Downsize This: What Effect (If Any) Have Roster Cuts Had on the WNBA?

. Monday, September 7, 2009
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"We'd keep talking about the economy and trying to figure out how, from a budget standpoint, to move forward. It was just something the union and the WNBA agreed on. That's not to say it is what it is, but we want to stay around awhile. We don't want to . . . stay at 13 and then down the road look [back] and say we wished we would have went down [to 11]. So now we have that opportunity and it's going to make the league stronger." - Tamika Catchings, during a pre-season conference call (via Washington Post)
Bob Corwin of Full Court Press – the self-proclaimed “doom and gloom” writer of the WNBA – recently wrote a rather thorough and less gloomy article reflecting on the state of the WNBA.

Yet there was one thing that he left out: the effect of the league’s decreased roster sizes.

Downsizing WNBA rosters from 13 to 11 players was probably an economically sound decision to keep the league fiscally viable for the near future.

In fact, the WNBA should be applauded for recognizing the warning signs and, like, doing something about it.

As described by Paul Krugman in a New York Times article last week, it was widespread “blindness to the possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy” that precipitated the country's current economic situation. Further blindness by WNBA executives in the form of doing nothing would have only compounded already difficult circumstances for the league.

However, we should have learned something else from our current economic situation, regardless of whether you call it a “crisis”, “downturn”, “natural ebb and flow of the free market”, or “recession” – sometimes sound economic decision making comes from people who “mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth,” as described by Krugman.

None of us have the capacity to foresee the future, whether it be the long-term viability of the league or determining which teams will make the upcoming playoffs. Nevertheless, with a season’s worth of data in hand, it’s hard not to wonder about the non-economic impacts of shrinking rosters on a still-evolving league like the WNBA.

With the rash of injuries affecting the league’s all-stars at near epidemic proportions this year, people have naturally wondered whether the roster reductions are contributing to player injuries. And yes, the injuries are getting so bad that some games are almost unwatchable.

The Minnesota Lynx didn’t really win on Saturday, the Seattle Storm just lost. With three players out due to injury, the Storm shot a combined 6-32 in the 1st and 4th quarters, casting a dark cloud over the 2nd and 3rd quarters in which they shot over 70%.

And yesterday’s Chicago Sky-Detroit Shock game was not a whole lot better – despite a third quarter in which the Sky did not commit even one turnover, the Sky looked typically out of sorts with Sylvia Fowles limping around and Brooke Wyckoff out due to injury. And Detroit – with their own set of injury problems – was forced to play Deanna Nolan for the full 40.

In any event, I’m not sure shortened rosters explain the injury epidemic – we’d have to dig deep to figure out whether there is an increase in fatigue injuries relative to freak accidents compared to past years…and even then, figure out how roster sizes contributed. I’m not a sports doctor, so I’m going to leave that argument alone.

However, I did do a cursory survey of some people’s concerns about the roster reductions prior to the season and as the regular season comes to an end, I found it interesting to return to people’s pre-season speculation. Two points stood out to me: running effective practices and developing young talent.

Although it is difficult to make the argument that roster reductions have had a strong influence on game play this season, I think an argument could be made that it might harm the quality of play in the future, especially as the league looks to expand.

So how might this season’s roster reductions affect the league in the future?

“We talkin’ about practice – what are we talkin’ about? Practice?!?

Basketball is a 5 on 5 game. Therefore, it is nice to have 10 players in practice to work on both offensive and defensive sets.

So even if 8 or 9 players is enough to play a game with a pretty normal rotation of players for most teams (in the WNBA, pretty much all except Connecticut), it’s difficult to use practice time effectively, as CJ from TIB wrote in April:
Well…until you want a full practice when you are on the road. Let’s say that you have and 11-player roster, one person is injured and one is tweaked enough that you’d want to save her for the game. Now the best you can do is practice 4-on-5. Hardly ideal.
Of course, there are things teams can do with 8 or 9 players that are just as important as working on execution of plays with “live” defense. But if you’ve ever played or coached basketball, you know that those 5 on 5 simulations – even in stop-action drill situations – are valuable.

In theory, that practice time becomes even more valuable in a league with a relatively short regular season and a pre-season with fatigued players flying in from around the world. As such, in theory, teams would be much less crisp in games and the quality of play throughout the league would decline.

This is only the second full WNBA season I’ve watched so I have a limited frame of reference, but I would say the game play overall this season has actually been better than last. And I’ve seen and heard multiple people say this is among the strongest seasons ever.

But still I wonder, what might be the effect of limited practice time on teams?

Player development…or lack thereof…

A bit of wisdom drawn from other sports I’ve watched over the years is that for young players, that practice time against the vets in “game-like” situations is as valuable, if not more, for certain players.

To be more specific, I’m thinking about rookie NFL quarterbacks who sit out a season and observe games while participating in practice and countless NBA early entry rookies over the years who have publicly stated that practicing with/against the best on a daily basis was as much a contributor to their development as anything else.

The WNBA has now done two things that potentially harm player development: first, with shortened rosters, keeping a player on the roster merely for the sake of having them “learn” is a risk, especially for a playoff team that could use depth in their rotation. Second, even if you do choose to keep these “learners” on the roster, they won’t get the type of simulated situations that they might otherwise get with larger roster sizes.

Unfortunately, for a league to prosper long-term, it has to consistently bring in and develop young talent. While the level of competition has gotten more intense with the least talented players in the league now unemployed, what about the future?

With 19 rookies making rosters this year, who steps up as our current stars age and decline?

If a second year player has not shown enough development at the beginning of next year will they be cut instead of being given a second chance?

Theoretically, the league has put a constraint on its product that will limit its future prospects. Or maybe not.

Could a change in roster management philosophy be upon us?

It seems like rather than lamenting the limits the roster reductions have put on the league, we should focus instead of how teams can make this work because it is a legitimate economic decision.

What will be interesting is how general managers adjust player personnel strategies to work with the new limits put upon them.

Mechelle Voepel suggested in May that tweeners – a slightly more negative connotation than a versatile star -- and “pure point guards” would be the most likely victims of the roster reductions because they the least to offer. Prior to the draft, former Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said something slightly different – he went into the draft looking for versatility and landed Shavonte Zellous who has been among the top rookies, despite being something of a “tweener”.

However, when I look at what actually transpired this season, I see something slightly different. In needing to maximize roster space, teams cut players that did not have immediate use to them, but the best of the chopping block ended up catching on somewhere else. And in many cases – Tan White, Kiesha Brown, and Ketia Swanier come to mind (all coincidentally connected to the Connecticut Sun) – the waiver wire activity has benefited both teams and players.

So the roster cuts may have enabled the amazing parity we’ve seen this season simply because teams had to be more prudent with their roster slots. What we’ve seen is a redistribution of talent. And that has almost indisputably contributed to the immense parity of this season.

We could do a deep statistical analysis of the percentage of various player types that ended up making rosters, but I’m not sure how valuable that would be – the defining characteristic of the players cut is that they were previously unproductive for one reason or another rather than of a particular style of play.

Final answer: Inconclusive

Ultimately, I would say that the roster reductions have simultaneously contributed to this season’s parity and limited player development. However, the key will be to understand how exactly teams will approach player development going forward.

Do those 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft become less important because teams figure they can’t use those players? Or do those picks become more valuable as teams are more likely to take risks on potential diamonds in the rough that may not play with them for a few years?

However, a bigger question for me right now is given the increasing parity and the economic crunch, why exactly is the league choosing to expand now? If we accept common wisdom that expansion dilutes a league, then won’t that negate the one potentially positive outcome of these roster reductions?

Does the league really need a struggling team full of leftovers? Or will we just see players who were cut this year getting another chance to prove themselves next year and stepping up?

Whoa – that’s six straight questions, which probably says something about what I think about these roster reductions – it’s too soon to determine any sort of effect.