The WNBA West doesn’t have the most compelling narrative arc. Minnesota, the defending champs, are the best team in the league. The Tulsa Shock are the worst. Phoenix has so many injuries the Mercury can’t really be expected to compete, and the other three teams – L.A., Seattle and San Antonio – alternate between pretty good and mediocre.
In practical terms, that means that the Sparks, Storm and Silver Stars are maneuvering to avoid finishing fourth and drawing Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, and Phoenix and Tulsa are practicing their voodoo to ensure that the ping-pong balls deliver them one of the top two picks in the 2013 draft.
Still, a couple of injuries could turn things around in a hurry, though in Minnesota’s case, it would probably take four or five. The Lynx are that good.
Minnesota (13-2, first): The best team in the league’s biggest challenge is boredom, and that could become an even bigger factor as the season wears on. The two losses – to Seattle and San Antonio – came to teams with not nearly as much talent as the defending champs, but then again, no one has as much talent as Minnesota. The Lynx shoot 49.1% as a team (no, that’s not a misprint), hold opponents to the worst shooting percentage in the league (38.9%), outrebound their opponents by 7.5 a game, and win by an average margin of 13.3 points. Four players get double figures on a nightly basis, and Lindsay Whalen is right there at 9.8 ppg, and the only two players not reaching or exceeding expectations are Candice Wiggins and Amber Harris. Get your playoff tickets early …
Los Angeles (10-6, second): The Sparks need to right the ship, as a three-game losing streak – including two to in-division rival San Antonio – have fans questioning the makeup of a team that is trying to cram a scoring specialist into the point guard position. Kristi Toliver has managed a 1.4 A/TO, and is scoring 16.1 ppg on 44.7% shooting but, and it’s a big one, she doesn’t defend consistently and doesn’t always to look to get Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike into the mix (Toliver has taken 38 more shots than Ogwumike, who’s shooting 54.7%). Then again, the finger of blame could be pointed at coach Carol Ross, who needs to have the Sparks playing well when Seattle, Minnesota and Atlanta come to town starting Thursday. Of course, that’s also going to be three games in four nights, which even after a week off, is going to be a test. In addition, it’s a test L.A. needs to score at least 67% on, or the Sparks could find themselves on the road too often for their liking during the playoffs.
San Antonio (7-5, third): Dan Hughes is once again proving he’s one of the best coaches in the game, but his leadership and his team’s talent level are going to be severely tested on a four-game Eastern road swing that begins Thursday. The Silver Stars are just 2-4 on the road so far, and they need to win at least two of those away games to keep the pressure on L.A. If they do, it will be because Becky Hammon is simply refusing to get old, as she’s shooting 50% from three-point distance, 46.5% overall and has a 1.5 A/TO. Sophia Young is having a banner season, and Hughes is also wringing maximum value out of veteran Shameka Christon, young post Jayne Appel and rookie Shenise Johnson. San Antonio is nobody’s favorite to win the conference, or even win in the first round of the playoffs, but the Silver Stars are also a team nobody really wants to play.
Seattle (7-8, fourth): The Storm’s last four games before the break include two against Phoenix and one against L.A. – and if they sweep that trio, the sins of Tanisha Wright will all be forgiven. Then again, they won’t win all three if Wright can’t rediscover the form that made her Sue Bird’s ideal wingman. Right now, Wright is shooting just 34.7% from the field (four for 28 from beyond the arc) and is just a shadow of the pivotal player in Seattle’s run as one of the best teams in the league. Of course, not having Lauren Jackson around doesn’t make her job (or anyone’s) any easier, so there’s hope that when Jackson returns after the Olympics, suddenly Wright will shift back into top gear. Brian Agler, always one to favor veterans, just re-signed Svetlana Abrosimova after she unexpectedly was cut from the Russian National Team, but the former UConn star isn’t going to turn this team around. That’s up to Wright more than anyone else, at least until Jackson leads the cavalry to the rescue in August.
Phoenix (4-10, fifth): OK, take Sylvia Fowles, Epiphanny Prince and Swin Cash off Chicago. Or Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver off L.A. Or Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas and Erin Phillips off Indiana. And you know, a case could still be made that the Mercury playing without Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree are worse off than any of those hypotheticals. After all, Taurasi is one of the game’s greatest scorers ever, Taylor is a World Championship MVP, and Dupree is an all-star level player. So four wins doesn’t look that bad, as DeWanna Bonner is averaging more than 20 ppg in her first year as a starter and Sammy Prahalis looks like the Rookie of the Year. Charde Houston can score, of course, so in those games that she even tries to defend and isn’t completely brain-dead, the Mercury have some weapons. They have no depth, however, and have started 25.7% shooting Alexis Hornbuckle five times, so there are obviously serious issues. Dupree may be back this week, though, so the Mercury might be able to steal a couple of wins before the Olympic break. And who knows? If Taurasi comes back after London, a hot streak could be in the works.
Tulsa (2-12, sixth): Well, they’re better. OK, the standings only say the Shock are one game better than last year’s team at the same time, but with the dreadful misrule of Nolan Richardson mercifully ended, Tulsa actually looks like a real basketball team. Not a very good one, of course, but certainly much more capable than the 2011 version. Credit goes to Gary Kloppenburg for restoring some sense of order to the franchise, but still, you have to wonder what took the ownership so long to jettison Richardson, whose hiring was widely considered a horrible mistake the day it was announced. And, sadly, even though the Shock are more competitive, they’re not doing it with many players who are good enough to get them into the playoffs. The Johnsons, Temeka and Glory, are both good players, but Ivory Latta, Riquna Williams (the second coming of Betty Lennox?) and Jennifer Lacy aren’t going to get a team to 18 wins any time soon. Still, though, they’re better – and for the long-suffering fans in Tulsa, that’s a step forward.