Before the season, many counted them out, even me.
Before training camps began, I put out some predicted standings (no win and loss record, but places) on where each team would be. I had the Washington Mystics in last, or sixth place in the Eastern Conference, and the same for the Seattle Storm in the Western Conference. Many other people would have agreed at the time that both the teams from Washington, DC and Washington State did not have the talent to win their conferences on paper and had major chemistry issues to resolve as the season went on. In DC, they were coming off a 5-29 season and didn't appear to have many young assets to work with, while in Seattle, they were coming off an offseason where their franchise guard and center sat the season out due to injury.
What happened since then.
First, both teams are playing better than expected with 5-6 records as of today. At least part of the reason why Seattle and DC are both at 5-6 is because some teams projected to be ahead of them have underperformed.
In the East, the Connecticut Sun and the Indiana Fever, the teams with the highest standings last year are the two lowest teams right now. While I did factor the Sun's loss of Asjha Jones, the team lost Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery for games due to injury and they are also dealing with a new coach in Anne Donovan. The Fever at times only had eight players dressed to play with Katie Douglas and Erin Phillips missing a lot of time. Add the fact that that the Mystics' roster is healthy, has a surprisingly dynamic guard in Ivory Latta, and has the best coach in the WNBA, and it's not shocking that they're 4th now, not 6th, and 2-0 vs. Indiana and Connecticut.
In the West, the Tulsa Shock, and a lot of my weight of the Shock's 4th seed in the West was predicated on Skylar Diggins' performance being at a high level being not unlike what we're seeing from the two folks drafted above her. With Diggins shooting 28.7% from the floor, that's not doing the Shock any favors. Then you have to add that Liz Cambage was out due to injury herself and missed a number of games. Then, the San Antonio Silver Stars lost Becky Hammon who helps stretch the floor due to her shooting. Danielle Robinson doesn't have the three in her repertoire though she is having an otherwise great year statistically. Add that with the Storm's existing veteran core of Tina Thompson, Tanisha Wright, Camille Little, and newly acquired guard Temeka Johnson playing well together, and it's not surprising to see Seattle where it is.
Are the teams squarely or on track to get on the "Treadmill of Mediocrity?"
For Seattle, you can argue that this team is on the treadmill since at least the 2012 season and you could have argued that they've been there longer than that, even including the 2010 championship year because when the Storm didn't win it all, the Storm lost in the first round of the playoffs. Also in 2012, while the Storm did make the playoffs and were very close to knocking off the Lynx in the first round, the team had its first sub .500 record in the Sue Bird era. It won't be surprising to see the team under .500 this season as well, even if they make the playoffs.
For DC the last couple years, they weren't on the treadmill, given that they won 11 total games in 2011 and 2012. But one warning sign about a team getting on the treadmill of mediocrity is a reliance on a veteran core group that is unlikely to win it all though they're also unlikely to be consistent cellar dwellers. Even if we want to blame Trudi Lacey for everything why the Crystal Langhorne, Monique Currie, and Matee Ajavon trio didn't get wins last couple seasons, and that Mike Thibault is getting them to play effective basketball once again, we have to question this. Did Lacey just show us Langhorne/Currie/Ajavon's floor as a group while Mike Thibault, who is known for getting the most out of his players (look at Connecticut now....) is showing us the ceiling of this group? If the answer is yes, then the Mystics may be very well getting on that treadmill.
Why these teams should focus on development over making the playoffs in 2013.
A lot of folks are going to say that I am advocating that the Mystics and the Storm tank 2013. Also from the best and worst case scenarios which are linked above, you almost could say that I am.
But not exactly.
Tanking, or intentionally losing games solely for a future pick while not playing existing talent for legitimate development purposes is not good.
SB Nation's Tom Ziller has a great piece on how rebuilding and tanking aren't the same thing at least with the NBA, and I agree with it, and this can also be used with the WNBA even though money is the biggest difference between the leagues. Both the Storm and the Mystics are teams that should be building for future championships instead of trying to "win now." Therefore, they need to develop their youth with regular time this season and accumulate future younger assets which includes future Drafts. If that means less wins, that's fine with me so long as the youth is developing and making progress, at least with rebuilding teams.
When you look at it objectively, both Brian Agler and Mike Thibault are making significant efforts to integrate the youth of their teams into the pros. For Seattle, Shekinna Stricklen is playing good minutes as an effective sixth man, and Alysha Clark is now playing good rotation minutes off the bench. For DC, we've seen Tierra Ruffin-Pratt and Emma Meesseman play effectively off the bench.
However, both coaches are not doing enough with their first round draft picks this year. Tianna Hawkins is playing less than 10 minutes a game for the Storm, and it makes no sense for her to be on the bench all the time with Tina Thompson basically eating a good chunk of the time she could be getting in order to be a potential piece to play alongside Lauren Jackson. Even with Stricklen, she's playing fewer minutes than Noelle Quinn who is starting and Quinn is playing worse than she did last year for DC.
And for DC, Tayler Hill hasn't played like the scoring machine she was at Ohio State. Unlike Hawkins, Hill is getting a good number of minutes, but there are a number of ball dominant perimeter players on the Mystics including from the veteran core which includes Latta, Ajavon, and Currie. Given this log jam of ball dominant players on the roster, you'd think that Mike Thibault may be seriously considering dealing one of the veteran players, in particular Ajavon or Currie in exchange for draft picks and/or catch and shoot type perimeter players which will help free up the reins on HIll.
So, is it really a bad thing if Seattle and/or DC gets in the 2013 Playoffs?
Well, in the world of pro sports, there's the saying that "you just have to be in it to win it." There are Storm and Mystics fans out there who want to see their teams win as many games as possible in order to make the playoffs, because once they're there, at least theoretically, anything can happen. Look at the Indiana Fever last season. Not too many people expected that they'd win it all last season and win three games to one against the Minnesota Lynx. A number of role players such as Erlana Larkins and Erin Phillips stepped up big time and were instrumental for Indy in the playoffs that season. Who's to say that Stricklen and Clark can't do the same for the Storm this year if they made the playoffs? Or Hill and Meesseman for the Mystics?
In addition, you'd think that the Storm and Mystics making the playoffs in 2013 would be a boost to fans who may not have been expecting much.
I guess I don't think like most other fans do, but here's what I have to say on it. If the Storm and Mystics do make the playoffs, who are the main contributors? In many ways, you'd think that the veteran cores have to be in the conversation, so fair enough there. But did the younger players play major roles and helped win games during the regular season?
If the answer to that question is yes, maybe the younger players are "ahead of schedule" and a playoff berth isn't a bad thing because they'll also be part of the team's success there. However, if the younger players on these teams aren't really major factors as to why the teams got to the playoffs, it may not be such a good thing for the teams' long term futures because a playoff berth prevents them from getting a lottery pick in the Draft who can be an impact player.
Speaking about impact players, both teams have issues with nationally recognized players. The Storm has two legitimate franchise-level players in Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, but at the same time, this season also tells us that they're closer to the end of their careers than vice versa. When they retire, is there a younger player on the roster who could be a major piece for their success? And for DC, there doesn't appear to be a franchise-level or a nationally recognized player altogether right now. Is Tayler Hill that type of player for them in the near future? Is Ivory Latta a late bloomer? Or do they still need a hyped draft pick in a future year to be that player?
The Storm and Mystics are both playing better than expected in the wins and losses columns overall in seasons when many counted them out of the playoff race before the season started. However, both teams need to take a look at their long term futures, which include how they are integrating their younger talent and whether those younger players are helping them win games now. In Seattle, does this team have a younger core that can support Bird and Jackson, and is there anyone there who can succeed them? And in DC, is there a legitimate franchise player on the roster, and if not, how can they get such a player?