The WNBA East at the Break
by Clay Kallam
This week, it’s time to double down – there will be Six Points rather than Three, as we take a quick look at each team in the WNBA East heading into the long Olympic break. (It does seem that five weeks is a little much, really …)
Of course, the division between East and West is purely arbitrary in 2016, as the eight playoff teams will be seeded by their 34-game record only, with no regard to geographical placement. But for articles like this one, it’s convenient, if not precisely on point.
Remember, each team has about 10 games left, which means an eight-game winning streak can seriously shake up the standings.
1. New York Liberty (18-8, No. 3 seed in playoffs): The Liberty could have an epiphan(n)y when play resumes Aug. 26, as all-star Epiphanny Prince might, or might not, make her first appearance of the season. The 5-8 combo guard is coming off a knee injury, but she’s a 28-year- old career 14-point- a-game scorer with a career PER of 20.5 (15 is average). The problem? New York is playing very well without her, and it’s also unclear just what she can bring to the table after November surgery for an ACL tear suffered in Russia.
At full strength, she steps right in to play Bill Laimbeer’s lead guard alongside Sugar Rodgers, who has emerged as a top-shelf shooting guard, pushing veteran leader Tanisha Wright to the bench and erratic second-year point guard Brittany Boyd out of the rotation. But she and Rodgers both need their shots, and what’s most important is that former MVP Tina Charles keeps getting hers. Charles is averaging 21.4 points a game, to go along with 9.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists, and she, not even a healthy Prince, has to be the focus of the offense.
The Liberty will also have the fully integrated services of forward Rebecca Allen, who has played only 13 games after coming back from an injury, plus the surprisingly strong play of second-year post Amanda Zahui B., who has blossomed under Laimbeer.
So if all goes well, New York will be even better than the pre-break 18-8 team and could conceivably even challenge for one of the top two spots in the playoffs, which would mean a bye into the semifinals and avoidance of a single-elimination second-round game. Even if things don’t go well – if Prince is either still hampered or the adjustment is slow – the Liberty seem locked into the third spot, and certainly have a puncher’s chance to win it all.
2. Atlanta Dream (13-12, No. 4 seed): Pat Riley famously said the NBA is a make-it or miss-it league, but it’s true of basketball at all levels, including the WNBA – and Atlanta is only 13-12 because the Dream simply miss it too often. The team’s dismal three-point percentage (26.7%) is worse, relatively speaking, than its 41.2% overall percentage or its 75.9% free-throw percentage, but none of those numbers are that good.
Only the fact that the Dream have attempted 97 more free throws than its opponents keeps the offense more or less on track, but stat folks will point to Atlanta’s -2.7 point differential per game and claim that the Dream’s 13-12 record is really a mirage.
What makes Atlanta’s position even more precarious is that star Angel McCoughtry is struggling, despite her enormous talent, and her volatile (to put it politely) personality is always an issue. Tiffany Hayes has played well, except for that unsightly 25.3% from beyond the arc, and Elizabeth Williams has done everything but shoot well after coming over from Connecticut.
Layshia Clarendon, another newcomer, has been adequate at the point, but if Sancho Lyttle’s foot injury lingers into September, don’t expect the Dream to finish above .500. Still, six of the last nine games are at home, and despite the presence of both the Lynx and the Sparks on the September schedule, there are also games with San Antonio, Seattle, Connecticut and Phoenix (twice).
The playoff prognosis, however, remains uncertain, and that No. 4 seed looks to be more than a little shaky.
3. Indiana Fever (12-12, No. 5 seed): Though coach Stephanie White may have a split focus – she takes over at Vanderbilt when the WNBA season ends – the Fever have won five of their last six, and hot streaks in a 34-game season can change everything.
But like Atlanta, a negative point differential (-0.8) is not a positive indication, and even worse, the biggest contributor to that -0.8 has been on defense. Opponents are shooting a stunning 47.3% against Indiana, even with the presence of historically strong defenders such as Tamika Catchings, Briann January and Erlana Larkins.
But this is Catchings’ last season, and the 37-year- old will return after the grueling Olympic run, so expecting her to be better down the stretch is expecting too much. Maybe rookie Tiffany Mitchell will use the break to set herself up for a strong finish, and maybe White can figure out how to get more usage out of Lynetta Kizer, who has played extremely well in just 16.6 minutes a game.
It would help even more if Marissa Coleman remembered how to play, as she has been simply awful this season and lost her starting spot. Granted, Erica Wheeler has stepped up, but she is shooting just 29% from three-point distance. More likely contributors in the final 11 games are Shenise Johnson and Devereaux Peters, but neither is a sure thing – and neither is an Indiana playoff berth.
4. Chicago Sky (11-13, No. 6 seed): One of the most puzzling teams in the WNBA, the Sky features elite youngster Elena Delle Donne, the reigning MVP, and veteran star Cappie Pondexter plus emerging rookie Imani Boyette, and supersub Allie Quigley.
But the whole doesn’t equal the sum of the parts in Chicago, as Pokey Chatman has struggled to put the pieces together. Pondexter, shooting just 40.8% from the field, lost her starting job for a while, and Jamierra Faulkner and Courtney Vandersloot’s differing styles seems to have made it difficult for the offense to function smoothly for both.
Oddly, the Sky also eschew the three-point shot, despite a team percentage of 38.6, and coupled with an ineffective post game, the team relies on mid-range jumpers, the statistically most inefficient shot in the sport. It also doesn’t help that Boyette, who’s shooting 58.6% from the field and averaging 10.7 rebounds per 36 minutes of playing time, struggles with foul trouble and has to give way to aging Erika DeSouza, who’s just a shadow of her once-dominant self.
Sky fans pin their postseason hopes on a rejuvenated Pondexter in the final weeks, a smarter Boyette and a smoother offense, all of which could help result in a plus-.500 record and maybe even a bump into the fourth seed. On the other hand, more losses like the one to last-place Connecticut in the final game before the Olympic break could mean a trip to the lottery and perhaps an end to Chatman’s time on the bench.
5. Washington Mystics (9-15, No. 8 seed): Most people don’t immediately think “shot-blocking” when they think of the WNBA, but as coaches preach, you don’t have to block shots to make it hard to score inside. Rim protection is what it’s about, and that’s one of the things lacking in D.C. Another is quality play at the point, and a third is consistent shooting, and that combination of traits makes it pretty obvious why the Mystics are 9-15 and on the verge of lottery land.
But first, the positive: At 23, Emma Meesseman is one of the best players in the league. The Belgian is averaging 15.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.2 steals a game, and shoots 53.9% from the floor, 57.1% from three and 83.6% from the line. The 6-4 forward, though, is not a shotblocker or a physical presence, and at this point, can’t really carry a team.
Neither can Tayler Hill though she takes the most shots per 36 minutes of anyone on the roster (making just 34.2% of them). Hill gets to the line, has an excellent assist/turnover ratio (2.0) and is an adequate defender, but the Mystics need Ivory Latta to return to her 2015 form, or they just don’t get enough from their backcourt.
They also don’t get much from the post combination of Stefanie Dolson and Kia Vaughn, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt only starts because someone has to. On the plus side, Natasha Cloud is steadily improving, and rookie Kahleah Copper looks like a keeper, but this is a team that simply needs more talent. Mike Thibault has shown himself to be an above-average WNBA coach, but there’s only so much clipboard magic can do. If Washington makes the playoffs and somehow wins a first-round game, count the season as a real success; if the lottery looms, well, better players are just what this franchise needs.
6. Connecticut Sun (8-16, lottery): One big problem: Players don’t care much for Uncasville. Tina Charles forced her way out and became an MVP in New York, and this year, starting center Kelsey Bone found a path to Phoenix. Yes, the Sun still have Chiney Ogwumike, who has bounced back from microfracture surgery and is playing at a very high level, but first-year coach Curt Miller doesn’t really have much else in the cupboard.
Alex Bentley is a poor shooter (38.1%) who takes five more shots per 36 minutes than Ogwumike (60.4%) and also doesn’t get to the line. Jasmine Thomas is a fine point guard, except for that part about putting the ball through the basket, and Alyssa Thomas is a nice power forward who hasn’t really added much to her game since college.
It’s possible rookies Jonquel Jones and Morgan Tuck will develop into quality players, but since neither can beat out Camille Little, who has a negative Win Share (a difficult feat) and a PER that’s half of the league average of 15, it’s clear Miller doesn’t have a lot of options.
The Sun are trying, though, as they picked up Courtney Williams from Phoenix in return for Bone, but despite being advertised as a point guard, she has six assists in 114 minutes for Connecticut and only Bentley takes more shots per 36 minutes. Scorer deluxe Rachel Banham wasn’t playing much, but then blew out her knee, giving more minutes to the Teflon career of Kelly Faris, who Sun fans want to cut every year.
It’s possible that the Sun can build off such successes as road wins over Minnesota, Dallas and Chicago, but it’s more likely that Connecticut will once more be plotting lottery strategy – unfortunately, even that may not help, as the 2017 draft does not appear to have the kind of impact player the Sun need to become serious playoff contenders.