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Wed, 23 Jun 2010 01:19 PM EDT

The WNBA season begins with a little change as Sacramento closes its doors and Detroit is moved to Tulsa and the Western Conference. This is the league’s 14th season with the Phoenix Mercury the defending champions. Teams like Minnesota and Chicago are on the rise, while strongholds like Connecticut and San Antonio look to return to former elite status. Sports bettors that put in the time have profited handsomely by following the WNBA regularly. Here are the season previews of this year’s squads

Atlanta Dream 2010 Preview

At first glance, the Dream presents a unique challenge to accurately predict how their 2010 season will be. While it wouldn’t surprise me if they finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference, conversely, it wouldn’t surprise me if they missed the Playoffs altogether. Though, that will ultimately depend on if the other revamped teams (Liberty, Sun, etc.) find a way to put together a better-than-expected season.

Still, I tend to think the result will be somewhere in the middle for the Atlanta Dream. After all, the 2009 season was such a marked improvement from all other years that you’d have to imagine they would continue to build upon that success. The Dream achieved a WNBA record-tying 14-win improvement from the year prior which earned Marynell Meadors the WNBA Coach of the Year award, solidified Angel McCoughtry as a bona-fide star in the league, and saw the emergence of Erika de Souza as one of (if not the) best center in the WNBA.

Although the Detroit Shock knocked them out of the Playoffs in the first round, it provided the team with an indelible sense of what it takes to compete for a perennial spot amongst the Eastern Conference powerhouses.

Although the Dream didn’t make any spectacular off-season additions in terms of player personnel, their greatest asset could be the change in front office leadership. In August of 2009, the Dream’s previous owner, Ron Terwilliger, informed the WNBA that he would relinquish his position as owner but remain involved as an investor. Enter Kathy Betty. An Atlanta businesswoman, Betty, announced she would buy the Dream from the WNBA and immediately expressed her desire to be one of the more active owners in the league. What does this mean for the Dream? It means growth, advancement, sponsorships, and a renewed sense of stability in the Atlanta area.

In terms of on-court talent, the Dream certainly returns some fantastic players. Two of which, Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza, are early favorites for the Eastern Conference All-Star team. McCoughtry and de Souza give the Dream essentially everything — scoring, defense, a strong post presence, a go-to player, and leadership. Basketball Odds

The Dream’s roster is undeniably loaded with talent, as evidenced by their 84.1 ppg in 2009 which was good for 2nd in the league. Rounding out the team is a nice mix of veterans and youth which include Arminitie Price, Chanel Mokango, Shalee Lehning, Kelly Miller, Coco Miller, and Iziane Castro Marques. Ultimately, the Dream will go as far as Angel McCoughtry and Erika de Souza take them. Both had phenomenal seasons overseas and came in to training camp with high expectations.

You could sense the chemistry the two players started to develop towards the end of the 2009 season which should be exciting for Dream fans everywhere. The supporting players, such as Arminitie Price and Iziane Castro Marques, are versatile enough to provide a scoring boost on a nightly basis to supplement McCoughtry and de Souza.

The good news for the Dream is that the majority of teams in the East have added so many new players that it might take a while for their opposition to figure out how to play together. The Sun virtually have an entirely new team altogether, the Liberty added two stars to the mix in Cappie Pondexter and Nicole Powell, and the Sky still needs to determine how to mesh Sylvia Fowles and Shameka Christon together.

While the competition for a Playoff spot should prove to be extremely fierce as the season winds down, the Dream needs to bank on their experience, chemistry, and confidence early in the season to get started on the right foot. The key word for the Dream is “potential.” They have the pieces, the coach, the talent, and the desire; the only question remains, will it enough to get the Dream in to the Playoffs? Or, better yet, perhaps in to the Eastern Conference Finals?

Indiana Fever 2010 Preview

I live in Minnesota and cover the Lynx. But the easiest of my four previews is that of the Indiana Fever.

This team is the reigning Eastern Conference champions, coming up on the losing end of what was arguably the greatest Finals in the WNBA’s history. As the teams exchanged blows throughout the seriesthe Fever showed the heart of a champion and their fans should be excited for another long run into the Playoffs in the summer of 2010.

Essentially returning the same team with only a few changes, most notably first round pick Jen’e Morris, the Fever have both the experience and chemistry to achieve their championship goal. Of course, the biggest concern heading into the season is that many of their key players, including four starters, missed training camp as they finished their seasons overseas. But players such as Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas, Tammy Sutton-Brown and Ebony Hoffman are veterans who know each other’s games and are more than capable of picking up where they left off quickly.

Even if things start slowly when everyone is back in the mix, the Fever are more than capable of staying focused and turning things around. In the summer of 2009, the team started the season off with a 3-7 record, eventually turning it around and finishing with a 22-12 record by season’s end. Do not expect another slow start this summer – this team is too focused, too committed and too good to repeat that unfortunate start.

During their season, one of the things to watch closely will be the play of rookie Jen’e Morris, as well as returning players Briann January and Shay Murphy. Although somewhat limited in the pre-season, Morris has shown flashes of what should be a fine WNBA career and has the luxury of learning from a wonderful group of grounded, solid veterans. January (look for her Fan Interview piece soon on SLAMonline) continues her own development and is looking to make the next step, eventually replacing Tully Bevilaqua when she decides it is time to hang up her sneakers. Murphy had a great pre-season and should become a bigger presence for the team off the bench, allowing the veterans more rest and the opportunity and develop a deeper bench. In the end, the Fever is ready for another outstanding season this summer. Barring injuries Indiana should make another run at the WNBA Finals.

Tulsa Shock 2010 Preview

Yes, the Shock relocated from Detroit to Tulsa, but there is very little “Detroit” that carried over in the transition. The Shock resembles more of an expansion team than a relocated team. Even so, there is a palpable feeling that comes with a new coach, new players, new fans, and a new city — a strong belief in each other.

When Nolan Richardson was announced as head coach, the former Arkansas Razorback brought with him an unmistakable winning pedigree that the Shock desperately needed. In Richardson’s system, you are only as good as your weakest link. His up-tempo style of play needs a certain buy-in from every player during every minute of every game. He’ll have his team in shape, fundamentally sound, and ready to exemplify the meaning of “40 Minutes of Hell.”

It might sound cheesy, but the closest thing I can think of to describe Richardson’s system is the ancient Greek military formation known as the phalanx. In that philosophy, soldiers protected the respective soldier next to them and so on and so forth down the line. Thus, if there is a hole in the formation, the entire squadron falls apart. In Richardson’s system, the defense puts so much pressure on the offense that if a defender gets beat, it is not just necessary but vital that the help defense collapses on the driving offensive player. Rotations must be crisp. The weak-side has to be in your peripheral vision at all times. A rebound-by-committee mentality is mandatory.

But, in order to implement such as system, you need the right players. The Shock added 10 new players to their roster so far and the majority of them are known for their work ethic, a team-first mentality, or simply wanting an opportunity to breakthrough in the league and showcase their skills (i.e. Shanna Crossley). Along with Crossley the Shock has added Chante Black, Amber Holt, Ivory Latta, Scholanda Robinson, Christi Thomas, Amanda Thompson, Iciss Tillis, and Marion Jones. The common link between all of them is they are willing to work hard and be coached — something not all professional athletes are willing to do. Perhaps more importantly, the willingness to be “coached” is a must for anyone playing for Nolan Richardson.

In the group of returning players from their Detroit days (there are only 5), Shavonte Zellous will be looked at to be the Shock’s main scoring threat. She had a phenomenal season as a rookie while playing second-fiddle to Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan averaging 12 ppg in just over 20 minutes of action each night. With Zellous, the Shock have an open opportunity for emerging players such as Shanna Crossley, Kara Braxton, Plenette Pierson, Scholanda Robinson, and Marion Jones to display what they can do on the court.

Jones has been a hot-button topic for not just WNBA fans, but sports fans across the globe. Some are frustrated that her spot on the roster didn’t go to a player who has previously been in the league while others are excited to see what Jones can do in the WNBA. I, for one, applaud her desire to compete at such a high level again and am thrilled that she has been given another chance. Make no mistake about it; if she wasn’t a good player, she wouldn’t have been given this opportunity. In her first pre-season game against the Seattle Storm, Jones saw about 12 minutes of action and produced 4 points (2-5 shooting), 2 steals, and 3 rebounds — not bad at all.

All optimism aside, it will be extremely difficult and improbable for the Shock (in their first year in Tulsa) to beat out the other five Western Conference powers for a Playoff spot. The Mercury, Storm, Sparks, and Lynx are simply too talented. Still, I don’t think the Shock is expecting to do so. After all, they basically are an expansion team and will be searching for their identity and niche in the league. Yet, in spite of all the constant change and turmoil that will inevitably face the Shock in 2010, I honestly believe they’ll be one of the most fun teams to watch in the league.

Chicago Sky 2010 Preview

Over the off-season, one of the biggest stories involved the three-way trade between New York, Phoenix and Chicago. Yet, as the media focused on Candice Dupree joining the reigning champions and Cappie Pondexter making her way to New York, Chicago’s additions went under the radar. Everywhere WNBA fans discuss their favorite league; you found links to every article written on Pondexter’s arrival in New York or a link to every photoshopped picture of Dupree in her new Phoenix uniform. It is understandable, but it was interesting that Chicago’s overnight improvement went unnoticed as a whole.

Although it was difficult to let Dupree go to Phoenix, the Sky became a much better team by simple math. Adding both Shameka Christon and Catherine Kraayeveld was a stroke of genius for Steven Keys team and, on paper, made the Sky a Playoff team. Christon, a fan favorite in New York and an All-Star is one of the WNBA players who most flies under the radar. That won’t be the case in Chicago. Kraayeveld is a fine player and her value to her new team is immeasurable, as she goes about her job quietly, not looking for media attention. Now, as is the case with all WNBA teams, health becomes one of the biggest issues.

Any discussion of health on the Chicago Sky begins and ends with Sylvia Fowles, who has only played 41 games through her first two years in the league. If Fowles is able to remain on the court, there are not many in the league–let alone the Eastern Conference–who can match up with her in the post. Although those who follow the WNBA know Fowles well, it is time for the Sky to find a way to keep her on the floor so her level of dominance can catapult the team into a Playoff berth. Only when that happens will casualfans truly notice the dominance and greatness of “Big Syl.” If the injury bug attacks Fowles again, the Chicago post rotation gets sketchy, but after a fine season overseas, this just may be the year for her to shine all season.

Another issue that may plague the Sky throughout the season is whether or not second year player, Kristi Toliver, will accept her role on the team. At this point, Toliver remains a backup point guard, but has stated in the past she should be a starter. Unless she dramatically improved while overseas, she must accept her spot and become an asset off the pine for Chicago. If she is able to do so, the Sky has another fine weapon at their disposal. As a great player in college, one can only hope she is able to complete the transition to a team player, willing to accept a smaller role for the greater good of the team.

This team has always had talented pieces, but also missing a piece or two. The team had little leadership on and off the court throughout their history, but addressed that glaring issue by bringing in Christon and Kraayeveld. Both players are under-appreciated around the league, but are also consummate professionals and, quite simply, what this team has lacked in the past. Although Chicago may not have the pieces to compete with the Indiana Fever, the reigning Eastern Conference champions, or the beasts out West, this season should be the first step in the turnaround of the team’s fortunes.

The summer of 2010 is a big season for head coach Steven Key. Fans have seemingly been on his case since taking over in Chicago as the team failed to make the Playoffs. In a somewhat weak Eastern Conference, the Sky have all the pieces to grab a Playoff spot. If they do not find the right chemistry and falter again, he just may be on his way out of town. Quite simply, there are no more excuses. This team must take the next step this summer.

Los Angeles Sparks Preview 2010

The Los Angeles Sparks find themselves in a great situation this summer. That may seem an odd statement after the retirement of WNBA legend Lisa Leslie, but the fact remains that the Sparks are starting the process of rebuilding and it is going to start off perfectly.

The first step in any rebuilding process is to find the player you are going to build your team around and the Sparks already had that player in Candace Parker. If the team wasn’t already hers, it is officially now.
Parker, who not only is the face of the franchise, but also the entire league, is simply one of the greatest two or three players in the WNBA, so step one was complete before the rebuilding even began.

While the rebuilding or retooling process begins, the Sparks also find themselves in the amazing situation of still having the talent to compete for a championship. After all, they made an amazing run in the second half of last season after Parker returned to the lineup, only to fall short in the Playoffs. Their tired, older legs were unable to keep up with the eventual champion Phoenix Mercury. Yet, with Parker in the lineup from the beginning, the team can begin to find their rotation, keeping those legs fresh for the Playoffs when their experienced players can take over and do what they do best.

Los Angeles also added a few new faces to the mix, most notably new head coach Jennifer Gillom and WNBA legend Ticha Penicheiro. Her addition to the team is great for two reasons, as she will be a wonderful mentor to the young perimeter players like Noelle Quinn and Andrea Riley, but she will also be able to help the team strive for their goal of a championship. With Riley learning about the league from one of the all-time greats, she should be able to learn about the league and how to succeed at a fine pace, eventually taking the reins from Penicheiro once she is ready to hang them up.

The depth of the team’s post players is of concern behind Tina Thompson, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton–who has played well in the pre-season–and Parker. As rosters are not set for opening night, it is difficult to truly determine who will get the nod. But the post players chosen to make the team behind these three will have the same opportunity as Riley: to learn behind Thompson and Parker. Whenever it may be down the line that Thompson decides to retire, the post players will have the opportunity to show they can be the post player to compliment Parker into the future.
Fans of the Sparks might not have visions of competing with Phoenix for the Western crown but Los Angeles is capable of making the playoffs.

Seattle Storm 2010 Preview

In a contracted, balanced league, it’s clear that injuries are going to play a major role in how the season plays out. After all, if there’s not much to choose between Team A and Team B, and Team A loses a cog in the machine, then Team B suddenly has an advantage.

And now to the Seattle Storm, who have already seen part of the plan for success removed from the equation: Loree Moore tore her meniscus and could be out for as much as six weeks. The optimistic timeline is a month, but Moore has had serious knee problems throughout her pro career, and the projected backup point guard could well be hampered all summer.

This is of more than idle concern, because Sue Bird, who also has a history of knee problems, turns 30 in October, and can’t be expected to play 35.5 mpg, as she did last year, much longer. With Moore, an experienced and solid veteran to back her up, Brian Agler could have gotten Bird more rest and set the Storm up for a postseason run. Now, however, starting two guard Tanisha Wright must back up at thepoint, and Australian rookie Alison Lacey will have to be counted on to play a much more major role than expected. And, of course, if either Bird or Wright get injured, then Seattle will be in, so to speak, a world of hurt.

And it’s not as if the Storm is set at every other spot. There’s no true post player in sight, and the fact that Seattle is making encouraging noises about rookie Devanei Hampton (who also has a history of knee problems) is indication enough that there’s really not much muscle in the paint. A healthy Hampton would be a decent rookie, but the Storm need much more than that to take full advantage of the time left to Bird and Lauren Jackson.

Ah, Lauren Jackson, the 29-year-old who many feel is the best player in the world. She too is fragile, and last played all 34 games in 2005. She was out there for 26 games last season, and 21 in 2008, and so keeping her on the court is a high priority for Agler. That said if Jackson has to play center and bang around in the paint rather than play power forward and avoid some pounding, her chances of playing more games than last year aren’t going to get any better.

There is good news on the wing, however, where Swin Cash seems fully recovered from her back problems. She had her best season since 2004, but she does turn 31 in the fall, so it’s not as if she’s in the prime of her career either (statistical studies have pretty much identified age 27 as the most likely age for a peak performance). Basketball Spreads

Camille Little, stolen from Atlanta, has emerged as a solid if undersized power forward, so she’s fine up front – though the Storm would be much better if she were the third member of the post rotation instead of the starter.

And speaking of undersized forwards, Ashley Walker could be primed for a breakout season after being hurt (sense a theme here?) most of her rookie year. The biggest improvement usually comes between seasons one and two, and it would help if Walker can absorb 15 minutes a night in the post rotation.

After that? Well, perennial disappointment Svetlana Abrosimova will take a shot at backing up Cash, and Le’Coe Willingham will try to reprise her role as a surprisingly effective 6-0 post – but the Storm are a much more traditional team than Phoenix, where Willingham thrived last season, and it’s unclear whether she’ll be able to be as effective for Agler.

The bright side, though, is that if the Storm rotation suffers no more injury assaults, then the combination of Bird, Jackson and Cash is good enough to win a lot of games – and if Little improves, Wright holds steady and Willingham, Walker and Abrosimova add value, Seattle will be a very difficult team to beat. After all, there’s no pair of players as good as Bird and Jackson in the West, or in the league for that matter, and if they’re out there for 30+ minutes in postseason, the Storm don’t need too much else.

Seattle has injuries they might have to contend with be it Cash’s balky back or Walker’s knee. In the end “Games Played” will ultimately determine if the Storm are a league force or an also ran depending on availability of its star players.

Connecticut Sun 2010 Preview

Naturally, Mike Thibault is optimistic – not only is it wired into the DNA of coaches and players to think happy thoughts at the start of any season, but it’s also his job. After all, if the coach doesn’t believe in his team, neither will anyone else (including the players).

But that said, it’s hard to see this team as being one of Thibault’s better ones, despite his positive spin in the WNBA teleconference Friday. To begin with, the Sun will start without three key players who are still in Europe, and could find themselves stumbling out of the gate. And since games in May count as much as games in August, a strong finish in the competitive East may not be able to make up for a slow start.

More important, though, is that the Sun just don’t appear to be that good. Thibault was forced to send Lindsay Whalen to Minnesota, and in return got second-year point guard Renee Montgomery, whose primary virtue is a nice three-point percentage. Unfortunately, that virtue is more sought after among shooting guards, but even shooting guards are expected to have better than a 1.1 A/TO. Montgomery, in fact, had only six more assists than turnovers in 764 minutes, which is not what anyone wants from a point guard, especially at the WNBA level.

Kara Lawson is also a better shooter than a passer, but she did have by far her best A/TO season in 2009. Lawson, though, is a battered 29, as she has to play all-out every night to overcome a relative lack of athleticism. She missed seven games in Sacramento last year, and her practice time was severely limited – but if she’s healthy expect her to do more ballhandling than Montgomery.

Still, that’s two small guards on the perimeter, neither known for defense, and with another shoot-first wing, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, penciled in the starting lineup, Connecticut is going to need a strong interior defense to make the Playoffs. That should start with 6-4 Sandrine Gruda, who like Jekabsone-Zogota is not yet in America – but she needs to stay out of foul trouble, rebound more consistently and make her free throws (55.8 percent).

Asjha Jones will score, but she turns 30 in August and missed 11 games last year with injuries. She’s also not much of a rebounder for a power forward, but when healthy, she does pretty much everything else but shoot threes. Also in the post mix is the underrated DeMya Walker, who can defend and score inside – but she’s 33 and her medical charts take up an entire file cabinet. In her ten years, she’s played all 34 games just three times, and she totaled 12 in 2007 and 2008.

Of course, there’s rookie Tina Charles, the number one overall pick in the draft, but it’s asking a lot to expect her to step right in and contribute while waiting for Jones and Gruda. Another rookie who will get her chance early will be Allison Hightower, who could turn out to be one of the steals of the draft. The 5-10 guard can actually be expected to make a bigger contribution than No. 3 pick Kelsey Griffin, who doesn’t really have a position – she was a four in college, but is expected to transition to the three despite having no outside shot. But, like the other rookies, she’ll get her opportunities early and maybe prove she did deserve to be picked third.

Of course it’s possible that Connecticut will put the pieces together: Montgomery will emerge as an elite point guard; Tan White and Hightower will rise to the occasion; and Griffin will, along with Charles, Gruda, Walker and Jones, give the Sun an imposing front line. But there are too many questions in Uncasville this year, and the contracted WNBA is too tough, so the Sun look like lottery fodder – which means that Thibault most likely gave up his chance at Maya Moore by trading his 2011 first-round pick in the off-season. Now it’s up to the Connecticut players to justify the coach enthusiasm and be a factor in the East.

Washington Mystics 2010 Preview

It has been my philosophy of life that difficulties vanish when faced boldly.” — Isaac Asimov

After the 2009 season concluded, Alana Beard was on a mission.
I remember talking to her just a few months ago in January and was taken aback by the sheer amount of dedication she had to improving her game. She was in the gym in the (very) early hours of the morning and wouldn’t leave until after lunch. Beard had specific areas of her game she knew she needed to work on, and with her unrivaled work ethic, you just knew that her perceived “weaknesses” were soon to be added to her never-ending list of strengths.

That all changed in mid-April when the Mystics announced Beard would miss the entire 2010 season with an ankle injury.

I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention that when I heard the news, I groaned and shook my head in disbelief. You hate to hear of any type of injury to any player, but this one really was both devastating and unfortunate.

I picked the Mystics to be a legitimate contender along with the Indiana Fever for the Eastern Conference Championship. I believe they had that good of a team and made all the necessary additions to fortify both their backcourt and frontcourt.

With Beard out, the question now becomes, will the adversity be enough to motivate the Mystics into a Playoff spot? Sometimes, all it takes for a team to rise above the doubters and naysayers is a profound belief in the collective unit. Make no mistake about it; losing Beard is the equivalent of the Lakers losing Kobe Bryant, the Cavaliers losing LeBron, or the Phoenix Mercury losing Taurasi — she’s irreplaceable. What you can do, however, is use the untimely news as a rallying point for the entire team.

The addition of Katie Smith in the off-season immediately became that much more invaluable upon learning the news of Beard’s injury. As mentioned above, Beard cannot be replaced but having a proven veteran in Katie Smith certainly can’t hurt. Smith was originally brought in to be Beard’s counterpart and to boost the team’s overall savvy and depth. Now, she’ll be relied upon heavily on both ends of the floor.

The good news is that Smith appears to be fully healthy for the first time in a long while. She said several times during her official Mystics press conference that she feels no pain in her back; something that has been a major hindrance to her production in years past. Smith had almost a full year of recovery to strengthen her core and improve her mobility and came into training camp in her best shape in years.

Still, let’s not forget the Mystics are an incredibly talented team along with Beard and Smith. GM Angela Taylor and coach Julie Plank have put together a solid mix of veterans and youth that, if they play to their potential, could propel them into what many are saying is an unlikely Playoff berth.

That means Marissa Coleman, Matee Ajavon, Lindsey Harding, and Crystal Langhorne will need to increase their productivity from years past. Langhorne, the 2009 Most Improved Player, has upped her averages nearly every year in the league and she’ll undoubtedly have an opportunity to improve both her scoring and rebounding output in 2010. Marissa Coleman, who trained religiously with Beard in the off-season, has received rave reviews in training camp thus far and is poised for a breakout year. The Mystics also have high hopes in rookie Jacinta Monroe to help Langhorne in the post. Monroe is versatile enough to stay mobile in the paint both offensively and defensively, but her role will most likely be solidifying the Mystics interior defense.

For the optimists out there, perhaps what benefits the Mystics most is that the Eastern Conference is as unpredictable as it has ever been. The team with the least amount of question marks is the Indiana Fever and they are missing several starters who are still playing in Turkey. As far as the other teams in the East are concerned, the Liberty will be integrating several new pieces into their squad, the Dream could still be inconsistent, and the Sun has a lot of talent but also a lot of inexperience.

Of the six teams in the Eastern Conference, only four will make the Playoffs. For the Mystics, they could look at the loss of Alana Beard in one of two ways:

1. Give up, and don’t expect much of the season at all.
2. Use the adversity to rally the team into a Playoff berth.

As long as Angela Taylor and Julie Plank are at the helm, something tells me they haven’t even considered the former.

San Antonio Silver Swords 2010 Preview

There was a moment at the Alamo when it became clear Santa Anna was going to win – and those adobe walls were going to come tumbling down.

The situation for the San Antonio Silver Stars isn’t quite that serious, but it sure looks like this particular battle- the summer of 2010 – is going to be a losing one. There’s only one premier player in the prime of her career (Sophia Young), and that’s for a team coming off a 15-19 year. On top of that, coach Dan Hughes finally had enough of battling officials and stomping up and down the sidelines, leaving San Antonio in the hands of WNBA rookie head co-coaches Sandy Brondello and Olaf Lange.

But let’s start with the positive: Sophia Young is simply one of the best players in the world. Last year, she averaged 18.2 ppg on 45.4 percent shooting, added 6.5 rpg, 1.6 apg and 1.3 apg. In the last two seasons, she’s added a three-point threat to her game – granted, she’s not brilliant from beyond the arc, but she has to be guarded there, and that opens up the floor for the rest of her game. Young has just gotten better and better in her four-year career, and at 26, there’s no reason to expect that improvement to stop.

If Becky Hammon were 26 instead of 33, that pair might be enough to throw a scare into the WNBA West, but the crafty Hammon simply can’t be expected to get 19.5 ppg and shoot 44.7 percent every season. She’s a very good passer too, but her turnovers and defense can be a problem. With more perimeter help, those issues could be dealt with, but the Silver Stars’ roster simply doesn’t have much to offer.

Helen Darling, who will be 32 in August, shot an incredibly awful 24.8 percent shooting last season (coming off 26.8 percent in 2008) and even a 2.5 A/TO can’t offset that dismal percentage. And with her quickness fading, Darling isn’t a good defender any more, but still, she started 13 games last year. Edwige Lawson-Wade started 12 games, and had her best WNBA season in four tries, but 5.2 ppg in 17.7 mpg isn’t going to take much heat off Hammon. And Lawson-Wade, like Hammon and Darling, is small (5-6) and in her 30s (31).

Belinda Snell is at least taller (5-11) and younger (29), but there’s a reason she’s been referred to as Belinda Snail. Yes, she’s supposed to be a shooter (though career numbers of 35.1 percent and 31.3 percent from three suggest otherwise), but she can’t really defend and doesn’t rebound well for her size.

The best bet is probably Roneeka Hodges, who had a fine year for Minnesota last summer, but her skill set duplicates Hammon’s to a great extent. Still, she’s a better call than Darling or Lawson-Wade, though she’s no threat to make the All-Star roster.

Sadly, the perimeter game is in better hands than the post game. San Antonio was happy to watch Jayne Appel fall to number four in the April draft, but Appel will need time to recover from her injuries, as well as adjust to the WNBA. In the long run, she should be a more than serviceable center, and as a healthy rookie, will eventually supply more interior presence than the 6-5, contact-averse, Ruth Riley (26 free throws in 31 games (650 minutes) last year). Riley is a decent shooter and rebounds well for a small forward, but Lange and Brondello will need more physicality from her than her history provides if the Silver Stars are to make the Playoffs.

Veteran Michelle Snow could conceivably step into the gap, but she managed just 5.4 ppg and 4.3 rpg for the Dream last season, and the 30-year-old’s best season was back in the mists of time (OK, it was 2005 for Houston).

Perhaps the most intriguing frontcourt player is second-year Megan Frazee, one of a set of triplets who won a lot of games at Liberty (the college, not the Blazejowski-guided train wreck). Frazee is a strong 6-3 who can shoot from beyond the arc and got to the free-throw line 39 times in 326 minutes (compare to Riley). She’s also a good rebounder, and could wind up playing a pivotal role for San Antonio all summer long.
And that’s pretty much it, unless you’re one of the Blue Raider faithful who think Alysha Clark can play in the W. You’ve got the Young star, the older Hammon, the journeywoman Hodges and the potential of Appel and Frazee. Otherwise, it’s fading veterans and rookie coaches trying to hold off the hordes in the West and avoid the lottery. Basketball Lines

It didn’t work out all that well in 1836, and, sadly for one of the more stable franchises in the league, it doesn’t look all that much better 184 years later.

New York Liberty 2010 Preview

It’s simple, really: If Cappie Pondexter can play the point for 30 minutes a game, the Liberty will make the Playoffs.

But if Pondexter finds herself out of position, and is really just a two guard masquerading as a one, then Anne Donovan’s brief term as Liberty coach will not be all that much fun.

Why is Pondexter’s ability to play the point so important? Because otherwise, it’s Leilani Mitchell, and that’s just not going to work for a full season. Mitchell is a smart, small point guard who has an excellent 2.7 career A/TO – but she shot 27 percent from three-point distance last season, took just six free throws in 436 minutes, and, at a generously listed 5-5, struggles at the defensive end. Behind Mitchell are rookies Ashley Houts, who is undersized and underquicked like Mitchell, and Kalana Greene, who had 62 assists and 60 turnovers for Connecticut last season, which are not the kind of numbers future WNBA point guards put up.

With Pondexter finding a way to score and run the show at the one, then the rest of the lineup falls neatly into place. Essence Carson and Nicole Powell are complementary wings, with Carson defending the other team’s top perimeter player and Powell stretching the defense with her three-point shooting ability.

Up front, 24-year-old free agent Taj McWilliams will step in to replace Cathrine Kraayeveld, joining Janel McCarville. Those two are fine scorers, decent rebounders and well, McWilliams used to be a really good defender.

And there’s that defense thing again. Pondexter is going to have to defend the opposition’s quickest guard, with Carson using her length and athleticism to match up with taller scorers. Powell, when motivated, is better than many acknowledge, but McWilliams, who will be 40 in October and is just 6-1, cannot be expected to slow many elite scorers down. McCarville isn’t a great defender either, which means the Liberty will especially vulnerable to big teams. Of course, if Pondexter and Carson can’t stay in front of quick guards, New York will be vulnerable to quick teams as well, which pretty much means they have to outscore everyone.

To do that, the Liberty will need improvement from players like the wonderfully athletic Tiffany Jackson — but she’s 25 now and if she hasn’t figured it out yet, there’s reason to believe she never will. Kia Vaughn is a big body who needs to take a great leap forward in 2010, especially when it comes to the physical aspect of the game. At 6-4, she should be an above-average rebounder, but she’s actually below-average; and as quick and tall as she is, she should get to the line a lot, but she doesn’t (Kristi Toliver, for example, attempted 90 free throws in 386 minutes; Vaughn took 34 in 396 minutes).

Of course, New York could have Tina Charles in the post mix, but Carol Blazejowski, without question the worst general manager in the league, traded the top pick in the draft, which turned out to be Charles, for Sidney Spencer, who averaged 3.0 ppg in 10.3 mpg last year. And Blazejowski has also wasted other draft picks, leaving the Liberty with a thin bench behind a starting five that will be tested on the defensive end every night and quite possibly lacks a point guard who can make things go on offense.

Sure, Pondexter is a great addition, but she cost New York two starters (Shameka Christon and Kraayeveld), and at best, replacing them with Powell and McWilliams is a wash. It could well be that McWilliams is past her sell-by date and will be significant downgrade at the four, and it could be that Pondexter will be sadly miscast as a point guard and needs to be a two. If those two likely scenarios play out, then the Liberty are lottery bound – which of course wouldn’t be a bad thing because it’s hard to imagine even Blazejowski somehow losing the Maya Moore sweepstakes.

But, for the sake of optimism, let’s just say Pondexter is a wonderful one, and McWilliams has a really good year left in the tank. Let’s throw in Jackson growing up, and Vaughn learning to love contact, and now you just might have a team that can get to, and maybe even win, the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

That’s a lot of ifs, though – and it says here that wishes don’t come true, so the Liberty slide into the lottery, the ping-pong balls bounce their way, and Maya Moore is wearing a New York uniform in 2011.

There are worse fates, of course, but for the good of the league, it would be nice to see the Liberty win a lot of games, generate a lot of buzz and sell a lot of tickets. It would be nice if French vanilla ice cream didn’t have any calories, too.

Sports writers Ben York, Stephen Lite and Clay Kallam of wrote these WNBA previews..

Phoenix Mercury 2010 Preview

Could the Phoenix Mercury actually be better than they were in 2009? Not only is it a fair question, it’s highly probable and terrifying for the rest of the WNBA.

How could a team who has won two championships in three years actually become more competitive? How can a franchise, which prides itself on their unrivaled up-tempo style of offense, become a more lethal scoring threat? How does a team, who had an offensive rating of almost 11o, improve on that unbelievable accomplishment?.

It’s certainly rare, but the Phoenix Mercury has managed to do it.

Take a look at their roster – Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree, Tangela Smith, DeWanna Bonner, Ketia Swanier, Temeka Johnson, Sequoia Holmes, Taylor Lilley, Nicole Ohlde, and Brooke Smith – the Mercury has 7-8 legitimate players who can put up 20+ points on any given night.

If you look at what the Mercury’s perceived weaknesses were in 2009, rebounding and defense are probably two of the areas they needed to address. Though, you might as well cross those off the list because rebounding won’t be an issue with Candice Dupree, the league’s 3rd leading rebounder, and a healthy Nicole Ohlde (who I believe will have her best season in the WNBA yet). Along with rebounding, their defense has drastically improved with an increased focus on protecting the paint.

Since I’m based in Phoenix, I’ve been fortunate enough to see quite a few Mercury practices over the past few weeks and can assure you that they will be much better defensively. Coach Corey Gaines main focus is on forcing the opposition into a bad shot along the perimeter. Why? More missed shots mean more rebounds, more rebounds mean more fast breaks, and more fast breaks mean more points.

Obviously, the loss of Cappie Pondexter and Le’coe Willingham immediately impacted the team. But, acquiring Candice Dupree to play alongside Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor could, in fact, lead to a more potent offense and sophisticated defense. Dupree comes to Phoenix eager to play with the Mercury’s talent; in fact, she was the first to arrive for training camp almost a month ago. Dupree brings a tough, gritty, yet smooth presence to Phoenix that will fit in well with Gaines’ offense and solidify their defense. Defenses will have a tough time figuring out what they want to try and contain – do they double Dupree and leave a player open on the perimeter? Or, do they let Dupree, who is one of the most skilled post players in the game, go 1 on 1 in the paint? Gaines has repeatedly told me that his offense is actually built for a scoring player in the 4 spot, and Candice Dupree is as good as it gets.

The Mercury will also benefit from the core of their team having a year under their belts playing with each other.

Perhaps the two players that this will be most advantageous for are Temeka Johnson and Ketia Swanier – the floor generals. Even in training camp, they are more confident, less tentative, and have shown signs of brilliance while facilitating the offense. There’s no longer a lengthy learning curve and that will be invaluable towards the Mercury getting off to a fast start. Having Penny Taylor around at the beginning of the season is also a huge asset to the Mercury. They sorely missed her in 2008 after their championship run the year prior, and her mere presence on the court makes everyone around her better.

Although the Mercury enjoys playing small-ball, they could easily put a lineup on the court that rivals one of the biggest in the league. By putting Tangela Smith or Nicole Ohlde at the 5, Candice Dupree at the 4, DeWanna Bonner at the 3, Penny Taylor at the 2, and maybe even Taurasi as a pseudo point guard would lead to immense match-up problems for their opposition. This is unique because the Mercury have shown to be vulnerable in the paint over the past two years and this increase in size will allow for more ways to score and better ways to defend.Don’t forget about DeWanna Bonner and Tangela Smith; their return to Phoenix brings an enhanced focus on team chemistry and selflessness. Bonner has already shown signs of an improved outside shot and a more aggressive attitude.

With more minutes this year, Bonner could very well be 2nd on the team in scoring. Tangela Smith, the consummate professional, will do whatever is asked of her on a nightly basis. An interesting note – if she plays 30 games this year she becomes the WNBA’s all-time leader in games played.

All this and I’ve barely touched on Diana Taurasi. Is there any doubt she is the best women’s basketball player on the planet? Listen to the streak she’s on: 2009 EuroLeague Player of the Year, 2009 EuroLeague Guard of the Year, 2009 EuroLeague Champions, 2009 WNBA scoring leader, 2009 WNBA All-Star, 2009 WNBA MVP, 2009 WNBA Champion, 2009 WNBA Finals MVP, 2010 EuroLeague Player of the Year, and 2010 EuroLeague Guard of the Year. Are you kidding me?! Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if, statistically, 2010 was her best year yet. Mark her down for the WNBA scoring title now.

Maybe what makes the Mercury such a threat is that they are easily the team with the least amount of question marks in the Western Conference. Even though the Lynx have retooled their already talented roster, the Sparks are poised for another playoff berth thanks to Candace Parker, and the Storm have two of the best players in the world in Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, the Mercury have kept their core intact while also bolstering their bench and overall team weaknesses.

The West will still be competitive, but the Mercury match-up extremely well with each team. More importantly, the bond between the players is like nothing I’ve ever seen. They believe in each other, hang out off the court, and genuinely love being around one another..

In short, the 2009 WNBA Champion returns with an even better team. You can bet against the Mercury, but it wouldn’t be wise.

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