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WNBA 2015: 7 major themes in hindsight

There is a lot surrounding each WNBA season. Here are seven for 2015.

Chris Poss

Without discussing particular games, here are seven themes of this past WNBA season.

1. Players of note opted to sit out the 2015 WNBA season.  Will this be the wave of the future?

The 2015 WNBA season gave us a season without Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Janel McCarville.  Sylvia Fowles and Candace Parker each missed about half the year.  While the reason for each sabbatical may differ, financial considerations can be traced to the core of each situation.

Star power is one of the keys to a successful pro league.  The WNBA CBA, signed in 2014, running until at least after the 2019 season or perhaps two years longer, does not adequately financially address the drawing power value of league superstars versus solid veterans.

So long as foreign clubs are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars (plus tax advantages), the WNBA will always face the danger of suddenly having to play a season without one or more of its marquees.

The CBA attempts to address this issue with up to $50,000 in off-season appearance money, but that is likely not going to be enough to satisfy the top tier when it comes time to decide between foreign ball and the WNBA.   This same CBA structure results in equal pay for superstars and many journeymen veterans.  Off the record, I have been told this annoys some of the top players.

The league can point out that the number of superstar sit-outs has remained relatively few.  For its sake, let us hope it stays that way.

2. The WNBA and media continue to be hung up on "growth."

Like being "young," "growing" (thus showing vitality) is as American as apple pie.  WNBA President Laurel Richie stresses as much as possible league growth whether it be player talent in a good draft year, overall financial health, fan base or sponsorship additions.

The reality is the league is a niche sport holding its own in a world marked by great competition for the sports-based dollar.  The fan base is passionate but relatively small by the standard of its NBA cousins.  Over its existence, the WNBA has unsuccessfully tried many techniques to enlarge its imprint on the American sports scene.

There appears to be enough talent and locations to support a 12-team league but just that.  As it is, Tulsa has now been declared a failure with the franchise relocating in Dallas.  While some teams are drawing very well, others are not.

The Mystics, a playoff team this year, are talking about moving to a smaller (around 5,000 capacity) facility as they can't draw well enough (regularly inflated attendance) in the larger Verizon Center.   At least they aren't talking of folding the franchise!

3. WNBA Draft 2015 (During last year's college season my theme was "nothing times nothing is still nothing.")

So far, this has proved to be mostly true.  To date, the graduating college class of 2015 is one of the worst in league history, only improved by the unexpected early entrance of Jewell Loyd.

Without question, the big surprise of the 2015 draft has been Kiah Stokes, who significantly impacted the Liberty's run to the best record in the league.  Stokes, drafted at #11, got the job done with rebounding (6.4 per game), shot blocking (1.9 per game) and defense while only scoring 5.8 ppg during the regular season.  Don't give the Liberty too much credit for picking her as Stokes was its second (Brittany Boyd went at #9) pick in the round!

The top disappointment of the draft has been Amanda Zahui B. taken with the second pick by Tulsa.  She played sparingly for the Shock averaging 3.4 ppg and 2.4 rpg in 9.7 (mostly garbage) minutes per game.

In fairness to her, the Shock tried to play her as a power forward rather than at center (her position at Minnesota). Other than hitting an occasional three-ball, she struggled to meaningfully impact any game this season.  Let's hope for a Most Improved Player run in her year two!

One thing all of us need to be is more patient with WNBA rookies as it often takes three years for them to figure out a path to success at this level.

There were several undrafted foreign newcomers including Ana Dabovic, Cayla Francis, Ramu Tokashiki and Marta Xargay Casademont that helped fill the domestic void. As in the past, the question is "will any of these foreign-born contributing players return after one WNBA campaign?"

4.  "The Race for the Bottom" in 2015

It is no secret that UConn's Breanna Stewart is the big prize in the 2016 WNBA Draft.  Going into the 2015 season, one question was how a weak team would respond to the temptation of losing games (tanking) to improve its chances of obtaining a generational prize on the scale of league superstars past and present.

To its credit, the WNBA changed its draft lottery rules for 2016 combining win totals of 2015 and 2016 to set the draft order.  This was done to make it more likely the worst (and thus most deserving) team would have the best shot at the number one pick in the upcoming (2016) draft.

An unintended consequence of this rule was a year-long push by the Seattle Storm to achieve this best chance at #1 result.  One could spend more than a few paragraphs arguing the ethics of such actions to sack a season before and while it was occurring in hopes of major success in future years.  Lose now to win more later might be one way to put it.

One might debate whether this was much different from the two Tennessee High School teams that tried to lose to each other to get more favorable pairings in the post-season playoffs and thus have a better chance of winning a state title.

I will say the last minute of the final San Antonio at Seattle game did resemble parts of that high school game (after which both coaches were fired, and teams disqualified from further post-season play last year).

Seattle partisans point to San Antonio as tanking.  However, in looking at their late season games, the Stars fell far short of the Storm in this area.  Special commendations to lottery teams Atlanta Dream and Connecticut Sun, both of whom played to win to the end of the season.

As the lottery balls fell Thursday night, Seattle's "efforts" were rewarded with the #1 pick.  This should revitalize the franchise and give them momentum to compete for a league title during the "Stewart era."  However, she will only be a rookie (be she special) next year so Storm fans should not expect too much too soon.

As for San Antonio garnering pick #2, that Dan Hughes attended the lottery is a sign that he will be back next year.  Finding any player remotely close in projected impact compared to Breanna Stewart will be a challenge for a franchise named Stars but badly needing more impact players to avoid a trip to the lottery for 2017.

5. Another year of multiple teams decimated by significant injuries

Before every season, WNBA prognosticators attempt to identify the teams that will be most successful in the coming season.  In 2015, once again injuries badly affected most teams with a few just decimated.

Without getting into detail, the four worst hit appear to have been, Connecticut, Los Angeles, Tulsa and Washington as to the number of games missed by key players.  To their credit, all but Connecticut were able to make the playoffs.

Least affected by injury was Phoenix unless you consider the voluntary absences of Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor in the "injury" category.  Another relatively injury free team was the Seattle Storm.  Of course, their fans might argue we should include Sue Bird's multiple game day absences for "rest" in that category.

Both Atlanta (discussed below) and Minnesota (now starting to get old as a team) did suffer critical injuries with only Minnesota overcoming them to make the playoffs.

6. The regular season success of the Liberty

It's hard to believe that less than a year ago Bill Laimbeer, 2015 WNBA Coach of the Year, looked gone from the Liberty with his contract appearing not to be renewed after having missed the playoffs in 2014. 

To his credit, Trader Bill went to work and put together the team with the best record with key moves including draft picks (Boyd and Stokes), free agents (Swords, Wiggins and Wright) and trades (Prince, picked up the ninth and eleventh draft picks in deals with San Antonio and Minnesota).

The team survived Epiphanny Prince's Eurobasket-related absence and finished first in the East thanks to All-WNBA worthy seasons by Prince and Tina Charles aided by contributions of all those mentioned above.  Also, let's give some credit to Sugar Rodgers, who had her best pro season in 2015.

7.  The disappointing season of the Atlanta Dream

The Dream had finished first in the East in 2014 and were a favorite again in 2015.  However, things started heading south even before the season began.  Celine Dumerc, who had been a major contributor at point guard in 2014, decided to remain in France for the 2015 season to prepare for the Eurobasket Championship.

The Dream traded veteran Jasmine Thomas to Connecticut for rookie Brittany Hrynko, who was cut a few days later prior to the season.

Seeing stability elsewhere on the roster, the Dream drafted two point guards (Samantha Logic of Iowa in round one and injured Ariel Massengale of Tennessee in round three plus Lauren Okafor [6-3, center out of James Madison]).

Of the draftees, only Logic was on the opening day roster, and she quickly showed she lacked the athleticism to run a WNBA team (in spite of great college success) and could not shoot the ball well enough from the wing.  Later in the season she was dealt to San Antonio where she continued to struggle in limited minutes.

Another setback as the season started was the poor conditioning of Shoni Schimmel, who came in many pounds overweight and really didn't round into proper form similar to her rookie season until near the half-way point.  With or without Shoni, quarter court point guard decision-making was an issue as no one player showed herself able to fill the void.

The trade of Alex Bentley in 2014 to the Connecticut Sun for what amounted to the inconsistent Matee Ajavon continued to throw salt on the wounds of Dream fans as Bentley (moved to shooting guard in Connecticut) achieved all-star status.   This may have been one nail in the coffin of recently deposed Dream GM Angela Taylor, who is believed to have orchestrated this move.

Due to injury, Sancho Lyttle missed 10 games in July and August where the Dream went 3-7.  Prior to that, the team was 5-7 and 7-5 after her return (15-19 for the year).  If Dream fans want to blame one thing that caused their team to miss the playoffs, point to this injury.

However, if you wish to look as to why the Dream was not the best team in the East, the downturn in production of Erika de Souza has to be front and center.  In 2014, the Brazilian averaged 13.8 ppg and 8.7 rpg).  Before being traded to Chicago, she was averaging 8.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg on similar minutes but markedly poorer shooting from the field and foul line.  In Chicago, things really haven't improved as to her on-court performance.

You can look at Dream stats that show the team shot the ball more poorly and were not as good on the boards compared to 2014.  These numbers were an outgrowth of the above.  One lesson from the Dream's past season is if you have a choice between good coaching and sharp player personnel moves, take the latter.

Looking at the plus side, Angel McCoughtry produced another season worthy of all-WNBA honors. Neither Tiffany Hayes nor Sancho Lyttle had career-best years, but both continue to be solid pros.  Shoni Schimmel is an energizing player perhaps best suited for a sixth player role.

The de Souza trade gave the Dream two young posts (Brazilian Damiris Dantas, who could stay home with the Olympics heading to her country and Reshanda Gray) who might still develop although neither is close to what de Souza was at her best of recent years.

As to the Dream in the 2016 Draft, a quality post or point guard would be a very useful first round addition.  Getting the fourth pick on Thursday night will only make the Dream management have to work that much harder to find real help in a draft with only one clear impact player, again heading to the Western Conference.