Wednesday, July 30, 2008

LJ Sits, Opals Cruise

The Australian Defence Force Opals didn't need Storm All-Star Lauren Jackson Wednesday as they swept a two-game exhibition series with Brazil, winning 85-62 in Sydney. The Opals demonstrated their balanced scoring attack, with six players scoring at least eight points led by 17 from former Storm center Suzy Batkovic and 13 by Belinda Snell. Australia scored 51 points after halftime and shot 52 percent from the field for the game. Here's a recap and the box score for the game.

Brazil played without Storm center Kelly Santos, who will join the team in time for the Olympics. Santos' role up front became more important when Brazil got the bad news that veteran center Erika DeSouza will miss the Olympics. DeSouza, who broke her leg in May, returned to play for the Atlanta Dream Sunday against New York. However, she apparently was reinjured in that game and was replaced on Brazil's roster yesterday.

Jackson sat out after feeling some soreness in her right ankle. Examination revealed an anterior impingement, so Australia played it safe and rested her.

''It's a disappointment to not be on the court, but that's the nature of the game, injuries,'' Jackson told the Canberra Times. ''But I will be back for the Olympics.''

Next up for Australia, like the United States, is the FIBA Diamond Ball for Women Tournament in Haining. Both teams will play their first Diamond Ball game on Sunday. The brief six-team tournament, which also includes China, Latvia, Mali and Russia, wraps up Tuesday. Olympic play starts the following Saturday.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A Little Breakout?

If you're not reading the Rethinking Basketball blog, why the heck not? You're missing out on the most thought-provoking WNBA analysis the Interweb has to offer. Today, Q offers an interesting post looking at breakout players, spotlighting Sacramento's Crystal Kelly and the Storm's own Camille Little.

During the Storm's 3-2 stretch without Lauren Jackson, Little came up huge (groan), averaging 11.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 24-of-44 (54.5 percent), so she's earned the attention.

I'm not surprised the numbers didn't portend a breakout for Little. She played too many minutes last season for San Antonio, emerging as the top frontcourt reserve for the Silver Stars after Erin Buescher's torn ACL. Little was hugely valauble for San Antonio, making the All-Rookie Team. Plus, the strength of her game - the defensive end of the floor - eludes the numbers to some extent.

Where Little became a diamond in the rough was in Atlanta, where she never quite fit in. Though Little got regular playing time, she was not as productive as she had been as a rookie. Enter Storm Head Coach Brian Agler, who knew Little could fit into his system after coaching her as an assistant with the Silver Stars last season.

So when the Storm acquired Little last month, I was excited, and not just because of the obvious headline pun possibilities. Still, I couldn't have imagined Little playing as well as she has in the last five games. In particular, what has stood out in that stretch has been Little's finishing ability at the bucket. 1150 AM KKNW play-by-play broadcaster Dick Fain pointed this out before last night's game and it's absolutely right.

Little is very creative in traffic, showing off reverses and scoring with her off hand. The ability to convert down low is very important in this league, especially for an undersized post player like Little. Last year in San Antonio, Little shot 41.2 percent and she was at 42.0 percent in Atlanta, so we'll see if she can keep up her 50-plus percent shooting with the Storm. One thing that should help in that regard is that Little is playing virtually exclusively at power forward for the Storm, having played more on the wing in her last two stops.

Olympic Preparation Begins in Earnest

On day one of the Olympic break, national teams are gearing up for the competition, which is a week and a half away (Aug. 9 is the first day of women's basketball in the Olympics).

In Wollongong, the host Australian Defence Force Opals defeated Brazil 99-62 in the first of two friendly matches. Here's the box score and a recap courtesy Basketball Australia. Lauren Jackson had 19 points, seven rebounds and three steals for the Opals. Ho hum. Penny Taylor added 17 and Belinda Snell scored 16. Brazil is playing without Storm center Kelly Santos; she said in June she would join her team in Australia for the teammate, so she might be in the lineup Wednesday when the teams play in Sydney, but I didn't get a chance to check with her on that yesterday.

As for Storm guard Sue Bird, she had an early-morning flight to Palo Alto for practice with the U.S. Olympic Team at Stanford University. The U.S. will practice at Stanford through Thursday before heading to Haining, China for the 2008 FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament. Here's the schedule. Jayda Evans is blogging from the U.S. practices.

Pre-Olympic Break Stats (including TO Rate)

After a wild week, the WNBA now heads into the Olympic break, giving us a month to think about how things are going to shake out down the stretch. The Eastern Conference has tightened up at the top, with a half-game separating Connecticut, Detroit and New York and the Shock without Cheryl Ford for the rest of the season. There's a little separation after San Antonio and the Storm in the West, but Houston, Los Angeles, Minnesota and Sacramento all have either 12 or 13 losses fighting for two playoff spots.

How do things stand in terms of point differential? Here are the standings using expected full-season wins based on differential.

Team          ExpW    Team          ExpW
------------------ ------------------
San Antonio 19.6 Connecticut 21.5
Seattle 19.5 Detroit 20.1
Minnesota 19.2 New York 19.3
Los Angeles 18.0 Indiana 17.6
Houston 17.6 Chicago 15.2
Phoenix 16.8 Washington 11.6
Sacramento 16.7 Atlanta 5.3
The Minnesota Lynx continue to be the anomaly by differential. Their differential is virtually the same as the Storm's and San Antonio's, yet the Lynx are on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Sacramento's seven-game winning streak did surprisingly little for the team's differential, which remains worst in the West.

Connecticut looks strong in the East, though the Sun's differential got an artificial boost with a 26-point win over Los Angeles on Thursday with Lisa Leslie, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Candace Parker all suspended. Something tells me that game goes a little differently with them active, though I still would have made the Sun the favorites. New York still lags a bit in terms of differential.

Alright, to the leaders in Offensive and Defensive Rating on a per-possession basis.

Team          ORating     Team          DRating
--------------------- ---------------------
Phoenix 107.4 Indiana 91.7
Minnesota 103.3 Seattle 94.7
Connecticut 101.9 San Antonio 95.1
Detroit 101.9 Los Angeles 95.7
New York 100.9 Connecticut 97.6
Seattle 99.4 Detroit 97.7
AVERAGE 98.7 Houston 97.8
San Antonio 98.6 New York 98.4
Chicago 98.3 Sacramento 98.4
Sacramento 97.9 AVERAGE 98.7
Los Angeles 97.8 Washington 99.0
Houston 96.6 Chicago 99.6
Atlanta 92.8 Minnesota 100.3
Indiana 92.7 Atlanta 106.1
Washington 91.5 Phoenix 108.1
For the most part, things have settled in here. A couple of notable changes: Sacramento has surged up the defensive rankings during the winning streak, while the Lynx have slipped down ahead of just Atlanta and Phoenix.

To the individual stats. Here are the leaders by Player Efficiency Rating, minimum 250 minutes.
Player              Tm   PER
----------------------------
Diana Taurasi PHO 28.4
Sancho Lyttle HOU 27.2
Lauren Jackson SEA 27.1
Lindsay Whalen CON 27.0
Candace Parker LAS 25.7
Sophia Young SAS 25.2
Candice Wiggins MIN 24.6
Janel McCarville NYL 24.5
Cappie Pondexter PHO 23.3
Candice Dupree CHI 23.2
Not much movement at this point of the season. Lyttle topped out at 23 minutes last week, and she needs more time on the court.

We continue our look at a miscellaneous statistic each week. This week we'll highlight turnover percentage, which is pretty simply the percentage of a player or team's possessions that end in a turnover. I calculate this as TO/(FGA + (.44*FTA) + TO). Others will subtract offensive rebounds from the denominator, but I like the idea of a team's possessions being divided into those that end in shots from the field, trips to the free-throw line and turnovers and having those three add up to 100 percent.

Here's a look at how teams rate this season in terms of lowest turnover percentage (left) and highest opponent turnover percentage (right).

Team             TO%     Team             TO%
-------------------- --------------------
Phoenix 14.5 Sacramento 20.1
Minnesota 15.0 Indiana 19.6
Detroit 15.4 New York 19.3
Connecticut 16.0 Washington 18.9
Seattle 16.9 Detroit 18.9
Chicago 17.5 Minnesota 18.3
New York 18.0 Houston 18.3
Sacramento 18.4 San Antonio 17.4
San Antonio 18.7 Seattle 17.2
Atlanta 18.9 Atlanta 16.9
Houston 19.1 Chicago 16.5
Los Angeles 19.2 Connecticut 16.0
Indiana 19.5 Los Angeles 15.8
Washington 21.0 Phoenix 15.2
Everyone thinks high-paced games mean lots of sloppy play and turnovers, but really that's not the case for teams that shoot it before they have a chance to commit a turnover. San Antonio coughs it up more often than you would like for a contending team. In general, teams that really struggle with turnovers have issues at point guard.

For the most part, you have two different types of defenses - those that sit back and defend the shot and those that aggressively play for turnovers. The Storm, San Antonio and L.A. generally fit into the former group, while Sacramento and New York rely on turnovers. It's possible to be successful either way. Of course, the strongest defenses combine both, and Indiana is the best example of that this season.

How about at the individual level. Here are the players that turn it over least often.

Player              Tm   TO%
----------------------------
Kelly Mazzante PHO 7.5
Seimone Augustus MIN 8.5
Raff. Masciadri LAS 8.9
Cheryl Ford DET 8.9
Katie Gearlds SEA 9.4
Alison Bales ATL 9.5
Lauren Jackson SEA 9.6
Jia Perkins CHI 9.7
Sophia Young SAS 10.2
Diana Taurasi PHO 10.3
Again, Mazzante, Masciadri and Gearlds are examples of the "shoot it before you turn it over" philosophy. Many of the league's top players are very surehanded given how much offense they're creating. The outliers on this list are Ford and Bales.

Which players are most prone to turnovers?

Player              Tm   TO%
----------------------------
Nancy Lieberman DET 66.7
Kasha Terry ATL 31.7
Shannon Bobbitt LAS 31.5
Loree Moore NYL 31.0
Brooke Wyckoff CHI 30.6
Kristin Haynie ATL 30.1
A'Quon. Franklin SAC 28.1
Ruth Riley SAS 27.7
Kerri Gardin CON 27.5
Erica White HOU 26.9
Noelle Quinn MIN 26.8
OK, Nancy Lieberman's 11 minutes don't really qualify her. Here you see a lot of point guards, which is not surprising. One adjustment many people make is to include assists with possessions used to account for the extra ballhandling done by point guards. I'm not a huge fan of doing so, but this explains wh it makes sense. That being said, I'm surprised how often Moore has turned it over. Her turnover rate was 23.9 percent a year ago, which is much more reasonable for a point guard.

We'll wrap things up by looking at the Storm's turnover rates.

Player              Tm   TO%
----------------------------
Katie Gearlds SEA 9.4
Lauren Jackson SEA 9.6
Sheryl Swoopes SEA 11.8
Swin Cash SEA 15.2
Sue Bird SEA 17.2
Shyra Ely SEA 20.0
Tanisha Wright SEA 21.3
Yolanda Griffith SEA 21.4
Camille Little SEA 22.0
Ashley Robinson SEA 30.4
Aside from Robinson, who rarely handles the ball on offense, the Storm doesn't have anyone who has regular problems with turnovers. Little is another type of player hurt by this analysis - she can't get any credit for setting screens, but can pick up offensive fouls that go in the books as turnovers.

A big part of Wright's improvement this season has been slashing her turnover rate from 27.9 percent last season.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

adidas’ i-design Contest Enters Final Week

The adidas’ i-design contest is giving WNBA fans the unique opportunity to design shooting shirts that will be worn by WNBA teams before and during games.

One Storm fan, as well as one in each market around the league, will be chosen as a winner. They will receive two tickets to attend a game as well as a special version of their winning shooting shirt autographed by their respective team in addition to an adidas prize pack. The fan whose design is chosen to be worn during the WNBA Finals will receive an all-expense paid trip for two to a Finals game.

If you're looking for some inspiration, Storm forward Swin Cash has submitted her own design which you can see at right. The deadline is July 31, so get designing and submit your entry online.

Unconventional Opals Training

Funny report from Australia, where Lauren Jackson and her Opals teammates are going through boot camp - literally. Head Coach Jan Stirling took her charges to the Australian Defence Force Canungra base to go through exercises designed for team-building.

"This is the start of building the unity, strength and courage of the team - there's no better environment to do that than here," Stirling told The Australian.

The players seem to be enjoying it, looking at a photo gallery that features Jackson in fatigues.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Breakfast With the Storm

With a special 10 a.m. start in Minnesota and the game on FSN, a group of us from the Storm offices have headed to Peso's for breakfast and Storm basketball. I ordered steak and eggs, but only because a Storm victory is not technically speaking on the menu.

I'll drop in some thoughts. The Storm is off to a decent start, tied at 13 with three minutes left in the first quarter. Lauren Jackson's absence is exacerbated today by Yolanda Griffith's absence due to a head injury. The Storm is playing super small but is getting a very aggressive performance early from Swin Cash.

End First Quarter: Love the aggressiveness of Swin and Sue Bird. They've got eight points apiece as the Storm leads 20-16 after one quarter. Don't love the turnovers - seven in all. They've really helped keep Minnesota close. The defense has been very stout aside from a couple of Anna DeForge threes, holding the Lynx to 5-of-17 shooting. And none of us here knows what's up with Vanessa Hayden-Johnson's hair.

Halftime: No Lauren Jackson. No Yolanda Griffith. Sheryl Swoopes sidelined for the last few minutes of the first half after cramping up. Yet the Storm still leads 39-30 at the half - can't complain about that. Sue Bird has been terrific, scoring 13 points on 4-of-9 shooting. This is vintage Sue going back to her rookie year when she had no choice to score for the Storm. Swin Cash has nine and is 7-for-8 from the free-throw line. The Storm is 11-3 when Cash scores double-figures, so here's hoping she gets another point. Camille Little continues to do yeoman's work in place of Jackson, scoring nine points and grabbing four boards. The Storm's team defense has been very good, holding the Lynx to 30 percent shooting.

Third Quarter: The Storm went up as many as 17 in the third quarter, but Minnesota rallied within nine by period's end. The Lynx have been the comeback kids at times this season, so the Storm has to keep the energy and focus up in the fourth quarter. Seimone Augustus has had a tough time shooting tonight, misisng 11 of her 13 shots, but she seems to be getting it going. That's a scary proposition for the Storm.

Final: Whew. A major sigh of relief after some anxious moments as Minnesota had the ball down one in the final 30 seconds. The Storm played great defense to get a couple of stops (at least Sue Bird thinks there were two), Camille Little knocked down her free throws, the defense kept Candice Wiggins from getting a good look at a tying three and the Storm escapes with a win. That's very impressive given the absence of LJ and Yolanda and Sheryl Swoopes not playing in the second half. The Storm was down to nine players available, so good thing no one was in foul trouble. 2-1 would be a solid road trip even for a Storm team at full strength, so this is remarkable. A win Friday in Phoenix would mean a historic trip.

Monday, July 21, 2008

LJ Takes Home ESPY

Storm forward Lauren Jackson won the ESPY Award as the Best WNBA Player for the third time in her career at the 2008 ESPYs, hosted Wednesday and televised last night. Previously, Jackson won for her 2004 MVP campaign and also in 2005. Just four players have ever won the Best WNBA Player ESPY - Jackson, current Storm teammate Sheryl Swoopes (2x), Lisa Leslie (3x) and Cynthia Cooper (3x).

Jackson was also nominated for Best Female International Athlete, which was won by Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa.

Since Jackson returned Down Under, she's been in the spotlight in the Australian media. She appeared on the Sunrise morning show and on the World Wide of Sports. Here's a good feature from the Herald Sun.

"Achieving the gold medal is the one last thing I really, really want to get," Jackson told the Herald Sun.

Weekly WNBA Numbers, Featuring TS%

In the long run, I don't think the lopsided nature of the Storm's loss yesterday at Washington means much of anything. It does mean their numbers are no longer as dominant as we take our weekly look at WNBA advanced stats. Detroit has passed the Storm in expected wins based on point differential projected to a full 34-game season, though Seattle remains tops in the Western Conference.

Team          ExpW    Team          ExpW
------------------ ------------------
Seattle 20.1 Detroit 22.0
Minnesota 19.4 Connecticut 19.7
San Antonio 19.3 New York 18.7
Los Angeles 19.0 Indiana 18.6
Phoenix 16.8 Chicago 15.8
Houston 16.0 Washington 12.0
Sacramento 15.5 Atlanta 5.2
According to point differential, four teams have separated themselves in the West but are all tightly-bunched. In the real standings, Minnesota (11-11) would not make the postseason if it started today. The Lynx are only a half-game ahead of Phoenix and Houston and are a half-game back of Sacramento, which by differential has no business in the playoffs. I cannot emphasize enough how hilarious it is that the Monarchs were criticized in Sacramento a couple weeks ago for being unable to win close games. After yesterday's win in Detroit, Sacramento is now 5-3 in games decided by five points or fewer and 10-5 in games decided by single-digits. With DeMya Walker added to the mix, the Monarchs might improve their differential down the stretch to match their record. Still, Minnesota has to be considered the favorite for the last playoff spot in the West.

Washington had the weirdest differential week ever, losing by 21 and 37 and then winning by 32. The net result was the Mystics stayed just about the same in the expected wins standings.

Alright, to the leaders in Offensive and Defensive Rating on a per-possession basis.

Team          ORating     Team          DRating
--------------------- ---------------------
Phoenix 107.5 Indiana 89.7
Minnesota 103.6 Seattle 94.1
Detroit 103.0 Los Angeles 94.3
Connecticut 101.8 San Antonio 93.6
New York 100.7 Detroit 96.3
Seattle 99.4 Houston 98.1
Chicago 98.9 Washington 98.6
AVERAGE 98.6
Sacramento 98.3 Connecticut 99.0
San Antonio 98.2 New York 99.0
Los Angeles 97.5 Chicago 99.9
Houston 95.1 Minnesota 100.5
Atlanta 93.0 Sacramento 100.5
Indiana 92.4 Atlanta 106.6
Washington 91.6 Phoenix 108.2
The Detroit offense got clicking last week, moving up from fifth in the league to third. Deanna Nolan was a big reason why, scoring 53 points on 22-of-38 shooting in games over the weekend against Washington and Sacramento. Still, why isn't Nolan mentioned more often as an inconsistent scorer? That output followed 16 total points in her previous three games.

To the individual stats. Here are the leaders by Player Efficiency Rating, minimum 250 minutes.
Player              Tm   PER
----------------------------
Diana Taurasi PHO 28.1
Lauren Jackson SEA 27.4
Sancho Lyttle HOU 26.5
Lindsay Whalen CON 26.2
Candace Parker LAS 26.2
Cappie Pondexter PHO 25.2
Sophia Young SAS 25.2
Candice Wiggins MIN 25.0
Tasha Humphrey DET 24.5
Janel McCarville NYL 24.4
At what point do we declare Lyttle legit? She's kept up MVP-caliber production for several weeks now. 378 minutes isn't a ton, but it's more than a fluke. Lyttle's net plus-minus (+10.1 points per 40 minutes) is 12th in the league. The newcomer this week is Humphrey, who now clears the 250-minute minimum and also improved her rating with 29 points and 17 rebounds in 55 minutes on 12-of-20 shooting.

We continue our look at a miscellaneous statistic each week. This week we'll highlight True Shooting Percentage, the best measure of a player's shooting efficiency. You can find TS% as PTS/(2*(FGA+(.44*FTA))). It's points per shooting percentage divided by two to be on the same scale as field-goal percentage. Here are the league leaders this season.

Player              Tm   TS%
----------------------------
Crystal Kelly SAC .656
Lisa Willis NYL .619
Sancho Lyttle HOU .619
Tasha Humphrey DET .611
Le'Coe Willingham PHO .607
Jamie Carey CON .604
Lindsay Whalen CON .595
Diana Taurasi PHO .593
Sidney Spencer LAS .591
Crystal Langhorne WAS .587
Naturally, this tends to favor role players who take advantage of open shots. It's very impressive for Whalen and Taurasi to make this list as go-to players for their teams. That's not to knock the role players on the list. Surely there are plenty of WNBA players who can't make those kinds of open shots.

Kelly has put up great numbers in limited minutes all year long as part of a deep Monarchs frontcourt. I hope Walker's return doesn't cut into her playing time too much. Willingham's presence shows part of why the Mercury hasn't missed the ├╝ber-efficient Penny Taylor as much on offense as we expected. Langhorne has shown up consecutive weeks, first for rebounding and now for shooting efficiency.

Why is True Shooting Percentage a better measure than field-goal percentage? Willis is a good example. She's shooting just 40.9 percent from the field, but about two-thirds of her attempts are threes, which she's hitting at a 48.3 percent clip, and she's 21-of-22 from the free-throw line this season. Add it up and she's been extremely efficient. I use the term "secondary percentage" for the difference between a player's TS% and their FG%. Willis' secondary percentage is the biggest in the league.

If we take a look at the top players using at least 20 percent of their team's possessions (league average), the list is different.

Player              Tm   TS%
----------------------------
Tasha Humphrey DET .611
Lindsay Whalen CON .595
Diana Taurasi PHO .593
Ann Wauters SAS .578
Janel McCarville NYL .577
Katie Feenstra ATL .574
Candice Wiggins MIN .571
Candace Parker LAS .567
Seimone Augustus MIN .566
Lauren Jackson SEA .564
These are the truly devastating offensive forces, players who shoot a lot and shoot efficiently. Jackson usually leads this list, though her inconsistent three-point shooting drops her down this year. Wiggins is another great example of a player who is underrated by field-goal percentage, in her case more because she leads the WNBA in free throws than because of threes. As for Feenstra, she has scored very well this year but is turning the ball over on a horrendous 26.7 percent of her possessions, which is why the Dream has gone elsewhere in the post.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Streaking on to Washington

Wow, what a win by the Storm last night. Down 17 on the road with an offense limited by the absence of Lauren Jackson, the odds were certainly against a comeback. However, the Storm persevered and came up with a seventh straight win. Resiliency is quickly becoming the team's trademark, though fortunately not to the extent it looked like very early in the season when the team was getting off to slow starts every night.

I wanted to quickly bring your attention to a couple of things about tomorrow's 1 p.m. tip-off in Washington. First, the game will be televised on NBA TV, pulling from the Comcast SportsNet Mystics feed. Plan accordingly. Second, having been on the wrong end of consecutive blowouts the last two nights, Washington made a coaching change this morning. Former Storm assistant Jessie Kenlaw will replace Tree Rollins on an interim basis.

Kenlaw spent four seasons on the Storm's coaching staff under Anne Donovan and was a part of the Storm's 2004 championship run. For more on her background, here's a 2004 feature I did that focuses on Kenlaw's playing career in the fledgling Women's Professional Basketball League and touches on her path into coaching. Best of luck to Jessie - after tomorrow, that is.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

KING5 Practice Squad Feature

Great feature from KING5 last night on Jimmy Quigg, a member of the Storm's practice squad. Players and Head Coach Brian Agler spoke to the importance of the practice squad to the Storm, while Quigg described how he balances his work managing property sites with his extended lunch practicing with the team.

What didn't entirely come across is that Jimmy is a world-class character whose presence livens up every practice. Even when we're outside waiting to watch, we can hear him exhorting his fellow practice squadders or the Storm players to maintain their energy. Playing on the practice squad is often grunt work ("We're the tackling dummies," he put it in the segment), but Jim always brings an enthusiasm and passion that can't help but be contagious.

A good topic for a follow-up article would be the sense of investment the long-time members of the practice squad like Jim feel in the Storm's performance. There truly is a sense, in a unique way, of being part of the team. Jim's especially reveling in the Storm's recent winning streak, having predicted after the loss in Los Angeles to me and anyone else who would listen that the Storm was due for a 10-game winning streak. Six games in, so far, so good.

Elsewhere ... Friday's Storm game in Indiana will be the Fever's Inspiring Women Night, and the guest of honor is former Storm (and Fever) Head Coach Anne Donovan. In preparation for Friday, FeverBasketball.com has a four-part Q&A with Donovan. Starting from the last part, you can read all four. It's well worth the look. In part, Donovan talks about watching the Storm last month in Seattle against, strangely, the same Indiana squad.

FB: I didn’t realize that that was your first trip back, that makes this all the more compelling. So on your first trip back, you’re watching your successor run the Storm’s team. Any thoughts on Brian Agler and watching him, what was going through your mind?
AD: “I’m watching him and the relationships with players. I’m very much fascinated and intrigued by that piece of it, that’s why I love coaching. I love that emotional connection with players, more than anything, just watching that. Watching his interaction with Sue [Bird] and how she ran the team and his substitution patterns. More than anything, just watching how all the players were being taken care of and I’m really happy for Brian. He’s in a good situation and he’s done a tremendous job with the team.
Also from the Fever's Web site is an update on Olympian Tamika Catchings. Catchings, who has been working hard to come back from last year's torn right Achilles tendon, left yesterday's loss to Atlanta after being kicked in her right heel. Here's the update from the blog of the Fever's Media Relation Director, Kevin Messenger:
Regarding Tamika Catchings, she left the game with 6:46 left in the fourth period after being kicked in the right heel - in the same location as her Achilles' injury last fall. That doesn't mean there was any damage done, that is what is yet unknown. She experienced significant pain, and obviously did not return. Fever trainers were with her immediately. She saw doctors when they got her off the floor, and she will see more doctors on Thursday. The official report is this: 'She got kicked and will undergo further examination for a possible strain of the right Achilles' tendon.'

Catchings will be listed as day-to-day until such time as she is determined healthy to go again. This is yet another reminder that while she's back and playing again, this still is a continuation of a very long journey -- she is still rehabilitating.
I think anyone who has followed the WNBA admires Catchings' work ethic and hustle, so here's hoping everything checks out with the doctors. It would be tough to see her suffer a setback so close to the Olympics.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Surprise: Another Seven-Day Deal for O'Neill

Tuesday was expected to bring a decision on Kristen O'Neill's future with the Seattle Storm. Would O'Neill be re-signed for the remainder of the season or leave the team with the expiration of her second seven-day contract? The answer, as it turned out, was neither. After a conversation with the WNBA league office, the Storm found out that teams are not limited to two seven-day contracts for a given player but can sign them to as many seven-day deals as they want. With that knowledge, the Storm opted to give O'Neill another seven-day contract, keeping her on the roster but maintaining flexibility for the future.

"It has nothing really to do with anything negative towards Kristen," said Storm Head Coach Brian Agler, explaining why the team would continue with seven-day contracts instead of signing Agler for the remainder of the season. "Everything's real positive. We like her on our team. Just in case something could happen where we would need to go out and get a specific type of player, it gives us that insurance policy."

Both the Storm and the media had been working under the assumption that players were limited to two seven-day contracts. Last year, the team signed Doneeka Lewis for the remainder of the season after her second seven-day contract came to an end. While the NBA specifically places a limit on 10-day contracts, their equivalent of the WNBA's seven-day contracts, neither the previous WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement nor the current one that took effect this season contains such language.

The way the rules were previously interpreted, O'Neill would have gotten a decision on her long-term fate today. She admitted some nervousness about the news last night, before she found out about the possibility of further seven-day contracts.

"To feel like I was finally going to have an answer either way was of course on my mind," she said. "But I came in here today and had a good talk with coach and the staff and I'm here to help the team. I'm happy to still be here."

Even had O'Neill gotten a guarantee for the remainder of the season, she surely would have continued the hard work that has made her so valuable to the Storm's coaching staff. Still, the short-term nature of her status only reinforces the importance of that work.

"It has been a challenge," O'Neil said, "but it has been making me stronger because every day you have to bring it. Every day you have to come ready to compete as hard as you can and you can't let up."

During her two weeks with the Storm, O'Neill has played 13 minutes over four games, three of them at KeyArena. Her every move during home games has drawn huge applause from fans who fell in love with O'Neill during her time at the University of Washington or even before that at Edmonds High School.

"It's been a pretty incredible feeling," said O'Neill. "There's nothing like playing in front of your home crowd, but I've been so moved by the way that the community has supported my dream. This is what I've wanted for so long and a lot of people have helped me achieve that, whether through coaching or by being a fan and really getting behind me. That's meant so much, so to see the support from the community has been incredible."

O'Neill Will Sign Third Seven-Day Contract

Quickly after practice. The release hasn't yet gone out, but the Storm will sign guard Kristen O'Neill to another seven-day contract after finding out from the league office today that there is no limit to the number of seven-day contracts for a player.

In the NBA, players are limited to two 10-day contracts, and that had been the assumption in the WNBA as well. I'm looking into whether this is a change with this year's new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Monday Practice Report

In the first of four practices this week, three in Seattle, the Storm scrimmaged extrensively against its mostly-male practice squad. It was the most action the media has seen in a while. Some highlights:

- Katie Gearlds was on fire, as you can read about in today's feature story.
- Tanisha Wright and Camille Little ran a pick-and-roll to perfection, resulting in a layup for Little.
- Little drew some laughs when a pass bounced off her back on defense when she was faceguarding her opposing number and not looking at the ball. "Nice defense, Camille," yelled one teammate. (In fact, it was.)

Swin Cash and Yolanda Griffith took the practice off to rest, and we did not see Sue Bird on the floor either.

According to Storm Head Coach Brian Agler, with the Storm defense clicking, it's the offense that will be more of a focal point this week.

"We'd like to tighten up our offense a little bit if we could," he said. "Hopefully stay with our same rhythm defensively, keep focusing on the rebounding side of things, blocking out. We'll work against the press this week. We're playing against some teams that will press us the next few games."

Today is the last day of Kristen O'Neill's second seven-day contract, meaning the Storm will have to make a decision tomorrow whether to sign O'Neill for the remainder of the season or allow her contract to expire and fill the open roster spot with another player. Agler said the team hadn't made any decisions yet on O'Neill's future.

WNBA Numbers Update Shows Storm's Strength

I skipped out on last week's WNBA numbers in favor of a midseason Storm analysis. This week, we're back, and the numbers reveal just how well the Storm has played during its six-game winning streak. The Storm now has the best point differential in the league at +4.3 points per game. To reflect that, let's start our analysis with expected wins based on point differential projected to a full 34-game season.

Team          ExpW    Team          ExpW
------------------ ------------------
Seattle 21.8 Detroit 20.8
San Antonio 20.5 Connecticut 20.4
Minnesota 19.4 Indiana 18.5
Los Angeles 19.1 New York 18.4
Phoenix 15.5 Chicago 15.8
Houston 15.3 Washington 12.7
Sacramento 15.0 Atlanta 5.0
While the top of the West has pulled away a bit, the battle for the fourth and final playoff spot is still tight. 1.5 games separate Minnesota and last-place Houston. In terms of differential, the Lynx are way, way ahead of the back. The other three teams have slipped over the last week or two. The Silver Stars are on pace for 24 or 25 wins and continue to outplay their differential, as they did last year. Interesting. A good differential bodes well for postseason success, but I'd rather have the wins and home-court advantage.

Alright, to the leaders in Offensive and Defensive Rating on a per-possession basis.

Team          ORating     Team          DRating
--------------------- ---------------------
Phoenix 107.0 Indiana 89.8
Minnesota 102.9 Seattle 93.3
New York 102.0 San Antonio 93.5
Connecticut 101.8 Los Angeles 94.4
Detroit 101.4 Detroit 96.4
Seattle 100.8 Washington 97.6
Chicago 99.4 Houston 98.0
AVERAGE 98.6
San Antonio 98.1 Connecticut 98.7
Los Angeles 97.9 Minnesota 99.7
Sacramento 97.8 Chicago 100.7
Houston 94.3 New York 100.7
Atlanta 93.1 Sacramento 100.9
Indiana 92.0 Atlanta 107.2
Washington 91.9 Phoenix 108.9
The Storm's stifling defense on Saturday has moved the team into second in the WNBA in Defensive Rating. Wha's interesting about these rankings is how little balance there is in the WNBA this season. The best offensive teams are not good on defense and vice versa. The Storm and Detroit are the only two teams who have been above-average at both ends of the floor so far this season.

Two really bad units on teams that dominate the other end: The Indiana offense and, of course, the Phoenix defense. Tamika Catchings' return hasn't helped the Fever the way everyone figured it would. Clearly, Catchings is not 100 percent. After a nice run in early July, last week she combined for nine points on 3-of-17 shooting in two games. As for the Mercury, it's not too early for me to put looking up the worst defenses in WNBA history on my to-do list.

To the individual stats. Here are the leaders by Player Efficiency Rating, minimum 250 minutes.
Player              Tm   PER
----------------------------
Diana Taurasi PHO 28.1
Lauren Jackson SEA 27.4
Lindsay Whalen CON 27.0
Candace Parker LAS 26.7
Sancho Lyttle HOU 26.2
Sophia Young SAS 25.9
Cappie Pondexter PHO 25.4
Janel McCarville NYL 25.2
Candice Dupree CHI 24.6
Candice Wiggins MIN 23.7
Jackson's run recently has her in position to potentially lead the WNBA in PER for the third straight season. Don't forget Whalen in that race. She was brilliant yesterday against Washington even in a Sun loss; I don't see how you could watch that game and come to the conclusion that anyone but Whalen is Connecticut's MVP. While we're talking MVP, don't leave Young out of that discussion. Not only is her PER sixth in the league, she's edged past Jackson and Storm teammate Sue Bird for the best net plus-minus rating in the league (as tracked by the indispensable Paul Swanson).

Lastly, I want to take a look at a miscellaneous statistic each week. We'll start with rebound percentage, the estimated percentage of all available rebounds that a player grabs while on the floor. Here are the league leaders this season.

Player              Tm  Reb%
----------------------------
Sancho Lyttle HOU 19.1
Cheryl Ford DET 18.9
Yolanda Griffith SEA 18.3
Tiffany Jackson NYL 17.7
Katie Feenstra ATL 16.9
Michelle Snow HOU 16.8
Crystal Langhorne WAS 16.8
Rebekkah Brunson SAC 16.8
Lisa Leslie LAS 16.1
Nakia Sanford WAS 16.0
Lyttle has averaged 9.1 rebounds per game as a starter. The Comets wisely have gone back to the big lineup with Lyttle, Snow and Tina Thompson in the frontcourt that was so successful for them a year ago.

I don't think Griffith's rebounding has gotten enough credit this season, especially from the people who like fixate on her age. What's really impressive is that Griffith has changed her game to become a much better defensive rebounder because of the Storm's need on the defensive glass. (Alternatively, maybe the white-line defense was keeping Griffith from establishing good defensive position.)

The one name on this list that was a surprise to me was Langhorne, who has been a force in the glass and an effective finisher in the paint as a rookie. Langhorne has been overshadowed by the depth of the rookie class, but she's got a bright future in Washington.

Now the Storm by rebound percentage:

Player              Tm  Reb%
----------------------------
Yolanda Griffith SEA 18.3
Shyra Ely SEA 12.8
Lauren Jackson SEA 12.4
Ashley Robinson SEA 11.7
Sheryl Swoopes SEA 10.7
Swin Cash SEA 10.6
Camille Little SEA 9.9
Tanisha Wright SEA 8.1
Katie Gearlds SEA 6.5
Sue Bird SEA 5.7
By definition, league average for rebound percentage is 10 percent (because there's 10 players on the court at any time); six Storm players clear that mark with Little essentially at it. When the Storm rebounds well, as it has lately, it's by committee. In particular, when Swoopes is at shooting guard her rebounding is a major asset for the Storm.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Storm on NBA Access

Make sure to tune in Saturday as NBA Access with Ahmad Rashad devotes an entire show to the Storm. NBA Access airs Saturday at 1 p.m. Eastern and 3 p.m. Pacific on ABC (KOMO 4 in the Seattle area), and if you understand why it's earlier in the East than the West, you're ahead of me.

Anyways, here's what you'll see:

This week, NBA Access with Ahmad Rashad takes a behind the scenes look at the WNBA's Seattle Storm and its newly-assembled all-star lineup. The show takes a ride to practice with 3-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes as she talks about making a change in her career after a legendary run as a member of the Houston Comets. Cameras also catch up with 1999 MVP Yolanda Griffith, who adds experience to the Storm frontline and gives viewers an all-access look at Storm practice. Two-time WNBA champion Swin Cash left the Detroit Shock for the Storm, and she visits a scenic overlook in Seattle to talk about her career transition. The heart and soul of the team remains the inside-out tandem of point guard Sue Bird and two-time MVP Lauren Jackson, and viewers will see how they've accepted all the new players into the fold. The show combines newly-shot all-access footage with a trip back through the NBA Entertainment archives for a rare look at this group of star players looking to make a run at the WNBA title.

CP3 by the Numbers

With the Los Angeles Sparks and Candace Parker coming to KeyArena tomorrow (7:00 p.m., FSN, 1150 AM KKNW, TIX), I was curious whether Parker's strong start has her on pace to post the best rookie season of all time. This is the kind of question my WARP rating system is well-equipped to answer, estimating how valuable a player is to their team in terms of the wins they offer as compared to a replacement-level player.

Before 2008, these were the top 10 rookie seasons in WNBA history.

Player              Year  Team  WARP
------------------------------------
Tamika Catchings 2002 IND 11.2
Lauren Jackson 2001 SEA 6.4
Diana Taurasi 2004 PHO 6.2
Betty Lennox 2000 MIN 5.5
Sue Bird 2002 SEA 5.2
Alana Beard 2004 WAS 5.1
Chamique Holdsclaw 1999 WAS 5.1
Swin Cash 2002 DET 5.0
Tamika Williams 2002 MIN 4.4
Cappie Pondexter 2006 PHO 4.4
Considering the Storm has two of the top five rookie seasons ever, it's strange that the team has never had a Rookie of the Year. Sue Bird had the misfortune of going up against the best debut season the league has ever seen, when Tamika Catchings finished as the runner-up for MVP as a rookie. As for Lauren Jackson, well, there's no way to sugercoat it. She was robbed. Portland's Jackie Stiles won the award with 1.8 WARP, a figure dwarfed by Jackson's 6.4 WARP. Ah, well - LJ's never been in it for the awards.

Anyways, how do this year's top rookies compare? Here's the top six, projected to a full 34-game season.

Player              Team  WARP
------------------------------
Candace Parker LAS 9.4
Candice Wiggins MIN 6.0
Nicky Anosike MIN 4.7
Alexis Hornbuckle DET 2.9
Crystal Kelly SAC 2.2
Sylvia Fowles CHI 1.8
It's unlikely Parker will quite catch her fellow Tennessee alumna, but her rookie season has certainly been outstanding. Wiggins has been great in her own right and would have a chance for the second-best rookie season in league history were it not for Parker. Anosike has been legitimately outstanding and is having the best rookie season ever for a non-first-round pick (a title previously held by Michelle Brogan or, if you want to limit to college players, Tammy Sutton-Brown).

As for Fowles, on a per-minute basis she rates better than Wiggins, but her knee injury has naturally limited her total value.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Swoopes Battles Sore Left Knee

Storm guard Sheryl Swoopes came off the bench during Tuesday's win at Sacramento, the first time this season she has not been in the starting lineup. After injuring her right knee in practice last week, Swoopes has been dealing lately with swelling and soreness in the other knee.

"It feels a little better, but it's bothering me," Swoopes said after working out Wednesday following practice. "It's just one of those things. I tried to warm up and it wasn't feeling very good. If I can't go out there and give 100 percent where I feel like I'm going to help the team, it's better for me to sit and be the best cheerleader I can be - which is what I kind of had to do last night. Taking yesterday off and coming back and doing a little bit of stuff today, it feels better than it's felt in a couple of days. Hopefully I'll be able to go tomorrow."

There's no structural damage to Swoopes' knee. Her suspicion is that it's simply fatigued a little over halfway through the season. Only playing 10 minutes against the Monarchs should help, and after Saturday's game the Storm will have five days off. Swoopes will get far more rest when the WNBA breaks for the Olympics at the end of the month.

"I said the other day that the break can't get here soon enough for me personally," she said. "I think it's tired and to be able to take a couple of days off is probably what my whole body needs."

Tanisha Wright stepped in to make her third start of the season, each in place of a different player. Wright had 11 points, a season-high six assists and five rebounds in a season-long 34-minute outing. She was one of five Storm players to score double-figures.

"She's played exceptionally well this season," said Swoopes, "regardless of whether she's starting or coming off the bench, how many minutes she's playing. Offensively and defensively, she's played really well. It's not like I felt like we were losing anything with her starting."

While Storm Head Coach Brian Agler would prefer to have Swoopes available, he's comfortable going with Wright if Swoopes is unable to play Thursday when the Storm hosts Phoenix on Kids Day (12:00 p.m., 1150 AM KKNW, TIX).

"If (Sheryl's) able to go, then she'll start," said Agler. "If not, we'll go with Tanisha."

Tomorrow's Noon start will present a change from the Storm's usual routine.

"I think they're good for the league," Agler said of kids days around the WNBA. "You get a different demographic - I'm sure we'll have a lot of kids in there tomorrow and exposed maybe to their first WNBA game. That's good. I think it's good from a player and coach standpoint that you don't have to sit around all day worrying about the game. It just hits you right off the bat. It's different and you're always concerned about how you prepare."

That's the downside for the Storm, which got to The Furtado Center at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon after flying in from Sacramento. That left time only for some film and a walkthrough. The early start means no opportunity for a pregame shootaround.

"If we didn't play yesterday and had yesterday and today (to practice) and then played at Noon on Thursday," said Agler, "that would be great."

Monday, July 7, 2008

Robinson Returns to Practice

Storm center Ashley Robinson returned to practice Monday after rolling her right ankle last Thursday and missing Saturday's win over Minnesota. She was on the floor for the brief live action we saw at the end of practice.

"I feel fine," said Robinson. "A little achy, but it's normal. It's still a little bit (swollen), but it's under control and it goes down a lot every day."

Robinson and the Storm's training staff have been working hard to get her ankle ready to go over the last few days.

"Ice, stim treatment," she said. "Compression boot, exercises for it - I'm trying a little bit of everything."

The Storm should have Robinson available for tomorrow's game in Sacramento (7:00 p.m., 1150 AM KKNW).

Swoopes Interview

Check out SlamOnline.com's interview with Sheryl Swoopes, in which Swoopes touches on coming back from her back injury, her future and the fact that she's not ready yet to begin that post-playing future.

“Sitting here, talking to you today and being able to just move and do things and not hurt, oh my gosh, I feel so good. I can’t sit here and say, ‘Yeah, next year I see myself coaching or in a front office.’ I don’t know that because I feel really good right now and I just want to continue to work hard, get better and take it one day at a time. Just kind of wait and see what happens.

“Let me just say this. If everything goes well and, God willing, this is definitely where I want to come back and play next year.”

Saturday, July 5, 2008

LJ Officially an Olympian

On Thursday, Basketball Australia announced the roster for the Opals for next month's Beijing Olympics. And, in news that comes as something less than a surprise, Lauren Jackson headlines that roster.

More noteworthy is that former Storm guard Tully Bevilaqua was chosen for the roster despite choosing to play with the Indiana Fever this season. In 2004, Bevilaqua's decision to play for the Storm instead of staying in Australia played a role in costing her an Olympic bid. This time around, a roster spot was likely but no sure thing.

"I'm just playing it as 50-50," Bevilaqua said last month. "I'm supposed to find out towards the end of this month whether I am included or not. I'm trying not to think about it because I don't want it to affect how I play here. I'm just trying to stay loose, not worry about things. That's how I'm playing at the moment. When the time comes to get the call, hopefully it will be good."

Former Storm center Suzy Batkovic is also on the roster after not taking part in the 2006 FIBA World Championships, won by Australia.

Locally, the bigger news has been Storm forward Swin Cash receiving word from USA Basketball that she will not fill one of the last thee spots on the U.S. roster for Beijing, which have yet to be announced.

When Storm rookie Kristen O'Neill made her WNBA debut on Thursday, her college coach June Daugherty was in the KeyArena crowd. Daugherty, now coaching Washington State University, chatted with Dick Fain and Adia Barnes on the 1150 AM KKNW broadcast on Thursday. If you were there yourself or just missed it, here's the audio from that interview.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Swoopes Day-to-Day

Good news from Storm practice today, as Sheryl Swoopes was able to shoot around after practice wearing a brace on her right knee. Yesterday's tests, including an X-Ray and an MRI, came out negative. Swoopes is dealing with some soreness in the knee and remains day-to-day, but hopes to play tomorrow when the Storm hosts New York (7:00 p.m., 1150 AM KKNW, TIX).

Look for more details later this afternoon in our full story.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Swoopes Leaves Practice Early

The Storm finished practice today without guard Sheryl Swoopes, who left early after suffering a knee injury.

"Don't know yet," said Brian Agler after practice, asked about Swoopes' status. "Tweaked her knee.

"I didn't really see what happened. It was away from the ball. I think she was planting and cutting. I asked (Athletic Trainer) Tom (Spencer) if it was a contact-type thing, and it wasn't a contact type of injury. She didn't run into anybody or hit anybody. So we're just sort of waiting to hear back."

O'Neill Makes It

Exciting day here at Storm HQ as we got the news moments ago that Kristen O'Neill has been signed to a seven-day contract, making the Storm after putting together a strong bid for a roster spot during training camp. Everybody was pulling for O'Neill because of her work ethic and terrific attitude. Her decision to continue to work with the Storm practice squad after being cut has now paid off in a chance to play in the WNBA. There are no guarantees for O'Neill past the next seven days, but she's got a shot.

Before Sunday's game, Storm Head Coach Brian Agler was in the mix as the Storm looked to sign a player to a seven-day contract. Here's what he had to say about O'Neill.

"She's been a practice player for us. She'll come in and play on the guys' team. If we, for whatever reason, need to rest people or have someone out, she sometimes can slide in there and get in a drill for us.

"The thing that we tell Kristen is just keep working. You're not hurting yourself. Stay right there. Something good could happen this year. It might not be this year; it might be down the road.

"She puts a lot of time into it. You guys see her. You come in late and you're hanging around there and you look down the floor and there's one person still shooting. You know what kind of commitment she has to the game and the love that she has for it. We all respect that out of her. There's no question."

Vote LJ

The Storm's Lauren Jackson has been nominated for a pair of ESPY Awards. Naturally, she's up for Best WNBA Player along with Seimone Augustus, Becky Hammon and Diana Taurasi. Jackson is also competing with tennis star Justine Henin, golfer Lorena Ochoa and soccer standout Marta to be named Best Female International Player. You can vote for LJ and in all the other categories at espys.tv.

Previously, Jackson won the Best WNBA Player ESPY in 2004.

The 2008 ESPYs, hosted by Justin Timberlake, will air Sunday, July 20 at 6 p.m. Pacific on ESPN.

Expect Great from LJ

The third and final installment of the WNBA's Expect Great campaign features Storm MVP Lauren Jackson and Cappie Pondexter of the Phoenix Mercury. Check out their ads, which will make their national debut tonight during ESPN2's broadcast of Atlanta and Phoenix (4:00 p.m. Pacific). Jackson talks about her desire to add another championship to the one the Storm won in 2004.




Also check out a behind-the-scenes photo gallery from the filming of the commercials. In case you've missed any of them, including the one starring Storm guard Sue Bird, check out WNBA.com's Expect Great homepage.