11-2. That's the record of the Western Conference in the WNBA Finals. In their previous 13 years of existence, the Eastern Conference could only manage two titles, and those came courtesy of the same team (Detroit, '03 and '08).
That could all change here in 2010.
Shift in power balance
As we enter the final weekend of the regular season, consider that the Eastern Conference holds a 49-20 advantage over their counterparts in the West. Those numbers are almost a complete reversal from years past. Even some of the non-playoff teams in the West held a winning record over the east in seasons past, but 2010 has been a different story.
It's kind of ironic how the WNBA has seemed to mirror what's going on in the NBA. With the migration of stars to the East in the NBA, many think that conference is now a better overall conference, despite the Lakers currently sitting with back-to-back titles.
The Eastern Conference in the WNBA has gone through a complete transformation as a result of a couple of things. Former Mercury do-everything guard Cappie Pondexter's move to NY was an integral piece of that transformation, with three teams ultimately being aided by that deal.
The Liberty got a playmaker they desperately needed, Chicago was able to add depth and leadership and the Mercury were able to get a talented forward who could rebound and score. But you see already that's two teams from the East getting better and only one team in the West.
The scoreboard was beginning to shift before the season even began.
As a result of their record in 2009, the Liberty also benefited greatly from the dispersal draft that took place when the Sacramento Monarchs franchise was dissolved. NY wisely selected former Stanford great and Phoenix native (Mountain Pointe High School) Nicole Powell. Powell is a hardnosed sharp-shooting player who fit in quickly with Ann Donovan's system, and NY fans always love a player who just flat out hustles on every play and that's been Powell's M.O. dating back to her high school days.
It's fitting that the final weekend will have Indiana and NY battling it out for the top spot in the East with homecourt advantage on the line. The Fever have looked more-than-ready to defend their Eastern conference crown and why not? They brought back largely the same roster that came within two minutes of grabbing their first ever title in the thrilling five-game series with Phoenix last season.
Anytime you have Tamika Catchings on the floor, you have a great chance to win.
While I'm a self-described WNBA homer, I will tell you flat out, even if I wasn't doing WNBA games, I'd pay money to watch two players in this league and they are Catchings and the Mercury's Diana Taurasi. There's a passion and intensity that they play with that's off-the-charts.
Washington and Atlanta are the other two playoff squads out of the East and the Mystics still have an outside shot of grabbing the top spot, though it won't be easy with games against NY on Friday and Atlanta on Sunday.
The Mystics' chances of postseason berth didn't look promising when the season began with the loss of talented guard Alana Beard. An offseason mov,e though, has paid big dividends in the form of Katie Smith. She was acquired to give them some depth and veteran leadership. Smith has been the equivalent of a stock market rally for Washington this season. While her scoring isn't always as consistent as it's been in years past, there's no one you want taking that last shot more than Smith, who has seen and hit too many clutch hoops to count in her career. Her game, combined with the emergence of post player Crystal Langhorne and the all-around play of Monique Currie and the Mystics finally have something to cheer about.
The Atlanta Dream are the wild card in all of this Eastern conference uprising. Second year guard Angel McCoughtry and her cast of athletes Atlanta can score the ball as well as anyone. Their downfall may be in overall big game experience and being able to get key stops when it's all said and done, but they can be fun to watch.
So that brings us to the West. It's been an uphill battle all season long for the defending champs.
The offseason move of getting Candice Dupree for Pondexter looked like a terrific swap (you got to give up talent to get talent). Dupree has been everything she was billed to be and she's added dimensions to her game that weren't required in Chicago.
Scoring hasn't been the issue for Phoenix, who once again will set another league scoring record this season by averaging 94.9 ppg. The problem has been on the defensive end, where they've allowed 94.6 ppg. Compare that to 2009, when they surrendered 89 ppg, and you get a better understanding of why they've been behind the eight-ball almost all season. And really it's not the defense that's let them down as much as rebounding or the inability to rebound has killed them. Numerous times they forced the opponent deep into the shot clock to take a hurried shot only to surrender an offensive rebound which too often led to a basket. Those are back breakers and that's why the team has lost so many close games this season.
I will say this about Phoenix: getting some stars rested and healed up would serve them well and there's no team in the last few years that has been able to rise to the occasion like the Mercury, so regular season stats aside, this is still a club that sends you packing and is very capable of grabbing their third title in four years.
Minnesota, San Antonio and Los Angeles will fight it out for two spots this weekend, with none of the three having a realistic shot to do much damage in the playoffs. Don't get me wrong, each club has some talented players, but a variety of things will prevent them from making any serious noise.
That leaves us with Seattle. The Storm, frankly, haven't been challenged all season long in the West.
I think they clinched the top spot back in July! Any team that has Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird is in great shape. Bird has played probably the best basketball of her career the last two seasons and sets the tone for everything that happens there. Jackson has stayed healthy, which has always been her biggest challenge in recent years.
Coach Brian Agler demands defense and his club gives it to him night in and night out and he's shown a willingness to play and develop his bench, which in years past has been a knock on his coaching. Keep this in mind as you write down your picks for the playoffs. Of the six losses Seattle has suffered this season, four of them came against Eastern conference teams. Worthless stat or is there something to it?
With the migration of talent to the East in the offseason, they now boast more championship experience than they've had as a whole than in any year previous. That experience and talent, combined with a desire to bring a title east of the Mississippi, might just be enough to get the job done here in 2010.