Friday, April 17, 2009

Top 12 Stories of the 12th WNBA Season

The 2008 season was one for the ages. From all of the pomp, circumstance and hype surrounding the April entry draft to the confetti streaming down on the Shock after they topped the Silver Stars for the WNBA title last weekend, there have been a great many stories that tell the tale of 2008. Here are the top 12, in no particular order.

The Candace Parker Effect

Thought I'd start out with a softy? Wrong! Candace Parker was the most highly touted player to come into the WNBA since Diana Taurasi four years ago… and possibly since fellow Lady Vol Chamique Holdsclaw entered the fray in 1999.

When the Los Angeles Sparks won the draft lottery, it was akin to actually winning the real lottery. Parker, a two-time Wooden Award winner and two-time NCAA Tournament champ at Tennessee, joined an already solid core in L.A. and paid dividends both at the box office and on the court for the Sparks.

Parker averaged 18.5 points and led the league in rebounding at 9.5 per game, not only becoming the unanimous Rookie of the Year, but also becoming the first WNBA player to earn that and the MVP award… And not only in the same season… ever.

And she can dunk. And she has. Twice. In back-to-back games.

The future of the league looks brighter than ever with Parker and the rest of the first-year class ready to take the baton. Speaking of the other freshwomen…

Candace Parker of the Sparks had a memorable
debut season, winning both Rookie of the Year

and MVP.Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

Rookies Rule

No. 3 pick Candice Wiggins came off the bench to earn the Sixth Woman of the Year award and nearly helped the young and exciting Minnesota Lynx -- also featuring fellow rookies Nicky Anosike and Charde Houston -- to the verge of the postseason.

Second-pick Sylvia Fowles missed 17 games with a knee injury suffered on a play where she became the first player ever to earn a goaltending call. But when she was healthy Big Syl shone brightly, averaging 10.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game in earning All-Rookie status.

Some other highlights:

- Matee Ajavon brough offense and excitement to an up-and-coming Comets team.

- Amber Holt and Kerri Gardin started 49 games between them and helped make up for the Sun's loss of Katie Douglas, Nykesha Sales and Margo Dydek.

- Alexis Hornbuckle brought athleticism and incorrigible defense to the WNBA champs in Detroit.

- Essence Carson, Erlana Larkins and Leilani Mitchell all played valuable roles in the Liberty's run to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Betty Lennox and the Dream excited fans all over the country in their premiere season in the WNBA.
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images
Dream Realized in Atlanta

No, they didn't win very many games, but the expansion Atlanta Dream had many positives to take away from its flagship voyage in the WNBA. The Dream sold out a bunch of games, played an exciting brand of up-and-down basketball and gave us all much to look forward to, especially given the burgeoning careers of Ivory Latta and Tamera Young.

Lisa Leslie Returns to La-La Land

After giving birth to beautiful Lauren Jolie on June 15 last year, Lisa Leslie worked her way back into shape and was raring to go for the Sparks on Opening Day 2008. And the legendary center didn't miss a beat in L.A., averaging 15.1 points, 8.9 boards and 2.9 blocks, earning the second Defensive Player of the Year award of her storied career.

Slew of Wins in Seattle

The team many thought would be the most improved heading into 2008 may have underachieved a bit. Offseason pickups Swin Cash, Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes missed a total of 12 games due to injury and ended up ceding time to youngsters Tanisha Wright and Camille Little.

But a 22-12 season in which you earn the second seed in the West hardly seems like underachieving. And with Lauren Jackson continuing her stellar play prior to the Olympics (before she decided to undergo ankle surgery and miss the end of the season and playoffs) and USA point guard Sue Bird making a serious case for league MVP, Brian Agler has to be content with his first go-round in the Emerald City.

Diana Taurasi led the league in scoring, though her defending champion Mercury did not qualify for the postseason.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images
Mercury Falling

It's hard to repeat in the professional ranks. It's even harder when you lose one of your most important pieces.

The moment forward Penny Taylor announced she would miss much of the 2008 season to train with the Australian Olympic team, the Mercury knew that the already uphill battle for a repeat would be even steeper. And despite having two of the game's most entertaining stars in Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, the Mercury struggled with consistency and finished with a 16-18 record, tied for worst in the West.

It wasn't an easy debut season for head coach Corey Gaines, but with the competitiveness and scoring firepower he has on his roster, something tells me that the Mercury will be back in triple digits in 2009.

Mohegan Sun Rising

As mentioned above, it was hard to tell how coach Mike Thibault would rebound from the losses of Douglas, Sales and Dydek. Sure, Lindsay Whalen and Asjha Jones remained from the previous title contenders, but with four rookies getting serious playing time, it was hard to have an abundance of confidence in the Sun.

But Whalen stepped up her game at both ends, earning her first All-WNBA first team spot and becoming a legit MVP contender. Jones, too, posted a career high 17.0 points and 6.1 boards a game. The rookies, too, overachieved in many fans' minds and after leading the East for much of the regular season, the Sun finished just behind Detroit for home-court advantage. Thibault too was honored, taking home his second Coach of the Year honor.

Yes, Connecticut fell at home to a hungry Liberty squad in a deciding first-round game at home, but given the amount of turnover and new faces on the Sun roster, 2008 was a major success in the Nutmeg State.

Big-Time in Beijing

While it wasn't officially part of the WNBA season, 41 current and former WNBA players participated for their homelands in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. There was Hamchetou Maiga-Ba and Mali making their first Olympic appearance… There was American-born Becky Hammon living her Olympic dream and earning bronze with Russia... There were Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor earning silver with the Opals…

Oh, and there were 12 WNBA stars wearing the red, white and blue of the United States. A hearty congratulations are due to Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Sylvia Fowles, Kara Lawson, Lisa Leslie, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Candace Parker, Cappie Pondexter, Katie Smith, Diana Taurasi and Tina Thompson.

And you shouldn't have any trouble spotting them. They're the ones with the sun glistening off those gold medals around their necks.

U.S. gold medalist Seimone Augustus also had another terrific season with the up-and-coming Lynx.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The Wild, Wild West

In perhaps the league's best yet example of parity, every team in the West was within shouting distance of a playoff spot until the final weeks of the regular season. In fact, only eight games separated first place from seventh place.

And even the teams that didn't qualify for the postseason -- Minnesota, Houston and Phoenix -- had positives to take from their 2008 campaigns. The Lynx and their super core of young players (Augustus, Lindsey Harding and Wiggins among others) will be postseason contenders for years to come. The Tina Thompson-led Comets showed promise thanks in large part to the vast improvement of Sancho Lyttle. And even the Mercury, despite their disappointing follow-up to their title campaign, looked like world-beaters at times and should be right back on track with the expected return of Penny Taylor in 2009.

Big Deal

There were plenty of key transactions that played major roles in the 2008 season: U.S. Olympian DeLisha Milton-Jones had another All-Star season in helping L.A. to within a win of the WNBA Finals. Belgian Ann Wauters returned to the WNBA from overseas to help bring a Western Conference title to San Antonio. Katie Douglas came home to Indiana to team with Tamika Catchings and lead the Fever to the playoffs where they took the Shock to three games in the Eastern Conference Semis.

But the biggest trade of all was orchestrated by… no shock… "Trader" Bill Laimbeer. While other GMs were enjoying the Olympic break in August, Laimbeer dealt rooke Tasha Humphrey, second-year guard Shay Murphy and a 2009 draft pick to Washington for veteran forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin. See, Cheryl Ford had gone down with a season-ending knee injury on July 22 and the Shock needed some strength and experience to make up for her loss. Well, after joining this Shock, Taj averaged 12.9 points and 7.0 rebounds a game in the playoffs. And we all remember how her season ended up: with Taj hoisting her first ever WNBA Championship trophy.

Silver Stars Shooting to the Top

Best regular season record in the WNBA. One of the most beloved players in the game in Becky Hammon. One of the league's most exciting young stars in Sophia Young. One of the league's most respected leaders, Dan Hughes, just a year removed from his first Coach of the Year prize.

It was an equation built for success in San Antonio. And succeed they did, overcoming the Monarchs in the first round of the playoffs and sneaking by the Sparks in the Western Conference Finals (thanks to a miracle, last-second heave by Young in Game 2… truly one of the league's most exciting plays in its history).

But with an injury-ridden bench, the Silver Stars were no match for the Shock in the Finals, falling in three straight. Still, the support and excitement in San Antonio were second to none and those fans will continue to cheer for their Stars in the seasons to come.

Katie Smith and the Shock celebrated their third title in six seasons on Oct. 5.
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images
Triple Platinum in Motown

I remind everyone who will listen that I picked the Shock to win the title in 2008. Why? Veteran leadership. Determined coaching. Young talent. Size. Depth. Athleticism. Need I go on?

The midseason loss of Cheryl Ford to injury was obviously a major blow to the Shock's hopes of winning a third straight Eastern Conference crown. But Trader Bill worked his magic, extracting Taj from the Mystics, and had the Shock at the top of their game in the playoffs.

No, it wasn't easy getting through three-game series against both the feisty Fever and lively Liberty, but they did it. Then they came into San Antonio, took the wind out of the Stars' sails by earning two hard-fought victories and took the title with a comfortable win in Game 3. All of this despite playing three home games in at Eastern Michigan's Convocation Center, a good hour from their normal home at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

But with steady-as-a-rock Katie Smith leading the charge… Deanna Nolan being her scintillating self with her unparalleled quickness and monster blocks at just 5'9"… Taj McWilliams-Franklin stepping up her game in the postseason… Plenette Pierson working tirelessly on the boards… your Elaine Powells, Kara Braxtons, Kelly Schumachers, Alexis Hornbuckles and Olayinka Sannis contributing where they can… the big personalities of Laimbeer and assistant Rick Mahorn joining forces with remarkably effective assistant Cheryl Reeve… and even trainer Laura Ramus working 24/7 to keep everyone healthy, the Shock are a legitimate dynasty in this world of WNBA parity.

Wow, I can't wait for 2009.

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