The shadow of the Olympics hangs over the WNBA season, as key players from most of the rosters will miss significant time due to a trip to London. And don’t forget that the Olympic basketball schedule is both demanding and challenging. Every game is a big game, and even the routs are draining.
It could be argued that the Olympic hammer will fall with equal force on all those affected, but there’s really no way to tell whether Erika de Souza, say, comes to the WNBA more banged up or uninterested than Sue Bird or Candace Parker. Conversely, a handful of teams, such as Seattle and Atlanta, may be doubly effected with Team USA players missing game time as well as foreign players who won't report to the WNBA until after the Olympics.
As is pretty much always the case, though, the team that combines talent with injury luck will be in the best position to celebrate with Laurel Richie in the fall -- and at this point, it’s hard to see a reason to pick anyone except Minnesota.
Though three of the Lynx starters will be 30 this summer -- and one of those three is the 41-year-old Taj McWilliams-Franklin -- there’s really no reason to expect much of a drop off from the defending champs. Seimone Augustus is squarely in her prime, and Maya Moore, Candice Wiggins and Monica Wright are all still on the rise. Jessica Adair had her moments last year as a backup post and No. 3 overall pick Devereaux Peters should also help in the frontcourt, so the main thing Cheryl Reeve needs to worry about is that her Olympians (Lindsay Whalen, Augustus and Moore) might wear down in September. This is a superb team in its prime and barring bad luck, will make it two titles in a row.
2. Los Angeles
If Carol Ross really was the power behind the throne in Atlanta; if Candace Parker decides that defense really is important; and if Sharnee Zoll’s absence from the league was due to a collective case of bad judgment on the part of WNBA general managers rather than a flawed game, then the Sparks could be really good. A healthy Alana Beard will ratchet up the defense and Jantel Lavender should be good enough inside, so if Ross can figure out how to cram three power forwards (Parker, No. 1 pick Nneka Ogwumike and veteran DeLisha Milton) into the rotation at the same time, L.A. has all the pieces. But if Zoll crashes and burns, Kristi Toliver pouts so effectively that she destroys team chemistry, and Parker treats defense as no more important than her hairdo, the Sparks could be a major disappointment.
Just add Wauters. That’s what Brian Agler did when Lauren Jackson made it clear she wasn’t coming back until after the Olympics. He also traded starting forward Swin Cash for the No. 2 pick in the draft, which turned into Shekinna Stricklen (and not Brittney Griner or Elena Delle Donne, both of whom could have declared for the draft but didn’t). Of course, getting younger isn’t a bad idea, as Sue Bird is 31, Jackson will be 31 in May and Katie Smith will be 38 in June. Wauters is also 31, but she hasn’t subjected herself to as much wear and tear by staying overseas during most summers, but when she has played in the WNBA, she’s been very effective. When Jackson comes back after the Olympics, Seattle will have the best frontcourt in the league, and the best point guard, but a weakness on the wing will keep the Storm from toppling the Lynx.
4. San Antonio
There were few surprises in the draft, but the Silver Stars benefitted from the biggest one: The free fall of Shenise Johnson from the probable No. 2 pick to No. 5 gives Dan Hughes an exciting rookie who is not only the heir apparent to 35-year-old Becky Hammon but also, along with Danielle Robinson and Jia Perkins, gives San Antonio the best guard rotation in the West. Things are a little more confused up front, as Sophia Young isn’t really a true power forward and neither Danielle Adams or Jayne Appel have shown themselves to be reliable inside. Veteran Tangela Smith brings three-point shooting but she’s never been a force in the paint, so there is definitely a weakness in Texas -- but Hughes is an outstanding coach, and if all goes well, the Silver Stars could be the surprise of the season.
When Penny Taylor tore her ACL, the Mercury immediately went into lottery mode -- and it’s worked for them before. They’ve gotten lucky with the ping-pong balls, and with Griner and Delle Donne as the prizes next spring, Taylor’s injury might prove to be a blessing in disguise. In the meantime, though, it’s going to be an even longer summer in the baking heat of Phoenix than usual, as DeWanna Bonner will no longer come off the bench, and Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree must pretty much do everything. Maybe Samantha Prahalis can step right in and run the show as a rookie point guard, but that’s asking a lot -- in fact, way too much. The Mercury should hold off Tulsa for fifth, and will outscore some teams on occasion, but otherwise the focus will be on the choice between Griner and Delle Donne.
Well, things can’t get any worse. The Shock owners went in the wrong direction from day one, hiring Nolan Richardson (it wasn’t his fault he was completely unsuited for the job), and then compounded the misery by allowing him to stick around well into season two. Now that Gary Kloppenburg is in charge, there’s a modicum of hope, but results aren’t going to realized until at least 2013, and most likely later than that. Tiffany Jackson had a nice season and 6-8 Australian center Liz Cambage has potential, but that’s not the foundation of anything more than a grass hut. Glory Johnson was a solid first round pick, but not the full answer. Maybe Kayla Pedersen will develop; maybe Vicki Baugh’s knees will heal; maybe Riquna Williams learned her lesson after getting kicked off the team at Miami; and maybe there will be a porcine air force divebombing other Western Conference arenas. Or, most important of all, maybe Tulsa will get lucky in the lottery.
Brittney Griner gets all the love, but the best post player in the world this second is 6-5 Sylvia Fowles. She averaged 20 and 10 last year, and though she’s not the best passer out of a double-team, she blocks two shots a game and makes every other defender better. And now she’s got some serious playmates in WNBA ring bearers Swin Cash, Ruth Riley, Le’coe Willingham and Ticha Penicheiro, all of whom add heft and experience to a roster that wasn’t that bad to begin with. Epiphanny Prince is a fine young guard who should only benefit from Penicheiro’s presence at the point, and it won’t hurt Courtney Vandersloot’s development to learn from one of the greatest point guards ever. Barring injury, the Sky are the clear favorite in the East, and supporters of the WNBA are hopeful that a successful, entertaining team will finally start to energize a heretofore moribund Chicago fan base.
There are a lot of Marynell Meadors’ haters out there, and they’re convinced that the departure of assistant coach Carol Ross will puncture the Dream’s hopes of returning to the WNBA Finals. On the other hand, there are a lot of Erika de Souza fans that think the 6-5 Brazilian center’s absence until after the Olympics will be what really hamstrings Atlanta. But Angel McCoughtry, attitude and all, is back, and so are point guard Lindsey Harding, defensive specialist Armintie Price and power forward Sancho Lyttle. That’s four-fifths of a solid starting lineup, and vet Cathrine Kraayeveld and rookie Tiffany Hayes should contribute. Not to mention, Meadors' replaced Ross with Joe Campi, a proven winner in the Southeastern Conference as the former head coach of the Auburn Tigers for 25 seasons. If de Souza returns at full strength, and the coaching staff continues to function at a high level, the Dream will be a postseason force to be reckoned with, regardless of what happens before the Olympics.
The two most important players on the roster will turn 33 this year, and on top of that, Tamika Catchings will play a key role in the exhausting Olympics. Katie Douglas can rest, at least, but there’s no doubt that the Fever must play the 2012 season with a sense of urgency. They have a little depth at point with both Briann January and Erin Phillips, and Jessica Davenport is a competent young post, but unless Shavonte Zellous or Jeanette Pohlen take major steps forward, that’s about all they’ve got. Still, Indiana has been a consistent contender and Lin Dunn has a few more cards to play than John Whisenant in New York or Mike Thibault in Connecticut. One key injury, though, and the chip stack will disappear in a hurry.
4. New York
The inexplicable pick of Kelley Cain at No. 7 overall in the April draft stoked the anti-Whisenant fires to white-hot, but year two of the White Line Defense most likely won’t be as bad as the hostile masses believe. First, the players have had a year to adjust to Whisenant’s unusual system, and that alone promises a step forward, but also New York’s roster will be completely unaffected by the Olympics, as Cappie Pondexter did not make the team. The surprising emergence of Kia Vaughn as a competent WNBA center solidifies the inside game, and Kelly Miller and Leilani Mitchell are experienced, if hardly dazzling, at the point. Pondexter, Essence Carson and Nicole Powell are an above-average collection of wings, and Plenette Pierson is coming off yet another fine season. Unlike most teams in the East, the Liberty have a little depth -- and who knows? Maybe Cain will actually be a player.
The Sun have three very good players in Tina Charles, Asjha Jones and Renee Montgomery. After that, the Sun have, well, some players. Kara Lawson is a nice complementary guard, but she’s 31 and spends her offseason putting on TV makeup rather than working on her game, and Tan White, Kelsey Griffin and Danielle McCray are ordinary at best. It’s also important to note that both Charles and Jones will play in the Olympics, a debilitating experience even for the reserves, and it’s unlikely they will return rested and relaxed for a WNBA playoff run. It’s certainly possible that all the stars will align for Connecticut and the Sun will be the second-best team in the East, but it says here that they are just too thin to survive what promises to be a grueling summer.
The worst-run franchise in the WNBA, and perhaps one of the worst-run franchises in all of professional sports, will continue its slide into irrelevance, if not bankruptcy, in 2012. Crystal Langhorne is an outstanding (if undersized) power forward, a healthy Monique Currie is an above-average wing, and Matee Ajavon is, generously, an adequate guard. After that? Well, do you believe in the well-traveled Michelle Snow? Second-year guard Jasmine Thomas? Inconsistent Noelle Quinn? History-of-failure coach Trudi Lacey? What’s even worse than this dismal roster is the chance that Brittney Griner, who could revitalize the league, might wind up playing for Sheila Johnson and the other incompetents who surround her, thus dooming her to a career of disaster and women’s basketball watching one of its few superstars languish in purgatory.
- 2012 WNBA Draft review with Alex "the W Guy" Chambers
- WNBA Draft Recap: Liberty fans upset with Kelley Cain pick in first round