The New York Liberty's Essence Carson is out for the remainder of the season with an ACL injury (file photo by Andrew Snook)
The New York Liberty's Essence Carson is out for the remainder of the season with an ACL injury (file photo by Andrew Snook)

In the WNBA, injuries change everything

June 10, 2013 - 10:24am

After the season, there’s an easy way to tell which teams have lived up or exceeded preseason expectations: Just look at the team’s stats and see how many games the starters missed.

The more games the starters play, the better the team will be, and in the WNBA, for example, if a team’s five starters all play 30 games or more, it’s pretty safe to say that team will make the playoffs. That’s why, for example, I picked the Chicago Sky to finish second in the East to New York – I knew Epiphanny Prince was going to miss seven games due to her commitments in Russia, and add to that the inevitability of some other nicks and bruises and I thought the Sky would sputter a little.

But one of the reasons I don’t ever bet on sports is that you just never know. With the word that Essence Carson tore her ACL, the Liberty’s solid lineup suddenly looks shaky, especially with Cheryl Ford yet to play this season. And why is Ford nailed to the bench? The balky knee that’s bothered her pretty much throughout her career.

So even though the Liberty knocked off Atlanta Sunday, starting 75-year-old Katie Smith every night is simply not the way to win consistently in this year’s very tough and competitive WNBA. As time goes on, the 12 teams are not only getting more talented, they are developing identity and pride, and a group like the San Antonio Silver Stars, hampered as they are by their own injuries, are going to play tough almost every night out. Even downtrodden and unlucky Tulsa is not guaranteed win, as the Shock have taken some of the league’s best into overtime.

And Tulsa has had its own major injury setback, with 6-8 Liz Cambage out with a bad ankle. If she misses 10 games, say, then the Shock’s playoff hopes are pretty much done, while in the meantime other teams have dodged the injury bullet – and those are the teams that we’ll look back in October and say “Hey, they had a good year.”

But having a good year, in a balanced league like the WNBA, is as much about injury luck as talent and coaching, a lesson Liberty fans will learn all too well the rest of the summer.

* * * * *

And while we’re talking about injuries, the single most important thing that the league can do to improve quality of play is to add a realistic injured reserve clause to the next collective bargaining agreement.

Right now, there really isn’t a mechanism that allows a team to replace injured players, even if they’re out for just a few games. I confess I haven’t dug down to the punctuated details of the present WNBA system of dealing with injured players, but the basics are clear: If someone’s hurt, you can’t replace them without cutting them, or suspending them for the season.

So here’s a rough outline of how to not only make teams stronger during the season, but also to give younger players exposure to the league, and a chance to develop into solid WNBA players.

  1. A two-week injured reserve: A player can be put on this list for minimum of two weeks, and can be replaced on the active roster by another warm body.
  2. A season-long injured reserve: This would be where Essence Carson would land. She’s not coming back, but since she can’t play, she shouldn’t take up a place on the roster that could be filled by someone who a) could take some of her minutes, and b) might develop into a contributor down the road.

In essence, this makes every WNBA roster 13 players rather than 11, which is a significant financial boost, even at the minimum salaries the replacements would make. So one way to cut costs would be to require that players on injured reserve stay home during road trips – by not traveling with the team, owners would save some money, at least and guarantee that the players are working on getting healthy.

Option two would be to simply have one IR spot, which Carson, for example, would occupy for the rest of the year.

Regardless, too many teams are playing rosters that are way too short due to injuries, and the quality of play – the product the WNBA is selling – suffers as a result. Sure, it will cost a bit more to add one or two IR spots, but the long-term benefits clearly outweigh the short-term costs.