Guru's WNBA Report: Will Connecticut "T Party" Help Elect The Sun To A Title?
By Mel Greenberg
The famous 2010 late winter trade between the Connecticut Sun and Minnesota Lynx has largely resulted, with a few other moves, in one of the participants in the deal winning a WNBA title when the Lynx rolled to the trophy presentation last season.
With individual hardware being handed out last week to the two stars who were sent back to their familiar territory from Minnesota in the swap, maybe the time is approaching for the Sun to take its turn and complete the one item missing on a success story since the franchise moved in 2003 from being the former Orlando Miracle.
The trade in 2010 involved Connecticut sending All-Star Lindsay Whalen, the former University of Minnesota standout, back to her native Twin Cities.
Though Whalen was the No. 4 overall pick in 2004 behind former UConn great Diana Taurasi, who was taken by, ahem, the Phoenix Mercury, the fan base in the Nutmeg State eventually kind of got over their disappointment and embraced the point guard, who made the Olympic team that won the Gold Medal in London this past summer.
In return, the Sun received the rights to the overall No. 1 pick and quickly grabbed native New Yorker Tina Charles, who was coming off two back-to-back unbeaten seasons at UConn and became one of the centers on the same Olympic squad.
Connecticut also received former Huskies star Renee Montgomery, who this season was relegated to a supporting role off the bench.
Whalen is one of many Lynx players who have Minnesota hunting to become the first WNBA team since the Los Angeles Sparks (2001-02) to win back-to-back titles, though after Seattle's stiring double overtime win on Sunday night in a Western Conference semifinal, the Storm are out to make the Midwesterners miserable in the deciding Game 3 in Minneapolis Tuesday night.
Charles, meanwhile, easily won the 2010 rookie of the year title, though neither Minnesota nor Connecticut made the playoffs that season.
The Lynx failure, just missing out, transformed to a perk when they landed the No. 1 pick and grabbed another UConn great in Maya Moore, who also became an Olympian and won postseason rookie honors in her WNBA debut.
Last week Charles beat out Los Angeles sensation and Olympic teammate Candace Parker, the former Tennessee all-timer, to win the postseason MVP honors, determined by a national media panel, while Montgomery received the Sixth Player award.
It's a regular "T" party in Connecticut, not the political one, when one considers another big factor in the Sun's ability to thrive is coach Mike Thibault, who has been with the team since it moved north from Florida.
He is considered a front-runner, though maybe not a lock, for coach of the year, one of the few postseason awards along with the all-league first and second teams yet to be announced.
Indeed, though there are also other worthy franchises, the Sun has become a destination target for free agents.
After the former Sacramento Monarchs were jettisoned by their NBA parent several years ago, former Tennessee standout Kara Lawson signed with the Sun as a free agent -- she recently re-signed -- and was also on the pre-game handout list last week, winning the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award.
Lawson would have still been a free agent if Sacramento had not died.
A member of the 2008 Olympic team, she is having her best season, another reason Connecticut dominated the East to receive the top seed, from which it was able to dispatch the fourth-seeded New York Liberty with a 2-0 sweep fueled by fourth quarter surges in both games last week.
Former Duke star Mistie Mims, whose father is pop singer Chubbie Checker of "The Twist" fame, came out of hiatus to play for Thibault.
Early in the season during the pre-game shootarounds, she was heard to utter to a former WNBA teammate, "It's really great here."
More later on the Liberty side of things, but as Charles did her thing, first at the Mohegan Sun Arena Thursday night, and then on the road Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the New York fan base sighed another of an ongoing "what might have been" thoughts because at one time the No. 1 pick that begat her was originally owned by the Liberty.
Ironically, this summer Charles has gotten to play for both influential coaches in her life -- UConn's Hall of Famer Geno Auriemma, who guided the USA squad to a gold medal, and Thibault, of whom she was said to wrap her arms around and keep saying, "Thank You," when she learned of her MVP honor at practice as the Sun prepared for the Liberty.
Connecticut next opens at home in the best-of-three Eastern final Friday night against Tuesday night's semifinal winner between the host Indiana Fever and the two-time defending conference playoff champion Atlanta Dream.
Los Angeles repulsed the San Antonio Silver Stars Saturday to complete a 2-0 sweep by the second-seeded Sparks over the third-seeded Texans in the other Western semifinal.
Who could have known at the time back in 2009 after the completion of the first of two perfect seasons by UConn, but after Charles, then a junior, had a dominating performance in the NCAA title win over Big East rival Louisville, Auriemma quipped about his star center when asked whether that game cemented her as a legend.
He seemed to indicate maybe he should take the Thibaut approach, though at that moment Charles had yet to blip on the Sun radar.
In responding, according to the NCAA transcript, Auremma said:
"Yeah, she's kind of like a legendary make a blockbuster movie and now we're going to want to see how she follows that up next year. That kind of legendary." (For the record, Charles became the consensus player of the year, beating out teammate More, who won as a sophomore and then after Charles' graduation, recaptured it in 2011.)
"She's not Meryl Streep yet, but she is getting closer to where Tina wants to be. And that's what I'm happy about. Tina's always wanted to be what she did today. It's just that when she looked out there and said, `Ooh,' I'm not sure she believed she could do it.
"And it had to happen to her so now she knows she can do it. And one of the things we talked about was: `You can't be a great player unless you play great in this game right here. If you ever want to be called a great player, you have to play great in this game.'
"And she did. I said, `Go out and get a triple-double. Score as many points as you want. Block as many shots as you want. Go ahead. Play like you're the best center in the country.' And maybe I should have said that before every game instead of going in there, Tina Charles, blah, blah, blah. Maybe she was waiting for me to say that. I wish she would have sent me an e-mail or something. I would have said it earlier."
When New York coach John Whisenant was at Sacramento, which won the 2005 title over the Sun, he had two dominating centers in former Georgetown star Rebekkah Brunson, now with Minnesota, and now retired Yolanda Griffith.
Asked to compare Charles with the two stars, he said, "She is every bit as good, if not maybe a combination of both of them. Maybe as athletic and long armed like Yolanda. Maybe not jump quite as much as 'Becky but she has great hands. Great hands like Yolanda Griffith had.
"She's the real deal. She's the premiere .. At 6-3 or 6-4, she plays two or three inches bigger, but I don't know what her wing span is, but I assure you it's long. And she has great hands like mitts. When she catches anything close to her, that's what rebounders and offensive rebounders and putback players do. She has that.
"And (former UConn star forward) Asjha Jones, she's just an automatic shooter. She's cocked and ready all the time. And she's hard to defend. Those two make a great combination. That's why they won 25 games in the regular season."
Thibault referred to Jones as a warrior for her ability to play while still being hampered by a nagging Achilles injury.
Jones was the European MVP in the offseason and all questions uttered when she became the last of the 12 members chosen for the USA squad after Baylor senior star Brittney Griner opted out before the pick should now be put to rest.
Charles was asked what was more exciting, the comeback against Australia after a deficit in the Olympic semifinal, or rallying Saturday from a 16-point deficit early in the game that became a 29-point turnaround.
"I don't think I can compare," Charles said. "That game was special -- what we were able to do. That team. That gold medal. Everything was special. I think I will be able to compare if, fortunately, we win the championship."
Along with the hardware fiesta prior to the Sun opener in Connecticut, president Laurel Richie announced that next summer's All-Star game will be July 27th at the Mohegan Sun Arena, where it has been held several times in the past.
Teams get to bid on the event -- last year it was in San Antonio, where the league's 15th season was highlighted with the presentation of the all-time team -- according to a source within the league, but only several teams tossed their hats in the ring.
There was no All-AStar game this season because of the month-long break for the Olympics that will now cause the WNBA season and runup to the start of collegiate action to be side-by-side with the playoffs extending into deep October.
Based on enthusiasm in other cities, while it is not known if they bid, it would seem that three likely franchises, which have never hosted, Seattle, Minnesota, and Indiana, would make good locales.
New York, a past host, would probably wait until the Liberty return to Madison Square Garden, which is undergoing a three-year renovation during the summer, in 2014.
Down the road, Chicago could come into play if the Sky selection with the No. 2 pick next April vitalizes the franchise.
New York's Future
Liberty All-Star Cappie Pondexter, the former Rutgers All-American, and Whisenant made some allusions to New York's situation, with another season put to rest, making it 0-for-16 from Year One in chasing a championship.
"Life goes on and we'll make improvements for next year," Pondexter said after tipping her hat to Connecticut as "the best team won."
"(Whisenant's) defensive sytem is tough," said Pondexter, who still is New York's best scoring option, though her marksmanship is perhaps down from the days of playing with Taurasi and Penny Taylor in Phoenix's high octane attack. "You use so much energy trying to help each other, then offensively you become stagnant.
"But if you want to win, you dig deep and do whatever you have to do. I'm proud of us for a lot of different reasons," she said.
"No. 1, `coach.' He's faced something tough that a lot of people can't stay or stick with. His wife is suffering from cancer third stage and he has to be there for her and be there for the girls," Pondexter said.
"But he didn't give up, which kind of shows his character, which went on through us, with our injuries, earlier, with key players. Essence (Carson) has faced injuries as of late.
"We kept fighting. We didn't give up. That's a positive thing. It shows our character. A lot of people didn't think we could make the playoffs. Even with our record (15-19), we showed we're a playoff team, which showed we're a few players away from doing what we really want to do, win a championship.
"I (re-signed) for three years for a reason. I believe in this organization whole heartedly. And I know we can accomplish it."
Though without getting into individual players, when Pondxter was asked if she were general manager (Whisenant holds both titles), what areas would she like to improve, she responded, "I'm not the coach. Obviously I can't say that. We need to make adjustments. The league is growing, improving. Obviously, as a team, I'm more than sure we'll make adjustments to improve."
Life could be tougher, however, and in retrospect, in light of being swept in the conference semifinals, New York, which edged Chicago by one game, might have been better off in switched positions with the Sky.
Chicago in the lottery last week got the rights to the No. 2 pick, which barring some mega-deal, either single or multi-team, will mean, depending on the Phoenix pick at No. 1, getting either Brittney Griner from defending NCAA champion Baylor, or Delaware scoring star Elena Delle Donne, or Notre Dame standout point guard Skylar Diggins.
New York has the No. 5 pick behind Washington, which got the last and fourth option out of the lottery, though the worst record did not help the Mystics get inside the grand prize section where the three impact players live.
Delle Donne, considering the fan base that follows here some two hours to the south, could have been an instant upgrade in terms of a local attraction, other than the Rutgers alumni club on theLiberty.
New York needs help on the boards and another scoring option.
"I felt like we could beat them," Whisenant said of playing Connecticut in the series. "But we have to play with such energy, defensively, that it's hard for us to maintain for 40 minutes. And we're not deep enough, we can't score when I go to my bench too deep.
"So it's been a never-ending issue for us. ... We can get defensive effort, but, really, we ride Cappie to death. That's the truth of it."
The other truth is New York was in the playoffs more so because of what Chicago didn't do, in part to injuries to former Rutgers star Epiphanny Prince, who was a scoring machine but missed 10 or more games, and Olympic center Sylvia Fowles.
Had not the Sky gone on a 2-15 slide, which included four games lost in the final minute or overtime, the playoff slot for fourth would have been decided in early September.
New York was 1-6 against the Sun, including the playoffs, and 5-16 against teams that were .500 or better. A highlight was a rally over Los Angeles, though the Sparks blew opportunities in the final minute; Seattle, which is in the playoffs, had a losing record, but was without Lauren Jackson when New York won a game at home.
The Liberty got fat on Washington, along with everyone else, going 4-1 -- the Mystics were a woeful 5-29.
Injuries notwithstanding, players came from overseas late at the outset, though the one upside was they were all on various championship contending teams.
The schedule was arduous before the Olympics, but it was easy to see that New York could get more wins on the back half because of playing more games against the bottom of the barrel in Washington, Tulsa, and Phoenix.
One potential bright spot is the Liberty own the rights to former VCU star Quanitra Hollingsworth, who stayed all summer with the Turkish national team.
They also still own the rights to Janelle McCarville, who seems unlikely ever to re-join New York. Perhaps they could package either or both of them, if they'll agree, with maybe the fifth pick to Tulsa, if they'll deal, for second-year pro Elizabeth Cambage, who never showed this season after being with the Australian team, if she's amenable to the bright lights of Broadway. (The team still trains in Westchester County and several players still reside in Manhattan, if not near the training center).
Of course, maybe Indiana's veterans may accelerate on the aging cycle, or Angel McCoughtry in Atlanta might get involved in another internal dust-up that would level the field a bit for New York when the 2013 curtain rises.
Or maybe New York and Washington can play each other all summer and the winner gets a play-in game against the fourth place team to the postseason.
With the lack of a quality top three pick, the Mystics no longer have the perceived magnet to draw a slew of candidates to assume either a combo coach/general manager position or to singularly take one or the other jobs vacated with the pre-lottery ouster of Trudi Lacey and her assistants -- Marianne Stanley and Jen Gillom, who were both previous head coaches in the WNBA.
Stanley gets high marks around the league but unfortunately she had the misfortune to be on the Mystics staff, which eliminates her or she would have been made at least interim head coach to a spot she once held in the nation's capital.
Per the Guru's original long list of potential candidates, Connecticut assistant Scott Hawk, who was involved in the Tulsa search last winter that landed Indiana assistant Gary Kloppenburg, is reportedly not interested in moving dowen the Northeast corridor.
Another former WNBA coach, who wasn't mentioned previously, is Patty Coyle, who coached the Liberty and is currently associate head coach to Agnus Berenato at Pittsburgh.
It is not known if either party would be interested in the other.
Several coaches referred to former Detroit coach/general manager Bill Laimbeer, currently in the NBA Minnesota organization, but it is not known whether he has interest, though he certainly would be a shot in the arm, given the competition from the Washington Redskins in football and newly-crowned NL East Division champion Nationals in baseball.
There's also the local colleges, spearheded by national powerhouse Maryland, about to enter center stage.
Thus with attention elsewhere by the local media, it will be interesting to see how the Washington management finds its way to live up to a promise to be transparent with the fan base during the search.
One current coach mentioned Paul Westhead, the former Phoenix coach, while Rick Mahorn, another former NBA Detroit Bad Boy, was the head coach of the former Shock when Laimbeer left for the NBA.
Kudos To Seattle
This is not to cheerlead but simply to say when the Seattle Storm started 0-7 and were without Lauren Jackson, who was with the Australian olympic team on the front end of the WNBA season, they could easily have decided to live with the slogan "Better Future Through The Lottery."
But they continued to compete, injuries and all, and with Minnesota, produced a thrilling double overtime game won by Seattle in Game 2 to stay alive in the Western semifinals.
Thus comes Game 3, now widely anticipated Tuesday night along with the Eastern Atlanta-Indiana matchup, that is a rematch of the teams that fought at the Eastern Conference championship level in last season's playoffs.
With friends on all side, the Guru is neutral and hopeful simply for more entertainment.
USBWA Membership Drive
On the collegiate front, yours truly is in charge of the current drive to expand membership on the women's front in the United States Basketball Writers Association.
The fee is $50 ($25 for college students) and involves several benefits. The deadline, originally set for yesterday, as in Oct. 1, is now extended to Oct. 5.
Conference and school WBB sports information directors are eligible along with beat writers and broadcasters.
You can check the website for more information, but all applications, which are new, need board approval. If you would like to participate, even join the women's board, but are skittish before pulling that online financial lever, email the guru at email@example.com to express your interest.
That said, the Guru may be busy filling his collegiate schedule grid the next several days if he suddenly goes silent in twitter land @womhoopsguru or on this blog.
But he will be at Mohegan Friday for the start of the Eastern finals and unlike part of his former job at The Inquirer, he may work the lobster shift in broad daylight either Friday or Saturday afternoon at Abbotts, near Mystic.
If not, there's always Summer Shack on the casino property.
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