Diana Taurasi’s million dollar decision changes landscape of WNBA

In an unprecedented move, superstar Diana Taurasi has announced that she will forego the 2015 WNBA season. Honoring the request of her Russian Premier League team, financial reasons were the key factor in such a visceral decision. UMMC Ekaterinburg actually offered Taurasi more than her WNBA salary in order to sit out the season. Of note, this request was made in order to prevent injury to their prized player.

While Taurasi has issued an open letter to fans of the Phoenix Mercury, her WNBA club team, advising that she will be returning in 2016, the 11-year WNBA veteran (and three-time league champion) has altered the landscape of the league. Taking into account that many of the league’s superstars play overseas to supplement their income, Taurasi could be among the first of many more to undergo such a decision. As a side note, many other European clubs have offered their American star players financial incentives to sit out a WNBA season.

An additional factor to consider is how this will affect the Mercury, who enter the season as the defending league champions. Taking into account that star centre Brittany Griner was arrested on domestic disturbance charges, an ominous feeling defines the upcoming season for a possibly beleaguered club. Despite returning veterans including the likes of DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, complemented by the WNBA Coach of the Year Sandy Brondello, it may not be enough to salvage the Mercury’s season. Opening their season on June 5 at the Talking Stick Resort Arena against the San Antonio Stars, the outcome of the match may possibly set the tone for the remainder of the season.

Considering that Taurasi has played practically year round since 2004 (not to mention her three Summer Games gold medals), she has given so much of herself to the game, that she has earned the right to sit out the season if she chooses too. While some in basketball circles may feel disappointment over this, the reality is that she has nothing to apologize for.

Sadly, such position not only augments conversation and stirs debate, but it places Taurasi in a lose-lose situation. If she suits up for the Mercury, she may draw the ire of her Russian team. Yet, if she sits out the WNBA season, some may view it as a betrayal to the league. If the money from her Russian team allows her to put together a nest egg for the future, placing her and her family in a possible position of comfort for the long-term, sitting out was the best possible move. Although Taurasi has plans to compete for the United States at the 2016 Rio Summer Games, the reality is that Taurasi has nothing left to prove.

Such a move is certainly a wake-up call for the WNBA and its salary structure. During the 2014 campaign, Taurasi was earning the league maximum of $107,000. As a side note, there were 36 other players in the WNBA making as much as Taurasi, who is the second all-time leading scorer in league history. Overseas, she was earning approximately $1.5 million. As the WNBA is regarded as the world’s most talented female basketball league, how can their players not be the best compensated? Taking into account that some WNBA coaches earn close to $300,000, its star players must work as a unified front to demand better salaries.

While the thought of a player strike would be a first in professional women’s sport in North America, it must be considered in the aftermath of Taurasi’s decision. Although many players opt to play in the WNBA out of loyalty (considering that the majority of players are American), it does not change the fact that compensation will only continue to be a growing source of discussion, and possibly tension.

Such players may be loyal in terms of helping the game grow, but have overlooked the growth of their own finances. Should more stars, such as Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Candace Parker exercise such options, it would open the floodgates, a possible harbinger of things to come. With the 2016 WNBA season also signifying its 20th Anniversary, a change in salary structure would be a strong building block towards gaining the confidence of future players.

United States grabs gold at milestone-filled FIBA Women’s Worlds in Turkey

A common theme throughout the 2014 FIBA Women’s World Championships was milestones. The medal round was filled with plenty of unique accomplishments that added to the excitement of the event. Heading into the gold medal game for the first-time ever was Spain.

Competing against the favored United States, both clubs entered the gold medal game with identical 5-0 undefeated marks. Fenerbahce Arena in Istanbul would be the setting for another dominant American performance.
Maya Moore would set the tone early on as she contributed eight points as the US emerged with a 15-5 advantage. As a side note, Spanish head coach Lucas Mondelo has coached Moore’s club team in China, Shanxi Xing Rui, winning the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association title in 2012-13.

By halftime, Moore logged 16 points while Diana Taurasi recorded seven assists as the United States enjoyed a 48-29 lead. With Spanish scoring leader Sancho Lyttle having already picked up three fouls, it only added to their woes. Despite their best efforts, the Spaniards would fall to the US in a 77-64 victory.

In the gold medal game, Sancho Lyttle led all Spanish players with 16 points and 11 rebounds, along with 4 steals and 1 block. The top player statistically for the USA was Tina Charles, who logged 10 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists for an efficiency rating of +19. Of note, Maya Moore would lead all players in gold medal game scoring with 18 points. In addition, she would post 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal as the US captured its fourth gold medal in the last five attempts.

On her way to the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, Maya Moore ranked fourth overall in points per game with 15.3. Lyttle of Spain emerged as one of the elite competitors in the event, as she led all players with 18.2 points per game. She would also show great versatility by posting a tournament-best 3.3 steals per game.

In WNBA circles, Lyttle is a competitor with the Atlanta Dream. Like many of her peers, she spends her WNBA off-seasons playing abroad. Having won four Euroleague titles in her distinguished career, her most recent win came with Galatasaray in 2014.

Statistically, American players were peppered throughout the leader boards. Diana Taurasi averaged 4.5 assists per game, tied for third overall with Katerina Bartonova of Russia and Cuba’s Oyanasis Gelis. For Taurasi, it was her third career medal for the United States. She would join fellow Americans Tamika Catchings, Delisha Milton-Jones, Katie Smith, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley (who was a coach for Team USA in 2014), Jennifer Azzi, Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain with three career medals.

Brittney Griner of the WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury ranked second in blocks per game with 2.0, while LaToya Pringle of Turkey led all players with 2.7. Like Griner, Pringle was also a first round pick of the Phoenix Mercury. She would be selected by the club in the 2008 edition of the WNBA Draft. Her last WNBA appearance came in 2012 with the Washington Mystics. Pringle was a key factor in host country Turkey finishing with a 4-2 mark, plus appearing in the bronze medal game to Australia.

One of the feel-good stories of the event belonged to Australia’s Penny Taylor. One of the statistical leaders in assists per game, Taylor emerged as a key contributor in the Mercury’s road to the 2014 WNBA title victory over the Chicago Sky. After knee surgery sidelined her for most of 2013, her return to the club near the end of the 2014 regular season was essential. Of note, it was Taylor’s third WNBA title, having also won titles in 2007 and 2009 (also with the Mercury).

Helping Australia to a bronze medal, it was Taylor’s third FIBA medal. She would help Australia win its first-ever gold medal in 2006, while earning another bronze in 2002. A first-round pick of the Cleveland Rockers in the 2001 WNBA, she was selected first overall by the Mercury in the 2004 dispersal draft.

In addition, Taylor was named to the 2014 FIBA World Championship All-Star Five. She was joined by Lyttle and Alba Torrens from Spain. Maya Moore and Brittney Griner were the two Americans named. American captain Sue Bird became the player with the most medals in the history of the FIBA Women’s Worlds with four. In her career, Bird earned three medals (2002, 2010, 2014) and one bronze medal (2006).

Phoenix Mercury look for title to complement regular season record 29 wins

Sensational sophomore Brittney Griner is having the same impact in the WNBA as Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) had in his early NBA career with the Milwaukee Bucks. Griner has emerged as a key reason that the Phoenix Mercury ended their season with a league record 29 regular season wins.

The regular season finale versus the Seattle Storm, one of the WNBA’s signature franchises, saw Griner post 18 points and grab 10 for a 78-65 triumph, providing the Mercury with its 29th win. Her performance was complemented by Candice Dupree, who provided a 16-point output.

Ironically, the former record of 28 wins was shared by Seattle. They posted a 28-6 mark in 2010, which tied the Los Angeles Sparks, who reached the 28 wins plateau twice in franchise history (2000 and 2001). The loss finishes a difficult season for Seattle which saw the club post a dismal 12-22 mark, missing the postseason for the first time since 2003.

Adding to the irony is the fact that the first-round opponent for the record-breaking Phoenix franchise shall be Los Angeles. Of note, Phoenix swept the regular season series with LA, prevailing in all five contests. Last season, the clubs clashed in the postseason as Phoenix prevailed.

The jubilation for Phoenix was enhanced by the fact that the club shot 54 percent from the field, marking the 18th time this season they reached that they shot at least 50 percent from the floor. In the regular season, Phoenix had a 48.4 overall shooting percentage, a league record. The former record of 47.4 was set by the 2013 WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx.

Of note, Phoenix and Minnesota met in the 2013 Western Conference finals, with Minnesota prevailing. Led by Maya Moore, it is highly likely that their paths shall cross again in the postseason. For Phoenix, the ability to dispose of Minnesota in the playoffs will only enhance their standing as the league’s best team this season. Just like the Chicago Bulls record-setting NBA season in 1995-96 that encompassed 72 regular season wins, a championship was crucial to justify their season.

Taking into account that Diana Taurasi, who played collegiately at Connecticut like Moore, won a title in 2007 and 2009, is accustomed to the pressure that comes with winning, she will need to be a crucial leader as Griner looks to win her first title.

Phoenix Mercury to host 2014 WNBA All-Star Game with Griner and Taurasi likely starters

For the second time in franchise history, the Phoenix Mercury shall host the 2014 WNBA All-Star Game. Scheduled for July 19 at the US Airways Center, the game shall be broadcast on ESPN in the United States and televised globally in more than 200 countries. Sponsored by Boost Mobile, the WNBA’s leaguewide marquee partner, the game should prove to be an exciting one for fans. Of note, the Mercury, one of the WNBA’s charter franchises, shall donate one dollar from all tickets sold to the Stars and Stripes charitable fund.

With Mercury center Brittany Griner entering her second year in the WNBA; it is highly likely that a strong support of voting from the hometown fans shall propel her into the starting lineup for the game. Voted as a starter for the 2013 edition, she was unable to play due to injury. Franchise legend Diana Taurasi, a six-time All-Star should also find herself voted into the starting lineup. Other Mercury players with All-Star experience include Candice Dupree and Penny Taylor, who have each played in three All-Star contests.

Mercury stars Brittney Griner (left) and Diana Taurasi part of early publicity for 2014 WNBA All-Star Game to be played in Phoenix

Mercury stars Brittney Griner (left) and Diana Taurasi part of early publicity for 2014 WNBA All-Star Game to be played in Phoenix

As the Western Conference has only hosted an All-Star Game twice (Phoenix – 2000, San Antonio – 2011), the return of the league’s annual showcase to Phoenix displays a commitment towards maintaining the strong fan base that exists in the West. Of note, the Western Conference have won eight All-Star Games, compared to three for the East.

Boasting an attendance of 17,717 fans, the Western Conference emerged with a victory. Lisa Leslie contributed 16 points, while Tina Thompson garnered Game MVP honors. Thompson would score 13 points while contributing a game-best 11 rebounds.

Mercury mascot points to pair of WNBA titles that franchise has won during All-Star Game press conference

Mercury mascot points to pair of WNBA titles that franchise has won during All-Star Game press conference

The opportunity to possibly become Game MVP on her homecourt is one that must surely be compelling for Taurasi. Competing in the 2013 WNBA All-Star Game, it held high emotion for Taurasi, who would log three points in the contest. With the 2013 edition being hosted at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, it was a homecoming of sorts. Having played her collegiate basketball with the University of Connecticut Huskies, she led them to three consecutive NCAA titles. The outpouring of support from fans in attendance was a feel-good moment.

Barring injury, the opportunity to compete in one of the WNBA’s showcase games in front of her home fans at Phoenix, known affectionately as the X-Factor, shall be a tremendous highlight in her remarkable career. Expect a long standing ovation for the superstar that helped bring a WNBA championship to Phoenix.

One of the WNBA’s rising stars, Brittney Griner will be poised to provide fans with an electrifying performance. While she has already made an impact in the WNBA as the first player to make two slam dunks in her league debut, the 2014 All-Star Game should be her coming-out party. The opportunity to compete against the league’s elite on her homecourt should serve as high motivation for an outstanding performance.

In the same case as Taurasi, injuries would be the only obstacle preventing Griner from participating in the league’s annual showcase. With Phoenix serving as one of the league’s most loyal fan bases, there will likely be a roar of approval should Griner manage to accomplish a slam dunk in the contest.

Coming off a season where the Mercury returned to the postseason, fans are excited about the possibilities for 2014. Should Griner continue to reach her potential as a promising superstar, the All-Star game may be the launching pad towards a strong postseason push that may culminate in another title by season’s end.

Images obtained from: http://www.wnba.com/mercury/photogallery/allstar_announcement_2014_15.html