Future bleak for Tulsa Shock
Shock already suffering through an 0-4 start to the season
In the days before GPS devices -- not that those things are flawless -- were you ever riding with people who didn't have a map, but were making turns here and there, telling you they knew where they were going? And you thought, "This can't be right," and voiced some doubt, but you hoped just maybe they had some knowledge you didn't?
The great majority of the time, though, your instinct was correct: They were winging it. And even if you also weren't sure how to get there, you at least could identify what wasn't the right direction.
This is probably how the fans of the Tulsa Shock feel about now. And yes, the team really does have fans. People who know a lot about not just basketball, in general, but women's basketball, in particular. They've watched the Oklahoma women's program make three Final Four appearances in the last decade. They've seen Oklahoma State revitalize its program. They've witnessed Big 12 and NCAA women's basketball at its best. And so they have a pretty good idea what the next level beyond college is supposed to look like.
But that's not what they're seeing in Tulsa right now. Oh, there are pieces of it. Liz Cambage, the No. 2 draft pick in April, is averaging 15.5 points and 7.8 rebounds. But she's on a team where the assists leader currently is forward Tiffany Jackson.
Tulsa and Minnesota are the only teams thus far that have played four games; Phoenix has played just two. Yet every other WNBA team has at least one guard who has more assists than any guard with Tulsa.
Ivory Latta and Sheryl Swoopes each have eight assists for the 0-4 Shock. Lindsay Whalen has 26 for the Lynx, who are 3-1, and Becky Hammon has 19 for San Antonio, which is 3-0. Whalen also is averaging 12.5 points per game, while Hammon is at 12.3.
Not a fair comparison, you say. Whalen and Hammon are two of the best in the business. They understand both how to run a team and score themselves. But that's the thing: This is what Tulsa must compete against.
Even if a team doesn't have the likes of Whalen and Hammon, or Seattle's Sue Bird, or a truly amazing scorer who also can be a playmaker like New York's Cappie Pondexter, it needs to have someone who can control the basketball for the majority of possessions and run the offense.
On some WNBA teams, the playmaking is spread out more among different players. Such is the case at Indiana, which hosts Tulsa on Tuesday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
But the bottom line is that low-block players have to work so hard physically at the pro level, teams must have passers/penetrators who can make the posts' lives in the paint a bit easier and maximize their touches.
This is all fairly basic basketball, and yet the Shock franchise is not set up this second season in Tulsa to be any different than last season: Almost nothing comes easy. The Shock are averaging the fewest points in the WNBA, 69.8, while allowing 87.8 (third most in the league).
The Shock have a young phenom in Cambage, the 6-foot-8 Aussie who has more talent potential than anyone the franchise had a year ago. She and fellow first-round draft pick Kayla Pedersen are very promising kids.
But Cambage might run screaming out of Tulsa -- figuratively speaking, that is -- after this season, stay home in Australia all next summer to prepare for the London Olympics, and not want to come back to the Shock.
She has not said anything like this, of course. We're just four games in, so maybe things will improve for Tulsa. And we don't know if frustration will build up for her this season, even if things don't improve. She might deal with it all better than expected.
Still, you worry about a young player's psyche and confidence in a losing environment. And I'd say the same for Pedersen, who is older than Cambage and whose personality is much better-known to us American observers simply because we got to see how well she handled herself at Stanford.
They are young posts dealing with this: The Shock came into this season with a major deficit at guard. Latta, a starter, is averaging 15.5 points, but just 2.0 assists. Latta actually led the Shock in assists (71) last season, even though she played just 18 games in Tulsa.
Tulsa has kept Marion Jones, the 35-year-old former track superstar who last was a truly competitive hoops player in 1997. The Shock added 40-year-old Swoopes, one of the best basketball players of all time, who came back to the league basically to have a chance to say goodbye. Now she's starting.
Things got worse when Amber Holt, a 6-foot forward who does a lot of guard-like duties for the Shock, suffered a broken thumb in Tulsa's second game.
This quote from Tulsa coach Nolan Richardson, given to the Tulsa World's Kelly Hines last week, cracked me up with its repetitive inanity -- while at the same time made me feel sorry for everybody involved with the Shock, including Richardson.
"I think it's important that someone steps up," he said. "Not only someone steps up, but some of the other players that we were counting on not as much have an opportunity to step up. So you've got your bench having to step up and players on the floor stepping up."
OK, so I'm going to step up here and say it's not just that the Shock aren't a good team. They appear to have no hope of being a good team. They have little hope of even being a mediocre team.
It actually does pain me to also say that Jones has no business being on a WNBA roster -- not because it isn't true, but because I respect that she's one of the best female athletes who has ever walked planet Earth. The tragic thing is that the use of performance-enhancing drugs has obscured that.
Coming back to sit on Tulsa's bench reconnected Jones to the basketball world, which is good because she's a persona non grata in her most accomplished sport of track and field. Jones could contribute to the WNBA in some type of coaching/training/mentoring way.
I know some folks will roll their eyes at the idea of the disgraced, medals-stripped, ex-Olympian who served jail time for perjury being mentioned in the same sentence as "mentor." But sometimes the best mentors are those people who are living, breathing cautionary tales.
Jones also understands, at a very high level, fitness and commitment to training. Again, the PEDs issue doesn't mean she didn't work her tail off to become the fastest woman in the world. I get the sense that she likes being part of a team, and wants to find her next real vocation in life. It could be with basketball, just not as a player.
As for Swoopes, I saw her at a charity basketball game in rural Kansas last October, and she looked pretty far from WNBA shape. She had several months to regain her fitness, and it seems she still has something to offer.
But for a franchise that really has to be all about the future, Swoopes' biggest contribution should be teaching talented younger players what it takes to really prepare/play as a pro. If the Shock are now counting on Swoopes for a significant amount of on-court production, that's not helping where the team is supposed to be going.
To look at the Tulsa roster overall is to see how much it doesn't match up to other teams. Star power itself does not win championships; if it did, they'd be celebrating in Miami this week. But you can't even be in position to win titles without it.
And in the case of the Shock, we're not even talking about not having enough star power to win the WNBA title. The Shock are just trying to figure out how to win one game.
Admittedly, things might have been different for the Shock if the stars from Detroit -- Deanna Nolan, Cheryl Ford and Katie Smith -- had made the move to Tulsa. But they didn't. Smith, a free agent, went to Washington last season and then to Seattle this year via trade.
Ford, who was still dealing with some injury issues last year, got her release from Tulsa and did consider signing this summer with the New York Liberty. But Ford missed out on her biggest overseas paydays in recent years because of injuries, and she opted to focus on Europe at least for another season.
If Ford can stay healthy, it won't be a huge surprise to see her back in the WNBA next summer, although not with Tulsa. Ford wants to return because she feels she still has some unfinished business in the WNBA.
Nolan, however, does not feel that way. She won three WNBA titles in Detroit, not far from her hometown in Flint, Mich., and she has voluntarily signed her last two overseas contracts agreeing not to play in the WNBA.
Does that mean Nolan will never return? Not necessarily. Salaries are tightening overseas, especially compared to a few years ago. Tulsa still has the rights to Nolan, but she has no interest in playing there. If she comes back to the WNBA, it will have to be somewhere else.
And then there's this: Consider what happened to the players who did make the move from Detroit to Tulsa last summer. They are all gone; dealt by Richardson because they supposedly didn't fit with his system and/or personality.
Who's to say that if Nolan, Ford and Smith actually had showed up in Tulsa -- admittedly, a highly improbable scenario -- that Richardson wouldn't have traded them, too?
I don't doubt Richardson's sincerity that he wants to win at the women's side of basketball because it's something in his long career that he hasn't done. But wanting to do something and really making it happen are two different things.
Over the winter, he brought aboard Teresa Edwards, the Hall of Famer who knows the women's game inside and out, as director of player personnel. But there's only so much she could have done to help the Shock for 2011.
Tulsa was essentially building from scratch last season and it looks like Tulsa is building from scratch this season. At this point, if you were riding along with the Shock, would you believe they really knew how to get where they wanted to go?
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.