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Faulty Wiring: The Detroit Shock’s Almost Championship 2007 Season

The wheels fell off for the Shock as the Mercury dominated them in a Game 5 loss at the Palace that cost Detroit the 2007 WNBA title. Just like she did after Game 4, noted DBB reader PistonsGirl4Life has provided analysis not just for the game but what the Shock need to do going forward. Special note for those Pistons fans itching to see Bill Laimbeer climb into the NBA coaching saddle: the grass may not be greener.

by: PistonsGirl4Life

Bill LaimbeerBefore I get started I feel it’s important to note that I didn’t watch game 5 of the Finals live, but rather on tape. Additionally when my friend gave me the tape of the game after work he warned "You’re not going to like what you see." This is important because watching the tape knowing the Shock had lost may have slanted my observations towards the negative. I personally don’t think so, but you’ve been duly warned.

Secondly I’d strongly recommend anyone who thinks Bill Laimbeer can do no wrong stop reading now. I intend to analyze both game 5 and the Shock’s entire run to the Finals, including why they ultimately failed to win another championship. I don’t think that’s possible without examining their most important puzzle piece (Coach Laimbeer) with a critical eye.

Finally I’d like to request the patience of any regular WNBA fan who reads the article. Many of the things I’ll have to explain for everyone reading are "common knowledge" in WNBA circles and will therefore seem redundant to you. Otoh I’m sure you’ll agree that helping new fans (and I do hope that’s what we’re talking about here at DBB, four or five new Shock fans… even if they’re just the casual type and are only watching because the NBA doesn’t start till October) understand and love this game is worth a little patience.

Considering that in the first four games of the WNBA finals we’d seen just about everything the WNBA has to offer; shootouts, blowouts, tight contested final second games and teams playing completely out of character for crucial wins… it’s no surprise at all that game 5 finally produced a clunker. Anti-climactic doesn’t even come close to the thrashing Phoenix put on Detroit as the Mercury lead for the entire game and Detroit never cut the lead below double digits after the first quarter. It’s easy enough to say the Mercury simply hit their shots, but watching the game I was absolutely stunned at how often they did so while wide open.

Pondexter was dominant again and definitely deserves the MVP however one really can’t discount the astounding performance by Penny Taylor. Of the Mercury’s big three it’s always been my position that she’s the weakest link. You can shut her down with tough play and tenacity. Tonight however she simply wouldn’t be denied, raining clutch basket after basket and hitting an astounding 18 of 18 at the line. In the WNBA there are no "superstar" fouls (though Silver Stars fans will beg to differ this season) so when you go to the line 9 times its abundantly clear you were driving hard and drawing contact, something Taylor has been unwilling to do so far in this series. She was a force for almost the entire game (37 mp). Taurasi was effective but unspectacular on a night the Shock never really forced her to do much of anything.

Detroit is going to have trouble taking anything positive from this loss. Deanna Nolan was excellent offensively but her three turnovers and four fouls came at horrible times. It was arguably a case of one player trying to do too much since she was the only member of the Shock who showed up for all four quarters. Katie Smith also played well for stretches and was particularly dangerous from three point range (6 of 9) but it’s obvious she’s no longer the kind of scorer who can win a game all by herself. Additionally she wasn’t very good defensively, although that could be said of the entire Shock squad on this night.

Pierson and FordUnfortunately that’s about where the good news ends. Ford played 12 almost irrelevant minutes on one good leg and one can’t help but wonder if there will be long term repercussions for her after she’s played essentially the entire playoffs with a cartilage tear in her left knee. Ford is invaluable to what the Shock do but it was obvious that her leg wouldn’t let her be effective on the glass almost the moment she checked in and she’s hardly a dynamic scorer. One has to wonder why she played 2 let alone 12 minutes in that state.

Kara Braxton was basically 6’6" and 12 minutes of nothing and her 3 personal fouls in that time certainly didn’t help. Swin Cash was ineffective at best, starting the game but shooting 3 of 9 and picking up 5 personal fouls in only 25 minutes. Somehow Plenette Pierson was worse, going 2 of 6 and fouling out in just 22 minutes of action. Katie Feenstra (she of 6’8" Amazon fame) wasn’t particularly effective on the glass but hit a surprising 5 of 6 for 10 points on the game. One definitely has to wonder what Laimbeer was thinking when you realize she only played 15 minutes (we’ll get back to this later). Fouls and turnovers certainly weren’t the problem as she only had one of each. It’s pretty hard for a single game to tarnish a season as magnificent as the one the Detroit Shock enjoyed this year, but game 5 of the finals might do just that. It would be very easy to blame this game on fatigue or Phoenix simply making shots and that’s what I’d presume Detroit is going to do. It would also however be a mistake.

On paper the Shock are the most talented squad in the league; possessing 8 players who when healthy and motivated would likely start for MOST other teams in the league. They have the best pure shooter in the game (Nolan), the best veteran scoring option (Katie Smith), the best rebounder (Ford), the most height inside (Feenstra at 6’8", Braxton at 6’6") and if they aren’t the biggest/strongest team in the league they’re a very close second. These are not the opinions of a hometown fan either. The Shock has at one time or another absolutely destroyed every team in the WNBA over the past four years. When they are on, motivated and get a fair shake at the line it’s obvious to almost everyone watching (including professional WNBA sports writers… all 5 of them) they’re on another level in women’s basketball. On paper they are simply the best and it’s VERY difficult to understand why they only have two championships in the last 5 years to show for it.

2004 was a wash because Cash missed most of the season and was at the time Detroit’s primary scoring option. However there’s no explaining 2005 and one has to wonder how a coach who’s calling card is "playing with passion and motivation" managed to field a squad that looked so lethargic and disinterested for most of the first half in the deciding game of the 2007 WNBA finals. While your pondering that question you probably have to ask why the Shock were unable to find the desire to show up for game one of the first and second rounds this year. Once you start asking that question you’ve opened a whole new can of worms because this has been the hallmark of the Detroit Shock ever since winning their first title in 2003. It borders on impossible to count the number of times these past 5 years that the Shock have simply "failed to show up" for WNBA games. It wouldn’t be so bad if the phenomena were restricted to the regular season but the problem actually tends to become magnified when the playoffs start each year.

From the outside it appears that collectively the Shock believe they have a right to win every game regardless of effort. It’s almost as if their toughness and resiliency in the face of elimination in the past has given them as sense of invulnerability despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. When the best team in the league doesn’t play like the best team in the league who’s to blame? When players bicker openly with coaches, referees and each other to the detriment of the team who’s to blame? When a team consistently fails to appear INTERESTED in PLAYOFF games, who’s to blame? When a team openly quits during blowout losses to inferior opposition rather than maintaining its pride and dignity, who’s to blame? I’m terribly sorry to say this but the answer to all 4 of those questions is "Bill Laimbeer, Head Coach of the Detroit Shock" no matter HOW much I may not want to say that and you may not want to hear it.

Nobody in the world can take away what Bill has given this team. His passion, determination, fire and introduction of the "us against the world" mentality can be directly attributed to Detroit’s first championship in 2003 and its subsequent rise from the ashes into a model WNBA franchise and a desirable destination for talented Free Agents. When the Shock desperately needed an identity, Bill game them his and everyone who loves this team will be forever grateful for that.

The Shock however is no longer the little engine that could; they’re a high speed monorail and require a coach who can make the right decision in the blink of an eye. There is no more time for playing favorites or pulling emotional strings with playing time. The best players for that situation have to know they’ll be on the court when it matters. They have to believe that their abilities and talents are why they’re on the floor at all times, not questioning if they’re sitting because Bill’s mad at them. These girls have all grown up now and have started to tune out Laimbeer’s tantrums and theatrics. It’s time for Laimbeer to prove he is what he keeps saying he is; an excellent basketball coach who deserves an NBA gig and soon. You can’t let your team get run out of the building because they WON’T make adjustments and expect anyone to think you’ll be better at dealing with the ego maniacs who populate men’s NBA squads. Right now NBA execs have to be wondering if Laimbeer can handle a rotation properly (Seriously he turned Katie Feenstra from ROY to spare part center in a single season. He also took Swin Cash from an MVP level forward to a 22 min a night player who won’t even look him in the eye during team huddles. Wow). Bill Laimbeer and the Shock are veering dangerously close to being an embarrassing footnote to a time in WNBA history were simply acting tough could win you a title. The league is catching up and Detroit can’t expect to win anymore with a sideshow bad cop worse cop screaming act.

With the above in mind (and already prepared for the hate mail) here’s a brief summary of what I think the Shock should do for next season. Please note that this is highly unlikely to actually BE what the personal fiefdom of Bill Laimbeer does but it’s what I think is needed for success in 2008:

  1. The organization needs to make a decision on Swin Cash. If Laimbeer is right and she’s lost all heart then get rid of her. Dynasties can’t be about yesterdays and Cash’s idol status will only get in the way of developing the team’s future. If Cash DOES still have the desire to play in the WNBA then someone needs to tell Laimbeer to back off immediately. Riding her into the ground and constantly questioning her effort has NOT produced a return to All Star form. Neither has slashing her minutes to half a game. By continuing to start her but only giving her backup minutes, Laimbeer has created both a massive distraction for his team and a seemingly irreconcilable rift between player and coach.
  2. Katie Feenstra needs to play more every single night. Her numbers in San Antonio were not a mirage; the girl can play. If she can’t play PF beside Ford maybe Ford can play PF beside her. She’s a better scoring option than any other big on the squad, has 6’8" 240 LB size and in San Antonio at least showed a proclivity for blocking shots. How does this player NOT play 25 minutes a night minimum?
  3. Alternately Kara Braxton needs to play less minutes every single night. Despite her size (6’6" 190 but if you believe that weight you’ve never seen her on TV, she’s heavier) she’s constantly getting hammered inside by smaller players. She isn’t particularly good at using her strength or size on the glass either; mostly hauling in the "easy" rebounds (and maddeningly sometimes not even out muscling people for THOSE). She’s not exactly a spring chicken in the Women’s game either (remember for female athletes the proverbial "Wall" is almost always just after 30… I mean in tennis most women are washed up at 22, no really). Bringing Braxton off the bench to provide a little muscle remains a good option but she shouldn’t be significantly impacting either Ford or Feenstra’s playing time any longer.
  4. Coach Laimbeer has to stop playing favorites with playing time and adopt a simple policy of substituting at the first possible opportunity when a given player seems to be fading out of the game. The man has 8 starters at his disposal and yet FREQUENTLY leaves struggling or lethargic players in the game far too long in the hopes that they will "flick the switch" like so many times before. It’s great when it happens but the Shock MUST stop expecting it to happen every time.
  5. The entire Shock squad, coaches and players needs to sit down, shut up and play/coach some damn basketball. The "us against the world" card is starting to destroy team chemistry rather than unite it. Playing with fire is fine when you live in a box worth nothing, the Shock are a dynasty now and need to start acting like it. You can be tough on the court, but between whistles and in front of the camera the team needs to start reflecting class, dignity, strength and confidence. They need to let the league know that they will be coming for 40 minutes every single night. They need to start blowing out weaker opponents from start to finish. Right now the entire league thinks they can beat the Shock just by playing head games. The team NEEDS to make them do it playing basketball. Finally Bill needs to shut up and start coaching basketball instead of running a 365 day a year campaign to get on the Piston’s staff.

Okay that’s it, commence the stoning.