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Has Nolan Richardson Outworn His Welcome With The Tulsa Shock?

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Nolan Richardson has more than a hot seat, he has a hot jacket. (photo courtesy of Troy Littledeer)
Nolan Richardson has more than a hot seat, he has a hot jacket. (photo courtesy of Troy Littledeer)

It is no surprise that the Tulsa World found some harsh words for the 1-9 Tulsa Shock.

In reporter Kelly Hines' Q&A piece published today, she publicly broaches a fair question in light of the team's struggles: Is head coach Nolan Richardson under pressure?

But it's probably also fair to say that most WNBA fans have moved beyond that question and are already wondering if the clock is ticking on Richardson's tenure with the Shock. As Hines notes, there is already a Facebook group titled "Fire Nolan Richardson" created last week that currently has 67 followers.

On the other hand, Oklahoma University football coach extraordinaire Bob Stoops has the pleasure of having his own Facebook firing page as well, with 77 strong on its membership rolls. Or if you're the coach of the second-place team in the NBA, Erik Spoelstra, you can tout over 1,000 members calling for your head in over 10 Facebook groups. Of course, there is no mistaking that these two examples are far different from the current situation in Tulsa. However, it does show that fan sentiment doesn't always necessarily facilitate a coaching change - apparently, even the most successful pro sports coaches can't please everyone.

In Richardson's case, his job security has been discussed since the day of his hiring, on message boards around the web and in Tulsa World comment sections. But the ownership, at least to this point, is not seeking a coaching change, according to Hines.

Asked whether a coaching change is being considered, David Box, one of the team's owners, said: "We hired Coach to build the team, and he's working harder than anybody else to do that, to win games. We're a third of the way through the season and we're not where we want to be, but we do feel like we're getting better.

One point Hines brought up to me via Twitter was perhaps the fact that Richardson's GM skills are not up to par. She mentioned that it is Richardson's job to find better talent. If you look back on the last two years, save some interesting player acquisitions this season that haven't seemed to work, he has done that.

At the 2010 draft, instead of picking up a first-rounder, he made a trade with the Sun. The Shock got Amber Holt and Chante Black for the seventh pick in 2010 (Danielle McCray) and a second rounder in 2011. Holt has been one of the most consistent scorers for Tulsa, but cannot seem to stay healthy. She missed good portion of 2009 with the Sun and is now in the midst of recovering from a broken thumb that has kept her sidelined since June 7. The 6-5 center Black is also out this season with injury, but had she been playing this year perhaps some of the early 2011 free agent issues wouldn't have happened. One move in particular that most probably would have been averted was the brief stint of Jacinta Monroe as a backup for rookie Liz Cambage as she recovered from a concussion.

In the midst of giving the Detroit players what they wanted - a ticket out of Tulsa - Richardson picked up the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft when he traded Kara Braxton to Phoenix for Nicole Ohlde and the draft pick. That seventh pick? Rookie stud Kayla Pedersen out of Stanford, who is blossoming into Tulsa's do-everything player. In fact, not only is she a do-everything player for the Shock, she's becoming a do-everything player for the league, arguably one of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year. And after trading his second-round pick away to Connecticut as previously mentioned, he got another second-rounder back in a trade with Indiana. Granted, that pick was used on Italee Lucas, who is not on the Shock roster. But out of the 12 second-round picks, only half are still on a roster so this is not necessarily a slight to Richardson's pick but rather the limited roster spaces available in the league.

There are certainly signs that Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell style of play is not translating in a quick and effective manner to the WNBA. But does that mean he should be out after 37 games? Considering his struggle with a roster that didn't want to be in Tulsa last year, to a roster who has some noticeable holes due to injury (Holt, Black) and retirement (Keisha Brown, Ohlde) and is relying very heavily on rookies Liz Cambage and Pedersen, I don't think a mid-season change is the only answer.

They say stats don't lie, and Hines used stats for how the team has gotten to this sour start of the season. Some ugly numbers that show the Shock's struggles include a league-high 18.1 turnovers per game and league-low 39.9 percent field goal shooting leading to an average margin of victory of 17.1 points. But despite the stats and the records, the eyes of the beholder to indeed show signs of improvements over last season's team.

The Shock have transitioned from a system that was basically 100% full-court press, man-on-man style and run a zone with less press in key games, particularly against Seattle and Connecticut. The team is slowly figuring out how to use a 6-8 center down low by lobbing her the ball inside. And Cambage herself is adjusting to where she needs to play on the court in order to be effective against WNBA competition. There have been contests closer than the scoreboard indicates, with the Shock having a double-digit lead on the Seattle Storm before taking a loss and two other winnable games slipped away at Indiana and Connecticut. And something that was sorely lacking to start the 2010 season - chemistry - is actually present in the locker room, despite the magnitude and ferocity of some of this year's losses.

Learning a new system with a new coaching staff might not make much difference in a season of struggle. The solution could be to hold off on a change until after this year to create a fresh start rather than scrapping a coach and GM well into the fairly short WNBA summer.