The WNBA All-Star Game is an advertisement for league. Did they get their message across?
It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. With that there is no amount of words that can be written, read, or spoken to describe the atmosphere that was the 2014 WNBA All-Star Game this weekend. The Eastern Conference prevailed in overtime after numerous runs, great plays, and individual performances that were awe inspiring.
The Phoenix Mercury hosted the event with three players in uniform, but were not able to celebrate a victory in-front of their loyal fans and WNBA audience that had over 14,600 in attendance.
It was an event.
Shoni Schimmel of the Atlanta Dream, a rookie, led the Eastern Conference down the stretch with some jaw dropping plays that had Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris, and Ish Smith out of their seats every time down the court. Play-after-play the rookie made it known that she was built for this stage. She has the perfect style for an All-Star event finishing with 29 points and eight assists taking home Most Valuable Player honors. Not a starter for her team this season, Shimmel started as an All-Star, and was the All-Star in this event scoring or assisting on 20 of the teams final 31 points.
This has been the Season of Schimmel with her jersey being No. 1, starting in the All-Star Game, and winning the MVP all during a fairly quiet season in Atlanta averaging 7.1 points per game.
Tina Charles (19 points), Tamika Catchings (14 points 13 rebounds), and Angel McCoughtry (13 points 7 rebounds) also chipped for the East in victory.
For most of the game the West was in control of the game behind Skylar Diggins (27 points 7 assists), Brittney Griner (17 points 3 blocks), and Candice Dupree (12 points 8 rebounds). When the East made their run and took the lead the ball went in Maya Moore's (24 points 8 assists 5 rebounds) more than capable hands as she made the tough plays late to sent the game to overtime.
The stars were stars.
The game was live on ESPN2 at an optimal time for viewers around the world to give the league center stage. Sports are taking a breather right now as NBA Summer League and free-agency have more or less ended, football is still in hibernation, and baseball is baseball, a marathon that matters to few in July. You can argue the time slot at 3:30pm EST was not as ideal as possible, but the game was tipped and finished before 8pm and the night starting for most. Kids were able to watch. Advertisers got their message out.
Did the league get their message out?
Before the game WNBA President Laurel J. Richie was all smiles before the game discussing the events of the week and the success of the outreach the league has had with the community. The week was a success when measured in smiles and happiness that the league was able to produce over the course of the All-Star event that spanned from Thursday to Saturday afternoon.
President Richie was excited talking about expansion into the cities of Cleveland and an opportunity with a partnership with the Golden State Warriors.
Right now the 12 team league is operating with five teams in the "black" in terms of revenue and monetary success. Three teams mentioned were the Minnesota Lynx, Indiana Fever, and the Connecticut Sun are currently the teams she was able to verbally verify at the pre-game press conference. That is surprising considering the fact that the Lynx are tied to the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves, the Sun are connected to NCAA juggernaut Connecticut Huskies, and the Fever are in Basketball City with the Indiana Pacers. Last year there were six teams at the end, or 50% of the league.
It is alarming that those three teams are there for the mentioned affiliations, but also because of the fact that Minnesota has won a few championships recently and has the stars. Indiana won a championship and has a few stars. Those teams should be the most fruitful right now.
This year they are tracking five teams, or 41.6% of the league, with a few teams "on the bubble" as President Richie alluded to in her press conference.
There is no doubt that for those in attendance this was an event that would have turned even the most despondent viewer of the WNBA into a casual fan. At least when Shimmel or Moore or another star was on TV or coming to town. That is the message that the league wants to get out to the rest of the world that has not bought into the WNBA as a form of entertainment. There are stars.
There are plenty of stars.
The current favorite for league MVP played 16 minutes and then waived a towel in the most exciting game in years. A rookie won All-Star Game MVP. Griner dunked one home to get the fans in attendance on their feet. One of the top 5 players in the world, arguably, Elena Delle Donne didn't even play in the game. There is a lot to like about this league and the All-Star Game was a shinning example of that.
Turning the event into more of an event is a next step for the league. The NBA dominates an entire weekend with skill events, rookie challenges, former stars playing caricature basketball, and more. The WNBA has to find their "dunk contest" to get the fans invested. That is what gets people in-front of their televisions for the NBA All-Star Weekend before the game itself.
What would that event be? Who knows...
Overall the feeling coming out of U.S. Airways Center on All-Star Saturday Night for the WNBA was that the league is excited, exciting, and looking to grow. The underlying theme was teams are not finding financial success, the league is not getting itself in more optimal time slots for viewership, and there is a lot of room to grow.
This is all about the marketing and investment the league is selling to the masses. Did they get their message across to the world? Maybe, they did in Phoenix as nearly 15 thousand people saw one hell of a game.
Isaiah Thomas and T.J. Warren will help the Suns get tough buckets in crunch time and the playoffs. But how much of a good thing is too much? Also, Eric Bledsoe's contract negotiations leave me feeling further alienated from the stoic star...
Hey there readers... Yes, both of you. Going Gorilla is back by popular demand! And by popular demand I mean one person was insistent that I resuscitate the weekly segment of opinionated prose. So here goes nothing (or at least very close to it).
"That's a tough skill to have. A lot of guys, they can shoot open shots but when you get down in -- and hopefully we're in the playoffs -- you start getting into the playoffs in tough games, you need tough buckets. He's a guy (T.J. Warren) that we think can get tough buckets."
- Jeff Hornacek (on azsports.com)
The main impetus for the Suns drafting Warren is his elite scoring ability. Warren was the second most prodigious scorer in college basketball last season, averaging over 28 points per 40 minutes, with a .590 TS%. This is even more impressive considering that Warren managed the feat in a major conference (ACC). Here are the schools of the other top 10 scorers in the NCAA last season - Creighton, Niagara, Canisius, Tennessee St., BYU, Evansville, Eastern Washington, Providence and Texas Southern. Pure speculation on my behalf leads me to believe that Warren may have achieved his exploits against more formidable defenses.
In T.J.'s last two simulations of playoff style basketball he had mostly positive, though somewhat mixed, results. Warren scored 16 of his 25 points in the second half of N.C. State's play in game against Xavier that qualified the Wolfpack for the NCAA tournament. In his team's first round match against St. Louis, the fifth seed in the Midwest Region, Warren went for 28 (his 19th consecutive game over 20), but was just 6-14 from the line... including a miss that would have tied the game in the final minute of overtime. Warren was a .690 free throw shooter on the season.
Warren will want to shore up that free throw shooting in addition to working on extending his range.
Obviously the Suns couldn't predict (with exact certainty) what would be available in free agency when they selected Warren with their first pick (#14 overall) in the NBA draft, but what was the greatest strength of their first free agent acquisition?
Elite scoring ability.
As I previously delineated in my story heralding Isaiah Thomas's great fit on the Suns, Thomas was one of just six players in the NBA last season to average at least 20 points and six assists per game. He did this on an efficient .574 TS%.
But did he get tough buckets?
According to 82games.com Thomas was 16th in the NBA in points per 48 minutes (36.9) during clutch time (which is defined as fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes left, neither team ahead by more than five points). Isaiah was 23rd in FGA per 48 minutes (25) while shooting .400 from the field. Does .400 sound low? Remember, these are tough buckets. Of the 22 players ahead of Thomas he was better than or tied with 14 of them. Where Thomas really shines is getting to the line at the 14th highest rate while knocking them down at a .920 rate.
How will this translate to his new role on the Suns, though, where he may struggle to get minutes at the end of games competing with Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe for playing time?
Bledsoe makes his own case for getting tough buckets.
Bledsoe was fifth in the NBA in points per 48 minutes (41.8) during clutch time. Bledsoe was fifth in FG% among the top 10 in scoring per 48. Eric was 13th in FTA per 48, one spot ahead of Thomas, but made just .770. Not necessarily terrible, but fourth lowest among the top 14.
What about Dragic?
This set of criteria isn't as glowing for the Dragon. He finished 99th in scoring per 48, below his teammates Markieff Morris (57) and Gerald Green (92). Does this mean Goran isn't clutch?
The San Antonio Spurs might disagree, but that fourth quarter is about the extent of Dragic's crunch time playoff career. In fact, it's about the extent of the entire team's crunch time playoff career...
Bledsoe could have dominated the ball late in games the duo played together, but he missed quite a few games. Other sets of teammates also were able to rank near the top (Nowitzki, Ellis - Durant, Westbrook), so it's definitely possible for a team to have two players that combine to close out games. Dragic just wasn't offensively assertive according to this metric.
**Perfunctory disclaimer about the reliability of advanced statistics as evaluation tools.**
A little bit more anti-rainbow information that can be inferred from the clutch time statistics. The Suns ability to score late may be disrupted by their ability to maintain possession of the ball. Bledsoe (6), Thomas (9) and Dragic (26) were all near the top in most turnovers...
Spoiler alert - Warren may not jump to the top of the clutch time scorers in his rookie season. Who knows if he'll even be able crack the rotation and wrestle away minutes from returning veterans. With seasoning the Suns hope is that he'll join that class eventually. The Suns shouldn't need that from him right away, either.
The Suns have a wealth of elite scoring and players with track records of finishing games.
But how much is too much? Phoenix added four new players this offseason, none of whom are known as strong defenders. Thomas and Warren can help get the team buckets, but none of the additions appear to be elite at getting the team stops. The team's philosophy of getting two way players appears to have run catawampus.
At this point I wouldn't expect the Suns defense, which was already deficient compared to its offense, to improve heading into next season. The offense has won the seesaw battle this offseason.
One of the Suns players that gets the team those tough buckets is in another tough situation right now. Eric Bledsoe's contract negotiations have taken on the perception of outward hostility even if that doesn't necessarily exist in reality. Eric's representation believes he is worth the max, even though he's in a position with very little leverage to demand it.
Many people thought Bledsoe would receive a max offer sheet from another team that the Suns would be forced to match. He hasn't. Bledsoe's intentionally evasive and aloof nature all the way through his exit interview seemed to be a negotiating tactic designed to educe a deal from another team in free agency. It didn't.
And if it was a negotiating tactic, as I've stated before, I think he (despite what Lon Babby might have said) was getting bad advice. I still very much question whether Eric Bledsoe wants to be a Phoenix Sun.
Above all, I think Bledsoe wants to be where he gets paid. That aspect of reality was once again made quite transparent in the relocation of Channing Frye to the Orlando Magic. Money talks and hometown discounts are few and far between. Loyalty is very nebulous in the business of professional sports.
Completely aside from Channing, there shouldn't be any other expectation than for Bledsoe to fight for every contract dollar. The first way I would think of using the words Phoenix, Bledsoe and hometown in a sentence is... Phoenix doesn't feel like Bledsoe's hometown.
Some of this is due to the fact that Eric Bledsoe is so reticent and impassive. Basketball is entertainment and I don't think it's beyond reason that I should expect a little off the court flavor from the players on my team. Bledsoe is as insipid as they come.
Dragic takes every opportunity to let it be known just how much he likes playing in Phoenix. He's a star player a fanbase can really get behind. I really like Goran Dragic. For some reason when I think of Bledsoe's relationship with Phoenix I'm more reminded of the pallor that fell over Zach Lavine when he heard his name called by the Minnesota Timberwolves. I'll admit that I've never been much of a Bledsoe guy.
Maybe I'm on an island here, but if Eric was just a little more charismatic and had been a little more complimentary of his time here in Phoenix... I'd be a little more inclined for the Suns to sweeten their deal. Here's my slide - if the on court performance is relatively equal the guy with the personality off it is going to garner my affection. Even though these situations are always evolving a player usually exudes the appearance of belonging unless he doesn't want to belong (see Love, Kevin).
Am I picking on Eric based on his social skills and personality? Quite possibly. At the same time, I get the feeling that every other player on the roster really likes being here. I just don't get the vibe from Eric.
There are a lot of great players around the league that can at least pretend to enjoy the situation they're currently in and I still think that settling for a max (or near) player that can't bring the complete package is, well... settling. With these protracted negotiations shuffling along towards the end of July I'm not sure whether I find myself siding more with the Phoenix Suns or against Eric Bledsoe, in a situation that has always felt more venal than familial.
If things end up getting settled and Bledsoe plays up to (or outplays) his contract and the team flourishes the wins might have a way of swaying my opinion on this subject. I'm not intransigent to the point that I can't be won over by a post-contract Bledsoe and a playoff Suns team.
It could happen.
But it also wouldn't break my heart right now if the Suns decided to move on from Bledsoe and go in a different direction with a player that feels a little more like a Phoenix Sun.
Each year, the NBA organizes a summer league to enable new draftees and other young players a chance to get familiar with the team's offense and defense. It's important to introduce the concepts to new players, and if you're lucky you've got players from last year's team to help the transition.
"There's a little bit of a hyphen there (on wanting to win)," Phoenix Suns summer coach Mike Longabardi said. "Because development is important. We want to make sure these guys are getting better and are ready to play come November. Thats what's most important."
As much a fans want the tick mark in the win column more than anything else, NBA summer league is not about winning games despite the fact they hold a mini-tournament (that's more about ticket sales than anything else).
The 2013 SummerSuns were an aberration, with a rookie (but really good, as it turns out) coach and young rotation-quality veterans trying to prove themselves. They swept through the first six games before losing to Golden State in the Final game. After a 25-57 season, that 6-1 Summer League team was a dream.
But summer leagues are not built for that, as I found out first-hand this week. Teams rested their best players in "big" games, mentally checked out after 4 games in 5 days of 5 in 7, and felt more relief from being able to go home than they felt bad about losing. You have to realize they did three straight two-a-days, then played all those game in a row. Even 19 and 20 year olds get tired.
It's not the regular season. No one is fighting for team positioning. They are fighting for their individual playing lives. When players are rested, more than anything else it's to give minutes to another player who is playing for a contract.
The Suns wanted to evaluate players this week, not bother with whether they won or lost. That why coach Mike Longabardi said it was a successful week for T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis and anyone who didn't get injured. It's why he was more bummed for Alex Len and Alec Brown personally than anything team-related.
Rookies T.J. Warren and Tyler Ennis were supposed to be able to integrate as secondary options to returnees Miles Plumlee (third year), Archie Goodwin and Alex Len (both second year players). But unfortunately, that lasted only one game, as Len broke his pinky finger and would not return for the rest of the week.
As it turned out, T.J. Warren didn't need the tutoring. He picked up where he left off in college, pumping in an average of 25 points over his first three full summer league games. Tony Buckets missed most of game two (cut/stitches) and played poorly in the final consolation game when he had to play center. But when put in position to succeed at the small forward position, he did just that.
Warren scored in a variety of ways, with his right hand, with his left hand, with floaters, with pump fakes, with euro steps, whatever it took to get the space to take the shot.
"We just run the floor very hard," Warren said of his scoring, to Seth Pollack at Summer League. "And just having a knack to finish in transition. In the half court the ball just happens to fall around and I pick it up and put it back in."
"I'm sure he's put in countless number of hours working on his craft," Longabardi said mid-week. "He's got it down. That midrange. He's got a good instinct for the ball. He's good on the baseline, no question. I think his three-ball will come. He's just got to practice it and this is great for him."
Warren is not the most athletic of players, but he knows how to score. He cuts behind his defender and finds the open space on the floor for dump offs at the rim. Exactly the kind of offense the Suns were missing last year.
"Just having great balance, body control, just being around the rim," Warren said when asked by Seth how he got his scoring ability. "This is a skill set that just came naturally."
ESPN ranked Warren #2 among rookies over the first five days of SL (before players started "resting" and injuries mounted).
NBA.com has him 3rd on the Rookie Ladder as of today, even including Friday's bomb.
To be a really good option at small forward, Warren still has to develop a consistent three-point shot if only from the baseline like P.J. Tucker did. He has issues with shot consistency - he will float left or right and/or change his release point from shot to shot, a by-product of his unorthodox style at the rim.
Questions about Warren's ability to score at an elite level in the NBA are valid. He is not a supreme athlete. He plays "below the rim", using shot fakes and body control to get the shot off around the defender rather than over or through him. You can't say you can do it. You can only show it on the court.
But questions about his athleticism and drive can likely be put to rest already. While other players wilted under 4 games in 5 days, Warren scored 28 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in that 4th game. He ran hard and played hard every minute, from jump ball to final buzzer.
He plays like a grizzled veteran, but the kid is only 20 years old right now. He will play the entire 2014-15 season at 21. At that young, let's just hope he earns a rotation spot at some point this year and look forward to better things in future years.
While Warren plays older than 20, his first round draft mate Ennis played like the kid that he is at 19. Ennis needs to add strength and stamina. When he's on, he's a great floor general that the coaching staff came to really appreciate.
"I feel very comfortable having the ball in his hands," Longabardi said mid-week. "He has that special ability people just don't have."
Longabardi is talking about the ability to manage a team and an offense, without having his own special offensive skills to fall back on. In the early days of the week, Ennis was a primary reason the Suns went 2-1. He was especially effective in the 4th quarter of each of those three games.
"Tyler did a great job executing pick and roll offense," Longabardi said after the Suns first win, on Monday, "getting in the lane, making the right plays at the right time and we made some shots."
Our own Kellan Olson caught those three games and said this about Ennis after the third:
Tyler Ennis continued to make pretty passes and was generally solid on defense. He missed another three badly and that looks to be the main part of his game they will emphasize for improvement throughout the season. He had a couple of sequences that caught my eye. One was when he got stripped by his defender but was relentless for 10 straight seconds in stealing it right back which set up the T.J. to Archie lob. Two was him starting the fastbreak on a deflection and he had less than a second to react to a loose body/defender in front of him and he put it behind is back so fast like it was nothing. His reactions are insane. Lastly, Ennis had two assists late in his usual "I'm taking over now" fourth quarter special. He's good.
Judging by Kellan's other observations from seeing nearly all 22 teams over three days, we can take away that Kellan is not watching the Suns in a vacuum like most of the rest of us. Let's take that praise for what it is: praise.
"He's (Ennis) a good leader," Seth Curry said mid-week. "Runs the team. Doesn't make too many mistakes. He's always composed even though he's so young."
But Ennis really showed his youth in the final two games, both Suns losses. Ennis was bad offensively and looked lost - likely a product of fatigue, both mental and physical.
Maybe he missed Kellan.
Ennis' biggest weakness appears to be an inability to break a defender down off the dribble. He will need to rely on screens to get open for drives, but that's a staple in the Suns offense that gets executed like 99% percent of the time anyway. Once in the lane, Ennis knows how to dump off the ball to a shooter or take a floater.
He's not going to wow anyone with his athleticism. He's just got to get by on craftiness.
Apparently, this was the draft of crafty.
While this year might have been about crafty, last year was about acquiring high-end potential if given enough coaching.
Miles Plumlee was one of the best summer league players a year ago, his second SL with Indiana, and McDonough snatched him up later in the summer in the Scola deal.
Plumlee spent the week working on his shooting, but otherwise played Plumlee-ball - grabbing an average of 11 rebounds and blocking 2 shots a game to go along with his 8 points on 35% shooting (again, he was trying a lot of 15 footers this week, on purpose).
Alex Len was supposed to have a big week, but he broke a finger in game one after a good showing (6 points, 6 rebounds, several quality defensive plays) and didn't play again. We continue to wait on Len.
Goodwin had a tough week. He wasn't ready to show much more than we already knew about him - which is pretty darn good as a driver - and proved to us that he's still 19. He's only a week older than the Suns youngest player, Ennis, despite being a second-year veteran.
"There was more adversity this year," Goodwin said, comparing this year to last year. "We won a lot last year, but this year we had those injuries that made it tough."
Once Len went down and after Oriakhi was traded, the Suns had no depth on the front line to hold up. Goodwin ended up regressing, in my eyes, to a one-trick pony who drove so often that every team knew they could throw three defenders at him at the rim without fear of him passing off. Archie will have to calm down and become more cerebral as his career progresses.
Defensively, he was even worse, getting caught ball-watching for (what seemed like) constant cuts behind him for easy baskets by his man. Goodwin was aggressive all week in getting steals, and eventually paid for it when the team was struggling.
But an even bigger value to this summer league is for free agents to show their talents, and hopefully get a contract or at least an invite to training camp. Every year, half dozen players get these golden tickets from a great week on an SL team.
Free agent Eric Griffin just signed with Dallas after playing well all week for their team, including putting up 28 points in their finale against the Suns. Don't go thinking that game got him a contract though. He'd already signed a few hours before tip.
As did PF/C/Zeus Patric Young get a contract, in this case with the New Orleans Pelicans. I know there's some Young fans on here, but what I saw of him in one game this week was that he really didn't know how to play NBA basketball. Apparently, NOLA sees more than I did though, so that's cool.
That is how the Suns found P.J. Tucker two years ago. Tucker had been 6 years out of the league, but showed well enough in SL for the Suns that he got a training camp invite and a non-guaranteed contract. Tucker proceeded to earn a starting role by the second month of the season and hasn't looked back, earning a $16 million three-year contract last week.
Last year, it was Dionte Christmas earning a contract. His was guaranteed for the first year, non-guaranteed for the second (decision must be made by later this month).
Christmas isn't really great at any one thing, basketball-wise, but he is good at a lot (10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists per game) and he was the breath of fresh air for the team all week in terms of motivation and effort. As the Suns were melting down on Friday, it was Christmas working bis butt off on every play and encouraging the guys to play the right way. He was in their ears between every possession. Media row loved him, just as we all did last year as he played a key role on the bench and in the locker room for a surprisingly good team.
Hopefully, Christmas will get his contract guaranteed later this month.
This week, the new standout player and roster hopeful is Seth Curry (the younger brother of Steph Curry, and son of Dell Curry). Curry is small for a shooting guard (6'3") and not good enough as a point guard to play for long minutes, but if he can make buckets he can play in the NBA. He played for Orlando in their summer league, and then the Suns here.
"Anytime you step on the court," Seth Curry said to our Seth (Pollack) after one game. "Especially in summer league, you are playing for all 30 teams in the league. Everybody can see what you're doing and nobody has my rights or anything like that so just going out there trying to complete and show what I can do."
Curry showed well in the early Suns games, as did the rest of the team. He teamed up with Ennis to the lead the Suns to their first win by making a bunch of big shots.
Curry realizes he needs to be able to handle an offense at least part-time to get a ticket to the NBA.
"I think that's one of my biggest weapons I can bring to a team," he said. "Handling the ball most of the game and then going in there with Tyler [Ennis] towards the end of the game and play off the ball and spread the court. I feel like that's one of my advantages that I can bring."
Curry faded in the last two games, probably worn out from such a heavy two-week schedule over two summer leagues between Orlando and Vegas.
But maybe he earned himself a shot with the Suns. Coach Longabardi said Seth Curry "helped himself" this week. Of the others, Longo said they might not be NBA players, but would find jobs somewhere (overseas).
Don't hold the Suns' 2-3 Summer League record against them. They didn't come here to win games.
Certainly, the most disappointing development of Summer League was Alex Len's injury. He was on a roll and feeling really good and then this happens. Tough to take.
But we got some good looks at Warren (mostly up) and Ennis (up and down) and that's what we needed to see more than anything.
I don't usually post rumors on here, but this one is intriguing and comes from an unlikely source who is not in the business of making stuff up.
Jon Bloom as a Suns broadcaster for KTAR, doing the postgame radio show and regular stints as a sub for the afternoon guys as well as features with Suns digital.
Bloom is not in the business of posting rumors, so this one caught my eye. In followup with Bloom, he is skeptical that a deal will get done but confirms that a person close to the situation is pushing for it. There is no indication that the source is a decision maker and I have been told by a league source that nothing is cooking there at all between the teams. This means that the idea has not gone as far as the Suns entertaining it.
The Suns have not indicated any interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to several media reports and my own investigation. The Suns would like to keep Bledsoe and agree to a contract in the coming days or weeks. They really like the 3-guard rotation of Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas to keep them fresh and always give Hornacek two at his disposal.
I will tell you that the Suns own front office has said that they produce "a thousand ideas a day" during the summer, one of which turned out to be last summer's Bledsoe trade engineered by the Suns Assistant GM Trevor Buckstein.
All I'm saying is that it's very likely someone in the Laker front office is pushing for Bledsoe as Bloom says, but that it's just one of a thousand ideas they have bandied about to get a star.
Don't hold your breath, and don't scream at your monitor. This one's not cooking in any way, shape or form at this time.
Just wait till something actually breaks before investing any kind emotion into it. You will hear a lot of rumors, but almost none of them will come true.