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Preview: Tulsa improving as a team and as individuals

You can feel free to look at the Tulsa Shock's 5-22 record and dismiss their chances in tonight's game against the Seattle Storm.

You can continue to call coach Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" strategy a gimick that will never work in the WNBA.

You can laugh at Richardson's transactions or say his constantly shifting rotations prevent the team from establishing continuity.

But while you may underestimate the Shock, don't assume that the Storm are.

"I'm a true believer in this – I think Tulsa's a much better team than what their record shows," said Storm coach Brian Agler after the Storm's 84-75 loss in Tulsa on Tuesday. "I don't know that we're head and shoulders above everybody else in this league like our record sort of shows. I think it's a little bit closer than the gap might indicate."  

What the Storm's past three games might demonstrate is not so much that the Storm are falling off but exactly what the Storm suggested during their early season run: although they got off to a fast start, the rest of the league would eventually get better.

It's time to acknowledge that the Shock are one of those teams.

"I think that they obviously have a group of people out there doing what they want done, there's no question about that and they played well tonight," said Agler on Tuesday. "Some of the players they traded away I think are very good players, in all honesty, but I'm an outsider looking in. I'm not on the inside, I'm not here on a daily basis so I don't know what's going on but they obviously played well tonight and it'll be interesting to see how they finish out the season."

Even if the playoffs seem like a distant dream for the Shock, Richardson said prior to the last game that their goal for the end of the season is to begin establishing their identity as a team with the unit he's put together after all of those transactions.

Perhaps among the most interesting ways to look at the Shock's ongoing development this season is that a number of players on their team have made significant improvements compared to last season. Perhaps the most widely recognized shift is guard Scholanda Robinson who has gone from more of a defensive role player in her days with the Sacramento Monarchs to the Shock's most aggressive perimeter scorer in terms of her ability to drive and make things happen. That doesn't mean that Robinson has fallen off defensively either -- in Tuesday's win over the Storm, Robinson had a game-high 4 steals.

Point guard Ivory Latta has come in and proven that she can run this particular offense effectively as well.

Statistical summary: Turnovers calm the Storm in Tulsa - Swish Appeal
The move to waive guard Natasha Lacy in favor of Latta, who he had waived earlier in the season, seemed to be among his most perplexing at first but if there was any lingering doubt about why he made that move, tonight should have provided sufficient evidence to put those doubts to rest. Latta not only provides needed energy and leadership to the Shock, but she is running the point very efficiently right now. In tonight's game, Latta had a turnover percentage of 5.3% and an assist rate of 37.55% which led to an outstanding pure point rating of 12.22. That she also shot 2 for 5 from three point range which helped her to an effective field goal percentage of 63% and a free throw rate of 75% in addition to two offensive rebounds (9.5%) was icing on the cake. She played an outstanding game and after bouncing around for a few years, she might have found a home with Richardson and the Shock.

But two Shock players in particular stand out as strong candidates for the 2010 Most Improved Player award. Forward Jennifer Lacy has improved across the board in a bigger role with the Shock, most notably in her offensive rebounding percentage -- which at nearly 15% is a significant improvement of almost 5% -- as well as her scoring efficiency. A big reason for that is that she's extended her range -- last year, Lacy was 4-19 from the three point line (21%) whereas this year with Tulsa she's 16-39 (41%) through 21 games. It's not just that she has a bigger role, but she's shooting almost twice as well from deep (although the comfort of consistent minutes might have something to do with that.

Chante Black is another player who has improved significantly, perhaps again finding comfort in a new role. Black has more than doubled her offensive rebounding percentage to an impressive 26.8% this year and although she misses a lot of close range shots, she has greatly improved her shooting efficiency. If her free throw shooting can recover from 34% even back to around 60% (where it was in 2009), she will become among the most promising post players in the league.

5-22 is certainly not the way anybody wants to start a campaign in a new city. However, this Tulsa team has not only improved as a unit over the course of the season but a number of individuals are also seeing their games develop and if that continues into next season with the assets they have accumulated through trades, they'll be in good shape.