Point Guard Rankings Update: Hot July For Bird, Mitchell, & Penicheiro

. Monday, August 4, 2008
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If you were to judge solely by assist to turnover ratio, Leilani Mitchell would be named the best point guard in the league, just ahead of Lindsay Whalen.

And even the most die-hard Leilanians probably wouldn’t agree with that. For some knowledgeable fans, it probably illustrates an obvious point: we really don’t have good statistics to assess point guards despite the fact that they are arguably the most important players on the court.

So that’s the whole point of these point guard rankings: to get beyond the oversimplified assist to turnover ratio and create a more nuanced assessment of point guards. Being a point guard requires more than just getting assists and limiting turnovers; as Eric Musselman described last week in his blog, being a point guard includes a whole bunch of intangibles.

Nevertheless, even the “more nuanced assessment” yielded a surprisingly similar result – Mitchell is third behind Bird and Whalen. That’s elite company for a point guard. Is Mitchell really that good? Or are we being deceived by her limited minutes per game (15.2 min/g)? I think the answer is a little of both and some of the key point guard statistics that I’ve used in the past demonstrate that point well.

And those aren’t the only interesting results – Jia Perkins really has outplayed Dominique Canty at point guard for the Sky…and all three of the Sky’s point guards have outplayed the Sparks’ rotation of point guards. Ivory Latta has plummeted out of the top 10 since I last did these rankings…and Becky Hammon has finally cracked the top 10 after a strong July. The ongoing changes are what makes doing these things fun.

The point guard position figures to play a prominent role in the playoff race as multiple teams will rely heavily on their point guard play in order to win games. So here’s the latest update with some explanation as to what all these numbers mean.

Totally subjective candidate selection

I chose point guards on the following basis: 1) they start for their team, 2) they spend significant minutes handling the ball and initiating the offense, or 3) I like them. As I’ve watched more games and gotten to know players better, I’ve had a chance to add players who I previously ignored.

So for this iteration, I dropped Candace Parker (though she ranks highly with these numbers) because I think the point is proven – she is a good ball handler. I also dropped Helen Darling because she was consistently last.

I added the following point guards who have caught my eye since the last rankings – Jia Perkins, KB Sharp, Lindsey Harding, Tan White, and Shannon Bobbitt. So that expands the list to 25. I’m aware that there are a few other point guards missing from this list, but I may have left them out due to poor numbers overall.

A few changes to the statistics

I compared players in 7 different categories across seven different statistical categories to make an overall assessment:

Pure point rating
Net plus/minus rating
Points per zero point possession
Hollinger assist ratio
Usage rate
True shooting percentage

For descriptions of any one of these statistics, just click on the links. You’ll notice two new statistics since the last iteration – boxscores and true shooting percentage.

I replaced Win Score with Boxscore because a) all of that data is readily available at the Arbitrarian blog and b) because the results are generally pretty solid.

I replaced turnover percentage with true shooting percentage, although that might seem like a conceptual leap at first. But here’s my reasoning:

Turnovers and overall possession management are clearly important aspects of what a point guard does. So in previous iterations of these rankings I had three statistics that took those elements into account – pure point rating, points per zero point possession, and turnover percentage. Out of those three statistics, if you think about it, turnover percentage tells us the least because you need to know other things to make sense of it – it doesn’t provide much context for understanding why they’re turning it over or how harmful those turnovers were.

True shooting percentage, along with points per zero point possession and usage rating, give us a sense of how well a point guard is balancing scoring and distributing – if a poor shooting point guard has a high usage rate, low points per zero point possession and low assist ratio, they’re just burning possessions for their team and it’s helpful to know that. Giving the importance of offensive synergy, I find this to be an important principle.

While each of these measures is limited on their own, I think it gives us a better big picture than statistics normally available for the WNBA, such as assist to turnover ratio. And it also helps to create stronger arguments for why one point guard is better than another based on available evidence. What these numbers do is help us to understand each point guard’s strengths and weakness.

I think they strike a balance between being descriptive and prescriptive – I think the point guards at the top would probably fit in with any team. The point guards near the bottom could possibly fit well in certain situations if a team is able to make up for their weaknesses. These numbers don’t really take defense into account (except for net plus/minus) but the logic to that is similar – a team can mask a poor defender with all kinds of defensive schemes. However, a point guard who can’t dribble the ball up the court and at least initiate the offense is a problem.

So I can’t claim that these numbers are infallible and any input as to what is missing or flat out incorrect is welcome.

The Numbers

Pace Adj. Pure Point Rating
 Mitchell, Leilani6.09
 Whalen, Lindsay5.40
 Nolan, Deanna3.83
 Bird, Sue3.16
 Johnson, Temeka3.15
 Johnson, Shannon2.92
 Canty, Dominique2.78
 Johnson, Vickie2.48

 Bird, Sue18.8
 Mitchell, Leilani9.4
 Wiggins, Candice9.4
 Penicheiro, Ticha8.3
 Canty, Dominique7.9
 Taurasi, Diana7.2
 Perkins, Jia5.7
 Hammon, Becky3.8

 Whalen, Lindsay60.40
 Taurasi, Diana59.41
 Wiggins, Candice56.62
 Hammon, Becky 55.13
 Smith, Katie53.97
 Mitchell, Leilani53.80
 Bevilaqua, Tully53.62
  Latta, Ivory52.65

 Taurasi, Diana2.62
 Whalen, Lindsay2.56
 Wiggins, Candice2.41
 Perkins, Jia2.22
 Nolan, Deanna2.00
 Smith, Katie1.96
 Hammon, Becky1.93
 Latta, Ivory1.92

 Mitchell, Leilani38.86
 Moore, Loree36.47
 Johnson, Shannon33.27
 Johnson, Temeka33.17
 Quinn, Noelle32.29
 Blue, Nikki31.75
 Bobbitt, Shannon30.25
 Penicheiro, Ticha29.23

 Hammon, Becky4.39
 Whalen, Lindsay4.21
 Nolan, Deanna3.1
 Johnson, Vickie3.06
 Taurasi, Diana3.06
 Bird, Sue2.96
 Penicheiro, Ticha2.63
 Smith, Katie2.48

 Taurasi, Diana28.48
 Hammon, Becky26.79
 Wiggins, Candice26.21
 Perkins, Jia26.05
 White, Tan22.63
 Nolan, Deanna22.10
 Whalen, Lindsay21.78
 Bird, Sue21.78

The Top Point Guards

The top point guards were determined by ranking all 25 players in each category and adding up each player’s ranks to get a total number. To put it in perspective, that means the maximum was 175 points.

 Whalen, Lindsay143
 Bird, Sue129
 Mitchell, Leilani126
 Wiggins, Candice125
 Taurasi, Diana124
 Nolan, Deanna121
 Penicheiro, Ticha120
 Hammon, Becky118

Commentary & Analysis

I’ve had more than a few posts about point guards over the course of the season so I thought this might be a good time to revisit some old questions as a way to dig deeper into these rankings.

1) How can Sue Bird influence the game without shooting well (the question that inspired this whole point guard ranking thing)?

Bird is remarkably consistent going by her plus minus numbers (18.9 in May, 18.8 now) and I think that’s a testament to how good she is at managing the flow of the game. Her plus/minus numbers have remained constant all season despite her points per zero point possession and true shooting percentage numbers improving (42% - 52% for true shooting percentage). The fact that her scoring numbers improved and her plus/minus stayed the same seems to indicate that she is making good decisions with the ball and running the offense well, independent of her scoring.

We could say that her increased scoring is what led the team to an 8-2 July, but you could also attribute that to the acquisition of Camille Little and the added depth she brought to the forward position, especially in Lauren Jackson’s absence. Little has shot 54.1 percent since joining the Storm and added 7.7 points. And they’ve been 9-2 since Little has arrived. Add: The Chasing the Title blog has just posted the Storm's most frequently used lineups and Little is in third most effective.

2) How big a problem is the point guard position for the Sparks?

Temeka Johnson, Kiesha Brown, and Shannon Bobbitt ranked 15th, 16th, and 24th respectively in these rankings, but I still maintain team strategy is more of a problem for the Sparks than their point guard position. Prior to July, Brown was ranked in the top 10. During July, she only registered 20 minutes in a game three times, meaning her production went down. And that’s understandable, it’s hard to produce when you’re not playing.

A flashy play maker is always nice, but I don’t think they need that. When you have Candace Parker, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Lisa Leslie on the court, you only need a point guard to bring the ball up the court and run the offense. Johnson and Bobbitt do that better than Brown, but that’s not the point – they have to find a strategy that maximizes the talent they have because right now they’re way underachieving.

3) Is Dominique Canty an elite point guard?

I said this at the beginning of the season when Canty was surprisingly among the elite point guards, ahead of Sue Bird and Ticha Penicheiro – it was probably due more to sample size that the quality of Canty’s play. The big difference: Canty’s pure point rating fell from 5.01 at the beginning of the season to 2.78 now. Her career pure point rating is -.306. Her points per zero point possession rating and assist ratios have fallen considerably as well. In other words, it’s likely that Canty was playing better than we might expect (statistically) at the beginning of the season and eventually fell back down to earth.

Right now, Jia Perkins (ranked #9) is the better point guard – she is not an outstanding distributor based on her season-long numbers, but she makes better scoring decisions with the ball as evidenced by her rank in points per zero point possession. She also has the lowest turnover percentage (8.21%) among this set of point guards. It would be interesting see what Perkins’ numbers might be if she spent a whole season as a team’s point guard.

4) Is Ticha Penicheiro just an average point guard at this point in her career?

The opposite of Canty happened to Penicheiro – all her numbers went up, closer to where we would expect based on her career. And it should come as no surprise that her improved pure distributor numbers to go along with a career year in scoring are associated with a seven game win streak in July. There should be no doubt that she is the heart and soul of that team, as evidenced by her plus/minus numbers.

5) Should Candice Wiggins be the starting point guard for the Lynx?

Well, a number of people have made the point that it’s good having Wiggins come off the bench because it keeps opponents off balance. I agree with that point. So now I have a slightly different position: the Lynx need to find a consistent style of play and stick to it. They seem to be one of the more inconsistent teams of the season and have underachieved based on expected full-season wins by point differential, according to Kevin Pelton. If that means it’s better to start Wiggins to avoid slow starts, fine. If not, fine. But I don’t understand why their style is so erratic.

6) Is Leilani Mitchell really that good?

As much as I like Mitchell, I do not think many people would take her over all the point guards she’s ranked ahead of. The same thing that happened to Penicheiro happened to Mitchell: July.

As mentioned the other day, she had a pure point rating around 7 and 35 assists to 7 turnovers in July. That’s pretty amazing. That has to be one of many reasons the Liberty went 8-3 over that span. But right now, a large part of her success is likely due to her limited minutes: Loree Moore has playing almost twice the minutes of Mitchell. If Mitchell played more minutes against starters, there’s reason to believe her production might go down. But here’s one for faithful Leilanians: when Mitchell plays 15+ minutes, the Liberty are 6-2 this season. When she plays under 15 minutes they are 6-12.

Further questions…

Which players are over/underrated by these numbers? For people that want a change in the Sparks’ point guard situation, who should they trade for? For all the talk about Bevilaqua’s absence, does not having a top 16 point guard hurt the Fever (Bevilaqua is #17, Tan White is #23)?

Transition Points:

Giving credit where credit is due: Boxscores were obtained from The Arbitrarian blog. Plus/minus statistics are available at the Lynx plus/minus page.

Another side note: I’ve noticed some people around the web commenting that it’s strange when rankings like this shift so much during a season. The reason is simply sample size. Take Dominique Canty for example – she ranked really high early in the season and has now dropped out of the top ten (she’s #11). The reason is not my own flexible subjectivities, but that Canty was not able to maintain that level of play over the course of more games. It also demonstrates a problem with any WNBA statistics – the sample for a season is only 34 games, which makes it hard to strong predictive value.

Relevant Links:

Visualizing Point Guard Playing Styles: Defining Five Types of Point Guard

Point Guard Rankings -- June 22nd, 2008