Top Five Teams to Watch After the Break: What Does It Take to Turn a Team Around?

. Thursday, August 28, 2008
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Although having a month-long break might be tough for us fans, it’s a great opportunity for players to rest and teams to fix some things before continuing a tight playoff race.

So what makes “Welcome Back Week” particularly exciting to me is getting to see how teams come out and play after having some time to practice. With trades, injuries, and players arriving late to the pre-season, it seemed like every team had something to work on heading into the break.

One team that I’ll be paying closer attention to after the break is the Washington Mystics. After a disappointing first half of the season, the break gave them a chance for a fresh start. And Team President Sheila Johnson called for a “new era of accountability” after they traded Taj McWilliams-Franklin in an effort to begin rebuilding. The question is whether that new era will begin with a playoff berth or another trip to the draft lottery.

Either way, someone sent me an email that triggered a bigger question: what does it take to turn a struggling team like the Mystics around? And how does a struggling star on a struggling team (e.g. Alana Beard) fit into that revamped “big picture”? Is a player like Beard better off being traded in order to return to top form?

As it turns out, I found a tentative answer just by revisiting my “team dynamics” ratings…and it appears that the problem might have less to do with Beard than with the composition of the team around her.

The issue of team composition and “chemistry” is something I’ve been interested in all season and the Olympic break gave me some time to play with those team dynamics numbers and tweak a few things. Ultimately, I think I found a few ways to make the numbers more useful for future analysis and I’ve shared that in another post.

Anyway, as I looked at the numbers for the Mystics, I found a few other teams that will be interesting to watch as the season resumes. So here’s a look at those new numbers and the top five teams to keep an eye on as the season resumes.

The Numbers:

As I said previously, the in-depth explanation for these numbers is in another post, but here are team dynamics numbers for each team as of the last game before the break.

The offensive and defensive dynamics are simply the synergy, offensive rebounding rate, turnover rate, and free throw rate numbers added up for the team (offense) and their opponent (defense). The differential is pretty much the same thing I do in my game analyses – the difference between their numbers and their opponents’ numbers.

The team with the highest differential between their offensive and defensive numbers is first with the lowest differential last.

Team Dynamics
 San Antonio108.71100.45+8.26
 Los Angeles109.23101.48+7.76
 New York106.71103.51+3.15

The numbers are not an exact reflection of the standings, but actually come pretty close with the exception of one or two teams. Where they are really helpful is describing a team’s level of cohesion and identifying areas that are hurting them.

So with that, on to the top 5 teams to watch…

5. Will the Mystics be able to turn things around?

So back to the question posed to me via email, the question with the Mystics is whether these trades and extra time for Kenlaw will help them win games. And without doing another player comparison, it’s safe to say that this will not improve them much in the short-term – if they want to make the playoffs, they’ll probably have to depend on Indiana losing a few games.

But what about Alana Beard? Can she step her game up in the last few games? Unfortunately, when you compare her 2006 success to this season, there’s a major difference – synergy.

I like to use synergy as a proxy for ball movement and whereas the Mystics had a high synergy score of 76.64 in 2006 (which, by the way, is better than San Antonio’s this season), so far in 2008 their synergy score is only 69.42, just below league average.

The way that may have affected Beard is that she is taking as many shots, but at a lower percentage. In addition, her assists are up which means she is probably just stretched too thin this year trying to play the roles of playmaker and scorer on a team with a stagnant offense. So it looks like that instead of moving the ball to find good shots within a system, Beard is forcing bad shots because her team isn’t move the ball as well.And part of that is the loss of Nikki Teasley.

In 2006, Nikki Teasley led the WNBA in assists per game with 5.4 and in addition had a Pure Point Rating (PPR) of 4.61, which is high for a WNBA point guard. And off the bench, Nikki Blue didn’t get quite as many minutes per game, but had a PPR of 3.31. They both had assist ratios – the percentage of baskets they assisted while on the floor – of 30%.

In contrast, from what I’ve seen this year, Blue is now the starting point guard and Beard has also assumed some playmaking responsibilities. And this season Blue has a PPR of 1.6…and nobody else on the roster even has a positive PPR.

So part of Beard’s – and the team’s -- success could probably be attributed to having two point guards around who could distribute the ball well. Shay Murphy and Tasha Humphrey are simply unlikely to help with that.

So with all that, why am I excited to see what they do after the break? Well, the game after Kenlaw took over – a blowout against the Storm – they turned into a very up-tempo team, which favors the players they have. If they cannot be efficient moving the ball in the half court, then perhaps they can try to get baskets off of fast breaks or early offense.

From watching Humphrey in Detroit, she has the skills to excel in an uptempo game because she’s such a versatile player, even able to lead the break at times. Beard might have to continue being a playmaker rather than a scorer, but in terms of the team’s success it will be interesting to see if they can improve.

4. Will the Sun’s changes help them stay in first place?

The Sun have been one of the hardest teams to figure out this season. They’ve had a five game win streak and then eventually fell into a five game losing streak before starting a three game winning streak before the break.

As a result of having a number of inexperienced players, coach Mike Thibault has made a number of changes to the lineup in search of the right combination. And now after the break, we should see even more changes to their rotation.

First, as a team with four rookies in the rotation, you have to figure the extra practice time will help them work out anything they needed to improve. Second, Erin Phillips returns to the team after being out for almost two seasons due to injury and preparing for the Olympics. Mike Thibault commented on how they plan to use Phillips during the league’s Welcome Back conference call:
“As far as Erin Phillips, she got here today on about three hours of sleep, but I think by playoff time she can be a big part of what we do. She can play both the 1 and 2. We can play her with Lindsay. She’s an above average defender and her offense has improved greatly since she was here before. It remains to be seen. I like the players we have here but she has a little more experience and she is a strong, physical player and hopefully that can help us.”
Third, the Sun have signed Svetlana Abrosimova and waived Jolene Anderson. This is an interesting move to make right before resuming play because it will likely be difficult to integrate Abrosimova into the rotation so quickly. But also, Anderson was a contributor, even starting 7 games over a period when the team won 7 of 8 games in late May/early June.

So how do we make sense of all of this? Well, part of the reason why Anderson lost her spot in the starting lineup was poor shooting and inexperience. Abrosimova and Phillips bring a little bit of both, particularly from the three point line. Phillips was a decent shooter in her rookie year shooting 34% and Abrosimova was an outstanding shooter last year shooting 44.6%, which was fifth in the WNBA.

The Sun were at the bottom of the league in three point shooting before the break and the way that caused problems for them is that it made it hard for them to spread the court. If you watched the Sun while Barbara Turner was playing well at the beginning of the season, her shooting allowed the team to spread the floor, which made it easier for Lindsay Whalen to drive and create opportunities for others. Now they have two players to spread the floor, which will make it easier for Whalen to drive.

In addition, with more opportunities to drive to the basket the Sun should get more free throw opportunities, which are important to winning games. They were near the bottom of the league in FTM/FGA before the break, which is really indicative of two things for the Sun: they are about average in free throw attempts per game and near the bottom in the league in free throw percentage.

Even with Detroit adding Taj McWilliams-Franklin, if Abrosimova and Phillips can contribute right away, the Sun could stay in first because those two give them things that they need – the ability to spread the court and take some of the scoring load off of Whalen. If they can extend the winning streak they started before the break, the argument for Whalen to win the MVP should be even stronger.

3. Can the Sky make the playoffs with the return of Sylvia Fowles?

Early in the season, I declared the Sky as my favorite team in the league. Then just like a fair-weather punk, I abandoned them once they lost Sylvia Fowles to injury. Well, after watching Jia Perkins and KB Sharp step up at the point guard position in Canty’s absence, I’m ready to move back toward the Sky.

This is no disrespect to the Liberty, who I've also proclaimed as a favorite, but the Sky have such a promising future…if they can figure out how to put all the young pieces together.

Although some Sky fans might want to see them tank instead of making a run for the playoffs, wouldn’t it be a great story for the league if Sylvia Fowles returned from an outstanding Olympic performance to lead her team to an improbably playoff run? I think so. Wouldn’t it be great if we could start a semi-legitimate argument about who will be the more valuable player in five years between Parker and Fowles? And who wouldn’t want to see more Armintie Price videos? And I haven’t even mentioned Candice Dupree…

This team is extremely talented and well-rounded, especially with Perkins and Sharp playing well at the point guard. They don’t necessarily even need another lottery pick – they need experience playing together and a nine game run for the playoffs will get them some experience playing meaningful games as a unit.

But what I find fascinating in looking at their team dynamics is that they might be better than their 8-17 record suggests. Although they’re below average defensively, they are third in terms of their offensive cohesion. And in fact, they’re above average in every single category that I’m using to measure team dynamics. So what’s they’re problem?

The Sky are second to last in field goal attempts per game – they’re not squandering possessions, they protect the ball well, they shoot it well, but they just don’t get shots. And if you neither take that many shots nor stop the opponents from taking and making shots, then you’re in trouble.

In other words, the Sky play very safe basketball normally – not turning the ball over, not taking many shots, and not aggressively forcing turnovers on defense. We know that Fowles’s mere presence will have an impact on defense. But now that we know for sure what Fowles can do on offense, will the Sky finally try to generate more offense by giving the ball to her more often for high percentage shots in the post? Will Perkins continue her stellar play at point guard? And with Perkins on the ball and Fowles taking more shots, will Candice Dupree become a more productive player?

All of those questions depend on team strategy. And honestly, they cannot afford to continue the same strategy that involves not shooting the ball.

2. Will the Mercury ever wake up?

Honestly, this is just a personal issue that I need to work out – I just don’t want to believe the Mercury are the worst team in the Western Conference. And I don’t think that’s an entirely arbitrary opinion either.

For the Mercury, it all comes down to their Rover defense. When they keep their defensive intensity high – which means pressuring ball handlers before they get to the three point line -- they’ve proven they can play with anyone in the league. And we know that they can score more than anyone else.

But the reason why I think they’re a team to watch is because their success or failure depends almost entirely on one player on both ends of the floor – Diana Taurasi.

Taurasi is responsible for putting the pressure on opposing ball handlers. And Taurasi is definitely the leader of that team’s offense. And I don’t believe that Diana Taurasi will come back from the Olympics unmotivated.

It might be unrealistic for the Mercury to make the playoffs, especially with both Penny Taylor and Tangela Smith missing. But you can be almost certain that it will be exciting to watch Taurasi fight to get there.

The key for the Mercury is keeping their synergy high and that doesn’t necessarily mean good ball movement for them – part of their style is to take quick shots on the break which limits their number of assists. But when they take high percentage shots and move the ball at moments that they can’t find a good shot on the break, they are a dangerous team.

And there is reason for hope for them to make the playoffs – they are only three games behind Sacramento but the teams ahead of them also have injuries to key players. Sacramento is without Rebekkah Brunson and Houston is without Hamchétou Maïga-Ba. And I haven’t heard much about Candice Wiggins on Minnesota, but she was injured before the break.

The Mercury play the Minnesota twice as well as Houston and Sacramento once each, so they’ll have a chance to improve their own position. But to me, everything is riding on Taurasi and that Rover defense.

1. Can the Los Angeles Sparks finally bring it all together?

Usually after watching a team a few times, it’s possible to get at least a surface level understanding of what a team does well and what they can improve upon.

I haven’t found any reliable way to figure out the Sparks or their game strategy thus far this season. And their complete unpredictability is what makes them so exciting to watch.

Coming back from the Olympics with Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie looking to cap off milestone seasons, I would expect them to play better than before. With their big three having time at the Olympics to work closely with one another and Parker getting a chance to learn from other league veterans, I expect them to come back fired up.

But as people have noted all season, their success during the final stretch of the season will depend almost entirely on their point guards’ ability to get the team into the offense and keep the ball moving. They don’t have point guards who can singlehandedly breakdown a defense, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to bring the ball down the court quickly and get the ball to Parker or Leslie to initiate a high-low offense.

The addition of Margo Dydek is also interesting and I wonder if they plan to use her in the high-low scheme as well to keep the pressure on for the entire game. It would make them difficult, if not impossible, to defend and take some pressure off their point guards to create scoring opportunities, which is not their strong point.

The key for them is not so much point guard play as it is keeping turnovers down. And if you watch closely, their turnovers are a team-wide problem, perhaps indicative of not having outstanding point guards. Their top three players in turnovers – Parker, Leslie, and DeLisha Milton-Jones…the same three players who are expected to make plays for them most often.

Their turnover differential is the worst in the league and they will have to improve that if they want to earn home court advantage in the playoffs. They also have an opportunity to move up in the standings because they are only three games behind Seattle, which is missing Lauren Jackson…and they play them once on the last day of the season in what could be a game with huge playoff implications.

OK… enough talk… I’m just waiting for the games to begin now…