Commentary

Handicapping the West

Originally Published: May 16, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

Diana TaurasiTerrence Vaccaro /NBAE/Getty ImagesSue Bird's Storm are expected to finish ahead of Diana Taurasi's Mercury this season.

There's a difference between having high hopes and high expectations. I had the former for the new "Dark Shadows" movie, but not the latter. So it was only halfway disappointing that it turned out to be, in my view, a hot mess. I'd hoped for better, but hadn't expected it.

How can a collection of very talented people with every technology available and lots of money combine to make a meandering movie that lurches so clumsily through 113 minutes of competing attempts at gothic romance, campy satire, period nostalgia, and gruesome violence?

Film critics -- which I most certainly am not -- often say of such efforts, "This movie doesn't know what it wants to be." I'd say, though, Tim Burton and company did know … but what they wanted was way too much. In trying to hit so many notes, they didn't hit any of them well enough.

This can happen in all industries, and the comparison I'll make in basketball is the team that has talent but never really finds an identity. During the last WNBA offseason, veteran guard Ticha Penicheiro talked about what had gone wrong in Los Angeles in 2011 beyond just the injury time away for star Candace Parker.

With just 12 teams in the league and players who know each other so well from both WNBA and overseas competition, coaches can't come up with exotic game plans and secret weapons. Penicheiro said that especially with the relative brevity of a 34-game season, WNBA teams have to figure out what they do best and stick with it. Then work on that in practice and focus on it as a mindset.

Last year, the Sparks had a coaching change (Jen Gillom to Joe Bryant) during the course of the season, which added more to their identity crisis. Even with Parker retuning in mid-August, L.A. finished with a 15-19 record and missed the playoffs.

Veterans such as Penicheiro (to Chicago) and Tina Thompson (to Seattle) left, and Bryant wasn't retained. Instead, Carol Ross came on board after serving as an assistant in Atlanta (and, of course, she was a longtime college head coach). Her early assessment of the Sparks?

"It's just that time of year where you're trying to figure out what is and what can be," Ross said. "Talent has not been the problem. It wasn't the problem before I rode into town. It's trying to make sure that we put the talent that's here in the best position possible, and to make sure that the intangibles that go with great teams are in place."

With that, let's take a look at the Western Conference and try to assess talent and those desired -- but not always reliable -- intangibles. Teams are listed in the order I think (guess) they will finish. Running commentary on "Dark Shadows" will pop up as well. Despite its many flaws -- or maybe because of them -- it seems to be possessing me.

Minnesota Lynx

After years of hovering around mediocre, the Lynx found the right formula and won a championship last season. There was the perfect mix of experience and youth, the players got along well, and there were no key injuries. What are the odds of that all happening again for a second consecutive season?

[+] Enlarge Kristi Toliver
AP Photo/Gus RuelasKristi Toliver's Sparks have question marks in the backcourt, while Becky Hammon's Silver Stars need someone to step up consistently in the post.

The injury element is always impossible to predict; second-year post Amber Harris -- who missed some time last season with a concussion -- already is out with an ankle injury.

The other parts, though, might be much as they were in 2011. The chemistry aspect you can't be sure of until it plays out. Just like you can have Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green and Chloe Grace Moretz in the same movie but it still doesn't click, the Lynx will have to see if everything is as smooth personnel-wise as it was a year ago.

"Los Lynx" were led in 2011 by star Seimone Augustus, one of three Minnesota players who will be going to the London Olympics this summer. Fellow Olympians Lindsay Whalen and Maya Moore played their roles last year well, too, with Moore being WNBA rookie of the year and the point guard Whalen bringing a long-awaited title to her home state.

Minnesota is now in the opposite position it was for so many years. Rather than trying to re-invent themselves from the previous season, the Lynx are attempting to replicate themselves. They didn't need to do much tinkering, and so they didn't. To the degree that the Lynx can stay fairly healthy, they are the safe pick to finish first in the West.

"When I prepare my team -- if my goal is to win a championship -- the picture in my mind is Minnesota," San Antonio coach Dan Hughes said. "They're positioned to be the mark that we're all shooting to be in competition with or better."

Los Angeles Sparks

We've already talked about the Sparks, who have partially remade themselves. The Sparks are heavy on interior players -- Parker, No. 1 draft pick Nneka Ogwumike, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Nicky Anosike, Jantel Lavender, Ebony Hoffman -- and light on guards.

With Penicheiro gone, the Sparks player with the most WNBA experience at point guard is Kristi Toliver. But her average of 2.0 assists during her first three years in the league is underwhelming.

Sharnee Zoll, who had an ACC-record 785 assists at Virginia, was drafted by L.A. back in 2008. She ended up with Minnesota for a few games that season, then got a look in Seattle's training camp last year. Zoll is one of those players who would have been in the WNBA since graduation if the rosters were 12 or 13 players. As it is, she has lost the numbers game in that regard, but maybe that will change in L.A.

The Sparks need someone who has a pass-first mentality and whose ego is very low-maintenance, especially in regard to scoring. Zoll has learned her trade as a pro overseas, and this is the right WNBA fit for her if she can capitalize on it.

The WNBA is more fun when there is at least one so-called "villain" team. L.A. filled that role for a while, along with the former Detroit Shock. I've been told that no matter how good or bad the Sparks are, they still garner enthusiastic loathing among Seattle fans, a feeling that has NBA roots.

But overall, the Sparks are more universally unlikable (in a good way) when they are a real threat to win the title and have some of that Hollywood swag to them. After falling away from that the last couple of years, maybe the Sparks of old are on their way back, even without Lisa Leslie.

(Aside: The best character of "Dark Shadows" to me was Green's over-the-top vindictive witch, a most fetching villain. She did all kinds of really horrible stuff, yet I still liked her. Wonder if she can play point guard at all?)

Seattle Storm

Lauren Jackson is training with Australia for the London Games, so she won't be in the WNBA until after the Olympic break. Meanwhile, two players who are used to being busy during the Olympics are going to get time off this summer.

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidMaya Moore and Minnesota had the perfect mix of experience and youth -- and great team chemistry -- in their championship season last summer.

Former Team USA members Katie Smith and Tina Thompson will try to help the Storm stay afloat during the first half of the season.

"I'm going to enjoy my Olympic break," Smith said. "I'm going to take it, enjoy the rest that I'll get, and be ready to roll for the second half of the season."

They are role players now, though. They say the right things publicly about embracing that; we'll see if they really do accept it this year.

(Aside: Smith, who'll be 38 in June, and Thompson, 37, are considered "senior citizens" in the WNBA. But they aren't old enough to have caught the "Dark Shadows" soap opera in its original run. I am, as it ended just after I turned 6. My older sister always had it on after school. I would sometimes cover my eyes and say, 'Tell me when the scary part is over.' She always told me too soon.)

The question with Jackson is typically health, because if she can be on the court, she will produce. In her absence -- and with the trades of Swin Cash and Le'coe Willingham -- Seattle needs a little more from everyone else. The Storm brought in Ann Wauters to help inside and thinks that No. 2 draft pick Shekinna Stricklen can be successfully mentored, especially by versatile players such as Tanisha Wright and Camille Little.

Seattle might not end the regular season atop the West. But if the Storm secure a playoff spot as fully expected, and LJ has some gas in the tank for playoffs, no one should be surprised if Seattle makes a strong run at a third championship.

San Antonio Silver Stars

Hughes' team has the opposite issue of the Sparks. The guard situation is pretty secure, led by the likes of Becky Hammon, Jia Perkins, Danielle Robinson and two players on different ends of the spectrum: rookie Shenise Johnson and almost 40-year-old Tully Bevilaqua.

(Aside: Bevilaqua was born in 1972, the year in which "Dark Shadows" the movie is set. The film is an homage to the early '70s: If you remember lava lamps, shag carpeting, the Carpenters on TV, and your older sister tricking you into watching the scary stuff, you'll at least enjoy that aspect of it.)

But what about post play? Sophia Young is reliable, but her 2011 scoring average (13.2 ppg) was the lowest since her rookie season of 2006. Danielle Adams, who seemed the steal of the 2011 draft, had a good first season that was disrupted by injury. Jayne Appel still seems to be finding her way as a pro. Tangela Smith is 35 but can have some big games. Ziomara Morrison is a 23-year-old rookie out of Abilene Christian whom fans don't know much about.

"Danielle Adams continues to get better," Hughes said. "The issue, just to be blunt, is how many minutes can we play her. We've found maybe we can get 17 to 20 and keep the level of effectiveness going.

"With that said, it becomes kind of work by committee in a lot of situations. This is a big year for Jayne, I think, to kind of step up and add to that situation. And Ziomara is an impressive young developing player that we'll work with."

Can the Silver Stars make the playoffs with this combination? Yes, but lasting very long in the postseason is another story.

Phoenix Mercury

Speaking of "Dark Shadows," one was cast on the Mercury's season -- and the Olympics -- when Penny Taylor suffered a torn ACL while playing in Turkey. She'll miss this WNBA season and the London Games.

Does that mean utter gloom for the Mercury? Not necessarily with the likes of Diana Taurasi and Candice Dupree still around.

"I think you're going to have to deal with them," Seattle's Smith said of the Mercury. "When you have more of an unknown, it's harder to gauge them until you get on the floor with them."

Can a player such as guard Alexis Gray-Lawson take a step forward this season? What about the Merc's other Alexis, Tennessee grad Hornbuckle? She won a WNBA title with Minnesota last year but was largely lost in the playing-time shuffle there. She likely will be more needed by Phoenix.

Will DeWanna Bonner play a bigger role with Taylor out? How fast can rookie point guard Samantha Prahalis adjust to the WNBA?

In some ways, this season might be right up Taurasi's alley: The external expectations are low, and that might fire her up even more than usual. Still, considering how talented the West is, the Mercury might find themselves out of the hunt for the playoffs … but in good position for the 2013 draft.

Tulsa Shock

There's an old saying that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Unfortunately for the Shock in their two seasons in Tulsa, it has been hard for the franchise to distinguish between solutions and problems.

For instance, the Marion Jones "experiment" ended during last season, which from all outsiders' perspectives was well past time. However, some of the younger Shock players said they missed Jones because she was at least a positive influence daily with her attitude and work ethic. What that tells you about the Shock's overall lack of leadership the last two years is rather scary.

(Aside: Movies can be funny and truly scary; that's possible. But I don't think they can be campy and truly scary -- because the first depends on you not taking anything seriously, while the latter depends on you buying in. And that's my final comment on "Dark Shadows." It won't come up in the Eastern Conference preview.)

Tulsa fans who had a bumpy introduction to the WNBA with six victories in 2010 got only half that many in 2011. Nolan Richardson was replaced by Teresa Edwards as head coach during last season, but she seemed ambivalent at best about returning. Instead, Indiana assistant Gary Kloppenburg got the job of trying to salvage this wreck.

Obtaining Temeka Johnson in a trade for Andrea Riley seems like an upgrade. Rookies like Glory Johnson and Riquna Williams both have something to prove and should get playing time. Scholanda Robinson is back after a season in San Antonio.

But last year's No. 2 draft pick, Australia's Liz Cambage, won't play in the WNBA until after the Olympic break. (We'll see if she actually returns to the Shock this summer). Last year's top scorer and rebounder, Tiffany Jackson Jones, will miss the season as she's pregnant.

Asked if he thinks the Shock can be contenders in 2012, Kloppenburg answered frankly, "I wouldn't say that. We just want to win a few games. We just want to be competitive."

There's a lot to be said for honesty. And maybe the draft lottery will finally go the Shock's way.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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