"I'm Telling You, This Is Supposed to Be MY Year!"
It begins tonight, and I am psyched! I have been going through major women's basketball withdrawal since the NCAA tournament and the draft. Sure, my daughter's lacrosse season was great, and the NBA is fine, but it isn't the same! Let's get it started with the infamous Dishin & Swishin preseason predictions.
It was so much easier last season! As I looked at the WNBA season at this time last year, the Seattle Storm jumped out at me as the clear cut team to beat for the WNBA title. There was just something about the mix that Coach Brian Agler had with that team; the stars, the role players, and he had dramatically improved the bench. Everything was in place, and they didn't disappoint.
Fast forward to today, and things are so much more cloudy heading into Year 15 of the WNBA, that it took up until today for me to come up with Dishin & Swishin's fearless predictions for the 2011 WNBA season. I put in research time...I talked to players, coaches, GMs, writers and fans...and I flipped a coin here and there. But anyway, since my last pick was Stanford to win the NCAA tournament, I've got to get back my rep. So read on (and listen, too, because there are some great clips from the Dishin & Swishin show), and let's kick off this year's WNBA predictions!
Might as well start with the West, the toughest conference around. The West has it all--star power, outstanding coaches, rivalries--everything you want in Year 15 of the league. Seattle again has to be considered the favorite, having managed to maneuver the salary cap to be able to not only bring back their core players, but to also add a future Hall of Famer. Lauren Jackson, healthy, is something no one else want to face, and that's what she is. Sue Bird is only the best PG in the league still, and Swin Cash capped a triumphant return to form with a spot on Team USA in the World championships alongside Bird. Tanisha Wright and Camille Little sacrificed ego to perfect their roles. For Katie Smith, nearing the end of her storied career but still possessing amazing skills & presence to take a significant pay cut to come play on this team tells you all you need to know about their potential to repeat. But it won't come as easy for sure.
As good as the Jackson/Cash/Camille Little front line is, how about Los Angeles' foursome of Candace Parker, Tina Thompson, DeLisha Milton-Jones, and Ebony Hoffman? Hoffman is a huge signing for LA, as it will give Coach Jen Gillom a chance to rotate her veterans, and give them some needed rest. Ticha Penichiero may still be the 2nd best pure point guard in the league, but there has to be some concern at the off guard slot where undersized Kristi Toliver and Aussie import Jenna O'Hea will have to make shots for the Sparks. I've seen O'Hea vs. Team USA, and she's a sleeper to have an impact this year. The bottom line on the Sparks though, is Candace Parker, healthy and determined. She seems ready for a monster season, and also is growing into a real leader, putting her stamp on this team. Parker can be the MVP this season without a doubt.
Diana Taurasi, rested, and motivated, are words opponents will not like seeing together. Phoenix continues to evolve, adding bench pieces Nakia Sanford and Marie Ferdinand-Harris much like Seattle added Le'Coe Willingham and Svetlana Abrosimova last year. Temeka Johnson is the perfect point guard to run this team, and Kara Braxton with a full year in camp could finally break out like people have been waiting. Phoenix also possesses two of the best forwards in the world, in Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree. With Braxton and Sanford inside, Dupree is free to play the forward position where her skills can flourish, and that also allows Taylor the freedom to roam around more. Throw in DeWanna Bonner, who could start for so many teams, and Phoenix will be a force once again.
The trendy pick, though, is the Minnesota Lynx, and it's easy to see why. Seimone Augustus is returning to the form that made her a star, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson have a year under their belts with the team and Candice Wiggins is back in good health. Big additions have come too, top rookie prospects Maya Moore and Amber Harris will be counted to contribute, and veteran presence Taj McWilliams-Franklin will mentor the youngsters in the nuances of the game. Don't underestimate how important Taj will be to the mix of this team. You better get them early, because if they can get everyone to gel by the end of the season, they will be a tough out come playoff time.
For the sake of not letting this go on until mid-season, I will only briefly discuss the San Antonio Silver Stars and the Tulsa Shock here, as it appears they won't be able to keep pace with the "Big Four" of the Western Conference. Still, there are reasons to like both teams' chances to sneak a few big ones. San Antonio has returned Dan Hughes to the bench and brought Vickie Johnson in as an assistant, which is good news for stars Becky Hammon and Sophia Young, who thrive under Hughes. They made bold draft moves, taking the PG of the future in Danielle Robinson (and signing FA vet Tully Bevilaqua to mentor) and C/F Danielle Adams of NCAA champion Texas A&M. Adams, playing in her comfort zone of Texas, beside Young, will surprise people in my opinion. They are a mix of vets and youth, and Hughes will have to make it work. In Tulsa, the long and short of it is 6'8 center Liz Cambage and a potential backcourt under 5'6. The development of the young Cambage will be crucial to the long-term success of the team, as will that of fellow draft choice Kayla Pedersen, who could be a real star on this team with her versatility. Sheryl Swoopes is back in the WNBA for a proper farewell, and I'm one person not afraid to say I hope it's with the flair and style we loved seeing from Sheryl. I know it won't be all the time, but here is to hoping there's enough left to give us flashes of what made her so great!
FINAL STANDINGS: 1. Seattle, 2. Phoenix, 3. Los Angeles, 4. Minnesota, 5. San Antonio, 6. Tulsa
In 2010 the Atlanta Dream surprised many, including me, by advancing to the Finals, and while they lost to Seattle, it wasn't easily. The size up front for the Dream, with 6'5 Erika de Souza, 6'4 Sancho Lyttle, 6'7 Alison Bales, and 6'3 Sandora Irvin will be tough for teams to match up with. It will be the continued growth of budding superstar Angel McCoughtry that will lead the Dream, and her outstanding performances in the World Championships and then overseas this winter give hope for even sweeter dreams (sorry, had to) for the franchise. Lindsey Harding now gives them an All-Star caliber point guard as well, and Iziane Castro Marques will need to be consistent for the Dream to again reach the top of the east. All of these things are certainly possible.
The Dream's biggest obstacle in the East will most likely be the veteran Indiana Fever. Coach Lin Dunn's team has been slightly tweaked and adjusted, and I like the changes. Gone are Hoffman and Bevilaqua replaced by Tangela Smith and Erin Phillips. Smith is another outstanding perimeter shooter, and a proven winner (two championships) while Phillips will bring a surge of energy to the second unit. Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas have that fire that is so important to a veteran time, and they want titles in a bad way. The keys to this team though, will be a sustained strong presence inside from Tammy Sutton-Brown, and the continued development into a WNBA PG by Briann January. January won't have Tully to fall back on, it's her team, and she needs to grab hold of it and not let go. With these in place, expect Catchings to have her best shot at that elusive MVP yet.
Indiana, Atlanta, and the Connecticut Sun have one thing in common...they are the teams in the East with returning coaches. In Connecticut, it's all about "returning" this season for Mike Thibault's Sun. The biggest return is that of Asjha Jones to good health. Asjha when healthy, is as good as there is out there at the PF slot, but unfortunately for the Sun, last year the closest to good health for Jones was in the World Championships AFTER the season. The combination of Jones and center Tina Charles could be great, but it will be incumbent on the guard tandem of Renee Montgomery and Kara Lawson to protect the ball and get them the ball in the right places. The biggest question mark for the Sun however, has to be the SF position, where newcomers Kalana Greene and Danielle McCray will divide time, and bring different looks. Neither needs to score 20 points per game with Charles and Jones there, but they do need to contribute offensively and defend. If the Sun continues to develop and stays healthy, they could be a playoff team this season.
Questions abound for the other three teams in the East, Washington, Chicago and New York. All have new coaches, all made significant roster changes, and I don't think I'd be surprised to see any of the three in the playoffs, or in the draft lottery.
Washington has created a frontcourt they think can compete with Atlanta. Nicky Anosike joins Crystal Langhorne, and 6'6 rookie Ta'Shia Phillips was brought in as well. The biggest question for Trudi Lacey's Mystics however will be the health and recovery of Alana Beard. When healthy she's one of the best all-around guards in the league, but that was a traumatic injury, near career-ending, and she is expected to lead a very young team while dealing with her own health issues. Marissa Coleman will need to step up with Mo Currie out for the season, and someone between Kelly Miller, Jasmine Thomas and Matee Ajavon needs to grab the point guard position. If these things happen, playoff team. If not, draft the Mystics lottery bound.
Pokey Chatman returns to the sidelines, with the Chicago Sky. The dynamic coach has one of the most exciting young PGs in recent history in draftee Courtney Vandersloot, but the team suffered a huge loss when the injury suffered by Shemeka Christon led to the team's decision to release her. The Sky in the past had no one to really back up star center Sylvia Fowles. Now they have added, not one but three potential backups, in rookie Carolyn Swords and vets Michelle Snow and Lindsay Wisdom-Hilton, who will both also see time at the PF position. Fowles will be thrilled by the passes she will be able to get from Vandersloot, whose best skills may be the way she observes, listens and absorbs everything around her. There will be growing pains for her of course, but vet Dominique Canty will help smooth the way, as well combo guard Epiphanny Prince. Prince played for Chatman in that dual role in Russia, and is poised for a breakout season. Like Connecticut, if Chicago can get some contributions from the SF slot vacated by Christon, the Sky could easily be a playoff team. If Prince's Russian requirements take longer than anticipated, and the SF position doesn't develop, lottery bound again.
Then there's New York. Or New Jersey. Or whatever you want to call them. They have to deal with, in no particular order, displacement from Madison Square Garden, a new Coach and GM in John Whisenant, the loss of both Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Janel McCarville in the post. But they have Cappie, and as we have season, Cappie Pondexter's presence overcomes a lot of things. Pondexter may well be the best one on one player in women's basketball, and that may be more important than ever with the team potentially weaker in the post, and her needing to break down her opponent more. Nicole Powell needs to return to the success she had in the past with Whisenant, and Essence Carson, already a defensive star, should be even better in Whisenant's system. Can PG Leilani Mitchell or rookie Sydney Colson defend like the team will need to? Is Kia Vaughn ready to be the center Team USA included in their pool, or is she going to be the player who didn't get much time last season? Plenette Pierson may be the best "6th man" in the history of the league. Can she start, be as effective and stay healthy? All of these things are questions that will help determine if the Liberty are a playoff or lottery team. But there is Cappie, and don't forget that!
FINAL STANDINGS: 1. Indiana, 2. Atlanta, 3. Connecticut, 4. Chicago, 5. Washington, 6. New York
I actually have less trouble picking the playoffs than I did picking the regular season.
In the West, I expect Phoenix and Seattle to again meet in the Conference finals, with the same result as last year, the Storm advancing to the Finals.
In the East, Indiana and Chicago will move on to the Conference finals, where Tamika Catchings and the Fever will advance to the Finals this time.
I predict an EPIC WNBA finals for Year 15. Whew, these two teams will run through walls to raise that trophy. In the end....the Seattle Storm will repeat as WNBA champions. The difference: Seattle has more depth to absorb those inevitable bangs, bruises and injuries that are so crucial to WNBA playoff series success.
Most Valuable Player - Candace Parker (LA Sparks)
All-WNBA (too close to determine 1st or 2nd team) - Candace Parker (LA Sparks), Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury), Lauren Jackson (Seattle Storm), Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever), Cappie Pondexter (NY Liberty), Angel McCoughtry (Atlanta Dream), Sylvia Fowles (Chicago Sky), Candice Dupree (Phoenix Mercury), Seimone Augustus (Minnesota Lynx), Sue Bird (Seattle Storm)
Rookie of the Year - Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx) (did you really expect me to pick someone else?)
All Rookie Team - Maya Moore (Minnesota Lynx), Kayla Pedersen (Tulsa Shock), Liz Cambage (Tulsa Shock), Courtney Vandersloot (Chicago Sky), Jenna O'Hea (LA Sparks)
Coach of the Year - Brian Agler (Seattle Storm)
Defensive Player of the Year - Sylvia Fowles (Chicago Sky)
Good luck to everyone, let's hope for a HEALTHY and SUCCESSFUL season, and good luck to our new WNBA President in her first season! Everyone try to get out to a game, tweet about it, and don't forget to listen to Dishin & Swishin every Wednesday on www.wstrradio.com!