WNBA President Donna Orender described the 2010 WNBA All-Star game as an All-Star game with a "twist" and as someone who normally regards these games as farcical, it’s a welcome twist.
From Team USA and UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s perspective, the game will be the best challenge for Team USA. For the rest of us, it’s an occasion to do something rare: pick a challenger for one arguably the best women’s basketball team in the world.
So what group of players – 5 non-Team USA players from each conference – could we as fans select to best challenge a specially engineered juggernaut?
It’s no longer merely an intriguing question in the abstract – it’s consequential and at the very least could help build anticipation for the game. Of course, that could also change the status quo dynamics of All-Star voting: it’s quite possible that picking the best challenger might not include players who are having the best WNBA seasons.
Although there is no way to resolve that prospective tension now, we can imagine the composition of an ideal challenger. The problem of course is determining how to even challenge Team USA – a team constructed to minimize weaknesses – given that much of its roster was selected to the 2009 All-Star game.
The only hope is to identify Team USA’s strengths and weaknesses and try to figure out if there is a group of players that could exploit those weaknesses while minimizing the strengths. Even then, it might sound unlikely – or impossible – for any team to actually beat Team USA. But when you actually look at potential rosters this could be a much, much more competitive game than people might assume.
Team USA 2008 performance: strengths and weaknesses
The eight members already selected for Team USA back in August are as follows (with SPI playing styles from the 2009 WNBA season):
Seimone Augustus (S)
Sue Bird (Distributor/Scorer)
Tamika Catchings (PU)
Sylvia Fowles (IU)
Kara Lawson (SP)
Candace Parker (IU)
Cappie Pondexter (SP)
Diana Taurasi (M)
The team will thus be returning its four top contributors from the Olympics (Taurasi, Fowles, Catchings, and Parker) and 2 of the four players they lost (Katie Smith & DeLisha Milton-Jones) were only minor contributors. This team will be able to score, score efficiently, and defend well as a team. Pondexter has arguably gotten better since the 2008 Olympics meaning she will add another dimension to what this team can do defensively.
However, the key rotation players they lost will be Lisa Leslie (PP) and Tina Thompson (M), two of the team’s most consistent rebounders during the 2008 Olympics. And therein lies a potential weakness.
While this team can clearly run, score, and defend, rebounding was something that was a cause for concern early in the Olympics. In their closest game of the summer against Australia – a 71-67 victory – Australia beat the Team USA on the offensive boards by a 4% margin.
And there will still be new additions
To these 8 players, four more will be added to the roster. Adding to the difficulty in gauging who might be selected is that at the 2009 Ekaterinburg International Invitational, 5 of the 8 listed above were missing, so it’s hard to know who might remain with the team from that roster. However, we might be able to take some educated guesses, or at least select best fits. Here was a rough rotation from the 2008 Olympics:
G: Sue Bird (combo point guard)
G: Katie Smith (perimeter scorer)
F: Diana Taurasi (perimeter scorer)
F: Tina Thompson (interior/scorer)
C: Lisa Leslie (pure interior)
G: Kara Lawson (perimeter scorer)
G: Cappie Pondexter (perimeter scorer)
F: Seimone Augustus (perimeter scorer)
F: Candace Parker (interior utility player)
C: Sylvia Fowles (pure interior)
F: Tamika Catchings (perimeter forward)
F: DeLisha Milton Jones (interior/scorer)
So first, we can think about filling the team in in terms of rotation spots – Fowles and Parker could easily move into the starting post spots, Pondexter into Smith’s guard spot, and Catchings into the "second team". So what they’ll need is frontcourt help more than anything.
Auriemma has often mentioned the lack of time for preparation so keeping someone who played in Ekaterinburg and is familiar with his system is probably appealing to him. The first candidate, especially given the team’s need for additional rebounding, would likely be WNBA prospect and UConn center Tina Charles. Obviously, she already knows Auriemma, she played very well in Ekaterinburg, and USA Basketball named her as the 2009 Female Athlete of the Year.
The other three spots are tougher to call. Forward and fellow UConn family member Swin Cash (M) would add another versatile player, obviously knows Auriemma as well, and played well during Ekaterinburg. Angel McCoughtry (PS) not only played well at the invitational, but is also a young, versatile, defensive player that is worth getting some experience under her belt for the future of the program.
The final spot could either go to a big or, perhaps even more necessary, a point guard to groom behind Bird. So the very obvious, glaring choice is UConn alum and Connecticut Sun point guard Renee Montgomery, a young athletic guard who is already familiar with Auriemma and used to winning with him. Then again, there’s also Maya Moore, who did not play in Ekaterinburg, but is obviously one of the most talented young players in he nation…and is also another UConn player.
So the first thing that stands out? Even with those 12 selected from the pre-existing pool, there are still a lot of talented players still available for the WNBA team.
WNBA All Stars: Who would best challenge Team USA?
Looking at the top players in the WNBA by David Sparks’ Model Estimated Value per game metric, here’s an interesting little factoid: out of the top 20 WNBA players last year, only 6 are on Team USA (#1 Taurasi, #2 Augustus*, # 3 Pondexter, #7 Catchings, #9 Parker, and #15 Bird). An additional three (#9 Lindsay Whalen, #12 Candice Dupree, and #16 Asjha Jones) were also in the top 20.
That leaves 11 players in last year’s WNBA top 20 to select from for the 2010 All-Star game (#11 Lisa Leslie has retired). That’s not bad. And the constraint of selecting 5 from each conference isn’t even a challenge.
As it turns out, 3 of the top 6 players from 2009 (#4 Becky Hammon, #5 Nicky Anosike, and #6 Lauren Jackson) play in the West. As Hammon and Jackson play for other countries and Anosike was not invited to last year’s training camp, all three of them are likely candidates for the West spots. So forget matchups – they should be easy selections.
The next two most obvious players remaining are #10 Sophia Young and Whalen, who was invited to Team USA training camp but did not go to Ekaterinburg. It’s difficult to even make an argument for other players out of the West over any one of those, especially given positional considerations.
The East might be a little bit more unclear. Both Dupree and Jones are candidates for Team USA, and Jones is a UConn alum that played relatively well in Ekaterinburg. At center, Erika de Souza is a strong choice, though she may get some challenge from Janel McCarville. The issue is that de Souza would be the much better choice in terms of challenging Team USA – she had an offensive rebounding rate of 23.39% compared to McCarville’s 16.69% last year. Hitting the glass hard is one way to beat Team USA making DeSouza much more valuable.
At forward, independent of the need for balance by adding a wing, Sancho Lyttle was one of the most versatile interior players in the WNBA in 2009 making her a strong choice although she and Candice Dupree were very close last year (Dupree #12, Lyttle #13). If we start thinking about balance with the top forwards in the league being power players, forward Nicole Powell (#18) makes a lot of sense – her outside scoring would add a lot to the team on the wing.
At guard, it’s much more murky. There are 5 Eastern Conference guards in the top 25 in the WNBA and all of them offer something different. Just to make things easier, let’s make a few assumptions.
Michelle Smith of Fanhouse.com reports a rumor that Deanna Nolan may sit out the 2010 season, which has been floating around for a while now. Shameka Christon was a forward last year and depending what the Liberty do she could move to guard, but let’s assume the WNBA continues to list her as a forward (or the Liberty play Nellie Ball, which might actually be fitting). That leaves us with 3 candidates: #17 Katie Douglas, #22 Jia Perkins, and #24 Lindsey Harding.
Perkins had an outstanding season in 2009 and was arguably a strong MVP candidate, consistently helping the Sky both defensively and offensively. With Douglas’ ability to possibly play 2 and 3 and provide another perimeter shooter, she makes a lot of sense as the fifth Eastern Conference player.
The final two spots are still open and here’s a projected rotation now with playing styles:
G Whalen (D-Combo)
G Hammon (PS)
F Douglas (S)
F Jackson (SI)
C Anosike (U)
G Perkins (PS)
G Powell (S)
F Young (S)
F Lyttle (I)
C de Souza (IU)
With de Souza, Anosike, and Lyttle – not to mention Jackson and Young -- they’d have a very strong rebounding team to compete with Fowles and Parker in the paint. In Hammon, Perkins, and Whalen, they’d have a number of players capable of running the offense (which sounds antithetical to the very notion of an All-Star game). The major mismatch might be on the wing, where it just so happens Team USA is loaded with Augustus, Catchings, Pondexter, and Taurasi.
So who could get those last spots?
If for some reason McCoughtry is left off of Team USA, she is an obvious choice to give the team another strong perimeter defender but I'm acting on the assumption that she will be selected. There’s no way that both Dupree and Jones get selected to Team USA so they’d be candidates.
Penny Taylor (PS) would give the team another versatile scorer on the wing and will have a better year this year playing the whole season. Tanisha Wright (P) was outstanding last year and is a versatile guard that can score, handle the ball, and defend. That’s a deep, potent, and versatile WNBA team that could actually beat Team USA by controlling the boards and throwing a number of different combinations on the court to try to slow down Team USA’s play on the wing.
But it’s not at all the complete mismatch that some people are anticipating.
So should fans vote for the best team or the best players?
In the end, all of this was based on assumptions about players based on last year’s performance. Obviously, players will improve or regress and in some cases move to new situations.
It’s quite possible to conceive of situations where a) a player on Team USA is more deserving of an All-Star vote than one of these WNBA candidates thus "taking" a vote or b) a player who is an ideal fit to challenge Team USA doesn’t quite have a season worthy of an All-Star vote.
Will fans vote for the best game or "honor" the designation of All-Star for those that most deserve it, thus handing over power to select the team to the coaches?
If the history of All-Star voting in basketball serves us, All-Star voting is a popularity contest more egregious than an elementary school student council election: at the very least, elementary school students vote for players actually in the running -- in sports, many a player has been voted an All-Star without even playing more a handful of games in a season (thankfully, Houston Rockets guard Tracy McGrady – who is not even with the team – was edged out of the 2010 NBA All-Star game).
Nevertheless, I will be monitoring the players above closely and casting my All-Star votes for the best challenger possible.