We have known since December that the financial situation in Phoenix was pretty bad and then found out in January that it was worse than we originally thought, which was of course confirmed by Le'Coe Willingham leaving to sign with the Seattle Storm.
Even after Willingham left, the situation was clear -- they were not financially able to keep point guard Temeka Johnson, forward Penny Taylor and All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter. Something had to give.
Of course, the financial situation was compounded by Pondexter giving them an ultimatum: demanding a trade to New York or threatening to sit out the season.
Yet despite dealing from a position of weakness that most general managers never even imagine facing, Mercury General Manager Ann Meyers Drysdale has somehow managed to accommodate Pondexter's request, alleviate the financial stress, and net an All-Star in a three-team trade that we first learned about yesterday with the Chicago Sky and New York Liberty.
"We’re ecstatic to be adding Candice Dupree to our already-stellar core," said Meyers Drysdale in a press release today. "Of course, we had to make a sacrifice in order to acquire a player of Candice’s caliber. She brings a combination of size, strength and athleticism that few possess and will add another potent weapon to our starting lineup."
If that's not a victory for both the franchise and Meyers Drysdale as a GM, I'm not sure what is. Does this potentially hurt their chances of repeating as WNBA champions? Of course -- losing a talent like Pondexter was going to hurt no matter who they received in return. However, Dupree might actually diversify their offensive attack and make them even harder to guard, if not quite as fast.
So who wins in this trade?
I started out assigning grades to each team like you often see analysts do, but in this situation that's completely pointless. Each team was operating from rather rare circumstances by WNBA standards and so the outcome has to be taken in context rather than merely judging on player talent alone. Winners and losers, even in relative terms, misses the point.
Perhaps what separates this trade from a trade like the Connecticut Sun-Minnesota Lynx trade involving Lindsay Whalen is that rather than creating a contender it weakened one although more established All-Stars were involved. Nevertheless, every team managed to benefit from this trade in one way or another and the relative "winner" won't be determined until the season plays itself out.
So how exactly did each team benefit?
Chicago: Filling a need
Like Phoenix, Chicago was in a bad spot -- Candice Dupree had asked for a trade, though apparently not as harsh a demand as Pondexter's demand to be traded or sit out the season.
Shameka Christon is known as a shooter and she will certainly help the Sky on that front -- although she has about the same usage rate as Candice Dupree, she is far more efficient and obviously adds to the Sky's perimeter scoring ability. However, the place she will really help is ballhandling, believe it or not. The reason is that the people who the Sky had at the small forward spot last season.
The Sky were third from last in turnover differential last season and gave up the second most points off turnovers only to Sacramento. So it's fair to say that a relatively large reason teams shot so well against the Sky -- an effective field goal percentage of 48.81% was their turnovers. Brooke Wyckoff and Tamera Young -- who started the majority of the games at the small forward spot -- had turnover percentages of 20.06% and 16.61% respectively. Even though their turnover numbers weren't high,Young had one of the highest usage rates on the team and the fact that Wyckoff turned it over a lot with such a low usage rate is not positive either.
While Christon is not going to show up on an And1 Mixtape anytime soon for her ballhandling, her 9.99% turnover rate as a player who does create scoring opportunities at a usage rate of 23.06%. Kraayeveld did struggle with a turnover percentage of nearly 17%, which is a dropoff from Dupree's 11.75% but suddenly this team's offensive flow chart is very different -- last year, the team had to rely heavily on their posts for scoring with guard Jia Perkins being the only consistent perimeter threat. This year, this is not only a team that will likely remain among the top three point shooting teams in the league, they will be a fully perimeter oriented scoring team that relies heavily on the scoring of Perkins and Christon. Dominique Canty's ability to get to the free throw line makes Chicago among the most versatile perimeter scoring teams in the league.
However, their biggest problem last year might have been offensive rebounding percentage, ranking fourth from last in the league last season in second chance point and being outrebounded on the offensive glass by nearly 4%. Perhaps not a huge rebounding differential, but it was certainly part of why they gave up so many second chance points. Losing Dupree is a major hit in the rebounding category overall -- she was one of the league's better rebounders last season. However, she was not even in the top 50 in offensive rebounding percentage. Unfortunately, Kraayeveld is not much better just inside the top 90 last season. Christon and Wyckoff were almost even last season.
So where the Sky will have to hope for to plug that hole is Courtney Paris, who was in the top 5 in offensive rebounding last season at 24.47%. Of course, the question with Paris is conditioning and given the structure of this team right now, it's unclear when she would play or with what combination of players. But with Paris coming to the team in the dispersal and Fowles hopefully being healthy for more games, this team stands to improve on the rebounding front.
No, basketball is not just numbers -- these players will have to figure out how to play together. But given their situation -- Dupree demanding a trade -- the Sky did very, very well in this trade. With Christon aboard, the team has added a more efficient scorer that will simultaneously fill a positional hole while looking for help on the rebounding front from elsewhere. Defense may still be a challenge in the post and improvement may be more dependent on player development and finding some sort of offensive consistency (e.g. passing to Fowles more often), but if they had to lose an All-Star this is not a bad outcome.
New York: Adding star power
It's hard to imagine a team saying no to a young MVP-caliber player who wants to come their way or sit out the season. Theoretically, that player should come on the cheap, especially when the previous team is strapped financially and needing to find cap room somewhere.
We could certainly debate whether the Liberty have negotiated properly in this situation: they did give up an All-Star to obtain Pondexter. But Pondexter is not just any All-Star -- she is arguably the most versatile offensive player in a league that is becoming increasingly versatility focused. In other words, the Liberty made a huge upgrade, no slight to Christon.
Much is made of Pondexter's ability as a point guard and that will certainly figure prominently on a team that got inconsistent production from that position at best. As Mercury fans know, she can operate as the lead ballhandler and is especially valuable in transition, which is something coach Anne Donovan says she will emphasize this year.
However, the Liberty's biggest weakness last year was rebounding, almost without question. Although Powell essentially steps into Christon's spot and improves the rebounding situation there, Pondexter is not a particularly strong offensive rebounder. But that's not really the point. Losing Kraayeveld -- who was their starter in the frontcourt last year -- means that New York really is as excited about Kia Vaughn as they said they were and will need her to step into a larger role this season. Their success -- in both giving themselves more second-chance scoring opportunities and keeping opponents off the boards -- will depend very heavily on rebounding. Vaughn did have an offensive rebounding percentage of 20% in addition to scoring at an average rate in limited minutes.
Pondexter alone will net this team a few more wins -- in fact, they could be the biggest winners in the standings of these three teams in fact leap-frogging Chicago in the standings. However, either Vaughn needs to step up or they need to find a rebounder elsewhere through a trade.
Phoenix: Truly turning making the best out of a bad situation
This is not just blatant homerism by association with Seth Pollack.
Although Phoenix fans can gripe about losing a star and perhaps creating the financial situation that forced them into a situation that required them to break up a championship team, it's hard to imagine a better outcome than this given Pondexter's trade demand.
Back in January, I wrote the following when analyzing Phoenix's free agent prospects:
Phoenix Mercury Free Agency Breakdown: How Much Do the Mercury Need Willingham? - Swish Appeal
An interesting, though unlikely, fit might be Candice Dupree, a "post presence" who can score and also work inside on the boards. She can certainly get up and down the court and averaged 7.8 rebounds a game last season, a definite potential upgrade from Willingham’s 4.2. Dupree is also a better shot blocker than Willingham, which would bring a defensive presence to the Mercury’s zone defense. However, Dupree was actually only slightly better as a rebounder by percentage than Willingham (13.75% vs. 11.08%) and worse as an offensive rebounder by percentage (13.10% vs.17.40%).
The problem is that they’re already a very talented team and Dupree would simply cause a log jam in the rotation. And of course, as an all-star, Dupree is likely to command more money on the market than Willingham, which is less than ideal if the Mercury team that has stated that they may not be able to keep everyone due to financial constraints.
It’s really not a feasible option, though perhaps fun to think about.
I like the way Phoenix thinks -- they did in fact let Willingham walk and managed to get Dupree.
Rebounding aside, Phoenix will be able to put a completely unguardable lineup on the court next year. Dupree is not only a better post scoring threat than they've had in years, but arguably one of the most versatile interior players in the league able to score inside, outside, and going to the basket. With the Sky, Dupree was outstanding at hitting jumpers from the short corner and high post, ranking 10th in the league in field goal percentage from the 6-10 foot range and is great at floating into space and spotting up.
But Phoenix likes to score fast and in bunches and Dupree can do that. There were three forwards last year among the top 20 players in the league in fast break scoring -- Dupree was #20. That will almost certainly increase this season. So although Pondexter led the league in fast break scoring and was a critical part of the Mercury's fast break attack, Dupree is also more than capable of functioning in this system.
Player analysis aside, the biggest value is what we've been saying at Swish Appeal for a while -- this trade was essentially an unhappy Pondexter and Mazzante's contract for All-Star Candice Dupree and the ability to comfortably sign point guard Temeka Johnson and Penny Taylor. Swish Appeal has already heard from a source that Temeka Johnson will now re-sign with the Mercury sometime soon. That's a very, very good trade all around for a GM who was backed against a wall.