The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, July 15, 2020

How WNBA can fix the Elena Delle Donne mess — Connecticut Sun assistant coach Brandi Poole talks from the #wubble — Must-click women's basketball links

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How WNBA can fix the Elena Delle Donne mess

Here’s the thing about the Elena Delle Donne problem you may not have thought about, as you considered it purely in terms of the self-inflicted damage the league has incurred amid a largely successful return to training camp: this problem is likely to get much worse if the league doesn’t act, and act swiftly, to fix this.

Delle Donne’s request for a medically excused absence from the 2020 season — brought before a panel of jointly appointed doctors, one from the league, one from the PA, one agreed on by both — was denied. Delle Donne herself explains the damage this did to her relationship with the league this quite effectively in her Players’ Tribune piece.

And from a public relations standpoint, this was always the outcome if the league chose to fight any of its players on an opt out of any kind. The National Women’s Soccer League avoided EXACTLY this problem by paying full salaries, no questions asked, for anyone who opted out. Remember the firestorm of coverage when Carli Lloyd didn’t participate? Megan Rapinoe? No, of course not, there weren’t any firestorms, just brief noting before a return to regularly scheduled positive coverage from a successful restart.

The hiccups when WNBA players arrived in Bradenton? Largely addressed, those in the #wubble tell me. The Kelly Loeffler stuff? Limited ways the league can address it immediately, but also a problem not of their own making. And in conversations with members of the Executive Committee, there won’t be an effort to publicly force Cathy Engelbert to ask the Board of Governors to remove her, though the WNBPA has publicly called for her to go.

This? Well, let’s put it this way. Back in June, when this was all agreed to from both sides, the process in place was described in similar terms. Even so, I asked Terri Jackson: if a player’s doctor says she is high risk, you don’t expect any pushback from the league, right?

“We are in uncharted waters,” Jackson said last month. “In terms of this process, and in terms of what coronavirus is and its impact. And I trust the doctors to have that informed conversation and not to put any player in jeopardy.”

But no one — I mean no one I spoke to, and I talked to a ton of folks on all sides about this at the time — seriously thought there’d be any pushback on a player who got a doctor saying she’d be high risk. Not just because of the moral implications of that, but because of the obvious, enormous negative implications from a public relations perspective.

To do it to the league MVP, one of the most visible players, someone who has proven she’ll play through extreme pain and injury, stepping on so much of the other coverage of the league? Something that highlights in the public mind, simultaneously, the dangers of a return to play, questions about player treatment that have been painstakingly worked on in a variety of ways from the moment Cathy Engelbert took over, and serves as an implicit story itself of who isn’t playing in the 2020 WNBA season, rather than who is?

No. No one thought that would happen. There’s still general shock it has happened, even now.

And with Tina Charles, Liz Cambage and multiple other players also in the medical exception protocol, whatever damage the league has done with Delle Donne has the potential to be amplified even further among the WNBA’s other biggest stars.

So: how to fix this. It’s pretty simple and straightforward.

  1. FIX IT: The league has pointed out that this was a process agreed to by both sides. Okay, now that we’ve seen the just-created process in practice, and it means some of the league’s biggest stars have to face a remarkably difficult decision, altering the process so that any player with a doctor’s note certifying them as high risk can opt out and earn full salary is something that will cost the league much less than continuing that fight, and stop the bleeding of this PR disaster. Also: the PA is not going to reject an offer from the league of adding a benefit, unilaterally, to the players.

  2. OWN IT: The league has an almost incalculable set of logistics to deal with, and there were always going to be missteps. An apology, publicly, from Engelbert following a set of conversations that establish an ambassadorship program for any and all players who have determined they feel unsafe. This won’t erase what it cost the league already but that is a sunk cost. This stops the negative flow from the issue and begins the repairing. The 2019 ambassador herself, Breanna Stewart, suggested this as a possible solution. (The apology would help Delle Donne find a level of excitement about being an ambassador for the league too.)

    “I think it would make sense, I don’t think it should be a one-time thing,” Stewart said on Wednesday. “…The league usually tries to do what’s best for the players, and I really hope the league and Elena can figure out what do to that’s best for her.”

    It would also allow the Mystics to use the Delle Donne salary slot to sign replacements. Mystics coach Mike Thibault said Wednesday the team will pay her regardless, but that puts the team at a competitive disadvantage as it attempts to clean up the league’s mess, while doing nothing to repair the relationship between Delle Donne and the league.

Missteps happen. Lisa Borders and the league tried to fine players for protesting back in 2016. Ultimately, those were rescinded, but players across the league still remember that painful memory when I spoke to them in 2020.

Think what the timeline looks like had the league not done that. This is the choice it faces now.

The memory of this won’t disappear, either. But getting this right is very important, for the 2020 season and beyond. Engelbert’s bought herself quite a bit of goodwill with her actions in year one as commissioner. Fixing this problem is critical to making sure all that work wasn’t in vain.

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This week in women’s basketball

Skylar Diggins-Smith joined the Knuckleheads podcast.

Rebekah Hand is helping with COVID-19 response this summer before starting her pro career in the fall.

Loved this Mike Prada video breakdown piece on 2018 Mercury-Storm Game 2.

Renee Montgomery penned an open letter to Kelly Loeffler.

In a very The IX look at the current sports landscape, Sarah Valenzuela looks at WNBA/NWSL story in tandem.

Kent Youngblood looks at the decision to name Napheesa Collier as a captain for the Lynx.

Mirjam Swanson details the roles Nneka Ogwumike fills for the Sparks and the league.

This Brandon Sudge story on Jenna Staiti is filled with fascinating details.

Seth Berkman wrote about Amanda Zahui B.

Erica L. Ayala went in-depth with Terri Jackson.

WSLAM’s first podcast is about Maya Moore, with Lexie Brown and Angel McCoughtry, among others.

Jeff Zillgitt weighs in on the Delle Donne decision.

Chantel Osahor explains why it is important for players specifically to watch the WNBA.

Brendon Kleen dissects how the new-look Mercury will play.

Bela Kirpalani breaks down the WNBA schedule.

Katie Davidson sets the scene from Lynx camp.

Madeline Kenney has a curtain-raiser on the Sky.

Alexa Philippou writes about the return of Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart (the thing that should ACTUALLY be the biggest story at the moment! Sigh)

Tweets of the week

Can’t choose/won’t choose between these two

Five at The IX: Brandi Poole, Connecticut Sun

(I learn every time I speak to Brandi about anything. Wanted to spotlight her work with the Sun here. Here are some questions from her media day appearance Wednesday.)

QUESTION: Hi, Brandi. I guess if you want to just start by, if you want to discuss what your experience in the Bubble’s been like, that’d be good, and then maybe even too, what you’ve seen so far with this group of players. Curt’s talked a lot about what he’s seen for the last few days that we’ve been able to talk with him, but your perspective would be great as well.

BRANDI POOLE: Sure. The Bubble, honestly, has exceeded my expectations. I think we all had a little bit of angst and anxiety about coming down here amidst all this, but the W has done such a great job and they’re doing all the things to keep us safe. And so I actually feel more comfortable now that I’m here.

So I’m happy with Bubble life so far. I miss my husband. I think that’s the one thing that kind of sucks, because we’re all away from our families and our people, but it’s been good so far. It’s just figuring out the day-to-day logistics of our testing schedule, our weight room schedule, our practice schedule, but we’re figuring that out and settling in a little bit, and I think it’s good. They’ve done a really good job.

Far as the team, I think that first day of practice, everybody was just in hyper mode because I think everybody was just so excited to be back on a basketball court together and playing a little bit, and I know we’re all getting adjusted, their bodies, they felt rusty from not playing for a few months. I know my brain felt rusty watching and getting back into basketball mode as a coach.

But yeah, I’m excited about this group. Obviously, we look a little bit different without JJ, but we have so many good pieces. DeWanna has been a fun addition. Her and Bria Holmes on the wings are just such good, penetrating, slashing, huge, long players. So that’s going to be fun and give us a little bit of a different look.

I think defensively we can be really special, and that’s been a big focus in our practices on the defensive end of the floor. And we all know, defensively that that starts a lot of our transition in our offense, it leads to a lot of our offense. So really good practice yesterday coming off of a day off.

I feel like everybody’s starting to get their legs back and starting to feel more comfortable being back on the basketball court. And we got to be over at Feld on our team courts, which look amazing. So looking forward to that, but good start so far. I think the first week has been good.

QUESTION: I just want to know, kind of going off of that, I don’t know if team chemistry is the right word, but that integration, because with the five new players that are in Florida right now, and then you have an additional six new players, what’s that looking like, and how you see that maybe growing in the past few days, and where there’s room to grow with that going forward too.

BRANDI POOLE: Team chemistry has always been a big thing for us, and I think that’s what propelled us into the success that we had last year. I think our new players, from our rookies to DeWanna, Kaleena, I think everybody has fit in well and quite honestly, they don’t want us commingling with other teams at this moment because they’re just try to keep everybody kind of in their groups and make sure everybody’s safe and we get through this initial two weeks.

So there’s nothing to do but hang out with your teammates. We’re all on the same floor of the hotel with the exception of Bria Holmes, who, her family’s in the Villa, but they hang out together. They were playing Uno down by the pool the other day. They hang out by the pool. So, I think just extra time together hanging out has been good for them. They all get along and so it’s been fun to see them grow and get to know each other a little more. Our two rookies are fantastic. They’re coachable, they’re fun people, and I think they can really help us. So it’s been fun to see them get integrated into this group.

QUESTION: So two questions for you. One, a more general one, and one a specific. In general, how do you go about using film in order to prepare for this season? And then, just the specific one is just, from what you’ve seen out of Kaila [Charles] so far, has she been a perimeter shooter for you? And is that part of her game that you guys plan to utilize?

BRANDI POOLE: Yes. So film-wise, obviously when we were all home and quarantined and all in different areas, we were using Zoom a lot. We could share a screen and we could teach using film that way. So we used that a lot. Now that we’re here, we all, each team has a film room, there’s TVs on the court, and we’re big believers in film because you can just learn so much that way.

So we do watch film as we would if we were at home in Connecticut before every practice, just a few things that were good and that were not good from the previous day’s practice that we can clean up. And then each of us have a handful of players. I’ve been watching a ton of film with the rookies, with both Kaila and Beatrice, nightly, just to help them keep learning because it’s going to come at them fast and furious and we need them to be ready.

So film, yes, still a big, big part. And we can watch together. Again, they like us to have our masks and be socially distant and be smart when we’re watching film. So we do all the things, but it’s been good. As far as Kaila, well, and I’ll stick with the film. I saw our scouting schedule yesterday and now we have games every other day. And so for us assistants, it is a little bit of anxiety, because I’m like, I’m not sure when I’m going to sleep because we’re just going to be constantly preparing because you’re playing so much,

But film is such a good teacher and we’re so scout heavy that that will continue to be a part of it. Kaila, I have been so, so impressed with her. I had her for a lot of individual workouts before we left Connecticut, back home, when we could do one-on-one workouts and she shot the ball really well, better than we anticipated. And she just didn’t shoot them a lot at Maryland, but she is absolutely capable.

And so she does, she’s a ball worker, pull up is nice. We envisioned her playing some four and some three. Honestly, in practice, she’s been only at the wing, and has looked really good there. Defensively, she’s competing with Bria, she’s competing with DB, on a daily basis and really getting up and challenging them, and that’s only going to make her better as a defender. So yeah, overall really, really faced with Kaila. I think she can have an impact for us and help us. I really enjoy her as a person and as a player.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon  Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.