The Liberty Outdoor Classic: "Performance Didn’t Match the Setting"

. Saturday, July 19, 2008
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There were two things I feared about the Liberty Outdoor Classic: a sloppy turnover fest or a blow-out. Neither would do anything to attract casual fans.

Tonight we got both – the Liberty committed 21 turnovers (only one more than the Fever's 20) and got blown out “at home”.

Nevertheless, kudos to the WNBA on the Liberty Outdoor Classic – it was a great event for the league and for basketball. Wish I could have been there. It was an historic event and it seemed like an amazing setting.

But what about the fact that it wasn’t on broadcast television?

Two days ago, the Women’s Sports Blog had a post that said the following:
There's going to be an outdoor game between the Libs and the Fever at the National Tennis Center and it's not going to be on television? Fabulous planning, W. 'Cause that wouldn't have been interesting to the casual fan, or anything.
I understand that sentiment because it would have been great to watch the game on TV. And I’m not sure if there was a conscious choice not to televise it or if it was just a function of the terms of the broadcast contract.

But as the fourth quarter began and it just felt like the Liberty wouldn’t be able to muster up the momentum to get control of the game, it was evident that not televising the game was the right thing to do.

I think Mary Murphy’s words near the end of the game summarized my feelings perfectly:
“The question that you hear from people – is it worth it? Is it worth it taking your team away from an arena where you’ve won five in a row and you really have it going? And I think the anwer is yes. When you’re trying to capture attention, when you’re trying to get the eye of the casual sports fan on you, you need to step outside of the box and do some different things. And the New York Liberty have done that in the past and they continue with this kind of game. The performance didn’t match the setting, but that doesn’t mean that this young team won’t go on to great success the rest of this year.”
The fact that the game occurred will generate some buzz and I imagine that could “catch the eye” of some casual fans. However, what the WNBA game didn’t need was one more reason for the casual fan to dismiss and demean the game because of one bad showing in such a special setting. And you don’t want to give off the impression that your sport is dependent on a gimmick because it lacks substance, especially in an otherwise great season.

And that’s exactly why the WNBA made the right decision in not putting the game on national television. With the buzz from this game and the Olympic buzz, it’s possible that a few casual fans could feel the impulse to watch a few WNBA games after hearing about the women’s national team….especially if they win gold.

But the game played tonight -- independent of the atmosphere -– was not a performance representative of the quality of play that would attract casual fans to the game. And that doesn't mean they should never do it again -- I hope they do...and I hope it's a better game.

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Point Guard Play of Perkins & Sharp Help Deal the Sun a Discouraging loss

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You could say that both the Sky and Sun made necessary changes to their starting lineup prior to Chicago’s 73-65 victory last night.

The Sky have lost starting point guard Dominique Canty at least until after the Olympic break and possibly for the season.

The Sun…well…something had to change for them so coach Mike Thibault chose to move Lindsay Whalen over to the shooting guard spot and go with Ketia Swanier as the point guard. However, the Sun never able to sustain a rhythm and played an uncharacteristically sloppy game.

The Sun commentators suggested taking the positive out of the second half – the Sun turned up the defensive intensity and managed to erase a 15-point deficit and make it a close game in the 4th quarter. However, a deeper at the game reveals that the Sun didn’t really get within striking distance until Perkins and Sharp left the game with small injuries midway through the 3rd quarter.

Although Perkins and Sharp had a major impact on last night’s game, it’s hard to say whether they are more effective than Canty. But from what I’ve seen of Chicago this season, the team looked much more fluid without Canty running the point as Perkins and Sharp made excellent decisions. They were able to limit mistakes and make enough point guard plays to lead their team to a win – the Sky had 0 turnovers as a team in the second quarter.

So in evaluating the backcourt adjustments of each team, I’d have to say that while the play of Chicago’s point guards was quite encouraging, the Sun’s entire offense was rather discouraging. While there are statistics to back that up, I think close observation of the point guards may tell the story well.

What on earth is wrong with the Sun?

The Sun started out the season on fire and had a number of commentators surprised about their success. Well, it looks like the nay-sayers may have been right – maybe they were playing a bit over their heads.

I’ve been wondering for some time about why exactly the Sun were struggling to such an extent. Barbara Turner has may embody the team’s recent struggles best. She started out the season apparently playing the best basketball of her career and then plummeted back down to earth and has subsequently been demoted from the starting lineup. Unfortunately, they still haven’t been able to replace Turner’s early-season production in their lineup…and it’s really hurt them as they’ve dropped 6 of the last 7 games.

Swanier was not effective as a starter offensively, though she did come up with some outstanding defensive plays in the second half. Whalen was non-existent but part of that was because the rest of the team has been so ineffective the last two games that Whalen is forced to take on the offensive burden almost entirely by herself. That’s a massive shift from the beginning of the season when they were winning on the strength of their ball movement. Perhaps looking at the lineup combinations with Turner and Swanier will provide some insight.

The Sun have done quite a bit of tinkering with their lineup this season -- this was Swanier's third start although she's also racked up a few DNPs. But when the Sun won 7 of 8 games in late May/early June, it was actually Jolene Anderson in the starting lineup.

So maybe a look at the playing styles combinations with Anderson (early season) and Swanier (last night) will be helpful:

Conn w/Anderson: Whalen (utility combo guard), Anderson (interior scorer), Holt (mixed), Jones (interior scorer), Whitmore (interior scorer)

Conn w/Swanier: Whalen (utility combo guard), Swanier (utility combo), Holt (mixed), Jones (interior scorer), Whitmore (interior scorer)

Anderson gets an interior scorer label because she is one of the top guards in rebounds per 40 minutes (#12). The problem is that her shooting percentages are rather low, which is probably why she was demoted.

Meanwhile, the Sun have lost all three games that Swanier has started (2 against Mercury, 1 against Sky). While the Swanier lineup appears to be more balanced, the Anderson lineup is more productive, especially on the rebounding front. As one of the league's top rebounding teams, it doesn't seem to make much sense to have a better rebounder in the lineup.

But the key seems to be that in games the Sun have won, Anderson is more productive than her average across the board -- shooting 40% from the three point line. That capacity to stretch the defense makes a huge difference for a team that is otherwise composed of tough interior players. The same goes for Turner -- in Sun wins, she has shot 43% this season. With neither of them shooting well and both having the impact of "interior" players, they can't stretch the defense and find a rhythm.

However what really stood out in watching last night's game -- especially in the first half – was their complete inability to defend Perkins and Sharp on the perimeter. That is likely due in part to Turner’s absence. But the Sky were getting to the rim almost at will and scoring easy points in the first half. Their second quarter performance in particular helps tell that story.

In the second quarter, the Sky had a true shooting percentage of 73.7% and 0 turnovers. Even though the Sun had an offensive rebounding rate of 63% during the quarter, the Sky were playing such efficient basketball that it was a moot point. The Sun just weren’t able to do much to stop the Sky.

As the commentators pointed out, they did perform better in the third quarter. They slowed down the Sky’s offense with much better pressure on the perimeter, and limited the Sky’s scoring opportunities. Even then the Sky were up 12 points when Sharp left the game. The Sun went up 2 points, but when Perkins and Sharp came back in the game, the Sky found their rhythm again and as we now know, took the game by 8. That’s a huge effect for two players.

So what did Perkins and Sharp do so well?

A two-pronged point guard attack kept the defense off balance…

The Sky were extremely reliant on their jump shooters early in the season, despite having Sylvia Fowles available in the post. Part of the problem was that their guards seemed to get so little penetration into the middle of the defense. So the Sky made themselves really easy to defend.

The difference in last night’s game – and the 2nd half of the Detroit loss this past Wednesday – is that Perkins and Sharp were aggressively attacking the basket and finding open shooters. With two players looking to initiate the offense and score, the defense is not able to focus on one point of attack and therefore is limited in the amount of risks they can take as a team.

That also opened up opportunities for Candice Dupree to get more involved in the offense with easy shots. In fact, they often opened opportunities for each other – they found each other on consecutive plays just before Perkins left the game due to injury.

This type of movement on offense is something that I didn’t see as much of when Canty was running the point. And when they don’t get penetration, Dupree starts to force contested jump shots because she is the team’s best offensive option. The major difference is that while Canty comes down the court and keeps the ball for a number of seconds or looks for her own shot, Perkins and Sharp have gotten the team into the offense extremely well over the past five quarters. But in looking at the early season lineups, there has been an additional change that I had forgotten about:

Early season: Canty (distributor), Perkins (perimeter scorer), Price (perimeter utility player), Dupree (interior scorer), Melvin (post presence)

Current: Sharp (distributor), Perkins (perimeter scorer), Wyckoff (utility player), Dupree (interior scorer), Melvin (post presence)

Again, the playing styles tell general statistical tendencies, but they require some additional interpretation. What the utility label indicates is that the player tends to shoot less than assist, steal, rebound or block shots. As a perimeter utility player, Price also picks up a number of steals.

But what's left out is the three point shooting story. Wyckoff is shooting 50% from the three point line in Sky wins. Price has yet to make a three this season. With or without Canty, Wyckoff is a huge asset for the team because she further spreads the court for Dupree to score inside (and I would also argue that Wyckoff is a better passer).

However, I have to return to the fact that it seems like Canty penetrates a lot less than Sharp and Perkins have over the last 5 quarters, stretching back to the Detroit game. When Sharp can drive and have the option of passing to two three point shooters (Perkins or Wyckoff) or finding Dupree on the wing, that puts a ton of pressure on the defense to defend multiple options. It was the same when Perkins drove to the basket as Sharp was 2-3 from the three point line last night.

Chicago is not going to be a great rebounding team, especially without Fowles, so it is essential that they play more efficient and energetic basketball than their opponents. Over the last five quarters they have done that and if they’re able to keep that up they’ll be a very effective team once Fowles returns to the lineup.

Being a good point guard is not about assists, but decision making

I suppose I’ve made this point multiple times, but being a good point guard is about making the right decisions to sustain the team’s rhythm, not just racking up assists. The Sky kept the ball moving and didn’t commit a lot of egregious errors, as you might expect from “replacement” lead guards. Anytime you can get through a quarter without turnovers, the point guards are doing something right (or the defense is weak). They picked their opportunities to score well so as not to disrupt the team’s rhythm with bad shots. Wyckoff effectively stretched the defense to create room for scoring opportunities. Overall, there was a lot to be encouraged by for the Sky.

It’s difficult to identify one or two key things that the Sun need to do better. But based on what they’ve displayed in this game, they need to defend the perimeter more effectively to stop penetration and they need to find a way to get more easy scoring opportunities. There were a few points when it looked like they could establish an effective high-low offense with Whitmore and Gruda, but they weren’t able to get that going consistently. With Turner’s production falling off, it might be worthwhile to get Gruda involved in the offense with that type of high low strategy.

Transition Points:

The plus/minus numbers also help tell the story of the impact of Perkins and Sharp. Perkins recorded a +13 while Sharp was +15. They were a combined 10-19 from the field and 3-6 from the three point line. Overall, very efficient play.

Armintie Price really needs to find her stroke from the free throw line. In the last 5 games, she’s 5 for 21. That’s bad by anyone’s standard, but it’s especially bad for her – her greatest asset is her ability to drive to the basket and get easy baskets. If she can’t hit her free throws, she’s not nearly as valuable an asset offensively because she’s essentially wasting possessions. She has all the talent needed to become a star but she has to hit her free throws.

Quianna Chaney had a career-high 10 points in some very effective minutes against the Sun. Apparently, that’s a far too regular experience for Sun opponents – the Sun have given up “9 or 10” career high games to opponents this season, according to the commentators. I wonder how many of them were perimeter players…

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McCarville, Mitchell & Moore Make It Easy To Root For the Liberty

. Friday, July 18, 2008

I never really write about the Liberty directly, but they’re always lingering somewhere in the periphery of my basketball consciousness.

I usually end up referring to them when their play ends up exposing some fatal flaw in an opponent.

As a new fan, I'm always trying to find a team to root for, which is difficult because I have no home team that I have any real affinity to. Although, the Liberty never really end up being the focal point of my thinking, the other day I realized that I actually felt a tinge of excitement as I set the DVR to record their game against the Sun. It forced me to accept a harsh reality -- I might actually like a New York sports franchise.

The Liberty will probably not win a WNBA title this year. They’re not the flashiest team, by any stretch of the imagination, and sometimes their games are downright ugly. And they don’t really have any superstars to speak of, although I would argue Shameka Christon and Janel McCarville would deserve consideration if there was a game this year.

And yet every time they are broadcast, I make a point to watch them.

Last night – against the Mystics of all teams – I realized why I liked them. It’s the intangibles, the little things that won’t show up in the box score and are difficult to describe. They’re tough and they play with heart. Their seemingly endless rotation allows them to play with great energy (usually). Of all the teams in the WNBA, they seem to have the strongest collective personality.

But what I like most about them is that they seem to have a nothing-to-lose swagger. Not much was expected of them at the beginning of the season – while they were expected to make the playoffs, nobody really expected them to make much noise in the playoffs. So in a way, they are the WNBA’s consummate underdog.

And that underdog swagger seems to be embodied best by the play of three players in particular – Janel McCarville, Loree Moore, and Leilani Mitchell.

One of the most balanced teams in the WNBA?

The first thing you might notice about the Liberty in watching is that they have an extremely deep rotation. And coach Pat Coyle utilizes that depth to press and trap defensively.

They are also a well balanced team and that balance is embodied in the playing styles of their starters, based on the Sparks playing style spectrum:

Moore (distributor), Christon (scorer), Carson (scorer), Kraayeveld (interior scorer), McCarville (versatile utility player)

There is no style for “defender”, but Carson is probably already the best perimeter defender on the team.

In addition to being extremely deep and balanced, they are also the youngest team in the league. More importantly they have to rely on their young core because nobody on the team has more than 5 years of experience. Given that they’re already playoff contenders, you have to assume that they have a bright future.

But the most interesting thing about their team is that, the playing styles of their bench players also mirrors that of the starters. That’s something you don’t see very often. Here are the playing styles of their most used bench players:

Mitchell (distributor), Thorn (perimeter scorer), Willis (perimeter scorer),
Jackson (post presence), Battle (interior scorer)

The significance of this – and what may put the Liberty in a unique position – is that they are able to maintain a sense of continuity even when their bench players come in. It’s rare that you can make substitutions and not seem to lose anything from your style of play. This is also where their lack of star power oddly becomes an advantage – they can keep coming at their opponents in waves without letting up, as long as they play within their system.

Their lack of star power also means that they are extremely dependent on ball movement and playing within their system to win games. However, that also means that they can’t look to one player to carry the load when they get in trouble, unlike a team like the Silver Stars who has three of the top 20 scorers in the league. But as you can probably tell, I don’t see that as a bad thing…

Despite their reliance on team basketball and depth, it’s three individuals that stand out for me when I watch the Liberty.

J-Mac: Toughness and versatility

It may at first seem that Kraayeveld (post scorer) and McCarville’s (versatile utility player) playing style labels are backwards. But the reason for the labeling is that while the majority of Kraayeveld’s production comes from her scoring, McCarville can score, pass, and defend extremely well for a big player.

McCarville’s label is misleading as she falls in the “perimeter utility player” dimension of the spectrum. But that’s because her versatile skill set allows her to be effective from all over the court – picking up a number of assists and steals in addition to rebounding and scoring from anywhere inside the three point line.

But what seems to stand out about McCarville is her toughness. She’s probably the team’s biggest star after winning the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award last season, but she’s definitely not resting on her laurels. She comes to play and play hard every single night. She establishes position in the post well, she fights for rebounds, and never backs down from a defensive assignment…even if she’s up against Lisa Leslie.

Her physical style of play and intensity is something something that people did not necessarily expect from female athletes when the WNBA started up. She’s another one of those players who seems to defy conventional wisdom women’s basketball.

L. Mo – Pure leadership

There are no doubt more talented point guards in the league than Loree Moore. But it’s hard to find a stronger leader.

I have followed Loree Moore’s statistics quite closely this season as part of my point guard rankings, and aside from being one of the leaders in assists, there’s nothing particularly impressive about her game statistically.

But when she’s on the court, it’s clear that she’s in control of the action and responsible for setting the tone of the game. She doesn’t do anything particularly spectacular and she might still be playing through an early back injury, but her ability to make outstanding decisions allows her to have a huge impact on the game. She just plays smart basketball.

She picks her shots well. She’s not stellar defensively, but picks up a number of steals without fouling excessively. Although she rarely makes a spectacular pass or an advanced dribble move, she rarely makes a bad pass. And for a team that is so dependent on their team concept, having a player like Moore who is clearly the charismatic leader, but can also lead by example on the floor is invaluable.

Leilani Mitchell: The unassuming rookie

About a month ago, there was a thread on Rebkell about Leilani Mitchell in which people suggested that followers of Leilani Mitchell need a name. The name that seemed to have the best ring to it was the Leilanians.

Consider Rethinking Baseball a friend of the Leilanians.

Really, how can you dislike Leilani Mitchell?

Similar to Moore, she’s not the flashiest point guard. She was a second round pick in a deep 2008 rookie class and was almost cut by the Phoenix Mercury before the Liberty offered a 2009 third round draft pick for her.

Think it was worth it?

Mitchell’s combination of quickness, ball handling skill, and court vision is the perfect substitute for Moore off the bench. Over the course of the season, she’s also gotten more confident driving to the basket despite her small stature. Although her size limits her defensive impact – and may limit her to being a career backup – she’s active and is able to pressure opposing point guards into bad plays.

But what she does better than Moore is create opportunities for others. Her ability to draw the defense with penetration into the lane and kick the ball out to open scorers is essential for a team that relies so heavily on teamwork.

What’s most impressive about Mitchell’s game -- especially for a small rookie -- is her increasing efficiency. Prior to July 1st, Mitchell had the second highest turnover percentage of any rotation point guard. Since July 1st, Mitchell has racked up 22 assists and only 1 turnover. She has not had a turnover in the last 4 games, a stretch in which the Liberty have gone 3-1. That’s amazing when you consider that she spends so much time driving through traffic and making tough passes – it’s not like she’s one of those point guards who doesn’t take risks.

She’s not a game changer in the sense that she changes the way the team plays, but for a team that thrives on rhythm, she has a chance to eventually emerge as one of the top backups in the league. She allows the team to confidently rest their starters while remaining efficient.

Everything I love about basketball

In a post game interview after their victory against the Mystics last night, Mitchell said, “When we get teams down we want to keep them down. We kinda let ‘em back in…” All said with her characteristically contagious smile.

That moment more than anything represents what I like about the Liberty and probably basketball in general. It’s about competing as a team, playing with passionate toughness, but most of all enjoying the opportunity to be paid to play a game. For all those reasons, I'd say that the Liberty are probably the perfect team to represent the league in an outdoor game (the Mercury being the other...despite the blow-out they suffered in their last trip to NYC).

Players like McCarville, Mitchell, and Moore make the Liberty one of the most likeable teams in the WNBA because of the intangibles they bring to the court as well as their passion. Of course, it helps that they are also talented players. But in a game predicated on team chemistry and complementarity, the Liberty are quickly emerging as one of my favorite teams to watch.

Transition Points:

Earlier in the season, I said I liked the Sky...and I still do think they have a bright future. But the Liberty have a much better cast of characters to root for in my opinion...part of that could be the loss of Fowles. But I also like the Liberty's style of play better.

The Game Notes of Doom blog points out that Moore looks like she’s still playing hurt.

And Loree? Loree is hurt. She has to be. Either that or this is a Pod Person and the real Loree is in space while aliens figure out how she got those shoulders.
I hadn’t even heard of her before this year so I don’t have much to compare her performance to, but it sounds like it will help for her to get some rest over the Olympic break.

It’s strange that I’m writing this after the Liberty beat the Mystics of all teams because they seem to be among the most dysfunctional teams in the WNBA. From the DC Basket Cases blog last night:
To say that watching this game on TV wasn't much fun would be an understatement. There's a great deal more (none of it good) that could be said about how the Mystics played this evening, but it's late, so we're calling it a night.
Ouch. It’s hard to even pinpoint one thing that’s wrong with them at the moment. They just don’t play well together…at all. And body language has to count for something – it seemed that whether they were doing well or struggling everyone was walking around frowning. You almost start to feel sorry for them. In many ways, they are the polar opposite of the Liberty – they are making the game of basketball look like an unbearable burden.

A side note on the Sparks -- it's the same old story, but last night's game was especially perplexing. They just came off a game in which they won by dominating the offensive boards against the Silver Stars. The Silver Stars then dominated the Mercury inside. So wouldn't it make sense to use the same strategy they used to beat the Silver Stars against the Mercury? Especially since they previously beat the Mercury using the high-low offense? Instead, they got caught up trying to match the Mercury's transition game and lost...and only had 1 assist in the entire second half...which just seems wrong for a team with two strong post players...

Relevant Links:

Liberty Defense And Depth Overpower Mystics

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Visualizing The WNBA’s Top Player Combinations: The Player Styles Spectrum

. Thursday, July 17, 2008
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I have always found that one of the most exciting things about watching sports is pondering how the individual players on a team come together to win games.

Of course, there are always more factors at work than individual talent – strategy, match ups, leadership, and chemistry come to mind – but imagining possibilities for improvement is one of the greatest joys of being a fan to me.

So knowing how well individual players complement each other could help us imagine trade possibilities, evaluate draft selections, the impact of a missing player, etc.

Well, David Sparks at the Arbitrarian blog has created a novel graphical visualization of WNBA playing styles, which I think is a step forward in player analysis. Hopefully, it enables a deeper analysis of team dynamics, perhaps reinforcing and extending my thinking with some stronger data.

Aside from just being a cool representation of information, I find this work to be quite useful for describing the composition of WNBA teams and further understanding what creates good team chemistry.

I thought an initial way to make sense of this would be to take the most effective lineups from the top five teams in the league (by record) and try to make some more advanced assertions about team chemistry – what are some of the playing styles of the top combinations and why do they work?

Brief Background on the Visualizations:

The majority of the work at the Arbitrarian blog is creative statistical analyses and visualizations of NBA players’ individual contributions to team success (based on a statistic currently called “Boxscores”). Among the most interesting work is his NBA playing style spectrum, which is a novel graphical visualization of playing style markers. Here’s a description of the work from his blog:

Very rudimentary factor and cluster analysis I performed a long time ago indicated that there are distinctions in the data between players who tend to try to score a lot, those who play a “smaller” game, and those who play like “big men.” In terms of the NBA’s tracked counting statistics, this translates to a differentiation between those who specialize in points and field goal attempts, rebounds and blocks, and steals and assists. I have chosen to call each of these three tendencies Scorer, Perimeter, and Interior, and collectively they form the SPI Style Trichotomy.
He applied the same thinking to the WNBA, and although there might be something “lost in translation”, the results are pretty interesting because the way he calculated the tendencies should cross both leagues pretty easily.
Essentially, one sums each player’s fga + tr + bk + as + st, and determines what percentage of the total each SPI factor constitutes:
* Scorer percentage = fga / (fga + tr + bk + as + st)
* Perimeter percentage = (as + st) / (fga + tr + bk + as + st)
* Interior percentage = (tr + bk) / (fga + tr + bk + as + st)
More information about that can be found at his site…but hopefully that provides enough of a basic understanding to be useful for analysis.

Describing playing styles

The six categories labeled on the six spoke graphic (at the end of each spoke) are as follows: Pure Scorer, Perimeter Scorer, Pure Perimeter, Scorer’s Opposite, Pure Interior, and Interior Scorer/Perimeter’s Opposite. A well balanced player – someone sitting in the middle of the spectrum – is labeled as “mixed”. If you look at the formulas, it should make sense how these categories were determined.

The names that appear larger – many of which are also in the most effective lineups above – are the more productive players.

Just to clarify what a “scorer’s opposite” is, it doesn’t necessarily mean “defender”, but simply that scoring is not the defining factor of the player’s game. It embodies what I might call a utility player – someone who can come in the game and do a little bit of everything for the team.

Vickie Johnson and Alexis Hornbuckle are the strongest examples of utility players out of the players listed above. Johnson’s assists and Hornbuckle’s steals make them perimeter-oriented “utility players” (not the most flattering language, but it works).

Just to make the language a bit easier to apply, here is a key for interpreting how the colors match the labels, which is hopefully helpful in understanding the color spectrum:

Colors ranging from...

...turquoise to green: perimeter utility player (PU) to yellow: distributor (D)

...yellow to red: perimeter scorers (PS) to purple: interior scorer (IS)

...purple to dark blue: post presence (PP)

...dark blue to turquoise: interior utility player (IU)

...blends surrounding the middle: mixed (M)

Using the spokes as guidelines, we can also look at where a given player sits relative to a particular dimension to further specify their playing styles (using some subjective interpretations of color hue as well).

For example, using categories for point guards that I’ve used in the past, Becky Hammon and Deanna Nolan are creators (C), Sue Bird is more of a scoring distributor (SD), and Lindsay Whalen is an utility/combo guard (UC).

Given the detail of the graphic, it’s clear that I could go on defining each position with increasing specificity, but this is enough to move forward for now.

The most effective lineups on the WNBA’s most successful teams

So rather than analyzing individual players on that chart, I thought I’d look at how these styles fit together on some on the five best teams in the WNBA: San Antonio, Seattle, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Connecticut.

I identified the most effective lineups by using the great plus/minus data at the Chasing the Title blog. So although I only have cumulative data on the Storm, the game data on the other teams seemed consistent with what I would identify as their most effective lineups. Anyway, here are those top lineups:

San Antonio: Hammon/Johnson/Buescher/Young/Wauters
Seattle: Bird/Swoopes/Cash/Jackson/Griffith
Los Angeles: Bobbitt/Ferdinand-Harris/Parker/Milton-Jones/Leslie
Detroit: Smith/Hornbuckle/Nolan/Pierson/Braxton
* Connecticut: Whalen/Gardin/Turner/Jones/Whitmore

* I chose the lineup that typically logs minutes for the Sun, although it looks like Turner is getting less minutes lately.

Playing styles of the most effective lineups

And here are the labels applied to those most effective lineups:

San Antonio: Hammon (C), Johnson (UC), Buescher (PU), Young (PS), Wauters (IS)

Seattle: Bird (SD), Swoopes (PU), Cash (IS), Jackson (IS), Griffith (IU)

Los Angeles: Bobbitt (D), Ferdinand-Harris (PS), Parker (IU), Milton-Jones (IS), Leslie (PP)

Detroit: Smith (PS), Hornbuckle (PU), Nolan (C), Pierson (IS), Braxton (IS)

Connecticut: Whalen (UC), Gardin (PU), Turner (M), Jones (IS), Whitmore (IS)

There’s a lot of interesting stuff there, but I’ll make some comments on San Antonio since I’ve seen them twice already this week.

How the Silver Star’s balance creates chemistry

So since I’ve had the opportunity to watch the Silver Stars twice this week, I’ll dig a little deeper into their lineup. As I’ve noted before, the Silver Stars are a really balanced team and I think looking at these player styles further demonstrates that. One way to think about it is by looking at their star players and then seeing how the others complement them.

The latest MVP rankings have three Silver Stars in the top 15: Young (PS), Hammon (C), and Wauters (IS). It should be clear how they complement each other. Young demonstrates an interesting element of these playing style categorizations. When I think about Sophia Young, I hardly imagine a perimeter scorer.

However, in watching her play this week, it’s clear that she gets a lot of her points by drawing her defender out of the post and then using her quickness and solid mid-range shooting to score. The points she scores inside are often on cuts to the basket rather than back to the basket plays.

So although Young is not a perimeter scorer in the way we normally think of it – hitting threes and having guard skills – her effectiveness depends on her ability to work from the outside in (this is why the Sparks gave her so many problems – she tried to establish her post game and they were just too quick and too long).

Anyway, Young’s outside-in game next to Hammon’s ability to create from the outside and drive to the basket is a potent combination. Already you can see that the strength of this team is their ability to score by attacking the basket. Add to that Wauters’ inside scoring game and they become extremely difficult to defend – it’s difficult to key on one element to stop because they can score from everywhere.

After those three, Johnson (UC) and Buescher (PU) (earn the next most minutes. They are both utility players and they complement the other scorers on the team by doing all the little things – passing the ball and shooting from the outside. Essentially they are the glue that make this team an effective whole.

Part of the Silver Stars’ chemistry seems to be a function of how well the talent they’ve put together complements each other (in addition to an excellent system and long-standing relationships). You could argue that a coach could put anyone around that kind of big three and get results, but it seems clear that having utility players who “fill in the blanks”, allows them to establish and maintain a rhythm that the Silver Stars are known for.

The equal and opposite reaction

Again, none of this is to say that having building a team with these complementary lineups guarantee’s success. Match ups count.

When you look at the Sparks’ lineup, it’s essentially the exact opposite of the Silver Stars’ lineup – Leslie is a strong post presence on both ends of the floor, Parker is the ultimate interior utility player, and Milton-Jones is something of a mixed interior player, able to contribute scoring and defense. The match ups had a major effect, especially in the Sparks victory earlier this week.

Hammon and Wauters had similar performances in the two games against the Sparks this season, but Young was the big difference. In the first game she was 8-14 with 20 points in the second game she was 1-5 with 10 pts. When the Sparks are playing well as a unit, the latter result seems much more likely because their interior strength can neutralize Young.

This highlights the fact that there is no silver bullet formula for team building – not only do you need players that complement one another, but you also need players that are dominant enough at their positions to help you win games. League trends are also important – big slow centers have slowly been phased out of the NBA, for example.

These points bring to mind some interesting questions – to what extent should you try to build a contender in response to the competition? In what situations do the bigger stars get the best of the most complementary relationships? What combinations do typical WNBA finalists have? How might this inform a building plan for expansion teams like Atlanta and Chicago?

Transition Points:

David pointed out that Candace Parker and Kevin Garnett occupy similar positions during our email exchange. Marie Ferdinand Harris also sits in the same zone as Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Positive reinforcement for the Sparks perhaps?

The complementarity between Deanna Nolan, Katie Smith and Cheryl Ford is also interesting. It's one of the few combinations that contains such polar opposites.

I’ve often thought that Candice Wiggins should be starting for the Lynx. However, when you look at the player style spectrum, she and Seimone Augustus are very similar players, whereas Quinn is more of a pure distributor. In the interest of balance, starting Quinn is the best choice. But that gets right back to the dilemma of choosing between balance and talent.

Relevant Links:

WNBA Player Styles Spectrum

Estimating Team Chemistry

Full Explanation of the Playing Style Spectrum

How the Silver Stars Have Taken Control of the West

Candice Wiggins: On the Positive Side of "Combo Guard"

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How the Silver Stars Have Taken Control of the West: "All About Chemistry"

. Wednesday, July 16, 2008
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As a die-hard basketball fan, it’s hard not to appreciate the San Antonio Silver Star’s style of play.

At the beginning of this season, I knew next to nothing about the Silver Stars. And I certainly didn’t expect them to emerge as the class of the Western Conference by mid-season.

They don’t have the star-studded lineup of the Storm, a superstar rookie like the Sparks, or the excitement of the Mercury and yet they have crept up the standings into first place while the others are still trying to find their stride.

Commentator Dave Pasch mentioned during the broadcast that Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes says that his team is, “All about chemistry”.

AThe Silver Stars embody what people mean when they say that WNBA basketball is “basketball the way it should be played” or any number of variations on that statement. It’s not flashy, it can seem dull at times, but when they get into a rhythm it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

There’s no better example of that than their performance in their back-to-back road games against the aforementioned Sparks and Mercury. Winning the second game of a back-to-back after such a brutal loss in the first game is not easy and a testament to the character of this team.

So what attributes of this team allowed them to leave Phoenix with a win after such a brutal loss to the Sparks?

A well balanced rotation, outstanding execution, and faith in their system allow the Silver Stars to remain effective despite bad matchups, off nights, or fatigue. Most importantly, their players complement each other extremely well, which allows them to find a rhythm and stick with their strategy even when they’re struggling.

Watching them over the past two nights only encouraged me to dig deeper into the notions of team dynamics. Ultimately, I think the Silver Stars represent an excellent model for building a successful basketball team...but I’ll get to that later.

Team Dynamics Rating

Even though looking at the stats from the Sparks’ game is frightening (1 offensive rebound), you have to remember that the Silver Stars were still within six late in the game. That is because their underlying team dynamics remained strong even when they were struggling.

The Mercury game actually followed a very similar pattern. It just looked better because the match-up was more favorable – as you can guess, the Mercury do not quite pose the rebounding or defensive challenge that the Sparks present. Here are the team dynamics statistics for the game:

Team A/FG TS OReb% Tov% Synergy Syn. Diff. Team Dynamics Rating
SASS 36.23% 60.29%


16.17% 97 28


PHO 20.00% 49.14% 24.39% 11.34%

69 -28 -14.33

The Silver Stars struggled in the first quarter, again giving up 5 offensive rebounds and Tangela Smith killing them from all over the court. The Mercury also took care of the ball really well in the opening period only turning it over once, which helped them to end the quarter down 29-21. After that, the Silver Stars found their rhythm in the final three quarters and never let up.

Just like in the game against the Sparks, the Silver Stars’ offensive synergy and shooting increased over the last three quarters. Their true shooting percentage over the last three quarters was 62.30%. They had an offensive synergy rating of 104, which indicates that they were not only making shots efficiently, but also moving the ball more to find those scoring opportunities.

Part of the increased efficiency over the last three quarters was due to their offense – Ann Wauters was able to beat her defender cutting to the basket and flashing to the middle of their zone. With Phoenix unable to find an answer for Wauters inside, she was able to put up 15 points in the last three quarters after being shut out in the first.

Add to that a much-improved offensive rebounding percentage of 32.43 for the game and you see the Silver Stars were playing very good team basketball: moving the ball, shooting well, and taking care of the ball well enough to get a win on the road.

Conversely, Phoenix relies heavily on their rover defense and high scoring stars to get them wins. When Phoenix’s opponents move the ball well enough to pick apart their zone and score more efficiently than they do, they struggle to keep up even at their breakneck pace. This is where good team chemistry comes in.

Chemistry 101: Trusting the offense and each other

At a very basic level, chemistry is built on experience playing with each other, which leads to understanding each other’s tendencies and being able to anticipate each other’s thoughts. As described in an article from the She’s A Baller blog:
“We have pretty good chemistry out there,” Hammon said. “She knows a lot of times what I’m thinking with just eye contact. It’s nice to have that.”
Just knowing each other is not quite sufficient to create chemistry. What impresses me most about the Silver Stars is that they are extremely balanced. Each of their stars – Hammon, Wauters, and Sophia Young – complement each other well. Hammon provides perimeter scoring from both backcourt positions. Wauters provides an inside presence to take advantage of porous defenses like Phoenix’s. Young provides an inside-out game that makes her extremely difficult to guard.

Their offensive strategy involves movement without the ball, high pick and rolls, and Hammon attacking the basket with drives, is extremely effective at keeping the defense off balance. That offense also does an excellent job of maximizing the complementary nature of the stars’ talents.

So their “chemistry” is created mostly because of the balance between their three stars. They are able to maintain a rhythm by trusting that someone else will be able to score when things aren’t going well. And that trust allows them to stay calm and not panic when they get down early in games.

And that trust extends to role players like Erin Buescher, Ruth Riley, and Vickie Johnson as well – they all bring an additional element to the game that allows them to maintain a rhythm no matter what the defense throws at them. Their system allows them to limit the uncertainty that can come during runs or off nights.

Phoenix relying too much on their big scorers

The Mercury provide a helpful contrast to the Silver Stars in trying to understand chemistry. They rely very heavily on their two scorers and particularly Diana Taurasi who is also leaned on to make the rover work.

Instead of ball movement, they rely on pushing the tempo and letting Taurasi and Pondexter create their own offense. And as coach Corey Gaines says, they rely on that offensive energy to feed into their defense. If they’re not hot offensively, they generally fall apart defensively as well.

Teams like Houston might struggle to keep up with Phoenix. But a team like San Antonio that can disrupt their energy by methodically picking apart the rover defense, gives Phoenix fits.

So while the Silver Stars tend to fall back on underlying chemistry of their system when they get into trouble – from slumps, fatigue, matchups – Phoenix tends to start looking for Taurasi or Pondexter to step up and carry the load by themselves. That’s why Penny Taylor is so important to their team – she gives them extra firepower to keep the rhythm going when others are off.

Individual play can work, but it’s less reliable

Good synergy is not the only way to win. When you have impact players as dominant as Taurasi and Pondexter, it makes sense to rely on them to some extent. The problem is that relying on individuals is a less reliable approach than relying on synergy and chemistry.

When you face a situation like the Silver Stars were in – the second game of a back-to-back on the road – being able to trust that the system will yield scoring opportunities even when things aren’t going well is extremely valuable. Having a balanced rotation, leaders who can step up when needed, and veterans can make opponents’ lives very difficult.

Transition points:

A post game comment from coach Dan Hughes regarding the Silver Stars’ balance:
"You have five players in double figures,'' Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes said, "so we had good balance between our interior play and our perimeter play. We got good play off the bench too and I thought (that) was key. Defensively, we could rely on them a little bit to keep pressure on them.''

Relevant Links:

Q's Theory of Team Dynamics (similar to Dean Oliver's Four Factors)

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Double Standards For Female Athletes' Appearance

. Tuesday, July 15, 2008
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I came across a post today on the Smart Like Me blog about the double standards of women’s sports uniforms in which she made a brief comment about the WNBA:

Without further editorializing on the seeming requirement that female athlete’s garb be “sexy” (save for those nasty lesbian WNBA players, snark), I read these 2 posts today..
The brief comment highlights an issue that Patricia Nell Warren wrote about in a previous article for the Women’s Sports Foundation:
Different sports have responded in different ways to LGBT athletes and coaches coming out. In the sports based on individual performance, there has been less resistance to change and less open homophobia. But many team sports have a long way to go before we will be happy with their attitudes and practices!
But while the "garb" of female basketball players isn’t expected to be sexy, more and more the women are. As one of the quoted blogs (Uncensored Feminista) writes:
It’s as if they need to show their sexiness and their femininity in order to be recognized for the players that they are. This sounds a lot to me like what’s happening with the WNBA and how the women are being sent to charm school. I also wanted to mention that we don’t see male athletes in their tighty whities to promote themselves. Granted Michael Jordon has the Hanes endorsements but have you ever seen an ad of him in underware or half naked? Have you ever seen him wearing less clothing than what he would wear on the court? Why do women have to expose themselves in bikinis and lingerie, which is NOT something they should be seen in public in period, not like the article suggests.
Although some people may complain that continuing to point this stuff out is just getting “old”, the fact that it continues to happen despite repeated claims of “progress” make it worth calling attention to.

Great food for thought in all of those posts.

Relevant Links:

Link to Warren's previous article can be found here:

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Sparks’ Offensive Rebounding Overwhelms Silver Stars’ Team Dynamics

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I have wondered about the Los Angeles Sparks’ strategy all season, but when you can grab offensive rebounds the way they did against the San Antonio Silver Stars last night, it’s all a moot point.

The Sparks out-rebounded the Silver Stars 18-1 on the offensive boards en route to a 75-63 victory. It seems like that must be some kind of record for offensive rebounding differential.

Derek Fisher commented near the end of the game that if they win this game it will be an ugly win. Indeed it was ugly, but to me that the forceful interior play they displayed last night is much more indicative of a style that suits them than the up-tempo style coach Michael Cooper has tried to use to this point in the season.

Yes, Cooper apparently started out wanting to push the tempo to take the Silver Stars out of their game. But if you watched closely in the 4th quarter -- when a 6 point lead doubled to 12 -- it was the Sparks running a half court offense and solid half court defense. They played to their strengths, which is there All-Olympian front line.

In fact, when the Sparks play like that, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could stop them, short of getting Leslie or Parker to just foul out. The Silver Stars are arguably the worst rebounding team in the league, only grabbing 47% of the available rebounds per game. So sure it’s the right thing for Silver Stars fans or coach Dan Hughes to say that, “…we could have controlled our own destiny if we rebounded the ball better.” But rebounding is a major weakness for the Silver Stars and for the first time in a while, the Sparks exploited an opponent’s weakness rather than passively reacting to the opponents’ game plan.

Although the offensive rebounding was clearly the story of this game, I also found it interesting to look at this game in terms of their teamwork dynamics. And though the Silver Stars lost, I think this game says a lot about their style of play as well.

Team dynamics rating & offensive rebounding

Over the weekend, I looked at ball movement, team synergy, offensive rebounding, and turnovers as a theoretical means to make teamwork dynamics somewhat more tangible. There were some interesting results in terms of characterizing teams’ style of play and their overall effectiveness.

The Sparks demonstrated something that I think the Sacramento Monarchs did well last season – if you can do one thing extremely well as a team, you can overcome other deficiencies…even if every other element of team basketball is your weakness.

At times during the game, their 36% shooting from the field didn’t even seem to matter. The way they were dominating offensive rebounds, it almost looked like they could just come down the court, toss the ball off the back-board, and watch as Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker dominated the paint.

But as ugly as it was you can’t complain too much about the "strategy" because it will work for them, especially if they can shoot the ball better.

Offensive rebounding percentage – the percentage of available rebounds that a team gets on offense – is actually a more telling statistic than the raw offensive rebounding numbers. Comparing offensive rebounds (23-1) between teams doesn’t tell the full story about how dominant a team was on the offensive glass because you’re not really competing against an opponents’ offense for offensive rebounds – you’re going up against their defense.

So to put these numbers in perspective – on the season, the Sparks are getting about 33% of the offensive rebounds available, among the best in the league. The league average is almost 31%. In last night’s game, they got 43%...and in the fourth quarter, the got 70%. That means they got the ball back and extended their possession on 7 of every 10 opportunities in the fourth quarter.

I don’t have all-time stats on this, but it’s obvious that that is dominant. They crushed San Antonio on the boards. San Antonio normally gets 69% of the defensive rebounds available – in the bottom half of the league – but didn’t even approach that against the Sparks.

The thing is, this wasn’t just about San Antonio having an off night or playing with low energy – the Sparks just played with a tenacity that made it extremely difficult to keep the Sparks off the glass. And although I’ve been attributing that to Leslie and Parker, it was the whole team – Shannon Bobbitt even had a career high 3 offensive rebounds (Parker had 2). Of course, that it a matter of Bobbitt’s hustle and energy, but it’s also the result of San Antonio having to expend so much energy just to stop Leslie and Parker.

This is just a problem that the Silver Stars have and they can make up for it with good team synergy normally, just not last night.

Team Synergy

Synergy – the ability for a team to move the ball and create good scoring opportunities (click here for more) -- is one of the more important elements of team basketball and one that I'm partial to. However, games like this one are a reminder that you can win without ball movement if you have dominant players on the court.

I always believe that any team's goal should be to move the ball better than their opponents – with a good offensive strategy and a defensive strategy that disrupts their opponents. You can argue that the Silver Stars did that – their assisted field goal percentage was 28.5 vs the Sparks’ 18.31 and their true shooting percentage was 52.44 to the Sparks’ 44.77.

Although the Silver Stars had problems with synergy in the first quarter (SA: 49 vs. LAS: 73), they were actually quite efficient in the other three quarters, especially the 2nd and 4th. They had a 57.59 true shooting percentage (5 percentage points above their season average) and a synergy score of 90.

This is important because one of the things I like most about the Silver Stars is their synergy on offense. They are the best in the league thus far this season. And what was impressive is that despite being down big at times in the first and the fourth quarter, they stuck to their offensive scheme and kept trying to execute it. That’s what allowed them to get back into the game at halftime and again in the 2nd half. Some teams would panic when things aren’t going well, but the Silver Stars trust their offensive enough to keep working within it.

That’s not to say everything was rosy for the Silver Stars – Sophia Young was 1-5 with 4 turnovers and was a complete non-factor during the game. Most of that was because she was trying to establish position inside and with Leslie and Parker roaming around the paint, that just didn’t work. And with a bona fide MVP candidate taken out of the game, that put extra pressure on Becky Hammon to carry more of the offensive load.

In the last 5 wins for the Silver Stars, Hammon was more than capable of carrying the team earning Player of the Week recognition. In the past five games, she had a true shooting percentage of 67.6, which is quite amazing to maintain across games (league average is around 50%). Last night, she had a true shooting percentage of 46.6. A large part of that was her 1-8 three point shooting performance.

Having her shoot so many threes in the first quarter was probably not just her being trigger happy – they probably wanted to “loosen” up the Sparks’ defense. Unfortunately, her inability to get going the end of the first quarter with a few driving baskets really her team.

On top of that, the Silver Stars weren’t exactly taking care of the ball very well either.

Turnover percentage

Moving the ball is no good if you’re moving it out of bounds or into the other team’s hands. Unfortunately for the Silver Stars, that was a major part of their problem.

The Silver Stars are one of the better teams in the league in terms of turnover percentage, but almost 25% of their plays last night ended in a turnover. When you consider that they were tossing away possessions while the Sparks were extending possessions (with offensive rebounds) the Silver Stars really needed stronger games from Hammon and Young to pull off a win. And when you think about the fact that they were actually within striking distance in the fourth, it makes that point all the more important.

The Sparks weren’t exactly a sparkling model of ball handling efficiency either as they turned the ball over almost 20% of the time…but their offensive rebounding probably made up for that.

Team Dynamics Rating

So overall, here are the final team dynamics rating, which is calculated by adding a team’s synergy differential to their offensive rebounding percentage and subtracting turnover percentage:

Sparks: 6.12
Silver Stars: -2.84

Hammon or Young… or both…would have needed a much more dominant performance to overcome that. Hammon had an off night and Young was stifled by the Sparks’ interior defense. The Silver Stars complete inability to rebound really hurt them, especially in the first and third quarters when they weren't shooting well either.

But imagine if the Sparks had even better synergy on offense? There were moments were they move the ball extremely well, but there were moments where they just reverted to their make-shift streetball offense. Dan put it best when describing the Sparks’ implosion against the Monarchs on the 5280 blog, so I’ll quote him:

…too often saw LA's offensive strategy reduce itself to "throw the ball to whoever is standing in front of the basket and hope the magic happens." Even with a future Hall of Fame center and one of the most talented rookies to ever enter the women's game, that's not the most effective way to run an offense. The times when I saw their offense working at its best was when they took the opportunity to move the ball in, out and around; maybe it was inevitably on-route to Leslie or Parker in the paint, but it at least had the defense on its heels until then.
Really, you could describe last night’s game in much the same way. Yes, they did a better job of going high-low and inside and out, but their inability to find many open shots for each other puts a lot of pressure on Leslie and Parker. The difference is the Monarchs are one of the best rebounding teams and the Silver Stars the worst. Beyond that, it’s hard to say that they played “better” offensively, though they did make more of an effort to play half court basketball, which suits them.

A major problem they’re having is that they lack any kind of credible outside shooting threat. Sidney Spencer is their best, but she’s easy to jam and neutralize because she doesn’t create much off the dribble. Bobbitt is great at keeping the team in rhythm and moving the ball, but not at all a consistent scoring threat.

I don’t know much about Amber Jacobs, but if she can shoot the ball and defend, she could get more playing time. From what I saw of her last night, she’s a good distributor and understands the need to actually run an offense, something that the other Sparks point guards lack. She only played a few minutes, but I’ll look forward to seeing her play again.

I’ll also look forward to seeing the Silver Stars go up against Phoenix tonight. Their trust in their offense could be valuable in heading into back-to-back road games…and since Phoenix really doesn’t believe in defense, I would imagine that they could pull out a win. And that would be an even stronger testament to the value of their team synergy.

Transition Points:

A quick note on the Sparks turnovers as they pertained to their much maligned point guard play – the three point guards accounted for 4 of the Sparks 16 turnovers. Leslie had 6 and Parker and DeLisha Milton-Jones had two each. While it’s reasonable to blame point guards when a team is playing less than fluid offense, in this case, it seems like there might be something with the team’s offensive strategy that is causing these costly turnovers. I know point guards are responsible for maintaining rhythm and distributing the ball as well, but you cannot do that either without a coherent offensive structure.

I still think Derek Fisher is a pretty solid commentator. He knows the game extremely well and is able to pick out the most important nuances of the game. However, I had to snicker when he talked about flopping. He said that he didn’t know why people had labeled him a flopper. But I’m a Warriors fan…I know why…check this out (the league later announced that the Fisher play was a bad call):

The Silver Stars did not break any records for least offensive rebounds, believe it or not. Apparently, that dubious honor belongs to the Houston Comets who only recorded one rebound against the Phoenix on July 27, 2006 (via p_d_swanson @ Rebkell).

Relevant Links:

The latest offensive rebounding stats can be found here, via the outstanding Lynx stats site

A previous post about the Sparks' team chemistry:

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Mid-Season Rookie Report: All-Rookie Team and Upside Rankings

. Monday, July 14, 2008
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It’s mid-season and I think we should have a pretty good sense of the top candidates for the All-Rookie team as I update my rookie "upside" rankings.

I have a top four for my rookie team pretty much set, but the fifth selection will be more difficult in my opinion:

Candace Parker
Candice Wiggins
Alexis Hornbuckle
Nicky Anosike

Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins are no-brainers.

I think Alexis Hornbuckle should be a lock – she’s one of the best defenders in the league already and has played a significant role on one of the best team’s in the league.

Nicky Anosike is my fourth – again a solid defender, a starter, and a productive player on both ends of the floor.

But the fifth player is a bit harder this season. A case could be made for Sylvia Fowles who played extremely well in five games before her unfortunate injury. But she’s also missed so many games that I think it would be an unfair to name her to the fifth spot when we’ve seen more of so many other rookies.

As this is a very deep draft class by almost any standard, it’s difficult to select just one to make the fifth player. And I think it depends what you value in a rookie: production, efficiency, or demonstrated potential. To sort it out, I’ll return to my rookie “upside” rankings and make a few changes that I think better represent indicators of a rookie’s potential.

(If you want to just see the latest rankings, skip to the section titled “The final upside rankings”.)

A starter, a sleeper, and a diamond in the rough

Amber Holt has all of the markers of someone who would typically get post-season recognition. She’s a starter on a winning team, which I think is an important consideration in evaluating the quality of a rookie. She has great scoring instincts that will serve her well in the future. And she’s one of the more productive rookies in a deep class.

Tasha Humphrey is a personal favorite of mine but she’s also one of the most efficient rookies in this class. She’s started a few games and has had a significant impact on one of the best teams in the league. She’s shooting 100% from the free throw line, she’s a solid three point shooter, and can score in a variety of ways. She’s easily one of the most versatile rookies and figures to develop into one of the most versatile offensive threats in the league.

My diamond in the rough is Crystal Kelly. She is very quietly putting together a very solid rookie campaign. Honestly, I had not noticed her before doing my first rookie rankings and seeing her end up in my top 10. But statistically, she’s playing extremely efficient basketball in limited minutes and has all the markings of a player who could breakout in the future with more minutes. She’s an efficient scorer, she’s consistent in those limited minutes, and she has one of the higher net plus/minus ratings in the league, which means that she has a positive effect on the game when she’s in (Humphrey and Holt are both negative).

I think it’s hard to make a strong case for a rookie bench player over a rookie starter to receive an award, but Crystal Kelly shows so much potential that she’s at least worth a look. Not convinced? I go to the statistics…

A few changes to the rookie rankings…

As a reminder, my rookie rankings were about projecting upside, not trying to identify those having the most productive rookie seasons. I do think post-season rookie awards should be based on production, but find it interesting to look at potential as a factor in those decisions as well.

The way I tried to refine my rookie rankings is by applying them to the 2006 rookie class. The stats were available at (important condition), they had All-Rookie teams that year (listed at, and they are now in their third year giving us a good glimpse into their development. I’ve also done some perusing of other people’s methods and came up with a few key statistics (based on NBA performance, but backed with solid research).

Ultimately, I chose to keep plus/minus and versatility as elements of these rankings. I did make a small change with versatility index -- I have replaced “total rebounds” with “offensive rebounds” to better represent the value of offensive rebounding to a team’s success. I also decided to calculate based on per minute statistics instead of averages.

I also kept Diamond Rating – which projects a player’s potential to breakout given more minutes – but I also changed those numbers slightly (which I will describe later).

I chose to add two elements that I felt were missing from the original rankings – defense and shooting efficiency. Defensive ability is important to professional basketball and rookies that can demonstrate that are very valuable to a team. As for shooting efficiency, my original thinking was that it is misleading because rookies learn shot selection and more effective moves over time that allow them to become more efficient shooters. However, a rookie’s shooting ability might be more telling than we think.

So I’ll do a quick overview of the rankings using Holt, Humphrey, and Kelly as examples.

Net plus/minus

Plus/minus rating evaluates how well a team plays when a player is on the court.

It is not always true that rookies with the highest net plus/minus scores do well in the future, but it seems to be a good barometer of their ability to contribute to their team’s success. Here are the scores for Holt, Humphrey, and Kelly (with their rookie ranking in parentheses):

Kelly: + 7.8 (4th)
Humphrey: -1.8 (16th)
Holt: -12.2 (23rd)

We cannot read too much into this statistic, but it’s always interesting given that it’s not based on box score production, but the positive or negative effect a player has on the team when on the floor. Kelly plays less minutes than the other two so perhaps this should be taken with a grain of salt, but that she has a positive effect off the bench on a team that has been erratic this season is notable.

Watch Kelly play and this makes sense. She plays a fearless interior game, getting rebounds, and scoring points. She has some pretty good footwork down low, which allows her to find ways to score. And defensively she’s no slouch. Even though she makes rookie mistakes (not everyone can be Candace Parker) you can feel comfortable that when she can do all the little things to help a team win. Not flashy, but effective.

Versatility Index

As I described before, I like this statistic in evaluating rookies because it tells us something about their capacity to contribute to fill a team’s needs and contribute as necessary. In addition, it would seem that the most versatile rookies have more room to develop in the future. Here are those numbers:

Humphrey: 13.76 (3rd)
Holt: 11.76 (8th)
Kelly: 9.57 (16th)

I’m not sure what the average versatility index is for the WNBA…and I should probably figure that out before posting more of these rankings. But it shouldn’t be controversial to say Humphrey is one of the most versatile rookies in the WNBA. Who’s ahead of her: Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins. Not bad.

Diamond Rating

I like Diamond Rating quite a bit and after seeing how well the Petrel Adjusted Diamond Rating projected Alison Bales to help the Atlanta Dream, I’m inclined to keep it around.

However, I changed the metric by which to evaluate rookies to use a valuable contributions rating (VCR) created by D Sparks at the Arbitrarian blog. It is calculated by taking all the valuable contributions a player makes and dividing them by the percentage of team minutes a player plays. A perfect metric for rookies because it takes into the rate of production while on the floor. You can guess who benefited most from this statistic:

Kelly: 53.51 (1st)
Humphrey: 45.43 (2nd)
Holt: 13.5 (16th)

It’s worth noting that all three of these players have posted above average VCR numbers (league-wide) this season. But the way to interpret these numbers is as an indicator of a player’s relative likelihood to increase their valuable contribution to their team if they are given more minutes. That Humphrey ranks second among rookies and has already started 11 games in her career is reason for optimism – it means that we may not have seen anything close to her ceiling yet.

Again this is one I’ll have to look into more deeply to find some sort of “average” score, but among rookies, it’s clear that Holt is a bit behind Humprey and Kelly. (Kevin Pelton previously provided me with PER diamond rating scores – which would be easier to compare across years -- but I don’t have those updated numbers.)

True shooting percentage

A lot of attention is given to field goal percentage, but that does not take into account the increased difficulty of three pointer or a player’s ability to score from the free throw line. True shooting percentage takes every shot into account and adjusts for relative difficulty.

I added this after reading an article by Ken Pomeroy about indicators that college players will improve their shooting over time. The conclusion is that players who shoot well from the free throw line are more likely to continue developing their three point shooting (and I imagine shooting overall) if they are not already good shooters. Poor free throw shooters will tend to regress from the three point line even if they are good shooters.

More could be said about this in relation to rookies, but for now here are the focal players:

Kelly: 64% (2nd)
Humphrey: 59% (3rd)
Holt: 49% (15th)

I can tell you that league average true shooting percentage as of last week was 50%, making Holt just below average in shooting efficiency, which is not encouraging for a guard, especially given that this takes into account free throws and threes. What’s is again impressive about Humphrey is that she seems capable of scoring in every way imaginable and she’s only a rookie…at power forward. She’s a dangerous player and has the stats to back it up.

Defensive player efficiency rating (PER)

Defensive PER is something I added to take defense into account. As Dave Berri from Wages of Wins has repeated many times, we tend to make these assessments almost entirely on scoring, ignoring some of the most important aspects of winning basketball, especially defense.

Defensive PER is relatively simple and based on the work of John Hollinger. You add all a player’s valuable contributions per minute on defense (blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds) and subtract from negative contributions (personal fouls) and then multiply it all by starter level minutes (I’m using 33.3 following Petrel’s lead). What you get is their projected production given starter minutes. Here it is:

Kelly: 2.25 (13th)
Holt: 1.14 (19th)
Humphrey: .14 (23rd)

Defense is difficult assess, because so much of it is about team play and there is no statistic for tight on-ball defense. Essence Carson, for example, is a victim of this in these rankings. She is a great on ball defender, but ranks 14th using this metric, right behind Kelly. So this one is not perfect, but it’s a nice start. Out of these three however, I have no problem arguing Kelly may be the best defender. Again, it comes down to energy and aggressiveness. Humphrey has a ways to go defensively despite all of her offensive ability. Think coaches Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn are going to help her with that?

The final upside rankings

So here is my ranking of the top ten “upside” rookies based on those above statistics. Again, upside is that annoying term that I know is thrown around far too much during the NBA draft. Upside is a nebulous concept, but for the sake of these rankings, it simply means the demonstrated capacity for a player to improve based upon the above statistical reasoning.

I like this approach to evaluating rookies because as young players, their ability to improve in the future is as important as their first year production. But I also recognize things such as fit with the team, team strategy, and work ethic play a major role in a player’s capacity to improve. As a fan, I can’t make an assessment of those factors anyway, so this is a good way to complement observation.

Again, I ranked them all 1 to 25 and assigned 25 points to the top player in each category and 1 to all others. So here’s the updated top 10 upside rookies with their overall score:

Parker, Candace 106
Kelly, Crystal 94
Wiggins, Candice 89
Hornbuckle, Alexis 89
Gruda, Sandrine 86
Humphrey, Tasha 83
Anosike, Nicky 80
Pringle, LaToya 76
Swanier, Ketia 74
White, Erica 70

First of all, this does NOT mean Kelly is the second best rookie behind Parker. It means that she has the second highest likelihood to improve based on the above statistics. And the reason she’s ahead of Wiggins is her defense – Wiggins is another player who brings a lot of that unquantifiable energy on defense. Hornbuckle’s true shooting percentage is only 45%, which is what hurt her.

All that is not to say that I expected Crystal Kelly to rank so highly, but it might be time to say she’s having a promising rookie season, given her limited minutes. At some point people will have to notice what she’s been doing.

I’m leaving Fowles off this list because she’s been injured, but even with only five games under her belt, she still would have ranked 7th.

Wondering about Essence Carson, who didn’t rank very high in my last rankings either? She’s not very versatile offensively and has a 41% true shooting percentage. Why? She shoots around 50% from the free throw line and that does not bode well for her shooting prospects in the future.

Matee Ajavon had the same problem from the free throw line (xx%) but also ranked extremely poorly in defensive PER (-0.76). She has the ability to score, but she’s not yet an efficient player.

Tamera Young is a great athletic player, but I think her problem will be finding a niche. It’s hard for me to identify what she does well at this point. She is quite a versatile player though and it will be interesting to see how she improves as the Dream continue to win games. Young is also not shooting very well on the season, which has an impact on her ranking.

On a positive note, Crystal Langhorne has been improving lately and looked good on Sunday against Connecticut. She’s a presence inside, has post moves and knows how to use them, and she can run the floor. With more minutes I think she could sneak into the top 10.

Swanier was a bit of a surprise for me, but she was #1 in true shooting percentage: 74.85%. That’s pretty amazing. Her defensive PER was also 5th among rookies, which makes her a player that is worth having on the floor. She doesn’t rank well in much else, which is reason for concern about how much she’ll improve, but she may be able to establish herself as a solid shooter in the league.

Gruda and Pringle are both very promising rookies. Both long, quick, and have great instincts on offense. Gruda is among the best rookie defenders and Pringle ranked about average among rookies across the board. You have to figure that with minutes both of them could develop into impact players.

My mid-season choice for the All-Rookie team…

A brief note on Gruda: she would be a candidate for the All-Rookie team, but she’s even more raw than Kelly right now and has not played enough to put her there yet.


In addition to Kelly’s statistics, she fights for position down low and aggressively establishes position to do what she wants. She has a very good feel for the game and a great skill set that will serve her well in the future. She’s active and knows how to get to the free throw line, where she shoots 85%. But as efficient as Kelly has been this season, unless she gets more minutes and gets the chance to demonstrate that she can be the type of consistent impact player that Wiggins and Hornbuckle are, I can’t justify her on the All-Rookie team.

Holt is impressive when I watch her, but unfortunately, her numbers indicate that she still has a ways to go and may even be a little overrated in terms of her future potential. Again, it’s hard to assess work ethic, she has the tools, but she has not quite put it together thus far this season.

So my choice for the fifth spot on the All-Rookie team is Tasha Humphrey…and not just because I like her game. With the exception of her poor defensive rating, there’s not a whole lot she can’t do on the floor. When she’s gotten minutes, she’s been very effective already this year and she has all the tools to improve in the future. Her versatility and shooting efficiency figure to be assets for the Shock for years to come and I would expect those Detroit coaches to work with her on defense.


That’s a team I’ll go to battle with any day of the week.

I’ll try to stay on top of these so we can track each player’s growth over the season.

Relevant Links:

Previous Rookie Rankings:

WNBA Plus/Minus Statistics

The Arbitrarian's WNBA statistics

Identifying Breakout Players (Pelton article about Diamond Rating)

Versatility Index

Transition Points:

Update: Just caught the WNBA's updated rookie rankings. Humphrey, Holt, and Kelly got honorable mention nods. They have dropped Hornbuckle from the rankings altogether...

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Team Synergy Part 2: Ball Movement and Team Dynamics

. Sunday, July 13, 2008
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After going through an amateurish statistical analysis of ball movement in the WNBA and NBA, I found that it might be valuable, but only one piece of a bigger picture.

I started out by looking at assisted field goal percentage (a/fg) and from there found a synergy statistic that seemed to have some descriptive (though not explanatory) value in terms of a team’s style of play.

Although most successful WNBA teams seemed to move the ball better than their opponents in 2007, there were still some conceptual flaws that might explain a few oddball results.

First, synergy differential doesn’t take turnovers into account and most coaches know that turnovers are extremely harmful. Second, it doesn’t take into account rebounding, something that many good teams do well – NBA and WNBA. Third there’s the problem with using assists as a means of analysis for anything – assists are assigned subjectively and are therefore inherently flawed.

So after reading through Dean Oliver’s Four Factors, I decided to explore the possibility of integrating turnovers and offensive rebounds into the formula. The results are pretty interesting, though basic, and I think worthy of further examination.

So here are the WNBA results integrating offensive rebounds, turnovers, and a look at true shooting percentage instead of field goal percentage. (NBA results were interesting, but not as good as the WNBA stats…so I’ll leave that up to an NBA APBRmetrician).

(Again, if you don’t want all the explanation and wish to just cut to the chase, scroll down to the section titled: “The Final Formula“)

Offensive rebounding: Making up for missing shots?

The first thing that occurred to me was that I needed to find a place for offensive rebounds. Last year’s Sacramento Monarchs did not score very high in synergy differential. But they did score well in offensive rebounds.

Following Jeff Fogle’s example, I figured if I could add another percentage to the existing synergy differential formula, it would remain reasonably balanced. So consistent with Dean Oliver’s Four Factors, I decided to take a look at offensive rebounding percentage. I just added the two together. Here are the WNBA results for that equation:

Team Syn Diff

Off Reb Rate


4.19% 32.80%
IND 3.57% 29.90%
SAC -3.91% 38.60%
CON 2.42% 29.60%
SEA -0.25% 31.10%
SAS 2.09% 29.40%
HOU -0.50% 34.20%
PHO 6.86% 22.80%
CHI -2.13% 31.20%
MIN -4.21% 33.20%

So in comparison to the synergy score results, these results have 7 of the 8 playoff teams in the top 10. However, the order is skewed as Phoenix is the 8th rated team, New York is still left out, and Houston is somehow in the top 5.

And looking back at four factors it seemed likely that turnover percentage could help balance things out.

Ball security is vital

It’s pretty much common knowledge that turnovers are bad. But the tricky thing with turnovers is that teams that play up tempo basketball are bound to make more turnovers just as a function of having more possessions per game. So turnover percentage accounts for that by looking at the percentage of possessions that end in a turnover. I subtracted that from the other numbers and came out with some pretty nice results.

Team TOV%



20.44% 16.54%
PHO 16.60% 13.06%
CON 19.57% 12.45%
SAC 22.88% 11.81%
IND 22.13% 11.35%
SEA 19.85% 11.00%
SAS 21.12% 10.37%
HOU 23.48% 10.23%
CHI 18.94% 10.14%
MIN 20.12% 8.87%

So again, with the exception of the Liberty still ranked low (11th), this seems like a more accurate look at the WNBA in 2007.

However, this still uses FG% whereas Oliver recommends effective FG% which takes three point shooting into account. Oliver also has free throw shooting in his four factors. So could that be part of the solution?

How valuable are free throws and three pointers?

Since Oliver’s formula takes free throw shooting and 3 point shooting into account, I decided to try adapting the original synergy formula by using true shooting percentage instead of field goal percentage. True shooting percentage is helpful because it takes three point shooting, free throws, and two point shooting into account in one number.

So I replaced field goal percentage with true shooting percentage in the original synergy formula and came up with the following results. And for the sake of easy labeling, I'll call the total "teamwork rating" (which just sounds better than a linear stat formula).

Team SynDiff (TS%)

Teamwork Rating


3.24% 15.59

PHO 7,25% 13.45

CON 3.00% 13.03

SEA 1.48% 12.73


4.58% 12.35


-4.33% 11.39

SAS 2.86% 11.14


-2.86% 9.40


-2.42% 8.30


-4.89% 8.19

So still can’t find a way to get the Liberty into the top 8, and the order of the 7 playoff teams is now further from the standings, but I think the differences in the ordering are small...and perhaps justifiable.

The Final Formula: Explaining Teamwork Rating

What I like most about this formula is that (as of now) it’s relatively simple to evaluate a team just looking at a box score: Team synergy – opponents’ synergy + offensive rebounding percentage – turnover percentage.

In the end, it's meaningful in terms of understanding the quality of a team and they're style of play.

It’s also pretty easy to describe in plain language an approximate “formula for success” in the WNBA: if you can move the ball better than the other team while taking care of the ball and rebounding missed shots, you have a pretty good shot of winning. And then there are teams (like the Monarchs or Mercury last year) who can make up for deficiencies by doing one thing extremely well. It gives us a language to talk about what’s going on with a team.

For now, I'm calling this a "teamwork rating" because I think each one of these statistics is a function of good teamwork in addition to individual play. With a strategy that fits the personnel well, a team can rate highly in synergy differential, offensive rebounding rate, and turnover percentage.

While I don’t have a way to evaluate individual contributions to the team chemistry, this might be a start. I’ve been pretty interested in finding a way to understand team chemistry for some time and this might be a start – it describes the components necessary to build a contender. Efficient scorers, good rebounders, and good ball handlers. A good team will have players that can fill all those roles and complement (or mask) weaknesses.

For example, you could analyze trades in terms of what the incoming player adds compared to the loss from the outgoing player and guess how that might impact the team. You could preview match-ups by looking at what to take away from teams.

It’s not perfect, but I think all of the remaining flaws based on last year’s statistics can be accounted for as follows:

1) The Liberty were a playoff team, but also had a losing record. So these factors do explain the success of a winning teams to some extent. The Liberty also had what seems like an erratic season, which could account for poor regular season numbers.

2) If you look at Pythagorean wins/losses from last year, these results are relatively similar, but Pythagorean wins/losses have a better predictive quality. The trade-off is that with my assessment of teamwork (or whatever you want to call it) you can also look at a team's strengths and weaknesses as they pertain to regular season performance. As Oliver says about his Four Factors, it can be used as a scouting tool for us fans to pinpoint how to beat a given team.

3) There is probably never going to be a “holy grail” formula because real life has things like injuries, trades, hot streaks and slumps that can’t really be accounted for. So one thing I like about this approach to teamwork is that it looks at enough team variables to both describe a team’s style of play and tell us something about its effectiveness. When I look at a team like Seattle for example, if Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson had stayed healthy, might they have been second in the West? It’s reasonable to say so given how dominant Jackson was last year.

Of course I only looked at one season of data and given how short WNBA seasons are, that’s probably not enough to make any major claims. But for now, I’ll go with this.

So here are this year’s rankings as of this past Wednesday (I updated numbers then and haven’t since…so nobody had played more than 19 games at that point):

Team "Teamwork rating"


PHO 19.56%
CON 18.19%
SAC 17.03%
IND 16.73%
SEA 14.87%
SAS 13.24%
HOU 13.20%
CHI 11.35%
MIN 11.07%





The reason Chicago ranks so high is likely because of Sylvia Fowles' early contribution and having a weak strength of schedule thus far – Fowles was huge in terms of field goal percentage and offensive rebounds. So her five games probably still have a large effect on the team’s data.

Obviously, the Sparks' chemistry is pretty volatile to say the least, but when they get hot they’re unstoppable. Statistically, they are by far the best team in the league. This "teamwork rating" probably only reinforces my belief that Shannon Bobbitt should start for the Sparks, although Kiesha Brown is the better scorer – Bobbitt does a lot to keep the ball movement and has the ability to disrupt opponents’ offense.

The Mercury's low score is probably due to the fact that they were absolutely dreadful the first 8 games of the season. They have since recovered from that on the court, but not statistically...

The Dream’s low score is due to ranking last in every single stat evaluated. You have to wonder if Alison Bales can at least boost their offensive rebounding and field goal percentage to help them win.

As for those three games I looked at this week – Mercury vs. Comets, Lynx vs. Dream, and Monarchs vs. Sparks – if the winning team didn’t have an edge in synergy differential, they did have an edge in turnovers and/or offensive rebounds. In addition, they all had at least one player who was able to score a lot of points very efficiently – Diana Taurasi, Betty Lennox, and Nicole Powell. So good scorers are valuable when shooting efficiently.

As with the rookie and point guard rankings, I’ll try to come back to this later in the season, probably around the Olympic break once there’s a little bit more data.

For now, any feedback is welcome – I like this because it ended up matching the things I value in basketball…but does it work for you???

Transition Points:

One way to look at team chemistry is to analyze combinations of playing styles on a given team. D Sparks at the Arbitrarian blog has already done this for the NBA and offered to do so for the WNBA. In a few days (or so) I'll try to combine these two approaches to make sense of what combinations of players are most effective and what teams may be missing. Again, it won't be exact science, but hopefully interesting.

I haven't come across current true shooting percentages for individual players, but if you want to look at last year's percentages, check out Last year, Lauren Jackson topped the league with a true shooting percentage of 63.3%. Penny Taylor came in second at 62.2%. One of those two has had the top figure in the league since 2004 -- Taylor in 2004 & 2005, Jackson in 2006 & 2007.

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