by Clay Kallam

Seattle and Phoenix are clearly the class of the West, and now that Nolan Richardson extended his largesse to the Mercury, Phoenix has a much better chance to knock off the Storm in the Western Conference finals. But like Seattle, the Mercury have almost no depth and cannot afford an injury to any of their key players, so staying healthy is really job one.

For the rest of the West, it’s as much about Maya Moore, the prize of the 2011 Draft, as it is about losing in the first round of the Playoffs. One thing to remember, though: Just one playoff game can generate significant income, and a team that makes it to the conference finals can turn red ink to black with just those two or three extra games. So even though fans may be thinking, “What’s the use? We can’t beat SSwin Cash, Lauren Jackson & Sue Birdeattle anyway,” the accountants are a lot more concerned with this year’s bottom line.

Seattle (21-2, first): The Storm are the class of the league – so far, and so healthy. Their fragile stars (Swin Cash, Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird) have all battled injuries in their careers, and so Brian Agler’s biggest concern has to be balancing their minutes. After all, all are 29 or 30, and all have played year-round for most of their careers. So does Agler cut back on their minutes (they all average 32.2 mpg or more) and go to his non-existent bench this last month, or does he try to keep the momentum of the brilliant start going? There’s really only crucial game, against Phoenix, and that’s on August 20, the second-to-last day of the season. Presumably Agler could focus on managing minutes and set the rotation up so that the big three are all ready to play 33 minutes a game on that date, and in the Playoffs – or he could just play to win every game from here on out and hope everyone stays healthy. It’s a tough call, and there’s no necessarily right answer: If Bird, say, twists her ankle and is 75 percent for the Playoffs, a 30-4 record won’t mean that much. But if Seattle backs off, finishes 26-8 and goes into the Playoffs with a loss to Phoenix, that’s not a good answer either.

Phoenix (10-13, second): If Temeka Johnson and/or Tangela Smith start shooting well, the Mercury’s offense could get better – that’s a frightening thought, but neither Johnson or Smith are shooting as well as they have in the past. Add Kara Braxton, a huge upgrade over Nicole Ohlde despite her inconsistency and erratic ballhandling, and Phoenix isn’t that far behind Seattle and Indiana. In short, the Mercury are still a serious threat for a WNBA title, and any team that underestimates the core of Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, Candice Dupree and DeWanna Bonner could find itself giving up 110 and losing by 20. Of course, should any of that quartet get hurt, the Phoenix bandwagon will fall apart very quickly. Thanks to salary cap issues, there’s just not much behind the big four.

San Antonio (8-15, third): The two most important games on the Silver Stars’ schedule are this Friday, and Friday, August 13. Those are the two San Antonio games left against Tulsa, and Silver Stars simply must win both of those games. They also have two against Minnesota, and they must win one to get the head-to-head advantage against the Lynx. That would be three wins, which would put San Antonio with 11 victories – and in the West, only a couple more should take the Silver Stars out of the Maya Moore sweepstakes. Maybe Washington (on the schedule twice)? Phoenix (three games, but one is the last game of the season, which probably won’t matter to the Mercury)? It says here they get it done – and are rewarded with a third-place finish.

Los Angeles (8-16, fourth): Two wins against Tulsa, and one against Minnesota, and the Sparks are sitting pretty. The latter would give them the tiebreaker against the Lynx, the first two would put the pressure on Minnesota to beat two teams from the East. And you know, it might not be a bad idea for L.A. to finish fourth rather than third, as the Sparks appear to match up better against Seattle than Phoenix, especially now that Kara Braxton is in the desert. Of course, there are those who say fifth would be even better, as the friendly ping-pong balls might well deliver Maya Moore to Los Angeles, especially if New York makes the Playoffs in the East. (The WNBA would be far better served with Moore in L.A. or NYC than in Tulsa or Minneapolis.) Then again, the Sparks might as well go as far as they can this year, because their aging roster, with or without Moore and Candace Parker, isn’t built for the future.

Minnesota (7-15, fifth): Here’s the problem: The Lynx have already played Tulsa five times. That’s four of Minnesota’s wins, and the Lynx don’t get to play the Shock any more. Instead, they’ve got two against Seattle, and one each against Connecticut, Washington and Indiana. So what that means is that the Lynx must simply sweep both games against San Antonio and both games against Los Angeles. Otherwise, they will lose the tiebreaker against both, which would make a difficult task that much harder. Minnesota also needs to find a couple more wins (New York at home August 8?) or a season that began with such promise will end as it always does in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes: Hoping for some luck in the lottery.

Tulsa (4-20, sixth): It’s just too easy to bash the Shock and its franchise-killing general manager/coach, so let’s shift the focus to a couple of players who have managed to thrive despite Nolan Richardson’s erratic leadership. Given minutes, second-year post Chanté Black has shot well (52.4 percent), rebounded well (7.3 rpg, 12.8 rebounds per 40 minutes of court time) and blocked shots (1.8 bpg). Now why Scholanda Robinson has taken nearly twice as many shots despite shooting just 41.7 percent is another question, but Black has certainly shown she can play in the league. Veteran guard Kiesha Brown, now 31, has also shown well (46.6 percent shooting, 1.6 A/TO), but otherwise the Shock roster has pretty much played (down) to expectations. A bigger concern, of course, is where win number five will come from, and home games Friday against San Antonio and August 14 against L.A. look like the best bets. The problem, though, is that every team but Seattle is locked into a Playoff hunt, and cannot afford to take Tulsa lightly. But it says here that the Shock, somehow, manage two more wins to finish a gaudy 6-28.