THE EVOLUTION OF THE POST PLAYER IN THE WNBA
By Al Mattei
The first four seasons of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) were dominated by the swift, rather than the strong. The Houston Comets would bob, weave, sprint, and overwhelm the opposition on the way to four WNBA championships.
But a funny thing happened starting in Year Five and beyond. The WNBA titlists for the next four seasons -- Los Angeles (2001-02), Detroit (2003), and Seattle (2004) all had dominating post players in their starting lineups.
It seemed as though the dynamic changed in the league: the bigger, the better. It has gotten to the point where one team spent time and effort on signing backup centers. The team with the finest regular-season record in 2005, the Connecticut Sun, had the towering 7-foot-2 Margo Dydek in the pivot.
But the Sun was neutralized in that season's WNBA Finals by a Sacramento Monarchs team that played near-perfect defense as well as offense. Though Yolanda Griffith, the Monarchs' center, stands a mere 6-foot-4, she was able to use a myriad of physical gifts other than size to help her team beat Dydek.
The dynamic between an offense based on shooting and one based on pivot play in the WNBA is no better illustrated than in the evolution of the Houston Comets' attack since winning the last of its four WNBA titles in 2000.
While the Comets have the services of gifted shooters such as Tina Thompson, Sheryl Swoops, Janeth Arcain, and Dominique Canty, much of Houston's success revolves now around center Michelle Snow. The Tennessee graduate has become a major leader on a team which experienced a rebirth in 2005, giving its supporters hope that it could regain the form which made it the WNBA's first dynasty.
"This league is getting more physical and more athletic," Snow says. "As the college kids are coming in, it's getting younger and younger, and for us, that's the only way we're going to survive."
"As physical as our league has become, you better have some post players who can bring it physically," says Comets and Team USA head coach Van Chancellor. "You have to play hard-nosed basketball; the finesse players get left out."
"The only way you're going to have a triangle offense win a WNBA title these days is if you have Tina, Sheryl, Janeth, and Cynthia Cooper -- who should have been playing for four different teams. All superstars, all MVP-type players on one team," Snow says. "These days, we have to earn it; we have to get an inside game and an outside game. We don't have four players who can shoot from the outside consistently."
Detroit and Seattle, with their championship heritage, have one interesting commonality: they had centers as head coaches for their championship seasons. Anne Donovan was a legendary pivot player for Old Dominion University's (NAIA) championship teams of the late 1970s, won gold medals with Team USA at the 1984 and 1998 Olympics before turning her focus to coaching in the 1990s.
She coached in the college ranks at Old Dominion and East Carolina before securing coaching stints for the Philadelphia Rage of the ABL, and the Indiana Fever, Charlotte Sting, and the Storm of the WNBA.
But never had Donovan had the good fortune in her coaching career to have a pivot player as coachable and as versatile as Lauren Jackson. The 6-foot-5 Australian has a 2003 WNBA Most Valuable Player trophy in her case, and her resume for 2005 was astounding. Second in scoring, first in points per 40 minutes, first in efficiency, first in defensive and total rebounds, third in free throws, third in tree throws made, fourth in blocks, fifth in minutes played.
"All of the bigger players are getting more versatile, and shooting the 3," Jackson says. "It's just a symptom of the sport growing."
"I wish I was as good as her when I played," says Donovan, a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. "Lauren's got such versatility in her game -- great face-up shooter, great feet, and a great 4 player, rather than having her back to the basket. She's got great work ethic, great skill, and at 24, she's only going to get better."
Donovan has begun to understand the importance of the pivot in the modern women's game from her general manager's role with the team as well. The team not only has one, but two reserve centers in case Jackson was to suffer a season-ending injury like she did in 2004.
"We locked up Janell Burse (a 6-foot-3 center) for two years," Donovan says. "Teams are getting better and better. One player of a post-player size isn't enough."
For his part, Bill Laimbeer, a shooting center much in the mold of Jackson, is the Detroit Shock's head coach. He played on two NBA world championship Detroit Pistons teams and coached the Shock to a WNBA title in 2003.
"The WNBA is certainly getting bigger; two years ago when we won the title, we physically abused everyone in the league," says Laimbeer. "Many teams saw that and saw that the trend was towards the big and the athletic."
He and assistant coach Rick Mahorn have already gotten prize pupil Ruth Riley, the Shock's 6-foot-5 center, to become a similar presence on the floor. Riley will also take the ball inside, but she spends a good amount of time in pre-game warmups taking 15- to 17-foot jumpers. Kind of like Laimbeer.
"In many ways, she's patterned her game after what I was doing," says Laimbeer, a four-time NBA All-Star. "Perimeter screens, perimeter shooting -- but that's because we have Cheryl Ford and Swin Cash, who are also very strong post players in the box. Someone has to be the ball-distributor and perimeter shooter, and that's the role that Ruth has taken on."
"It's great to have two coaches who were very successful centers as players," Riley says. "For us post players, to learn from them, is a great opportunity."
Riley, after playing a back-to-the-basket type of center at Notre Dame in making an NCAA championship game, has made the transition to facing the basket more, learning more and more from Laimbeer all the time."
"In truth, I've seen a lot of his old films, but I'd like to see a lot more of them," Riley says. "Just to see how he got his shots, seeing the way he played the game. That would help me a little bit, too."
But the one figure which towered over the entire WNBA in 2005 was Dydek. As the Sun made the WNBA finals before being beaten 3 games to 1 by Sacramento, Dydek was an outstanding presence. She clogged up the middle, blocked shots, altered others, and completely frustrated opponents.
"You're not used to having that in the league," says Sun head coach Mike Thibeault. "She creates a lot of problems for other teams."
Thibeault made her the centerpiece of a trade before the 2005 season, and it was no wonder the Sun finished with a 26-8 record.
"She allows us to extend our defense and put pressure on the ball," she says.
But in the West, the Sacramento Monarchs were a different story. The core of the team has been broken up in the offseason, and pundits had placed the team in the bottom of the league.
Griffith, the team's post player, had demanded a trade.
But Whisenant stood his ground.
"I'm not going to trade you," Whisenant told the 35-year-old Griffith. "You're too good and I can't replace you, and I'm not rebuilding, we're just reloading.'"
It may be one of sport's most overused phrases, but it certainly explained Sacramento's rise and Whisenant's thinking.
Griffith led her teammates in an inspiring run through the regular season and the playoffs, averaging almost 14 points a game in the regular season, more than 17 in the postseason. Oddly enough, Griffith did not lead a single major WNBA statistical category..
But when Chancellor ticked off the elite centers in the WNBA, he pointedly added "Yolanda Griffith -- definitely" to a list of players who are changing the face of women's basketball from the post position.