Team Synergy: The Value of Ball Movement in the WNBA

. Saturday, July 12, 2008
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If someone forced me to list the things that I value most in the game of basketball, ball movement would probably be at the top of the list.

It is probably why I put so much energy into evaluating point guards – the point guard would seem to be the engine on the floor that gets the ball moving and keeps the team in rhythm.

However, I also think ball movement is actually underrated although people give a lot of lip service to it. It’s scoring, rebounding, and -- to a lesser extent – individual assists that grab all the attention. Part of that might be that ball movement – an indicator of team chemistry – is very difficult to quantify. But I think APBRmetricians have made great strides in helping us with that.

During the Mercury's victory over the Comets on Tuesday, I noticed an assisted field goals (a/fg) stat mentioned at halftime. Essentially it boils down to the percentage of field goals that resulted from an assist.

After the game, I looked through some Mercury boxscores. There seemed to be some relationship between ball movement and Taurasi’s scoring in Mercury victories – in games when the Mercury moved the ball better than opponents and Taurasi scored above her average, the Mercury won all but one game.

This got me curious – what does this assisted field goals statistic really tell us? And how important is ball movement on teams that can effectively run offenses not conducive to assists (e.g. teams where one or two players bears the scoring burden)?

Since that Mercury game on Tuesday, I watched two additional games with an eye on ball movement trends – Dream vs. Lynx and Sparks vs. Monarchs. And I saw the same thing I saw in the Mercury game: if a team doesn’t have good ball movement, they need a star who can carry the team. But even more important is a team’s ability to disrupt their opponents’ ball movement.

In the process of trying to make sense of all this, I came across a simple NBA statistic created by Jeff Fogle that may be even more useful for the WNBA: synergy.

(I wrote this partially to document my own thinking...but it got kinda long. So if you want to cut to the chase, skip to the section titled: "Team Synergy: Ball movement and shooting ability". You've been warned.)

Ball movement theory

This whole endeavor ended up going way beyond the assisted field goals statistic, so I’ll start with a simple theory about ball movement that should seem more like common sense than any kind of real analysis.

It’s simple – even if you have a volume shooter who can score efficiently, if the team can’t move the ball and create a variety of scoring opportunities, the team gets predictable. What ball movement does is force the defense to work hard and eventually leave gaps that the offense can exploit. If the offense becomes predictable, the defense can focus all of their attention on stopping one (or two) players, which makes it difficult to score if a player has an off night or if the opponents have more weapons on offense.

(A great example of offensive ball movement was that New York blowout of the Phoenix Mercury broken down quite well at the X’s and O’s of Basketball blog.)

Conversely, if you can stop an opposing team’s ball movement with strong defense, you limit their scoring opportunities and force them to be dependent on one or two options. It’s not just about playing passing lanes, but also blocking shots and playing good on-ball defense.

A good example of this – if you’ll allow me to make an NBA diversion – is the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers. Some people might use that team as an example when ball movement didn’t matter because one player – Allen Iverson – took the majority of the shots. However, what people forget is that they were also able to shut down their opponents’ ball movement – they were among the best defensive teams in the league, if not the best.

Philadelphia’s center, Dikembe Mutombo, was NBA Defensive Player of the Year and led the league in rebounding and Iverson led the league in steals. So although they were a below average shooting team and had a high turnover percentage, they made up for it on defense.

So really, I think ball movement is about two things – establishing your own and disrupting the opponents’ offense.

Ball movement statistics: What is the value of assists in the WNBA?

An important preliminary question to look at before going any further is the value of assists to winning basketball games.

Go back to that Allen Iverson team again – certainly one could argue that Iverson’s individual field goal percentage on a given night would be worth more than team assists (they were near the bottom of the league that year in assists).

The Wall Street journal published an article earlier this year describing how assists in the NBA are in fact overrated in relation to team wins. The article suggested that actually, the differential between team assist percentage and opponents’ assist percentage is what really mattered. That’s similar to what I found just looking through the Mercury box scores. But to what extent is the differential in the WNBA important compared to the WNBA?

Kevin Pelton suggested in a comment on my rookie rankings post that perhaps, “creating shots for others is slightly more important in the W. If that's true, though, I doubt it's by much.” If that is so, not only are assists more important, but so is ball movement on the whole, no matter what system a team runs.

So there’s a basic way to cover some ground on this without taking a course in advanced statistics – comparing NBA and WNBA assisted field goal percentage. After looking at the numbers a bit, it was clear that assists per field goals attempted (percentage of assisted baskets out of all shots) seemed more descriptive than assists/field goals made (I’ll come back to that later).

Assisted field goal percentage: WNBA vs. NBA

So ast/fga numbers are actually quite close. But the fact that field goal percentages differ by a few percentage points may tell us more.

WNBA (2007 season) Ast/Fg: 25.03% FG%: 41.99%
NBA (2007-2008 season) Ast/FG: 26.68% FG%: 45.72%

Considering that teams shoot 100% on all assisted field goals (we know the ball went in because someone was credited with an assist), the differential in field goal percentage seems to indicate that WNBA teams are more dependent on assisted field goals to play efficiently than NBA teams. (Again, these are surface level boxscore statistics, so if anyone has done something more advanced to demonstrate this, I’d love to see it).

I know some people might use this as a knock on the WNBA, but I don’t see it that way. I actually think the increased dependence on team basketball is better to watch than the one-on-one showcases that we see in the NBA, best represented by Iverson’s 2001 76ers.

Anyway, here’s a look at the top 10 teams in the NBA and WNBA in assisted field goals differential, as suggested by the WSJ article:

WNBA 2007

A/FGA Diff. NBA 2007-2008

A/FGA Diff.
PHO 03.37%

PHO 10.49%
SAS 01.93% UTA 06.92%
IND 01.91% BOS 04.89%
CON 01.52% LAL 03.84%
NYL 01.06% SAS 03.57%
DET 00.76% DET 02.90%
CHI 00.18% DAL 02.78%
MIN -00.43% HOU 02.75%
HOU -00.88% NJN 02.18%
SEA -01.34% TOR 01.68%

Quick note: The reason that three teams in the WNBA’s top ten have a negative differential is that there were only 13 teams last year, so it’s natural for 6 or 7 teams – about half -- to have a negative differential. In the NBA, it’s the same – 15 of 30 teams have a negative differential.

So the first thing I notice is that whatever is in the water in Phoenix should be bottled and sold to every other team.

But seriously, this seems to work out somewhat well – conference finalists in both leagues rank in the top six and the championship teams in both leagues rank in the top three.

However, there are a few glaring flaws with this – the Phoenix Suns blew everyone away but lost in the first round of the 16-team playoffs. In the WNBA, three non-playoff teams – Chicago, Minnesota, and Houston -- end up ahead of Seattle, a playoff team. The New Jersey Nets ended the season 10th in the NBA’s weaker Eastern Conference. And the Sacramento Monarchs who came in 3rd in the Western Conference are 11th in the league in assist differential.

So these figures lead me to another point – that assisted field goals alone may not in fact the only number to look at. Even in a one season sample, that seems to make sense – this doesn’t take into account defense, rebounding, or most importantly bad shooting.

If a team moves the ball and nobody around can shoot it, does it make a difference?

Team Synergy: Ball movement and shooting ability

If I pass the ball to you 100 times and you only make 30 shots, while I could make 40 shots on my own, it would be perfectly reasonable to keep shooting the ball myself…for the good of my own stats and the team.

So a team like Seattle that has MVP Lauren Jackson to pass to is probably wise to do so as often as possible, whether there’s good ball movement or not (…and as a side note, both Jackson and Sue Bird were injured for parts of the 2007 season which undoubtedly had an effect on these figures).

Fortunately, Jeff Fogle, who writes the Stat Intelligence blog, has already tried to address this problem and created an NBA stat called “synergy”. He not only looked at offensive synergy, but a team’s ability to shut down another team’s synergy.

Synergy is a simple formula – assisted basket percentage plus field goal percentage. Pretty simple, something you can take right out of a box score, but it does have some descriptive power. Fogle writes:
Teams with low numbers tend to isolate one-on-one. Teams with high number pass the ball around to get open looks. Either approach can work. I’m more biased toward higher numbers…but teams have won championships with lower numbers. This is a “descriptive” stat more than a good/bad stat. Though, there’s actually a good correlation to success when you look at it from the defensive perspective. “Disrupting” synergy is a positive.

So my thinking was that if we looked a team’s offensive and defensive synergy scores and found that differential, we might have something even more useful. Here are the results (WNBA and NBA again):

WNBA 2007

NBA 2007-08
Team A/FGA Diff
SynDiff Team A/FGA Diff SynDiff
PHO 3.37% 6.86% PHO 10.50% 14.90%
DET 0.76% 4.19% UTA 6.92% 10.59%
IND 1.91% 3.57% BOS 4.89% 10.50%
CON 1.53% 2.42% LAL 3.85% 6.96%
SAS 1.93% 2.09% DET 2.90% 4.98%
NYL 1.06% 1.36% DAL 2.79% 4.90%
SEA -1.35% -0.25% SAS 3.57% 4.88%
HOU -0.88% -0.50% HOU 2.76% 4.34%
CHI 0.18% -2.13% ORL 0.73% 3.57%
SAC -1.79% -3.91% TOR 1.69% 2.73%

So the first noticeable thing looking at the synergy differential (SynDiff) scores is that the WNBA finalists end up #s 1 and 2. Additionally, all 8 playoff teams are now in the top 10 and no non-playoff teams are in the NBA’s top ten (although three playoff teams don’t crack the top 20). This is an improvement and it’s fair to say that there’s something to synergy score, for the WNBA, if not the NBA.

The reason it’s not working for the NBA as well as the WNBA is not my concern here, though I have some ideas of why that might be. However, if we could just figure out what’s going on in Sacramento, it seems as though this is a useful metric for the WNBA.

Observations of synergy in games

So from the three games I watched this week here are the synergy scores:

Mercury (71.86%) beat Comets (90.30%)
Dream (60.84%) beat Lynx (63.48%)
Monarchs (74.61%) beat Sparks (74.61%)

As I described my summary of the Mercury Comets game, it seems like there are other factors at work that could be influencing this outcome – in all 3 of the games I watched, the team with a lower synergy differential won.

Part of that might be that the Dream, Monarchs, and Mercury used big runs to pull away in the second half and those runs were the difference in the game. In addition, at least the Dream and Mercury were sparked by one player having huge 4th quarters to win, meaning synergy was not the key element.

Although this seems to have some descriptive value at the team level over the course of a season, it seems to be less effective at the game level. So how do we make sense of that?

Balance is the key

To figure out what was going wrong, I started by trying to figure out why Sacramento ranked so low in 2007. I was stumped for a while – how could a team neither move the ball well nor disrupt the other team’s offense and still make the playoffs?

So I played it out in my head – if you have poor ball movement, can’t defend the other team, and don’t shoot the ball well, how on earth can you win and end up third in the conference? Well if you’re not getting assists and missing shots, the only opportunity to score is on offensive rebounds.

Turns out the Monarchs were the best offensive rebounding team in the league last season…and in the history of the WNBA (by a wide margin). Three Monarchs -- Rebekkah Brunson, Adrian Williams, and Yolanda Griffith – were top 10 in the league in offensive rebounding percentage.

Then I thought about the fact that I had not factored in turnovers yet. Obviously, turnovers are harmful and if you have good ball movement but toss the ball away, you can’t possibly reap the benefits. In the Monarchs-Sparks game from Thursday night, turnovers figured prominently – the Sparks had 26 turnovers to the Monarchs’ 14.

Those of you more familiar with basketball statistics might recognize this line of thinking – it’s very similar to Dean Oliver’s Four Factors, which ranks shooting percentage, turnovers per possession, offensive rebounding percentage, and free throws as the four most important aspects of basketball.

Could synergy differential be used along with some of aspect of the Four Factors to create a meaningful score for the WNBA? I think so…and I’ll post that thinking tomorrow.

In the meantime, I think synergy does strengthen an argument consistent with common sense: in general, the most successful teams have better synergy than their opponents.

What I found is pretty interesting – the ratio of assists to field goals made, which is roughly assisted field goal percentage is huge. But star power is bigger. If you have both ball movement and a top 10 scorer, there’s almost no way for a team to stop you.

Relevant Links:

NBA Game Theory - -a post about A/FGA ratio in the NBA from D Sparks at the Arbitrarian blog.

An A/FG ratio thread at APBRmetrics

Transition Points:

An interesting post from Eric Musselman’s blog that I enjoyed:
Can a good coach help an average (or below average) team to be more competitive and win a few more games over the course of a season? Of course.
Effective coaches who know not only the strategic and technical aspects of the game (i.e., the X's and O's), but also the "soft" side of the game (e.g., how to motivate, communicate, etc.), are likely to get the most out of their players.

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E-Conversation with Lakehead University about Darnellia Russell

. Friday, July 11, 2008
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Most of you have probably heard that Darnellia Russell will be playing in Ontario, Canada for Lakehead University in her continued quest to play in the WNBA.

Well, I got an email from Lakehead University's sports information director -- Mike Aylward -- which led to an extended discussion about Russell's commitment and Lakehead's program. We also got into a discussion about how sports organizations can increase their visibility through web casting...but I'll get back to that at a later date.

I figured others might be interested in pieces of that discussion, particularly Russell's future plans, how she fits into Lakehead's system, and more about what this means to the university. I hope it provides a tiny bit of insight into where Russell is at in her basketball career and where she's going rather than the much publicized (and often inaccurate) story of where she's been.

Just to refresh your memory: Russell is best known for her role in the documentary "The Heart of the Game" (which you should see if you haven't see it yet). She played for the Seattle Community College Storm while attending North Seattle Community College from 2004-2006 and has now committed to playing for Lakehead University in Ontario. Russell has three years of eligibility remaining since the Canadian Interuniversity Sport – the Canadian equivalent of the NCAA -- allows five years of eligibility. Russell still has her sights set on the WNBA though and it sounds like she plans to do so after finally getting her degree.

Aylward put me in contact with head coach Jon Kreiner. who was kind enough to answer a few simple questions about his new star recruit and the Lakehead women's basketball team.

Q: The Globe and Mail article made reference to Russell's need to attend a four- year institution in order to play in the WNBA. Has she discussed that with the coaching staff and, if so, how many seasons are they expecting her to play at Lakehead?

JK: I am expecting that Darnellia will play 3 seasons at Lakehead. She has three years of eligibility left in Canada and with her transfer credits from Seattle CC she will be able to attain a 4-year degree in three years.

Q: What type of system does the Lakehead team run and how might Russell fit into it?

JK: We will be running a very close version of the dribble-drive motion offense. It will be lead by both Darnellia and fellow guard Tasia McKenna (point guard from Halifax, NS who will start, giving Lakehead one of the best back-courts in the country) with dribble attack concepts from the point by; i) elbow attack, ii) point-to-point attack and iii) high ball-screens.

From there our players will be well trained as to the motion concepts to play off Darnellia's and Tasia's reads by rotating behind, sliding away and back door cuts (in & out cuts with the posts and shooters moving into the passing lanes or back door vs good shooter coverage and overplay).

Defensively we will be one of the most athletic teams in the country (if not the most) from point guard down to post. We will trap and rotate on defense as the players see fit (almost a motion defense)! Aggressive in your face on the wings, great ball pressure and forcing lobs in the post.

CIS uses international rules (FIBA) with a 24 second shot clock and 8 seconds to get it over half court so this style of play works well with those rules.

We have one player, 5'11" Kathryn Verboom (5th year wing from Thunder bay, ON) come close to making the national team last week (5 cuts away), Tasia McKenna is a 5'4" Point Guard that is a terrific shooter and passer, 6'2" Shannon Vellinga will start in the Post and is one of our most athletic and fastest players. Obviously Darnellia will start but we will be looking for the 5th starter come training camp. Top potentials would be Chiaki Nakamura from Japan (5'9" guard) who is a great 3 point shooter (and also played at North Seattle Community College), Lisa styles who is a 5'8" athletic guard, 6'2" Forward Lindsay Druery or 5'11" forward Kendelle Kavanagh. 5'11" wing sarah Gordon also played well at the end of last season and is a great 3 point shooter.

Q: What, if anything, surprised you about her (skill set or personality) when you met her in person?

JK: Darnellia surprised me with her team first mentality. When she played in her first scrimmage she took 1 shot. She then came to me and said, "It will take me a little time to get to know the players before I get going." She was already setting herself up for next year and for winning those scrimmages. She was not worried about showing what she could do offensively but what she could do to win games, like a true point guard. Her personality was also very "easy" meaning easy to talk to and get along with. That goes for the coaching staff and players.

Q: From a coaching standpoint, are there any skills in particular that you plan to help her with in preparation for the WNBA?

JK: She needs to be a much more consistent shooter. Hopefully I can help her with that in three years!


It appears as though this commitment is a great mutual fit -- Lakehead wants to play uptempo and Russell's speed and court vision should facilitate that. Given Russell’s skill set, the team should be pretty exciting to watch with a dribble drive offense and a few three point shooters. (The X’s and O’s of basketball blog has a nice post about the dribble drive to give you a sense of what that looks like).

The signing has already generated a buzz about this fall's women's basketball season at Lakehead, according to Aylward.

She is creating quite a stir here; which I think is great considering our marquee team is the hockey team...Darnellia's recruitment creates more excitement for basketball at Lakehead in a year which also sees a promising men's recruiting class and the fact that hockey will host the CIS national championships (unlike NCAA, in CIS the host gets a berth in champs)...Having Darnellia will anchor a pretty good squad and raise them up while the men's team has an incredible player from Baltimore as its star and had a great recruiting class too.
Relevant Links:

The CIS Blog: Women's hoops: a Russell roundup

Transition points:

The Globe and Mail as well as other major media outlets have picked up the story thus far. It will no doubt help with future recruiting during Russell’s tenure and beyond. "There is a lot of community support for women's basketball in Thunder Bay and women's basketball and fan support this year should be great," said Kreiner.

Thus far, it’s Russell’s court vision that has most impressed her new teammates (click the link for other impressions of Russell's game):
“I think we’ve found somebody who’s a really good passer, just from scrimmaging with her the one time she was here in April. She can pass really well, she sees the court really well, and I think with time will be able to play to everyone’s strengths,” said Verboom, one of the final five cuts at last week’s national women’s team training camp in southern Ontario.
Additional thoughts from Kreiner about Russell:
Darnellia is a great athlete with a tremendous knowledge of the game. She is a winner, winning at all levels of play. Even in our scrimmages; you could see that it was about doing what was needed to be done to win. She can score and defend but her greatest strengths are her vision, ball-handling, passing ability and knowledge of the game.
…and as Helen noted in the comments on Tuesday's post about Russell, the details about why she didn’t obtain a Division I scholarship – and why she was denied entry to the WNBA -- are still somewhat unclear:

“She started university, but while concentrating on her schoolwork, she ran out of eligibility.”

“Russell, cast aside by two high schools after getting pregnant, forced to sue the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association to restore a fifth-year of eligibility, and shunned by Division 1 schools in the U.S…”

By the way, because no television networks will come to the small city of Thunder Bay, Ontario to broadcast games, Aylward set up a system for video and audio casting Lakehead games via the web. Perhaps some inspiration for the WNBA to find a way to “independently broadcast” marquee games that aren’t picked up by networks?

If you want to keep up with Russell and Lakehead, their season starts in the fall and the games available via webcast for the low price of $6.95 Canadian…which should be about US $30 by the fall. ;)

Here’s their schedule for the fall:

You may be able to tell that I loved the Heart of the Game. It was not only a great documentary, but should be considered among the best sports movies, surpassed only by Hoop Dreams which is one of my favorite movies ever.

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Are the Dream Starting To Like This Whole Winning Thing?

. Thursday, July 10, 2008
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Remember that old line from the movie Major League?

"We've won two games in a row. If we win tonight, its called a winning streak. IT HAS HAPPENED BEFORE."

If the Dream can beat the San Antonio Silver Stars on Friday, they'll have a winning streak going. I'm not saying that will happen.... but you gotta root for 'em. From

"We lost enough games for a lifetime," Lacy said. "We're just resilient. We keep fighting and we find a way to come back. We make scrappy plays, we somehow find baskets. That's been a character of our team the whole season, it's just that now we're finding a way to pull out those W's."

A sudden increase in defensive intensity in the second half led to a Minnesota collapse as they started turning the ball over and forcing up shots. After such an effective first half, I admit I tuned out much of the 3rd quarter out until I realized the Dream were so close.

And for all the shots Betty Lennox seemed to force up in the first half, she got hot in the second half and came up with big shots when her team needed them most.

But something that jumps out at me is that Lennox played a much more efficient game than you'd expect from a player who spends so much time with the ball in her hands looking to score.

The Dream have been the worst team in the league in rebounding differential this season -- they have been consistently out rebounded by approximately 7 rebounds a game by opponents. Allison Bales' rebounding and defense gave them a huge lift and allowed them to initiate the fast break and use the quickness of their guards to their advantage. Kristin Haynie's 5 assists and 3 steals against one turnover kept the Dream in rhythm. Ivory Latta's aggressiveness and seemingly endless intensity in the 2nd and 3rd quarters kept the Dream in the game.

People compare Lennox to Allen Iverson but may forget that Iverson had an entire team built around him to complement his scoring ability. When the Philadelphia 76ers made the Finals in 2001, he had some very good distributors playing with him in Eric Snow and Aaron McKie and a slew of defensive players backing him up, including Dikembe Mutombo. I don't think the Dream are quite there yet, but eventually they will have to make that choice -- build the whole thing around Lennox or trade her to get better complementary pieces.

I sometimes cringe at all of Lennox's shooting, but Atlanta got into a good rhythm in the second half and disrupted the Lynx's rhythm. If they can continue to do that and Bales can provide some offensive firepower in the paint, the Dream should be able to surprise some teams that are taking them for granted after their slow start.

Transition Points:

The Pleasant Dreams blog had a post a few days ago analyzing the Bales/Mann trade using Diamond Rating... turns out his assessment that "...Bales might have something extra to offer if you give her time." could be pretty accurate.

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How did Whalen not make the Olympic team?

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I thought it was a no-brainer that Lindsay Whalen would make the U.S. women's basketball team.

She's easily one of the best players in the WNBA: she's an MVP candidate and the leader of one of the best teams in the league.

Aside from outstanding statistics, there's the intangibles: she's tough, she's a winner, and she's a team player.

So why on earth was she left off the team?

I think the answer probably comes down to experience and the belief that they needed a complementary player off the bench.


The final three players supposedly selected -- Tamika Catchings, Kara Lawson, and DeLisha Milton-Jones -- all have more international experience with the U.S. team than Whalen. So that has to be part of the decision.

But my question is at what point do you bring new blood into the system? Couldn't Whalen have replaced Milton-Jones to give the team another point guard who can create for others in addition to Bird?

Complementary role players

The other thing they were probably looking for is role players who can come in and fit within a team concept. Perhaps they thought that Whalen was too much of a lead player to take a role on a team as a reserve. That might sound crazy, but I think it has already been well established that "all-star teams" are less competitive in international play.

However, if this was part of the reasoning, I'd have to disagree... from what I've seen Whalen is an amazing team player and one of the most versatile players in the league. She can do all the things you want a lead guard to do, plus she has range from the three point line, she rebounds, and she's just one of those players who seems to lay it all on the line every single play.

If I were putting together a team like this, I would absolutely want someone as versatile as Whalen coming off the bench... it just seems to make sense. It gives you flexibility in case a back court player gets tired or if the matchups demand a change of pace. I have no doubt that a player like Taurasi or Katie Smith can handle point guard duties as well, but Whalen is just a better distributor than either of them.

Oh well...

In the end, it's not a bad thing for the Sun at least, as Matt suggests on his Connecticut Sun blog:

For the Sun, it's probably a great thing she isn't going. That means every one of its players besides Erin Phillips (who is playing for Australia) will have the entire month to rest and recharge, similar to the 2004 Connecticut team that went on a tear to finish the regular season and reached the WNBA finals.
That's a pretty good point in my opinion.

But I still hope we'll eventually find out why Whalen was left off the team. I admit that I just like watching her play and am a little disappointed, but strategically, it's just puzzling.

And it also makes me wonder about what type of strategy they have in mind -- what kind of offense will they run and what will the rotation look like?

Relevant Links:

Whalen left off U.S. Olympic team

Whalen An Alternate For Olympic Team,0,6413581.story

Transition Points:

Indeed, team chemistry was probably the key for Lawson's selection. From Lawson on USA
"I have played with every single player on the team within the past year, with the exception of Tamika Catchings, who I played with in was important because it allowed me to learn about the players I was playing with, develop a knowledge of their game and see how they fit with my game. It also gave us time to develop a sense of team chemistry and to get to know each other as people and our different personalities. I don’t think anything about the Olympics will be easy, so I can’t say it’s going to be easy in terms of when we gel."

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Phoenix Wins With Defense (!!), Ball Movement, and a Dose of Taurasi

. Wednesday, July 9, 2008
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For the first time this season, the Phoenix Mercury made their “rover” defense look brilliant.

That's right, Phoenix won with defense.

Diana Taurasi’s outstanding 4th quarter performance and clutch defense has gotten all the headlines for the win thus far. However, it was the huge increase in defensive intensity and offensive focus in the second half that led to the Mercury’s 99-94 comeback win over the Comets.

Of course you could argue that Taurasi was singularly responsible for the momentum shift throughout the entire second half.

Down by 8 at halftime, the Mercury picked up the defensive intensity led by Taurasi, who picked up Shannon Johnson almost at half-court for most of the 3rd quarter.

On offense, Phoenix’s defensive intensity created a better rhythm on offense and allowed them to score more easily in transition, which got the momentum back. Taurasi’s shooting and playmaking ability figured prominently in that change as well.

But the thing that struck me most about this game was ball movement – on both sides of the ball. And really, it was a tale of two halves. Houston’s ball movement got them the lead in the first half and Phoenix’s ability to disrupt Houston’s ball movement and establish their own is what led them to the win.

And there was an interesting statistic displayed during the web cast that I think supports the ball movement story of this game very well – assists to field goals made ratio.

Stopping Houston’s ball movement

In the first half, Houston was moving the ball extremely well and getting almost whatever shot they wanted against Phoenix’s rover defense, from three pointers to baseline drives to second chance points in the paint.

I don’t know exactly what Mercury coach Corey Gaines said at halftime, but Phoenix came out with a renewed sense of purpose and upped the intensity. Gaines did let us in on the following in the post game press conference:

“It’s tough because every team you play has a different offense that they throw at you and we’re still working on our rover defense. As soon as Julie (Hairgrove), my defensive coach, figures out what they’re doing, we try to make adjustments to their style of play.”
With Taurasi picking up the point guards near mid-court, Phoenix was able to completely disrupt the flow of Houston’s offense. And it wasn’t just Taurasi’s defense, but the entire team rotating faster, getting their hands in the faces of Houston’s shooters and deflecting passes. It's what the rover defense has been missing all season, or at least in every game I've seen.

Even when they fouled the Comets' ball handlers, the message was clear – the Comets weren’t going to get any more easy baskets against the zone.

Increasing their own ball movement

On offense, when Phoenix wasn’t running and scoring in transition, they were swinging the ball and putting more pressure on the Comets’ defense by forcing them to rotate. Taurasi was huge on offense as well, not only with her scoring, but by using her superior court vision and ball handling skills to find open teammates for scoring opportunities.

By playing so effective in transition and forcing the Comets to really work on defense, by the middle of the 4th quarter, it was clear that Houston just ran out of gas.

Assist to field goals made ratio

It’s difficult to capture the effect of shifting momentum with a statistic, but in this case the change in assist to field goals ratio (ast/fg) did actually represent the drastic shifts in ball movement throughout the game.

I think of ast/fg as an approximation of assisted scoring opportunities. In other words, it tells us how often the team’s made field goals came as the result of a pass from a teammate. In this game at least, the team with the higher ratio was definitely moving the ball more effectively.

For the game, the Comets had a big advantage in ast/fg, because of their excellent ball movement in the first half. At halftime, the Comets had 17 asts to 22 fgs (77%) while the Mercury had 8 asts on 17 fgs (47%). This mirrors what I observed in the first half – for the most part, the Mercury were scoring on individual plays, whereas the Comets were scoring by moving the ball within their offense.

In the second half these numbers shifted slightly. The Comets had 10 asts on 14 fgs (71%) and the Mercury had 11 asts on 15 fgs (73%). Although the Comets percentage of assists didn’t change drastically, you’ll notice the number of assists did. Meanwhile the Mercury increased their number of assists while also shooting more efficiently from the three point line (45%). They were moving the ball around and finding higher quality scoring opportunities.

When you look at the whole picture, the Mercury’s considerable increase in ball movement and efficiency on offense got them back into this game. But Diana Taurasi’s ability to create for herself won it.

The MVP candidate puts the Mercury over the top

12-year WNBA veteran Tina Thompson is having a great season. Taurasi is just having a better season.

Currently, ranked in the top 5 in’s MVP rankings, Taurasi put on a show today that perfectly illustrates why she stands to be a perennial MVP contender for the rest of her career.

On an afternoon in which she scored her 3000th point, she complemented her scoring with 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks (!!) and 3 steals, not to mention going 7 for 7 from the free throw line. That’s right, she did absolutely everything a player can be expected to do.

So when she turned it up a notch in the fourth quarter along with the improved team defense and ball movement, it was just too much for Houston to respond to. The Mercury outscored Houston by 11 points in the 4th.

You might look at Taurasi’s team-high 19 shots and say that she was shooting too much to be helping her team. But when you shoot as efficiently as Taurasi did, you actually draw the attention of the defense and open up the offense for your team.

Taurasi’s field goal percentage was 47%, but if you consider the value of the three pointers she made in addition to her perfect outing at the free throw line, you get an even more spectacular story. I’ll borrow the Scoring field goal percentage (ScFG) statistic from Bob Chaiken for this one.
Bob Chaikin, whose fine statistical research can be found at, ranks shooting efficiency with a statistic called scoring field goal percentage. The formula is: (Two point field goals made + 1.5 X Three point field goals made + Free throws made/2) / (Field goals attempted + Free throws attempted/2).

This method provides a more complete picture than field goal percentage does because it accounts for the added value of three-pointers made plus the points produced by drawing fouls and making free throws.
Taurasi’s ScFG% for the Comets game was 67%. That’s astounding. The NBA league average usually hovers around 52-53% to give you a sense of how good that is (I haven’t calculated the WNBA’s average, but will eventually). That’s what MVPs do – carry the team in whatever way necessary to win games.

The Big Picture

When you’re moving the ball, have five players in double figures, have two players able to drive and get to the free throw line (Pondexter was 8-10), and have your defense working, you’re tough to beat. Having an MVP candidate on top of all that makes winning games much easier.

In fact, there’s a pretty reliable formula for Mercury wins this season – when the Mercury are able to keep the ast/fg differential within a few percentage points (meaning disruptive defense and ball movement on offense) and Taurasi scores above her average of 23.9 points per game, the Mercury win. The one exception so far just glancing through box scores, is the Seattle game in which Taurasi had 37 points in a loss.

I haven’t looked at these numbers across the league, but it would make sense that ball movement and star power have a major effect on the outcome of games across the WNBA.

Related Links:

Mercury, Taurasi knock off Comets

ESPN shot charts (I love these things)

Transition points:

Just for a point of reference, the Mercury began the season 2-6. During those losses, their ast/fg ratio was at 47%, the same as it was during the first half of the Comets game.

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Darnellia Russell & The WNBA Age Requirement: How costly is higher education?

. Tuesday, July 8, 2008
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Just last night while surfing the web, I stumbled across an article from the Globe and Mail (Canada's national newspaper) about Darnellia Russell, who you may remember from the documentary “Heart of the Game”.

Unable to get a scholarship after Division I schools found out she was pregnant, Darnellia tried to enter the WNBA but was denied.
That was where The Heart of the Game ended and where Russell's celebrity status exploded. She travelled the continent promoting the film as the teenager who took on the system and won. The movie received several honours, including the top entertainment award from the Women's Sports Foundation in Los Angeles. People recognized Russell and asked for her autograph. But those scholarship offers from Division I schools? They stopped coming soon after word got out she was pregnant.

Still eager to combine basketball and school, Russell found herself boxed in. She didn't have the money to attend a major school. She contacted the WNBA, but was told she needed a degree from a four-year institution, a league stipulation.
Russell is now preparing to play for the Lakehead University Thunderwolves in Thunder Bay, Canada – not too far from the Minnesota border in Ontario, Canada -- after spending two years playing for North Seattle Community College. This is just the latest in a long line of complications that Russell has faced, some of which were covered in the movie.

I wasn’t aware that the WNBA’s eligibility requirements were so tough, so I looked into it a bit. As it turns out, the WNBA has the toughest age requirement policy of any professional sport, which “precludes a potential class of players from entering the professional leagues until their expected dates of college graduation.”

So I wondered, is Russell’s situation a case where the WNBA’s age requirement is unfair to prospective players?

Immediately Brittney Griner came to mind. I hadn’t heard of her before reading about her on the 5280ft blog a couple of weeks ago and wondered if she would be the first to try and declare for the WNBA draft out of high school.

As more athletes like Griner (enormous potential) and Russell (hardship) aspire to play professionally, you have to wonder how long it will be before someone comes along and challenges the WNBA’s age/education requirement rule.

And if that challenge does come, the central issue in the debate be something along the lines of the following question: what is the cost of the WNBA’s eligibility requirements for the prospective athletes?

The Upside: Talent development

I dug up a Val Ackerman quote from a CNN interview from some years ago that summarizes the WNBA’s thinking behind their age requirement:
I think everyone in our league has benefited from it. We have a league which is able to access players who are not only physically capable but they are mature, in terms of their ability to adjust to the rigors of professional sports. We have players who benefit from the collegiate experience and the richness of that. And in fact, we have a 95 percent graduation rate among players, because they have had opportunity go to college and get their degrees. And also for us, it's enabled the women's college game to stay very vibrant, and that's critical to us as league. We need a strong college game in order for women's pro basketball to be successful. And by having players there for four years, they get the benefit of that as well.
So it boils down to giving athletes time to mature, making sure they get an education and supporting the development of women’s basketball by ensuring that the best talent plays for college programs.

This also seems to fit well with the WNBA’s emphasis on providing role models for young girls. Chamique Holdsclaw embraced this notion of being a positive role model when she described why she chose to stay in school:
Chamique Holdsclaw decided she would not be the first to challenge the age/education policy in women's basketball, she did so because she wanted to act in a manner that she believed showed leadership to young women. In a March 1998 article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Holdsclaw was quoted as stating, "I really want to see these young women set goals. And I want one of those goals to be to get that degree."
And of course, getting the degree is a big deal for WNBA players because the average player is not going to make more than about $50,000 dollars a season (from what I’ve been able to find). Obviously, that’s substantially less than what athletes in men’s professional leagues make, although the salaries may be consistent with league revenue.

However, some might consider the very necessity to make a decision based upon limited earnings to be a part of the problem.

The Downside: A matter of restricted labor and gender equity ?

One of the biggest arguments against age requirements in professional sports is that they restrict a person’s ability to pursue the profession of their choice. And given the racial demographics of the NBA and NFL – the two major sports that employ age requirements – some even accused the NBA of racism when they implemented an age requirement.

So with that logic, it would follow that some people could also label the WNBA’s age requirement as sexist.
The WNBA rule inequitably requires prospective women's professional basketball players to first offer their services for four years to a college basketball program, even while their male counterparts are allowed to earn money playing basketball on the professional level. Moreover, one notion of this policy is that talented female athletes must delay their personal gratification and first achieve academic pursuits prescribed to them by society and the corporate sport structure. This reinforces an old and dangerous stereotype of women as being necessarily philanthropic creatures (i.e. caring, passive, and non-aggressive). Conversely, men are allowed to be individualistic. This clash between the educational ideals of female student-athletes and the merits of personal autonomy complicate evaluating the ethics underlying the WNBA age/education policy.
This is essentially the antithesis of the role model argument -- that while men can pursue what they want, women have the "burden" reinforcing higher social ideals.

But there’s a much simpler argument – what if a player like Griner gets injured playing college basketball and loses out on the little salary she could have made? By imposing an age requirement, prospective athletes may risk losing out on a career option.

In addition, if a player is physically able to compete in the WNBA, it’s hard to see what a college degree has to do with their ability to perform on the court. In Russell’s case, this would seem especially pertinent – if she is able to play is it reasonable to keep her out of the WNBA because of an education requirement?

If the challenge is inevitable, what is the solution?

Personally, I think age requirements are good for women’s basketball and the prospective players. I see it this way: in the NBA, just getting drafted in the first round can net you upwards of $700,000 and earning a contract as a second round pick can get you the league minimum of $275,000.

Conversely, in the WNBA, if you play for a few years and flame out and lack a college degree, your career options are quite limited and your savings near empty. As Holdsclaw implied, it’s better to encourage young girls to go for the degree. But then you come right back to a bigger question: is it patronizing to tell young girls what to do with their lives?

If the WNBA tried to find a middle ground, like the NBA did with their requirement of one year of college (which has been a terrible idea), it could end up doing harm to the women’s college game, which is not good for women’s basketball either.

Russell didn’t challenge the WNBA’s age/education eligibility requirement – and neither did Candace Parker or Chamique Holdsclaw despite considerable talent. Nevertheless, a challenge to the rule seems inevitable at some point, just as Robin Roberts predicted back in 1998.
"It is something that women's sports will have to address when that first hotshot feels she's ready to go early to the WNBA or ABL," Roberts said. "I think high school recruits are now looking at programs that are on television a great deal to help market themselves for the future. They should be looking at the school based on the type of education they will receive."

Relevant Links:

A thread from Rebkell about Russell (Women's Hoops beat me to the posting punch this morning :) )

Greatness and Griner Go Hand in Hand

19 and Upside: Age Requirement Benefits Professional and College Basketball

Transition Points:

If you’re interested in the legal aspects of the WNBA age requirement, an interesting report on all that has already been done. And yes, legally, there may be a case against the WNBA's current rule.

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L.A. Gets A Spark From Bobbit As Starting Point Guard

. Monday, July 7, 2008
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While the Sparks’ high-low zone offense was the probably the most tangible adjustment in their 91-80 victory over the Mercury, the Sparks’ energy on both ends of the floor was probably the biggest key to ending their three game losing streak.

Of course, it's hard to dig too deeply into the Sparks’ seemingly improved offensive play because the Mercury are not particularly known for their defense. But the difference in energy between last night’s game and last week’s loss against the Liberty was huge, independent of the Mercury’s poor play.

And there was nobody more responsible for that energy boost than Shannon Bobbitt, who made her second consecutive start at point guard. Derek Fisher – who is shockingly becoming one of my favorite WNBA commentators and knows a thing or two about winning basketball – was definitely in tune with Bobbitt’s effect on the game.

The Sparks are playing great basketball. Shannon Bobbitt – you won’t look at the stat sheet and say she’s playing a great game, but it’s her energy and what she’s bringing to the team that is really making the difference tonight. It seems like everybody’s energy is up and the Sparks are playing really active on both ends.
Bobbitt’s energy was contagious right from the beginning and it seemed to just get the whole team going (until the 4th quarter when the Sparks seem to struggle every single game).

Bobbitt’s energy was nicely complemented by Marie Ferdinand-Harris’ return to the starting lineup and Sidney Spencer’s first start of the season (I didn’t realize Spencer was such an amazing three point shooter – #1 in the WNBA at 53% entering last night’s game). The starting combination allowed the Sparks to establish a rhythm early in the game and, more importantly, stretch the Mercury’s suspect zone defense to find quality scoring opportunities all over the court.

Although Bobbitt scored a career high and made some big shots, including a three pointer from the corner with 2:28 left in the 4th to put the Sparks up by 10, her biggest contribution doesn’t show up in the box score. But after watching the game, I was inspired enough by Bobbitt’s performance to try to capture some of the intangibles that Bobbitt brings to the game.

Setting the pace

One of the most important responsibilities of a point guard is setting the tempo for the team and establishing the rhythm.

So although it’s impossible to ignore the effectiveness of the high-low offense against the Mercury, it’s equally difficult to ignore Bobbitt’s role in getting the team into that rhythm. Compared to Kiesha Brown and Temeka Johnson, Bobbitt is much more effective at getting the ball up the court quickly and initiating the offense.

If you look closely at the Sparks’ successful offensive plays, Bobbitt’s ability to get the ball down the court quickly and initiate the offense was important because it kept the zone off balance and gave the Sparks a continuity that has been noticeably lacking. The X's and O's of Basketball had a nice analysis of the high-low offense that's worth a look:

Her role in those plays might seem minor because all she did was bring it up, pass it to the wing, and then cut. But compare her play to the recent play of Brown or Johnson and you see a big difference. Bobbitt plays with an energy, awareness, and sense of purpose that the other point guards have not shown this season. It was exactly what the team needed for this offense to work well.

Attacking the zone

Something else that Bobbitt brings to the Sparks that their other guards have not is the ability to penetrate into the teeth of the offense and create scoring opportunities for her teammates. And what I like most about her drives is that she doesn’t “play” with the ball too much – again, she makes very decisive moves has the presence of mind to find the open player once the defense is forced to collapse on her.

Even though she’s not a major scoring threat, once she gets into the middle of the zone with a few dribbles, it puts pressure on the defense to shift its position. When the zone shifts to collapse on one player, it’s much easier to find an open player with an extra pass or two. Bobbitt was able to do that repeatedly and more effectively than Temeka Johnson, who I would argue is as skilled as Bobbitt.

Pressure defense

Bobbitt also had an impact on the defensive end by pressuring the ball and just being active on defense. Sure she was over-aggressive sometimes and got some silly fouls, but again, that energy was needed for the Sparks.

You might think that Bobbitt is a defensive liability because of her size. Not so much in a zone defense with 6’5” Leslie, 6’4” Parker, and 6’3” Spencer in the bottom half of the 2-3 zone. The opposing team is relegated to an almost complete dependence on the outside shot because of the length of the Sparks.

Bobbitt’s role within a the Sparks’ zone defense concept is to extend and pressure the ball handler. It completely minimizes the harm of players shooting over her or taking her into the post. She stays in front of ball handlers well and sometimes her on-ball activity is enough to force the ball handler to pass sooner than they want. That might seem small at first, but it can seriously disrupt an offense.

With a front line of Leslie, Parker, and Spencer, there’s no reason for the Sparks to play anything but zone and dare opponents to beat them from the outside. In that scheme, Bobbitt works very well as their starting point guard.

Has Bobbitt earned herself a permanent starting role on the Sparks?

Is Bobbitt a perfect lead guard? No -- she certainly has her flaws. But Fisher made another comment about Bobbitt late in the third that I think summarizes her impact on the game.
Bobbitt’s been active all night. And it’s her energy. It’s not about everything that shows up in the stat sheet. You make contributions to the team in the best way that you can. And Shannon has done that by leadership, which is what he’s wanted to see from his backcourt. And she’s also been active on the defensive end and she’s made a couple of shots as well.
Bobbitt brings to the point guard position all the things the Sparks seemed to be missing. She's the best thing they have and an excellent fit for the team. Sure she made some rookie mistakes fouling, she turned the ball over a bit, and she probably took too many threes. But I don’t think those negatives outweigh the intangible positives she brought to the team.

The fouls made out of being aggressive are rookie mistakes that she will work out as he gets more playing time. Most of the turnovers were dead ball turnovers, meaning they didn’t result in fast break points for the other team, which is not as harmful. The threes came within the flow of the offense – and 3-8 from the three point line not great, but not horrific either.

And though it may sound silly, I don’t think we can disregard the effect of the Tennessee connection either – it adds chemistry to a team that has sorely lacked chemistry over the last few games. If Parker is going to be on the floor with Spencer and Bobbitt knows how to play with them, go with it. That collegiate chemistry is better than the alternative (confusion).

The other issue is that as an inconsistent team, the Sparks absolutely have to find some consistency in their starting lineup. Switching point guards every other game is not the way to prepare for a playoff run, especially when the league already faces an Olympic break.

Personally, I like the front line of Leslie, Parker, and Spencer for this team with Ferdinand-Harris and Bobbitt playing as complementary energy players in the starting lineup. But it’s very difficult to establish a rhythm when a) players are constantly shuttled in and out of the game and b) a player can go from starter to zero minutes overnight.

There are other intangibles that Bobbitt clearly brings as well in the form of leadership and court vision. The only thing to debate for a team that sees themselves as a contender is whether they can deal with her lack of size and experience. I would argue that she establishes a rhythm for this team better than the alternatives of Brown and Johnson and she plays with a confidence that seems to overcome her inexperience. If they stick with the zone defense which can hide Bobbitt’s defensive liability, it seems reasonable for her to be the team’s consistent starter.

Related Links: profile of Shannon Bobbitt

Sparks coach Michael Cooper may not have understood the effect of one of his in-game comments...*sigh*

Transition Points:

- It's worth taking a look back at what the Liberty did to the Mercury's defense two weeks ago. Really, the Liberty executed much better than the Sparks because they don't have quite the post presence that the Sparks they have to rely on execution. In other words, I'd say the Sparks could still stand to improve.

- One last note on Fisher: In one of my favorite articles from the Women's Sports Foundation, "Beez" Schell writes: "...the quality of the telecasts (production and commentary) should not escape close scrutiny." The quality of the commentators is as important to marketing the women's game as the floor play or the commercials. I gotta say Derek Fisher is one of the better commentators I've heard. He's a good communicator who knows the game, he's able to provide insight as a professional basketball player that the average human being lacks, and he does a good job of illuminating some of the little things that help teams win. He may annoy me as a player because I'm neither a Lakers or Jazz fan, but nobody can question that he has an outstanding knowledge of the game. Another NBA'er I'd like to see on more telecasts -- Chris Webber.

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Culture's Paranoia About Female Athletes...

. Sunday, July 6, 2008
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Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday weekend. I not going to post much on Sunday...

But I found this article from the Women's Sports Foundation yesterday by Patricia Nell Warren and thought I would share:

Ever since the 1800s, when the first liberated Victorian females began to move into sport, American women have been battling our culture's paranoia that sports will "masculinize" us (i,.e. lesbianize us). Today the ultraconservatives persist in their belief that a woman's sexual orientation can actually be changed merely by her doing things like ski jumping or stock-car racing or even basketball -- not to mention what they believe is the threat to her heterosexuality if she merely associates with a lesbian coach or player in her sport. When conservatives like Debbie Schussel rip the entire WNBA with nasty comments like, "Women who act like men are a bad role model for girls,” they're really talking about sexual orientation. The homophobes would be very happy if women had to go back to the very short list of "ladylike" sports permitted in 1900.
It's an interesting perspective from a seemingly dynamic individual.

Not to minimize Warren's statement, but I find it difficult to disentangle sexuality and gender roles as they pertain to "culture's paranoia that sports will masculinize" women.

Nonetheless, something to chew on...

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