“At Last”: Opening Day Preview

. Saturday, June 6, 2009
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By some strange coincidence, every single WNBA pre-season game was during a meeting, class, or the NBA playoffs (and I think I overslept a morning one or two). So aside from the Storm game that I went to, I have to confess that I have not seen enough of the WNBA pre-season to give a full preview.

But hey, that didn’t exactly stop a few major national publications from writing something…so why shouldn’t I?

So instead of the typical season preview that either does the impossible and predicts the outcomes or gives a roster analysis, I thought I would present a few themes that I intend to follow throughout the season.

A first will probably come as no surprise if you followed this blog last season: the role of the point guard.

I was talking to some folks the other day about how some people were claiming that last year in the NBA was the “Year of the Point Guard”, that point guards like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Rajon Rondo were emerging to dominate the league.

Then of course, when you look at this year’s NBA playoffs, of the four teams that made the semifinals, only one (Denver) had an established point guard (Mo Williams is solid but not quite “established” yet). So the point guard match-ups in the Finals are as follows: Derek Fisher, Tony Farmar, and Shannon Brown vs. Rafer Alston, Jameer Nelson (still recovering from injury), and Anthony Johnson?

Does it look to you that point guards are the key to these teams? On the surface, not really…but that’s where I took the argument a bit further.

My whole point about the point guard is that it’s a position about decision making and goodness of fit. Successful teams don’t absolutely need a superstar point guard capable of completely dominating a game (e.g. Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups). They need a style of point guard that both defines and fits what they want to do.

The decision making framework becomes a particularly relevant point once you reach the second tier of point guards – does your point guard know when to push the ball and when to slow it down? Do they know when to drive or when to shoot? Do they know when to take the ball and swing it or reset the offense? Can they make an eff-ing entry pass?

All of these things sound super simple, right? Yeah, but some people simply don’t have it even though they have all the physical tools in the world.

What we have seen from the point guards playing in the Finals is solid decision making frm…even if that means pass to Kobe and clear. Derek Fisher’s style of play – as much as I despise him for his performance with and against the Warriors – is a great fit for the Lakers because he generally makes good decisions (as in limiting turnovers). Farmar is nice as a change of pace to pick up the tempo with the second unit, which has been extremely effective at times. Rafer Alston is perfect for the Magic because he can penetrate and find open shooters.

It seems likely that we will see a similar pattern in the WNBA this year – the best point guards in the league (Sue Bird & Lindsay Whalen) might be at home watching the conference finals. But I would argue that the point guard play of this year’s pre-season front-runner (the Sparks) will be huge.

And there will be a few teams whose playoff hopes might be riding on the play of a rookie point guard by the end of the season – there were three point guards taken in the first six picks of the draft and by the end of the season, all three could be starters.

So with that, my top five players and teams to watch as the season begins.

Top 5 Players to Watch

5. Lifelock’s Diana Taurasi: Always interesting to watch and will have quite a burden trying to get her team to the playoffs. Having Lauren Jackson would have been nice, but she showed last year that she can take a team to the brink of the playoffs almost by herself. When you look around at the Western Conference, it will be tough to make the playoffs…and if the Mercury want it, Taurasi will have to have an amazing season. I think she can do it.

4. Kristi Toliver, Renee Montgomery, and Briann January: All three of these point guards could be starting by mid-season depending on how the veterans around them play and how they fit into their respective systems. And I think following the progression of rookie point guards is fascinating. January has already been announced the starter of her team, Toliver has a good chance to challenge Chicago’s shooting guards filling the point guard spot, and Montgomery will have to work. But this will be interesting to watch – by the end of the season, who will be the best point guard in the 2009 draft?

3. Sylvia Fowles: the main storyline this season will probably be Lisa Leslie retiring and passing the torch to Candace Parker. But I see it slightly differently – the torch in terms of WNBA post play is being passed to Fowles. And she’s more than ready. The big question will be how the Sky use her. Last year, it just seemed like she was not incorporated into the offense very well. This year having demonstrated what she can do both in Europe and the Olympics, it seems unfathomable that she would not be the focal point of this team. No pressure, Coach Key.

2. Lindsay Whalen: This might seem like an odd pick, but she just seems like the eternal underdog. The GMs selected Sue Bird as the best point guard in the league in something of a landslide, which makes me wonder, what does Lindsay Whalen have to do to establish herself as the best? Well, winning a championship would be nice, but it seems unlikely this year. Some of their young players will have a year more under their belts though which could give Whalen more support so they don’t go through another 8 game slump like last year. But ultimately the Sun’s chances will boil down to Whalen. And if they do well, might she be anointed the top point guard in the league next year?

1. Candace Parker: Duh. That was easy. Coming back off her MVP season and off-season pregnancy, can she get her first championship?

Top 5 Teams to Watch

5. Diana Taurasi’s Lifelock (aka Phoenix Mercury): I love Diana Taurasi…and really, how can you not? She all about helping the children stay healthy and everything. But seriously – and no disrespect to Cappie Pondexter – the Mercury will live or die based on Taurasi’s performance this season. And if this Mercury team somehow gets to the playoffs – as 50% of WNBA GMs predicted – she is hands down the 2009 WNBA MVP. How 50% of GMs predicted the Mercury making the playoffs and only one predicted Taurasi winning the MVP is actually baffling to me.

4. New York Liberty: OK, ok… yes, I just really like Leilani Mitchel as a point guard. But that’s not really the point. The question for the Liberty is whether they can take that next step and return to the WNBA finals…which ultimately comes down to a question of whether they can take down Detroit.

3. Sacramento Monarchs: This is my dark horse team of the 2009 season. I’ve seen some people write this team off but as usual, this frontcourt is absolutely loaded. And when this team is clicking on all cylinders, they will be extremely difficult to stop. They have added Courtney Paris – who I think will be a force on the boards – and have a constantly improving Crystal Kelly to make up a potentially dominant frontcourt of the future. They have also added Hamchetou Maiga-Ba who should be able to just adds another veteran presence. This is a team with the capacity to challenge the top teams in the Western Conference while simultaneously having a bright future. And that’s always fascinating to watch. And I will never ever…evaevaevaevaeva count out Ticha Penicheiro…ok?

2. Chicago Sky: I just love the Sky. I love the combination of talent they have: two great post players, an outstanding all-around perimeter player in Jia Perkins, and Armintie Price who is just one of the league’s great personalities. Not that personalities win games…but it makes it even more fun to root for (or in the case of Kobe Bryant, against). I have gone on and on about them in the past, so I spare you here. But I’m really really interested in seeing how Kristi Toliver fits into this team. She could easily take the starting spot by mid-season.

1. LA Sparks: the Sparks have put together one of those fantasy teams that almost try to shape destiny by bringing together a group of players that just seems unstoppable…you know, if they all play the way they’re supposed to and actually come together to work as a team. It’s almost as with these squads are supposed to overwhelm you with star power before you even step on the court.

And as we saw last year with the Storm, this doesn’t always work…

In the NBA, the 2000 Portland Trailblazers and the 2004 LA Lakers immediately come to mind. Really, they had two different problems – the Blazers were just loaded top to bottom whereas the Lakers had four Hall of Famers and little depth. What’s interesting is that in this year’s WNBA just as in the NBA in 2004, it could be a gritty Detroit team that was assembled for a particular style of play that topples the fantasy team.

But in addition to trying to bring this talent and mold them into a team, there will be the additional adjustment once Candace Parker comes back to the team. So they will have to do a double adjustment this season…and that doesn’t sound easy in the WNBA’s short regular season. The key will be to see where they’re at near the end of the season. And you have to wonder how that will influence home court advantage in the Western Conference.