U.S. Women’s Basketball Medal Outlook: What Can We Learn from the FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament?

. Friday, August 8, 2008
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If there is one thing that U.S. basketball fans should have learned by now, it’s that talent alone is not enough to win international competitions.

So perhaps due to past losses as much as present circumstances, there has been plenty of attention paid to the U.S. women’s basketball team’s on-court chemistry. Of course this problem should be expected considering that the 12 players on the roster have never played together as a full unit. From head coach Anne Donovan (via WNBA.com):

These players know our system. Every one of them has played at different times with different players, but these 12 have never played together before. If anything, it’s just getting chemistry, working together at both ends of the floor and getting the kinks out. There’s going to be mistakes early as they learn to play with each other and get familiar with who’s good at what, and how we can parlay strengths and cover up weaknesses. Overall, I’m really pleased so far.
Their widely-acknowledged struggle with on-court chemistry – in addition to a 25-game Olympic winning streak and a loss to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World championships – make this team one of the more intriguing storylines of the U.S. contingent to Beijing. How quickly can this talented team come together and will it be enough to beat teams like the Australia who already function well as a unit?

Although they won the FIBA Diamond Ball exhibition tournament, their chemistry problems did creep up at certain points, as described by AP writer Doug Feinberg:
At times the U.S. players looked to be in total harmony, scoring at will and containing Latvia. At other times, the Americans struggled, turning the ball over and missing defensive assignments that led to
easy baskets.
So what can we learn about this team from their exhibition games? Although I acknowledge that looking at the statistics from such a small sample of games is “dangerous at best and foolish at worst” as phrased by Kevin Pelton of the Seattle Storm, there were some general trends that are worth watching for in their upcoming quest for the gold medal. From those I believe it’s possible to create some keys to winning a gold in this Olympics.

How can we account for chemistry?

The simplest way to get an idea of a team’s on-court chemistry is to look at who they have on their roster and see how the associated styles of play fit together. Using a unique tool from the Arbitrarian blog called the SPI player styles spectrum, we can get a better idea of the styles of play of each player and how they fit together.

“SPI” stands for scorer-perimeter-interior—and as you can probably guess, what it does is show us the extent to which a player is a scorer, perimeter, or interior player. A player’s scoring is determined by field goal and free throw attempts, perimeter play by assists and steals, and interior play by rebounds and blocks. Players with a mix of all three are in the center of the graphic as “mixed”. I like to consider the non-scorers “utility players”.

What’s great about it is that it gives us a sense of how players compare to one another, how productive they are (the size of their name) and the degree to which players fit a particular style (click here for more about the methodology).

Here’s a rough approximation of the rotation they have used thus far:

G: Sue Bird (combo point guard)
G: Katie Smith (perimeter scorer)
F: Diana Taurasi (perimeter scorer)
F: Tina Thompson (interior/scorer)
C: Lisa Leslie (pure interior)

Second team:
G: Kara Lawson (perimeter scorer)
G: Cappie Pondexter (perimeter scorer)
F: Seimone Augustus (perimeter scorer)
F: Candace Parker (interior utility player)
C: Sylvia Fowles (pure interior)

F: Tamika Catchings (perimeter forward)
F: DeLisha Milton Jones (interior/scorer)

It’s worth noting that defense is not taken into account with this spectrum. However, this team has a number of outstanding defenders at each position: Augustus, Catchings, and DeLisha Milton-Jones are all among the best position defenders the WNBA has to offer and Fowles, Leslie, and Parker are some of the best help defenders.

A few points about this roster regarding chemistry:

First, the most noticeable thing is that this team lacks any of the play-makers that fall in the "pure perimeter" category that we would normally consider point guards. Sue Bird is one of the best point guards the WNBA has to offer and Taurasi is also among the best ball handlers, but they’re both starting – there’s not a true lead guard available on the bench.

Second, this team is scorer heavy drawing very little from the opposite side of the spectrum with utility players. Those non-scorers at the other end of the spectrum tend to be the players we sometimes consider “glue players” or the players that support the primary scoring options.

Third – and this is also not really delineated in this representation – this team does not have a lot of players who can drive to the basket and score effectively. Pondexter is one of the best in the WNBA and Bird is among the best at picking apart defenses, but aside from those two most of these players make their living either inside or outside.

So just from looking at the roster, we see that a lack of balance, a lack of distributors, and a lack of players who can attack the basket could affect their on-court chemistry. They have a number of outstanding three point shooters (Augustus, Catchings, Lawson, Smith and Taurasi), but if for some reason they have an off shooting night from the outside they could be easy to shut down because they lack players who drive to the basket and score.

This is part of the reason that I thought Connecticut Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen would have been a great addition to this roster – she’s more of a player who can have a huge influence on the game by distributing and rebounding instead of just scoring. There was legitimate reason to pass on her (she was not able to attend all of the training sessions), but her skill set will be missed.

Glue players are the players who will make the extra pass, go for offensive rebounds, or hustle for loose balls and they could use more of those vital players as well. An interesting choice for the roster in that regard would have been Janel McCarville, a player that would likely excel in the international game.

Unfortunately, they may have put together more of an all-star team than a harmonious unit. A look at their stats from the Diamond Ball Tournament shows how some of these problems manifest themselves.

Team chemistry from a statistical perspective?

It would be foolish indeed to assume that we could account for chemistry with one or two statistics because ultimately chemistry is an intangible factor, which is not always visible even if we watch the games live. However, I think if we look at some of the core elements of basketball, chemistry becomes something we can capture much more easily.

There are a few component parts of basketball chemistry that most experts would agree upon as the most important: ball movement, shooting, offensive rebounding, and turnovers, and fouling (the latter two being negative, of course). Defensively, a team’s ability to prevent the other team from establishing an offensive rhythm is huge as well.

In looking at Team USA’s statistics, a few things stand out as points of concern: their opponents have outscored them from the free throw line in 2 of 3 games and they are turning the ball over almost 19 times per game. Despite having the WNBA’s top two rebounders in Leslie and Parker, Australia beat them on the offensive rebounds 14-11.

Consistent with Feinberg’s analysis, these numbers indicate is that the team is struggling with the little things in the game – fouling too much, not taking care of the ball, and not boxing out in the case of the Australia game. A team like this one can overcome shooting slumps, but these problems get to the core of what chemistry is all about – team defense and offensive rhythm. To this point the U.S. women have not yet hit their stride.

It would be reasonable to argue that had Australia not turned the ball over 19 times themselves in the final game, they could have beaten the U.S. Pelton reports that teams like Russia “treat pool play as an opportunity for scouting and experimentation before raising their level of play in the medal rounds”. If that is so then the 22 turnovers by the U.S. against Russia are cause for concern.

Even taken with a grain of salt, the gold medal cannot be taken for granted

I remember eight years ago sitting around with friends speculating when someone would finally beat the U.S. in international play. We were tossing out wild numbers like 2030 or 2050 – in other words, it barely seemed like a possibility. However, the open concerns about chemistry on the women’s (and, to some extent, the men’s) basketball demonstrate that things have shifted more rapidly than any of us believed they would.

It’s very possible that if the team cannot find its chemistry before the medal rounds, they will end up going home without a gold medal. It may be tempting to assume that this team is so talented that they would just steamroll the competition. But very recent history tells us that is not the case.

Relevant Links:

Women's basketball showing how physical it can be

USA Wins Thriller, Diamond Ball

Nice video on how the men's basketball team put together their team