Western Conference team-by-team midseason review: Lynx even more stacked, fourth place tightly contested
|Minnesota Lynx||12||4||0.750||0||9-2||6-2||6-2||7-3||L 1|
|Phoenix Mercury||9||7||0.563||3||8-3||6-2||3-5||6-4||L 2|
|Tulsa Shock||10||8||0.556||3||6-6||6-2||4-6||3-7||L 4|
|San Antonio Stars||5||12||0.294||7.5||4-7||5-3||0-9||4-6||W 1|
|Seattle Storm||5||13||0.278||8||4-9||4-5||1-8||3-7||L 1|
|Los Angeles Sparks||3||13||0.188||9||3-7||3-6||0-7||3-7||L 1|
The All-Star game is the half way point for the WNBA season, so this seems like a good time to look at the first half of the season, and consider the prospects for the second half of the season. In our first part, we looked at the Eastern conference. Today it is time to look at the West.
The Minnesota Lynx opened up a three-game lead on their closest Western division foes, Phoenix and Tulsa, and appears to have strengthened their team even more with the trade for former All-Star and Olympian Sylvia Fowles. This gives them five players with U.S. senior national team experience.
Phoenix and Tulsa have taken opposite paths to the same place. Tulsa came out on fire at the start of the season, before Skylar Diggins went down with a season ending knee injury. Phoenix started slowly with Brittney Griner’s early season suspension, but made up ground upon Griner’s return.
And even though Los Angeles sits at the bottom of the division with a 3-13 record, this week’s return of Candace Parker means the Sparks are not dead yet.
MINNESOTA LYNX (12-4, 1st place)
Maya Moore. Lindsay Whalen. Seimone Augustus. Rebekkah Brunson. Asjha Jones. Now, Sylvia Fowles. The Lynx are a veritable who’s who of USA basketball’s senior national team’s recent successes.
Still, the Lynx are not impenetrable, and injuries are creeping up on the team with alarming frequency. They lost a lot of time from Augustus and Brunson last year, and this year Augustus is out for several weeks, Jones missed games early in the season, and Whalen missed a few games and the All-Star game with an eye injury. Fowles, while obviously rested, has been injury prone in the past, and one has to wonder how quickly a dominating low post presence will fit in with a team used to mobile, high post screen setting posts like Janel McCarville and Taj McWilliams-Franklin.
With the injuries taking so much offense off the court, Moore, last year’s league MVP has been her dominating self, averaging 20.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg, and 3.7 apg, and proved in the All-Star game she can take over a game at any time. She realizes, however, there is a lot of season left.
“We know what it takes,” Moore said at the All-Star game, “It’s just a matter of putting it together and doing it on the court. We’re dealing with injuries right now but it won’t last forever. Until we get our full team back, we will play with the awesome players that we have and continue to try and put wins on the board.”
Those awesome players just got one 6-6 player better.
Keep an eye on: Integrating Fowles into the fold. Will Fowles clog the middle on offense? Will she pass out of double teams to open shooters? Also, while the Lynx starting unit may be as good as any assembled, the bench has talent, but less offensive firepower. Renee Montgomery and Anna Cruz give the backcourt depth, and Devereaux Peters will back up Fowles.
PHOENX MERCURY 9-7, (2nd place, 3 games behind)
“We are still a work in progress,” Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello said recently, “Obviously we had a disruptive start to the season. We just have to keep getting better and better.”
Disruptive is an understatement.
Diana Taurasi elected to sit out the season; Penny Taylor followed suit. Brittney Griner earned a seven-game suspension to start the season.
Don’t feel sorry for Phoenix though; Griner is now back, and both Candice Dupree (14.5 ppg) and DeWanna Bonner (16.9 ppg) are having All-Star seasons.
Still, it is Griner that makes the Mercury a championship contender. Averaging 17.4 ppg, 7.8 rpb, and 4.0 bpg, and the Mercury are 6-3 since she returned. Griner is focused and has her eye on home court advantage for the playoffs.
“Home court advantage is everything,” Griner said at the All-Star game, “Being at home, playng in front of the home crowd, sleeping in your own bed. You will make runs and that crowd will give you the extra motivation you need.”
Veterans Leilani Mitchel and Monique Currie, picked up in the offseason, help ease the loss of Taurasi and Taylor somewhat, but it is the Griner-Dupree-Bonner frontline that needs to produce for the Mercury to continue to hold second place and get that home court advantage.
Keep an eye on: The schedule; Phoenix plays Minnesota and Tulsa three more times; these games could determine the playoff seeds in the west.
TULSA SHOCK (10-8, 3rd place, three games behind)
Much credit needs to go to coach Fred Williams and the Tulsa Shock, sitting in third place in what is a crazy season for the team.
After two losses to start the season, the Shock won seven straight games to jump to the top of the West. In that last win, though, Skylar Diggins went down with a torn ACL. Diggins was playing at an MVP level, carrying the Shock to that record while backcourt mate Odyssey Sims missed several games due to injury.
After the injury to Diggins and despite Sims’ return plus All-Star performances by Riquana Williams (14.7 ppg) and Plenette Pierson, the Shock have dropped four in a row and seven of the last nine.
The first games after the break are crucial for the Shock; they play Phoenix twice, Minnesota, and Los Angeles to start, and if they cannot pick up a few wins there, the team could be facing pressure from below, not above in the standings.
Keep an eye on: Where will the offense come from without Diggins? Sims and Williams combine for around 28 ppg, but both are shooting a paltry 35 percent from the floor. Can Pierson continue to play at such a high level? Will second overall draft pick Amanda Zahui B. get more of an opportunity in the second half of the season? To date she is playing less than ten minutes per game.
SAN ANTONIO STARS (5-12, 4th place, 7.5 games behind)
The West drops off considerably in overall record after Tulsa, but four teams do make the playoffs and the last spot is wide open.
The Stars improved as the season went on, earning their five wins over their last eleven games, a shade below .500. Kayla McBride and Danielle Robinson both earned spots in the All-Star game, where McBride thrived, scoring 18 points for the West. Forward Sophia Young-Malcolm is returning to the forward she was prior to injury, and is second behind McBride in scoring.
Dearica Hamby may be the Rookie of the Year in the WNBA this season, scoring 8.5 ppg. Hamby has played center a great deal, as injuries and conditioning limited Jayne Appel and Danielle Adams in the first half.
The bench is not deep, and even though Coach Dan Hughes plays his subs a great deal, there is a considerable drop off when he makes a lot of subs.
The Stars added 6-0 French forward Valeriane Ayayi and waived guard Kalana Greene during the break.
Keep an eye on: Is that late run by the Stars a sign of things to come, or a fluke? San Antonio leads Seattle by only half a game, and Los Angeles by a game and a half. They need to play like they did in their final games of the first half to hold off the challenges. Will Ayayi fit in with the team and earn playing time?
SEATTLE STORM (5-13, 5TH place, 8 games behind)
Like Connecticut in the East, the Storm are fighting for a playoff spot ahead of schedule. Trades in the off-season took away most of the veterans with the exception of point guard Sue Bird, and post Crystal Langhorne, but yielded two top draft picks, Jewell Loyd and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Both were brought along slowly, and Loyd now is in the starting lineup, averaging 9.4 ppg. Mosqueda-Lewis has not broken through for significant time yet, but according to Bird she is improving daily.
“She’s really been quite impressive,” Bird said. “She comes to work like a professional, plays hard in practice. She’s a talkative, active teammate. She’s ready for the time she will be called on. That’s how a career can be made.”
Monica Wright, injured now, came from Minnesota for Montgomery, and will be a big part of the team’s future as well. In addition, Japanese first-year player Ramu Tokashiki is exciting.
It is the veteran Bird that is an extension of coach Jenny Boucek, a leader on the court, and in the community that keeps the Storm Crazies going during the rebuild though. Bird is a nine-time All-Star now, and started in Diggins’ absence.
Keep an eye on: The rebuild continuing in the second half of the season. Would a playoff spot be good for the team, or a lottery pick? They are on the cusp of either, so it will be interesting to see which direction the season goes.
LOS ANGELES SPARKS (3-13, 6TH place, 9 games behind)
Who would think that the team with the worst record in the league could be one of the teams to watch in the second half of the WNBA season? That most certainly is the case with the Los Angeles Sparks.
When they take the court this week, the Sparks most likely will be led by Candace Parker, the former WNBA MVP, making her season debut. Adding a player with the ability of Parker is better than virtually any trade the team could make!
Finally, the Sparks are close to having their complete team together. Alana Beard and Farhiya Abdi are still with injuries, but Kristi Toliver completed her overseas play and is with the team, as is Ana Dabovic, who shined in EuroBasket. Erin Phillips is over her nagging injury. Rookie Crystal Bradford is healthy and signed, playing in the last game before the break.
The All-Star combination of Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender averaged 16.6 ppg and 14.9 ppg, respectively, while both averaged over nine rebounds per game.
Lavender realizes the Sparks need to start winning games, and need to do so fast.
“We need a turnaround,” Lavender said, “We need to start winning games and come together now. I feel like we’ve learned, we had our adversity and now it’s time to play like we know how to play.”
How will Parker fit into the systems of offense and defense veteran first-year coach Brian Agler has been working on with his team? How much rust does Parker have after not playing since the winter? How do Ogwumike and Lavender handle giving up touches for Parker?
Keep an eye on: Did they dig themselves too far a hole, or will the Sparks be able to roar back and make the playoffs. The Sparks and Lynx play each other three times before August 9. Fans will find out pretty quickly if the Sparks are ready to make a run or not.