WNBA Preview: Is there a beast in the East?

May 21, 2013 - 3:37pm
The New York Liberty is our pick to lead the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Teri Priebe)

The New York Liberty is our pick to lead the Eastern Conference. (Photo by Teri Priebe)

Ever since Dick Vitale high-volumed his way onto a TV screen, American sports fans have listened to a host of commentators talk about coaches as if they were players. "Rick Pitino sure shut down Trey Burke in this one," an announcer will intone, as if Pitino were out on the court personally shadowing Burke.

In truth, of course, Pitino could have had the greatest strategy in the world, but if his players didn't have the talent to execute it, it wouldn't matter. Or, to put it another way, coaching IQ directly correlates with player talent.

In the pro game, with so much talent on every roster, the received wisdom is that coaching is even less important, and to a certain extent, that's true. If Lin Dunn coached Connecticut last year and Mike Thibault Indiana, how much difference would there have been? Some, of course, because some people get along with certain people better than others, but overall, they're both highly qualified and highly competent. 

But there are exceptions. Trudi Lacey was simply horrid in Washington, and though, as GM she didn't give herself much talent, what talent she had she got the least out of.

This year, however, the WNBA East may be decided by its coaches. Bill Laimbeer will definitely have an emotional impact in New York, Mike Thibault will organize Washington, and Pokey Chatman will finally have all the pieces in place (at least most of the time) to get Chicago to postseason. On the flip side, will Fred Williams be able to keep it going in Atlanta, and will Anne Donovan have trouble filling Thibault's shoes?

Talent-wise, only Washington seems behind the curve, but of course injuries will change everything (and already have had an impact). Still, for once, Vitale may be right, and it may be the coaches who wind up making the final difference.

1. New York: Laimbeer got a tremendous amount of credit for turning things around in Detroit, but let's not forget he had a boatload of talent and stole Katie Smith from Suzie McConnell-Serio. In 2013, much as it pains me to feed his already very well-developed ego, I think his presence and a few key additions will lift the Liberty to the top of the not-all-that-strong East, if only because so far everyone’s healthy.

“Everyone” starts with Cappie Pondexter, who when playing hard is probably the best player in the East. If Pondexter plays 34 games, and defends, she gives New York a foundation that no other team in the East can match. She’ll handle the ball a lot, but when she doesn't, at least Katie Smith can still make good decisions, and Leilani Mitchell is a veteran who can contribute.

Essence Carson, Alex Montgomery and Smith can handle the wings, and if Laimbeer wants to go big, he can slide Plenette Pierson to the three. That will happen more if Cheryl Ford’s knees allow her to go hard, but regardless, Kara Braxton, rookie Kelsey Bone and Pierson are a nice frontcourt rotation even if Ford’s minutes are limited.

Overall, the Liberty have all the pieces but a true point guard – but they have Cappie, and, to paraphrase Geno Auriemma, you don’t. 

2. Chicago: If Epiphanny Prince weren’t going to miss 20 percent of the season to honor her commitment to the Russian National Team, the Sky would be my pick for the top spot, but without her, Chicago’s backcourt will struggle to score. Third-year point guard Courtney Vandersloot will have her hands full simply proving she deserves to start, and Sharnee Zoll, though promising, is untested.

Elena Delle Donne will take care of points from the wing, or inside if opponents try to guard her with quickness, which will allow Swin Cash to focus on defense and rebounding. Delle Donne’s shooting, which would phenomenal even if she were 5-5 instead of 6-5, should also open things up for Sylvia Fowles, while on the other hand Fowles’ paint presence should make up for Delle Donne’s defensive learning curve.

There’s not a lot of depth, though Tamera Young is serviceable on the wing, and when Prince is gone, the Sky will fall (that’s my one allowable play on words per story). Still, come postseason, Chicago will be tough to beat.

3. Indiana: Yes, the Fever get no respect. Katie Douglas is 34 and Tamika Catchings turns 34 in July, so youth is not on Indiana’s side – nor is injury luck. Jeanette Pohlen is still recovering from her torn ACL, and Erin Phillips and Jessica Davenport will both miss much of the first half of the season.

All this means that 6-1 Erlana Larkins starts at center, Catchings will have to bang with the power forwards, and Shavonte Zellous and Briann January are going to have do a whole lot more than they thought they would back in March.

If rookie Layshia Clarendon and unproven Jessica Breland can deliver 15 quality minutes a night each, Indiana will be pretty good. If not, the Fever may need a late run to make it to the postseason.

4. Atlanta: Dream fans may have bristled when I claimed that Cappie Pondexter was the best player in the East, but relax: I count Angel McCoughtry as two players. It’s her and Lori Ann (her alter ego), and there’s no doubt the two of them can do just about everything on the court, including push the drama quotient off the charts.

The primary issue, though, isn’t McCoughtry’s often fragile mental state, but rather who will replace Lindsey Harding at the point. Washington Mystics’ castoff Jasmine Thomas? Non-shooter Armintie Herrington (she was Armintie Price last year)? Rookie Alex Bentley? Last year’s draft steal Tiffany Hayes?

None of the answers are a solid yes, and the usual uncertainty surrounding Sancho Lyttle’s availability adds to the haze in Atlanta. If someone, anyone, can run the point for 28 minutes, and if Lyttle plays 28 games in the WNBA, well, the Dream are pretty good. If the point guard is a black hole emitting turnovers and missed threes, and if Lyttle only plays intermittently, then Atlanta fans might find themselves wishing Marynell Meadors was back in charge.

5. Connecticut: I’ve never been a big Anne Donovan fan, but her presence is not why I picked the Sun fifth. She’ll be a competent leader for Connecticut, but it will take more than competence to get this roster into the playoffs.

Yes, Tina Charles is really, really good. And 32-year-old Kara Lawson is a solid guard. And Renee Montgomery is beginning to harness her athleticism. But after that, I’m running out of “ands”, which is not good news for Donovan. She’ll probably have to start Kelsey Griffin, whose career averages are 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds a game, and she needs to hope Mistie Bass has a career season in her.

Oh, and nobody else can get hurt and Allison Hightower needs to learn how to shoot. The good news, though, is that the East is weak, and it’s not as if Indiana and Atlanta, or even New York or Chicago, are out of reach.

6. Washington: It’s still hard to figure out why Connecticut dumped Mike Thibault, but it was good for Washington and good for the league. Clueless owner Sheila Johnson has now slipped out of the picture, and Thibault is remaking a roster destroyed by the disastrous reign of Trudi Lacey.

He’s got a long way to go, as Crystal Langhorne is his only top-shelf player, but there are enough pieces (Kia Vaughn, Monique Currie, rookie Tayler Hill) floating around that Thibault should be able to cobble together into a few wins.

But in D.C., it’s not about 2013 – it’s about laying the foundation for 2014 and beyond, and expect the Mystics to be much more organized this summer and have a much better idea of what they’re trying to accomplish, on and off the court. And if someone like Belgian youngster Emma Meessemann surprises, so much the better.