liberty made the playoffs and pushed the Indiana Fever to three games before falling. To build on that and advance further will require Cappie Pondexter to continue to be the all-everything guard she has proven to be throughout her career, and continued development by complementary players like Kia Vaughn, Essence Carson and Leilani Mitchell. Veterans Nicole Powell, Kara Braxton and Plenette Pierson need to continue to produce, but there is no doubt this is Pondexter’s team, and they will sink or swim based on her production.

Keys to Success

A quiet but outstanding addition to the Liberty is this offseason with the addition of point guard Kelly Miller. With Mitchell and Miller, the Liberty will have two solid point guards and take some of the ball handling duties off of Pondexter, allowing her to do what she does best, score.

Powell had her second consecutive season of scoring under ten points per game, and she or someone else needs to develop into that other shooter to take heat off of Pondexter as well. Pierson has done the exact opposite of Powell, putting up career highs in points, rebounds, and minutes played since joining the Liberty. Her aggressive style is perfect for the defensive minded John Whisenant, and her health is key to the team making another playoff run.

The center position will be interesting in a division that features Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles and Erika de Souza among its posts. The Liberty will go with the inconsistent Vaughn and Braxton, and surprise first-round choice Kelley Cain. They will need to step up and defend. If DeMya Walker is playing big minutes at center for the Liberty, that will not be a good thing.

Player to Watch

It is hard not to say Pondexter, but Essence Carson is due to have that breakout season predicted by many. Always a tremendous defensive presence, Carson has a new contract, and is coming off an 11 point per game season. Is she the one to become the second scorer instead of Powell? The Liberty will need one of them at least, that is for sure.

The Pressure is On

Kia Vaughn. Greatness was predicted for Vaughn early on, including her presence in USA Basketball’s pool of players for the senior national team. That has not yet translated to on the court production, and it is getting to be the time where she produces consistently or the team moves on. The acquisition of Braxton last season, the drafting of Cain and the signing of Walker cannot be viewed as a ringing endorsement of Vaughn. Back to Top

Washington Mystics

2012 is a season of new players and new hope for the Washington Mystics. Unfortunately, so was 2011. The Mystics may have as many as seven new players on their opening day roster, as they have said goodbye to Alana Beard and the past, and look to bring in young players and veterans with something to prove.

Crystal Langhorne, Monique Currie, and Matee Ajavon are the returnees that will be counted on to drive the team forward. Langhorne is a proven All-WNBA level talent at power forward, and will be the face of the franchise as they try to win back their fans after last year’s poor season. Currie is healthy again, and was playing at an All-Star level prior to injury. Ajavon showed tremendous improvement and the ability to score in bunches with the absence of Beard and Currie last season.

It will be in the hands of the newly acquired veterans if the team is to succeed. Currie commented on the “Dishin & Swishin” podcast on Hoopfeed.com that she really was happy with the improved attitude of the team, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Keys to Success

Trudi Lacey brought in a number of veterans that were deemed expendable by their prior teams: Dominique Canty, Michelle Snow, Ashley Robinson, and Noelle Quinn, most notably. They all have something to prove, and will most likely relish the opportunity to prove their game in Washington.

Jasmine Thomas will need to continue to develop at guard, and rookies Natalie Novosel and LaSondra Barrett both should get opportunities to prove their worth.

The Mystics open the season with three home games and five of their first seven games are at home. The bad news is that for a team that is going to have to come together quickly and win at home, those games includes Minnesota, Connecticut, Chicago, New York and Indiana. Can they get off to a fast start? It will determine the rest of the season.

Player to Watch

Ashley Robinson has played for several teams, but when Lauren Jackson was out last year she really proved to be a valuable contributor for the Storm. She will get the opportunity to anchor the defense of the Mystics this season, and will need to protect the paint from the Eastern Conference’s dominant centers. If the Mystics can hold down the offense of their opponents, they will have a shot to steal some wins.

The Pressure is On

Sheila Johnson. The owner of the Mystics has changed team management, almost turned over the roster twice in two years, and has watched attendance decline. In the fifteenth year of existence, the Mystics face more questions perhaps than they ever have before. She needs to hope her faith in Trudi Lacey as both coach and general manager is rewarded with success on the court. Back to Top


 

Readers Comments (1)

  1. @texs2424 says:

    agree with most of the content in this article. only washington does not have a shot to be eastern conference champs. fever is my pick because of tamika catchings – league's best player. briann january becomes perennial all-star in 2012. indiana has sound but slow big-bodies in post. lack of athleticism at 2 guard and power forward depth also issues.

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