Someone who watches quite a bit of girls' and women's basketball and whose basketball judgment I trust quite a bit wrote me on Sunday to make the following two points, which I'll paraphrase below:
1. As much as people talk about women's basketball being more fundamental, I look at the rosters and think, "If only they had another shooter." Few WNBA teams have a stretch 4 and WNBA point guards can't finish at the rim like NBA guards.
2. As much as the NBA Playoffs have devolved into heavy reliance on isolations at times, NBA teams generally run some pretty good stuff; it seems like WNBA offenses take the worst of NBA offenses and ignore the best.
Bear in mind, this is someone who attends pro and college games every season and was just making observations based on a few games this weekend - it's more of dispassionate observation than a dismissive judgment.
But in formulating a response, one of the first things that came to mind was a quote from coach Carol Ross when she was asked what her team needs to work on after her L.A. Sparks opened the season with a rather convincing road win over the Seattle Storm.
"Oh goodness - that's a laundry list," Ross said in a Storm release. "I could go all day on that. There's nothing we don't need work on. I mean, every aspect is a work in progress, and we understand that, and if we can win while we're growing and working then that's a bonus."
The first weekend was pretty much a work-in-progress for the entire league but almost every team still had some bright spot as a bonus as they continue to grow.
1. The first weekend was not representative of the best the WNBA has to offer
Early season games in almost any league are just bound to be rough because teams haven't had a chance to gel yet.
And if someone was watching the WNBA for the first time this past weekend, I probably wouldn't blame them for being skeptical about tuning in again - despite having plenty of drama, a number of the games were ragged.
But that also comes with an important caveat: the early season is always somewhat erratic because teams have so little time to prepare in training camp and some of that time is spent giving reps to players who are eventually cut once veterans return to the U.S. It doesn't matter what league you're watching - coordination, execution and spacing is going to be poor under those circumstances in almost any league.
2. The 2014 rookie class might be better than expected
Despite the uneven play league-wide, the major bright spot was that there were a number of rookies around the league who really hit the ground running. Most notable were two of the rookies I was most uncertain about: Shoni Schimmel and Natasha Howard.
Schimmel's college numbers made for a really fuzzy projection: on the one hand, her scoring efficiency was significantly lower than successful prospects in the past and most successful prospects hadn't shot threes at the rate that she did at Louisville.
On the other hand, Schimmel was hardly the type of spot up shooter that simply stands around the arc waiting for threes - she was a much better ball handler than similar college scorers and, from actually watching her play, she lost a number of assists (that would have given her stats a boost) because her teammates simply missed the shots she created for them. That's why it wasn't much of a stretch to see Kristi Toliver as a potential best case scenario for Schimmel - so far, she has exceeded even that by a) having much less offensive responsibility with the Dream than she did at Louisville, where she was always the focal point, b) becoming a much more efficient scorer, and c) passing at a far higher rate than she ever did in college.
Video via Kris Willis of Peachtree Hoops.
Putting up a true shooting percentage of 57.5% and pure point rating of 5.41 is simply outstanding, small sample size notwithstanding - the likelihood of her keeping that up that insane level of efficiency seems low, but at the very least she has looked like every bit of the playmaker the Dream hoped she would become for them.
Similarly, Natasha Howard is proving the value of simply playing with better players and not being forced to carry the load for her team. She hasn't been the most efficient scorer (true shooting percentage of 55.4%) but she has been an outstanding offensive rebounder and fits her team's system nicely. The questions about her ability to handle the physicality of the league over the course of the season might still linger, but the early returns are certainly positive.
Although Schimmel and Howard really raised some eyebrows, it's not as if they're the only rookies to make big contributions to their teams. Both Spain's Anna Cruz and Brazil's Damiris Dantas have made strong contributions as starters for the New York Liberty and Minnesota Lynx, respectively, which further bolsters this year's rookie class. And of course, Chiney Ogwumike has proven that what she did to Pac-12 opponents wasn't an illusion - she has stepped right in with the Connecticut Sun and shown that she can be just as impactful against pro competition when she isn't facing double and triple teams.
Returning to the second point in that email I received this weekend, it's also interesting to note the number of rookies that have been kept on rosters as shooters: of course there's Schimmel, but also (just in the first round) Kayla McBride and Tricia Liston. Looking further down the list, Jordan Hooper and Theresa Plaisance's shooting ability were the primary attributes that made them good fits for Tulsa and both Maggie Lucas (Indiana Fever) and Inga Orekhova (South Florida) made opening day rosters unquestionably on the basis of their shooting ability. Shooting was clearly something teams were on the lookout for this year.
All of that will make this class interesting to follow and the race for the All-Rookie team far more interesting this year than it has been in recent years, when finding five rookies sometimes meant picking the most valuable of a set of inefficient players. This could be a much better rookie class than anyone expected.
3. The gap between the top and bottom halves of the Western Conference has widened
I think everyone knew entering this season that the Western Conference would essentially be divided into two tiers, with the top three teams jockeying for home court advantage through the playoffs and the bottom three just fighting for that fourth playoff spot.
But thus far, it looks like the gap could be even wider than last year.
Second-year superstar Brittney Griner has improved across the board for the Phoenix Mercury, which has also gone out and gotten a number of shooters to surround her with. The L.A. Sparks have significantly bolstered their bench. And the defending champion Minnesota Lynx have been winning games at significantly less than full strength.
Remember last season when the Storm swept a Mercury team going through a tumultuous season and beat the Sparks by 20 in Seattle? Already we know those two things just aren't going to happen this season, which will probably leave quite a bit more distance between third and fourth in the Western Conference regardless of how the standings play out.
4. The league's worst teams this year should be better than the worst of recent years
All that said about the divisions in the Western Conference, the worst of the league still probably won't be nearly as bad as it has been in recent years - as in, it's possible that we could see every team managing double-digit wins this season (and we'll get to statistical production later). That's a simplistic way to look at things, but the league has not had consecutive seasons of every team getting double-digit wins since it expanded the season to 34 games...so that's something.
The Tulsa Shock are still a candidate for being the league's worst - the absence of 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage leaves a gaping hole and they have to work out a crowded guard rotation - but with All-Star Glory Johnson in the frontcourt and Skylar Diggins raising her game after a disappointing rookie year, they could reach double digit victories again. San Antonio is obviously more talented than they were last year when they had to deal with the absences of both Becky Hammon and Sophia Young. The Sun might struggle to win consistently, but have an interesting collection of young talent that has already shown that they can compete with the league's best - even if they do lose games, they won't be easily out-worked.
All of those teams - and, although I'm a Seattle Storm fan, they have already shown their share of weaknesses as well - will hit their share of bumps in the road, but it's just hard to imagine any of them falling to that 3-6 win range that at least one team has fallen into for the majority of the last decade. And, for whatever that win total is worth, it'll be a more enjoyable season when there aren't one or two completely uncompetitive teams in a 12-team league. And all of those teams will get better as they have more time to practice together and integrate their new pieces.
5. The Lynx could be more dangerous at full strength
But back to the top of the hierarchy - if we define the top as the team that has been to the WNBA Finals three consecutive times and is still on Dynasty Watch - the Lynx have started the season winning without the players who played the fourth, fifth, and seventh most minutes on the team last season (Rebekkah Brunson, Monica Wright, and Devereaux Peters, respectively). Dantas is filling in admirably in the post, 2013 first round pick Lindsey Moore has been better - though not great - as a reserve point guard, and Maya Moore looks to be in permanent #beastmode.
It's still early - and L.A. and Phoenix are both improved teams this season - but Minnesota could be even deeper and more talented than either of their championship teams was by the end of this season once everybody returns to full health. And that could be frightening.