Even for those of us for whom track and field is only a quadrennial experience, it's easy to gauge which runners are for real when they come around the final turn in the 400 meters. After watching the first 300 meters, you have a good feel for who is fading, limping or coming on strong. But if the race stopped after 300 meters, waited a month and then resumed with everyone back in the starting blocks for the final sprint, it would make for a more perplexing projection. Such is the state of the WNBA as teams gather for their final seven or eight games of the regular season.
As the season resumes Thursday with some players refreshed, others weary and still others absent altogether, we have as many questions as answers for the playoff push.
Will Becky Hammon get the last laugh?
Intertwining eclectic passports and championship parades is nothing new for basketball fans in San Antonio, but are Ann Wauters, Sophia Young and Becky Hammon ready to put a new twist on the successes enjoyed by the Spurs? Hammon suffered through enough unwarranted criticism to last a lifetime when she chose to play for Russia -- ultimately winning a bronze medal -- in the Olympics, but that might not be her only hardware of the year.
The leaders in the West have their flaws, but no team has a more effective top of the lineup than the Silver Stars. Young (18.2 ppg, 49 percent from field) and Wauters (14.9 ppg, 53 percent from field) are two of only four players in the league who average at least 14 points per game and shoot at least 49 percent from the field. Come postseason, when points become even more precious, having fewer wasted possessions matters. And while Hammon is below her career average in overall field goal percentage (37.6 percent in 2008 to 43.7 percent career) and 3-point percentage (34.4 percent in 2008 to 36.7 percent career), she came close to matching the former mark and improved on the latter in 12 games in July.
Can Taj McWilliams-Franklin replace Cheryl Ford in Detroit?
Tasha Humphrey and Eshaya Murphy represent a slightly better relative return on Taj McWilliams-Franklin than the Memphis Grizzlies got when they traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers just in time for the NBA's stretch run. That being said, folks in Connecticut, Indiana and New York had to have been wondering what they had done to deserve the latest twist in the Eastern Conference race. Just when it appeared Cheryl Ford's season-ending knee injury had left the Shock vulnerable in the frontcourt -- an area where Detroit has regularly outmuscled opponents during the postseason -- along comes the league's ninth-best rebounder this season and one of its most seasoned postseason post players.
From the success he has had with Ford and Plenette Pierson to up-and-down results from Kara Braxton and former posts Ruth Riley and Katie Feenstra, coach Bill Laimbeer (and assistant Rick Mahorn) have more or less relied on young post players. Now they have a veteran in McWilliams-Franklin who ought to remind them a lot of the veterans who knew every trick of the trade for the Pistons en route to NBA titles in 1988-89 and 1989-90. Throw in veteran addition Kelly Schumacher and rookie Olayinka Sanni, and even if the look is a little different for the Shock down the stretch, the attitude should seem familiar.
How will the Storm cope without Lauren Jackson?
The good news is the Storm will be in Seattle next season and long beyond. The bad news is Lauren Jackson won't be in the city for the conclusion of the season at hand. The Storm can't replace someone with a permanent seat at the table in the debate over the best player in the world, but does her decision to undergo ankle surgery and rest a battered body make a championship run impossible or merely more improbable? Based on the season to date, the Storm can't expect Sheryl Swoopes, Swin Cash and Yolanda Griffith to all play at their former All-Star levels every night, but they can hope for one or more to rise to the occasion on any given night (along with less acclaimed but equally productive role players such as Tanisha Wright and Camille Little). That leaves a lot on the shoulders of point guard Sue Bird.
The schedule also doesn't work in Seattle's favor while shorthanded. There is a logistically rough five-day road swing through Connecticut, Atlanta and Chicago, and only three of the final eight games are at home (the Storm are 13-1 in KeyArena). There aren't any back-to-back sets left, but they also don't have more than two days of rest between any games. Even with almost a month to recuperate during the Olympic break, that's something to watch with Swoopes (shooting 45.9 percent in nine games with at least three days rest, and 35.3 percent in 16 games with fewer than three days rest) and Griffith (8.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game with at least three days rest, and 4.9 points and 6.2 rebounds per game with fewer than three days rest).
Is Candace Parker the ultimate renewable resource?
Should Parker and the Sparks find themselves playing for the championship, the lock for Rookie of the Year and potential frontrunner for MVP will find her season wrapping up at just about the same time Pat Summitt rolls out the basketballs for the start of official practices in Knoxville, Tenn. Which means Parker will have been playing competitively for essentially 12 consecutive months, including the NCAA championship game, Olympic gold-medal game and WNBA finals in a six-month span. And while she long ago proved she's a freak of nature on the basketball court, she's theoretically still subject to the same laws of nature that make perpetual motion machines a scientific fantasy.
Then again, Parker certainly didn't look like someone limping to the finish line in July, when she averaged 20.8 points on 56 percent shooting in 12 games for the Sparks, or during her stint in Beijing with Team USA. With Parker and 36-year-old Lisa Leslie on opposite ends of the spectrum, no team has more riding on how Olympic participants hold up over the conclusion of the extended basketball calendar than the Sparks.
Is there enough time left for teams to make a move?
The Lynx, one of the hottest teams during the season's opening weeks, and the Comets, the hottest team during the days immediately preceding the break, still have time should any of the Silver Stars, Storm, Sparks or Monarchs falter.
Thanks in no small part to another MVP-caliber performance from Tina Thompson and Shannon Johnson's ability to produce chances without gambling away possessions (fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio among players with at least 100 assists), the Comets are in the thick of things. Thompson has always been her own one-woman, inside-outside game, but Michelle Snow's return to form and Sancho Lyttle's development have helped the Comets nearly double last season's rebounding margin, a mark that had itself been one of the team's lone bright lights in 2007.>
The Lynx still have to make visits to both coasts, including a four-game swing against Western Conference foes and a finale in Washington against the Mystics. But with two games each against the Mystics and Mercury, both likely staying home for the postseason, they have as much control of their own destiny as a team can have when it's on the outside looking in.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.