Its dj vu all over again. Seattle takes on Los Angeles in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Just as they did last year, Seattle finished second, two games ahead of Los Angeles. And just as they did last year, Seattle goes into the series without their biggest star, Lauren Jackson -- last year due to ankle surgery and this year nursing two recently discovered stress fractures in her lower spine. I feel like Ive seen this movie before.
Last season the Sparks won the series in three games. The Sparks of 2008 won the first game at home, 77-69. When the series moved to Seattle, the Storm won game two, 74-60, but the Sparks battled back to take game three, 71-64, and advance to the Western Conference finals, where they ultimate lost to San Antonio in three games. Lisa Leslie scored 36 points and grabbed 29 rebounds in the series, while Candace Parker contributed 41 points and 21 boards. Sue Bird led the Storm with 59 points in the series.
But when you scratch beneath the surface, there are some significant differences from last season. Beyond the current core group, the 2008 Storm had two other players with WNBA rings, Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes. This year they are gone, but Los Angeles has picked up a player who also won some championships (four, to be exact) in Tina Thompson.
The two teams split their four head-to-head games this season, but only the last game, won by L.A., 79-75, featured both Parker and Leslie in the Sparks' line-up. Seattle was 20-14 this season, two games better than the Sparks' 18-16 mark. But Los Angeles was without either Parker or Leslie for much of the first half of the season. Since Leslie returned from injury and Parker from maternity leave to reunite the starting lineup in early August, the Sparks have gone 12-6, significantly better than Seattles winning percentage.
And with Jackson out of the picture (complete rest from athletic activity is the primary treatment -- short of surgery -- for rehabbing a spinal stress fracture and Jackson is likely to be for at least this round of the playoffs, and probably much longer), Seattle has done even worse. Seattle was 5-3 without Jackson, but only two of those games were against teams with winning records.
Let's take a look at this year's head-to-head match-ups.
Breakdown by Position
(Note: I have assigned the players to their most commonly played positions, but particularly due to the versatility of Candace Parker, and the flexibility L.A. enjoys in shuffling DeLisha Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson between the two forward positions, the labels are not necessarily normative.)
Center: Lisa Leslie vs. Janell Burse
The Sparks' Lisa Leslie is the greatest womens basketball player ever to play the game. Even at 37 years old, in her last season in the pros, and coming off an injury, Leslie averaged 15.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
For the Storm, Jackson is listed as a power forward, but most often plays the five, especially against L.A. Were Jackson able to play at anything approaching full steam, this position would likely be a wash, or even (in light of Jackson's youth and prodigious talents), a slight advantage to Seattle.
With Jackson out, the Storm will likely turn to Janell Burse. Burse is a solid backup center, but she is no Lauren Jackson. Burse generally plays only 10-15 minutes per game, but due to the injury to Jackson she will be forced to play about 30 minutes. In the six games where she played at least 28 minutes, she averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds. But none of those games were against anyone nearly as good as Leslie.
Advantage: A huge one, to Los Angeles.
Power Forward: DeLisha Milton-Jones vs. Camille Little
L.A.'s DeLisha Milton-Jones is one of the best power forwards in the game, but this was an off year for her. Milton-Jones is a solid defender but her offensive numbers are down a bit from previous years. She averaged only 10.2 points and 4.8 rebounds this season, her third lowest scoring average and second lowest rebounding average in her 11-year career.
Seattle's Camille Little is a four-year veteran out of North Carolina who became a full-time starter for the first time this season. She averaged 10 points and 6.5 rebounds while playing more than 30 minutes per game.
Small Forward: Tina Thompson vs. Swin Cash
L.A.'s Tina Thompson is the second-leading scorer in WNBA history, behind only her teammate Lisa Leslie. She was a part of the original dynasty, the Houston Comets. And for the first time since Cynthia Cooper retired, Thompson is not the primary go-to person when her team needs a basket. Thompson was the only member of the Sparks to start every game this season and she averaged 13 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. But she struggled at times to find her shot, averaging less than 40 percent for only the second time in her career.
Seattle's Swin Cash is an eight-year veteran who had an immediate impact as a rookie with Detroit, averaging over 15 points and six rebounds over her first three seasons. She won a championship with Detroit in 2003. But at the end of her third season she tore the ACL in her left knee, and despite surgery, she has never shown the same explosiveness since. This year, after another surgery, this time on an ailing back, Cash had her best season since the injury, averaging 12.2 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Advantage: A slight one, to Seattle.
Shooting Guard: Candace Parker vs. Tanisha Wright
The Sparks' Candace Parker is the most talented player in the WNBA today. Coming off the birth of her first child this spring, Parker missed the first month before returning to action. She had to play her way into shape and never seemed to get confidence in her shot. For the season she averaged 13.1 points, five points lower than last season, and shot only 21% from behind the arc as compared to 42% last season. She was the league leader in rebounding (9.8) and in double-doubles (15 in just 24 games) and ranks second in the league (among currently active players) in efficiency.
Seattle's Tanisha Wright was one of the most improved players this, her fourth season in the pros. She became a full-time starter for the first time this year. Her scoring average climbed to 12.2 points per game and she also had career highs with 3.9 assists and 3.5 rebounds.
Advantage: A distinct one, to Los Angeles.
Point Guard: Kristi Harrower vs. Sue Bird
L.A. manages its point (by far its weakest position) by committee, and of late, since Kristi Harrower left for several games to attend her grandmother's funeral in Australia, Noelle Quinn has gotten a few starts. But Harrower started for much of the year, so for purposes of comparison, let's call her the starting point guard. Harrower is a journeyman guard who first played in the WNBA in its second season, 1998. In her first five seasons she started only 10 games total. But after taking off 2004 (as she also did in 2000) to prepare for the Olympics, she came back to start every game for Minnesota in 2005. She didnt play in the WNBA for the past three years (though she did play overseas), but this season, the 5-4 Australian came back to join the Sparks. While she started 26 games she only played an average of 17 minutes per game, during which she averaged just 3.1 points and 2.2 assists per game. What she brings to the Sparks are a cool head, good judgment (and clock management -- a problem with several of the other guards), and a firm handle on the basketball. Harrower gave up just 0.87 turnovers per game, giving her an enviable 2.53:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
In Sue Bird, the Storm have one the best point guards in the world today. Her season averages of 12.8 points and a league-leading 5.8 assists per game are slightly above her career averages, but her field-goal (41 percent) and three-point (36 percent) shooting percentages were slightly below. She coughs the ball up on average 2.61 times per game, giving her an impressive 2.2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Though she spent the last few games of the season on the bench, nesting a "sore neck," there is no indication that the injury is serious enough to keep her out of the playoff line-up, or even to significantly diminish her form.
Advantage: A big one, to Seattle.
The easiest way to assess this category is to say that Los Angeles has one and Seattle doesnt. Noelle Quinn started only nine games this season, but she averaged 27 minutes per game. She shot 47 percent from the floor and averaged 8.4 points per game. Shannon Bobbitt also rotates in at the point, averaging a little more than 10 minutes per game. She is not much of a shooter, averaging just 2.2 points per game, and dishes out just 1.4 assists per outing. She can be a pesky and speedy defender, though her diminutive size (5-2) can create mismatches in the opponent's favor. And she has the worst clock management of any in L.A.'s cadre of point guards, regularly dribbling away until the shot clock winds down to (if not beyond) the final seconds.
Shooting guard Betty Lennox started for the Sparks early in the season and averaged 10.2 points per game, but her playing time was cut back later in the season. She is speedy and usually a good defender, but she has trouble hanging on to the basketball, averaging 2.33 turnovers to 1.8 assists and 0.9 steals per game. And at times she can become a bit of a black hole for the basketball. Marie Ferdinand-Harris is also available in the Sparks' backcourt, but sees relatively action (12.1 minutes per game), during which she averaged just 5.4 points and 0.9 assists per game.
Vanessa Hayden is the primary front court reserve, playing 10 minutes and averaging 3.8 points and 2.7 rebounds. Rookie Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton rounds out the reserves for the Sparks; though her minutes have grown of late (6.8 minutes per game), she has averaged only 2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds per game in her limited time on the court.
In contrast, the Storm has only Shannon Johnson who has played significant minutes during the season. The Storm generally used an eight-player rotation, but that included Lauren Jackson and Katie Gearlds. Jackson is definitely out for the series and Gearlds is highly questionable -- cleared to practice only last week, she has yet to return to the floor from her knee injury. When healthy, she averages just 4.1 points per game, but can be reasonably accurate from long-distance where she maintains a 40.4 percent three-point shooting average.
Johnson played 18 minutes per game and averaged just four points and 1.8 assists per game. Back-up centers Ashley Robinson (167) and Suzy Batkovic-Brown (147) were the only other players who played even 100 minutes for the entire season. Neither was productive, Robinson averaging just a negligible 0.5 points and 0.9 boards per game, and Batkovic-Brown doing little better with just 2.4 points and puling down 1.5 boards per game per outing.
First-round draft pick Ashley Walker saw little action (toe injury); she put up just 1.8 points and hauled down 1.8 boards in the 13 games in which she managed to find her way onto the floor. Late-season pickups LaTangela Atkinson and AQuonesia Franklin may also be available, but they are unknown quantities. The pair have played in only two games for the Storm. Atkinson managed just 2.5 points per game, despite spending, on average, 23 minutes on the floor in those games, and Franklin, a guard, wasn't able to score at all, passing out only .5 assists in her 10 minutes per game.
Advantage: A significant one, to Los Angeles.
Coach: Michael Cooper vs. Brian Agler
Michael Cooper coached the Sparks to their two WNBA championships in 2001 and 2002. In 2005 he left the Sparks to try his hand, unsuccessfully, at coaching in the NBA but after that he returned to the Sparks for the 2007 season. Before this season began, Cooper accepted the head coach position at USC, but as he was still under contract for this season with the Sparks he agreed to stay on for Lisa Leslies final campaign. This season he has not always seemed totally engaged, as if he is already thinking about his move across town.
Brian Agler is in his second season at the helm of the Storm. Previously Agler had coached Minnesota from 1999-2002 and coached the Columbus Quest to two championships in the ABL.
Advantage: Give the edge to Seattle in this department.
So adding up the categories it is Los Angeles 3, Seattle 3 and one push. Sounds like a tight series. Not quite. Parker and Leslie should dominate. Even one win for Seattle would be a good showing for a team without their star, but an L.A. sweep is the likely outcome under the current circumstances.