Expectations, injury updates on coaches' minds

Updated: May 19, 2006, 3:36 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Earlier this week, it was time for that annual rite of spring: the WNBA preseason coaches' teleconference. It certainly has its element of predictability.

Mike Thibault
Getty ImagesSun coach Mike Thibault is hopeful hobbled Lindsay Whalen can play this weekend after "big progress the last 10 days or so."

For one thing, there are always some coaches who will say, "Well, we just got [Player X] in from overseas, so our entire team finally has been able to practice together as a complete unit for about 37 seconds. And I really like what I see so far."

Nobody ever sounds pessimistic, but some sound more realistic than others. Paul Westhead, the new coach at Phoenix, talked about how it very well might take at least four or five games before he can tell for sure whether the Mercury players really have the hang of his high-octane system. And that even if it looks as though it clicks in Saturday's opener -- at Sacramento at 4 p.m. ET on ABC -- that might be deceiving.

Indiana's Brian Winters took a measured approach to the Fever's outlook. Indiana will look different from last year's group that made it to the Eastern Conference finals. Superstar Tamika Catchings is back … but now the Fever has another Tamika, too: Whitmore.

She was brought in from Los Angeles to try to replace the inside muscle and toughness of Natalie Williams, who retired. However, the Fever have lost both their Kellys -- they traded center Kelly Schumacher to New York and guard Kelly Miller to Phoenix. Forward Deanna Jackson went to Chicago in the expansion draft, and forward Jurgita Streimikyte is staying home in Lithuania.

Anna DeForge came from Phoenix for Miller; Winters likes DeForge's size and thinks she can get to the foul line more. He brought in veteran Charlotte Smith to ease the loss of Streimikyte. And the Schumacher trade got Indiana the No. 9 pick in the draft, where the Fever selected La'Tangela Atkinson in the hope that she will replace Jackson.

"We think because we made these moves, we're a better team," Winters said.

ESPN.COM'S SEASON PREVIEW
WNBA Season Preview
How did the teams' offseason changes affect them? What's their best-case scenario in 2006? And as the league celebrates its 10th season, what exactly does the franchise mean to the WNBA? ESPN.com's experts answered those three questions for each team as part of our season preview:

East preview pages
Charlotte Sting
Chicago Sky
Connecticut Sun
Detroit Shock
Indiana Fever
New York Liberty
Washington Mystics

West preview pages
Houston Comets
Los Angeles Sparks
Minnesota Lynx
Phoenix Mercury
Sacramento Monarchs
San Antonio Silver Stars
Seattle Storm

More …
Expert predictions
Westhead ready to run
Sun will shine again
Bring on opening day
What the coaches are saying
Lieberman: Power rankings
Shock the favorite (sort of)

Then there's Pat Coyle of the New York Liberty. I don't want to say she didn't sound realistic … wait a minute. Sure, I do. Does anyone really have much of an idea what the Liberty's overall game plan is for the organization?

Coyle acknowledged it was difficult to part ways with longtime Liberty veterans Vickie Johnson and Crystal Robinson, but said, "You have to change. We had a lot of great years with those guys, but we have the salary cap and players who are getting older."

Well, "old age" sure isn't going to be a problem for the Liberty. Eight of the 13 players on the roster -- before final cuts -- have two years, one year or no experience in the league.

I can see saying, "You know, we need to revamp. We have to look to the future. We have to go another direction." The problem is, I can't see what New York has done for this season that actually has made the team better.

Robinson did have the worst season, statistically, of her seven-year WNBA career last year, averaging 7.3 points per game. But she also was playing with a broken finger on her shooting hand. For her career, C-Rob has averaged 10.7 points. She's now in Washington, reunited with former Liberty coach Richie Adubato.

He's really happy to have her, and the Mystics seem as if they have a lot of the right parts in place as they begin their second season with Adubato as coach. That includes point guard Nikki Teasley, who came over in a trade with Los Angeles and says she is feeling much better now after being limited last season by plantar fasciitis in both feet.

Meanwhile, Johnson, the last of the original Liberty players, is now with San Antonio. Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes said he is confident she will be the team leader his group must have if San Antonio is to reach the goal of at least being in the playoff hunt late in the season.

"She's as solid a package as anybody in this league -- that's why she's here and what we see in her," Hughes said of Johnson. "She isn't the most vocal leader … but she's vocal enough. And she 'messages' by her actions maybe better than anybody I've seen."

C-Rob is 32, and VJ is 34. I suspect they still have at least a few years of hitting big shots in this league. But who will hit those shots for New York this year?

Becky Hammon is entering her eighth season with New York. She has averaged 10.0 points in her career -- 13.7 the past two seasons, during which she started all 68 games the Liberty played. She's now used to being a go-to player … although at 5 feet, 6 inches and prone to turnovers (third in the league last year), she has her limitations.

Shameka Christon enters her third season in the Big Apple after taking a step forward last year and averaging 9.1 points. But the Liberty are going to need even more than that this season.

And then? Asked whom, other than those two, she expected to be go-to players, Coyle mentioned Barb Farris (averaged 3.8 points in six years for Detroit) and Schumacher (averaged 4.8 points in five years in Indiana).

For the sake of the Liberty and their fans, I sure hope those two somehow become go-to players. What they've been, obviously, is role players. Such players are necessary in the WNBA. But teams don't win much in this league without at least a few star-level players.

Maybe it will work out better than it looks on paper. If nothing else, Liberty fans have the All-Star Game in town this 10th anniversary season.

If the Liberty do end up at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, Charlotte and expansion Chicago should keep New York company. But the truth is, there ought to be some positives for both those teams this year.

Two more former NBA guys -- Muggsy Bogues and Dave Cowens -- are the coaches for the Sting and the Sky.

Chicago's Cowens had this to say about his foray into WNBA coaching: "I think the biggest thing I see is the camaraderie, just how good a teammates women are to one another, how much fun they have being around each other. That's been the biggest surprise to me. How well they treat each other."

Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault already is aware of all that -- he is fully immersed in and very knowledgeable about the women's game. The Sun have been in the WNBA Finals the past two seasons, and Thibault said he thinks this year's squad could be even better.

"Just the experience of playing together last season helped our confidence level," Thibault said. "The fact that Lindsay [Whalen] is a year older and wiser. Margo [Dydek] was new to everything we did last year; she's come in better prepared. Asjha [Jones] came into her own by the end of last season."

Whalen was hobbled in the 2005 league finals against Sacramento by an ankle injury; she had offseason surgery. At first, it was thought Whalen wouldn't return until early June. But Thibault said Tuesday, "Big progress the last 10 days or so. I'm a little more confident she can play this weekend in our opening game."

Remember her senior year at Minnesota in 2004, when Whalen injured her wrist in February and it was feared she'd miss the rest of the season? As if. She came back to lead the Gophers to the Final Four.

Thibault mentioned that he liked seeing the "experts" not picking the Sun to win the title this season. By that, I assume he was referring to us clowns at ESPN.com. We picked Detroit. And Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said, "I like our team."

However, then he followed that with, "But it doesn't matter if I like them or not, it's up to the players -- and we talked to them a lot about that this year. This is the year the players have to stand up. They like their team and each other; the chemistry is outstanding. But it's still up to them, and they know it. And they're going to do all the talking this year."

OK … I really don't know what that's all about.

I do think Cheryl Ford is going to have a breakout year offensively, and Laimbeer is very optimistic about that, too. He said Swin Cash seems back near 100 percent. The Shock's inside game should be a real powerhouse.

What's missing on the roster is a true point guard, which would seem a worry -- even more so with the implementation of the 24-second shot clock. But Laimbeer didn't sound worried at all. He said he was officially announcing that veteran Katie Smith would play the point role instead of "force-feeding" the position on Deanna Nolan.

Laimbeer said that, originally, Smith wanted no part of being referred to as a "point guard." So he said, "How about if we call you a lead guard, then?"

After a little time, Smith changed her mind and decided it was OK to do the point thing.

"She's steady as a rock," Laimbeer said. "She has embraced the position. She said, 'Bill, you can go ahead and call me a point guard now.'"

Smith's former team, Minnesota, has had past difficulties securing enough talent and depth at point guard. But the Lynx's former point-guard coach, Suzie McConnell Serio, took two point guards in April's draft: Utah's Shona Thorburn and Notre Dame's Megan Duffy. Plus, returning player Amber Jacobs has greatly impressed McConnell Serio in the preseason and is Minnesota's projected starter at point.

Meanwhile, the other player the Lynx got in the draft is looking mighty good, too. No. 1 overall pick Seimone Augustus is very likely to be the team's leading scorer, McConnell Serio said. Augustus is kind of used to that role, of course.

She might well be the second consecutive LSU alum to win the league's rookie of the year award. Former college teammate Temeka Johnson got that honor last year with the Mystics, then was traded in the offseason to Los Angeles.

Joe Bryant, who took over as interim coach near the end of last season, is at the Sparks' helm from the start this year. Thus far, Lisa Leslie appears to be as good as ever. The hope in L.A. is Johnson will build on her rookie success.

Bryant said in the teleconference that those were the two guaranteed starters. What, no Chamique Holdsclaw?

Bryant didn't say it, but apparently Holdsclaw has left the team for personal reasons. The Sparks haven't released any explanatory statement on whether this is a brief leave or a long-term departure. Obviously, it's a gigantic hole for the Sparks if she doesn't come back this season. Holdsclaw went public with her battle against depression, which caused her to miss part of the 2004 season with the Washington Mystics. She "started over" with the Sparks last season. Maybe this undetermined leave has nothing to do with any past problems, but until the Sparks release some information, there's sure to be speculation about that.

Another issue with L.A. is if Mwadi Mabika is -- and will remain -- fully healthy. And for the first time since the WNBA began, the Sparks don't have Tamecka Dixon.

She's now in Houston, where coach Van Chancellor said he was really excited about the season … until some recent injuries, including to Dixon, who has a hamstring pull. Dominique Canty is dealing with knee problems; Tina Thompson has a foot injury; and Sancho Lyttle is coming off knee surgery.

Once the Comets do get everyone healthy or close to it -- provided that happens -- Chancellor thinks Houston can do great things this season. And when you have Sheryl Swoopes, you should think that.

The last two teams to win the WNBA title -- defending champ Sacramento and 2004 champ Seattle -- both appear to have a legitimate chance at winning another title. Seattle coach Anne Donovan feels significantly better about the Storm's continuity this year than she did last year.

"We're at such a different place than we were a year ago," Donovan said. "We entered 2005 and pretty much lost a lot of players. This year, the complete opposite. We return our top six players -- our starters, our top perimeter sub -- and then also there's the acquisition of Wendy Palmer as a free-agent post player for us. So we've come right away with a lot more experience than we did a year ago."

Palmer was brought in to be a high-quality sub on the interior. But with Lauren Jackson (stress fracture in shin) and Janell Burse (shoulder) struggling with injuries, Palmer is going to get more time on court.

The Monarchs have issues, too. They lost defensive specialist Chelsea Newton to Chicago in the expansion draft, and coach John Whisenant said he's still waiting to see whether anyone strongly emerges as her replacement.

DeMya Walker gave birth recently and isn't expected back practicing until mid-June at the earliest.

"How long before she can play? I don't know; I've never done this before," Whisenant said. "So I don't have an answer. She's optimistic that she'll be able to help us, and I hope she's correct. I can't make myself really count on it. My best guess was Tina [Thompson] from last year. She still didn't have her stamina even in the playoffs."

Speaking of stamina, Sacramento guard Kara Lawson is struggling with an illness that has zapped her energy, and Whisenant didn't sound especially optimistic about the possibility of a quick return for her, either.

And … there you have it: what's going on in the coaches' minds as the league starts its 10th season. There's also this:

"We're selling a product that's geared toward people who enjoy this product," Cowens said, "not trying to compare it to something else all the time."

Exactly. Sounds as though he's a quick learner.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

ALSO SEE