February frenzy reshapes the WNBA

February 8, 2013 - 11:44am
Seattle's Lauren Jackson will take the 2013 WNBA season off due to hamstring surgery. (Photo by Andrew Snook)

Seattle's Lauren Jackson will take the 2013 WNBA season off due to hamstring surgery. (Photo by Andrew Snook)

It took a few days, but once WNBA teams got rolling, the free agent signing period has delivered plenty of news – though unfortunately, the biggest news was about a player who won’t be on the court in 2013.

That would be Seattle’s Lauren Jackson, arguably the finest player of her generation, whose career-long battle with injuries has resulted in her taking the entire summer off to recover from a hamstring operation. Jackson will only be 32 in May, but many felt her career would be glorious but short, and sadly that appears to be the way it’s playing out.

In response, Seattle’s coach and general manager, Brian Agler, made a curious pair of free-agent signings: point guard Temeka Johnson and wing Noelle Quinn. After all, it wasn’t Sue Bird who’s going to sit out the season (though there are rumors the 32-year-old will miss some time due to her damaged knees), so picking up perimeter help didn’t seem as critical as trying to replace Jackson.

Instead, the paucity of available posts – and the decision by Belgian center Ann Wauters not to return to Seattle -- suggests Agler may bring back Ashley Robinson, who is famous only for having more fouls than points in her long WNBA career.

At the same time, the signing of Johnson means that the Tulsa Shock now lost both their point guards from 2012. Ivory Latta was the first free-agent domino to fall, going to Washington and new coach Mike Thibault on the very first day she could sign. Of course, the Shock are pretty much counting on Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins to fall to them with the No. 3 overall pick in the spring draft, and clearly their plan is to have her become the starter.

Free agent Lindsey Harding signed with the LA Sparks (Photo by Scott Cunningham)

But the most important point guard move so far involves Lindsey Harding, who went from Atlanta to Los Angeles, causing a seismic shift in the balance of power.

First, the WNBA West is now flat loaded, starting with the Minnesota Lynx, who won the league title in 2011 and were runners-up in 2012. The Lynx have everyone back (though Candice Wiggins could wind up somewhere else before the dust settles) and are a potent, balanced team with good coaching and a history of success.

Next is Phoenix, which will select (barring an unprecedented attack of stupidity) 6-8 Brittney Griner with the first pick of the draft, and put her on the floor to anchor the defense while Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Candace Dupree and DeWanna Bonner ring up bushels of points. In fact, prior to Harding’s signing, some had already conceded the 2013 title to the Mercury.

Now, however, Penny Toler landed the point guard L.A. desperately needed to complete a lineup that already has Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike, Alana Beard and Kristi Toliver. With Harding in the mix, the Sparks are now one of the most formidable teams in recent WNBA history, and the balance of power shifts clearly to the West.

If nothing else, Harding’s departure from Atlanta after two successful seasons severely weakens the Dream, which has no obvious point guard at this juncture, and no clearcut replacement who’s likely to be available in the draft.  Atlanta did re-sign Angel McCoughtry, one of the best athletes in the league, but she also comes with a high degree of drama.

And the free-agent point guard market is weak as well, primarily because teams recognize the lack of depth at that position (not only in the WNBA, but around the world at all levels). Connecticut quickly re-signed Renee Montgomery, despite her flaws, and Indiana didn’t let Briann January last on the open market for long either.

Of course, there’s still a long way to go, and more maneuvering is possible, if not likely, but the shape of the season, barring disaster, is snapping into focus.

L.A., Minnesota and Phoenix are locks for the playoffs, with perennial powers San Antonio and Seattle battling the previously downtrodden Shock for the final spot in the West – and the opportunity to get blitzed by the first-place team in the first round.

Aging Indiana got big breaks when a) Thibault was fired by the Connecticut Sun and b) Harding followed her acting dreams to Southern California. Anne Donovan, whose coaching record is average at best (her sojourn at Seton Hall was disastrous), is the new Sun coach, and Thibault has to start from zero in D.C.

Bill Laimbeer is back in the league in New York but that roster too needs revamping, leaving only Chicago, which has never even made the playoffs, as the Fever’s biggest competitor.

But how things look in February is seldom how they look in September, and there’s plenty of time for Laimbeer to fleece some unsuspecting general manager (he once got Katie Smith for Chandi Jones), or a player to suddenly develop into a star, or a coach to fall in love with a person who doesn’t exist.

OK, so the last one’s really unbelievable, but you never know …

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