Guts and Determination: Can the Liberty Really Take First Place in the East?

. Saturday, July 26, 2008
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At the beginning of the season I didn’t know one player on the Liberty although I had some vague recollection of Janel McCarville’s name.

So forgive me if I’m shocked that in beating the Sparks 69-68 in a heart stopping thriller, the Liberty are within one game of first place in the Eastern Conference.

There’s nothing like a gritty New York-Los Angeles competition to help a league move past a week filled with distraction. In fact, it addressed some of the things that critics think the WNBA needs – it was the perfect example of how competitive, passionate, and physical women’s basketball players can be…even without starting a melee.

So while people spent most of the week talking about how a Detroit-LA rematch would make for an exciting (and highly rated) finals series, why not talk up the possibility of a New York-LA matchup?

With Connecticut and Detroit floundering could the Liberty really take first place and make a run at the WNBA finals? If they keep playing with the energy and toughness they displayed last night against LA, then why not?

A New York - LA finals would be great for the league: major media markets, competitive games, and match of the pre-season favorite vs. the consummate underdog. It might not create quite the buzz a Detroit-LA rematch would, but the basketball could be just as good.

Now of course I’m biased – I like the Liberty. And the world certainly doesn’t need another biased New York sports team fan (though I think I might help bolster the Californian Liberty fan demographic). But if you put aside the Outdoor Calamity from last week, the Liberty have won 6 straight home games and 7 of 9 in July, beating LA twice.

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, it’s the Sparks who might ruin this intriguing scenario because their ever elusive team chemistry might keep them from even making the playoffs. Nevertheless, the depth and toughness that the Liberty showed last night might be enough to make them a legitimate contender and give them a shot at the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

J-Mac’s Toughness

I really cannot say enough about Janel McCarville’s game. She’s a fearless and well rounded player who doesn’t really put up gaudy statistics, but just gets the job done. And she does it with attitude.

What people will remember about the game is Janel McCarville’s driving layup over the outstretched arms of Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker that ended up being the game winner. What may be forgotten is McCarville’s tough play on both ends of the floor throughout the game that prevented the Sparks from finding their ever-elusive offensive rhythm.

Although it seemed to be a bizarre strategy at first, the Liberty repeatedly looked to McCarville in the post not only to score, but also create opportunities for others. Defensively, McCarville and whoever else was around collapsed on Leslie and Parker whenever they got the ball and contesting almost every shot. They made life difficult for an LA team that has already been consistently inconsistent on offense his year.

She didn’t have a perfect game, but I thought it was a gutsy and effective strategy that demonstrated how much faith Pat Coyle has in McCarville. LA has the ability to completely neutralize interior players so to go right at their strength seemed counter-intuitive. But McCarville has such a high basketball IQ that she picked her spots perfectly. She played an effective inside and out game punctuated by the driving layup at the end.

However, she doesn’t deserve all the credit.

The bench should get the game ball for this one

Another interesting storyline was the outstanding play of the Liberty bench, which outscored the Sparks’ bench 24-12. In fact, it was a lineup of bench players late in the third quarter and early in the fourth that built the lead for the Liberty. They entered the game up 5 points and exited up 9 to an ovation from the crowd and tons of momentum.

That five minute stretch brought up an interesting coaching dilemma: if your bench players have found a rhythm and extended the lead, do you stick with them or put the starters back in to bring home the victory?

Pat Coyle chose to return to her starters with 7:53 left in the fourth while the bench was one a role. As might be obvious now, they looked completely out of sync, and started settling for three pointers instead of moving the ball for good shots. The lead eventually evaporated, which set up McCarville’s game winning shot. Their synergy score dropped from 106 in the third quarter to 54 in the 4th -- they stopped moving the ball and shot only 33% from the field.

If I were to pinpoint one thing that shifted when the starters came back in, it was the difference between Leilani Mitchell and Loree Moore, the same thing that beat LA the first time. Mitchell’s quickness helped her make plays defensively and offensively that kept the energy level high and established a great rhythm. When she left the game they just seemed deflated and settling for threes is a reliable indicator of problems on offense.

Something else I thought about is whether the wholesale substitutions that Coyle tends to make are effective. In this case, putting 3 fresh players in the game may have disrupted the chemistry as much if not more than the change at point guard. Had she staggered the substitutions might they have kept the momentum going?

The view from hindsight is still hazy…

It’s hard to say whether it was Coyle’s decision to replace the bench players or LA’s increased intensity down the stretch that lost the lead. But given how effective Leilani Mitchell has been in her two games against the Sparks, it’s reasonable to say that Coyle should have left her in a little bit longer while she was driving the momentum.

Sometimes a coach makes the decision to go with the bench and the team falls apart under the pressure of closing out a game. Other times, things just seem to be clicking on all cylinders and the starters disrupt the chemistry. But it does call into question the effectiveness of whole sale substitutions.

Regardless, this team is built for a playoff run because of their depth and the fact that you cannot really key in on one player to shut them down. They just seem to keep coming at their opponents with different pieces and if one person isn’t playing well, there seems to be someone else to pick up the slack (as long as they play indoors). On paper, they may not strike anyone as a championship contender, but this may be a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Transition Points:

The Liberty's next five games give them a real chance to make up some ground -- they have Atlanta twice, Chicago at home, and Detroit on the road. At this point, every game is important, but this seems to work in their favor.

Loree Moore didn't seem to have a good game statistically, but if you watched closely, she had a huge impact (before the fourth quarter). I often take notes on a few players while watching games and keep track of things like early shot attempts, contested shots, and lost assists (where she would have gotten an assist had her teammate made the shot). Moore was credited with only 2 assists for the game, but I recorded 8 lost assists. This is why judging the performance of point guards is so difficult -- Moore is an outstanding distributor in terms of finding her teammates in position to score...they just don't make the shots.

There's not much more to say about the Sparks strategy-wise
, but I think they really missed Bobbitt's energy last night. Although she's a rookie and makes plenty of mistakes, she seems to be the glue that holds their offense together at times.

Relevant Links:

July 25th, 2008: Los Angeles at New York

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What does "The Heart of the Game" Illustrate About Title IX?

. Friday, July 25, 2008
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The Title IX blog has an interesting post on the excellent documentary "The Heart of the Game" and what Darnellia Russell's story illustrates about the interplay of race & gender for black female athletes.

Brake and Williams use the film to explore some undertheorized aspects of Title IX's applicability to athletics, including its limitations in providing access to African-American teenagers to opportunities in sport. Such limitations arise not only from the statute's focus on the single axis of sex discrimination, but also from the interplay of racial stereotypes that operate to particular effect on black female athletes, as well as patterns of segregation that create inequities in the public education on the whole.
I am unfortunately unable to read the actual article, but it's a subject well worth future exploration, theoretically and in terms of its practical implications.

What are some other examples of the interplay of race and gender in Title IX?

Related Posts:

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

E-Conversation with Lakehead University about Darnellia Russell

Relevant Links:

Deborah Brake on Race and Title IX

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Fever Collapse Under the Pressure Of "Playing Not To Lose"

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I chose to watch the Fever-Lynx webcast last night instead of the Sparks-Sun game because I figured it would be more interesting to continue following the Fever without Tully Bevilqua that the Sparks without 4/5 of their starting lineup.

I ended up feeling pretty good about that decision, but it came at the Fever’s expense as they blew a 9-point lead with less than 4 minutes left in the 4th quarter and ended up losing the game 84-80 in overtime

The game wasn’t especially “exciting”, but very interesting from a strategy perspective. Blowing leads has apparently been a problem all season for the Fever and the first thing that jumps out on the stat sheet and in recaps is the Fever going 16-for-16 from the free throw line in the 4th quarter. After the game Ebony Hoffman described the problem…and rightly pointed out that “it had nothing to do with the refs”.

"This is maybe the third or fourth game we haven't closed them out at the end and had a team come back. And we just foul them and send them to the line. We really can't have them shoot 36 free throws and make 31 of 'em and we only go to the line 16 times. It had nothing to do with the refs, just some bonehead plays we made."
I think Hoffman is correct – for whatever reason, the Fever started fouling instead of executing down the stretch and that cost them the game. But the flip-side of the fourth quarter collapse was a shift in offensive strategy predicated on playing it safe. And it was Indiana Fever color commentator Debbie Antonelli’s observations that brought it to my attention.

Tan White's point guard play a concern for some

Part of the reason I was intrigued by the Fever game is that they tried Tan White at point guard, which was their best replacement option for Tully Bevilaqua, judging by the numbers. But for a large portion of the Fever-Lynx webcast last night, Antonelli focused on a major difference between Bevilaqua and White: whereas the former tends to quickly bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense, the latter has a tendency to play with the ball too much before distributing.

While I agree with the observation about Bevilaqua and White’s playing styles, I disagree with her assessment of the situation – White’s energy and efforts to penetrate were a huge benefit to the Fever and actually one of the reasons (along with Tamika Catchings) the Fever were able to build a lead late in the fourth. Conversely, Antonelli wanted Catchings or Katie Douglas to handle the ball because they tend to initiate the offense more quickly.

So when Douglas entered the game to run the offense with 3:31 left in the fourth and the Fever up 7 points, it was one of those fun opportunities to directly challenge basketball assumptions. And Antonelli made a comment that I think foreshadowed the reason for the Fever’s downfall:

Lin Dunn discussing with Katie Douglas what I believe will be, “Manage the point a little bit for us, Katie. Handle the basketball in the late game situation. Katie Douglas a good three point shooter, as is Tamika Catchings, under pressure.

Prior to that point, Antonelli and play-by-play announcer Chris Denari had wondered when the Fever would start taking time off the clock with their 9-point lead in hand. And once the Fever actually implemented that strategy with Douglas entering the game, the collapse ensued.

With football season on the horizon, the Fever’s late-game strategy reminded of the old cliché that “the prevent defense prevents you from winning” – when you start “playing not to lose” and inexplicably stop doing what got you the lead in the first place, you’re asking for trouble. And although Tan White is not a perfect point guard by any means, I think the late game collapse demonstrated the value of her attacking instincts.

Why hurry to initiate one of the league’s worst offenses?

In summarizing last night’s game, Fever media relations director Kevin Messenger (who provides us with the disclaimer that he’s not an X’s and O’s guy) wrote that despite solid defense, “Offensively, we don't get to the line.” You don’t have to be an expert strategist to figure out that the reason the Fever don’t get to the line is their inability to penetrate the defense. And in skimming through Kevin Messenger’s blog this season, he has mentioned repeatedly that one of the Fever’s biggest problems is their lack of a point guard who can penetrate. It’s a major problem for the Fever offense.

It’s no coincidence then that the Fever are one of the worst offenses in the WNBA, right ahead of the Washington Mystics. They score the second least points per game, have the second worst offensive rating, and the third worst synergy score. So when Tan White chose to follow her instincts and do something other than run the typical offense, it seemed like a good thing – at the end of the fourth, their 75 points exceeded their season average of 70 points per game.

Tan White is by no means a perfect point guard, but she brought a bit of that ability to drive to the basket and set up others that the Fever have lacked all season. White was one of the players I kept track of last night because she got the surprising (to me) start at point guard. What I kept noting is that she did an excellent job of penetrating and either making assists or setting up scoring opportunities for teammates.

The energy and rhythm that comes from a point guard that is able to penetrate is huge and it was noticeable for most of the game last night. White’s ability to get to the basket also put a lot of pressure on the defense to stay in front of her while also keeping an eye on scorer’s Catchings and Douglas. It kept the Fever off balance because there were three players on the court at most times that were all able to create offense for themselves and others.

They built their 9-point lead in the 4th quarter with Bond, White, and Catchings in the game driving or cutting to the basket finding each other for quality scoring opportunities. It was by far the most fluid stretch of Fever basketball of the entire game. It wasn’t just because White alternated playing the lead guard with Bond and Catchings, but they were in attack mode, forcing the Lynx defense to rotate and guard multiple options. With five minutes left in the fourth, they already had their highest assist total of the season.

So even though White was indeed playing with the ball (and turned it over 6 times), they were doing an excellent job of moving the ball and finding enough scoring opportunities to take a decent lead despite poor shooting. I was also following the Yahoo box score at that time and it keeps track of plus/minus numbers – White led the team with a +15.

So why change what's working?

The likely reason Katie Douglas came into the game at 3:31 is because Tan White had just committed a particularly bad turnover…because she was playing with the ball in traffic. I say that only because after the turnover, Lin Dunn threw up her hands in disgust and then called Douglas off the bench.

I’m not saying Douglas is the problem and I actually thought she would be one of the best replacements for Bevilaqua. But it seemed that the shift in strategy from attacking the basket to “managing the clock” was motivated by a fear of losing the game after White made a particularly bad turnover.

From that point until the end of the game, the Fever were outscored 12-3 and 21-8 if you include the overtime period. During that time, the Fever spent the majority of their time firing jumpers while the Lynx lined up for a parade to the free throw line. It was the result of very little ball movement, protecting the ball instead of trying to score, and a failure to convert on the scoring opportunities that led them to build the lead.

It just seemed like they overreacted when they didn’t need to and decided to play it safe instead of taking the risk that attacking the basket wouldn’t work. And you don’t win basketball games by always playing it safe – the fact that the Phoenix Mercury are defending champions should demonstrate that.

Inefficient personnel or poor strategy?

There is no doubt that the Lynx’s 16 free throws caused the Fever to lose. And (thankfully) the fouls in the last 3:31 – when the Fever had a 7-point lead – were good calls and bad plays by the Fever. But it didn’t help the Fever to shift to a strategy of milking the clock while they were up 7.

They probably did that because, as Messenger points out, they have repeatedly lost leads on their home floor. So it’s understandable that Lin Dunn got worried when it appeared that it could happen again. This was also an important game for them to create separation from Washington and Chicago, whom are now two games behind the Fever for the 4th playoff spot in the east.

But it seems inaccurate to claim that Bevilaqua’s absence or White’s non-traditional style of play is responsible for this loss. The Fever had lost 3 of 5 prior to Bevilaqua’s absence and their offense has been a problem all season. Somehow they need to find a way to keep up the driving energy on offense that helped them build a lead.

The problem is bigger than just one player when you blow three consecutive leads at home to teams playing without key players (Lauren Jackson, Dominique Canty, and Candice Wiggins got injured after 30 seconds last night). This does not bode well for their playoff chances down the stretch – the Mystics are something of a wild card now with their new coach and the Sky have Sylvia Fowles back and are playing good basketball.

This is good for the league of course because it sets up a very exciting fight for the playoffs involving a team with high expectations and two teams who look rejuvenated. Unfortunately, it has to be nerve racking for Indiana fans.

Transition Points:

Had the Fever been able to take care of the ball more effectively (they turned the ball over on approximately 20.5% of their possessions) they might have mounted a larger 4th quarter lead. 4 of their 5 starters, who played the majority of the game, had at least 3 turnovers. Ouch.

Candice Wiggins went down with 3:19 left
in the 1st quarter almost immediately after entering the game. From the Horton Report:
Injury Update: Candice injured her lower back in the 1st quarter on a drive through the lane, she collided with Tan White, got knocked off balance and hit the floor hard on her right side. Candice was in tears as she left the court in a wheelchair, it looked particularly awkward as she couldn't straighten her right leg. Last word we got was that she was headed to the hospital for further evaluation.

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Melee Update: Suspension Announcements a Relief For Sparks, Nolan

. Thursday, July 24, 2008
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Well, I wrote earlier that losing Candace Parker or Deanna Nolan for an extended period of time would be the most harmful outcome of Tuesday night’s fight.

We now have the announcement and Parker got one game and Nolan got nothing. Essentially Plenette Pierson was given most of the responsibility for the fight, receiving a four game suspension.

I have to say I thought the league was rather lenient on Parker and Nolan – it’s hard to argue that Parker was not as responsible as Pierson for the fight. I suppose Nolan was trying to help by tackling Parker…but that should count as participating in a physical altercation.

But guess what – it will be good for the game. Why? Losing Nolan and Parker for any extended amount of time could have a major effect on the standings. And I’m sure that’s not lost on the league.

According to the Boxscores, Nolan and Parker are the most important players from each team. So to revisit the Boxscore losses, here’s what it breaks down to:

Pierson: 4 games, 2.14
Braxton: 1 game, 1.39
Humphrey: 1 game, 1.26
Powell: 1 game (upon return from injury): .52
Sam: 1 game, .57
Bobbitt: 2 games, .56
Page: 2 games, .16
Leslie: 1 game, 3.09
Milton-Jones: 1 game, 2.07
Parker: 1 game, 4.10

Cheryl Ford (ACL injury): 9 games, 2.51

So what’s the fallout?

Well, the suspensions are staggered – Sam serves her suspension on July 27, separate from Braxton and Humphrey, so that should not be a major loss for Detroit. However, losing Braxton, Ford, Humphrey, and Pierson tonight against Houston could be devastating – they give up the second least opponents’ rebounds and have the best rebounding differential in the league. But in terms of Boxscores, that’s 45% of their win production lost against a Houston team looking to improve their standing in the playoffs. If the Shock can gut out a win, it should make for good entertainment and perhaps even help ratings over the next few games.

Long-term, losing Pierson and Ford over an additional three games (28% of win production) will hurt, perhaps costing them 1 potential win. But again, the intangible factor of having floor leaders Nolan and Katie Smith still on the court should not be overlooked. It’s a relatively small loss for a deep team.

As for the Sparks, the long-term implications are even less. They will be without Bobbitt, Leslie, Milton-Jones and Parker tonight and that’s still 70% of their production. I find it highly unlikely that they can win tonight’s game against a hungry Sun team.

Bobbitt will miss a second game along with Muriel Page and though that only amounts to .72% of the team’s production, I think the loss of Bobbitt’s energy could be huge against New York. Bobbitt’s score is a little skewed because she wasn’t playing much early in the season. So I would imagine that she’s responsible for at least 1 full game this season. But it’s likely not enough to cause a loss either. It will be interesting to see if Temeka Johnson comes back.

The verdict…?

At this point, I think it’s unclear exactly what type of damage this might do to the league. One way to look at is that there could be fan fallout as described by Helen at Women’s Hoops. If fans think the league was too lenient AND continue to see poorly officiated games, the league could have a longer-term problem on their hands.

Another way to look at it is that the game itself is not going to be adversely affected due to light suspensions. Longer suspensions for Milton-Jones, Parker, or Nolan could have been devastating. But now the league might have a perfect storm – controversy, increased attention for a few games before the Olympics, and players on the court hungry to redeem themselves.

If indeed the Shock and Sparks make it to the finals, it will be interesting to see how much media attention they get. And in the end, that’s what it comes down to – the type of media attention. The media has a heavy influence on people’s desires, like it or not, and if the sports media frames WNBA games as something to watch, more people will watch.

Transition Points:

I also thought it was important to make sure that these suspensions were consistent with NBA suspensions. Well, they were – suspensions are consistently flawed and criticized after they are handed out, NBA or WNBA.

After the 1998 Miami Heat-New York Knicks melee in which coach Jeff Van Gundy was caught hanging from Alonzo Mourning’s leg trying to stop a fight, David Stern “lectured” coaches Van Gundy and Pat Riley about their responsibility for keeping games under control. Some even blamed their trash talking for the events escalating in the way they did. Sound familiar? Does the tension between Michael Cooper and Bill Laimbeer exacerbate the on-court tensions in any way? What responsibility do coaches (and the media that hypes up tensions) have for keeping things under control?

This was not included in the WNBA’s press release, but I think that the referees of Tuesday night’s melee should be subject to some disciplinary action as well. It is their responsibility to maintain control of a game and at some point the league has make it clear to the refs (and some upset fans) that they won’t tolerate refs letting games get out of control. What is the appropriate disciplinary action to take against the refs?

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The Cost of Shock-Sparks Melee: Which Team Loses More From WNBA Suspensions?

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After having a little more time to think about Tuesday night’s fight, it seems that the biggest cost to the WNBA after the fight might be the damage done to the playoff race after suspensions are dealt out.

The WNBA’s image might take a hit, but really the league’s brand is so weak in the mainstream consciousness that they don’t really have to worry about “re-inventing anything”. In addition, the WNBA seems heavily reliant on its core fans for attendance and television ratings, and it’s hard to believe those fans will suddenly abandon their teams as a result of this incident alone. It might damage potential growth…but “potential” growth is immeasurable anyway so any claims about loss growth would be speculation anyway.

But with stars like Candace Parker, Lisa Leslie, and Deanna Nolan all involved in this fight, the Shock and Sparks will likely be playing shorthanded and without key contributors. When you consider that the teams are only five and two games out of the playoffs, respectively, any drop off in performance could lead to a trip to the lottery.

So the forthcoming announcement about who is suspended and for how long could do more damage to the league than the fight might do to the league’s image.

So how can we evaluate the impact of the suspensions in terms of wins and losses down the stretch?

What if we could actually measure a player’s contributions to her team’s wins?

Well, the Arbitrarian blog has done exactly that by creating a metric called “Boxscores”. There are actually many other metrics available to estimate a player’s contribution to wins – Win Score/Wins Produced, Win Shares, Win Val, etc. But I’m using Boxscores for a very practical reason: David Sparks has provided us with up to date numbers for the WNBA. That counts for a lot considering the relative dearth of statistics available for the WNBA.

So in the spirit of “arbitrarianism”, I thought it would be interesting to make a Boxscore analysis of the potential impact of the suspensions on the Shock and Sparks.

Thanks to a few Rebkell posters, I think we have an initial sense of who will receive suspensions. Although I don’t know how long each person will be suspended at this time, we can at least take a look at the potential effect on tonight’s games.

What we do know for certain is that Shock forward Cheryl Ford will be out for the season with an ACL injury, which is by far the most unfortunate outcome of this whole ordeal. But here are players likely to be suspended:

Sparks: Bobbitt, Leslie, Milton-Jones, Page, Parker
Shock: Braxton, Humphrey, Pierson, Powell, Nolan

Players who left the bench get an automatic one game suspension, so that will affect Page, Bobbitt, Braxton, and Powell. Leslie’s involvement in the whole thing is a matter of interpretation – from some angles it looks like she threw a punch (which is an automatic suspension), from others she looks to just be falling backwards.

Humphrey was also up off the bench and stepped onto the court, although someone pulled her back to the bench. If the rules of leaving the bench are enforced as they have been in the NBA – which they should be – Humphrey is subject to the one game suspension as well.

So by these estimations, each team will lose the same number of players due to suspension. But the Sparks will likely lose 4/5 of their starting lineup and Detroit will lose four significant contributors. So for tonight's games, it looks like both teams have little chance to win.

But once the announcement is actually made, it might be interesting to use the Boxscores metric to make a more accurate assessment of the potential long-term impact of the suspensions.

Not all players are created equal...

From what I see in the video, Bobbitt, Leslie, Milton-Jones, Nolan, Parker, and Pierson could receive multiple game suspensions. Bobbitt is another tricky one – she definitely raised a fist to punch someone, but I did not see who she was going after. Again, it’s up to the league’s interpretation.

But here’s a brief description of how Boxscores work (for more, click here):

…the final steps in BoxScores calculation are extremely simple: merely find each player’s percent contribution to his team’s total sum of valuable contributions from all players, and multiply this by team wins:

BoxScores = (val / team val) * team wins

We are left with an estimate of individual player value that combines individual contributions and team success, and allocates the most credit to those players who did the most to win the most.
Boxscores first caught my eye because Sparks created a great graphic that illustrates each player’s value to their team. This graphic is a week old, but still interesting to look at.

So here’s a list of the players likely to be suspended (plus Ford) and their Boxscores (highest to lowest):

Parker 4.10
Leslie 3.09
Nolan 2.88
Ford 2.51
Pierson 2.14
Milton-Jones 2.07
Braxton 1.39
Humphrey 1.26
Bobbitt .56
Powell (inactive) .52
Page .16

The Boxscores of the individual players on a given team should add up to the team’s total wins (or something reasonably close). The best way to look at Boxscores is as a season cumulative statistic, but we’ll make due with almost ¾ of a season of data.

So let’s take the upcoming games tonight and look at the lost contribution for each team:

Sparks 9.98/14 (71%)
Shock: 10.7/16 (66%)

So tonight’s games will definitely be a test of character for both teams – I would expect both to lose with each missing most of their rotation. But what of the games after that? Might they be able to rebound and stay in the playoff race?

Implications for the Playoff Race

Detroit might be at a much larger disadvantage in terms of total lost contribution. They will definitely lose 15% of their win production in Ford for the rest of the season. They will probably lose another 13% for an extended period of time in Pierson. But it’s Nolan who will definitely be the biggest loss, contributing to 18% and intangible leadership – she definitely stands to be suspended for tackling Parker, but it’s hard to tell exactly how much time she will miss.

However, Detroit is five games ahead of the fifth place Mystics in the Eastern Conference with nine games left. Their Pythagorean projection would project them to go 6-3 over that period. If they don’t lose anyone but Ford and Pierson for an extended period of time, it’s conceivable that they could only lose 2 games off their expected win total, meaning they go 4-5 over that stretch (looking at their schedule, it’s feasible). So unless the Mystics or Sky win the rest of their games this season, it’s unlikely that we’ll see Detroit fall out of the playoffs.

Conversely, an extended absence from the Sparks players who threw punches (at least Parker and Milton-Jones) would almost certainly keep them from the playoffs – that’s 44% of their production gone. If Leslie and Bobbitt are also lost for more than 1 game, they can definitely look forward to scouting for the lottery.

Furthermore, the Sparks are only 3 games from last in the Western Conference. Their Pythagorean projection would have them going 6-4 over their next 10 games. Considering they should definitely lose Parker and Milton-Jones for extended time, they could lose 3-4 wins and go 2-8 over that period. Ending the season .500 could tank their playoff hopes with Houston surging and Phoenix always dangerous.

So given their situation and the potential severity of their losses, it’s the Sparks who lose the most in this situation. The Shock will probably end up making the playoffs and that’s all they need – a shot. But it almost seems unfair that the Sparks end up in the lottery again after just acquiring Parker in this year’s lottery.


A few caveats with this analysis – although it is interesting, it doesn’t account for changes in coaching strategy or the ability of replacement players to replace the lost productivity. However, I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re losing 60%-70% of your team’s production, you’re not going to find a replacement for that.

Second, you can never account for intangibles statistically. Losing team leaders like Leslie, Nolan, or Parker is as bad as losing their “production”.

This formula is also based on NBA data and it is quite likely that assists are more valuable in the WNBA. It also doesn’t take defense into account, though Sparks justifies that in his description.

Obviously, the best application of Boxscores is in determining MVP, Rookie of the Year, or Sixth Woman of the Year candidates. But I will get to that sometime during the Olympic break when there is some WNBA down time.

Transition Points:

One interesting application of the Boxscores is to look at a team’s relative balance. It would appear from the graphic and from the numbers above that LA is heavily dependent on three players whereas Detroit gets a much more balanced contribution from about 7 players (including Hornbuckle or Humphrey). That should certainly help them through these suspensions.

While Ryan Pretzer points out that this melee is best compared to the lesser melees in the NBA that come and go…
Mahorn’s involvement notwithstanding, comparisons were inevitable to the Pistons-Pacers brawl of 2004 because they occurred in the same building. To make any such a comparison is a gross simplification. The Ron Artest-induced melee was an unprecedented, dark moment for U.S. professional basketball because fans were involved. Lesser melees occasionally happen in the NBA. When they do, the spectacle is showcased on ESPN, suspensions are doled out, and the league goes on about its business. The same should happen here. The WNBA values competitiveness above all else, and emulates its big brother in a myriad of ways. The less flattering side of that emulation reared its head Tuesday.
…columnist Tom Haddock reminds us of the difference in how we perceive men’s and women’s sports. That disparity could lead to a differential effect on the league’s image:
But that's part of the bigger problem. There is a disparity between the way men's and women's sports are perceived. Clearly, they are viewed differently. We laugh when women fight. We are outraged when men fight. Until that changes, men and women in sports will always be different.
I’m still not sure I even believe this, but here’s one way to keep television ratings high: bring back Nancy Lieberman. It's a low-risk gimmick given the number of players missing...and I'm sure it would help boost ratings a little...

Semantics are important in the way we present incidents like this. There has been some discussion about whether calling it a “melee” is too extreme. However, this incident seems to be the dictionary definition of a melee. In case you’re as obsessive as I am:

Melee: Confused, hand-to-hand fighting in a pitched battle..

Brawl: a noisy quarrel, squabble, or fight.

Fight: To attempt to harm or gain power over an adversary by blows or with weapons.

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Chicago Sky Guards Win Battle Of Replacements With Strong Defense

. Wednesday, July 23, 2008

(Subtitle: Hey there was WNBA basketball played last night too!)

Sylvia Fowles made her return to the Chicago Sky last night, but it was the play of guard Jia Perkins that stole the show in a less “spirited” 68-60 victory over the Indiana Fever.

Perkins finished two assists short of a triple double, with 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists.

The victory itself was not much of a surprise to me – I figured the Sky’s guards could pressure the Fever’s ball-handlers keep the Fever completely disoriented. And while that was a factor in the game to some extent, I didn’t think the Sky would be able to win if they turned the ball over at the rate they did – on 26.5% of their possessions. Nor did I think they could win if they allowed the Fever to get 28% of the offensive rebounds for a total of 13. So what happened?

Lead guard combo Perkins and K.B. Sharp have established some amazing chemistry on the court and their synergy score 81 was above their season average and looked more like the type of ball movement you might see from the San Antonio Silver Stars than a team missing its starting point guard.

Even though the Fever were missing starting point guard Tully Bevilaqua, this has to be a pretty encouraging victory for the Sky as they get Fowles back. First by beating 4th place Indiana, this gets the Sky a game closer to the playoffs. Second, Perkins right now is doing all the things at point guard that the team was not getting at the beginning of the season from Dominique Canty. Third, Fowles played limited minutes meaning they should be better once she comes back.

The Chicago Sky had only an average offensive game, but won this game on defense by pressuring the Fever ball handlers and making it difficult for them to initiate the offense.

The Sky are a defensive team?

I suppose I don’t normally think of the Sky as a defensive team, but that is what led them to victory last night. Indiana is not a stellar offensive team – in fact, it is the second worst according to its offensive rating and third worst according to its synergy score. But the Sky came out with a defensive energy that I had not yet seen from them this season.

The Fever’s average synergy score is 71 and the Sky held them to 51. So their pressure on the ball managed to seriously disrupt the Fever’s ability to run move the ball in their offense. Watching the game, the Fever sometimes didn’t even cross half court until the shot clock was down to 14 seconds. As a result, they often panicked and took bad shots instead of moving the ball around to get a good shot.

They didn’t trap inexperienced point guard LaToya Bond as much as I thought they would, but when they did they usually either forced a bad decision or turnover. The Fever rarely got good ball movement or penetration to the basket with the exception of a second quarter stretch when both team’s reserves were in.

It’s hard to know how the Fever can solve this problem because it’s not just a problem in Bevilaqua’s absense, but seems to plague them when she’s there – they just aren’t good at attacking the defense and creating plays.

Perkins “raising her game”

Jia Perkins was the biggest surprise of this game for me. I didn’t realize she was capable of doing so much. She really showed that she can handle starting point guard duties and not just be solid, but extremely effective.

In their win against Connecticut last Friday, Perkins and Sharp had 0 turnovers and 6 assists between them. Last night, they had 6 turnovers but 9 assists in much bigger minutes. Turnovers are never “good”, but a lot of them were a result of trying to make plays rather than dribbling off their foot or making bad decisions. In other words, it seems like we’re starting to see Perkins and Sharp take control of this team and take over for regular starter Dominique Canty.

The big difference seems to be Sharp’s presence in the lineup. She plays a very steady game and just makes solid decisions. She doesn’t do anything fancy with the ball but gets it to where it needs to go. I normally take notes on games I watch and loosely keep track of “lost assists”, or assists that were lost because the shooter didn’t make the shot. I had Sharp down for two of those and a number of other plays where her ability to recognize the scoring opportunity led to someone else getting an assist.

When Canty runs the team she tends to pound the ball near the top of the key seemingly looking for her own scoring opportunity ahead of the running the team’s offense. As s a result, the team gets stagnant. With Perkins and Sharp running the show, the offense not only looked more fluid, but also seemed to have an energy that it normally lacks with Canty.

Fowles’ return

Fowles looked ok in her return, but is clearly not 100%. I don’t know whether it was the brace or the injury, but her explosiveness was definitely limited. However, that really provided an opportunity to see how good her instincts are as she was still able to disrupt a number of shots get good position for rebounds.

She will be a welcome addition, even if she continues coming off the bench until the Olympics. The Sky have won 3 of their last 5 now (2-1 without Canty) and so it may be in their best interest to sustain the rhythm by continuing to bring Fowles off the bench.

Can they get back into the playoff hunt?

I think the Sky have a good shot at passing Indiana and Washington in the playoff hunt. Indiana has lost 6 of 7 and before people start blaming Bevilaqua for their slippage, she was playing those last six. Their offense just lacks rhythm and when a team like Chicago applies pressure, they look lost.

But perhaps the biggest issue confronting Chicago now is whether they should re-insert Canty into the lineup once she comes back from injury. Right now, I’m inclined to say no – if this lineup is working and has chemistry, you don’t mess with that. The team has lacked any real chemistry all season so why give it up once you have it?

Canty doesn’t do anything as a starter for the Sky that she can’t do as the sixth woman off the bench. The question of course is how Canty would handle such a demotion…and that is something only the people in that locker room know.

Relevant Links:

A Winning Return For Sylvia Fowles Depends On Effiicient Guard Play

How Will the Indiana Fever Survive Tully Bevilaqua’s Absence?

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Fighting Is Not the Type Of Attention the WNBA Needs

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It’s normally difficult to find any quality post-game analysis about WNBA games, but last night’s fight between the Shock and Sparks managed to get attention from all the major sports websites, NBA message boards, and even local news media outlets.

With such wide-ranging attention to the ugly incident, it may come as no surprise that the reactions are equally diverse. And the reactions that come over the next few days in our 24 hour news cycle will be both intriguing and potentially devastating for the WNBA.

Really, this shouldn’t be news at all – it has nothing to with basketball. It becomes news because we live in a society that has an endless appetite for the sensational…and this has become the daily special. So by now there’s probably not much original thought to be presented about the incident, but there are three things in particular that struck me as I sifted through the many reactions.

First, it’s unfortunate that the “spirited” nature of the game is overshadowing an otherwise exciting game (and season) of basketball. Second, no sport recovers well from major controversy and the WNBA cannot afford a hit in attendance or ratings. Third, many of the reactions – especially those of male non-WNBA fans – strike me as unnecessarily sexist and homophobic and sadly that should be expected by now.

I’m sure the third point will be covered in depth by any number of cultural critics who will use this as an opportunity to explore dynamics of gender, race, and sexuality with more sophistication than I can at this point. But I think the first two points are worth addressing, if only on a basic level.

The timing of this event could not have been any worse.

The league was just coming off a historic moment with the Liberty Outdoor Classic and what I believe was one of the all-time best weekends of WNBA basketball. It’s right before the Olympics and four Olympians were playing in this game and at least three played a prominent role in the fight. But the most devastating thing is its long-term impact on two of the WNBA’s best teams. From writer and New York Liberty fan Justine Larbalestier:

And now several players are going to be out for a bunch of games. Plenette Pierson, Candace Parker and Delisha Milton-Jones for sure and most likely Muriel Page and Deanna Nolan as well. Not to mention Cheryl Ford getting injured trying to keep Pierson from attacking more LA players.

I hate this crap. This is not why I follow the WNBA…The New York Liberty plays the LA Sparks on Friday. It’s not going to be as good a game without Parker and Milton-Jones.
The loss of major players on championship contenders is not positive for the WNBA by any stretch of the imagination. Especially given how tight the standings are this year. And you have to feel especially sad for Ford -- she has fought so hard all season and had to leave the court in a wheelchair.

And though I am normally loathe to blame the officials for the outcome of a basketball game, it is their responsibility to maintain control of a game. Sometimes there are a series of hidden events that precipitate an event like this, but in this case most of the warning signs happened in plain sight. From Dave’s Journal:
Mahorn pushing Leslie was a lot like the beer hitting Artest at the Pistons-Pacers brawl - it turned an ugly fight into something memorably bad. I mostly blame the officials, who had let a very intense game get out of hand. There had been a couple incidents earlier in the game, mostly involving Parker and Cheryl Ford, and the refs just ignored everything. There was no excuse for not doing anything when Parker and Ford had to be separated with eight seconds to go. At the very least, both players should have been given technical fouls. Instead, they were allowed to keep yelling at each other, and it was only a few seconds later that the fight started.
Whatever Rick Mahorn’s intentions were, he didn’t help an already bad situation…and that is not good for anyone involved in this situation either.

What happens when the league resumes after the Olympics and players are still serving suspensions? Any momentum gained from the Olympics would be essentially lost, even if the event is magically forgotten.

Professional sports don’t rebound well from controversy

This is obviously a pessimistic perspective I’m presenting here…but history gives us plenty of reason for pessimism. And the fact that the fight occurred in the same venue as the NBA’s infamous November 2004 brawl has not been lost on anyone. And the comparisons foretell a bleak future for the WNBA.

Of course, the Olympic break could be a convenient time to mull over the appropriate response to get past this. And I suppose you could argue that since the WNBA does not have a well-established "brand" in the mainstream, the attention from this incident could lead to increased viewership and attendance. That was my initial response to the fight because after all, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, right? From LSU Sports Place:
All-in-all, this is probably a good thing for the WNBA. As silly as it sounds, this will generate interest in the league and build a rivalry that people will be able to relate to and come playoff time if these two squads are playing against one another, the WNBA can actually score decent ratings.
However, no matter what type of damage control strategy the WNBA chooses, this will likely have a devastating effect on the league.

Unfortunately, history tells us bad publicity is bad for sports ratings. The MLB, NHL, and NBA all suffered in ratings and attendance after their respective labor battles. Baseball suffered during the height of the steroids scandal. And most relevant, NBA viewership suffered after two brawls of its own – a second fight between the Knicks and Nuggets occurred that thankfully did not involve fans. On the bright side, NBA attendance hit a record high after it's Pacers-Pistons brawl.

But it took a full 82 game season for the NBA to recover ratings-wise from its brawl (and a not so exciting Detroit-San Antonio finals series). Of course, we also have to keep in mind that NBA ratings had been sagging since the 1999 lockout and Michael Jordan’s retirement so it’s difficult to disentangle those factors. However, it would not be surprising if the rate of decline was significantly different after the fight.

But it’s not just ratings that suffer -- it’s also endorsements and marketing opportunities. Northwest Airlines pulled Carmelo Anthony off magazine covers after his fight with the Knicks. And he lost other potential endorsement deals after his off court participation in the infamous “Stop Snitchin’” DVD.

It may seem like I’m blowing minor problems out of proportion, but the NBA has a bit more latitude with which to deal with challenges like these because it's a well established entity. Carmelo Anthony losing marketability is offset by Lebron James, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and Greg Oden -- all highly marketable individuals. If it impacted the NBA and players involved, we have to assume an impact on the WNBA.

But really, can the WNBA afford to lose endorsements? Or the even bigger question, can the WNBA afford a decrease in (“savior”) Candace Parker’s marketability? Given all the challenges the WNBA already faces – including the double standards female athletes face – it cannot afford to lose popularity due to non-basketball distractions.

What to do next…?

I don’t think there are any easy solutions to this problem. I wouldn’t expect Donna Orender nor any other human being to rescue the league from this debacle.

The optimistic perspective is that the WNBA will remain stable because the existing fan base is small but dedicated and will rally around the league instead of abandoning it. But to me, that will only occur if the media starts giving the same amount of coverage to actual basketball as they give to the aftermath of the fight. Unlikely.

The best the WNBA can do in the short term is issue stiff but fair suspensions within the next 48 hours. I also think that some disciplinary action has to be taken against the referees and the league will have to look at overall officiating of the league over the break. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a lot more quick whistles and quick technicals… *sigh* And those Expect Great commercials that have already been mocked ad nauseam? They might as well discontinue those right now...

Beyond that what can they do?

Two contenders are likely going to lose ground in the standings, if not fall out of the playoffs altogether in a season that was being lauded for its parity. The lasting image of Cheryl Ford leaving the fight in a wheelchair is inconsistent with the league’s image as a family game. The participation of Olympians means that the issue will linger even during the break. Complaints about WNBA officiating are long-standing. In other words, there's no need to pinpoint individuals to assign blame to -- everybody loses in this situation and it will be a collective effort to sustain interest in the league.

It is a very, very disappointing situation for the WNBA and the worst part is that it will completely overshadow an otherwise great season of basketball.

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A Winning Return For Sylvia Fowles Depends on Efficient Guard Play

. Tuesday, July 22, 2008
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It’s safe to assume that the Chicago Sky will be a better team when Sylvia Fowles returns to the lineup tomorrow night.

Fowles was one of my favorite rookies this year even though she hasn’t played many games. There is a really strong opportunity for her to redefine post play in the WNBA with her strength and athleticism in the post.

I’m also excited not only because I think the Sky have unlimited potential with Fowles, but also because I think Fowles return is a victory for WNBA parity. From Mike Thibault after the Sky’s last game against the Sun:

"There are no 'gimme' games anymore in this league. None. When (center Sylvia) Fowles comes back (from a knee injury), Chicago is going to be a lot better.''
The league’s parity and Fowles’ return also means that Chicago still has an outside chance at making the playoffs, if they come together quickly. That puts a lot of pressure on them to win tonight’s home game against the Indiana Fever, which is ranked fourth in the east and four games ahead of the Sky. With only 12 games left in the Sky’s season, they cannot afford to fall five games behind, especially since Indiana has already won the season series.

But beating Indiana is no easy task for the Sky.

Fowles should make this team better because she fills one of the Sky’s biggest needs: offensive rebounding. And her defensive presence should give this average defense a boost. On offense, her post presence is the perfect complement for Candice Dupree’s versatile game.

Unfortunately, there’s one thing Fowles cannot do – dribble the ball up the court and initiate the offense. A post-player's effectiveness depends upon good guard play. And that’s where the Sky’s biggest question mark is right now with Dominique Canty out due to injury. If the Sky want to beat the Fever – arguably the best defense in the league – Jia Perkins and K.B. Sharp will need to have the type of game they had on Friday against the Sun: 0 turnovers.

Ball security is key

Fortunately, we have a nice way of understanding the Sky’s performance lately because they just played the Sun twice in three days and split the pair of games. In comparing the stats from the two games (I didn’t actually see Sunday’s game), one statistic jumps out at me: turnovers: their turnover percentage doubled in Sunday’s loss (20%).

In Friday’s home win over the Sun, the Sky had 7 turnovers as a team and neither Perkins nor Sharp committed a turnover. In Sunday’s loss they had 5 turnovers between the two of them. Considering that their other team dynamics numbers were relatively similar, it’s safe to assume that their turnovers were a critical problem.

According to Matt Stout at the Connecticut Sun blog, pressure defense and forcing turnovers was a focal point of the Sun’s game plan on Sunday.
But, in what differed greatly from previous weeks, the Sun finished strong, thanks in large part to Amber Holt, they rebounded well and played pressure defense the entire game. Right from the start, Thibault was urging his players to get up in the faces of their opponents. It produced a a good amount of turnovers (16), something the Sun have struggled to do this season, but more importantly, it set a tone for the entire game.
Since the Sun are not a particularly strong defensive team, this does not bode well for the Sky’s chances against the Fever.

The Fever play outstanding pressure defense and have three players in the top 10 in steals per game (though Tully Bevilaqua -- #6 in the league -- has left for the Olympics). This could pose a major problem for the Sky and the burden is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of Perkins and Sharp.

This is one of those games when you don’t necessarily want your guards to win the game, you just don’t want them to lose it by taking too many risks. There’s not much to do strategy-wise except get the ball moving up the court as quickly as possible and hope the guards are able to make quick and efficient decisions with the ball.

Coaching will determine the outcome

With the Sky playing with inexperienced point guards due to Canty’s injury and Bevilaqua absent due to the Olympics, the outcome of this game will be heavily determined by coaching strategy, not talent. Despite Fowles’ return, the pressure is still on Coach Steve Key to prove his worth.

One strategy is to run with three ball handlers at times, maybe bringing in Quianna Chaney along with Perkins and Sharp to distribute some of the pressure across multiple players.

Another strategy would be to create offense from defense. The Fever’s offense has struggled this season and without Bevilaqua at point guard, they’ll be trying to run a point guard by committee strategy. So the Sky could mask their own weakness at point guard by exploiting the Fever’s biggest weakness. In fact, this is the perfect situation to use every single aggressive defensive scheme there is.

If the Sky trap whenever Latoya Bond crosses half court in the first half and then come out with a full court press in the second half, they could really keep the Fever off balance and build a big lead going into the fourth quarter. With Perkins currently ranking 6th in the league in steals, they might be able to create turnovers with such an aggressive defensive strategy.

Of course, this is predicated on the conditioning of their players – if Key doesn’t feel like they have the depth and stamina to keep up a game plan like that, then there’s no point running it. But in ideal circumstances, I think their best chance of winning is to exploit the Fever’s biggest weakness and putting pressure on the offensively challenged Fever to step up their game.

It’s hard to predict a game like this with so many unknown variables (e.g. how the coaches adjust to personnel changes), but it’s a very winnable game for the Sky and a dangerous one for the Fever. Although common sense might dictate that the Sky should be a half-court team to maximize Fowles’ talent, getting the Fever in an up tempo game in which the pressure is one their ball handlers would seem like the winning strategy.

The marquee matchup of the night will be the Shock vs. Sparks game on ESPN 2, but this one will worth watching in the webcast archives from a strategy perspective. I look forward to watching -- it's a great opportunity for the Sky to build up some energy for a potential playoff run.

Transition Points:

From Fowles’ blog:
Today I had a chance to run with my teammates and I felt great just to be going through drills with the team. I am so ready to get back and I am even more ready to start playing so that I can give my team that extra lift over this hump we're goin through. I have been blessed with great talent and it is just a matter of time when you guys will see Sylvia back in action!!!
The Bill Laimbeer/Michael Cooper, Detroit/L.A. story just doesn’t get old to me. The Detroit News has a nice story about them.

Relevant Links:

Fowles expected back

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Singular Team Nicknames Get Love Too

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It seems as if the WNBA has dominated the singular team name market with 8 of 14 teams sporting one.

I have to admit I'm not particularly fond of those, especially when they refer to abstractions (like “Magic” or “Liberty”) or seemingly benign things (there is rarely reason for a Californian to fear the “Sky”).

Anyway, while reading for my daily dose of NBA news, I found a comment about Clay Bennett’s distaste for singular names that was somewhat ironic:

Team chairman Clay Bennett has said privately he's not wild about nicknames that don't end in "s.” Names that end in "s” are also more enduring to the community, according to Tom Fugleberg, executive creative director at Olson, a Minneapolis-based branding agency. "I think there's more of a sense of a community when you are a fan of the Blazers and not the Storm,” Fugleberg said. "There's a feeling that you are a part of that.”
Hmmmm… even though I believe the world could do without another singular sports nickname, I’m not sure how Fugleberg came to this conclusion about community.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the way I see it, there was a mini-movement started in defense of both the Sonics and Storm after Bennett’s intentions to move the team were clear. Maybe Fugleberg would argue that the Storm fed off the energy of the Sonics’ movement, but I’m not sure that’s accurate.

If one way to judge the strength of a community is its response to adversity or threats to the very core of their identity, then I’d say there was a pretty strong sense of community around the Storm.

Although the Storm's attendance has varied from below league average to above average over the years, the community support shown over the past year was impressive. The Save Our Storm group seemed to be pretty effective at rallying the team around the Storm. Then Force 10 Hoops, a group of local businesswomen, stepped up to buy the team.

Seems like they mustered up a solid sense of community to me. Go figure…

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The Shock Indoor Classic: Where the Game Sold Itself

. Monday, July 21, 2008
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It’s somewhat ironic that while the highly-anticipated Liberty Outdoor Classic made history for playing basketball in a unique venue, the best example of progress in the WNBA was played in one of the oldest arenas in U.S. professional basketball.

The Detroit-Sacramento game was not just the best game of this past weekend (or rather, of the games available via webcast), but it was the best played game of WNBA basketball I’ve seen this season. Although I haven’t watched a whole lot of WNBA basketball over the years, I can comfortably say it was the best WNBA game I’ve seen since Cynthia Cooper was dominating the league in the early seasons of the WNBA (please point me to other games that may fill in the gaps in my knowledge).

And despite history being made and amazing basketball on display, the moment that best reminded me of why I love watching professional sports had nothing to do with either “event”. Lost in all the commotion over the Liberty Outdoor Calamity and the Shock’s Indoor Classic was a beautiful moment that had as much to do with basketball as pure human resilience.

A great moment for the Mystics

The Mystics’ blowout of the Storm will likely be forgotten (outside of places named "Washington") within a few of days, whereas the Outdoor Calamity will linger in our memories for some time. But the moments just after the end of the Mystics game really struck me.

Had you not known it was a mid-season game, you might have thought that the Mystics had just won the WNBA championship. For a few moments you could almost feel the players’ passion spilling out into plain view. And to me, that’s a good thing.

What struck me was seeing the exuberance of a frequently dysfunctional Mystics team led by an interim coach after beating a contender with the best record in the league based on pure effort and heart when they had every reason to give up. It shows something about the Mystics that has perhaps been lost in a professional sports world dominated by overblown contracts and ego: this team really cares about what they do. And it makes it easy to love women’s basketball.

Any time I get to witness the joy that comes from someone doing what they truly love – even if it’s putting a ball into a basket – it gives me goose bumps. It doesn’t matter if they go on to win the championship, what their attendance was, or whether they are engaged in challenging sexist double standards about women (though all those things are important). What matters is that they truly care about the outcome of that game and it’s worth noting in a society that has become way too wrapped up in the extremes of cynicism and trying to change the entire world at once.

The Shock Indoor Classic

As a nice complement to the emotion of the Mystics’ win, there was outstanding basketball played in Detroit. In reading a couple of recaps of the Monarchs’ 88-85 win over the Shock, I have yet to see one that fully captures how amazing this game was from a quality of play standpoint.

The reason I find this game so noteworthy is because it really challenges the notion that women can’t create their own shots. One could still quibble that the NBA has more players who can create their own offense (Kobe, AI, Paul Pierce, etc), but that’s beside the point. The fact is that the WNBA is becoming team basketball at its best with a healthy does of one-on-one play. The combination is some of the best basketball you’ll ever see.

The most impressive sequence of this game probably occurred in the last minute, but to set the context, in the first half, Detroit seemed to be in complete control of the game. Aside from an outstanding play where Tasha Humphrey (!!) led the fast break and got an assist on the layup to set up a three point play, Detroit seemed to be sleep walking.

Sacramento had taken a 69-60 lead at the end of the third quarter and seemed to be on their way to “shocking” road win in Detroit. Everything seemed to be clicking on all cylinders as the started the fourth quarter as they had a synergy score of 100 over the first three quarters. They had an outstanding true shooting percentage of 67%, including shooting 14-17 from the free throw line.

Rebekkah Brunson went to work inside, killing Detroit in the post with an array of fakes and impressive post moves. But eventually, Detroit – and particularly Deanna Nolan – woke up, starting with their defense and slowing down Sacramento’s offensive rhythm. Down 10 with six minutes left, Detroit managed to rally and take a 1 point lead with 1:27 left. That’s when the drama started.

First Nicole Powell hit an open three off of a cross court pass to regain the lead 82-80. Coming out of a timeout, Nolan beat Ticha Penicheiro off the dribble for a mid-range jumper to tie the game. But Sacramento came right back on one of the better executed plays of the game.

We all know Penicheiro can work magic with the ball, but sometimes it’s the little things she does that make a huge impact. In a simple two-woman play, Penicheiro dribbled across the court with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock while Lawson was cutting the other way. When Penicheiro stopped and made a brief ball fake in the opposite direction, Lawson changed direction, got a little shovel pass from Penicheiro, got separation from two defenders (Penicheiro’s and her own) and hit an open jumper.

That’s what creating your own shot is all about – paralyzing the defense and creating separation for the shot. On that play it was done with a pair – Penicheiro using her other-worldly court awareness to set up Lawson and Lawson demonstrating good balance and body control in changing directions to get separation for her shot. But Nolan wasn’t done.

After two Penicheiro free throws increased the lead to 86-82, Katie Smith got the ball to Nolan coming off a screen. Penicheiro was there a bit late, but got a hand in Nolan’s face. No worries – Nolan just rose over Penicheiro’s hand to stick the three. She’s incredible – with the game on the line and a hand in her face, she’s shooting jumpers over people from the three-point line. You can’t hope to defend that without cheating.

With 10 seconds left and down 88-85, Nolan continued to impress. She got the ball on the wing and was immediately met by a loose double team. She recognized it, dribbled around it and got off another good shot which just didn’t fall. Smith would get another shot at the buzzer that also rimmed out. But Nolan again demonstrated her ability to create off the dribble in pressure situations.

The game was so incredible that I wanted Nolan to make that last three just so it would go into overtime. Not just because it was close, but it was so well played and well coached in the fourth quarter (the plays designed during the last minute of the game were outstanding) that it seemed like a shame for it not to continue. But ultimately, I think Sacramento deserved this win and that they won it on Detroit’s turf made the game even more impressive.

Even if a team loses by 10, I want nothing more than to see good basketball. That doesn’t mean it has to be slow and methodical basketball. But good basketball in which players and coaches make good decisions and let the combination of individual talent and team chemistry determine the winner. And we can’t forget defense – Detroit would not have won that game had they not slowed down the Monarch’s offense. But there comes a point when -- just like Kobe, AI, Paul Pierce, etc -- players reach the rarefied air of being indefensible.

This game was ultimately the best showcase of WNBA talent -- new and old -- that I've seen, and it didn't even include dunking or outdoor courts. Go figure. ;)

When the Game Sells Itself

Wrapped up in all of the action this weekend was a great example of the WNBA’s parity – the top teams in both conferences lost to teams on the fringe of scouting for 2009 lottery picks. Two of them – Detroit and San Antonio – lost at home. Some may say that’s a bad thing, but when the games are this competitive and well played, it’s an amazing experience.

I may have overstated the greatness of this past weekend, but I think it says a lot about the current state of the WNBA. Already, the level of play in the league has exceeded my expectations. The talent in this league has risen by leaps and bounds since I first saw the Shock take on the Mercury nearly a decade ago in college. These days the WNBA doesn’t need to rely on fleeting novelty or a gimmick to attract casual fans – the game is truly starting to sell itself on its own merits.

Transition Points:

In the last five games, Seattle and Detroit were playing some of the best team basketball (they had team dynamics rating of 41 and 27 respectively), while Sacramento and Washington were among the three worst (4 and -6 respectively). That's why they play the games I suppose...

The 5280 Blog had a great post a few days ago about the issue of parity (as well as the depth of this rookie class) that I thought was a great read. Hopefully he managed to see the Minnesota-San Antonio game this weekend so he can give a report on his fave, Candice Wiggins. An excerpt:

What [the Sparks'] lack of dominance does provide the league, though, is the affirmation that the WNBA is still an exciting, competitive, team-oriented sport. That is one key aspect of the women's game that is so exciting, and such a contrast to the NBA. Furthermore, on a more short-sighted by hardly less important level, it's providing fans with some great basketball. Knowing that no singularly dominant team is going to roll its competition gives great incentive to check out nearly every game the league has to offer.

Relevant Links:

What a weekend! Between yesterday (Saturday) and today, we had a much-hyped, and genuinely neat (I was going to say "cool" but it was hot out) public event; a televised game that felt like a closely-fought playoff, with well-matched veterans and a one-possession finish decided by clutch play; an overtime game with a loss for the league's most hyped stars; and two big wins for the two teams we almost always support.

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How Will the Indiana Fever Survive Tully Bevilaqua’s Absence?

. Sunday, July 20, 2008
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How important is Tully Bevilaqua to the Fever’s success?

That is a question that may be answered as Bevilaqua misses four games to prepare for the Olympics with Australia's Olympic team.

Unfortunately, it’s not a question a coach would like to experiment with while trying to firm up playoff position. In the current standings, Indiana is fourth place, with Washington and Chicago three games behind. With Washington’s coaching change and Chicago expecting Sylvia Fowles back (yay!) sometime soon, Indiana can’t really afford to drop games.

In Bevilaqua’s absence, the Fever plan to use three replacements, according to coach Lin Dunn via the Indianapolis Star.

"We had planned on having (LaToya) Bond and (Sherill) Baker and Katie (Douglas)," she said. "Those were going to be the three point guards to share the basketball by committee. Of course, Baker's out indefinitely with this bone bruise in her wrist, so Bond's going to have to carry the load."
This is obviously different than losing a player to injury because they’ve had ample time to prepare for Bevilaqua’s departure. So they’ve had time to think of the best ways to distribute the ball handling responsibilities across multiple players – perhaps even adjusting the offense.

What makes this story intriguing to me (aside from the fact that commentators at almost every game make mention of it) is that it calls into question the role of the traditional “pure distributor” point guard. It’s not just a matter of whether she needs to score, but how her presence translates to winning.

So I’m making something of a weak prediction here and risking what little credibility I might have: the Fever will just fine without Bevilaqua. There are three reasons to believe that: team defense, Katie Douglas, and an x-factor not mentioned by Dunn – Tamika Catchings.

Team Defense: A position Bond can fill

Bevilaqua’s absence could have a large effect on the Fever’s offense, but this team wins games with strong team defense.

Despite their impressive victory in the Liberty Outdoor Classic yesterday, the Fever’s offense has been a major problem for them this season. They are currently 13th in points per game this season, just ahead of the Mystics…who just fired their coach. Fever media relations director Kevin Messenger summarized the problem well:
I am at a loss to come up with the answers to our struggling Fever. What I do know is that we just don't score in a half-court offense. Frankly, this has been a symptom of Fever teams over the past 3 to 4 seasons. Indiana really has never had a knock-down shooter to bust open a zone…And while we don't possess that reliable perimeter shooter, we also are in need of a penetrating point guard to exploit the gaps in a zone. That's not Tully… we haven't seen it consistently from Bond, and Baker is currently on the shelf with a bone bruise in her right wrist.
That’s pretty much what I noticed yesterday in the Liberty Outdoor Classic – I can count on one hand the times that Bevilaqua penetrated past the free throw line…counting fast breaks.

That said, Bevilaqua is a steady point guard and does an excellent job protecting the ball. But as Messenger says, when you don’t have a knock down shooter and you’re not getting much penetration from your lead guard, it’s difficult to score.

Judging from yesterday’s performance, Bond is not going to make a difference on that front – she had three turnovers at lest two of which were the result of trying to drive through the defense. She also struggled with the Liberty’s zone and trapping defense.

But the Fever don’t win games on offense – they win with defense. That was on full display yesterday. They are near the top of the league in most defensive statistics, including holding their opponents to about 69 points a game. In the last five games, their opponents’ synergy score is 62 – league average is 75. That means they are holding opponents to low field goal percentages and disrupting the flow of their offense. Pretty good.

As a defensive replacement for Bevilaqua, I think Bond can do just fine. She’s active and has the quickness to stay in front of opposing ball handlers. And did anybody else notice Tammy Sutton-Brown blocking Janel McCarville 3 times and holding her to 10 points? As long as she’s still roaming the interior, the team should be fine.

But if this team is already struggling offensively, what will come of it without Tully? Why not look to their stars?

Katie Douglas: All-around player

Katie Douglas is a gifted scorer and all around player. Every time I’ve watched a Fever game this season, she’s the one who stands out. She just seems to be in complete command of the action when she plays and picks her spots to score very well. All those qualities are what make her an adequate replacement as a distributor, if not the lead ball handler.

Bond seemed to struggle with the press, but if Douglas is in the back court to help her out it would relieve some of that pressure. As a veteran, it also means that the Fever would not necessarily lose the veteran presence that Tully brings.

But the other thing Douglas brings is someone who can get the penetration that Bevilaqua doesn’t. She’s as good as anyone as slashing to the basket to score so I imagine that she could use that ability in a play maker function if necessary. As a team that is offensively anemic at times, they can’t afford Douglas to score less. But she is more than capable of initiating the offense.

And yet, there is still another x-factor in making up for Bevilaqua that Dunn didn’t mention – Tamika Catchings.

The X-Factor: Tamika Catchings.

Catchings is arguably this team's best all-around player, even though she has missed a number of games and played hurt for the remainder. And even as a forward, she is a good passer and has good enough awareness on the offensive end to make things happen. Like Douglas, she also has the ability to create her own shot, which could help to create opportunities for others.

The most interesting thing is that Catchings has the best pure point rating of any of the aforementioned replacement options, though none of them are particularly stellar. You may remember that pure point rating is a formula that measures “court awareness” by adjusting for the value of an assist and the player’s minutes. Bevilaqua’s was not high, but Catchings is second to Bevilaqua among Dunn’s suggested options:

Bevilaqua 0.31
Catchings -2.50
Douglas -3.47
White -3.67
Bond -4.86

Granted, none of the replacement’s pure point ratings are worthy of starting lead guard minutes. But Catchings is the best of these evils.

We could debate whether Catchings has the ball handling skills or speed to execute as a lead guard, but I think that misses the point. If they could design an offense that put Catchings in the position of distributor, they would likely be best off, based on the numbers. She is also slightly more likely to make an assist than Douglas or White based upon her Hollinger Assist Ratio.

They can win without Tully…if they think outside the box…

Right now, the Fever are near the bottom of the league in assisted field goal percentage with a 22% assist/field goals attempted ratio. That’s with Bevilaqua, who is extremely efficient with the ball.

Without Bevilaqua, they’ll need to maintain their defensive efficiency while also finding a way to increase their ball movement and shooting percentages? Can they do it? I think so.

What if they ran an offense similar to San Antonio’s, using screens and off-side cutters. Douglas and Catchings are not the scorers that Hammon is, but they can make plays. The question is whether a player like Tammy Sutton-Brown is able to make that work. Honestly, I haven’t seen enough of her to make the assessment and she seems to be less of a scorer than a player like Ann Wauters.

But if they can get the ball to Catchings or Douglas early in the offense and then position them as playmakers or scorers of screens, they can make plays with the ball in their hands. And there’s also no reason to believe they can’t get some penetration to create opportunities for others.

I think they have the talent to win games without Bevilaqua. I’m not saying that Bevilaqua is somehow unnecessary – or even a detriment -- I just don’t think she’s critical to their success.

Transition Points:

Indiana is also 2nd worst in the league in turnover percentage, which measures the percentage of possessions that end in a turnover. That is a bit alarming for such a slow paced team. In fact, at some point, it’s not about pace but their effectiveness. In a way, we could assume they can’t get less effective than they are currently with Bevilaqua….

In the third quarter of the Liberty Outdoor Classic, the turnovers got way out of hand – the Fever turned it over 30% of the time, while the Liberty turned it over 35% of the time. In even simpler terms, 1 of every 3 plays in the second quarter ended in a turnover. That’s almost unwatchable basketball.

The Fever were uncharacteristically effective at getting offensive rebounds as well. They grabbed 47% of the offensive rebounds available across the second and third quarters, which is impressive. They are 12th in the league in offensive rebounding percentage at 27% a game.

WNBA mis-step of the weekend: the Liberty Outdoor Classic was historic, but it seemed like there was better basketball going on elsewhere. The Lynx upset the Silver Stars at home behind Augustus’ 11 straight shots. The Comets took the Sparks to overtime…well, that may have been an equally sloppy game considering the Sparks’ 20 turnovers. Would've liked to see one of those archived...

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