Whalen and the Olympics

. Saturday, June 21, 2008
Make a comment!

Saw an interview with Lindsay Whalen at Ladies Court. As expected, diplomatic comments about the Olympics...

Q: You are still in the running for the U.S. Olympic basketball team. How much thought do you put into that?
A: I am just trying to play as hard as I can right now to help our team and kind of let that happen. … It's not in my control. …It would be a great honor.

And indeed, she's been playing pretty hard this season...by far the best of any point guard this year...

It's hard to imagine a reason she wouldn't be on the U.S. team given the way she's been playing this season...

When you consider the field of candidates, who would you want instead of Whalen?


First, of all, nobody is playing the point better than Whalen right now.

She would provide an additional ball handler who's able to distribute the ball and make good plays when you need them...

She brings all the intangibles you want from a player on an "all-star" type team, but can take over a game when needed too...

For the record, I also think Janel McCarville would be a good fit and would love to see her on the team.

In the meantime, we wait...

Relevant Links:

Whalen Dreaming of Olympic Gold

Continue reading...

If benches win championships...

Make a comment!

...where does that leave the Storm?

I predicted the Celtics to win the championship at the beginning of this year...not that it was a risky pick or anything. I just figured the "Big 3" would complement each other nicely and make it happen...

So it was a pleasant surprise that such a seemingly inevitable outcome was made so suspenseful up until they decided to wake up about half-way through the Detroit series.

But it's also interesting to compare the way the Celtics built themselves for a championship to what the Storm have done.

The key: the Celtics had a balanced bench to complement the star power. And it was those bench players who stepped up for them at different times throughout the playoffs.

The Storm have gone a different route. They chose to load up the starting lineup and hope that their (aging) veterans could carry them to a title.

But if anything, we learned from the Celtics that you can't just rely on the starters. People will have off nights (Ray Allen), tough defensive assignments (Paul Pierce on Lebron and Kobe), or injuries (Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, and Paul Pierce at varying points in the finals). Mike Kahn writes:

Sure, we wouldn't even talking about the Celtics if not for Pierce, Garnett and Allen, in any order, since they've all had sensational moments throughout the regular season and playoffs. Still, considering the Lakers' athleticism and explosive offense, the Celtics' bench had to contribute — and they have responded in a variety of ways and from all five key contributors.

Comparatively, two of the stars the Storm brought in are older than the Celtics' stars. Really, the Storm need a bench MORE than the Celtics did...and it's difficult to imagine them winning without one.
As a side note, more than KG or Pierce, I'm happy for Ray Allen. I've loved Ray Allen's game ever since he hit the NBA. He has the most perfect looking jump shot I've ever seen. Even when he was tossing up bricks early in the playoffs, it was hard not to believe the next one would go in. I was so excited that he had a chance to get a ring and I'll look forward to seeing if they can squeeze another one out next year.

In the meantime, go Ray.

Related Links:

Celtics know how to build for future

Daily Links 6/22

Continue reading...

How Point Guards Influence the Game – Part 3

. Friday, June 20, 2008
Make a comment!

I corrected a few mistakes and made some changes to the process, but the quest for the WNBA’s top point guard continues…

(To see the first part of these rankings, click here.)

So this post will cover the final four elements of a point guard. Those include:

Each point guard’s decision making (percent of touches she gets an assist or makes a turnover) and;
Each point guard’s efficiency on the floor (the percentage of team plays used while she is on the floor and how often she is responsible for ending possessions without a score).

Then we can figure out the big “winner”, right? Well, maybe it’s not so easy…

Anyway, I’ll come back to those after I get through the rest of the stats.

Decision Making:

A large part of being a great point guard is making great decisions. However, that means more than just creating assists. TNT commentator and former NBA’er Kenny Smith summed up the point nicely:

When point guards play the point, they're great passers. To be a great passer is different than being an assist guy. A point guard gives up the ball early enough for guys to be creative.

This is where things like anticipation, awareness, and court vision come into play for a point guard.

What it comes down to is a point guard knowing when and to use certain skills given a particular situation…and it has to be done in a split second…as a play continues to evolve. Unfortunately, these things are called “intangible” for a reason…

But what we can determine is a player’s success or failure rate given the opportunity to make a play. So I’m going with assist and turnover rates to get a better sense of how often a player creates an assist or turnover per possession.

Hollinger Assist Ratio
Hollinger’s assist ratio measures the percentage of touches on which a player gets an assist. In other words, how often a player creates an assist when the ball is in their hands.
(For more on this and other ways of looking at assists, check out this nice write-up from Count the Basket). Whereas Hollinger’s pure point rating measures the quality of a player as a distributor, this looks at the player’s tendency to create assists in comparison to shots or turnovers. Here it is:

Hollinger Assist Rate

Leilani Mitchell 37.66%
Nikki Blue 36.01%
Kiesha brown 34.67%
Loree moore 33.92%
Temeka Johnson 32.89%
Dominique Canty 30.01%
Noelle Quinn 29.82%
Kelly Miller 28.19%
Lindsay Whalen 27.77%
Sue Bird 27.60%
Ticha Penicheiro 26.79%
Deanna Nolan 25.82%
Shannon Johnson 25.20%
Ivory Latta 25.07%
Tully Bevilaqua 24.25%
Becky Hammon 19.48%
Candice Wiggins 18.57%
Candace Parker 19.20%
Helen Darling 17.37%
Alana Beard 16.00%
Diana Taurasi 11.74%

What you see here is pretty much expected for a statistic like this one: the big scorers at the bottom, those who shoot less at the top. Of course, there are multiple explanations for this.

Lindsay Whalen for example leads her team in assists and rebounding while being the second leading scorer. So she can only do so much at once. Yet still, she ends up ahead of Sue Bird and Ticha Penicheiro, considered the best pass-first points in the game. In other words, the fact that Becky Hammon or Diana Taurasi are low here isn’t necessarily “bad”.

Turnover Percentage

Turnovers are bad. There’s little doubt about that.

In fact, some consider turnover percentage to be one of the most important factors in the game. Since point guards have the ball in their hands most often, it only makes sense that we’d consider this as part of being a great point guard.

You may be asking, wasn’t the whole point of using Pure Point Ratio to get away from looking a turnovers and assists alone? Don’t point guards get more turnovers as a result of handling the ball more? Yes…and yes.

But again, now we’re looking at how likely it is for a player to make a turnover when they touch it…and since we’re comparing point guards to other point guards, it’s interesting to see who does the least overt harm. This stat (sort of) answers the question: who is going to keep the ball most secure?

Turnover %

Diana Taurasi 7.51%
Ivory Latta 8.95%
Lindsay Whalen 10.05%
Deanna Nolan 10.08%
Candice Wiggins 10.48%
Candace Parker 10.56%
Sue Bird 12.14%
Dominique Canty 12.31%
Nikki Blue 14.83%
Shannon Johnson 14.93%
Alana Beard 15.60%
Helen Darling 15.63%
Becky Hammon 16.23%
Kiesha Brown 16.25%
Noelle Quinn 16.57%
Kelly Miller 18.18%
Ticha Penicheiro 18.33%
Tully Bevilaqua 19.15%
Loree Moore 19.57%
Leilani Mitchell 20.00%
Temeka Johnson 20.77%

So it’s pretty remarkable that Whalen is not only leading her team in assists, rebounds, steals, and second in scoring, but she’s also among the least likely starting point guards to commit a turnover.

Leilani Mitchell and Diana Taurasi essentially flip-flopped here, which is also interesting. Taurasi playing off the ball next to Kelly Miller and Cappie Pondexter could partially explain that…or could it be that she just makes better choices with the ball?

Point Guard Efficiency

Great point guards also know how to manage the tempo of the game and play within rhythm – when they’re on the court, things should go more smoothly. They have a superior command of what’s happening moment to moment and are able to create opportunities for themselves and others. So one way to measure that is making sure that they don’t do things that would interrupt the rhythm of the game.

Points Per Zero Point Possession

This stat is one I found from Bob Chaiken, who created a cool site for NBA statistical simulations, though it's now out of date.

The whole premise of this exercise is that poor shooting shouldn’t prevent a good point guard from influencing the game. A great point guard doesn’t need to be a great scorer but chucking the ball without regard for the team’s success is not helpful.

Anyway, this statistic measures how many points a player scores for every possession they end. Edit: The formula: (Pts)/(FGA + FTA/2) * (opp. def reb%) + TOs.

For example, it’s nice if your point guard gets hot, but if she starts going one on one and shooting too much, that means she’s not running the offense and worse, possibly shooting your team out of the game. In contrast, an efficient scorer knows how to find opportunities for points – preferably within the flow of the offense -- without just wasting a team’s possessions.

So here’s that breakdown:


Lindsay Whalen 2.76
Diana Taurasi 2.41
Candice Wiggins 2.40
Alana Beard 2.04
Candace Parker 2.02
Deanna Nolan 1.70
Ticha Penicheiro 1.67
Dominique Canty 1.62
Noelle Quinn 1.52
Shannon Johnson 1.44
Becky Hammon 1.41
Ivory Latta 1.41
Sue Bird 1.38
Kiesha Brown 1.35
Tully Bevilaqua 1.23
Leilani Mitchell 1.19
Helen Darling 1.19
Kelly Miller 1.17
Loree Moore 0.90
Nikki Blue 0.62
Temeka Johnson 0.45

If you think you’re seeing a pattern, you are – Lindsay Whalen is also the most efficient scorer among point guards in terms of balancing scoring with bad possessions. In fact, in any scoring efficiency statistic I looked at, Whalen came out on top.

In case you’re curious, the ranking for this statistic is not too different from how the players rank using the more popular “Efficiency” rating. This statistic just more clearly compares the good to the bad.

Usage Percentage

Taking a short break from stats, it seems intuitive that the more plays a player attempts to make, the less they’ll produce. Also, a team might depend a lot more on a “do everything” player like Whalen than a backup player like Keisha Brown.

So usage rate gives us a sense of the percentage of her team’s plays she “uses” while in the game. In other words, how (statistically) involved the player is in a team’s offense.


Diana Taurasi 29.68%
Alana Beard 27.67%
Candice Wiggins 27.31%
Becky Hammon 24.17%
Candace Parker 24.02%
Deanna Nolan 22.77%
Lindsay Whalen 22.28%
Ivory Latta 21.48%
Sue Bird 21.46%
Ticha Penicheiro 20.21%
Dominique Canty 19.98%
Nikki Blue 18.25%
Helen Darling 16.96%
Loree Moore 15.44%
Shannon Johnson 15.21%
Kiesha Brown 14.72%
Noelle Quinn 14.67%
Leilani Mitchell 14.60%
Kelly Miller 14.57%
Temeka Johnson 14.51%
Tully Bevilaqua 10.07%

This puts some of the other things in perspective. Mitchell is turning the ball over 20% of the time while being used considerably less than Taurasi who turns the ball over far less. Meanwhile Taurasi is able to score rather efficiently while using a considerable amount of the team’s plays.

And that’s all…so the final results (though it might be obvious who’s #1)…


Lindsay Whalen 115
Deanna Nolan 107
Candice Wiggins 104
Dominique Canty 95
Diana Taurasi 91
Sue Bird 88
Candace Parker 87
Ivory Latta 87
Alana Beard 85
Ticha Penicheiro 80
Kiesha Brown 76
Shannon Johnson 67
Noelle Quinn 67
Nikki Blue 66
Leilani Mitchell 65
Loree Moore 63
Becky Hammon 51
Kelly Miller 51
Temeka Johnson 42
Helen Darling 37
Tully Bevilaqua 33

How good is Sue Bird?

Well, my favorite, Sue Bird, comes in 6th (so you definitely can't accuse me of messing with the numbers)... but Hammon, my second favorite point guard, is by far having the most efficient season of anyone.

So what is the verdict on whether Bird can influence games without scoring?

I will save face as follows: If we buy this framework (or Hollinger’s pure point rating), Sue Bird is still one the top point guards in the league on a team full of scorers. She doesn’t need to be firing up a whole lot of shots and she isn’t going to be the focal point of the offense.

The key stats for Bird are the plus/minus (she has a very positive impact on the game when she’s on the floor), pure point rating (she’s efficient at distributing the ball), and she’s not going to turn the ball over too much considering how often she handles the ball.

So now the question becomes how many point guards would you choose over Bird for the star-laden Storm…or the Olympics?

Whalen is clearly worthy of discussion as the best point guard in the game right now.

Nolan is clearly a possibility as the more efficient player and an all-WNBA player last year.

So I would have to consider taking either of them over Bird. But other than that…

Taurasi is clearly more of a scoring guard than a distributor (and she already endorsed Bird)…

Guards like Wiggins and Latta are impressive statistically, but aren’t quite as effective distributing the ball in addition to being considerably less experienced.

An argument could be made for choosing another point guard over Bird, but there aren’t really that many options if you want to win now. And imagine how much more efficient she’ll be if she finds her shot again (as she did against the Sun)…

But this still leaves five questions that can’t be answered statistically:

1) Is Ivory Latta really a better point guard than Becky Hammon?
2) Should Domique Canty really be considered an elite point guard?
3) Is Ticha Penicheiro really nothing more than an average point guard at this point in her career?
4) Shouldn’t Candice Wiggins be starting at point guard for the Lynx?
5) Is Candace Parker the next Magic Johnson, as some claim?

I’ll give my answers to the questions later...

I’ll come back to these stats later in the season once we have a larger sample...

And by then, Bird better be more efficient… ;)

Continue reading...

Quick Notes on the Point Guard Rankings

Make a comment!

Even though I went through all the trouble of calculating statistics for this, it’s also a clearly a very subjective process…

I'm no statistician, so any advice or criticism on the whole thing is welcome...

So here’s some notes on the changes I’ve to the point guard ranking process made since I last posted.

1) I added three additional players because I realized some of them were logging substantial minutes as point guards: Alana Beard played some point this season for the Mystics while Nikki Blue was injured. Becky Hammon spends quite a bit of time off the ball when Helen Darling plays point guard so I wanted to look at her numbers. And Candice Wiggins is having a great season and might just have a future as a point guard in this league…

I also thought it would be interesting to look at a range of distributors and scorers who play the point to better understand what the statistics are telling us.

2) I did some reading about Win Score and decided to add weights to the numbers to better reflect the value of rebounds (specifically, the fact that offensive rebounds are more valuable than defensive rebounds).

3) I thought about adding a shooting proficiency stat in the mix but stuck with my original instinct of instinct of sticking with efficiency numbers: plus/minus, Win Score, and points per zero point possession.

4) I left out defense because I just don’t think there are many statistics that come anywhere near approximating a player’s defensive contribution that aren’t extremely complex…

5) I adjusted the Pure Point Rating stat for pace. There were no major differences.

6) Candace Parker is in the mix for fun, but she's not really being ranked relative to the others (because she's not really a point guard). I'm just recording where she would be.

An additional comment…


This was a fun process because it’s nice to think about ways to capture the many things a point guard does that are often overshadowed by assist to turnover or assist per game stats. And having more ways to think about the game are always helpful to me…

But one of the great things about being a fan of any sport you really enjoy watching is evaluating players, comparing players, trying to predict what will help your team, and all the other things that make fantasy sports so amazing – dreaming a little.

Statistics are a large part of that…and even young kids can get into that. There was a time when kids spent as much time crunching numbers on the back of a baseball/basketball/football card as they do watching television now.

But it’s amazing how difficult it is to track down anything beyond basic WNBA statistics (though I suppose it’s improving). I know not everybody likes stats, but it seems to help once you really get into a sport.

So kudos to the following sites for actually providing some good stats:

- Minnesota's statistics site
- Storm Defense
- Foxsports.com
- Basketball-reference (not updated for this season, but the only database of WNBA statistics I can find)

And I’ll give the following sites kudos for providing some pretty good WNBA analysis as well:

- X's and O’s of Basketball
- Wages of Wins (just starting to do some Win Score analysis of the WNBA, part of the reason I chose that statistic)

I might be missing some so hopefully people will fill me in...


The rest of those rankings coming soon…

Continue reading...

How Point Guards Influence the Game – Part 2

. Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Make a comment!

This post has been edited to reflect some changes in the formulas and in the process overall. Please see the notes in the next post for details.

So I maintain that even in a shooting slump, Sue Bird is the best pure point guard in the league right now, with Lindsay Whalen a close second.

We all probably have our favorite point guards, but how can we determine what makes a great point guard?

People typically use “assists” or “assist to turnover ratio” to evaluate point guards statistically, but it’s pretty well established that those numbers can be misleading. Other than that, there are isolated metrics out there that capture one or two aspects of what a point guard does, but very little that can paint a complete picture.

I came across a blog the other day that came up with a ranking system to determine the best point guards in the NBA. The results passed the “laugh test” – they seem reasonable based on what I would assume from common sense (Jason Kidd ended up as the top point guard). So I thought it would be interesting to do the same for the WNBA.

So here it is – a narrative description of the skills that are important for a point guard to have and a set of statistics that approximate the value of those intangibles. I’m no statistician, but fortunately, there are plenty of folks out there that have already crunched the numbers for the NBA that I’m just applying to the WNBA.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to start by comparing the WNBA’s starting point guards in statistics that measure their effect on their team:

Pure Point Rating
Net plus/minus
Winscore/40 minutes

Then I’m going to look at statistics that say something about a player’s decision making:

Turnover ratio

Usage Rate
Zero point possessions
Assist ratio

Each point guard will be ranked in each category. For now the goal is to see how guards are performing this year in order to answer questions about Sue Bird’s performance. But later, it will probably be more useful to look at career statistics.

A few notes on who’s included...

Two point guards have been injured or inactive: Temeka Johnson and Nikki Blue so their backups are included here.

Both Kelly Miller and Diana Taurasi are included because the share ball handling duties.

And oh yeah, I threw Candace Parker in there too since she does just about everything. But she isn’t ranked with the others, just there for the sake of comparison.

After all that we’ll arrive at a “conclusion”.

Pure Point Rating

The most obvious thing a point guard needs to do is to bring the ball up the court and initiate the team’s offense. But after that, a point guard is expected to create points for others, which is judged in box scores as “assists”.

Pure point rating (ppr) was developed by ESPN’s John Hollinger to replace “assist to turnover ratio”. The problem with assist to turnover ratio is that it assumes that a) assists and turnovers are equal and b) all levels of productivity are equal. PPR adjusts for the fact that good point guards play more minutes and get more turnovers because they take more risks with the ball as they create for others.

Hollinger also wisely points out that assists are a three part statistic:

  • The Passer has to pass it to the would be shooter
  • The shooter has to get open
  • The shooter has to make the shot
So Hollinger counts 2/3 of an assist in order to represent the true value of what the passer did. So here are rankings and scores for pure point rating among the WNBA’s starting point guards:


Lindsay Whalen 6.15
Deanna Nolan 5.18
Ivory Latta 5.07
Dominique Canty 5.01
Sue Bird 4.25
Nikki Blue 3.77
Kiesha Brown 3.53
Leilani Mitchell 2.70
Loree Moore 1.60
Candace Parker 1.52
Noelle Quinn 1.43
Candice Wiggins 1.32
Shannon Johnson 0.90
Temeka Johnson 0.58
Kelly Miller 0.28
Diana Taurasi 0.24
Ticha Penicheiro -0.30
Tully Bevilaqua -0.85
Helen Darling -1.89
Becky Hammon -2.22
Alana Beard -3.90

This is the best metric available for point guards in my opinion and right off the bat Whalen takes a noticeable lead. Dominique Canty’s named surprised me because I would not normally consider her a pure point guard…but she’s put up some good numbers this season.

Penicheiro is surprisingly low as we would all likely consider her to be the purest point guard in the league, but her numbers are unimpressive this year. Becky Hammon also shows up shockingly low given all the commotion about her playing for Russia.

But the point of this tedious exercise is that there’s more to a point guard than assists and turnovers…that why I have the other numbers.

Net +/-

It is often assumed that as a distributor, the point guard should be able to establish a rhythm for the team and have a positive impact on the game. Put simply, the team should play better and more smoothly when the point guard is on the floor than when she’s off the floor.

This statistic is not perfect – it doesn’t take into account which players she’s playing with, the effect of “chemistry”, or good defense. Nevertheless, it’s the best indicator we have to judge a point guard’s value on the floor. Let’s see how Ticha does here:

Plus Minus

Alana Beard 28
Candice Wiggins 23.9
Sue Bird 18.9
Ivory Latta 17.3
Ticha Penicheiro 15.7
Dominique Canty 15.3
Deanna Nolan 5.8
Temeka Johnson 5.5
Leilani Mitchell 3.7
Kelly Miller 3.7
Lindsay Whalen 2.8
Kiesha Brown 2.5
Shannon Johnson -4.2
Diana Taurasi -6.3
Loree Moore -6.5
Candace Parker -8.4
Noelle Quinn -9.1
Helen Darling -9.2
Nikki Blue -10.6
Becky Hammon -12.2
Tully Bevilaqua -18.6

Now we see Penicheiro and Bird at the top of the list, as I would expect for a statistic like this – Bird has in fact ranked tops in the league in this stat for the season. But again, I’m surprised at Canty and Ivory Latta’s position. It’s starting to look like the Sky depend on Canty more than I thought.

Hammon again comes up extremely low and keep in mind, this statistic is not based on box scores, but the player’s impact on the floor. Let’s see if Hammon can turn it around now…

Winscore per 40 minutes

As I’m evaluating point guards, who range from high scoring (Whalen) to average (Penicheiro), it doesn’t make sense to focus on scoring. However, as alluded to above, a point guard’s primary responsibility is to manage possessions.

Essentially, win score attempts to measure a player’s total contribution to their team’s wins. There are many player productivity statistics available but the claim is that this metric focuses on possessions rather than scoring. The simple breakdown is points + possessions gained – possessions lost + offensive and defensive help – helping the opponent. I’m looking at per minute production to level the playing field for those who just play less.

WS40 Rank

Lindsay Whalen 7.84
Candace Parker 5.99
Candice Wiggins 3.97
Diana Taurasi 3
Ticha Penicheiro 2.66
Deanna Nolan 1.82
Alana Beard 1.77
Loree Moore 1.70
Kiesha Brown 1.60
Noelle Quinn 1.32
Shannon Johnson 1.23
Tully Bevilaqua 1.01
Dominique Canty 0.47
Leilani Mitchell 0.43
Kelly Miller -0.12
Sue Bird -0.64
Becky Hammon -1.60
Nikki Blue -1.71
Helen Darling -1.92
Ivory Latta -2.85
Temeka Johnson -4.17

Whalen is again at the top of this list, but Canty and Bird who were near the top of the other metrics are much further down the list. This makes sense because Win Score favors rebounders. There is no better rebounding guard than Lindsay Whalen.

Again we see Becky Hammon at the bottom of this list as well. It may be obvious what is hurting Hammon in this first set of overall statistics – an extremely low field goal percentage and high number of turnovers.

Brief Summary

So with these three statistics that try to measure overall performance, here are the rankings:

1. Lindsay Whalen 50
2. Deanna Nolan 49
3. Candice Wiggins 48
4. Dominique Canty 41
5. Sue Bird 40
6. Ticha Penicheiro 38
7. Ivory Latta 37
8. Alana Beard 36
9. Kiesha Brown 36
10. Candace Parker 35*
11. Leilani Mitchell 33
12. Loree Moore 32
13. Diana Taurasi 31
14. Noelle Quinn 28
15. Shannon Johnson 28
16. Kelly Miller 25
17. Nikki Blue 22
18. Temeka Johnson 22
19. Tully Bevilaqua 15
20. Helen Darling 10
21. Becky Hammon 9

*Keep in mind that I'm not actually scoring Parker relative to the rest because she isn't a full-time point guard...I just wanted to see where she stacked up.

My instinct about why Hammon is so low is because she shoots too much…and that was also my instinct about Canty from watching her play and that's just not the case statistically. Latta is having a good season, but I would never have thought she’s one of the league’s top point guards.

So the next step is to look at the statistics that represent player decision making and possession use: usage rate, turnover ratio, assist ratio, and zero point possessions...

Continue reading...

Sue Bird: How a point guard can influence games during a shooting slump

. Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Make a comment!

The Seattle Storm are not quite meeting expectations and it’s tempting to place the blame one glaring statistic: Sue Bird’s field goal percentage.

Which brings up a long-standing dilemma – what is the value of a point guard that can’t shoot?

“That's how good of a player she is,” said Diana Taurasi, after Bird shot 1 for 12 in a loss to the Mercury. “She's one of the few players in this league that can go the whole game without taking a shot and affect the game more than anyone else. That's why she's the best point guard in the league, hands down.”

My initial impulse leads me to agree with Taurasi on this one – if I had to build a balanced team with the best players in the league, I’m going with Sue Bird as my point guard…hands down. The only other point guard I would consider is Lindsay Whalen. The only reason I wouldn’t pick Ticha Penicheiro is because she’s nearing the end of her career.

So how is it possible for a point guard like Bird to affect the game without making shots?

Fortunately, the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm faced each other last night which was a great opportunity to see Bird and Whalen go head-to-head.

Although the Sun escaped Seattle with a 74-67 victory – the first home loss for the Storm this year -- Bird probably came out with the stronger point guard statistics (13 pts, 5 asts, 6-10 FGA, 1-2 3P). But as Taurasi alludes to, being a point guard involves more than putting up numbers in the box score and this game was an excellent example of that.

Game Summary

It was a tight game that had four lead changes and four ties in the fourth quarter. For those that believe a point guard determines the personality of the team, this game certainly embodied that – while Seattle was steady and pretty consistent, the Sun were able to keep fighting and make big plays when it counted.

The Sun – and particularly Whalen – found a way to keep fighting and get better near the end of the game whereas Bird seemed to defer to her teammates as the Storm searched for options near the end. In other words, this was a perfect example of different styles of point guard play.

Whalen – the primary option point guard

The Sun depend a lot on Whalen – in addition to a patient offense – to win games. Whalen got off to a rough start and it definitely shows up in the final numbers (13 pts, 7 rebs, 4-11 FGA, 0-2 3PA). Four of those points were on free throws in the final seconds of the game. She was taken out of the game after the Storm went on a 10-0 run halfway through the first quarter. She came back in the second quarter and seemed much more active, especially after drawing a charge (ahem, flopping) against Bird.

But what characterizes Whalen is her ability to turn it on in pressure situations when the team needs her. Aside from the fact that she got all three of her assists in the second half and two in the last two minutes of a close game, she took it upon herself to win the game when it counted.

She did a number of things great point guards do. Most of it comes from trusting her team’s defense. She’s able to drive and drawing the defense one way to set up a play for someone else. Finding the open player to put them in position to score. And grabbing a huge offensive rebound near the end.

The perfect example of how Whalen influences the game as a point guard came with a minute left in the 4th quarter. She got a defensive rebound, brought the ball up the court, got the team into the offense, moved well without the ball, found a seam to drive baseline under the basket within the rhythm of the offense, froze four Storm players with a hard stop and found Barbara Turner wide open in the corner for a three.

Whalen is aggressive, gutsy, and plays with a lot of passion. Her strong build and balance allows her to do things other points cannot (rebound and withstand contact on a drive). She’s a player who can will a team to victory (I still think her Final Four run at the University of Minnesota is one of the greatest tournament performances of all time).

Bird – the facilitator or "pass first" point guard

In contrast, Bird is more of a finesse player who plays the role of facilitator, especially on a talent-laden team like the Storm. She’s not necessarily a “pass-first” point guard as she takes some questionable shots and has been a good scorer throughout her career. In fact, she took a number of contested shots and at least two shots before even passing the ball. But what strikes me about Bird – and what probably gets her the label of “pure point guard” -- is that she makes the right decision to set up her teammates and racks up the assists.

What we don’t see in either player’s numbers is the number of times they set someone up to score but the shooter missed. And not all were long jumpers, some were lay-ups and shots in the paint. Rather than exerting her will over the defense, Bird is very good at taking what the defense gives her and quickly making a good decision. She does an outstanding job of establishing the rhythm for the Storm and maintaining it.

She had four turnovers, which is not stellar but all of them came within the rhythm of the game and none of them were that costly. Turnovers come when good players take risks. There was a 45 second stretch in the third quarter that nicely captures how Bird influences the game as a point guard.

With six minutes to go in the third Bird found Lauren Jackson for a wide open three on a quick cross court pass after an out of bounds play. After a Whalen miss 30 seconds later, she made a long pass on a fast break that was intercepted. After Whalen gave the ball right back on a bad pass, Bird came down the court and nicely set up Jackson for another three that was missed.

Although she only came out with one assist and a turnover, she is constantly focused on getting the ball to others. She takes advantage of the opportunities – even the risky ones – for people to score.

Defense Counts Too…

Defensively, neither player is outstanding -- they both had their share of defensive lapses. However, they are smart defenders who are good at being in position to make stops, help, or rebound (in Whalen’s case). Bird wasn’t guarding Whalen the whole game, but neither player went off for a huge game.

No “I” in “team” (But there is in “win”)…

The Storm are an oddly constructed team. Though they had some good stretches in the second half (they were up one point when Turner hit the three described above) there were also times when they looked completely disoriented. And I don’t think that’s Bird’s fault.

They were built around a set of perennial all-stars, but their post player (Jackson) is their best long-range shooter…or best shooter from anywhere for that matter. They have a very thin bench that has been inconsistent this season. So when they stagnate on offense, it’s not necessarily because of any one player doing poorly. It’s because there’s no balance to spread the court and no dependable reserves with which to do so.

Bird essentially disappeared in the 4th quarter having little impact on the game outside of initiating the offense – she didn’t shoot, get an assist, or really set up someone else. Why? It looked like they were just waiting for one of their stars to light up on each play. Unfortunately, Cash and Swoopes shot a combined 5-22, including a questionable three point attempt by Swoopes with :20 seconds left.

The Sun are the polar opposite. Of course that starts with the fact that they aren’t loaded with all-stars. But they are a very balanced team, they move the ball well, remain patient under pressure and most of all, they trust their offense and each other. They have a deep bench that outscored the Storm’s bench 29-5.

Whalen is perfect as the “go to” player on this team because she’s able to balance scoring and distributing well and make the right decision for the team within the flow of that system.

Bird might be the perfect point guard for a team of all-stars…when they’re all making their shots.

Withholding judgment…for now…

Some might argue that since Bird focuses on setting players up, she’s the better point guard. Others might argue that since Whalen is winning more this season, she’s the better point guard. But I think in describing this game we see that there are different ways for a point guard to influence a game. Teams can win with either type of guard, it just depends on what kind of system they’re playing in.

But for now, I am sticking with my original opinion that Bird is the best “pure point guard” in the WNBA... but I’m working on a way to complement my observations with some numbers…

Transition Points:

  • A statistic that jumped out at me – the Storm Defense blog posted the most and least effective lineups for the storm after eight games (about a week and a half ago). The least effective group: “Bird-Swoopes-Cash-Jackson-Griffith: -4 (That is our starters folks.)” Not only the starters, but about 80% of their scoring. Ouch.
  • For the record, although Bird shook her shooting slump, her plus/minus came out at -4, while Whalen was +3. Prior to this game, Bird was leading all starting point guards in plus/minus ratio.
  • Sun coach Mike Thibault made a nice comment on the depth of his team’s bench after the game:
    It's good that we have the depth to be able to do that some nights. Sometimes you look down there and say, 'I wish I could do that, but I can't.' Our bench has been playing great and I thought they played really well. We got a spark from almost everybody in one form or another. We play so hard that we just try to wear people down. We're not the most talented team but we play together pretty well.

Continue reading...

What's Up With Phoenix's Rover Defense?

. Monday, June 16, 2008
Make a comment!

I enjoy watching Diana Taurasi play, so I was glad that she was on the national TV lineup on Saturday against the Detroit Shock.

Unfortunately, Taurasi had an off night – going 1 for 13 after her 37 point explosion against the Seattle Storm. But what jumped out at me was the Mercury’s rover defense…or rather, how ineffective it was in this loss to the Shock.

The Shock just carved up whatever the Mercury showed them en route to a 89 to 79 victory. Shock rookie forward Tasha Humphrey torched them for 28 points while guard Alexis Hornbuckle pulled down 15 boards. It was that kind of game.

The "rover" is a really interesting defensive scheme because it’s got to be hard for opposing teams to figure out. So I wanted to know more about it…and why more basketball teams don’t use it (although it’s been spreading for years apparently).

So I was left with a bunch of questions that can only be answered by watching more often. But here are a few initial impressions about what went wrong.

What is a Rover Defense?

From what I could tell, the rover is a lot like a match-up zone, though it looks very much like a lax 1-3-1 or 1-2-2 defense. The key is that Taurasi plays the role of “rover” or shadowing a key player that the Mercury wants to shut down. Apparently, Penny Taylor – who chose to stay in Australia to prepare for the Olympics this year – also played the Rover role last year.

There are some good animations of these defenses at The Coach's Clipboard.

Teams play this type of defense in different ways depending on the coach and personnel, but this rover style is typically credited to retired Temple University coaching legend John Chaney.

Where’s the Pressure?

But the key to these defenses – and the first thing I noticed – is putting pressure on the ball. For some reason, Taurasi rarely put any pressure on the lead ball handler. In fact, there was no pressure applied to the offense until they broke the three-point line. That’s a major problem for a zone predicated on movement and quick shifts to keep the offense off balance.

Conventional wisdom holds that the benefit of these types of match-up defenses is putting pressure on the ball and confusing the offense. It’s hard to understand how it would work without that. Without that pressure there are huge holes either along the baseline or in the middle of the key for the offense to exploit for easy baskets (which Detroit did). So although it may have been difficult to identify the type of defense the Mercury were in, Detroit’s perimeter players had no problem finding holes.

Ball movement is the best zone buster

Normally the key to bringing a team out of a zone is to drive the gaps or shoot three pointers to force the defense guard each player straight up. Both of those strategies require good ball movement to over extend the zone and leave someone open.

But without pressure on the ball handlers in a 1-3-1 or 1-2-2 formation, it’s easy to break the zone with quick cuts and good passes between the gaps. That’s exactly what the Shock did.

You have to figure that Bill Laimbeer had this game circled on his calendar after losing the finals to the Mercury and spent extra time with his staff figuring out how to break the Rover defense. Regardless, I thought Detroit perfectly exploited the weak pressure in the zone

Boxing out

Anytime a guard grabs 15 rebounds, it means someone failed to box out. What I saw yesterday with against the Mercury was people running in from outside the paint to grab rebounds over and over again.

Zone rebounding is difficult because there’s no specific defensive assignments to box out as there would be with a “man-to-man” defense. Somehow they’ll have to fix this.

We must be patient with Rover…

There’s more to this story than poor execution and a lot of that is explained by things outside Coach Corey Gaines’ control.

First, Penny Taylor was a major part of this team on both sides of the ball and the Mercury are definitely missing her in the zone defense to help Taurasi out.

Second, Taurasi wasn’t with the team in pre-season, so they weren’t able to integrate the key component of the defense. John Chaney’s Temple teams were notoriously slow starters because it took about half a season to get the defense working properly, even with returning players. Ditto for the Mercury:

“Our rover defense was something we focused on having had Diana and Cappie both here,” said . “It was kind of hardhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif to work on it without Diana, who is the rover, and we can’t just throw anybody in that spot. It’s something that took us half a season to get down last year so this week has really helped.”

Third, center Tangela Smith is injured right now, so all of the deficiencies a zone presents on the inside are magnified. They haven’t really found an adequate replacement for her.

It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes the Mercury to work this out and turn their season around. It looks like it will require someone to step up and fill the void Penny Taylor has left. I’ll probably come back to this once I watch a few more Mercury games more closely.

Transition Points:

From the Wages of Wins blog: “This year the Shock are again among the top teams in the league while the Mercury - with a record of 2-6 - are struggling. And of course we wonder why the Shock are still on top while the Mercury have declined. The answer - and this will not surprise - is in the stats. But the story will have to wait for another day.”

A potential explanation: last year, Penny Taylor was tied with Lauren Jackson for first in the league in “win shares”, or the contribution an individual player makes to their teams' overall performance. I’m sure he’ll look more deeply into that. Taylor also led the team in PER.

Relevant Links:

Hustling Shock roll in '07 Finals rematch

The Coach's Clipboard

One-On-One With Corey Gaines

Chaney Has His Owls In a Zone of Their Own

Continue reading...

The Male Moral Dilemma

Make a comment!

Nice article from the LA Times about women playing pick-up basketball...

"If she scores on me, it's humiliating," said Guernsey, a UCLA sophomore who often plays pickup games and dreads having to guard a woman. "If I score on her, I'm a jerk."

Humiliating? A jerk? Basketball is such a mind game. It can be something else too, as some guys get flustered by being so close to a woman who may be placing her butt on them (boxing out) and touching their hip (hand-checking). It can throw a guy's game off.

Then there are the guys who are all hands, if you get my drift. One grab too many. My quickness on the court has saved me. Simply put, I don't mind getting hit during a game, but hate getting hit on.

Continue reading...

"The Game You're Missing"

Make a comment!

A nice article from Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe about the WNBA.

The headline says it all.


In fact, the WNBA should take note of this headline -- it could make for a solid marketing campaign...

The sheer speed and flow of the game stunned me. I had run into Laimbeer in Detroit the week before and he had told me he would liken the current WNBA game to the men's game of the early '80s. It's still not being played above the rim, and probably never will be, which doesn't bother me one little bit. So Laimbeer was talking about speed and style of play, absent the dunks. And he was correct.

I realize that no amount of preaching will stir the average lunkhead male to go see a WNBA game. If I thought these people actually knew anything about basketball, I'd say it's their loss.

Continue reading...

Monarchs Fans Ron Artest and Chris Webber Square Off On the Mic

. Sunday, June 15, 2008
Make a comment!

I was pleasantly surprised to see the Sacramento Kings' Ron Artest and former Kings star Chris Webber doing some commentary during the LA Sparks road victory over the Sacramento Monarchs last night.

I had completely forgotten that Ron Artest was supposed to be doing some color commentary for the Sacramento Monarchs this year. But it seemed like Chris Webber just happened to stop by.

Apparently they switched off between doing television and radio so fans got a healthy dose of both.

So…who was better: Artest or Webber?

I liked Webber better, hands down. He was upbeat, cracking jokes, and brought some verve to a game in which the Monarchs just fell apart in the second half.

Webber also did a pretty good job of bringing the player's perspective to the broadcast, which can’t otherwise be gathered from just watching as a fan. And you have to appreciate that – little things about coaching players to do more than “play their height”, working out with Ticha Penicheiro, and how his agent called him about working out with Candace Parker.

“Listen, I watched the first WNBA game that she had…my agent told me that she was good and he said, “You should work out with her”. And I said, I’m not working out with her. But maybe I should have – maybe she would have kept me in the league a little bit longer. She can play.”

Webber also had some interesting endorsements of the WNBA after a beautiful drive and finish by Penicheiro followed by a difficult left handed hook on the block from Candace Parker.
“This is basketball. You know what-- I don’t care-- You have to love sports and these ladies are bad, I’m telling you. The left hand spin jump hook which is hard – which I know professional guys who can’t do that.”

Play-by-play announcer Jim Kozimor later asked Webber for his thoughts on much how NBA players appreciate the WNBA game.
“I’ll tell you the truth – last year I was with the Pistons. And Rasheed and I, we watched all these games and we would talk about how good these girls were. Because actually, I think I got better late in my career because of the lack of my athletic ability. And because some of the ladies maybe cant dunk and just rely on that, it is tougher to make a lay up in traffic than it is to dunk in traffic because you’re over everyone. So the skill factor we believe in this game is much tougher or just the same. So we really respect this game.”

Webber also commented on how much the game is improving, after color commentator Krista Blunk asked about his thoughts on this year's rookie class.
“I think the game is changing. I think these young kids are taking the information and taking the plays that they’ve seen and gone home and just come up with some extraterrestrial type stuff so they are prepared to play. It’s a new game.”

Artest was interesting in that I-have-to-keep-listening-because-he-could-go-off-at-any-moment kind of way. Maybe Artest hasn’t been in front of a mic as often (Webber appeared on TNT a few times during the NBA playoffs), but he just didn’t sound quite as comfortable or engaging as Webber.

In contrast to Webber’s vibrant and playful style, Artest was rather dry. He kept mentioning that Candace Parker is 6'5” and can play. He also made a number of uninspiring comments like, “Sometimes a shot is better than a turnover.” Hmmm…ok.

Artest also needed more prompting from Kozimor and color commentator Krista Blunk, whereas Chris Webber was better at contributing without being prompted to do so.

Of course Artest is clearly excited about being there and he has to get better. Really, he has to.

Maybe their futures in commentating will be decided by their other commitments: while Webber has time to kill in retirement, Artest still has a day job.

Transition points:

- They mentioned during the broadcast that the Monarchs were 2-0 when Artest made an appearance at a game – he did commentary opening night and watched a win in New York. That streak is now over.

- Why doesn't ex-Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller do some color commentary for the Indiana Fever?

He obviously has an interest in broadcasting – he’s been working for TNT and had a talk show for a little while.

Ex-Chicago Bull Stacey King does the color commentary for the Chicago Sky.

You probably know that his sister and legendary women's basketball player, Cheryl, also does some sideline work for TNT.

So why not?

People say Cheryl was the better basketball player and as of right now, she's the better broadcaster as well.

Honestly, I am just a huge Reggie Miller fan. He was easily one of the best clutch shooters in NBA history. Plus he was a pioneer for skinny players worldwide, which I can appreciate.

So it’s time to reveal my real motivation: I just want to keep his mind off a comeback. It would just ruin his legacy even though he might be able to help a contender get a ring.

- Slam Online journalist Lang Whitaker commented on Candace Parker’s fiancée and Sacramento Kings forward Shelden Williams’ frequent appearances at Sparks games:
“Also, two celebrities there in the front row: Jack Black and Shelden Williams. I’m guessing Shelden Williams must be the Nicholson of the Sparks.”
If Shelden could become a star basketball player somehow then that comparison could make sense

Continue reading...