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Finals help WNBA hit high note despite early-season adversities

WNBA president Laurel Richie said Tuesday there's no news on when the league's Board of Governors might vote on Isiah Thomas' presidency with the New York Liberty. David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

We're at nearly the end of the WNBA season, which means at least one more time we have to talk about the beginning of it. But the unpleasant -- if that's the right word -- developments that got publicity before the season started are not at the forefront of the last series.

The WNBA Finals are between Minnesota and Indiana, two franchises that continue to set the bar for success in the WNBA. After splitting the first two games in Minneapolis, the teams head to Indianapolis for Games 3 and 4 this Friday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET) and Sunday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

And from the perspective of the Lynx and the Fever, what's happened on the court this season is more important than what happened off it.

"The quality of play was really good, the playoff races were tight," Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. "We have great parity, because every team has good players on it.

"What I said from the beginning of this year is that the league is bigger than one player or situation. And we've seen that's the case."

Still, the clouds at times have been rather large. They started in February, when Phoenix star Diana Taurasi announced she was skipping the WNBA season to rest for her higher-paying Russian team. The conflicting demands between overseas leagues and the WNBA is an issue that's as old as the WNBA itself. But each year, it can prompt a new wave of angst.

Along with Taurasi missing the season, Penny Taylor -- another member of the 2014 Phoenix championship team -- sat out. Two other Olympians, Los Angeles' Candace Parker and Chicago's Sylvia Fowles, weren't in action when the season started, either, for different reasons. Parker was resting and recuperating after her overseas play, while Fowles was prepared to wait it out to force Chicago into a trade.

As it turned out, Parker and Fowles both returned to action in the same game on July 29. Parker felt she had gotten a good rest and was ready to play again, while Fowles got what she'd been aiming for: a trade to Minnesota.

"It's been beyond my imagination," Fowles said this week of her experience with the Lynx. "I don't think I even expected so much. It is what Minnestoa is all about -- very professional. They come in and get the job done, and everybody works."

There are fans who were upset Fowles pushed the Sky to trade her, but from her point of view, she had little choice. She had played seven seasons in Chicago and wanted a different experience. Her forcing a trade was pretty much the only way that was going to happen. She's not the first player to do that, and she won't be the last.

"For our league to always be dealing with some kind of adversity, but continue to put an amazing product on the floor, I think shows how everybody who is involved with this league loves the game so much. There's such a passion for the game." Indiana coach Stephanie White

"They're all going to make their decisions, and do what they think is best for them," Reeve said of the league's standouts. "But in the end, we have a number of stars in this league."

Including Chicago's Elena Delle Donne, who thwarted the attempt of Minnesota's Maya Moore to win a second consecutive MVP award. Moore, though, is still pursuing something even more important to her: a third WNBA championship.

The fact that the Lynx are playing the Fever -- the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed -- for that title speaks to Reeve's point about parity. Indiana's upset of top-seeded New York in the East finals prevented a large-scale revisiting of another unpleasant topic in the WNBA this season: Isiah Thomas' presidency and still-pending ownership interest in the New York Liberty.

That announcement was made in May to much derision and controversy, as Thomas' involvement in a sexual harassment lawsuit while with the Knicks organization made him seem a very curious -- if not insulting -- choice for such a position.

MSG, which owns the Knicks and Liberty, paid an $11.6 million settlement in 2007 to former employee Anucha Browne, who has made it very clear Thomas was at the center of her lawsuit. Thomas, though, has continued to deny any and all wrongdoing, despite the jury's finding.

So where does that leave the league, the Liberty and fans? In a quagmire, frankly, with no exit in sight. The ownership component attached to Thomas' presidency has to be approved by the WNBA's Board of Governors, but the issue was essentially tabled during the season by the Liberty and the board. On Tuesday at the WNBA Finals, league president Laurel Richie said there is no news on that front; the issue remains tabled for now.

New York had a very good season, earning the best record in the WNBA and bringing a welcomed excitement back to Madison Square Garden for Liberty games. Bill Laimbeer was named WNBA Coach of the Year, and the team that Liberty executive Kristin Bernert was primarily responsible for building proved a solid construction.

Franchise insiders do credit Thomas' close friendship with MSG head James Dolan for helping the Liberty get some of the things the franchise needed in terms of personnel and resources. Yet it remains a very uncomfortable fact: Browne, the NCAA's vice president for women's basketball championships, says that the president of a prominent WNBA team, Thomas, is trying to "re-write history" in regard to a sexual harassment case.

The Liberty players, for their part, focused only on what they could control: their performance on the court. Which was very good ... but not quite enough when it came to the East playoffs.

Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, Phoenix overcame the absence of Taurasi and Taylor, and the early-season suspension of center Brittney Griner, to make the West finals. Griner and her then-fiancée, Tulsa's Glory Johnson, were involved in a domestic violence incident in April which resulted in a seven-game suspension for both, along with legal consequences.

The two still married in May, but then Griner sought an annulment less than a month later, despite Johnson's announcement that she was pregnant with twins. The annulment petition was denied, and they are in the process of getting a divorce. Johnson did not play this WNBA season and is due to give birth in February.

The Johnson-Griner situation was a distraction for the league before the season began, but in the long run didn't seem to negatively impact either franchise much. Griner was the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Tulsa, despite Johnson's absence and the late-June injury to Skylar Diggins, still made the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved to Oklahoma from Detroit in 2010.

However, the announcement in July that the franchise would leave Tulsa and move to Arlington, Texas, for the 2016 season did hurt the Shock's attendance -- and subsequently the league's. Considering the Tulsa fans had never had a playoff-bound team to cheer for in the previous five seasons, you couldn't help but wonder how much better the support might have been this year if the franchise was not on the move.

And if that timing seemed bad, so did that of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. On the day the playoffs got underway, some of Silver's remarks about the WNBA being less popular than he anticipated overshadowed the positive support he voiced for the league.

So, ultimately, what will the 2015 WNBA season be more remembered for: its off-the-court issues or on-the-court success? Realistically, both. After three-game sweeps in four of the past five WNBA Finals, this series is shaping up to potentially go the distance, and is highlighted by the play of Moore and Tamika Catchings, two of the league's biggest stars.

The issue of overseas play versus WNBA commitment is unchanged; the overwhelming majority of players will continue to do both. And some players, especially as they age, might opt to sit out a season.

But the talent continues to grow. There is a potentially strong draft class coming into the league in 2016, led by UConn's Breanna Stewart.

And 2016 will be an Olympic year, one of many milestones to be celebrated. It's the 20-year anniversary of the landmark 1996 U.S. Olympic women's basketball team that won gold in Atlanta and provided a major push toward the professional game becoming established in the United States.

It will be the 20th season of the WNBA, which began in June 1997 with Los Angeles hosting New York. A lot has happened since then, been gained and been lost, but the Sparks and Liberty are among the things that still remain.

So as the 2015 WNBA season enters its last week -- a Game 5, if necessary, would be Wednesday, Oct. 14, in Minnesota -- the takeaway feeling is one of endurance.

"I think it's a testament to the players and coaches in our league," said Indiana coach Stephanie White, herself a former WNBA player. "Because there's always some adversity with the WNBA. Whether it be scheduling changes because of the world championship and the Olympics, or players coming in late from overseas or leaving to play with national teams, or the injury factor because of playing nearly year-round.

"For our league to always be dealing with some kind of adversity, but continue to put an amazing product on the floor, I think shows how everybody who is involved with this league loves the game so much. There's such a passion for the game, and being able to watch these great players is an honor."