Team plus talent will win the West

May 23, 2013 - 10:37am
Top draft pick Brittney Griner will return the Mercury to championship contender status. (Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Mercury)

Top draft pick Brittney Griner will return the Mercury to championship contender status. (Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Mercury)

Teams are more than talent.

Sure, a supremely talented group of players can overwhelm a roster with significantly lesser ability, but when two talented groups go head-to-head, “team” becomes more important.

In the competitive Western Conference, there are three very talented rosters, but only one has the balance that comes when ability matches position, when options are many and holes are few. That roster belongs to Minnesota, which is why the preview begins with …

1. Minnesota: Though losing Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Candice Wiggins subtracts somewhat from the Lynx’s overall flexibility, Cheryl Reeve did replace McWilliams-Franklin with the competent Janel McCarville, and Wiggins’ minutes should be absorbed by veteran Monica Wright and rookies Lindsey Moore and Sugar Rodgers.

This means, simply, that Minnesota has the most balanced lineup in the league: McCarville at center; Rebekkah Brunson, the prototypical WNBA four, at power forward; Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus on the wings; and Lindsay Whalen at the point.

Though McCarville is undersized, she’s an experienced player who should be able to hold her own – what she gives up defensively to larger, stronger posts she should be able to balance offensively with her good passing and all-around skills. As for the rest of the lineup, criticisms can be made about perimeter defense, but at the other end, the Lynx are a very difficult matchup.

And of course Wright comes off the bench to give the perimeter players a rest, and Moore can slide to the four when necessary, so Reeve has all the weapons she needs to keep the Lynx at the top of the standings.

2. Los Angeles: If Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker didn’t play the same position, the Sparks would be much better off – but as it is, even though those two are enormously talented, they don’t mesh as smoothly as the Lynx lineup.

Parker, who is incredibly versatile offensively, can guard other post players and block shots, but she’s more valuable offensively away from the basket than anchored to the block. Ogwumike gets her points from athleticism and drive rather than a collection of post moves, so the one thing L.A. lacks on offense is an interior presence.

At the other end of the floor, though, there are issues. The backcourt of Lindsey Harding and Kristi Toliver is small, and if Alana Beard is hampered physically, perimeter defense will be an issue. Rookie A’dia Mathies might be able supply some help, but wings Jenna O’Hea and the perennially disappointing Marissa Coleman are more scorers than stoppers.

Still, the Sparks have a ton of weapons, and even if Parker and Ogwumike have to make room for each other on occasion, this is not an easy offense to control. And if Parker finally decides defending for an entire game is important, L.A. could easily displace Minnesota as No. 1 in the West.

3. Phoenix: Even if Penny Taylor were completely healthy, the Mercury trail the other two by just a bit – primarily because Brittney Griner is just a rookie.

There’s no doubt that Griner is a tremendous player, but the WNBA is a much tougher level than college, and Griner hasn’t played internationally, so she’s got some learning to do. Of course, she’ll make Phoenix’s defense immediately better, but it will take her a while (maybe even a couple years) to fully develop into a professional superstar.

Of course, with Diana Taurasi, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner surrounding her, she won’t have to worry about scoring, and if Taylor gets back to 100 percent this summer (which may or may not happen), Phoenix is a pretty much impossible matchup. It would help if second-year point guard Sammy Prahalis takes a great leap forward, and there’s a chance that might happen, as last year’s Mercury didn’t offer her much support. But even if Prahalis is just a slightly below-average WNBA lead guard, the Mercury are an offensive behemoth.

Defense? Well, not so much, unless Griner lives up to the most optimistic expectations as a rim-protector – and figures out how to deal with the defensive three-seconds rule.

But first, second or third place, Phoenix is going to be one of the most entertaining teams to watch, and barring further injury, is capable of outscoring any of the West’s best on any given night. It says here they won’t do it often to enough to win the conference, but in a short series, the Mercury are incredibly dangerous.

4. Tulsa: Liz Cambage might not be all the effective this year, but she is 6-8, and she’s going to be better than the other options the Shock had in the middle. So even if she struggles a bit, the Tulsa post rotation of Cambage, Glory Johnson and Tiffany Jackson-Jones is plenty solid. And of course if Cambage gets 15 and 10 every night (and blocks a few shots along the way), the Shock are going to be a handful.

The backcourt should be better, but Candice Wiggins sooner or later has to make shots consistently if she expects to be more than an average WNBA player. Skylar Diggins can’t be expected to carry the load either, though she should be at least competent during her rookie season.

Nicole Powell, who came over from New York, can score if plays are run for her, while second-year wing Riquna Williams will try to score even if plays aren’t run for her. If coach Gary Kloppenburg can somehow get decent perimeter play from this group, and Jackson-Jones plays as she did in 2011, Tulsa will be a representative WNBA team – which isn’t something that has been said since Nolan Richardson’s reign of error.

5. San Antonio: Before Becky Hammon broke her finger, the Silver Stars were certainly in the playoff hunt, but without the ageless guard, and without leading scorer and rebounder Sophia Young, San Antonio just doesn’t have enough.

Yes, Danielle Robinson has matured into an above-average point guard, and Jia Perkins can carry the load while Hammon is out, but unless Shameka Christon scores like it’s 2009, and somebody else gets a lot more rebounds, the Silver Stars are a few bricks shy of a load.

Jayne Appel can rebound, set picks and defend a little, and Danielle Adams can score, but that combo isn’t going to strike fear into any opposing coach’s heart. DeLisha Milton-Jones is still a good player, but she’ll be 39 in September, and expecting her to do more than just be a placeholder for Young is expecting too much.

Dan Hughes is a wonderful coach, and San Antonio will play hard and steal some games here and there, but this team is an example of how much talent matters. If the Silver Stars had the talent to match Minnesota, L.A. and Phoenix, Hughes’ coaching and the nice blend would make them a threat – but without Hammon and Young, there just aren’t enough horses.

6. Seattle: Tina Thompson is 38, and though mileage may vary, it’s hard to see her holding up as a 32-minute-a-game power forward in the 2013 WNBA. Unfortunately for the Storm, she needs to get 15 and six pretty much every night to even partially make up for the absence of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, who are resting this summer to recuperate from a variety of injuries.

Camille Little, at maybe 6-1, is Thompson’s running mate up front, and though she’s in her prime at 28, she’s going to be defensively challenged by the bevy of large Western Conference centers, and offensively, she won’t be able to benefit from Bird’s passes or Jackson’s distracting presence.

Rookie Tianna Hawkins might help, but Seattle’s problems don’t end there. Temeka Johnson and Tanisha Wright are an average WNBA backcourt, and unless Shekinna Stricklen blossoms into a big-time scorer in her second year, it’s hard to see where the points are going to come from.

In short, Seattle’s patchwork roster is weaker than San Antonio’s, and has nowhere near the firepower or size to handle the offensive juggernauts in the West. Brian Agler can coach, and the Storm will gut out some wins with physical defense and a controlled tempo, but there’s no doubt this is the worst Seattle team in a decade.