From the moment Washington Mystics General Manager Angela Taylor asked about my cell phone's 510 area code at the beginning of our interview last week, her passion for Stanford University basketball was clear.
Although she said she wouldn't "hold it against me" that I grew up a Berkeley fan, she took a parting shot just as we ended the conversation.
"Go Stanford right," she said just after I thanked her for her time. "None of that Berkeley stuff."
While the conversation began and ended with Taylor jokingly fanning the flames of Cal-Stanford tension, it was also clear that her Cardinal pride extends beyond that of the average alum. As someone who won two national championships (1990 & 1992) as a Cardinal and later went to back-to-back Final Fours in 1996 and 1997 as Tara VanDerveer's assistant coach, Taylor knows what it takes to win. In listening to her speak about her vision for the Mystics, it's clear that her experience as a Stanford player, co-captain, and assistant coach has strongly informed the way she thinks about building a winning organization, both in the front office and on the court.
"Certainly as we're building our team, the things that we've liked throughout- Julie coached at Stanford, I played at Stanford -- the things that led to Stanford's success is that at all five positions on the floor you had players who were versatile, players that could handle the ball," said Taylor. "You had size on the perimeter who can post up smaller guards, who can spread the floor and shoot the three ball or handle in transition. And you had post players who were able to be dominant on the low block, but also were able to face up and stretch the defense. So that's kinda what we're trying to do here: have a lot of versatility in a system that allows our players to play to their strengths."
However, bringing a Cardinal mentality to a Mystics organization that has been the polar opposite of Stanford for so long required a fundamental shift in culture - the habits, norms, and values that start with strong leadership and inform what it means to be a part of the organization. When Taylor looks back on what she accomplished in the first year of her dream job -- a season in which the Mystics made a 6 game improvement and returned to the playoffs -- building what she describes as a "culture of winning" stands out as among the most prominent things.
"We have a system in place, we changed the culture, and I think that all the players are familiar with our system and have bought into it pretty quickly," said Taylor. "And that's the reason why we're here: we want to be WNBA champions. And from day one -- from the first meeting we had with our team to the first day of practice -- there was no doubt that the players knew what it was about: we're going to have fun, we're going to enjoy each other's company, but ultimately each player had to get better as individuals, we had to get better as a staff, and our goal was to win a WNBA championship."
However, as she alludes to, shifting the culture means more than a new GM coming in and sending down a directive from her office desk. The type of change Taylor impatiently desires fundamentally requires a common vision and a collective commitment to achieve the vision. But it's all empty rhetoric without fundamental concrete expectations and actual changes in behavior.
So what exactly has it meant for Taylor to create a "culture of winning"?
If we were to define a "culture of winning" by what the Mystics actually did in the 2009 season, the key elements were strong leadership, a collective commitment to improvement, and attention to detail. Of course there were a couple of surprises along the way, but perhaps this is one of those examples of a team creating their own luck by doing the little things in pursuit of success.
Attention to detail
It is clear from speaking with Taylor that changing the culture started with a commitment from owner Dr. Sheila Johnson. With her support, the Mystics started by making small changes that significantly helped their players on the court.
"She cares so much about these young ladies both on and off the court," said Taylor. "And she is committed to making sure that we have the resources in order to make them successful. If it's as simple as hiring a strength and conditioning coach - it was the first time we hired a strength and conditioning coach last year. We feel like we have the best trainer in the league. And those type of things to make sure that our players are healthy and in great shape as they head into the season... I think she's a great role model for all of us - for our players, for myself in particular, for the rest of our staff."
The example that Johnson set by providing the resources to succeed was contagious - flowing through Taylor and to first-year coach Julie Plank.
"She brings a unique sense of intensity and personality, compassion," said Taylor. "Very competitive individual and you get that sense in every practice - she doesn't take a practice off, she doesn't take a day off. She is constantly focused on how can she get better as an individual, how can she help our players get better as individuals, and then collectively what can we do to continue to move in the right direction. So I think that that constant intensity was contagious; our players felt it and they really were able to get motivated and inspired based on just her intense nature on the court and her attention to detail - there wasn't any detail that was too small to focus on and those are the type of lessons I think a lot of young players need to be exposed to."
So when you consider the consistent efforts from ownership, front office, and coach to improve, it becomes readily apparent that the six game improvement was not simply a matter of getting sick of losing - it was truly a collective commitment to change. While it may be tempting to say the suprising improvement of some of the Mystics' core players was due to the broader organizational changes, Taylor made it clear that individual accountability for improvement was as important as the commitment to the whole.
That individual improvement starts with Lindsey Harding, whom the Mystics acquired from the Minnesota Lynx to lead the team from the point guard spot. Although Harding's improvement may have been a surprise to some WNBA fans, Taylor - who also came to Washington from the Lynx - wasn't surprised at all.
"Lindsey showed sparks of that when she was with Minnesota," said Taylor. "She's one of the fastest players in the league and very explosive off the dribble so she was starting to understand how to use her characteristics in order to raise and complement her teammates. So I wasn't surprised that she could do those things and that was one of the reasons why we gave up two, virtually two, first round draft picks to go get her - I think it's important for you to have a great starting point guard."
After two injury riddled seasons in the league prior to last year, indeed her ability to fully utilize her speed at the WNBA level was one of the most impressive aspects of her 2009 campaign - one commentator said last August that it looked like Harding was on ice skates compared to everyone else in transition. Although her point guard statistics such as assist ratio or pure point rating weren't at the top of the league, her all around performance put her in the conversation as one of the top 3 point guards in the league last season. Yet in addition to just getting healthy and being given the leadership opportunity, Taylor cited a number of other factors important to her emergence.
"Last year was the first time that she played a full season from start to finish - knock on wood - and she's grown: she's played USA basketball so she's played with the best," said Taylor. "She was able to play overseas for the full season and there's no doubt that that helped her out tremendously. And we turned the reigns to the team over to her - which provided a lot of confidence to her. She's a great leader. She's familiar with a lot of our players - she's played with Moni Currie and Alana Beard so I think that that helped with her learning curve. And those players were familiar with her style. She's familiar with coach Plank and her system -- I think it's very important for a point guard and her coach to be on the same page. So all those little tangible things were critical. And then the intangibles - I think Lindsey was excited about coming to DC and having the opportunity to do what she feels like she should do."
With Harding and Alana Beard in the backcourt, Washington had not only one of the most potent scoring backcourts in the league, but also one of the best defensive backcourts in the league. According to Taylor, the leadership that their backcourt duo showed in practice was critical to the success of a team whose offense was predicated on strong defense and scoring in transition.
"We feel that with Lindsey and Alana -- two of the fastest defensive perimeter players in the league - if you have your best players who value defense, in practice or in the games, that's going to set the tone for your team," said Taylor. "And I think that that was one of the things that we were excited about - we had a great group of defensive players, but defensive players who could score."
Harding's emergence easily made her one of the top candidates for 2009 Most Improved Player according to Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com. However, Crystal Langhorne's surprising improvement last season garnered the attention of voters, fans, and the Mystics decision makers alike.
"Going into the season we had no idea what Crystal Langhorne was gonna be able to bring to the table," said Taylor. "She worked extremely hard in the off-season. So if you looked at her 2008 performance, what she did in 09 was completely different. She enhanced her game in a lot of different areas."
Whereas Taylor listed a number of factors in Harding's emergence, Langhorne's came down to diligence and hard work.
"Crystal didn't get down on herself after a lack of minutes in 2008," said Taylor. "She worked extremely hard last year when she was playing in Lithuania and worked on a lot of different aspects of her game. And once coach Plank and her staff got on board last year she had some different areas that she needed to work on and to the letter she put the time in the gym."
Langhorne's hard work in the off-season paid off most on the boards where she was one of the top rebounders - defensive and offensive - in the WNBA. She was one of the major reasons that offensive rebounding ended up being the team's biggest strength in terms of four factors last season.
"She's been consistent throughout her college career so it's kind of interesting that her rookie season she didn't have that on court success," said Taylor. "But if you see why she did have four great years at Maryland it is because she really is diligent and consistent in everything she does...We're one of the top rebounding teams in the league because of Crystal's presence on the boards - offensively and defensively. I think at her position she was at the top both on the offensive end and the defensive end."
Of course, Langhorne's development is not complete - as an undersized post player, she was not necessarily a huge scoring threat and more importantly had trouble defending larger posts.
"I think that she'll be able to continue to develop as a post player," said Taylor when asked about Langhorne as a defender. "I think as an undersized post, that's one of things she will work on this off-season: really being able to defend. Some of the smaller fours she'll have to defend on the perimeter a bit or switching on screens. But she's gonna put in the work. I think defensively as the season progressed and we were able to implement our defensive scheme, she got much more comfortable with everything that was taking place on the floor. And again, as a cerebral player, she picks things up extremely quickly."
As much as Langhorne is probably the personification of the organization's overall improvement in 2009, her flaws may also represent some of the organization's biggest needs looking forward to the 2010 season - post-play and scoring in the half court. Nevertheless, the organization took a major step forward last season by returning to the playoffs. So the biggest challenge for Taylor this season might be containing that Cardinal mentality and remaining patient as her young players continue to develop.
"The main thing for me is just patience - both Coach Plank and I are very ambitious, very competitive," said Taylor. "And in taking the Mystics job, I just thought it was a gold mine -- I think we can be the model franchise in the WNBA. If we can replicate what they've done on the business side on the basketball side by being successful on the court I think it can be a tremendous market in the WNBA. So the biggest challenge for me is just to be patient in getting to that point that we all want to get to and that is to stay winning and to be able to bring a championship home, not just once."
In discussing Lindsey Harding, Taylor said the following: "If you look at her numbers, she and Sue Bird played the most minutes in the league but her numbers statistically should show what she's meant to our team. She was in the top 2 in a lot of different statistical categories as a point guard." As it turns out I wrote about the very subject last summer:
Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen is better than Bird doesn't get me run out of Seattle, putting her fourth among all WNBA point guards might.
Again, the issue is not Bird's talent, but her performance this season. She disappears for long stretches of time and as I described previously, she shoots a large number of jumpers at a very low percentage. As a result, her impact on the game can be limited, despite single-handedly winning games at times. Although Storm fans would probably not agree, all three of the point guards listed ahead of Bird on this list are having demonstrably better seasons than Bird.
3. Lindsey Harding, Washington Mystics - Combo guard: So here's the justification of Harding over Bird: Harding has been both an efficient scorer and distributor as well as being arguably the better defender. And the thing that really sets Harding apart from Bird this season is that Harding goes aggressively to the basket - she has among the highest 2 point percentages of any point guard and a much higher free throw rate than Bird. In other words, Harding does a very good job of creating easy scoring opportunities for herself both from the field and from the free throw line, hence allowing her to do more for her team.
So the argument for Harding this season is simply that she brings more to the court overall as a point guard...and perhaps is able to do so more consistently.