- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Katie Smith has been through her share of these. Never lost one, in fact. Five times with Minnesota (West) and once with Detroit (East), the veteran guard has been a winner at the WNBA All-Star Game.
Smith, who turned 35 in June, is making her seventh All-Star appearance Saturday (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), as the WNBA's best meet at the Mohegan Sun. Smith has been through an emotional whirlwind with the Shock so far this season. The defending champions lost coach Bill Laimbeer shortly into the season; he resigned, saying he was going to look into other opportunities. Assistants Rick Mahorn and Cheryl Reeve moved into the head coach and general manager spots, respectively. (Reeve is also still an assistant coach.)
Plenette Pierson, who has become the perennial best off-the-bench player in the league, suffered a shoulder injury in the opener and is expected to be out for the season. Cheryl Ford's time on the court has been limited because of injury, and Kara Braxton sat out six games in a league suspension for a DUI plea.
Despite all that, Smith is trying to help Detroit get back to what the Shock are used to: contending for a playoff spot. Just looking around at her peers at the All-Star Game, though, shows her why that's so difficult.
Even without players such as Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker and Seimone Augustus here, the talent is abundant. And it's represented throughout the WNBA.
"I think it's awesome; it's that natural progression," Smith said. "You have some vets, some new players. It's just a nice mix of players that complement each other, and it's a testament to the league. There are talented people who are here, talented people who aren't here. It's great because the league is stacked. Although, it's showing in our record."
The Shock, 5-9, are the last-place team in the Eastern Conference. To be at that end of the standings previously had been mostly alien territory for Detroit, which has won three WNBA titles and had been in the finals the past three seasons.
Regardless of the coaching adjustments and the team's injuries, Smith's mood has remained upbeat. Actually, it's beyond that -- she's even energized by the unexpected challenges.
"I couldn't have predicted the things that have happened this year for us," said Smith, who is the Shock's lone All-Star for 2009. "But you have to take the good with the bad. Rick and Cheryl had been there along with Bill, so we knew them well. But when you change leadership, it does change things.
"But you know, it's OK. You've got to prove yourself every night. Tough times show you what you're about. I don't know what our record is going to be at the end of the year. I just want to make sure we play hard, smart and give everything we have."
The team the Shock beat in the WNBA Finals last season, San Antonio, also has dealt with some rough sailing so far in 2009. The Silver Stars are still in a playoff spot, fourth place in the West but, at 7-8, have defined inconsistency.
There are some good reasons, of course. They didn't have Becky Hammon for a couple of games, as she had to go to Europe to fulfill a commitment to the Russian national team.
Ann Wauters, so big a factor last season, has been resting, though it's expected she will return at some point. Vickie Johnson had a death in the family, and Ruth Riley and Shanna Crossley have dealt with injuries.
But Hammon said it's more than just the problems San Antonio has had. It's also that the league itself is stronger.
"I think it's a lot tougher this year -- bottom line," said Hammon, one of two San Antonio All-Stars, along with Sophia Young. "And if you have a slow start, which we had, you can find yourself out of it. Because the offensive-minded teams are so good, they just put up a lot of points.
"There are no more teams where you can say, 'Well, we can't be too overconfident, but we're pretty sure we can get a win against them.' Now, everybody's good, seriously. In years past, you could get away with playing badly and still pull out the victory. This year? You play bad, you lose. Period."
The improvement of expansion teams such as Chicago and Atlanta -- both at 8-10 in the East, with New York and Detroit trailing them in the standings -- is exemplified in the All-Stars for the Sky and Dream.
Chicago has three players here: Candice Dupree, Sylvia Fowles and Jia Perkins. Atlanta has Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle. And all of them are 27 or younger, with the "baby" being 23-year-old Fowles.
"We've come a long way," Dupree said, speaking of the Sky but also describing her fellow "youngster" All-Stars. "This year, we have the talent to make the playoffs. Right now, that's our main goal."
It's also still the goal of Smith. She knows that if the Shock can just get into the East's top four, the slate is clean for the playoffs.
"We've made a little progress; we still have a hole to dig out of," Smith said. "If we get going after this break, I think we can sneak in somehow. But there isn't time for another lapse. This league is too good."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
One look at the talent at Friday's All-Star practice and it's easy to see the WNBA is stronger this season.