Movin' On: A Place in the SBNation

. Thursday, September 17, 2009
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Full disclosure: yesterday's post about how SBNation.com could influence women's sports coverage (and probably the post before that) was foreshadowing some exciting news.

The exciting news is that as of today, I will be writing for Swish Appeal, a new women's basketball site at SBNation.com, one of the largest and fastest growing fan-centric sports communities full of innovative social media goodies that I'm still figuring out.

Perhaps most interesting, is that Swish Appeal will be the first dedicated women's sports blog on the site.

As someone interested in the expansion of women's sports coverage, I find this to be a pretty exciting development and look forward to continuing to develop as a writer and WNBA observer. For more insight into what we are planning for Swish Appeal, please see our welcome message.

Of course, that means the less exciting news (for me, at least) is that Rethinking Basketball - a relatively small corner of the WNBA blogosphere - is coming to an end. Content from the site will remain in this domain for a week, but then be moved to Swish Appeal.

If you have subscribed to Rethinking Basketball or followed it closely, I recommend subscribing to Swish Appeal today and continuing to follow me there. Blogger has been fun (and I spent way too much time with code on this site), but SBNation.com is an even cooler place to be.

This is a good time to say that I appreciate all of the critique, encouragement, and support (linkage) from people to this point -- that of course is what makes blogging exciting and fulfilling, in addition to the fact that I love writing about basketball.

I hope we can extend the interaction into the SBN community.




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On Writing (Part 2): How Might Advances in Social Media Influence Women's Sports Coverage?

. Wednesday, September 16, 2009
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I ended yesterday’s post about “good journalism” as follows and figure it would be a good way to start today’s post:

“Last Thursday, SBNation’s launch of its redesigned website, which includes an innovative “StoryStream” feature, struck me as an interesting lens through which to explore all of these questions.

What strikes me as most significant about SBNation’s approach to sports journalism is that it represents a convergence of the best principles of “traditional” journalism and “fan journalism”. Although SBNation has not previously covered women's sports, their model of journalism has potential to enhance the way women's sports is covered.”

With that I borrow a pair of questions from an upcoming panel at the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for today’s post:

1. Will this technological paradigm shift challenge or reproduce the ways in which female athletes are traditionally portrayed in mainstream sport media?

2. Will the unprecedented popularity of social media—and the alternative “ways of knowing” it provides to traditional media—fundamentally alter how we view women’s sports?
Since SBNation has not previously covered women’s sports, it probably seems odd to use that site as a lens to think about social media and women’s sports. However, consider this comment from a post on the One Sport Voice blog:
The ultimate strategy (for women's sports) then it to is push for more integration of women’s sports into mainstream media, while continuing to carve out a space in social media. That way we ensure women’s sports are not ghettoized in the “opt-in” exclusive space (not everyone has access to the WWW) of social media.
I would suggest that the combination of SBNation’s redesign in addition to its size, readership, and partnerships with major outlets like Google, Yahoo, and CBSSports, is the perfect platform with which to begin the integration of women’s sports into mainstream media.

The infrastructure exists in a site like SBN to accomplish the task of elevating women's sports coverage.

Embedded in SBNation’s redesign is the use of social media to enhance, rather than diverge from, the “excavation” process (as phrased by Stephen King and described in yesterday’s post) that characterizes the activity of good “traditional” journalism. In addition to shifting what is covered as “news”, it also has the potential to shift how news about women’s sports is consumed.

As stated in the first paragraph of SBN's statement about the revamped site, it is all about encouraging and facilitating dialogue among fans about things they care about rather than dictating the agenda to follow. Bankoff compares the revamped site to a sports version of Huffington post, complementing rather than conflicting with major media outlets like ESPN.com or CNN/SI.com.

However, the structure of its SportsStream which is a consolidated stream of “the latest news feeds, Tweets, videos, comments that move a major sports story along,” according to CEO Jim Bankoff also represents a shift even from traditional online journalism.

Rather than an emphasis on reporting the story of the day, the focus is on multiple perspectives on a given situation that the readership cares about, commentary on those perspectives, and comments on the commentary.

By hypothetically consolidating the voice of the athlete with the voice of the media with the voice of the fan, readers should be able to get a far richer perspective on any given sporting event than they would have by reading any one of those sources in isolation. It is at the cutting edge of how any news is covered, even beyond the sports world. So could it help women's sports?

Can the technological advances of SBN “fundamentally alter how we see women’s sports”?

On one hand, comparing a sports fan-site to a left-leaning political site might seem like a stretch. On the other hand, maybe it’s appropriate for a sports site to be seen in the same light.

Reading Helen Wheelock’s article about Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Michelle V. Agins, I was reminded of an excerpt from Raquel Cepeda’s introduction to her book, “And It Don’t Stop”, a collection of seminal hip-hop journalism:
Hip-hop journalism built on the tradition of hip-hop as a societal reflector. The hip-hop journalists not only understood, but were themselves participants also aching to be understood…Today would be hip-hop journalists are faced with a challenge to explore the substance beneath the surface. While the writings about hip-hop in the alternative press legitimized the music because it helped identify it to the masses of eighties, and helped our generation define itself within its social and political paradigms in the nineties, we are now being faced with the task of covering more interesting aspects than what the mainstream predicates. And while we’re ushering in the new millennium, writing about hip-hop still has the potential to be used as a conduit for change.
I would argue that women's sports does function as a social reflector with plenty of rich substance beneath the surface of the game.

However, the question is what it means for women's sports writers to see themselves as "responsible for history", like Akins or early hip-hop writers did. I am not suggesting they do not...but seeing oneself as a journalist responsible for excavating a historical story is much different than a journalist seeing oneself as merely relaying facts.

Furthermore, if you believe Hoopsworld writer Steve Kyler that ESPN influences who is popular and who is not in sports and Huffington Post contributer Casey Gane-McCalla that, “Sports stereotypes have a real effect in the real world,” then the way major traditional sports news institutions cover women’s sports has a real effect on women.

Sports journalism – both how it is covered and how it is consumed – matters, especially when it comes to covering women’s sports which have been unapologetically demeaned by the mainstream media.

If you’re like me, this is a sobering commentary on the state of affairs in the U.S. – the free flow of ideas that seems central to a democracy is not necessarily supported by our media outlets in any domain.

Hence the exuberance about social media, mine included.

However, as Nicole Lavoi wrote in her post about social media back in May, there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that social media will single-handedly change the way women’s sports are covered. However, the technological infrastructure of sites like SBN have the capacity to shift the way the women’s sports are covered. The question is how to best take advantage of that.

After all, there is at least one thing that we do have empirical evidence to support: the mainstream “traditional” media is probably not going to shift the way they cover women’s sports any time soon.

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On Writing (Part 1): What is Good Journalism?

. Tuesday, September 15, 2009
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Since blogging has become an extended writing exercise for me that unites academic, professional, and personal interests, I’ve been focusing a lot more on journalism lately, both reading more widely and reading books about writing.

Most of us have the ability to identify countless examples of problematic (or flat-out bad) journalism and criticize it, especially when it comes to the coverage of women’s sports.

However, the much more difficult challenge that I constantly struggle with is actually identifying specific characteristics “good” journalism beyond broad abstractions like “intellectual journalism” or technocratic guidelines for reporting on women’s sports.

What exactly do good journalists do? And how might we apply it to writing about women’s sports? More importantly, how does that influence digital media outlets?

While it may feel tempting to say that there is no universal standard of “good” traditional journalism, patterns have emerged in the reading I’ve done about journalism over time.

Journalism as excavation

As I’ve been reading about journalism it occurred to me that whether it be the hip-hop journalism of the early 1980’s, I.F. Stone’s political journalism throughout the 20th century, or even Stephen King’s description of his brief career as a sports reporter (yes, the horror writer began his career covering high school basketball), there seem to be common characteristics of “high-quality” journalism.

Last Wednesday, I stumbled upon Andy Rooney’s video essay shown at Walter Cronkite’s memorial, which coincidentally echoed what I had already been reading.

[Walter Cronkite] was a great anchorman in the news business because his greatest contribution was not his knowledge or his expertise, as great as those were; it was his steady holding to what was most important. Every writer, every news man or woman who’s worth anything, secretly hopes that he or she will have some good influence on the world. It’s a preposterous wish, of course, but he had it. If it can be said about any individual in our business that he’s been a force for good in the world, Walter Cronkite was that person.
As alluded to in Rooney’s comments, “quality” journalism – whether broadcast, digital, or print – is predicated on the writer’s ability to identify the most important angles of a situation to create a story and present insights that help us reflect on our own perception of the world. That probably strikes most people as obvious at some level, but how one goes about that is much more difficult…at least if you’ve actually tried to do it.

Perhaps more concretely, in his New York Times bestseller On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King provides a vivid metaphor for writing stories to illuminate the difference between plot-driven and situation-driven writing. Given that journalism is generally situation driven, his description is instructive for journalists as well.

Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small, a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer.



I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do so because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story. Some of the ideas which have produced those books are more complex than others, but the majority start out with the stark simplicity of a department store window display or a waxwork tableau…The situation comes first.
In reflecting on the journalists or writing that I most admire, this attention to the situation during the “excavation” process is exactly what makes their writing great.

Last Thursday, SBNation’s launch of its redesigned website, which includes an innovative “StoryStream” feature, struck me as an interesting lens through which to explore all of these questions.

What strikes me as most significant about SBNation’s approach to sports journalism is that it represents a convergence of the best principles of “traditional” journalism and “fan journalism”. Although SBNation has not previously covered women's sports, their model of journalism has potential to enhance the way women's sports is covered.

Next: How social media can enhance traditional media...and the connection of all of that to women's sports...

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Seattle Storm: “Absolutely Nothing to Play for Other Than Pride”

. Friday, September 11, 2009
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As a WNBA fan who has just completed his first (near) full season watching Storm basketball at Key Arena, last night’s overtime loss against the Mercury will stand out as one of the most memorable because it demonstrated something about their character.

The reason is simple: there was absolutely no reason for anyone to believe that the Seattle Storm would compete in last night’s game. That the Storm made it to overtime almost boggles the mind.

The game itself was meaningless, expectations were low, and they limped into the game with four players injured and two replacement players aboard just to field a full rotation.

Taking a loss and looking ahead to the playoffs would have been a perfectly respectable outcome given the circumstances. A blow out might have been justifiable.

Yet it never seemed to occur to the Storm that they were supposed to lose.

It’s as though there is nothing about playing in Key Arena that even begins to imply that they might lose a game, despite home losses this year that serve as objective disconfirming evidence.

And I love that.

But before you dismiss this as fluff, consider that not every team responds to this type of situation in the way the Storm did. Many teams – not only in the WNBA, but also in professional sports more broadly – would just mail it in. I will let you use your imagination to think of concrete examples of that occurring, but I think you get the point.

Really, gutsy performances like that – competing for the sake of it or having fun – is what I love about sports. It’s part of what I love about watching people compete and competing myself. It’s a trait that I admire in people – the willingness to set a goal and pursue it even if there seem to be insurmountable barriers ahead.

And honestly, I normally detest the notion of a “moral victory” because so often it’s used to connote finding the silver lining of a hurricane rather than actually speaking to the illumination of a team’s character. But the fact that the Storm even pushed that game to overtime last night says a ton about the Storm’s character.

It was enough to make me put off meeting a friend to finish watching the game. Enough for me to spend time writing about a game I promised myself not to write about. Of course that may be more indicative of a basketball obsession turned pathological more than anything else, but that’s neither here nor there.

That game was the epitome of what people might call a “moral victory”.

Not just because it shows that the Storm can play with playoff intensity or that a consistently struggling bench has the capacity to play ball against the league’s best. The game showed that the Storm have heart. That they’re more mentally tough that I had previously given them credit for. And that losing is not an option they care to explore, even when it’s the justifiable path of least resistance.

Win or lose, I can watch a team like that every single day of the week.

Brief Statistical Update:

In contrast to the limping Storm who had to play their guts out to even keep pace, the Mercury played about five minutes of disciplined basketball to pull this out.

The Mercury's best period was arguably the overtime period when they shot 71% from the field, had a game low turnover percentage of 11% committing only one turnover, and controlled the boards. After going 0-6 from the three point line in the fourth quarter and shooting no more than 5 per quarter during the game, guard Diana Taurasi shot the only one in the overtime period. And suddenly, it looked like they were starting to play defense.

Transition Points:

I made the grave mistake of discussing my basketball fantasy of Storm forward Lauren Jackson playing with the Mercury with Storm fans. I was appropriately shamed. Forgive me Storm fans for I know not what I do.

After watching Phoenix forward DeWanna Bonner up close
, I'm more firmly on the Bonner for Sixth Woman bandwagon. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, in fact, because it's an award earned relative to a larger pool of players, it should be the *more* prestigious award.

Again, I'm relatively new to the WNBA. But has there ever been a better *regular season* experience in Key Arena? The combination of five overtime games and the amazing parity around the league means that almost every single game at Key Arena this summer was exciting. I am making that claim without any sort of first hand evidence...so please do educate me.

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Defense Defines Sparks Victory Over Silver Stars

. Wednesday, September 9, 2009
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If what you like about basketball is high-octane offense, elegantly executed offensive sets, and great scoring performances from stars, then the Los Angeles Sparks’ 76-68 victory over the San Antonio Silver Stars was probably agonizing.

However, there is something equally compelling about the level of defensive intensity that both teams played with last night that seems to add to the drama of transitioning from the regular season to the playoffs.

The type of defense played last night is not only indicative of a level of aggression, grittiness, and tenacity not normally associated with women’s sports, but also makes the anxiety and sense of urgency of the playoffs start to become tangible.

It’s easy to write off last night’s game as merely an example of poor basketball by pointing to the 16-16 first quarter or the Sparks’ abysmal second quarter in which they shot 28.6%. And as with any game there were missed assignments or mental lapses.

Instead, I suggest that the defining element of both halves was the defensive tone that was established early and particularly caught my eye on a play in which Silver Stars center Ann Wauters made a stop on Sparks forward Candace Parker.

It’s rare to see a Rethinking Basketball post focused on defense, which is somewhat ironic considering that I was a defensive specialist for most of my non-descript organized basketball career. As such, this season I’ve been keeping track of defensive statistics, no matter how futile a cause it may seem.

Defense is probably the most difficult thing to analyze in basketball because there really is no reasonable way to assess it without knowing a) the team’s scheme, b) the overall strategy that the scheme is part of, and c) what is expected of each individual within that strategy.

For example, there are times when a team will live with giving up one thing in hopes of shutting down another. Play to play it might look like “bad defense” on the part of a player when it reality it’s a reasonable strategy to win a game given the personnel. What might seem like a lapse in one situation, may be a stroke of brilliance in another.

The Silver Stars used a creative defensive scheme in the first quarter to keep the Sparks off balance, playing a man defense that functioned something like a zone when players switched.

For example, with 8:55 left in the first, Sparks point guard Noelle Quinn set up the offense for the Sparks and initiated the play by dribbling around a Parker screen on the right wing. Normally on a screen such as that against a man-to-man defense, one would expect a simple exchange of defensive assignments in which Becky Hammon who was guarding Quinn would stick with Parker and Sophia Young would switch from Parker to Quinn.

Instead the Silver Stars made a much more complicated move. Young did step up and stop Quinn, who was clearly setting up a play to Parker, who was rolling to the basket. But rather than Hammon picking up Parker, Ann Wauters – who was sagging way off Lisa Leslie -- picked up Parker and Hammon picked up Leslie who was at the top of the key.

Confusing? Yes, and it’s just as confusing if you have to play against it. That’s the point.

And the Silver Stars did it all game to great effect. It wasn’t until halftime adjustments were made that the Sparks were able to really turn a corner.

Of course, part of the Sparks second-half turnaround was a matter of running more of a fluid motion offense rather than standing around trying to merely exploit their size advantage in the post. Nevertheless, what stifled the Sparks repeatedly in the first half was the Silver Stars defense.

But what actually got my attention is when the uber-athletic Parker actually went to make a move against Wauters on the same play.

Parker took two dribbles with her back to Wauters, subtly giving shoulder fakes to try to catch Wauters off balance and make a spin and drop step. When Parker finally did turn and make a drop step, Wauters did not budge and was able to bother Parker’s shot and send it off the far side of the rim strong.

Obviously, this was a combination of good scouting and good defensive strategy that made that entire sequence happen. But the reason it grabbed my attention is that those are the type of defensive plays that don’t show up in the box score and often go unnoticed.

In the second half, it was the Sparks’ defensive intensity that defined the game flow as the Sparks just used their size and physical advantages to prevent the Silver Stars from doing much of anything – finding scoring opportunities, making interior passes, or even cutting through the lane.

Moreover, the Silver Stars didn’t get to the free throw line once in the third quarter, which was a result of the Sparks defense, regardless of whether the game was called perfectly (no basketball game in history ever has been to my knowledge).

Both sides played physical in the post throughout the game and most of the time it was simply a matter of being disciplined enough to hold one’s position, resist the temptation to bite on fakes or wilt at the sign of any potential contact, and being willing to take a hit and not back down.

And despite the obviously strong defensive play exhibited by both teams, the Silver Stars finished the game shooting 44.6%, while the Sparks shot 50%, including 70% in the second half on 19-29 shooting from the field.

When you combine that type of gritty play with strong offensive play you get what I consider the best of basketball.

It’s not just about the pretty highlight reel plays that excite us on the most basic level. It’s the ongoing chess match from play to play of each team trying to one up the other – on both sides of the ball – and constantly making adjustments, forcing their opponents out of their comfort zone, and improvising as a unit to try to tough out a win.

It’s not the prettiest thing for fans to watch, but it’s good all-around basketball that I have great appreciation for. It seems to give the game an edge that draws you into the competition and helps the player’s passion come alive.

And for a junkie like me, that’s beautiful.

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Rookie Rankings: A Resolution for the ROY Debate

. Tuesday, September 8, 2009
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After the Phoenix Mercury’s 100-82 victory over the Atlanta Dream on Saturday, Phoenix Stan declared Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner Rookie of the Year.

Before you dismiss Stan as a biased Mercury writer, the argument he lays out in favor of Bonner over Dream forward Angel McCoughtry is quite strong, especially the part about consistency. After all – and forgive me for being so semantic – but the award is for the Rookie of the Year, not Rookie of the Post-All-Star Break or Rookie of the Future. The year, as in this year.

For most of the season, I have argued something similar – that although McCoughtry strikes me as the more player with more star potential, Bonner is clearly the most productive rookie in the league, if for no other reason than her style of play fits perfectly with the Mercury’s style.

However, over the last month or so, that claim has been proven wrong – these are both very productive, very talented players, with bright futures, that are best compared as “different” rather than judging one as superior. And of course, the award is irrelevant to the young players themselves, as reported by Stan – all they care about is winning (which I suppose is a shame because if one of them didn’t care about winning it would be quite easy to choose between the two of them).

But even if they don’t care, I do. We (fans) do.

As such, I first want to modify the consistency argument that some people have made – statistically, McCoughtry has been right behind Bonner for most of the season. Bonner has maintained a pretty firm grasp of the #1 spot, but McCoughtry has been the clear #2 by any reasonable basketball standard for the majority of the season.

So given that, it probably should come as no surprise that the numbers reveal something different after McCoughtry’s consecutive Rookie of the Month awards: Bonner and McCoughtry are almost even now based on the framework of analysis I have used for rookies this season.

That pretty much negates the consistency argument – even if McCoughtry was not great during the first half of the season, the fact that she has drawn even with (or arguably surpassed) Bonner statistically means one of the following:

a) Bonner’s rate of production has declined, as McCoughtry’s minutes increased

b) McCoughtry has made up statistical ground so rapidly that she must be the superior player, or

c) Both.

With the consistency piece negated, it becomes much more difficult to determine who should win Rookie of the Year. WNBA.com makes an unconvincing argument for McCoughtry by citing one game, which is insufficient because the award is for performance for the duration of the season.

Most of the performance metrics – Efficiency, Tendex, and Model Estimated Value (I don’t have PER or WARP) – are too close to make a clear assessment. So it will probably come down to each individual voter selecting the person they just like better.

Nevertheless, I want to find an argument that goes beyond merely arbitrary. In doing so, I think there might be another variable that points to a resolution – since both of these players have been reserves for most of the season, they are also eligible for the Sixth Woman award.

As such, is it possible that one should win the Sixth Woman of the Year award and the other the Rookie of the Year award? I say yes.

The rookie ranking standard

In evaluating rookies this season, I’ve used the following standard for analysis based upon observation and the statistical work of others:

The best rookies can create their own scoring opportunities – and do so efficiently – while contributing to a team’s success.

As such, I’ve used a combination of three statistics – usage rate (the rate at which a player creates plays for themselves), Chaiken efficiency ratio (the ratio of scoring plays a player is individually responsible for vs. turnovers and missed shots), and Boxscores (a player’s individual to team wins).

As it has been for months now, Bonner and McCoughtry have been the only two rookies to rank in the top tier of the league in all three statistical categories. Just to establish the significance of that accomplishment, there are only 15 players – All-Stars and MVP candidates -- in the entire league who share that distinction. It makes it an impressive standard by which to judge rookies.

The numbers are as follows:

Bonner
Usage: 22.07
Chaiken Efficiency Ratio: 2.65
Boxscores: 2.79

McCoughtry
Usage: 26.77
Chaiken Efficiency Ratio: 2.07
Boxscores: 2.39

While Bonner is slightly more efficient and contributed slightly more to her team’s success, McCoughtry is more effective at creating plays for herself.

And the latter point about McCoughtry is what swings my opinion in favor of McCoughtry: she’s a playmaker, while Bonner is still primarily a player who is dependent on the players around her to set her up.

Although Bonner has a much higher offensive rebounding rate (20% to McCoughtry’s 7%) and free throw rate (44.9% to McCoughtry’s 30%), McCoughtry has a much higher assist rate (13.4% to Bonner’s 3%) and slightly higher 2 point percentage. McCoughtry is often heralded as the better all-around defender, but Bonner is an improving help defender and that’s extremely valuable in the Mercury’s defensive scheme.

Yes, Bonner’s playmaking ability has improved, but McCoughtry is clearly the better playmaker. Or to put it in Jeopardy terms, McCoughtry is probably the answer to the question, “Which rookie would you want to have the ball in her hands at the end of a game?” McCoughtry is that type of player that can create plays for herself and others when her team needs it.

McCoughtry has demonstrated the ability to take over games in addition to putting up statistics almost equivalent to those of Bonner.

Although the Dream have only gone 3-4 with McCoughtry replacing forward Chamique Holdsclaw in the lineup over the last 7 games, it’s worth nothing that 5 of those games were road games and the losses were to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Detroit, and Seattle – teams that were all hot when the Dream encountered them.

So when we consider which rookie is better, yes, it’s worth considering which rookie has demonstrated the ability to clearly dominate a game and carry her team to victory. It’s an intangible that we cannot measure statistically, but I think we have to agree that McCoughtry has more of “it” however you want to define that “It Factor”.

Conclusion: McCoughtry as ROY, Bonner as SWOY

But with these two players being the best two reserves by my rookie standard -- which is really just a playmaking ability standard – I think it’s fair to say that one of them is probably the Sixth Woman of the Year as well.

That is Bonner.

The reason is simple and less arbitrary than merely finding a way to reward Bonner for what she’s done. If we consider that the bulk of McCoughtry’s production this season has been as a starter, then it’s easy to claim that Bonner has been the better reserve. She has consistently brought more off the bench than any player in the league, while McCoughtry has emerged as clearly the most dominant rookie starter.

So yeah, ultimately that does look like a compromise, but I think it’s the reasonable way to go.

Here’s my ranking of the rest of the rookies, with statistical backing:

3. Shavonte Zellous

I really like Zellous’ game and over the course of the season her shot selection has improved and she looks like she’s playing much more under control as the Shock have settled into life after Bill. Statistically, she’s also the third best defender behind Bonner and McCoughtry. As has been the case all season, she still gets to the free throw line at a higher rate than anyone else in the league. If she can work on her playmaking ability in the offseason, she’ll be a dynamic second year player.

4. Anete Jekabsone-Zogota

The consistency argument in comparison to Zellous (and defensive ability) is what has Jekabsone in the 4th spot as opposed to #3. But in terms of offensive ability, she is probably one of the most well rounded and polished rookies of any. She doesn’t have the same type of game-changing ability that McCoughtry does, but on the other hand there isn’t much she cannot do.

5. Renee Montgomery

Montgomery is not the best rookie point guard in terms of making plays for others, but she is by far the most dynamic rookie point guard with her ball handling ability and ability to take opponents off the dribble, as evidenced by her top tier 2 point percentage.

Second Team/Honorable mention:

6. Briann January
(I’m partial to point guards, but she has demonstrated ability to lead her team as well as any other rookie)

7. Courtney Paris
(needs more post moves, but still one of the best rebounders in the league)

8. Quanitra Hollingsworth
(among the best rebounders in the league and working on scoring ability)

9. Shalee Lehning
(the only way you could argue against her being among the top rookies is if you are drinking a large glass of haterade. Even by the rather weak standard of EFF, available at WNBA.com, she’s #9. I could say more, but I think I’ve made the point by now).

10. Kristi Toliver
(if she played more…I would put her higher. But this is not a judgment of talent, but production)

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Downsize This: What Effect (If Any) Have Roster Cuts Had on the WNBA?

. Monday, September 7, 2009
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"We'd keep talking about the economy and trying to figure out how, from a budget standpoint, to move forward. It was just something the union and the WNBA agreed on. That's not to say it is what it is, but we want to stay around awhile. We don't want to . . . stay at 13 and then down the road look [back] and say we wished we would have went down [to 11]. So now we have that opportunity and it's going to make the league stronger." - Tamika Catchings, during a pre-season conference call (via Washington Post)
Bob Corwin of Full Court Press – the self-proclaimed “doom and gloom” writer of the WNBA – recently wrote a rather thorough and less gloomy article reflecting on the state of the WNBA.

Yet there was one thing that he left out: the effect of the league’s decreased roster sizes.

Downsizing WNBA rosters from 13 to 11 players was probably an economically sound decision to keep the league fiscally viable for the near future.

In fact, the WNBA should be applauded for recognizing the warning signs and, like, doing something about it.

As described by Paul Krugman in a New York Times article last week, it was widespread “blindness to the possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy” that precipitated the country's current economic situation. Further blindness by WNBA executives in the form of doing nothing would have only compounded already difficult circumstances for the league.

However, we should have learned something else from our current economic situation, regardless of whether you call it a “crisis”, “downturn”, “natural ebb and flow of the free market”, or “recession” – sometimes sound economic decision making comes from people who “mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth,” as described by Krugman.

None of us have the capacity to foresee the future, whether it be the long-term viability of the league or determining which teams will make the upcoming playoffs. Nevertheless, with a season’s worth of data in hand, it’s hard not to wonder about the non-economic impacts of shrinking rosters on a still-evolving league like the WNBA.

With the rash of injuries affecting the league’s all-stars at near epidemic proportions this year, people have naturally wondered whether the roster reductions are contributing to player injuries. And yes, the injuries are getting so bad that some games are almost unwatchable.

The Minnesota Lynx didn’t really win on Saturday, the Seattle Storm just lost. With three players out due to injury, the Storm shot a combined 6-32 in the 1st and 4th quarters, casting a dark cloud over the 2nd and 3rd quarters in which they shot over 70%.

And yesterday’s Chicago Sky-Detroit Shock game was not a whole lot better – despite a third quarter in which the Sky did not commit even one turnover, the Sky looked typically out of sorts with Sylvia Fowles limping around and Brooke Wyckoff out due to injury. And Detroit – with their own set of injury problems – was forced to play Deanna Nolan for the full 40.

In any event, I’m not sure shortened rosters explain the injury epidemic – we’d have to dig deep to figure out whether there is an increase in fatigue injuries relative to freak accidents compared to past years…and even then, figure out how roster sizes contributed. I’m not a sports doctor, so I’m going to leave that argument alone.

However, I did do a cursory survey of some people’s concerns about the roster reductions prior to the season and as the regular season comes to an end, I found it interesting to return to people’s pre-season speculation. Two points stood out to me: running effective practices and developing young talent.

Although it is difficult to make the argument that roster reductions have had a strong influence on game play this season, I think an argument could be made that it might harm the quality of play in the future, especially as the league looks to expand.

So how might this season’s roster reductions affect the league in the future?

“We talkin’ about practice – what are we talkin’ about? Practice?!?



Basketball is a 5 on 5 game. Therefore, it is nice to have 10 players in practice to work on both offensive and defensive sets.

So even if 8 or 9 players is enough to play a game with a pretty normal rotation of players for most teams (in the WNBA, pretty much all except Connecticut), it’s difficult to use practice time effectively, as CJ from TIB wrote in April:
Well…until you want a full practice when you are on the road. Let’s say that you have and 11-player roster, one person is injured and one is tweaked enough that you’d want to save her for the game. Now the best you can do is practice 4-on-5. Hardly ideal.
Of course, there are things teams can do with 8 or 9 players that are just as important as working on execution of plays with “live” defense. But if you’ve ever played or coached basketball, you know that those 5 on 5 simulations – even in stop-action drill situations – are valuable.

In theory, that practice time becomes even more valuable in a league with a relatively short regular season and a pre-season with fatigued players flying in from around the world. As such, in theory, teams would be much less crisp in games and the quality of play throughout the league would decline.

This is only the second full WNBA season I’ve watched so I have a limited frame of reference, but I would say the game play overall this season has actually been better than last. And I’ve seen and heard multiple people say this is among the strongest seasons ever.

But still I wonder, what might be the effect of limited practice time on teams?

Player development…or lack thereof…

A bit of wisdom drawn from other sports I’ve watched over the years is that for young players, that practice time against the vets in “game-like” situations is as valuable, if not more, for certain players.

To be more specific, I’m thinking about rookie NFL quarterbacks who sit out a season and observe games while participating in practice and countless NBA early entry rookies over the years who have publicly stated that practicing with/against the best on a daily basis was as much a contributor to their development as anything else.

The WNBA has now done two things that potentially harm player development: first, with shortened rosters, keeping a player on the roster merely for the sake of having them “learn” is a risk, especially for a playoff team that could use depth in their rotation. Second, even if you do choose to keep these “learners” on the roster, they won’t get the type of simulated situations that they might otherwise get with larger roster sizes.

Unfortunately, for a league to prosper long-term, it has to consistently bring in and develop young talent. While the level of competition has gotten more intense with the least talented players in the league now unemployed, what about the future?

With 19 rookies making rosters this year, who steps up as our current stars age and decline?

If a second year player has not shown enough development at the beginning of next year will they be cut instead of being given a second chance?

Theoretically, the league has put a constraint on its product that will limit its future prospects. Or maybe not.

Could a change in roster management philosophy be upon us?

It seems like rather than lamenting the limits the roster reductions have put on the league, we should focus instead of how teams can make this work because it is a legitimate economic decision.

What will be interesting is how general managers adjust player personnel strategies to work with the new limits put upon them.

Mechelle Voepel suggested in May that tweeners – a slightly more negative connotation than a versatile star -- and “pure point guards” would be the most likely victims of the roster reductions because they the least to offer. Prior to the draft, former Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said something slightly different – he went into the draft looking for versatility and landed Shavonte Zellous who has been among the top rookies, despite being something of a “tweener”.

However, when I look at what actually transpired this season, I see something slightly different. In needing to maximize roster space, teams cut players that did not have immediate use to them, but the best of the chopping block ended up catching on somewhere else. And in many cases – Tan White, Kiesha Brown, and Ketia Swanier come to mind (all coincidentally connected to the Connecticut Sun) – the waiver wire activity has benefited both teams and players.

So the roster cuts may have enabled the amazing parity we’ve seen this season simply because teams had to be more prudent with their roster slots. What we’ve seen is a redistribution of talent. And that has almost indisputably contributed to the immense parity of this season.

We could do a deep statistical analysis of the percentage of various player types that ended up making rosters, but I’m not sure how valuable that would be – the defining characteristic of the players cut is that they were previously unproductive for one reason or another rather than of a particular style of play.

Final answer: Inconclusive

Ultimately, I would say that the roster reductions have simultaneously contributed to this season’s parity and limited player development. However, the key will be to understand how exactly teams will approach player development going forward.

Do those 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft become less important because teams figure they can’t use those players? Or do those picks become more valuable as teams are more likely to take risks on potential diamonds in the rough that may not play with them for a few years?

However, a bigger question for me right now is given the increasing parity and the economic crunch, why exactly is the league choosing to expand now? If we accept common wisdom that expansion dilutes a league, then won’t that negate the one potentially positive outcome of these roster reductions?

Does the league really need a struggling team full of leftovers? Or will we just see players who were cut this year getting another chance to prove themselves next year and stepping up?

Whoa – that’s six straight questions, which probably says something about what I think about these roster reductions – it’s too soon to determine any sort of effect.

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“You Have to Try, You Have to Care!”: The (Totally Subjective) Definition of a Playoff Team

. Saturday, September 5, 2009
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There really is no way to predict who will end up making the playoffs, especially in the Eastern Conference.

However, the one thing that seems to be magnified as the post-season nears in a relatively small professional sports league with amazing parity is effort.

It seems sufficient to answer the question, “Who’s going to make the playoffs?” with the question, “Who wants it more?”

With each additional game played, the significance of the remaining games increases, particularly in the East. Meaning teams not only have to fight through the aches and pains collected during the season, but also the mental demands of the increasing pressure to win.

With the Eastern Conference playoff picture about as clear as the Swamp of Sadness, the playoffs will likely come down to the teams that are willing to fight through the looming threat of going home early.


Sadly, in watching the games last night you could see one team that has seemingly already lost its will to fight.

Watching the two late games last night – the Chicago Sky vs. the Washington Mystics and the Atlanta Dream vs. the Sacramento Monarchs – you could really start to see what separates playoff teams from those that will be adding lottery picks to their roster in 2010.

The Dream beat a Kara Lawson-less Monarchs team in Sacramento to win their second straight in the midst of a five game road trip. Rookie forward Angel McCoughtry strengthened her argument for Rookie of the Year with an impressive all-around game, recording 26 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds. Complementing McCoughtry in the post was Erika de Souza who finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds, helping the Dream dominate a traditionally strong Monarchs team inside.

The Dream did exactly what you want to see from a playoff team – they beat a limping team when they had to, even though they were in the middle of a road trip across the country. It makes you think they might be holding fast to the dream of their first playoff bid.

Then there’s the Chicago Sky.

Yes, the Sky beat the Mystics 92-86 to keep themselves in the playoff race.

But the score is actually deceiving – we 34.9 seconds left the Sky were actually down 85-84. The final score is more the result of an untimely turnover from Washington point guard Lindsey Harding and subsequent free throws.

Meaning the Sky were very close to losing this one.

That’s disturbing.

The Sky were essentially, though not mathematically, in a must-win situation at home on four days rest and center Sylvia Fowles returned to the lineup from injury. The Mystics were playing the second of a back-to-back, having beat the Seattle Storm at home the previous night. Oh yeah – they were playing without All-Star guard and standout defender Alana Beard.

No comment on rookie guard Kristi Toliver’s minutes.

It’s not uncommon for Golden State Warriors commentators to sum up the team’s 50th to 60th loss of a season by saying something along the lines of well, despite the narrow loss, it was a great moral victory. Since the NBA – nor any of the aforementioned imaginary basketball deities – has never recorded moral victories, this type of comment always works my nerves.

However, the Chicago Sky –the team that I will throw 100% of my fan fervor behind pending a clear strategy – have helped me to see the value of such a seemingly paradoxical claim by looking at its inverse:

Despite the narrow win, the Sky must be demoralized.

Ok, I know that immediately sounds ridiculous. But had you seen the game – or once you put the game in context – it all makes sense, though it still maintains a hint of absurdity.

If the Sky are not able to step up and put away a battle-weary team on their home floor, what reason do we have to believe that they can survive the fight to the playoffs?

With two of their remaining four games against the Detroit Shock, how will the Sky fend off a grittier, hungrier, and scrappier Shock team?

Looking at both their performance last night and their performance throughout the season, there is no reason to believe that the Sky have what it takes to win this race to the playoffs.

That’s a totally subjective opinion – obviously, I have no way of knowing what will transpire in the coming week. Maybe the Sky will suddenly wake up and play as though they know each other and might have been to a practice together once or twice.

In the meantime, I think they’ve given us ample reason to count them out.

And if that isn’t ample reason to make some changes in the off-season, I’m not sure what is.

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Orender, Parker Among the 55 Most Influential in Basketball

. Thursday, September 3, 2009
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Hoopsworld.com completed their list of the 55 "most influential leaders in basketball" and both Donna Orender and Candace Parker made the list.

54 - Donna Orender, President, WNBA: While the WNBA is far from a mainstream hit, the league is growing and awareness of the brand and the sport continues to grow. While the women's game is nowhere near as popular as the men's game, the WNBA's influence on the female sports fans is significant and advertisers and sponsors continue to support the league.
52 - Candace Parker, Player, Los Angeles Sparks (WNBA): She isn't quite LeBron James, but Parker is a star and her influence over the women's game is profound. She is extremely marketable, and a very solid basketball player. As the face of the WNBA she will be a key component to growing the WNBA fan base into a more mainstream product.
Obviously, the fact that ESPN is #2 on the list has some bearing on that, if you ask me.
2 - George Bodenheimer, President, ESPN – As the dominant sports brand in media ESPN controls the message. Bodenheimer, in turn, controls ESPN, so you do the math. ESPN is the ultimate kingmaker, their experts are experts by virtue of being with ESPN, and they own the broadcasting rights to so much of the sports landscape they can control and influence what is seen and heard across a variety of mediums. ESPN's influence on who is popular, who is not and what teams and situations are news shapes every aspect of the game. To many if ESPN reports it, it is real. ESPN's flagship program, SportsCenter, is one of the most-watched sports broadcasts anywhere. Between their news-making ability and broadcasting agreements no entity has more influence on the game than Bodenheimer's ESPN.
Though women's basketball coverage has gotten better, certainly the way ESPN covers the WNBA will continue to have an affect on its mainstream interest.

Surprisingly, Rebkell did not make the list.


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“Welcome to the new frontier”: Why the WNBA Needs More Whalen…and Parker...and LJ...and Cappie

. Tuesday, September 1, 2009
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Connecticut Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen is certainly not the most athletically gifted player and she doesn’t necessarily even make spectacular plays, and yet she consistently stands out in almost every game she plays, even to fans who can hardly spell her name.

Sometime during the first half of the Seattle Storm’s 86-74 home victory over the Connecticut Sun last Thursday, Bethlehem Shoals got my attention to show me a tweet from his second WNBA experience (corrected below for your reading enjoyment).

Whalen is such a great PG she doesn’t even need the ball!

While Shoals’ commentary may strike rational individuals as absurd, Whalen consistently stands out in almost every game she plays as in complete control of everything going on around her. She has a presence on the court that is felt even when she is doing things that seem rather pedestrian.

But how exactly do we describe what makes Whalen such a great player?

As I ponder the question, there’s one play from the Sun's 91-81 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks game this past Sunday night that stands out in my mind.

After Tina Thompson missed a baseline jumper with 4:49 left in the 3rd quarter of what looked to be a Sparks blowout, Whalen snuck through a gap in the lane untouched to grab the rebound. Having secured the ball and brushed off Sparks forward Candace Parker’s attempt to swipe the ball from her, Whalen left the 2008 MVP behind and pushed the ball up court at ¾ speed.

As she crossed the three point line, rookie forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton was faced with the unfortunate task of trying to stop Whalen. While common sense might tell us that Wisdom-Hylton had no shot to stop Whalen from going to the basket – having already drawn the attention of the defense, Whalen came to a stop just inside of the free throw line and just shuffled a pass to Sun forward Sandrine Gruda for an open jumper on the wing.

That play is certainly not the most spectacular of Whalen plays and in fact, it wasn’t even the most spectacular of her season-high nine assists from Sunday night. However, the play is quintessential Whalen, affecting the game with nothing more than the subtlest of moves to make the simplest of plays…repeatedly.

She makes basketball look as simple as lacing up our shoes.

Furthermore, it seems that Whalen has made a science of capitalizing on simplest principles of basketball, methodically analyzing a situation to make the best play possible.

To extend the point, even when watching Connecticut Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen in losses, it’s easy to see why she’s a perennial MVP candidate. Her presence on the court is felt, regardless of whether she has the ball in her hands. She’s tough enough to dive deep into the paint for rebounds and graceful enough to make the perfect pass to her teammate for a three pointer. It’s that attitude of winning by any means necessary that makes her great.

On his blog FreeDarko.com, Shoals would later make the claim that the WNBA “needs more Whalen”, primarily because of her “attitude” – “She talks non-stop, plays the whole game with a scowl on her face, and stared down the ref at the half.” However, I would like to expand upon why the WNBA needs more Whalen while also making a more narrow claim.

Earlier in his article, Shoals made what I think is the far more interesting claim in his article, something that I didn’t quite appreciate when we were caught up in the chaos of Key Arena on Thursday night.

I was serious when I twitted that she doesn't even need the ball to operate masterfully from the point. Depending on how you look at it, it's either quasi-mystical, or the kind of what people used to say about Deron Williams ("he gets hockey assists and stays within the system") before dude came to life, but true.

She gives it up almost as soon as she crossed half-court, or posts up at the top of the key, Cassell-style, but as a way of attracting attention and feeding someone else. And these aren't passes for assists; mostly, they set into motion a series of obvious events (two, three, four passes) that result in an open shot. Her teammates usually miss, and Whalen herself can hit the lane strong and sink jumpers at will, but whatever. She's bigger than that. Closest NBA comparison: Old Jason Kidd, if old Jason Kidd were young and could shoot.

(Speaking of which, last night I decided that comparing NBA to WNBA players is the logical next step of NBA esoterica. Like when Kevin told me "Darko was supposed to be what Lauren Jackson is." These days, everyone knows everything about every random player. If you value elitism and obscurity in your fandom—and buy my argument that the WNBA is a variation on the NBA, not an inferior product like college—then welcome to the new frontier.)
There are players in the WNBA like Whalen, Jackson, Parker and Cappie Pondexter that defy our natural inclination toward NBA comparison. These players don’t really have a NBA comparison unless you start fantasizing about maximizing the talent of superstars. They truly do represent a different, not inferior, style of basketball performance.

To stick with Whalen, the only way to make a NBA comparison is by either idealizing what we wished NBA players to be or somehow trying to play with time and the natural course of development to bring together the athleticism of youth with the savvy of age.

And perhaps that is the allure of Whalen for NBA fans –not only does she exhibit intensity and toughness that people do not normally associate with women’s sports, but she is an idealized image of what we wish our favorite point guards would become.

So it should be no surprise that longtime NBA fans, such as myself, Shoals, Phoenix Stan, and Stan’s guest Wattdogg10 all immediately notice Whalen as standing out as something special when we comment on the WNBA.

Players like Whalen, Jackson, Parker, and Pondexter are truly intriguing basketball narratives unto themselves that any true fan of the sport should be able to recognize as special and appreciate. Again, if you can't appreciate how these players play the game, it might be time for you to abandon basketball altogether.

So to elaborate on Shoals’ point, it’s not just that the WNBA needs more Whalen to enhance the product, but “more Whalen” might actually attract NBA fans simply because she would give them pause and really provide a new vision of the game they love. Ditto for Jackson, Parker, and Pondexter.

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Toliver Helps Sky to Victory: "Sometimes as a Young Player All You Want is a Chance."

. Saturday, August 29, 2009
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After hitting a free throw with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter to increase her career high scoring to 24, Chicago Sky rookie point guard Kristi Toliver stood at the free throw line with a huge grin.

It was hard to say what exactly she was grinning at because it looked like she was grinning in response to someone off camera.

So let me recklessly read into her grin a little: it had to be a relief to play so well after recording a DNP-CD in Los Angeles against the Sparks.

Toliver finished the game with a career-high 25 points, going 5-8 from the three point line, and played a key role in a huge 21-4 run that propelled the Sky to a 96-77 victory over the New York Liberty.

In a way, I suppose you could say it was a "boring" 25 points. As the commentators discussed entering the fourth quarter, a number of those shots were literally loose balls falling into her hands and her shooting almost indiscriminately over the outstretched arms of defenders.

But even in seeming like one of the most accidental 25 point performances the league has seen, her shot is just so beautiful. Her shot looks almost effortless and has an almost perfect arc before falling softly through the net. Dare I say she has one of the prettiest jump shots in the WNBA?

During the third quarter, as New York Liberty rookie post player Kia Vaughn was on a roll on her way to her own career-high 12 points, Mary Murphy said, "Sometimes as a young player all you want is a chance." And really, the statement seems to apply more directly Toliver than Vaughn, who has not had as many explosive performances during her rookie campaign.

It's hard not to wonder sometimes if Kristi Toliver has truly gotten a chance to have the rookie season people expected of her when she was drafted #3 in the 2009 WNBA draft. Of course there might be reasons for that which are beyond the reach of us outside observers.

But the strange thing is that aside from a turnover problem that's no longer any worse than her rookie point guard counterparts who are receiving a lot more playing time, Toliver has performed well in spurts when she enters the game. In fact, she has arguably outperformed teammates who take her time.

If the Sky had firmly secured a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference or at the very least shown consistent play this season, perhaps this would be a non-issue. However, as things stand now, it's difficult to make sense of the situation in Chicago.

Talent-wise, there's no reason Chicago should not be a playoff team. The fact that they're not should raise questions. If everyone who watches the team is perpetually wondering what the *bleep* are they doing?, then perhaps there's reason to believe things aren't quite right.

I would have remained silent on the Sky because...well...they defy explanation moreso than any team I've watched this season. It's not like the Sacramento Monarchs who are aging and injured or the Liberty who seem to be a poorly constructed and managed team. This team has too much talent to not be in a better position.

And Candace Dupree's comments to the media the other day don't exactly help assuage doubts

"I just feel like people have no motivation, Dupree said. "This is the first time in franchise history we could potentially make the playoffs and I don't feel like everybody plays like that every night. We've got to pick it up."

Doesn't that sound like a red flag that something really is not quite right with this team?

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Tia Jackson Greets University of Washington Fans at Key Arena: “A Defining Year” in a “New Era”

. Friday, August 28, 2009
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It did not occur to me that there were almost 70 people at the University of Washington women’s basketball gathering at Key Arena last night until head coach Tia Jackson called the group together for her remarks about the team.

“Come on, get closer,” said Jackson with a casual and unassuming demeanor, before saying something to the effect of I won't bite.

After dispensing with the formalities of making small talk with the crowd of season ticket holders donning a mix of Storm gear and civilian clothing, she moved into the business of discussing the team. She introduced the players accompanying her – guard/forwards Kristi Kingma and Sami Whitcomb and center Regina Rogers -- and then went into some more formal remarks and Q&A for about 15 minutes.

The event took place in the northwest corner of Key Arena just behind section 111 about 30 minutes before the Seattle Storm clinched a playoff berth with an ugly 86-74 victory over the Connecticut Sun.

But one thing that can be said about Jackson: she’s honest while simultaneously maintaining a positive tone about some potentially trying circumstances. Expectations for this team are low after finishing last place in the Pac-10 in Jackson’s third season last year and this season will be about searching for bright spots as the team tries to escape the cellar.

I am intent on following women’s college basketball this season and UW will likely be my gateway into the Pac-10. Since I was already planning to be at Key Arena to watch Lindsay Whalen with Shoals, I figured I’d drop by Jackson’s chat just to get a sense of where the team is coming from and whether there are any particularly interesting story lines to follow and get excited about.

Of course, a pre-season talk for a team with low expectations is going to be more about cultivating faith than enabling hope. But that’s part of what I like about college basketball: although some people may find it depressing to watch a losing team full of players who will probably “go pro in something other than sports”, I actually enjoy it. At it’s best it becomes basketball for the sake of basketball, with the added incentive of a fully funded college degree. I will always like the pros more, but the sappy side of me cannot avoid folks playing for pride while getting an education.

Seventy percent of the UW team has been around during the summer, sophomore forward Liz Lay has “lost 26 pounds and looking remarkable”, and Jackson is also excited about recruiting -- UW has two early commitments from the state of Washington and one from California.

Another emerging bright spot entering the season is point guard Christina Rozier who started 19 games last year, but wasn’t in shape so it took her awhile to find her rhythm. She’s worked in the off-season to get in shape, is in “extremely good shape” right now and is looking forward to being a larger contributor this year.

However, the most intriguing bright spot for the team this season is undoubtedly Rogers, a 6’3” transfer from UCLA who is returned home to Seattle for family reasons. The former McDonald’s All-American who received an honorable mention on Pac-10 All-Freshman team is expected to make an impact this season after red-shirting last season.

“If you just take a look to your left,” Jackson said, referring to Rogers amidst laughter in response to a fan’s question about expected changes in offensive philosophy, “I think that should sum it up right there.”

Rogers exudes confidence in speaking about her own game and Jackson spoke briefly about some of the things she brings to the team in addition to a large physical presence.

“She’s probably one of the most physical players…at UCLA in her freshman year, she ate us alive,” said Jackson, referring to a January 2008 game. “I thought she would score over her right shoulder, we jumped over there and she didn’t care – she said, ‘Ok, I’ll just stay here.’ And she ate us alive.”

Rogers may not really have eaten UW alive that game, only scoring 6 points and grabbing 3 boards off the bench. Nevertheless, she will be interesting to watch for me because she represents the type of player and attitude that many people don’t expect from women’s basketball – the dominant physical player who looks to over power opponents rather than out-finesse them.

Even if Washington ends up struggling to define themselves again this year in this new era, I find the transition of Rogers into a major contributor on the team to be a compelling story and worth watching.

Transition Points:

The main reason I went to last night’s game was to get a glimpse of Connecticut Sun guard Lindsay Whalen and even in a loss, I still believe she’s the best point guard in the country not playing for Russia. So congrats to Whalen for making the national team. It’s about damn time…

Shoals came to the game as well and posted about Whalen and the WNBA on his blog FreeDarko.com. Could more players like Whalen attract more people to the WNBA? I don't know. I’ll have more to say about Whalen tomorrow.

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“Our Little Girl”: No Winners in this Semenya Controversy

. Thursday, August 27, 2009
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Rather than merely fanning the simple-minded flames of conflict, good journalism – intellectual journalism – captures the vital moments of our shared culture and provides us with the perspective that allows us to step back and consider alternative perspectives.

However, that function becomes all the more difficult and more necessary when a conflict that should not even be a conflict arises.

That South African runner Caster Semenya is being subjected to gender testing is bad enough. That the media has now made an already difficult personal matter the subject of public discourse only exacerbates the problem.

How is this relevant to women’s basketball? Or rather, how did this topic make it out of my “randomness” tag?

As an observer of women’s basketball interested in the intersection of race, gender, and sport, this issue of how gender is perceived by the mainstream is of direct interest, if unsettling, to the WNBA. After all, the very notion of a “female athlete” is in many ways a challenge to standard notions of femininity.

And yet, I didn’t even pay attention to the issue when it first hit the public eye. I thought to myself, “how ridiculous – let the woman run” and went on about my day. But after an email exchange with some friends and reading a few half-baked articles, I started to pay more attention.

Fortunately, two real journalists – ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel and The Root’s Kai Wright -- have stepped up and provided the kind of perspective I’ve been craving. As evidenced by the need for Voepel to write her thoughts in two parts, sometimes good writing doesn’t fit neatly into the arbitrary noise of the 24 hour news cycle.

What stood out to me was their thinking about the implications of this story for gender in society beyond this individual athlete.

As bad as it is that her competitors made assessments of her gender based upon her physical appearance, it’s equally bad that those who sought to defend her made equally snap assessments, as Voepel describes.
(http://voepel.wordpress.com/2009/08/26/the-gender-question-part-2/)

But … all of this anger directed toward the IAAF and the insistence by so many people that this is unfair and discriminatory seems to be ignoring the possibility that Semenya may have a medical condition that causes gender ambiguity, and that she might also be facing gender-identity conflict.

In the understandable urge to “protect” a person who faces gender questions, well-meaning, sympathetic, open-minded and loving people might be making a mistake. They may be forcing that person into a “closet” that I think is even deeper and harder to talk openly about than that of homosexuality.

Leonard Chuene, president of Athletics South Africa, said this in a story from the Associated Press: “I stand firm. Yes, indeed, she’s a girl. We are not going to allow Europeans to describe and define our children.”

But I want to know this: Has Caster Semenya ever really had the chance to describe and define herself? Isn’t she the only one who has the right to “stand firm” on her gender? Could it be that she’s been convinced by all those around her –well-intentioned as they are – to “be” what they have decided she is?
Even in attempts by the well-intentioned to defend her, it’s as though we’re “always already” trapped within this binary thinking. If indeed, she does have a higher testosterone count – defying our categorizations – what do we do then?

And unfortunately, as described by Wright, this binary thinking is the problem moreso than how we choose to define her within our binary.
(http://www.theroot.com/views/semenyas-race-and-sex-struggle)
We cling to this lie of binary genders for the same reason we fantasize about the essential nature of race: to make unjust social hierarchies seem natural. But they’re not. They’re man-made, and competitive sports have long been a tool for keeping them in place.

Semenya is hardly the first woman — notably, never a man — forced to undergo sex testing to compete in amateur sports. From 1967 to 1999, all female Olympiads were forced to take versions of the test. The phantom menace of men gaming the system to compete as women never materialized, but athletes were nonetheless routinely deemed to have insufficiently pure femininity. Eight women were barred from the 1996 Olympics, the last at which the tests were used, the Los Angeles Times reports.

But the tests are, of course, rigged—because witch hunts always produce witches. That’s the point. Which is the real tragedy of the IAAF’s attack on Caster Semenya. Whatever the doctors determine about her biological sex, at the young age of 18 she’s already learned that she’s a social monster.
The problem beyond the fact of testing is our rigid adherence to gender binaries and our inability – due partially to a lack of language, partially to the privileges that these unjust social hierarchies grant some members of society – to step outside of those boundaries.

Rather than continuing to dismiss the whole thing because we want to fit Semenya in one of our two well-defined boxes, perhaps it’s time to think about the toxicity of the boxes themselves. Gender does matter – it influences our lives. But are these boxes really working? From Courtney at Feministing:
Their first reading could be a new book by Gerald N. Callahan, Ph.D.: Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of the Two Sexes. He reports that every year more than 65,000 children are born who aren't obviously either boys or girls. He writes, "In truth, humans come in an amazing number of forms, because human development, including human sexual development, is not an either/or proposition. Instead, between 'either' and 'or' there is an entire spectrum of possibilities.'" The book is really beautifully written, highly accessible, and visionary in its own right. For more on this topic, I also suggest Anne Fausto-Sterling.

The ambiguity of sex may not even be at play with Caster Semenya, but the public's reaction to her performance and body are flash points for our continued discomfort with admitting that the world does not come in such simple dichotomies as we safely like to think it does. My heart goes out to Semenya, who meanwhile has to deal with this shit instead of celebrating her victory and reveling in the moment.
That we so strongly desire to characterize things as normal and abnormal/deviant is a major part of the problem. So even if gender tests fail and people go on calling her “our little girl” does anyone really win? Because either way, Caster Semenya is going to have to deal with the issue on her own...like in private...without the world watching.

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A Point Guard to Build a Dream On: Penicheiro is Still Creativity Personified

. Wednesday, August 26, 2009
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Long time WNBA fans have probably seen Sacramento Monarchs point guard drive baseline and hit a cutting teammate for an easy layup thousands of times.

But I still have to step back and say wow.

With just under 6:30 left in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Dream last night, Penicheiro brought the ball up the court at about ¾ speed in transition. As Dream defenders had done all night, rookie point guard Shalee Lehning was sagging down to the free throw line as Penicheiro got to the three point line, exploiting Penicheiro’s notoriously inconsistent jump shot.

And yet in typical Penicheiro form, she used a series of changes of pace, hesitations, head fakes, and changes of direction to get to the baseline and rendering Lehning almost helpless to stop her. As the Dream defense collapsed – seemingly leaving Penicheiro with nowhere else to go – two of her teammates suddenly became open: forward Hamchetou Maiga-Ba popped out for a jumper on the wing while Rebekkah Brunson waited and cut to the basket through a now clear lane.

Surrounded by four Dream defenders Penicheiro got Dream center Sancho Lyttle to shift her weight in the wrong direction with a subtle ball fake, took to the air and hit the cutting Brunson who was left unattended in the lane. After the defensive havoc Penicheiro had just caused, all Dream forward Erika Desouza could do was foul, sending Brunson to the line.

With the Monarchs down 21 points at that moment in time, the play is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The Monarchs ultimately lost and Penicheiro didn’t pick up the assist although it was her effort that undoubtedly created the scoring opportunity which ended in free throws. But the way in which she seems to be in total control even as she’s in the middle of switching gears and throwing a flurry of fakes at her opponents never ceases to amaze me.

It’s not necessarily original to say that Penicheiro is the epitome of basketball as an art form – creatively drawing upon the resources revealed to her in a situation to make beauty out of a chaotic world. And even in the twilight of her career, in a 103-83 blowout that pushed the Monarchs further into the cellar of the Western Conference, appreciating Penicheiro is almost a mandate for anyone who considers themselves a true fan of the sport.

Forgive the basketball snobbery, but if you can’t recognize the beauty in Penicheiro’s game, it’s time to move on from basketball and find a new sport.

Given that, it’s probably not a stretch to say that Penicheiro represents something of the archetypal point guard in the basketball universe. She is a pass-first player, with court vision and seemingly in control of every single moment on the court, keeping her dribble live as a means to create things even when everything seems to break down.

Just the other day, Shoals and I briefly exchanged emails about legendary NBA point guard John Stockton and Shoals suggested that Stockton is “an elite role player” – a player who became a Hall of Famer simply by playing his position to perfection. Although Stockton was by far a better shooter than Penicheiro – it still amazes me that a point guard shot 51.5% over a 1,500 game career – Penicheiro is an “elite role player” in a similarly complimentary sense. She plays the position just as most people would imagine it being played in its most ideal sense and excites us when she does something beyond what we’re able to imagine.

Dream point guards Lehning and Ivory Latta pale in comparison to this point guard dream come true from Sacramento. It almost makes you wonder how a team like the Dream can even pull off a win with mere mortals running the point opposite Penicheiro.


But then you remember that this is ultimately a team game – players like Penicheiro can help facilitate plays for her teammates, but if the team doesn’t work well as a unit to begin with, it’s all rendered moot.

The Dream's one-two combo at point guard offer very different things that can be useful at different times – Latta did do what she does well in scoring points but picked up 2 of her three turnovers in garbage time while Lehning did what she does well running the team and picking up 10 assists but didn’t even get a shot off until missing a contested fast break lay up.

The best we can say is that in this situation -- a team with two all-star post players who they went to early and often -- Lehning is working out well running the offense and helping the team get them the ball.

That’s not a final objective judgment of either player’s talent or future as a WNBA player. But to use the notion of a player being functionally effective within a role, Lehning – while not nearly the image of positional perfection that Penicheiro has been – is filling the function of point guard well enough to keep the Dream in second place.

If the question shifts from an assessment of talent based on an idealized positional standard that nobody aside from Penicheiro (or Stockton) are likely to achieve to a question of who fills the role of point guard well enough for the team to be successful, Lehning is doing just fine.

Of course we all wish to have a Penicheiro or Stockton on our favorite teams, but somehow we have to find a way to appreciate the less-than-elite role players too.

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What Might Briann January’s Future as a “Future Premiere Point Guard” Look Like?

. Tuesday, August 25, 2009
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With 2:18 left in the third quarter and her team down 14 points against the Seattle Storm, a light seemed to go on for Fever rookie point guard Briann January.

January brought the ball up court, shifted her weight left just enough to freeze All-Star guard Sue Bird who was defending her, then made a swift crossover dribble and took the ball hard to the basket to draw the foul and hit two free throws.

However, it wasn’t just one play that stood out on Saturday.

January took Bird to the basket repeatedly – she got to the free throw line off a drive again with 6.6 seconds left in the quarter -- and even though she didn’t make every shot, it was her confidence in a game that was still within reach that was impressive.

Although the Fever ended up losing Saturday's game 74-60, January demonstrated a beautiful mix of athleticism, determination, and skill that gave the fans that were still paying attention a glimpse into a bright future. Most of all, demonstrating such confidence against Bird – who January idolized as a young player – seems to just add something special to the moment. It’s not that Bird is a standout defender – it’s that January approached Bird with such fearlessness.

Despite struggling with her jump shot for much of the season – she went 1-8 against the Storm – January is having an impressive season as a rookie point guard. She’s an adept ball handler who can not only get herself to the basket, but also knows when to pick and choose her spots.

Although her passes sometimes go errant when she gets over-excited, she has also shown the ability to make pinpoint entry passes to the post or perfectly float passes over the outstretched arms of defenders to a moving teammate, putting them in scoring position on the run.

And of course, the two time Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year is no slouch on defense. Her quickness and strength allow her to stay with and challenge even the likes of Bird.

The combination of skills that January displayed in Saturday’s game and the previous Saturday in their comeback win against Detroit is what makes it so tempting to look past the present and into January’s seemingly bright future. The point was underscored by Fever coach Lin Dunn’s comments after January’s career-best performance against Detroit.

“You’re starting to see January develop more and more into what I call a premier point guard in this league. Her strength combined with her quickness, her speed and her shooting ability – I just think that she’s got a lot of upside as one of the top guards of the future of this league.”
Dunn’s comment leads me to wonder about what type of point guard January might become in connection with how we might describe point guards: what type of point guard is January likely to become? And how does she compare to the league’s current premiere point guards?

January seems to exude star potential, both because of her skills and the leadership she exhibits when on the court.

It was somewhat ironic to see January – a 31.8% shooter in her young career – standing up on the sidelines with her arms crossed like a coach yelling, “Shoot it! Shoot it!” as veteran Ebony Hoffman passed up a shot opportunity that came within the flow of the offense.

Although the frustrated eye roll at the dead ball is probably not the most effective way to build relationships, she seems to have the quality of a natural leader, even as a backup point guard. On a successful team full of veterans, she’s not afraid to hold her own and bark commands, even when she’s not on the court running their offense.

And in having such an eye for the game and implicitly demanding so much of her teammates and visibly bothered by every single mistake she makes – but not afraid to
solicit feedback from others – it’s hard not to think that she’s destined to improve.

When you combine her approach to the game and disposition toward her teammates with her skill set, it seems like the sky is the limit for January.

But you have to wonder: what might that potential look like?

Something I found interesting as I was doing point guard rankings last week is that if you were to omit scoring efficiency – shooting percentages, the ratio of possessions she scores on vs. possessions that she wastes – January’s statistical profile as a point guard is remarkably similar to Lindsey Harding.

Based on the point guard statistics, the only major difference between Harding and January are scoring efficiency numbers. And given Harding’s emergence this season after struggling her first few years, it’s not hard to imagine January having an impact on the court similar to Harding as she becomes a better scorer.

Harding had the better rookie season, but a large part of that was that she started and got big minutes on a non-playoff team. What Harding might have on January in terms of physical gifts – Harding is undoubtedly among the fastest guards with the ball in the league -- January has on Harding in terms of feel for the game and defense.

And I would argue that January is probably the better passer in terms of mechanics and court vision. That’s high praise and a lofty comparison for January given Harding’s all-star caliber year…but I really think she has that kind of potential.

When you start to see the ability to do things for her team at crucial moments on multiple occasions – even if they lose a game on the road in one of the toughest arenas in the league against the second-best team in the Western Conference --- it’s fair to start projecting her as something more special than what meets the eye.

If she does end up developing into a premiere point guard, she might end up in a class all her own. She just stands out as a special individual.

A superstar in the making.

Tony J. Antonucci, January’s elementary school counselor, wrote recently in the Spokane Spokesman-Review that January is “today’s real true all-American superstar athlete” who has been surrounded by a large support network on her ascent to the WNBA. And a portion of that network she’s spent a lifetime building was present not too far from the Fever bench at Key Arena.

As I was leaving Key Arena, January was coming through the tunnel to meet a group of 20-30 people that waited after the game to greet her. As I was walking toward her, she was surrounded by a bunch of credentialed individuals giving her directives or advice of some sort. I almost got out my voice recorder to go over and ask the player I’ve been following for about a week a few questions that would probably only result in answers similar to those in print elsewhere.

Just as I got close, she turned and flashed that “warm beautiful smile” that Antonucci described, wiping away any trace of having suffered a bad road loss, and walked out of the tunnel, greeted by a loud cheer from the people that eagerly awaited to see her.

And at that moment, she seemed to be more than Briann January the future premiere point guard, but Briann January the recent college graduate who was returning home from her first post-baccalaureate job to visit her family and looking for a good homecooked meal from mom.

Indeed, a special set of attributes for a star athlete in today's world of professional sports.

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The Los Angeles Sparks: "Expect Anything"

. Friday, August 21, 2009
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After the Los Angeles Sparks' 67-66 overtime road win over the Silver Stars last night, San Antonio forward Sophia Young perfectly articulated why this was the one game I was looking forward to seeing all week.

"With LA we expect anything,'' said Young. "It's always going to be a good game. They never blow us out, we never blow them out, and it's always an exciting game for the fans.''

Too bad nobody could see it on WNBA LiveAccess...because there's more than one reason to want to watch the Sparks.

Consistent with Young's statement, this was a tightly contested game, perhaps even an ugly one. Looking at the Four Factors statistics, the only major thing separating the two teams last night was the Sparks' dominance on the offensive boards, which is typical of when these teams play.

Combined with the San Antonio Silver Stars' uncharacteristically low assisted field goal percentage -- meaning they were not moving the ball well -- the Sparks got enough of an edge to pull this one out.

However, what makes the game more significant is that it marks a major turning point for the Sparks season -- the night when they became a legit playoff team. Not just because the Sparks moved into third place in the Western Conference after an abysmal start to their season, but also because of how they did it.

The Sparks beat the defending Western Conference champion Silver Stars in San Antonio in a (seemingly) gritty overtime battle to extend a 3 game winning streak to 4.

That’s the type of game hungry and serious playoff contenders win, not only because they have to fight for playoff position, but just to prove to everyone else that they are a team to beat. It forces us to shift our thinking about the Sparks from wondering about what has transpired thus far this season to wondering what might come to pass in the post-season.

And that’s what makes this most significant to me and the reason why I’ve taken an increasing interest in the Sparks since the All-Star break.

Los Angeles fans shouldn’t be the only celebrating the Sparks transition into a legit playoff team. The Sparks are in the midst of constructing what could become one of the league’s great narratives…and that’s good for anyone who cares about the health of the WNBA.

Having center Lisa Leslie make a deep playoff run in her final season and Parker emerging as a real post-season performer after all the mess of a season this has been for them so far really is a great story that sports fans should be able to step into.

Leslie and Parker are arguably the two most prominent women’s basketball players in the U.S. Dramatizing the transition from one to the other with a successful final run for Leslie is exactly the jolt the league needs.

Given the narrative of this season – maternity leave, injuries, inconsistent rotations – having those two at the center of a successful turnaround also creates a hero narrative for the WNBA that is so rarely applied to women’s team sports. It gives people reasons to continue following.

Part of what attracts people to pro sports are hero narratives – people we can root for and who accomplish things that we can only imagine. People who can overcome adversity when everyone has counted them out and persevere to reach the top of their craft.

We can talk all we want about how basketball is a team game and that's what makes it beautiful, but let's be real: it's individual figures like Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson that make leagues successful.

I’m not saying I am rooting for the Sparks to win it all. But it’s hard to deny that every step closer they get to the WNBA Finals from this point on will be good for the WNBA.

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