The Inevitable Ripple Effect of the Whalen Trade
How will teams in the West respond?
by Ben York
At no other point in WNBA history has the competition for a playoff spot in the Western Conference been more fierce or intense. Ironically (and inconveniently), we’re still several months away from the 2010 season tipping off to substantiate such a bold claim.
When the blockbuster trade went down sending Lindsay Whalen and the No. 2 pick to the Minnesota Lynx for Renee Montgomery and the No. 1 pick to the Connecticut Sun, it completely changed the landscape of the WNBA — especially in the West.
Because of this, teams in legitimate contention for a playoff spot should start to feel a bit anxious. Organizations are asking themselves the question — what’s the best way to respond, if at all?
It’s no secret that the recent acquisition of Lindsay Whalen immediately vaults the Lynx into valid consideration for not just a playoff spot, but for a WNBA championship. Whalen now adds a proven, veteran point guard presence to the Lynx’s star roster of Seimone Augustus, Charde Houston, Candice Wiggins and Nicky Anosike. Literally overnight, the Lynx sent a message to the rest of the league that they are serious about winning — and winning now.
We are now seeing a similar situation happening in the WNBA to what the NBA went through when the Los Angeles Lakers acquired Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies (for virtually nothing) in February of 2008. That trade made the Lakers an instant favorite in the already log-jammed Western Conference and left multiple teams frantically weighing a move or trade in hopes of counteracting the Lakers; the Dallas Mavericks traded for Jason Kidd, the Suns traded for Shaquille O’Neal, and the Spurs went after Kurt Thomas. These moves were in direct correlation with franchises wanting to win now and preparing themselves for Gasol’s predictably positive impact in Los Angeles. The Lakers would later advance to the NBA Finals in 2008 (losing to the Celtics) and won a championship in 2009 (over the Magic). Obviously, Gasol unquestionably helped Los Angeles get over the proverbial hump.
Could the addition of Lindsay Whalen have a similar effect for the Lynx?
As evidenced by the Phoenix Suns failed experiment with Shaquille O’Neal, panic moves do not always translate into success. Organizations will not only need to take into account how each player will mesh with their already established team, but also the price tag they come with. The reduction in cap funds for 2010 will only make this task more difficult.
In 2010, the WNBA is left with 12 teams due to the Sacramento Monarchs franchise being disbanded. Combined with the Detroit Shock’s move to Tulsa, the Western Conference is now saturated with playoff-caliber teams. Of the six exceptional teams in the West, only four can make the playoffs — what two teams will be going fishing earlier than they’d like in 2010? And what should the rest of the Western Conference do (if anything) to match the Lynx’s off-season additions?
They have seven players under contract for 2010, not counting the inevitable signing of Lauren Jackson. I’m convinced they’ll go after a big body to fill their weakness in the paint and should attempt to find a suitable back-up point guard for Sue Bird. They were under the cap in 2009 and should have some money to spend, but they’ll need to be a bit creative if they want to bring in a player who will make an impact. Still, provided Lauren Jackson stays healthy, I’m hard pressed to find a scenario where Seattle misses the playoffs. Being able to get by the Lynx or Mercury is a different story…
As I’ve mentioned before, due to cap restraints, they won’t be able to return their full championship roster of 2009. Furthermore, Corey Gaines stated after the season ended that the Mercury will look to get bigger in 2010. Nicole Ohlde began to find her stride toward the end of last season when she was healthy for the first time all year, and she’ll play a bigger role on the Mercury this upcoming season. If Penny Taylor plays (there’s no reason to think she won’t), there’s a 99 percent chance she’ll be a member of the Mercury.
If (more like when) they lose Le’coe Willingham to free agency, who will they get to replace her? Enter Nicole Ohlde – she is more than capable of filling Le’coe’s shoes and if she stays healthy, will be able to focus more on defending the paint consistently. So, if they lose Le’coe Willingham only – they will surely look to add frontcourt depth depending on what they can afford. Will a player take a pay-cut to play for the Mercury? Will they attempt a trade to free up salary space? I doubt it. Why tinker with something that has won you a championship?
In 2010, the Mercury will look to enhance their roster with a solid veteran who is more defensive minded with a penchant for rebounding. I look for an improved defensive mindset from Phoenix and another balanced scoring attack. After all, they have Diana (and Cappie…and Penny) and you don’t.
Los Angeles Sparks
To me, the Sparks are the wildcard in free agency in the Western Conference; they could feasibly bring on a max contract as well as a mid-level deal. More than anything, they’ll need a solid point guard to run Jennifer Gillom’s offense and in my humble opinion, Ticha Penicheiro is the perfect remedy for the Sparks at the point guard spot. I would also anticipate Betty Lennox having an increased role in Gillom’s system since she can put up points as fast as anyone in the league. With Leslie gone, they’ll also need to get deeper at the post position. Could Taj McWilliams return to Los Angeles? Either way, I’m looking for Candace Parker to have a MVP type of season in 2010 – look for averages of close to 20/10/4 a night. The Sparks will make the playoffs, but they’ll need a considerable amount of help to get by the Lynx or Mercury.
San Antonio Silver Stars
With only five players under contract, the first move I’d make if I’m the Silver Stars is to re-sign Ruth Riley. She is too important to the success of the team, and they are too thin in the post to let her go. Having said that, the next move I’d make is to secure another guard to alleviate some of Becky Hammon’s strain. Even on a deep team, Becky will still play close to 35 minutes a night. Though, she is at her best when she can distribute the ball effectively, spread out the offense, and tear you apart meticulously.
If I’m honest, both Hammon and Sophia Young will need to average close to 20 points a night for them to have a shot at making the playoffs. Katie Smith would be a perfect addition to this team simply based on her style of play and would provide Hammon with another threat offensively. Still, the Silver Stars have a lot of gaps to address even with the addition of a big name like Katie Smith. They do have the No. 5 pick in the draft, but they’ll need even more if they want to surpass the other five teams in the West.
Your guess is as good as mine. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone really knows the entire story here — the situation in Tulsa is (to put it lightly) a bit confusing. They have two core players listed (Deanna Nolan and Cheryl Ford) and I’m not going to attempt to figure out what that means until we have more information.