- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Seattle's season-best record and summer-long perch atop the Western Conference didn't send the Storm into the playoffs in coronation mode. But that speaks less to any major flaws with the Storm and more to the parity league-wide. It's hard for any team to really feel it's that far ahead of the pack. But if one team did stay at least a notch above the rest this summer, it was Seattle.
"What they've done is pretty unbelievable, especially now because the league is so tough," said veteran guard Ticha Penicheiro, whose Los Angeles Sparks were the first domino to fall for Seattle in the postseason. "It shows what kind of players they have, and their coaching staff has done a tremendous job. It shows the value of keeping your core together."
The two-player core of Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird dates back to 2002, when top draft pick Bird joined Jackson in her second WNBA season. Tanisha Wright was drafted in 2005. Swin Cash joined the Storm via trade before the 2008 season began, then another deal brought Camille Little during that summer.
So yes, that's definitely core strength. And Eastern Conference champ Atlanta can't compare to Seattle in that way, since the franchise has been in existence for only three seasons. However, there is a different kind of core strength with the Dream -- pairs that have a history with each other who are now combined for Atlanta.
The longest such "history," of course, is that of twins Kelly and Coco Miller, who turned 32 (no, I can't believe it either) this week. Then there's Iziane Castro Marques, who says of countrywoman Erika de Souza, "We've been playing together forever." Or, more precisely, since they were both teenagers in Brazil.
And there is another duo that goes back not quite that far, but still has significance. Armintie Price, who like Coco Miller moved into a starting role for the playoffs, spent her college career competing at Ole Miss for coach Carol Ross, now a Dream assistant.
So even if the Dream as a franchise has had such a brief existence, there is longevity from those sources, and that has helped Atlanta have the feel of a more-established team. That was part of the design of coach Marynell Meadors, who like Seattle counterpart Brian Agler has spent a long career in college and pro women's basketball.
Thus, as the Storm face the Dream in the WNBA finals (Game 1 is on ABC at 3 p.m. ET Sunday), it feels less like "establishment" versus "upstart" than it might appear at a glance.
Certainly the Storm already have a WNBA title and a decade of embedding themselves into the Seattle community. But even though the Dream have just the three seasons, the fact that they are in SEC country -- the Miller twins' alma mater, Georgia, has been to the Women's Final Four five times -- gave the franchise some roots to try to attach itself to as it grew.
There's a lot of talk, understandably so, about how the Dream have gone from a 4-30 inaugural season to the WNBA finals in just three years. But Seattle wasn't that much different. In 2000, the debuting Storm had the league's worst record at 6-26. That resulted in the top pick in the 2001 draft: Jackson.
A 10-22 mark in Seattle's second year and the lottery win gave the Storm another No. 1 pick: Bird. With those two players, the Storm would gain pillars that are still standing strong. And Jackson and Bird got a championship in their third season together, 2004, which was the franchise's fifth year.
The Dream could end up a little ahead of Seattle in that regard should Atlanta win this series. And that would be largely attributable to the Dream having made the most of player acquisitions in their short history.
All the losses of the first season gave the Dream the chance to pick Angel McCoughtry No. 1 in 2009. The dispersal draft of Houston brought Sancho Lyttle. And Meadors wasn't afraid to be aggressive in making moves to find the combination that has worked this season.
Only three players who competed with the Dream in 2008 are with the squad now: Castro Marques and de Souza, who have been in Atlanta all three seasons, and Alison Bales, who played part of the 2008 season for the Dream, was out of the league last year, but then worked on her game and got a recall for 2010.
The Dream had to deal with some drama at the start of this season, as Chamique Holdsclaw -- a key part of the turnaround to 18-16 last year -- didn't report to the team. Atlanta was unable to make a deal and had to waive her. But the Dream's chemistry never seemed disrupted by this it might even have been improved.
In Seattle, it has been steady-as-it-goes all summer. Jackson's health -- such a concern the past two seasons as she missed the playoffs -- has held up, as has the rest of the team's. Cash likens the Storm's low-key but intense, business-like approach in 2010 to the mindset she and Bird had when they were seniors during their perfect 2001-02 season at UConn.
Going into the finals, the Storm carry the "favorite" mantel because of their record, their experience and their home-court advantage; they haven't lost this season at KeyArena.
Yet Atlanta does not come in with the personality of the brash, upstart challenger. More a quick-growth franchise that benefited from looking at what had previously worked in the league and from wise personnel moves.
Whether it will be as evenly matched and exciting as last season's five-game Phoenix-Indiana series remains to be seen, but all the elements are there for some very good competition. Here's how it breaks down:
Seattle's Sue Bird vs. Atlanta's Coco Miller: It's not hyperbole to suggest that Bird would be a universal choice for the best point guard in women's basketball today. That's very high praise, but she has earned it: nine years of durability, consistency and leadership in the WNBA. She has continued to improve in subtle but important ways; this regular season she had the fewest turnovers in her career, just 60.
It's not really fair to compare Miller -- a reserve all summer until suddenly being thrust into the starting role in the postseason -- to the Bird standard. But the past two weeks are among the finest in Miller's career.
The Dream staff decided more speed and scoring potential in the starting lineup was needed, but Coco's twin Kelly was out with an ankle sprain. So it was Coco who replaced Shalee Lehning as a starter, and she has averaged 24.8 minutes, 12.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists in Atlanta's four playoff games. This from a player who averaged just 7.3 minutes during the regular season.
Edge to Bird, of course. But kudos to Miller for being the textbook example of why you always stay ready to play.
Seattle's Tanisha Wright vs. Atlanta's Armintie Price: Wright has grown into her role with the Storm, moving into a full-time starter's role last season, her fifth in the WNBA. Coach Agler loves her toughness and versatility as a defender, and he has also not been hesitant to give her the green light to shoot in crucial moments.
Wright is a natural shooting guard who has had to learn to be comfortable at point guard to take a little pressure off Bird on some possessions and also be her backup -- an infrequent but still important job. It's notable that on Seattle's last possession in West finals Game 2 Sunday against Phoenix, Wright was the setup woman who dribbled the clock down and found Bird for the winning 3-pointer.
Price was the do-everything player in college at Mississippi -- and we mean everything -- who regressed after a solid 2007 rookie season as a starter for Chicago. She got a fresh beginning in Atlanta after a trade last year, and was a solid reserve for the Dream this regular season. Then, like Coco Miller, she was put into the starting lineup for the playoffs. And she also has responded, averaging 5.8 points, 5.0 assists and 3.8 rebounds.
Edge to Wright, but Price does have that element of "secret weapon" about her.
Seattle's Swin Cash vs. Atlanta's Iziane Castro Marques: OK, the old-versus-new lineups for the Dream kind of make the rest of this starting five head-to-head comparison tricky. Were Lehning and Erika de Souza in the staring lineup, as they were all season, Castro Marques would be more the matchup at shooting guard and McCoughtry more at wing, Lyttle at power forward and de Souza at center.
As it is, this is actually more like a two guard/two wing/one true post player starting lineup for the Dream, and it really features the team's athleticism. But de Souza will get plenty of time. And this is where Cash's ability to defend players both smaller and larger than her is so valuable.
Cash had her best game of the season Sunday against the Mercury and has been very good this postseason, averaging 16.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Castro Marques is having the best of her eight years in the WNBA, averaging 16.9 points in the regular season and 14.3 in the playoffs.
Edge to Cash in overall versatility, but again, this is not an exact comparison of like players.
Seattle's Camille Little vs. Atlanta's Angel McCoughtry: Obviously, the same could be said here: Other than being close to the same height -- Little is 6-2, McCoughtry 6-1 -- they're not similar as players.
Little is pretty much offensively a true power forward, but like Cash she has a lot of versatility on defense. Little has the strength and the moxie to handle all the rough stuff inside, but she can also cut off penetration and help on the perimeter. In a system like Agler's, Little is a perfect fit.
McCoughtry is blossoming into a real MVP-caliber superstar. As good as she was in earning rookie of the year honors last season, McCoughtry improved her game this year. Her maturity and leadership aren't just intangible elements; you can actually see those things in play on the court.
McCoughtry looked to NBA star Dwyane Wade as a model for her game, and she has that same franchise-carrying ability. It's hard to figure out how to guard her because of the combination of size, speed and hops. So far in the playoffs, nobody has been able to do it, as she has averaged 28.0 points, better than her regular-season 21.1.
Edge to McCoughtry overall, but this just isn't a comparison of like players.
Seattle's Lauren Jackson vs. Atlanta's Sancho Lyttle: Jackson would be on everybody's top-five list of the best women's players in the world, and No. 1 on many ballots. She won her third MVP award this season and has been relentless in production. Her playoff numbers have been even a bit better (21.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg) than during the regular season (20.5, 8.3).
The big issue for Jackson is that Atlanta does have four big bodies to try to get in her way. However, the fact that she is so nimble and such an outstanding 3-point shooter at 6-5 makes defending her a very difficult chore no matter how much size you can throw at her.
Lyttle might not bring the offensive numbers that Jackson; she has averaged 13.5 points in the four playoff games. However, a key to the finals is going to be rebounding, and that's where Lyttle can be a game-changer. She has averaged 9.3 boards in the postseason, similar to her 9.9 during the regular season.
Edge to Jackson, but Lyttle is no slouch.
As mentioned, the bench situation is a little odd, because two players who started all season for the Dream -- Lehning and de Souza -- are now coming off the bench in the playoffs. But let's give them credit. How many players might balk at moving into a reserve role at this point in the season? How many would let it affect them negatively?
The Dream staff knew, though, that these were two players who would willingly do whatever was asked of them for the good of the team. Lehning, in her second season, is now a spark-plug player off the bench, and still doing a lot to lead the Dream while on the bench. She has averaged 4.0 assists in a reserve role.
For de Souza, there hasn't been much drop-off in production despite playing about a minute less per game in the postseason. She was at 12.4 ppg and 8.3 rpg in the regular season and is averaging 10.3 and 7.0 in the playoffs.
Along with those two, the Dream have centers Alison Bales and Yelena Leuchanka to come in and give the team more depth inside. Neither are needed to play a lot of minutes, but just to be effective for the time they're in. And so far, both have been that in the postseason.
The other player that Atlanta might get help from in the finals is guard Kelly Miller, who has been out previously this postseason with an ankle sprain.
Seattle doesn't have quite the depth that Atlanta does, but three Storm reserves should play critical roles. Svetlana Abrosimova and Le'coe Willingham both have experience as starters previously in their careers, and can have significant impact in games.
Abrosimova is averaging 7.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in the postseason, while Willingham -- who won a WNBA title with Phoenix last season -- is at 5.0 and 4.3.
The other reserve who might get some meaningful time for Seattle -- especially when Atlanta goes with a bigger lineup -- is forward Jana Vesela, who is in her first WNBA season. She has played in three of the Storm's four postseason games, averaging 5.3 points.
And if this finals series is anything like last year's between Phoenix and Indy, the play of the reserves could end up making a difference in who wins the championship.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
The red-hot, upstart Dream, who are only in their third season, face favorite Seattle, which has been the league's best team all summer, in the WNBA finals.