When the Mystics and Silver Stars met Friday at the Verizon Center they could have easily been peering across at each other on the insanely-long and steep escalators that deliver commuters from the street to the platforms in many of the D.C. Metro train stations.
The Silver Stars — headed up — are the WNBA’s hottest team, winners of seven straight and rapidly proving coach and GM Dan Hughes correct in believing his group could do big things once their unconventional perimeter-oriented attack began to jell.
The Mystics — moving down — have landed in last place in the Eastern Conference, losers of 11 of their last 13 (including a Sunday loss to Tulsa, everyone else’s doormat), averaging just 69.7 points a game, worst in the WNBA. Even worse is that their story isn’t anything new: The Mystics have had just three winning seasons in their 15-year history as 11 head coaches, 19 assistants and four general managers have tried to right the ship and ultimately failed, or in the case of coach Julie Plank refused the assignment. Coach and GM Trudi Lacey and assistants Jennifer Gillom and Marianne Stanley are in the hot seats now, and they may have to hope they’re still standing when a franchise-altering star from the loaded 2013 draft comes to town.
By comparison, San Antonio’s Becky Hammon has made 10 playoff appearances in her 14-year WNBA career and transformed herself from too small and too slow to indispensible. The 35-year old South Dakotan routinely dazzles opponents with her collection of three-pointers, spinning layups and pinpoint assists. The Mystics could do little to stop her in a 78-73 loss, as she had 17 points and six assists in the Silver Stars 78-73 victory.
Even before the game, Lacey lauded Hammon, saying, “In 14 years, nobody has been able to stop her — especially in crunch time.”
After the game, Lacey wasn’t trying to tip her hat to Hammon and the Stars, instead saying that she felt “San Antonio was a good team coming in, but it felt like we should have done a much better job taking care of the ball.”
Turnovers had been such an issue earlier in the season, Lacey the GM went out and signed point guard Shannon Bobbitt to give Washington’s offense better structure. Bobbitt’s signing paid off in the short term — she hit the game-winner June 14 against the Fever, her first game — but the turnovers didn’t cease. Against the Silver Stars, Bobbitt committed five of the team’s 18 turnovers and was picked and stripped a couple of times when lanes closed on her in the paint.
On the other end, the Silver Stars operate seamlessly whether jet-quick Danielle Robinson was at the controls or the more calculating Hammon. The proof was in the numbers: San Antonio recorded 20 assists on 30 baskets and shot 52 percent from the floor. Of course, not all of that can be blamed on Washington’s defense, as the Silver Stars lead the league in assists, and an amazing 63.1% of their baskets are preceded by an assist.
“We’ve got a rotation now,” Hughes said. “Our role delineation has gotten to a point where they kind of know what we’re asking of them and they’re delivering it well. I think that’s key in a team like ours because ours is kind of built on the impact of the bench as well as the starters.”
The Silver Stars start both Hammon and Robinson, but as games progress, the guards team with Jia Perkins in the backcourt, who acts as a defensive pest who’s not afraid to pick up a few fouls in the process. At forward, Sophia Young is as steady a presence scoring and rebounding as the league has ever seen. Shameka Christon is resurrecting her career at the other forward spot after a couple of injury-plagued years in Chicago.
Jayne Appel has transformed from do-it-all college all-American to the team’s only physical interior presence who’s a willing screener and scrapper. When Appel’s not on the floor, Danielle Adams is and the subtle brilliance in her game can’t be dismissed. The bulky national champion at Texas A&M can shoot it with range, bull her way to the basket and finish with great touch, as well as rebound and cause opposing posts plenty of problems with her unique skill set. Rookies Shenise Johnson — giving the Silver Star backcourt more size — and Ziomara Morrison, along with veteran Tully Bevilaqua, round out the San Antonio rotation.
Crystal Langhorne drives to the basket (photo by Teri Prebe)
The Mystics have yet to win consecutive games under Lacey in a season-plus and consequently their rotation isn’t nearly as cohesively. Former NCAA champion Crystal Langhorne is the team’s rock, a 56 percent shooter over her six-year career whose breakout is now three seasons in. Langhorne finds a way to deliver in the paint against taller defenders with great footwork, long arms and an array of shots and release points. But without another consistent scorer on the floor opponents have had success limiting Langhorne’s numbers by tilting their defense in her direction.
Monique Currie could be that secondary threat but poor shooting had her out of the starting lineup for a stretch. Veteran Michelle Snow has been a quality addition but Snow and reserve Ashley Robinson aren’t the space eaters that an average defensive team needs.
In the backcourt, the Mystics have pieces but they lack complete talents. Bobbitt and Matee Ajavon are the smallish starters, and Ajavon landed on the bench — for the rest of the San Antonio game —when Robinson blew past her for a layup. Noelle Quinn needs to provide instant offense but doesn’t always enter the game cooking. Second-year, first round selection Jasmine Thomas needs to be more assertive and several conversations between Thomas and Lacey during the game probably centered on that subject.
The Silver Stars, unlike the Mystics, have continuity, which begins with Hughes, who arrived in 2005. The cerebral coach who holds a master’s degree in education had previous stints with the defunct Sting and Rockers. When cost-cutting saw many WNBA teams consolidate coach and general manager duties, Hughes emerged as the most successful, returning to the bench last season after Sandy Brondello was fired.
In 2006, Young was drafted fourth overall and according to Hughes, she’s healthier and livelier then she’s ever been in her seven-year career. Hammon arrived in 2007 in a lopsided trade with the Liberty, who received Jessica Davenport and a first-round pick that became Essence Carson.
When the Mystics attempted to consolidate coach and general manager duties, then-coach Julie Plank balked at replacing her close associate Angela Taylor as GM and was let go. Plank coached two seasons and led the Mystics to the Eastern Conference’s best record in 2010 only to see them swept by the Atlanta Dream in postseason.
Not surprisingly, the two teams mirror their NBA counterparts. The San Antonio Spurs are arguably North America’s most successful professional sports franchise in the period since superstar Tim Duncan arrived in 1997. On the other hand, the NBA Wizards haven’t done much in the past 15 years aside from watching an experiment with Michael Jordan as an aging player backfire. In a faceoff between the two organizations, the high-profile, high-risk Wizards get blown away by the low-key, low-maintenance Spurs.
In that same time period, the Mystics have been addicted to change, in part due to the personal demons that followed Chamique Holdsclaw and Nikki Teasley, Alana Beard’s health and Lindsay Harding and Katie Smith’s reluctance to stick around.
After Friday’s game, the burden of losing struck Snow the hardest. The former Tennessee star had pointed comments, visibly frustrated at all the losing.
“You just want to scream, you want to blow up, you want to fight, whatever it takes to wake everybody up,” Snow said. “Honestly, a change is going to come. You can be part of that change here or you’ll just be part of that rotation (leaving town). That’s the way any job is.”
In the Silver Stars’ locker room, ice was plentiful, but so was the laughter and contentment. WNBA teams have hit hot streaks before, but the offensive efficiency sets San Antonio apart. In their seven-game run, San Antonio has averaged 88 points a game and made 61 3-pointers, making 40.7% of their attempts. They’ve beaten the conference leaders Minnesota and Los Angeles twice. On Thursday, they overcame an 18-point deficit at Indiana and won by 16. And the compressed schedule didn’t stop them either; they swept a stretch of four games in six days.
So what’s missing with the Silver Stars? As veteran journalist Mel Greenberg mentioned to Hughes, it’s the notoriety that should be due one of the league’s best teams. But all that seems to bypass the San Antonio because they don’t have any familiar names like Parker, Bird or Moore or any London-bound U.S. Olympians. Hammon’s on her way to London, but to represent Russia. Even in Texas, the 40-0 Baylor Bears have the Silver Stars trumped on the hot meter.
“I used to try to figure it out but I’ve seen it happen so much, we don’t even talk about it anymore. What’s important to us is we’re able to develop chemistry, we’re able to bring players along.”
And as they do, the Silver Stars just keep riding that up escalator – as for the Mystics, well, they can only hope that their long-term down cycle earns them a top draft pick next spring, and perhaps a shot at 6-8 franchise-changer Brittney Griner or semi-local 6-5 gunner Elena Delle Donne, or even Notre Dame’s brilliant guard, Skylar Diggins.
For now, though, Washington mimics a long-ago saying about the moribund Washington Senators, the decades-long laughingstock of major league baseball. Washington was, it was said, first in war, first in peace and last in the American League – and sadly, the Mystics are repeating that history.
In the meantime, Hughes and San Antonio will try to make some history this fall, and claim the franchise’s first-ever WNBA title. Right now, at least, there’s simply no better team in the league.
- Sick move by Becky Hammon
- Rookie Interview: Tiffany Hayes of the Atlanta Dream
- Sorting out the WNBA West
- Katie Smith savors her past, looks to a savory future