SLAM Adventures: The WNBA
In which we figure out what makes the WNBA tick.
So here’s why I ended up spending much of my Tuesday night watching the Chicago Sky play the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA. First of all, I miss basketball. I’m sick of trade rumors, signings, salary cap restrictions, Twitter controversies, all the things that we attempt to satisfy our desperate need for basketball with. Second of all, I’ve always been curious about the WNBA. Third of all, the tickets were free, and the stadium is a 15-minute, 25-cent bus ride from my house. And it was a Tuesday night. Really, why wouldn’t I have gone?
And this wasn’t just any WNBA team that was sitting 15 minutes away from me. This is the Sparks. They’ve got Lisa Leslie, the Olympic hero who also happens to probably be the best basketball player to ever attend my beloved school. They’re the two-time WNBA champions. (Although they only get one banner for their accomplishments, while the L.A. Kings get a separate banner for their division championship.)
And of course, there’s Candace Parker. Los Angeles basketball fans like to argue about who the best basketball player in the world is. Do you want the most beautifully refined skill-set in the league, or someone with the athletic gifts to change the game entirely? Do you want someone who has mastered the demands of their position better than any other player, or someone with the ability to make an impact at any position? Do you want someone who exists as a perfect basketball player, or a player who redefines what a basketball player is capable of being? Generally, this is what frames the argument over the best player in the NBA. But the argument could just as easily be translated into the best player who calls the Staples Center their home. Kobe’s dropped my jaw countless times in Staples — on a quiet Tuesday night in August, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the flip side of that coin.
The Game Itself
The women come out for warmups, and I can say this much — when the women take elbow jumpers, they really do seem more fundamentally sound than the guys do. The elbows are in, they go straight up every time, and they drain the 15-footers with stunning regularity. The results aren’t nearly as good when they start taking deeper jumpers, but it’s clear that the WNBA really does feature more players who truly understand how the mid-range J is meant to be shot.
I’ll also say this for the women — it’s really, really, really hard not to love any women’s team sport when you see the genuine team spirit and affection the players have for one another just before they come out. The Sparks show the team’s in-tunnel warmup ritual just before they come out, and it’s impossible not to crack a smile when you see just how much these women love what they do for a living, and how much they love playing with each other.
On the Sparks’ first possession of the game, they find Candace Parker on a block-to-block move from the weak side for an easy layup. Absolutely beautiful basketball.
In the early going, the plan appears to be putting CP on the weak side and letting the game come to her — when the ball does go to her, she immediately gets doubled, and the Sparks can’t make the Sky pay when they rotate to the weak-side.
On the other side, Candace Dupree of the Sky gets the ball in the “Malone Post,” faces up, and puts an absolutely shocking one-dribble spin to the cup, only to be met by Lisa Leslie, who turns her away with a crushing weak-side rejection.
The Sky keep going back to Dupree, though, and the results are good. Dupree is extremely impressive to watch — she’s got power forward height, but she’s fast and strong like a wing player, and she’s taking the ball to the cup with purpose over and over again and finding success. Basically, imagine if Josh Smith had serious ball skills and and a high basketball IQ. And, you know, was a woman.
The Sparks are having some serious trouble getting their offense going — they got a basket on their first possession, but their second basket doesn’t come until Lisa Leslie scores on a post-up halfway through the quarter.
Parker comes back into the game after an extremely early rest and starts to get her team going. She gets the ball in the Malone-post and drives for an unstoppable layup. She gets a rebound, dribbles the length of the court, crosses over at the three-point line, and explodes for another basket. Then she goes back to being a big and get a bucket on a weak-side show.
By the way, if you think women fans don’t get mad over a referee’s calls, all I can tell you is that you are extremely wrong.
Lisa Leslie is still a pleasure to watch work down low — she’s long and lanky down there, and has every move in the book, backing down with strength, getting in her comfort zone, and pulling out a beautiful fadeaway for the basket. Watching her and CP3 work the high-low post is absolutely wonderful to watch — if Gasol and Bynum can get this kind of mojo going on the same floor when they change the logos, the Lakers are going to be even better, frighteningly enough. And defensively, Leslie has quick feet and amazing shot-blocking ability once she gets to her spot-this is her last year, but if she wanted to she could play for as long as she wants. Fight On, Lisa.
The Sparks rebound from their dismal 11-point showing in the first quarter, and go into the locker room with only a 32-27 deficit.
In the first half, Candace Dupree’s lithe power moves from the high-post were threatening to steal the show, but in the second she gets bottled up by some swarming defense. Meanwhile, Candace Parker is showing why she’s one of the three best basketball players in the world, period.
The Sparks tie the game on Parker finishing a backdoor feed. Then she posts up in the low block and dumps in a lefty hook before the double can get there. Then, to cap it all off, CP3 takes a rebound all the way up the floor and finds Leslie on a no-look dime for some free throws.
Basically, if you love basketball, there’s no excuse for not closely watching Candace Parker do her thing over the course of a game. LeBron might even be a restrictive comparison — she’s got the same shocking athleticism and versatility on a relative scale, but because of the parameters of the women’s game she needs more fundamental skill to compliment that ability. Her midpost game is as advanced and dominant as anyone on the men’s scale, and she combines that with her ability to play like a wing despite her size — think Pau Gasol’s refined dominance with Lamar Odom’s versatility and explosiveness thrown in.
In the fourth, Parker puts the game away with a drive along the baseline from the three-point line to a lefty finish and a subsequent driving, floating bank shot. At this point, she had 21 and 7 on 10-12 shooting from the floor. Whoa. And by the way, in person she couldn’t be nicer or more composed. Some people are just unfair. (Even with fresh, gigantic scratches clearly visible on her arms. Don’t think there are easy baskets to be had in the WNBA.)
So, what did I learn from this foray into the highest levels of women’s basketball? First off, don’t let all the jazz about how the women’s game is a fundamental, almost Marxist affair on the court fool you — this is just as much of a league of stars as the NBA. The division between the money players and the role players might be even more pronounced than it is on the men’s side of things, and the stars are just as impressive to watch. Watching Dupree explode from the high-post and look at once forceful and serpentine as she got an and one, Leslie work like a professor in the paint at both ends of the floor, and Candace Parker do just about everything that can be done with a basketball is just as impressive as watching the LeBrons, Wades, and Kobes of this world, believe me.
The other lesson, and this is one that could inform how we watch the men’s game, is that the WNBA really is a bastion of all the skills that many have lamented no longer exist in the men’s game — post moves, floaters, bank shots, mid-range jumpers, weak-side feeds, ball rotation, flex sets that take three screens and five passes before a good shot. But it’s also apparent that women utilize all of these things because they’re forced to — as beautiful as a made basket ends up looking in the women’s pro game, it cannot be ignored that the baskets also come far less frequently. The women can’t explode to the rack or drain three-pointers as well as the guys can, so they’ve been forced to adapt with mid-range strategies. The mid-range game in the NBA is a casualty of logic — dunks and threes are the focus in the NBA because they work, to put it simply. The WNBA game is wonderful to watch because the women have to show the kind of ingenuity and perseverance to get buckets that was necessary in the NBA’s early days, but it should be realized that the nostalgia for these skills in the NBA game is what it is — a desire for strategy to take a step backwards on the macro level, even if the game appears dumbed-down on the micro level.
But all in all, given the eye-popping ability of the stars, the beauty of watching chalkboard basketball work, and how much fun it is to watch these women play the game, I couldn’t recommend the WNBA more highly as something to tide over die-hards until the regular season begins.
John Krolik is a Junior at USC studying creative writing and the author of Cavs: The Blog.