The saying goes in coaching you are hired to be fired.
So it was for Sacramento Monarchs Head Coach Jenny Boucek, relieved of her coaching duties this week after a 3-10 start in her third season at the helm, and replaced by General Manger and former coach John Whisenant. Whisenant certainly has the credentials for the job, with three-plus prior seasons at the helm as head coach and the 2005 WNBA title to his credit. But was Boucek really the cause of Sacramento's malaise and is the change of "quarterbacks" this deep into the season likely to pull the Monarchs, who are at the bottom of the West, out of the doldrums in time to make any real difference in their playoff hopes? Full Court's Bob Corwin takes a look.
The WNBA is a what have you done for me lately league, just like so many other pro operations. If you are not general manager as well as coach, you can be at risk to be the victim of a poor start or an excessively bad patch during a season. The fact that Boucek led the Monarchs to back-to back playoff appearances in her first two seasons became irrelevant when the 2009 campaign appeared to be going south after game 13. Curiously, the axe was lowered shortly after the Monarchs dropped one of its few home games thus far this season -- a game worthy of instant classic status (107-105 on the buzzer) -- to a hot Phoenix Mercury team that currently stands atop the Western Conference. Though they came up short, the Monarchs put on an outstanding display of heart and marksmanship. And the next day its bye-bye Boucek!
To give a little background, I first met this lady from Nashville in 1991, the year before she entered the University of Virginia as a player. I remember telling her that Coach Debbie Ryan was defensively oriented. Her reply was something to the effect of I love defense. That was born out by two team awards as Virginias Defensive Player of the Year not to mention two years of all-ACC honors during Boucek's career with the Cavaliers from 1992-1996. Boucek, who graduated with a degree in sports medicine and sports management, went on to play for the Cleveland Rockers in the WNBA's inaugural 1997 season, playing in Iceland in the off-season, where she took that league's MVP honors for the 1997-1998 season. In 1999 she started coaching as an assistant for the Washington Mystics followed by three years each as an assistant for the defunct Miami Sol and the Seattle Storm, where she helped Anne Donovan lead the Storm to the WNBA title in 2004. She also served as an advance scout for the Seattle Sonics in 2006 until taking over the reins as head coach of the Monarchs from Whisenant that summer.
Unlike many WNBA head coaches, Boucek served her time in the league preparing for a lead position, holding the distinction of being the first to play, assist and head coach in the league.
Now lets take a look at the prosecutors position.
In the Monarchs' official release announcing Boucek's departure, Whisenant had this to say:
I want to thank Jenny for her efforts and contributions over the past two-and-a-half years. ... The team is 3-10 overall; we still have over half the season left and we felt it necessary to make this change. We feel like this is a playoff-caliber team that can compete and to dig ourselves down any further wouldnt be prudent.
Whisenant hand-picked Boucek to take over for him after the 2006 season. He designed the team with a defense first mindset and the team was not defending close to the level it had in the 2005 championship year. For that matter, points allowed per game have risen every year in the regular season since 2005 with the greatest jump being between Whisenants own 2005 and 2006 campaigns.
If there was a legitimate bone to pick with Bouceks performance it was this devolution in defense. Boucek's last two games typified her team's performance extremes during the 2009 season. Against Seattle, the Monarchs defended well giving up just 66 points (but scoring only 55). Three other losses -- to Seattle (61-71) in Sacramento's home opener; at San Antonio (62-62); and at Los Angeles (47-67) were shared this vein of respectable defense but an absence of scoring. In a fourth -- at Chicago (72-74) -- Sacramento played well on both ends but simply came up short. The defensive-minded Whisenant was probably more annoyed by the five losses in which Sacramento gave up 80 or more points -- including the 107 yielded to Phoenix (despite the Monarchs' shooting the lights out themselves) in what proved to be Bouceks farewell.
The Maloof family ownership group has had lots of headaches arising out of lack of on court success -- and not just with the Monarchs. Their NBA Sacramento Kings have been chronic under-achievers in recent years, and the Maloofs have been unable to close an arena deal in Sacramento. Kings' attendance has been down and now the Monarchs' season appeared to be headed down the drain.
Surrounded by a sea of negativity, Whisenant did what so many in his position before him have -- namely, fire the head coach, claiming the team is not playing up to ability. To his credit, he will take the team over himself as he was the architect who put it together. In time, we may be able to judge if he is right that this is a far better team than the one that won only three of thirteen 2009 encounters under Boucek.
Notice the emphasis on the term "may" as opposed to "will." Why? It is no secret that the Monarchs started the season with a string of critical players in banged up or not fully ready condition (Rebekkah Brunson, Kara Lawson, and DeMaya Walker to be specific). Soon thereafter, Ticha Penicheiro was sidelined due to a thumb injury, and though she is back in the line-up, she is not yet 100 percent.
Before their most recent game in Seattle, I had the opportunity to chat briefly with Boucek. She started off by politely pleading with me not to give up on the Monarchs, as she hadnt. She outlined in detail the status of each injury. When I pointed at the defensive shortcomings, she, in measured tone, replied that these injuries hurt the team's defensive rotations as well as their offense. Though she didn't come across as the least bit defensive in the face of criticism, it would be hard to argue with her reasoning.
Then, there's the fact that in the wacky schedule faced by several WNBA teams this season, the Monarchs played eight of their first 12 games on the road. The back half of their season will embrace a disproportionate share of home stands, and one thing Sacramento demonstrated even in its loss of the squeaker against Phoenix is its ability to perform well on their home court.
Thus, even if the Monarchs' fortunes enjoy an uptick now that Whisenant has taken over, it would be hard to say whether he is the cause of the improvement. Maybe the team, finally starting to get healthy now, is ready to start playing some better hoops. Maybe, like most of the teams in the Western Conference this season, the Monarchs fare dramatically better at home than on the road.
Moreover, Whisenant, in his capacity as general manager, must face his fair share of the blame for the Monarchs' poor showing to date. Whisenant made no moves (besides the draft) prior to the season to shore up the team in the face of this probable sub-par strength. Indeed, apart from the acquisition of Nicole Powell from Charlotte in 2005, Whisenant has made very few personnel moves worthy of note.
Besides the injuries, the Monarchs of 2009 were in many ways victims of their own previous success (and of Whisenants stand-pat attitude). The team has been a playoff regular for years and thus hasnt had one of those precious lottery picks that can get you a franchise player. The last true Monarch superstar was Yolanda Griffith who moved on to Seattle after the 2007 season by which time she was already tailing off, showing signs that her great career was approaching its end. Other than the return of Maiga-Ba, Whisenant was either not interested in or unable to attract any significant free agents after he installed Boucek as his successor.
A quick check of rosters comparing 2005 (the Monarchs championship year) with 2009 (as of Bouceks termination) shows Sacramento with the most retained players in the league for that period (seven, if you include Hamchetou Maiga-Ba who left and returned) followed by Detroit with five hold-overs and Seattle with four. Minnesota currently has a completely new roster as compared to 2005. Continuity may prove to be a positive attribute as all three of the teams with four or more retained players have had reasonably high (or better) degrees of on-court success throughout the period. However, there comes a time when change might prove to be more necessary than this GM would appear to think. For at least Sacramento, it could be argued that time for change arrived prior to the start of the 2009 season. Is there a player on currently on the Monarchs' roster truly worthy of All-Star status in the Western Conference this year?
If Whisenant could be accused of excessive loyalty to his core of players and to his assistant coaches whom Boucek inherited, the line was clearly drawn with Boucek outside the circle of safety. It was as if she had been plugged neatly into a wall socket and as neatly removed with the former coach, with the assistants that he had installed prior to Bouceks arrival still in place for him to work with. Sort of "Back to the Future!"
Will the change at the helm make a difference? Frankly, it should be expected the team will react positively. To take nothing away from Jenny Boucek, John Whisenant did win a WNBA title with seven members of the current roster and shake-ups tend, at least in the short term, to get players attention. If the Monarchs go on a tear and make the playoffs, I must give the GM/returned coach credit, though the improvement, as noted above, could equally well be chalked up to an improvement in the health of players now facing the soft end of their season.
Still, this writer feels Jenny Boucek got a raw deal. That is not to say she always made the right substitution or called the time-out on cue. Still, given the circumstances, why couldnt the Monarchs have let Boucek finish the year and then evaluate? The timing seems particularly dubious, and having talked with Whisenant in the past, I cannot believe he took any joy in having made this move.
If you have a chance to speak to Jenny Boucek, you cant help but be impressed by her overall professionalism, articulate expression, knowledge of the game, positive nature, sense of sincerity and real concern for her players as people, as much -- perhaps more so -- than as players. She may be well suited for college coaching where the coach has a greater role in molding the development of young people. Regardless, for now the WNBA has lost another of its better ambassadors. If she was a stock, I would be buying, not selling.