Two Ends Meet
How Seattle and Atlanta got this far.
by Clay Kallam
Before we get to looking at whether fourth place in the East, Atlanta, has a chance to knock off best-record, Seattle, in the WNBA Finals (which start Sunday), it’s worth discussing how each team got this far.
The Storm were 22-2 on July 30, and then lost interest in the project. Brian Agler, deservedly Coach of the Year, rested his key players and set things up for the postseason – which worked pretty well, as Seattle swept both Los Angeles and Phoenix en route to the Finals.
In fact, the statistical profile of the Storm for its four-game playoff run is eerily similar to what it was at the end of that 22-2 start. The average margin of victory is almost exactly the same, and so is the excellent defensive field-goal percentage. What really jumps out, though, is rebounding: Seattle gets about seven more rebounds a game than its opponents.
And those rebounds, in fact, point to the hidden strengths of the Storm, which are obscured by the obvious talents of MVP Lauren Jackson and USA Basketball point guard Sue Bird. Those two get most of the media focus, and casual fan interest, and justifiably. Jackson averaged 20.5 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.2 bpg and 0.9 spg while shooting 46.2 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from three-point distance and 91.0 percent from the line – and she’s 6-5 and plays with an attitude. Bird, aside from being the most photogenic player in the league, averaged 11.1 ppg (43.4 percent from the field, 39.9 percent from three-point distance), 5.8 apg and had a 3.2 A/TO.
But what makes Seattle special isn’t just its two stars. After all, there are a bunch of teams no longer playing that have two elite players (Phoenix, Los Angeles, Indiana, etc.) so LJ and Bird clearly have some help.
The first is Swin Cash, who had to overcome a semi-decline due to injuries and Bill Laimbeer, but has now re-emerged as one of the best American players. She averaged 13.8 ppg and 6.0 rpg, and played tremendous defense. In addition, she’s a winner, plain and simple, and has adjusted quite nicely to not being considered a star in Seattle. All she does is rebound, defend and make big plays – oh, and she’s added a three-point shot this season as well (40.7 percent on 87 attempts).
The second is Camille Little, and first, a little quiz: How many out there thought 6-2 Camille Little would be the starting center for the best team in the WNBA, and average 10.1 ppg and 5.2 rpg? I don’t see a lot of hands going up so I’m guessing that probably Brian Agler is surprised too, though probably not as much as the rest of us.
Little, though, after being dumped by Atlanta, is a pivotal piece in the Storm puzzle. She defends, rebounds hard and shoots well enough (50.0 percent) that she must be guarded, which opens things up for Jackson, Bird and Cash.
Now add Tanisha Wright (another player Agler developed) and Le’Coe Willingham (the best per-40 minute rebounder on the team) and you have a deep, versatile team led by two superstars and one (Cash) just a half-step behind.
When Svetlana Abrosimova and Jana Vesela are both playing well, and they do a significant percentage of the time, it becomes pretty obvious why Seattle has been the best team in the league all summer.
The Dream are not nearly the powerhouse that the Storm are, but they are also quite capable of winning any single game due to their often incandescent talent. When Angel McCoughtry, Iziane Castro Marques, Sancho Lyttle and Erika DeSouza are all playing well, Atlanta is pretty much unstoppable. McCoughtry is an impossible match-up if her jumper is falling, Castro Marques can make shots that make no sense, Lyttle’s outside shot makes her a nightmare to guard and DeSouza has a great touch to go along with world-class size and strength.
Of course, not all four play well every game, and in fact, usually only two. Consistency has not been Atlanta’s strong point this season – the Dream entered the Playoffs on a five-game losing streak before sweeping Washington and New York – and in the five-game championship series, consistency will be much more important than in the first two rounds.
Still, if McCoughtry and Castro Marques are both shooting well, and playing well, there’s not much Seattle, or any team, can do to slow them down. They are both independent agents, in a sense: What they do is less controlled by the opposition than most players. If they’re feeling it, you can’t stop them; if they’re not, they stop themselves.
Lyttle and DeSouza are more traditional players, though DeSouza’s size and strength give her advantages that are hard to offset. And when 6-7 Alison Bales comes in, she too gives Atlanta a weapon that few other teams have.
But much-maligned coach/general manager Marynell Meadors pulled off the coup of this season, and maybe in WNBA history, by revamping her starting lineup for the Playoffs. Coco Miller and Armintie Price, who between them had started zero (0) games in the regular season, started every game in postseason. That relegated previous point guard Shalee Lehning and DeSouza to the bench (though DeSouza is averaging almost as many minutes as she during the summer) – a daring move that has paid off big-time. Miller is averaging 12.8 ppg in the last four games (compared to 3.1 ppg) and has hit 44.4 percent of her threes, which is crucial for a team that hit just 28.9 percent in its first 34 games.
Price is one of the most athletic players in the league, if not the most athletic, but she just can’t shoot. Still, she’s a fine defender, a superb offensive rebounder and a very steady ball handler (a 1.7 A/TO) and gives the Dream an entirely different look than the steady Lehning, who to her credit seems to have taken the benching without any negativity at all.
Meadors, of course, could switch back on Sunday, which means Agler and the Storm will have to prepare for two different looks, and Kelly Miller, generally a more effective player than her twin over their careers, might be back from a sprained ankle, so there is a bit of a strategic advantage for the Dream.
But sorry, no prediction in this column – that’s for next time.