The New York Liberty's 0-5 start has people wondering if the team can come back from digging themselves such a hole. No team in league history has made the playoffs after losing their first five games. Today we are going to take a look at the worst ever starts by teams who did make the playoffs.
You might be surprised to find out that the worst losing streak to start a season by a team that eventually made the playoffs is only three. At 0-3 a team has a shot. At 0-4 history suggests they do not. There are six teams in league history to make the playoffs after losing their first three games of the season.
1997 Charlotte Sting
The Sting of 1997 had the poor fortune to begin the season on a west coast road swing. The evil WNBA schedule makers started them at Phoenix, at Los Angeles, and at Sacramento. Charlotte had one of the largest home/away differences in league history in 1997, going 12-2 at home and 3-11 on the road. They were also one of the few teams that year to start a true rookie point guard, in this case Tora Suber. To make matters worse, the other point, Milica Vukadinovic, got hurt. The thing that turned the team around was the unusual signing of Nicole Levesque. Levesque had graduated from Wake Forest in 1994 and retired from playing. She was working at a resort in Vermont when Sting coach Marynell Meadors called her to come play. Why Levesque? She was a friend of Muggsy Bogues, who was playing for the Charlotte Hornets at the time and was a great supporter of the WNBA. Years later Bogues coached the Sting. Bogues also went to Wake Forest and had hired Levesque to work at his basketball camp during the summer after she graduated. Bogues recommended her to coach Meadors, and the team made a huge turnaround once she was installed in the starting lineup.
2001 Charlotte Sting
It was a mere four years later, but only one player (Andrea Stinson) from the 1997 team was still on the roster in 2001. This team had a brand new coaching staff, led by Anne Donovan, and three new starters. Only Stinson and Dawn Staley remained in the starting lineup from the 2000 team. This team also had a west coast road swing early. They opened at home against the Sparks, then went to Phoenix and Sacramento. Of course people don't normally think "0-3" when they think of the 2001 Sting. The number people think of is "1-10". After winning Game 4 against Orlando, the Sting lost another seven in a row including another west coast road trip (at Los Angeles, at Seattle, and at Portland). Donovan replaced Clarisse Machanguana and Shalonda Enis in the starting lineup with Charlotte Smith and rookie Tammy Sutton-Brown and the team gelled, winning 17 of the last 21 in the regular season and closing out two playoff series on the road before being swept by LA in the WNBA finals.
2003 Seattle Storm
Anne Donovan again takes over a team and again they start slow. The 2003 Storm were missing starter Amanda Lassiter to begin the season. Mostly, though, it was a couple of bad shooting nights from Lauren Jackson (5/19 against San Antonio and 3/15 against Los Angeles) and trying to acclimate to Donovan's coaching style that got the team off on the wrong foot.
2010 Los Angeles Sparks
Another team with a new coach, this time Jennifer Gillom. The 2010 Sparks started 0-3 because they weren't very good. They sneaked into the playoffs at 13-21, the worst record even for a playoff team. They were promptly swept by the Storm in the first round.
2011 Atlanta Dream
The easiest of the six to explain. Superstar Angel McCoughtry did not play at all in the opener and was limited to three minutes in the second game. After a Game 3 loss to a hot San Antonio team, the Dream righted the ship and made it all the way to the WNBA finals for a second consecutive year. Perhaps the experience of coach Marynell Meadors, who turned around the 1997 Sting after an 0-3 start, helped to keep the team together.
2011 Phoenix Mercury
This is the least explicable of the six. The Merc returned seven of the top eight scorers and the coaching staff from a team that reached the Western Conference finals in 2010. Everyone was available from opening day. There's no reason other than "sometimes teams lose three in a row" for the 2011 Mercury to have had such a slow start.
Can the Liberty become the first team to start worse than 0-3 and make the playoffs? We'll see...