At the start of the WNBA season, the dominant question was: How will the league survive? But as the league approaches the all-star game Saturday in Connecticut, the question has changed in a good way. Now everyone is wondering who will survive this topsy-turvy season?
The WNBA standings are astonishing. Four teams won 60 percent of their games last season—the Connecticut Sun, the San Antonio Silver Stars, the Seattle Storm and the Detroit Shock—but only one of those four, the Sun (an unprepossessing 9-6, as of this writing), even has a winning record this season. The Los Angeles Sparks, picked by many to win it all this year, will have to surge even to make the playoffs after their 4-9 start. The Sacramento Monarchs, a perennial powerhouse, has fallen into the depths of the league at 3-14, a performance that cost their coach, Jenny Boucek, her job. Continuity used to be a defining characteristic of a win, but not anymore.
The new powers are the Phoenix Mercury and the Indiana Fever, two teams that made news via their corporate sponsorships. They are now gaining attention by steamrolling the league during the first half of the season. The Mercury, just like their NBA counterpart, the Phoenix Suns, are one of the most entertaining teams to watch. They play a vigorous up-tempo game and literally run their opponents out of the building. The Mercury are averaging 93.4 points per game, nearly 12 points more than the second-best offense in the league. By contrast, Indiana wins with their stout defense, allowing a league low of 69.3 points per contest. Both teams have star-studded lineups, and if these two units meet in the finals, it should make for a classic clash of styles and a series with tremendous crossover potential.
However, it is easy to make a little too much of the early weeks of the season. Some teams don’t get their stars back from the Euroleague playoffs until after the season has begun, and it takes them longer to play effectively as a unit. Other teams suffer from wacky scheduling. For instance, the Sparks have played more than twice as many games on the road as they have at home. They are 1-8 on the road and 3-1 at home. In the second half of the season, that split will reverse, giving a bit of hope for the rest of their season.
Sparks fans have two more reasons for optimism. Although Candace Parker may well become the greatest women’s basketball player of all time (she won both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player last season and that was on top of an NCAA title and an Olympic Gold Medal), it may take her awhile to get back to top form after having a baby earlier this year. She has returned from maternity leave on accelerated schedule, but her game hasn’t arrived yet. Also, Lisa Leslie, the Sparks stalwart center, has played only five games due to a knee injury.
Another unsettling matter in the league is the lack of seasoned personnel decision makers. The Atlanta Dream, for instance, released their starting point guard from last season, Ivory Latta, only to bring her back after three weeks and release the woman who replaced her, Nikki Teasley. The bigger problem is that both are productive backcourt players, and it isn’t as if the Dream is undefeated, they are 8-10 and in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race after a 4-30 season last year. Where I’m from, teams with losing records either hold on tight to their talented players or deal with them when they have a surplus at that position. It looks like the Dream has chosen to play revolving doors with theirs.
The league is dealing with the sort of embarrassment that the family-friendly WNBA likes to think it’s above. Diana Taurasi, one of the top players on the Mercury, was arrested on July 2, on extreme DUI charges. Her blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. The league faced a quandary. A harsh penalty and suspension would be consistent with its values, but that would almost certainly leave Taurasi, one of the greatest players in University of Connecticut history, ineligible to play in an all-star game that is taking place a short drive from the campus where she starred.
The league ultimately took a pass allowing the Mercury to set the punishment, and the team, not wanting to diminish its stellar start, suspended Taurasi for only two games.
The all-star game will represent a homecoming for several other UConn alumni—Sue Bird and Swin Cash of the Storm, Charde Houston of the Minnesota Lynx and Aisha Jones of the Sun. With six players making their first all-star appearance, it looks like the league’s talent base is just fine, even if continuity is taking a beat down.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.