When speculating about who will make the 2011 WNBA Playoffs, the first place to look is unquestionably strength of schedule, which is where the Seattle Storm appear to have a significant advantage over their competitors.
With six home games left and two against teams they've already demolished at KeyArena - the San Antonio Silver Stars and Tulsa Shock - the Storm are only 1.5 games out of second place and appear to be in good shape to move up in the playoff race despite currently sitting in fourth. And with center Lauren Jackson appearing to be on the brink of returning from injury after warming up with the team before their difficult 81-79 loss to the Phoenix Mercury at the U.S. Airways Center on Tuesday night, the Storm could conceivably end up being the team nobody wants to face down the stretch.
Yet the return of Candace Parker to the Los Angeles Sparks (9-14) is arguably even more significant and throws a measure of uncertainty not only into the playoff race, but also into neat strength of schedule arguments.
Although the Storm are three games ahead of the fifth place Sparks for the fourth and final seed in the Western Conference, superstar forward Candace Parker returned from injury on Tuesday night and nearly helped the Sparks beat the surging Atlanta Dream at Staples Center.
With three games remaining against the 1-22 Tulsa Shock and two against the Storm, the Sparks will have ample opportunity to move up the standings. A deep roster and much-improved 3-point shooting this season surrounding Parker has already helped the Sparks crush the Seattle Storm in L.A. with Jackson on the floor earlier this season.
The fact is that the Los Angeles Sparks were considerably better with Parker's versatility on the floor, even if a 4-2 record in the six full games she played before her injury doesn't immediately speak to dominance. And they're close enough to the standings to create an even greater sense of urgency for the Storm whose turnover-filled losses are taking on increasing significance.
In contrast, the Storm were not particularly great during the four and a half games that Jackson played, even though it's probably fair to assume that her 6-foot-6 presence in the post would have helped them in at least one of their three one-possession losses in her absence (not to mention a two possession road loss against All-Star center Tina Charles and the Connecticut Sun).
Meanwhile, despite Jackson's absence, the Storm have owned the San Antonio Silver Stars at home this season with a 2-1 lead in the season series with an upcoming opportunity to clinch that series with a win at KeyArena next Tuesday, Sept 23. And the Silver Stars are without All-Star rookie forward Danielle Adams, who had surprisingly overshadowed Minnesota Lynx phenom as the top candidate for 2011 WNBA Rookie of the Year in the 15 games she played prior to her injury. Only a half game ahead of the Storm with two games left against them - and now the prospect, no matter how small, of Jackson returning for one of them - the Silver Stars spot in the playoffs is no more secure than Storm's.
So with injuries to post players adversely affecting the current Western Conference standings and impending returns likely to influence who actually makes this playoffs, nothing is really certain in the Western Conference except that the Shock will be happy just to avoid a record for WNBA futility and the first place Minnesota Lynx will probably transition rather seamlessly into the postseason barring a disaster.
But what of the other four teams sandwiched in between the league's best and worst teams?With the complexity of key players being out of the lineup, a look at the specific matchups and how both missing and returning players might influence the teams' performances proves to be useful.
The following is a look at how each team in the Western Conference might perform down the stretch and where that might leave the Storm.
1. Minnesota Lynx (18-6)
Games remaining: 10 | Strength: offensive rebounding | Weakness: opponents' free throw rate
It would be rather surprising if the Lynx didn't finish the season with the top seed in the Western Conference - any time a team's biggest weakness is putting the opponents on the line more often than they go, it's safe to say they're pretty good. In addition, in the Lynx's case, those fouls could be considered the result of strong defense as much as anything else.
The Lynx would have to drop four of their final ten games to even give the second place Phoenix Mercury a chance at passing them and with two games against the 5-17 Washington Mystics and another at Tulsa, their path is made a bit easier. The biggest challenge is likely to come from the New York Liberty who are third place in the Eastern Conference and will play the Lynx twice. Although the Lynx would seem to carry a strong rebounding advantage over the Liberty, the addition of 6-foot-6 center Kara Braxton could aid in keeping the Lynx off the boards.
Los Angeles is a threat, but hasn't beaten the Lynx in two games since the season opener, at least partially due to their rebounding struggles and will travel to Minnesota to finish out the season series. The same goes for San Antonio who have lost twice to the Lynx by a combined three points and face them twice more. Even if the Lynx were to somehow drop three or four games, the Mercury would have to go undefeated down the stretch to even have a shot to take advantage of that when the two teams meet on the final game of the season; that's just unlikely.
Projection: 7-8 wins
2. Phoenix Mercury (14-10)
Games remaining: 10 | Strength: shooting efficiency | Weakness: turnover rate
Even if we disregard the Mercury's win over the Storm on Tuesday due to the absence of Storm guard Tanisha Wright, Phoenix is the hottest team of any of those below them in the West - they've won three of their last four games, including wins against the surging Atlanta Dream and the mighty Lynx. Although five of their final ten games are on the road, they also have the benefit of drawing one game each against the Mystics and Shock. Of their five remaining home games, they get another game against Tulsa and a game against the Liberty who they already beat on the road.
The problem for the Mercury, however, has been turnovers and since the All-Star break, that problem has gotten worse while opponents have outshot them, last four games notwithstanding. That presents a problem in remaining games against strong defensive teams like the Lynx (one), Silver Stars (two), Storm (one), and Liberty (one). With Parker back, it's not inconceivable that the Sparks could beat the Mercury again due to superior depth in the post, where rebounding is not particularly a strength for the Mercury either.
Mercury fans have harped on their inconsistent point guard play all season and that will definitely come into play given who they're playing.
Projection: 5-6 wins
3. Seattle Storm (13-12)
Games remaining: 9 | Strength: improved shooting efficiency | Weakness: turnovers
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that turnovers have been the major weakness for the Storm this season - in two recent losses against the Atlanta Dream, the Storm had 49 team turnovers. But another area of concern is their offensive rebounding, which both the Dream and Liberty have exploited in recent Storm losses as well. And although they will play six of nine remaining games at home, that advantage could be diminished slightly by their rebounding struggles.
New York narrowly beat the Storm in New Jersey, but dominated the paint worse than the final rebounding numbers immediately suggest. The Sparks have been better than the Storm on the boards since the All-Star break and stand to only improve in that area with Parker in the lineup for their last two meetings with the Storm. Their final game of the season against the Chicago Sky will also be difficult as they present a formidable front line.
Without Jackson to help on the boards and in just clogging the paint defensively, the Storm could take a few losses. But even so, if they stay true to form against the Silver Stars and split their final two meetings, beat Tulsa twice, and get back to beating the Mercury as they had in the nine games prior to Tuesday night, they'll still be in good shape for the playoffs.
Speaking of beating the Mercury, getting paired with them in the first round would be to the Storm's advantage given that they've beaten them in 9 of their last 10 meetings. That makes moving up to the second seed and getting home court advantage even more significant. If Jackson comes back prior to the playoffs, it would be a huge boost in these games against better rebounding teams and give the Storm a good shot at making the Western Conference Finals.
Projection: 4-6 wins
4. Los Angeles Sparks (9-14)
Games remaining: 11 | Strength: shooting efficiency | Weakness: turnovers
The Sparks haven't been quite as good at limiting opponents' shooting efficiency since the All-Star break, but with Parker returning that should go up. But another encouraging sign is that their rebounding is improving, despite a lapse in their loss to the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday.
While Parker will help them with both their ability to defend opponents and score more easily, rookie Jantel Lavender's steady improvement since dropping 21 points and nine rebounds on the Storm has helped on the boards as well. The combination makes them a much tougher matchup for the Silver Stars, who they've lost to twice with Adams in the lineup and will play a final time at home. The improved rebounding will also help against Chicago, who they play in their final game of the regular season and already beat on the road. The improved rebounding also makes beating the Storm - who can struggle on the boards - much more likely, particularly at home if not at KeyArena.
But the big advantage for the Sparks down the stretch is having three games against the 1-22 Shock - including two at home - and another against Washington, who staged a surprising comeback to beat the Sparks without Parker.
To be sure, the Sparks would have to win somewhere in the range of eight or nine of their final 11 games and need some help from either the Silver Stars or Storm to make the playoffs. But it's neither inconceivable that the Silver Stars falter nor that the Sparks pull off that feat, no matter how unlikely it seems - it's a matter of them winning games that a playoff team should win and hoping to pick up a few others somewhere.
Projection: 7-9 wins
5. San Antonio Silver Stars (13-11)
Games remaining: 10 | Strength: Ball movement, turnover differential | Weakness: offensive rebounding
No team moves the ball better than the Silver Stars and with multiple ball handlers around the court to facilitate the offense, their worst moments occur when they over-share and settle for jumpers instead of attacking the basket.
But for all that they do well on both ends of the court, losing Adams to injury has really hurt them on the boards and is a major reason why they have lost six of their last eight. Unfortunately, that puts them at a disadvantage even against the Mystics at home and the Shock on the road, both of which have been rebounding well since the All-Star break. Other than those two teams that the Silver Stars have beaten previously, they also have two games remaining against the Lynx, a dominant rebounding team.
Aside from the forthcoming rebounding challenges, San Antonio has another game at KeyArena where they've played terribly for most of two previous visits this season and two games left against the increasingly hot Mercury. Add to that a game in Los Angeles where they lost in Parker's absence - due to a combination of being badly outrebounded and unable to hit shots - and the Silver Stars appear to be in the most precarious position of any team in the Western Conference.
If the Sparks can indeed win the games the games they're supposed to and find a few additional wins, the Silver Stars will be at serious risk of falling out of the playoffs.
Projection: 3-5 wins