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Friday, July 19, 2019

The WNBA: With League More Competitive than Ever, Player Health is Likely to Control Playoff Outcome

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By Clay Kallam

Editor’s Note: Full Court is pleased to bring you to present the third edition of our new weekly column, “Clay Kallam’s Scorecard,” featuring the women’s basketball commentary of our original publisher, Clay Kallam, editor of Women’s Basketball Magazine. and a high school basketball coach. This week, Clay turns the spotlight on Sacramento as evidence of increasing competitiveness in the WNBA.

Before every Sacramento game, I try to talk to a couple players and coaches, and this year, there’s one common theme: The league has never been more competitive, top to bottom.
Exhibit A would be Thursday’s win by Sacramento, who holds the league’s worst record, over Indiana, who claims the league’s best record— and the Monarchs achieved this feat without third-leading scorer Kara Lawson (sure, she’s having a bad year, but she’s still better than any of the guards behind her in the rotation). Then again, a look at the standings is pretty strong evidence too: Eight of the 13 teams have between 11 and 14 losses, and three other teams are within two losses of that group.

Before every Sacramento game, I try to talk to a couple players and coaches, and this year, there’s one common theme: The league has never been more competitive, top to bottom.

Exhibit A would be worst-record Sacramento’s win over best-record Indiana Thursday – and the Monarchs were without third-leading scorer Kara Lawson (sure, she’s having a bad year, but she’s still better than any of the guards behind her in the rotation). Then again, a look at the standings is pretty strong evidence too: Eight of the 13 teams have between 11 and 14 losses, and three other teams are within two losses of that group.

The only ratebusters are the aforementioned Indiana and Sacramento, but even assuming both teams are solidly in the places they will hold by season’s end, the only other pretty sure thing is Phoenix in the West (at 18-9). That means 10 teams, yes even New York (six home games left), are in the playoff hunt.

Traditionally, this is the place the all-knowing columnist dispenses his golden words of wisdom, and with precise reasoning and acute analysis, reveals which teams will make the playoffs and which will be deciding between Tina Charles and Jayne Appel. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clue who will make the playoffs, or what will happen once they start.

But Indiana’s astute Ebony Hoffman told me, “The healthiest team will win,” and she’s probably right. We all know players are going to get hurt, and no team can afford to lose key players in such a hard-fought showdown. (Sacramento, for example, might well be in the mix had Rebekkah Brunson not missed seven games and been limited in eight or nine others, and/or had DeMya Walker and Kara Lawson entered the summer healthy.)

Of course, the trick is trying to predict who is most likely to be injured, or let the season’s accumulation of bumps and bruises affect production. That may seem like guessing which bird will leave the wire first but actually, there are a couple of numbers to look at that can help—age and playing time – so let’s see if anything is revealed about postseason chances by looking through that lens.

Let’s take a look at how those factors of player age and minutes played, as they relate to the prospects for injury or ongoing player health, are apt to affect the playoff race in each conference (teams listed in order of their current standing in each conference):


Indiana (19-6): The Fever have all put clinched a playoff spot, but once they get there, player health will be a very real factor in their ability to move forward. Tamika Catchings, recovering from a host of injuries going up through last season, has been struggling with her shot all year. At age 30, she is so critical to the performance of the Fever that she is still averaging more than 31 minutes per game. Katie Douglas, also 30, has been having one of her career-best seasons since returning from injury last year, averaging 18 points in over 32 minutes per game. Should either sustain a late-season injury, bench output for the fever has been rather thin this year.

Atlanta (14-11): Chamique Holdsclaw is already having knee problems, which is a very bad sign, but otherwise Coach Marynell Meadors has balanced playing time, and no one other than the 32-year-old Holdsclaw is averaging more than 26.9 mpg. The Dream are also a young team, with only Holdsclaw and Coco Miller over 30.

Connecticut (13-12): Asjha Jones is already hurt, a killer for the Sun, who presumably would have beaten New York rather than lost in OT this week had Jones been available. That injury, though, will force Mike Thibault to lean even more heavily on Sandrine Gruda (30.8 mpg) and Lindsay Whalen (29.6 mpg), which could be dangerous. After all, Jones was playing 31.6 mpg, and at 29, is only two years older than Whalen; you have to wonder if Jones would still be on the court if she’d played a little less.

Washington (13-13): Danger, danger … Lindsay Harding, who’s had knee issues, is averaging 36.1 mpg, the most in the league. And the Mystics go back-to-back, with Sacramento tonight after a big win over Phoenix last night (and 37:17 for Harding). Alana Beard is 27, but 33.5 mpg for a player who’s been nicked up a fair amount could be a problem. Presumably, 22-year-old Crystal Langhorne can handle her 29.5 mpg, but Harding and Beard are definitely beasts of burden, and you never know which minute will be the one that snaps the camel’s hamstring.

Chicago (13-13): Candice Dupree just turned 25, but 34.7 mpg is a lot and her shooting percentage has gone down dramatically since the All-Star break. All of 27-year-old Jia Perkins’ numbers have gone down in the same period – and maybe the 28.0 mpg has something to do with it. Sylvia Fowles missed six games, but she plays 30.8 mpg, and you just have to wonder. There are issues here …

Detroit (9-14): Can you say “old” and “dinged up”? Deanna Nolan turns 30 in three days, and it seems to be showing. She’s getting 32.5 mpg, and hasn’t played fewer than 32.1 mpg since 2003 – and has missed just one game in that span. There’s only so much fuel in the tank, as 35-year-old Katie Smith is discovering after a career of year-round play. Cheryl Ford may only be 28, but her knees are 40, and Taj McWilliams will be 40 in 2010. In short, don’t bet the rent …

New York (10-16): As a nod to the Liberty faithful, we’ll include Blaze’s creation on the list, if only because the age and mpg indicators are positive. The problem, though, is that New York doesn’t have very many good players, no matter how young and well-rested they are.


Phoenix (18-9)
This is another team that has its playoff berth all but nailed down. Once they get there, this run-and-gun team fares will on the youth front, though they’re heavily dependent on a handful of key players who see very big minutes. Diana Taurasi, who currently leads the league in scoring, averages nearly 32 minutes per game, but she’s just 27 years old and seems more than capable of handling the wear and tear. Cappie Pondexter also turns in just over 32 minutes per game, and her output has slowed since the All Star Break, but she’s even younger than Taurasi. Penny Taylor, who is coming off ankle surgery, arrived late and since she’s been in a LifeLock uniform, has been played relatively sparingly (18.7 minutes per game) while she works her way back into shape. She’s the oldest of the Mercury’s core players at 28, but the rest of the team seems young enough to continue to sustain the pace that has so far dominated the West.

Seattle (14-11): Like the Shock’s Cheryl Ford, Sue Bird’s knees are older than her 28 years, and those 35.2 mpg could easily jump up and bite the Storm before season’s end. Lauren Jackson (a history of injuries at 28) and Swin Cash (a history of injuries at almost 30) are also getting 33+ mpg. In other words, don’t expect a late-season rush.

Los Angeles (12-13):
OK, Lisa Leslie is 37, but missing those 11 games could have been a blessing in disguise now that the Sparks are on track. Candace Parker seems fully back (she puts her recovery at about 80 percent, but who wouldn’t want to have 80 percent of Candace Parker) after her pregnancy. She’s now averaging 32.2 mpg, had yet another double-double in a big game against San Antonio last night, and she is only 23. But Tina Thompson’s 34.9 mpg and 34 years have caught up with her. She’s healthy, apparently, but she’s not playing particularly well – while we don’t wish serious injury on any player, it might not hurt if she got dinged up a little and missed a few games. And let’s not forget that soon to be 35 DeLisha Milton-Jones is playing 31.8 mpg, and that might be part of the reason for her inconsistency. Bad things could happen here, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

Minnesota (11-14):
The Lynx were doomed by an injury early on when Seimone Augustus went down – the fact they’re still in the hunt is a tribute to Jen Gillom and her players, but talk of age and playing time isn’t really that critical here. Though Minnesota is fine on both counts, like New York, the Lynx just don’t have the horses without Augustus.

San Antonio (11-15): Sophia Young is 25, and so her 34.0 mpg shouldn’t be too much of a burden, but Becky Hammon is 32, and 33.5 mpg could be an issue down the stretch. Ann Wauters’ return has taken some of the load off, but the Silver Stars have to rely on Young and Hammon to score most of the points and make all of the big plays – and it may be asking too much.

Sacramento (8-18) Just to round things out, though they’re playing better of late, Sacramento has already taken it on the chin in terms of injuries, and it would take a major miracle for them to take a playoff berth. Ticha Peniceiro is getting pretty long in the tooth—she’ll be 35 by the time the playoffs get underway, though she can probably manage her 25 minutes per game. DeMya Walker has been injury prone throughout her career, and though she’s younger (honing in on 32) can’t be counted on for much more than the 23 minutes per game she’s been averaging. At 28, Kara Lawson is capable of the 24 minutes per game she sees, but doesn’t do enough in that time (8.8 points, 2.5 assists-to-1.4 turnovers, per game) to lead her team to the playoffs. That leaves the Monarchs heavily reliant on 27-year old Nicole Powell, whose done a lot (16 points per game) with the 29 minutes-and-change she sees each game, and on the wildly inconsistent Rebekkah Brunson, already out due to injury earlier this season, but capable of holding down 22 minutes per game at age 27 unless she reinjures herself.

Of course, there’s much more to the equation than just age and fatigue, but it would foolish to ignore their impact down the stretch. Those coaches who have rested their regulars more, especially the older ones, may reap the benefit in September – and beyond.

Originally published Sat, August 22, 2009

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
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Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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