“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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