At the college level, the path to success is very clear: Recruit, recruit, recruit and then recruit some more. Given the number of teams, there’s almost always a talent disparity in every game, and so coaching and injuries tend to be less of a factor in success during a season.
At the WNBA level, though, with just 12 teams, all with pretty good players, coaching and injuries are much more important – and that’s just what we’re seeing in the first weeks of the season.
The biggest impact so far has been a flood of injuries that began in preseason, and will impact everything from the final standings to the July 27 All-Star Game (balloting began Sunday, and fans can vote at games or online, VOTE HERE). The poster child for the hurt-so-bad group is the defending champion Indiana Fever, who were missing four – that’s right, four – guards in Sunday’s four-point loss to Washington.
Katie Douglas, Erin Phillips, Jeanette Pohlen and Layshia Clarendon were all MIA, plus post Jessica Davenport. So even though Lin Dunn is one of the most accomplished coaches in the game, there’s little she can if she has to play Karima Christmas 34 minutes every night.
San Antonio had similar issues, missing Sophia Young, Becky Hammon and Jayne Appel (three starters, all All-Stars) in a 64-48 loss to L.A. Saturday, and Tulsa has lost four overtime games in large part due to an injury list that now is down to 6-8 Liz Cambage and power forward Tiffany Jackson-Jones, both of whom would start.
Seattle, of course, lost Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird, two of the best players in the world, before the season even began, and Connecticut took a preseason hit when Asjha Jones decided not to come back, and has been without backup perimeter players Renee Montgomery and Tan White.
Not surprisingly, those five teams are a combined 8-24 so far this year – but there is more to the story than just injuries.
New York, for example, has had its share of body blows, including an ACL tear to Essence Carson and the knee problems that ended Cheryl Ford’s return to the league before it even began. Yet, under new coach Bill Laimbeer, the Liberty are 4-2. Even the much-maligned Corey Gaines has Phoenix at 3-3 despite missed time from Penny Taylor, Britney Griner and Candice Dupree. Los Angeles, at 3-2, has had to play without Alana Beard, its top perimeter defensive player, though the presence of new point guard Lindsey Harding has helped offset that loss.
So it makes sense that this season’s biggest surprise, the Washington Mystics, should be doing well, as they have not had to deal with as many devastating injuries, but at the same time new coach Mike Thibault has taken the roster Trudi Lacey couldn’t do anything with, revamped it, and shaped a very competitive team that could stay in the hunt all summer long. (At the same time, injury-riddled Connecticut has struggled under the guidance of Anne Donovan, who was brought in to replace Thibault for reasons still unclear.)
Atlanta has also avoided the injury bug, and has the league's best record at 6-1. Coach Fred Williams will be tested with Sancho Lyttle playing for Spain in the next few weeks, and Ruth Riley, who they picked up in her absence, isn't an equal replacement, but should contribute some valuable minutes. Things are looking good in ATL, so far Williams has Angel McCoughtry on track, and has gotten more out of Jasmine Thomas in seven games than Lacey could in two years.
Chicago, at 4-2, has not only benefitted from overall good health but the presence of rookie Elena Delle Donne, who has proven to be the big-time scorer they needed. When Epiphanny Prince left to play for her home-away-from-home Russia and its national team, the Sky did drop in efficiency, but coach Pokey Chatman does seem to have the pieces in place to finally get Chicago to the postseason.
And that brings us to Minnesota, a team that has been pretty much injury free, is loaded with talent, and is well-coached – a combination that bodes well for the Lynx as the season progresses. Of course, no one can predict or control injuries, as this year’s unexpected plague proves, so if the Lynx were, like Indiana, suddenly to lose their top four guards, even they would find winning a lot more difficult.
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