Who Would You Choose as the Hypothetical 2008 WNBA All-Stars?

. Saturday, August 2, 2008
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One of the funniest straight-faced excuses I heard a high school classmate give for not doing homework was, "Well, the paper is written, it's just still in my head." Brilliant -- I'm sure it made that teacher's day.

Well, taking a cue from some (all?) of my other favorite WNBA blogs, I'm gonna take the weekends off during the Olympic break...although I'll probably end up writing something and just keeping it in my head. I promise I'll post it by Monday.

One thing already going in my head is a post picking the hypothetical 2008 WNBA All-Stars by the numbers (and from those an MVP).

Who would you choose as hypothetical Eastern and Western Conference all-star teams? And why? Who would get the dubious honor of being the overrated fan choice this year?

I have some (non-Leilani Mitchell) ideas of my own but would love to hear the thoughts of others.

And if you're missing the WNBA as much as I am, I would love to hear more feedback on what I've done so far this season -- good, bad, or ugly. Maybe take a look at some of the most popular posts in the archives (a tab on the sidebar to the right) or drop me an idea for what to write in the future...or something I should never attempt again.

This is also a good time to thank folks at a few other WNBA blogs (not to diss non-WNBA blogs) for their ongoing support, links, and/or insight that keep me writing: the Women's Hoops blog, the Pleasant Dreams blog, the Storm Tracker, GBBrecruit, Ladies Court, The Arbitrarian blog, Swanny's Stats, and 5280ft. And of course, anybody else who has dropped me a note of encouragement/commented throughout the season.

See you Monday.

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The Most Outstanding Rookies: How do we compare rookies…fairly?

. Friday, August 1, 2008
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Yesterday I looked at rookies from the perspective of potential instead of production because ultimately, the best players will exceed their first year production.

However, in the comments from Monday’s post about Crystal Kelly, Kbailey3131 asked a great question that I think begs a more balanced approach to evaluating rookies: how can we compare rookies with different strengths knowing that they will develop in the future?

A recent discussion Monarchs fan had over on their fan board had to do with comparing Crystal to her teammate Laura Harper asking if Kelly is "better" than Harper. I don't think you can adequately compare the two right now because they are different types of players. How does Harper rank and how would you go about statistically comparing the two in a way that measures what they each do well and make projections long term?
It’s a difficult question, but one worth tackling because that is essentially the comparison made to determine the rookie of the year. And I think Harper and Kelly are a good starting point...and I'll look forward to input on some other good pairs.

Honestly, my instinct is always to favor the player who just seems to be involved in more positive plays when in the game – that would be Crystal Kelly, who is primarily a scorer, whereas Harper is a rebounder that stands out less. That tendency highlights not only the problem of comparing across player style that KBailey points out, but also the tendency to favor players who grab our attention by scoring.

The WNBA.com rookie rankings very much favor scoring if you look at them closely – their rankings are essentially the rookie scoring leaders adjusted slightly to account for team winning percentage (and Fowles’ injury). While the results seem to match common sense -- Candace Parker is consistently #1 – it makes it difficult to fully appreciate second or third tier players who might influence the game in more subtle ways. And that's what I'll set out to do here...

*** Long post warning: If you would like to cut to the chase and see the final rankings and/or the verdict on Kelly vs. Harper, scroll down to the section titled "Overall Most Outstanding Rookie(s)" ***.

The method

As we know, there's more to basketball than scoring – ball movement, shooting, offensive rebounding, and turnovers are all key elements. So perhaps one way to figure out which rookie is best is to compare their production in those important elements of the game. Evaluating rookies using these elements seems to evaluate players' all around games without favoring any particular position – perimeter and interior players benefit differently from each area.

Another area of interest is defense, which can obviously influence an opponent’s ability to produce in any one of those key areas. It’s tough to make an objective assessment of a player’s defense without counting the actual number of times the player is responsible for stopping the opponent they’re guarding. But I think there is some work being done that is moving in that direction.

So with these principles in mind, let’s try to answer KBailey’s question by comparing Harper, Kelly…and A’quonesia Franklin for good measure. In the process, I will rank all the rookies rotisserie style by scoring them 1-25 in each category below. While #1 may not be surprising, some of the others might be.

Ball movement – how “unselfish” is she?

We’ll start with ball movement to give Franklin a head start. I’m using assist ratio – the percentage of a player’s plays that end in an assist – to account for a player’s contribution to their team’s assisted field goal percentage. Of course it is flawed in that it does not account for assists lost, but I think it’s a good enough metric.

Assist ratio would of course strongly favor point guards who are given ball handling responsibilities and tend to rack up more assists, but it’s also good for sorting out the passing skills of bigs like Harper and Kelly.

Here’s the top ten, plus our Monarchs of interest:

Assist Ratio
1. Mitchell, Leilani 38.66
2. Franklin, A'Quonesia 36.00
3. Bobbitt, Shannon 30.25
4. Swanier, Ketia 26.37
5. Hornbuckle, Alexis 20.17
6. White, Erica 19.87
7. Holt, Amber 19.10
8. Atunrase, Morenike 17.65
9. Gardin, Kerri 17.47
10. Wiggins, Candice 16.30
23. Harper, Laura 6.13
24. Kelly, Crystal 3.88

Well here’s one instance where Parker is actually out of the top 10 (she’s #12). No surprise that Mitchell is at the top here, especially since she has been so efficient with the ball during the month of July, posting an insane 7:1 assist to turnover ratio. Franklin is quietly right behind Mitchell although Mitchell plays more minutes and scores more meaning that her ratio of assists to everything else she does is even more impressive.

Regarding Harper and Kelly, they are both near the bottom of this list, but it’s interesting to see the distance between them. All this says to me is that when Harper gets the ball, she’s more likely to score – since the equation takes into account shots and free throws as well, Kelly’s proportion of assists relative to everything else is smaller, but perhaps not that much “worse” than Harper. So that’s pretty much a wash.

Turnover ratio: How well does she take care of the ball?

Obviously, turnovers are costly so a player’s ability to keep those down are critical to their individual and team success. This might seem to benefit guards who generally have better ball handling skills and get the ball less in traffic, but they also generally have the ball in their hands more. That’s why we look at the percentage of plays that end in a player turning the ball over. The top ten, plus Monarchs:

Turnover ratio
1. Wiggins, Candice 9.22
2. Anderson, Jolene 9.43
3. Anosike, Nicky 9.92
4. Holt, Amber 10.79
5. Carson, Essence 12.00
6. Ajavon, Matee 12.09
7. Parker, Candace 13.14
8. Humphrey, Tasha 13.35
9. Mitchell, Leilani 13.88
10. Young, Tamera 14.14
13. Kelly, Crystal 14.98
18. Franklin, A'Quonesia 18.00
20. Harper, Laura 20.07

A quick note on Wiggins here – I find it amazing that she turns the ball over so infrequently given the way she plays, which borders on reckless abandon at times. It’s a testament to her skill with the ball that she ranks so highly, even just among rookies.

We see some separation here between Kelly and Harper that I think is notable. When you consider how little Harper touches the ball and the fact that a lot of those touches likely come from rebounds, turning the ball over on one in every five plays is somewhat discouraging. Ditto for Franklin who is expected to take care of the ball. You have to imagine that this is why she plays so little…in addition to playing behind Ticha Penicheiro.

Offensive rebound rate: What percentage of available rebounds does she grab?

Offensive rebound percentage is one of Dean Oliver’s four factors because offensive rebounds extend offensive possessions, thus putting more pressure on the defense. So it’s something I would use in judging the quality of a player, especially forwards like Harper or Kelly. And this turns out to be one of Harper’s strengths. Here are the top 10 rookies, with Monarchs:

Off. Rebound Rate
1. Pringle, LaToya 15.33
2. Larkins, Erlana 14.86
3. Harper, Laura 13.40
4. Langhorne, Crystal 12.30
5. Gruda, Sandrine 10.86
6. Kelly, Crystal 9.73
7. Anosike, Nicky 9.52
8. Humphrey, Tasha 9.35
9. Fowles, Sylvia 9.05
10. Hornbuckle, Alexis 8.95
25. Franklin, A'Quonesia 1.81

It’s interesting to see Hornbuckle crack the top 10 here and I imagine it’s due to the number of hustle plays she makes just beating bigger players to the ball.

So this is where Harper shines – her size in the post allows her to get more offensive rebounds than Kelly while she’s on the court. And a difference of a few offensive rebounding percentage points could mean a difference of around 20 players, so it’s significant.

True shooting percentage: How good a shooter is she?

I also used this yesterday in my rookie potential rankings. I’m using it here because I think shooting efficiency is essential to being a productive player. It’s possible to be a productive player without shooting well, but it means one must be exceptional at something else. But here is the top ten and where the Monarchs fall:

1. Kelly, Crystal 63.26
2. Langhorne, Crystal 62.5
3. Humphrey, Tasha 59.84
4. Parker, Candace 56.84
5. Wiggins, Candice 56.62
6. Pringle, LaToya 54.84
7. Mitchell, Leilani 53.80
8. Harper, Laura 53.64
9. Larkins, Erlana 53.12
10. Anosike, Nicky 52.88
25. Franklin, A'Quonesia 30.24

The Monarchs know a thing or two about poor shooting point guards, but Franklin has yet to show the playmaking abilities of Penicheiro. The thing is, Franklin is an 80% free throw shooter so it’s her shooting from the field that’s dragging her down – 24% from the field and 23% from three point land. That’s not very promising for a turnover prone 5’4” guard.

Kelly’s free throw shooting is a really huge asset for her as it makes her an extremely effective post scorer – when she knows how to create space and hold a position and if she’s fouled she can make the defense pay from the line.

Valuable Contributions Rating: How much does she contribute to the team?

Valuable contributions rating is yet another David Sparks creation that provides us with an idea of an individual player’s ability to make contributions to the team, independent of team success. It’s a ratio of player production to team production and he describes the basis for the “production” aspect of this statistic at Hardwood Paroxysm.

I add it here as the best thing (readily) available (that I know of) to account for a WNBA player’s production, how they help their own team, and how well they disrupt their opponent’s production. I didn’t use it as a standalone here because the weights were set for the NBA and though they may be close to WNBA weights, I’m content to use it in conjunction with these other statistics for now. Here are the VCRs:

1. Parker, Candace 1.74
2. Wiggins, Candice 1.42
3. Kelly, Crystal 1.39
4. Anosike, Nicky 1.34
5. Langhorne, Crystal 1.34
6. Humphrey, Tasha 1.33
7. Fowles, Sylvia 1.26
8. Pringle, LaToya 1.2
9. Gruda, Sandrine 1.14
10. Hornbuckle, Alexis 1.05
13. Harper, Laura 0.95
23. Franklin, A'Quonesia 0.51

The league average VCR is .76 and VCRs of 2.0 or greater are almost unheard of in the NBA, according to Sparks. So that should give you a sense of the scale and how good this rookie class is. I think it underscores the point I made from the outset – scoring is not the only valuable element of basketball and we overvalue it far too often. Langhorne, Pringle, and Hornbuckle are definitely not big scorers.

As for Kelly vs. Harper, we see that VCR actually reinforces the idea that Kelly is the more productive overall player than Kelly, given that she makes more valuable contributions to the team. After this and the other numbers presented, it would be difficult to argue strongly that Harper is better than Kelly.

Overall Most Outstanding Rookie(s)

So, it should be obvious that the most outstanding rookie of 2008 is Candace Parker – subjectively or objectively, real or fantasy. But what this exercise allows me to do is also present a first and second WNBA All-Rookie team for your criticism (though I know the WNBA only does one All-Rookie team). I went straight by the numbers and there are some surprises. Here are the teams, with numbers:

First Team:
Name Total Rank
Parker, Candace 95
Wiggins, Candice 94
Anosike, Nicky 91
Humphrey, Tasha 91
Kelly, Crystal 83

Second Team:
Mitchell, Leilani 80
Langhorne, Crystal 79
Pringle, LaToya 77
Hornbuckle, Alexis 75
Holt, Amber 74

12. Harper, Laura 63
24. Franklin, A'Quonesia 37

If I were voting, I’d move Mitchell to the first team over Kelly since they’re reasonably close…and I just like what Mitchell has done in her first season. And those two players represent just two of multiple differences between the WNBA.com rankings and these -- Mitchell, Langhorne, Pringle, and Hornbuckle are all players who have been very productive without being big scorers.

Fowles probably didn’t make it at this point because she’s been injured which has hurt her statistics, but subjectively, she is undoubtedly one of the top five rookies of this class. It’s conceivable that she could even accumulate stats to play her way onto the first team with some good games after the Olympic break, but she will likely get an honorable mention instead.

Some people may dispute Humphrey being on the first team in favor of players like Ajavon, Young, Houston, or Carson. But I can’t think of a convincing argument for anyone beneath Humphrey. There are not many rookies able to contribute to a team in as many ways as Humphrey on offense and she has excellent basketball awareness. Her defense is coming along as well and she’ll almost certainly develop as a post defender playing for Laimbeer and Mahorn. I also think it speaks volumes about Humphrey’s talent that she has earned a starting role as part of one of the deepest frontcourts in the league.

Instincts count

People might also disagree with Kelly being the fifth rated rookie, but you know how people talk about great players having that “It” factor? I think it’s hard to find a rookie with better instincts than Kelly’s, especially around the basket. In fact, I think she’s one of those players where her mechanics are behind her instincts – with practice and repetition she should get even better.

When comparing the Monarchs’ rookies, I think that’s what it comes down to – Kelly’s instincts put her above Harper right now and her skill set makes her more productive than Franklin. What makes her a great scorer is her ability to initiate contact and hit free throws despite occasionally giving up an inch or two to her opponents. Overall, Kelly looks more decisive and fluid with the ball and that should pay off in the future.

Defensively, neither is great, but Harper’s ability to extend possessions with offensive rebounds is valuable. However, Kelly’s quick hands and anticipation allow her to pick up steals and that will definitely benefit her. Harper also has a nagging tendency to pick up fouls and I think that’s because she looks a little bit more mechanical inside than Kelly.

But to answer the question about balance, right now, there’s no contest: Kelly is the more productive and more promising player statistically. Yesterday’s look at ts% and plus/minus rating demonstrate that Kelly seems to know how to pick her spots and make an impact on the court efficiently. Her diamond rating further reinforced the notion that she has plenty of room for growth, possibly the most of any rookie.

In terms of first year production, whereas Harper could become a dominant rebounder which will extend possessions for her team, Kelly is more efficient with the ball (higher ts%, lower turnover %) and she makes a much stronger overall contribution to the team (VCR).

So to return to the original point in KBailey’s comment, it might be possible to compare these two players and determine that Kelly is better. However, Monarchs fans probably shouldn’t worry about that – they have quite a dynamic frontcourt duo in the fold that complement each other very well in the front court, in fact, they fill in each other’s blanks in many ways. They could be the core of a very bright future in Sacramento.

Transition Points:

What are your thoughts? Who would you put on the WNBA All-Rookie team and why? Which of these choices do you disagree with most strongly? I'll look forward to the comments...

I interpret the Rookie of the Year
as rewarding the “most outstanding” or “most productive” rookie, independent of their team’s winning percentage. The reason I like to think of it that way is that 1) rookies are inconsistent so they might lose as many games as they win in some cases and 2) the best ones are usually drafted to bad teams so they don’t win. Since Harper and Kelly are on the same team anyway, it’s a nice mini-case to use in figuring out how to compare rookies when winning is equal.

I was looking for some background info on Laura Harper and this page came up. I’m wondering it’s the discussion KBailey was referring to: http://www.kingsfans.com/forums/showthread.php?p=558024

Although Kelly has the better plus/minus for the season, Harper won the plus/minus battle in their loss Sunday against the Storm, which I watched: Harper +11, Kelly -8.

Matt at the Connecticut Sun blog takes a nice look at Jolene Anderson
...who was tied for 20th in these rankings and tied for last in yesterday's rookie potential rankings...with A'Quonesia Franklin...

Found this rap about Candace Parker and posted it in my video of the day box (top right corner of the page). Better than one might expect from YouTube.

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Olympic Break Rookie Rankings: What happened to Alexis Hornbuckle?

. Thursday, July 31, 2008
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At one point this season Alexis Hornbuckle was ranked as one of the top rookies in the league – not only here and but also on WNBA.com's rookie rankings.

Now she barely cracks the top 10 here and has fallen off of the WNBA.com list altogether. I appreciate her hustle and toughness so I am a bit surprised at her decline. So how do we explain that?

First, she may have been overrated a little because she was once the league leader in steals at one point and is still in the top 3. She gets a lot of those steals with outstanding anticipation -- commentator Greg Kelser mentioned during their last web cast on Sunday that, "Her defense is fun to watch!" However, being fun to watch does not necessarily mean one is a great defender -- Hornbuckle is not quite the on-ball defender that fellow rookie Essence Carson is, for example. But she is extremely disruptive and brings a lot of energy defensively, which helps the Shock disrupt their opponents' offensive rhythm.

But the biggest reason for her decline is that her offensive game has really fallen off. She only scored in double figures in points once in July and that was a 99-62 blow-out of Washington that probably got Tree Rollins fired. But her true shooting percentage is also rather low at 45.5%. That is probably due to the fact that she struggles to create her own offensive opportunities, especially against stronger defenders.

It’s not that Hornbuckle is bad at any one thing – she’s just not great at anything either. And the fact that she’s still #10 in these rankings is a testament to her talent. But it’s also indicative of how good this rookie class is even beyond superstar Candace Parker. But who else is ahead of Hornbuckle?

A few more tweaks to the process

Evaluating rookies is a strange task because they are understandably inconsistent and constantly learning on the fly, especially with the WNBA’s shortened pre-season.

So it probably doesn’t help that I keep changing the metrics I use to evaluate them because I can’t decide how to get a handle on these moving targets. Nevertheless, I did make another change to my ranking system in search of stronger results that I could have more confidence in.

Gone is the defensive PER statistic I used before because ultimately, there are elements of defense that aren’t measured well with statistics. In its place, I have brought back the usage rate because the ability to create one’s own shot is so important to success in the WNBA. I have also adjusted the versatility ranking to include a wider variety of statistics consistent with the SPI style formula.

So let’s get started…

Usage Rate – how well does she create her own offense?

Usage rate is the percentage of team plays in which the player ends an offensive play with an assist, turnover, or shot. According to Bradford Doolittle, the skill being evaluated with usage rate is a player’s ability to create their own offense for the team. It might seem to benefit average players on bad teams that require one player to score a disproportionate amount, but that’s not quite what’s occurring here. Here are the top 10 rookies in usage rate:

Usage Rate
Ajavon, Matee 22.27
Wiggins, Candice 20.17
Parker, Candace 19.43
Houston, Charde 18.49
Humphrey, Tasha 17.73
Fowles, Sylvia 17.40
Gruda, Sandrine 17.31
Larkins, Erlana 15.53
Young, Tamera 15.52
Carson, Essence 15.37
Kelly, Crystal 15.11

Just from watching games, these numbers come as no surprise to me. However, usage is more valuable when evaluated next to efficiency and only a few of these players manage to do well in both.

True shooting percentage -- how good a shooter is she?

True shooting percentage (TS%) evaluates a player’s shooting ability from the field, the free throw line, and the three point line. So it gives a reasonable idea of the player’s overall scoring efficiency. Here are the top 10 rookies in true shooting percentage:

Kelly, Crystal 0.63
Langhorne, Crystal 0.62
Humphrey, Tasha 0.59
Parker, Candace 0.56
Wiggins, Candice 0.56
Pringle, LaToya 0.54
Mitchell, Leilani 0.53
Harper, Laura 0.53
Larkins, Erlana 0.53
Anosike, Nicky 0.52

The only players that show up in the top 10 in both shooting percentage and usage percentage are Humphrey, Kelly, Larkins, Parker, Wiggins. Larkins might be the biggest surprise for me, but she’s doing a lot in limited minutes.

However, what separates the rest from Larkins might be plus/minus rating.

Plus/Minus rating

Plus/minus rating
looks at a player’s impact on the court in terms of changes in the game’s score. I find this interesting to use for rookies (or any player evaluation) because it tells us a little something about whether they know how to positively impact the game and indirectly tells us something about their defensive abilities.

Here’s the top 10 rookies in plus/minus (from the Lynx page):

Parker, Candace 9.5
Wiggins, Candice 9.4
Mitchell, Leilani 9.4
Humphrey, Tasha 7.1
Gruda, Sandrine 4.9
Kelly, Crystal 4.6
Ajavon, Matee 4
Hornbuckle, Alexis 3.7
Gardin, Kerri 3
Atunrase, Morenike 1.1

Again, we see Humphrey, Kelly, Parker, and Wiggins starting to emerge as the top four rookies. For the Leilanians out there, Mitchell’s appearance so high on the plus/minus list should come as no surprise – she is extremely efficient when in the game and is often responsible for maintaining or increasing leads.

So it may seem that Mitchell has a lot of promise for future growth and she’s among the top ten there too.

Valuable Contributions Ratio Diamond Rating

Diamond rating is something I’ve used a few times already and find it to be extremely useful for projecting rookies that have the potential to breakout with more minutes on the court. For rookies, I think it’s valuable regardless of minutes because all of them are going to grow as players – that’s right, even Candace Parker.

Valuable contributions ratio measures the percent of valuable contributions that a player makes to her team. As a per minute statistic, it’s especially useful for evaluating rookies because it measures what they’re able to contribute to the team regardless of limited minutes or a team’s pace.

So using VCR with diamond rating is essentially evaluating who has the greatest potential to contribute more given more minutes.

VCR Diamond Rating
Kelly, Crystal 46.25
Humphrey, Tasha 44.52
Langhorne, Crystal 43.73
Pringle, LaToya 40.04
Gruda, Sandrine 32.72
Fowles, Sylvia 31.99
Parker, Candace 30.34
Wiggins, Candice 29.38
Mitchell, Leilani 27.35
Anosike, Nicky 26.98

Again we see the usual suspects and Mitchell as well. Kelly is no surprise here as she is an extremely efficient player in limited minutes (15.2 mpg). When you consider that she’s coming into games, having a positive impact, and shooting efficiently, you have to be optimistic about her future. However, one thing Kelly is not at this point in her career is versatile.

SPI Versatility rating

I’ve used versatility rating in the past using points, rebounds, and assists. However, there are more ways to judge a player’s versatility than that and since I’ve been utilizing David Sparks’ work elsewhere, I decided to use it here.

SPI (scorer-perimeter-interior) is the name applied to Sparks’ player styles spectrum. Since that already provides a pretty solid way to understand different styles of play, I decided to use that formula to measure a player’s versatility. So the formula is this: fga + fta (scoring), ast + stl (perimeter), and reb + blks (interior) multiplied together and then taking the cube root to get an index of sorts. So here are the top 10 most versatile rookies:

SPI Versatility
Parker, Candace 29.88
Anosike, Nicky 24.73
Wiggins, Candice 24.57
Hornbuckle, Alexis 23.15
Gruda, Sandrine 23.10
Humphrey, Tasha 22.78
Ajavon, Matee 22.24
Fowles, Sylvia 21.75
Houston, Charde 21.65
Pringle, LaToya 21.49

Hornbuckle’s defense and versatility are definitely going to be her biggest assets in the WNBA and you hope she works hard to get her shooting percentages up. This is also where Anosike stands out as she’s a player that can do a little bit of everything.

So who are the most promising rookies overall?

Parker, Candace 114
Wiggins, Candice 110
Humphrey, Tasha 110
Gruda, Sandrine 95
Kelly, Crystal 92
Houston, Charde 80
Ajavon, Matee 79
Mitchell, Leilani 77
Fowles, Sylvia 74
Hornbuckle, Alexis 72

This is a lot different than the rankings at WNBA.com but it’s worth noting again that these are not evaluating the same things – WNBA.com is looking at the best rookies and I’m looking here at the rookies who have the most potential for the future.

What strikes me here is Sylvia Fowles. She was great before her injury and has come back a little slow. What these numbers say is that she’s still one of the top 10 stars in this class which isn’t bad. It’s also notable that Mitchell has played her way into the top ten for the first time this season. Despite her size, she’s showing a lot of potential to run a WNBA team effectively.

But this still leaves one question unanswered: how do we compare rookies and understand who is better right now in addition to what they might (or might not) do in the future? That is a question I will answer tomorrow when looking at the Most Outstanding Rookie and revisiting the All-Rookie team candidates.

Transition Points:

Just a reminder: The rankings are determined by ranking each player 1-25 in each category with first place getting 25 pts and last getting 1 point. I didn't insert any of my own subjective opinions into the mix...but that might come with tomorrow's rankings. :)

The raw data for these rankings was gathered via Dougstats.com, by far the best site for WNBA stats on the web. It makes it a whole lot easier to put together player data quickly.

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How the Fever Played Without Tully…and What It Means For Team Strategy

. Wednesday, July 30, 2008
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I’ve been trying to figure why the Fever have been struggling so much offensively despite considerable talent, so I’m writing one this game analysis a bit late because I think it’s a particularly interesting dilemma.

I’ve been watching the Fever more closely over the past few games because of my curiosity about how they would replace Tully Bevilaqua in the lineup without losing ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Needless to say, after going 1-3 without Bevilaqua, the Fever are probably as relieved as anyone that the Olympic break is finally here.

However, they should be going into the break on a high note – they actually played two of their better offensive games of the season during the last four games (a Thursday loss against the Lynx and Sunday’s win against the Mercury). I think those two games demonstrate a point that I’ve made before about the Fever: they need to attack the basket more effectively in order to win. And after Sunday’s game, I’m convinced that their struggles have less to do with having Bevilaqua in the lineup than with their team strategy.

What the Fever could learn from the Mercury

I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but in a way, the Fever could learn something from the Mercury’s style of play. The Fever did surprisingly well playing the Mercury’s uptempo style and even took a big lead before they panicked and started playing it safe again. Fortunately, they found their rhythm again in the second half and won the game.

But from what I’ve seen of the Fever, it seems like they flourish when they play loose and within a system of “controlled chaos” to complement their stifling defense...and they falter when they try to play it safe and avoid mistakes on offense. And when I say controlled chaos it’s not the run and chuck style of the Mercury as much as a willingness to attack the defense instead of waiting for a perimeter scoring opportunity to show itself.

When someone is putting pressure on the defense, it allows for better opportunities for Tamika Catchings, Katie Douglas, and Tammy Sutton-Brown (one of the more underrated players in the league). And I often forget about Ebony Hoffman who has also been a large part of their success.

Well, it just so happens that the controlled chaos style that worked for them against the Mercury best suits Tan White, whereas the safe approach better suits Bevilaqua.

Is changing the point guard really that big a deal?

I focus on the point guard position because I agree with Eric Musselman that the point guard is the player who provides a team with its collective identity. If we accept that to be true and that White is better at attacking the basket than I find it reasonable to assume the following: the attacking identity that the team adopts with White at the point guard is more effective than the way they play with Bevilaqua at the point.

Now I know a lot of people like Bevilaqua, so I’m not suggesting (yet) that White replace her at the starting point guard. I probably haven’t seen enough of the Fever or Bevilaqua to make that assertion. But it does seem like their last four games illustrate the point well – White is valuable to the team because she brings an attitude that the team sorely lacks.

So if that’s the case, then I have to wonder whether we’ll see a(nother) change in the Fever’s strategy after the Olympic break as they re-integrate Bevilaqua into the offense. I thought the best way to explore those possibilities would be to look back at their stats for the season. When I did, I found a few surprises that might lead to some answers to their struggles.

So what went wrong in Fever losses?

Since my hunch is that the problem is offensive rhythm, I decided to use synergy score as a starting point for analyzing the Fever. In its simplified version, it’s pretty easy to calculate synergy score: assists divided by field goals plus field goal percentage. It is the best metric I’ve found to statistically measure ball movement short of watching the games.

The average synergy score for the WNBA is 66.4 – which usually means a team strikes a good balance between passing and one-on-one play (as a point of reference, Detroit was at 66.5 as of last week). When teams get to the 80-100 game they’re generally moving the ball well and if they’re over 100 they’re playing extremely well. Below 60 means a team is just struggling.

In wins this season, the Fever have averaged a synergy score of 66.45. In losses, they’ve averaged 58.58. So it would appear that their ball movement has a sizeable impact on the outcomes of their games. They have yet to win with White coming off the bench, excluding the Liberty Outdoor Classic, which was a poorly played game for both teams.

But here’s what’s interesting about the Fever -- when Catchings was out for eight games at the beginning of the season and White started, they went 5-3 overall. They had an above average synergy score in six games and went 5-1 in those games. In fact, their three highest synergy scores of the season came at the beginning of the season without Catchings. The other two losses in that period were against Detroit and San Antonio, which are tough match ups to say the least.

Since Catchings’ return the Fever have only had six additional above average synergy games and gone 7-11. So the easy answer would be to blame Catchings for the Fever’s struggles. But I think that would be a premature conclusion – what she brings offensively and defensively is a huge asset to the team. And she also has the highest net plus/minus rating on the team at 5.4. In second at 3.1: Tan White.

To me this leaves two problems – either the coach Lin Dunn changed the offensive strategy to accommodate Catchings’ return or their starters just don’t complement each other well. It seems easier to look at the latter and I think there’s something there.

An imbalanced lineup

To check out how their players might complement each other, I returned to David Sparks’ playing styles spectrum.

Something I've noticed about the Fever is that they seem to rely heavily on their starters. So the combinations in their starting lineups take on additional importance. And it appears like the answer might be that without White in the lineup, they just haven’t enough scoring threats to balance an otherwise talented lineup. Here’s their normal starting lineup with Catchings and player styles in parenthesees:

Bevilaqua (pure distributor), Catchings (distributor), Douglas (perimeter scorer), Hoffman (interior/utility player), Sutton-Brown (post presence)

With Catchings’ scoring average down 5 points this year, she turns into less of a scoring threat and more of a distributor…but that simply duplicates what Bevilaqua does. Catchings has led the team in assists for the past few seasons so this isn’t terribly unusual, but without her scoring they’re really struggling. They only have one player that has consistently created their own shot in that lineup – Katie Douglas. That means even if Douglas has a great scoring game, she gets no scoring support.

Tan White is a second perimeter scorer, though a bit more of a distributor than Douglas. So when she replaces Catchings in the lineup, suddenly there’s a bit more balance.

Bevilaqua (pure distributor), White (perimeter scorer), Douglas (perimeter scorer), Hoffman (interior/utility player), Sutton-Brown (post presence)

However, the key is that White is also a good enough ball handler to get penetration and set up other players. Although White does not average as many assists as Catchings or Douglas, she’s creative enough with the ball from the lead guard position to make things happen.

I often count lost assists for players – passes that would have resulted in an assist if the receiver had made the shot -- and White has about three lost assists per game in the Fever games I’ve watched. She’s getting to the basket, but she’s also looking to set up teammates and that’s exactly what the Fever need.

With White’s ability to drive and score along, Bevilaqua’s ability to distribute, and Douglas’ ability to score, the roles are defined better and less redundant, which may lead to greater fluidity. But what may seem odd then is why they didn’t do better without Bevilaqua. That lineup:

White (perimeter scorer), Douglas (perimeter scorer), Catchings (distributor), Hoffman (interior/utility player), Sutton-Brown (post presence)

Even though White is more of a scorer than Bevilaqua, when she’s playing the point guard spot and Catchings is not scoring, the team still struggles to win. It’s no coincidence that in their win against the Mercury both White (17 points) and Catchings (25 points) had strong scoring games in addition to being distributors.

Perhaps the Mercury game is a poor example because they are such a poor defensive team, but I think it does demonstrate that the team needs perimeter scoring to win. Thus far this season, that has come from White, but if Catchings manages to get back to form during the Olympic break, she could be the answer as well.

A little more offensive aggression wouldn’t hurt

Just having a scoring mentality and the ability to create offense would be a huge benefit to the Fever. They are a much more well rounded team than Phoenix with Sutton-Brown able to score in the post and Hoffman being a versatile scorer. The big difference is that Phoenix comes out looking to outscore opponents whereas Indiana often comes out playing too cautious on offense.

What I think is lost in all the talk about Bevilaqua missing is that the other four starters on this team are likely equally, if not more important. Katie Douglass is one of the most consistent and versatile players on the team, Tammy Sutton-Brown’s inside presence is a force that has to be addressed by opponents, and neither of them has the highest Boxscore – that belongs to Ebony Hoffman. They have plenty of weapons and players who can run the team.

At no other time is the Fever’s caution more evident than at the end of games when they give the ball to Douglas to “manage the clock”. From Fever media relations director Kevin Messenger:

In a decisive fourth quarter, with Indiana clinging to its narrow margin and a must-win situation hanging by a thread, Lin Dunn moved Katie Douglas to the point. Tan White was productive in managing the offense all night, but in crunch time, the veteran Douglas gave the Fever a calmness they sorely needed. It worked.
But against the Sky last Tuesday, that cautious strategy worked against them. What worked against the Mercury is that the Fever got much stronger scoring from their perimeter players as they were forced to keep up with the Mercury.

Really, the Fever and Mercury stand to learn a lot from each other – the carefree bordering on reckless offense of the Mercury could help the Fever and the more controlled cautious style of the Fever could help the Mercury. Ultimately, I think the two teams are at the extremes of either style of play and a compromise would be ideal.

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Why I Like Statistical Half-Truths

. Tuesday, July 29, 2008
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2008 Olympics Video Coverage at NBC Olympics.com!
On Sunday, former NBA coach Eric Musselman blogged about why he likes blogging:
The blog was almost like a re-birth. Thinking about basketball in different terms, reflecting on some of what I've seen and learned during my life and career, corresponding with other coaches, teaching, meeting new people -- it's been incredibly therapeutic for me.
I actually feel similarly about blogging about the WNBA, although I never coached or played pro basketball (and therefore have considerably less money in my bank account to feed myself with as I blog). And one way in which I’ve reflected on basketball in different terms is through the use of statistics.

Because the Olympic break is now upon us, I will probably be filling this blog with my Applied-APBRmetrics analyses in hopes of filling the void left by the break in WNBA games. I could just watch the Olympics, and I will, but it’s just not the same as watching teams compete over several months to be the best in a given league. I figured it would be nice to keep writing and lay out some things to look forward to once the WNBA action picks up again. I think it will be kind of fun to spend time crunching some numbers – rookie rankings, team rankings, MVP rankings, etc -- and then seeing how things play out in August. (Yes, I’m a nerd…and hopefully, some of you are tolerant enough to keep reading.)

So to justify my use of statistics, I look first to the words of others. Two people whose work and input I greatly appreciate, Kevin Pelton and David Sparks, have written about why they use statistics in their work. Their pieces resonated with me and inspired some additional thoughts that I thought I’d share before I make the plunge into the numbers over the break. And perhaps it will give you a little more insight into how I view sports fandom.

The Mentality of an APBRbitrarian

Pelton writes the following in his article, “Why I am an APBRmetrician”:
[My history teacher] effectively managed to permanently convince me of the importance of providing evidence, more evidence and, when in doubt, still more evidence.

Since then, that mentality has permeated my thinking. When it comes to basketball, the best evidence available is usually statistics. So you think Player A is a good rebounder? Terrific, but do his statistics confirm that? Player B is a heady player? Good for him, but does his turnover rate or Roland Rating reflect that?

Not every qualitative basketball statement can be backed up with statistics, but I still find it important to support my claims, as Ms. Angersbach would have told me.
And in his recent manifesto at Hardwood Paroxysm, David Sparks writes:
Analysis is not the opposite beauty, methodological rigor is not the opposite of casual observation--rather each is a necessary part of a whole. For a fuller sense of enjoyment and understanding of any game, we look to statistics to confirm the impressions we have from just watching; just as sometimes, we look to the court to confirm what the numbers seem to be telling us. There is no right or wrong way to approach the appreciation or assessment of sports, and arguably, a perspective that ignored some aspect--be it gut reaction or regression analysis--would be substantially incomplete. All I know is that there is no dearth of subjective opinion available for your consumption, and all I can do is offer something a little different, and a little less arbitrary.
As Sparks alludes to, any account that ignored emotion, logic, or observation entirely “would be substantially incomplete.” So although it might be more fun to set up a blog and just keep the caps lock on and say whatever comes to mind, that wouldn’t do much in the way of supporting the type dialogue that helps us understand things better. When dealing in a world in which the goal is to put a larger number on the scoreboard than the other team, we should probably find a way to balance our passion with numbers...and sometimes messy ones.

However, as a new fan, I find statistics extremely useful for a few additional reasons. In fact, I think WNBA statistics might be extremely valuable in attracting die-hard basketball fans (e.g. nerds) who enjoy the challenge of finding the magical formula(e) for various basketball phenomena, including winning championships.

How I’m Rethinking Basketball

First, when you’re new to a sport, there is just so much you have to soak in. To really enjoy it, you have to knowing the big stars, the teams around the league (and where they play), and eventually you learn the nuances of the game in terms of what wins championships and what falls short.

What statistics help me do is identify some of those key players or key elements of the game, and eventually see things in the action that I would otherwise miss. The stats have helped me to pick out players I never knew about (Deanna Nolan) and some I had just forgotten about since their college days (Lindsay Whalen). In general, I think statistics help me to focus my attention on specific aspects of a game when everything I’m looking at is new and different. The more advanced work that APBRmetricians do, can go a step further by actually explaining what’s important and what’s not.

I realize that not everyone is obsessed enough with basketball to dig deeply into the advanced stuff and I would hardly argue that they’re somehow “less enlightened”. Of course you can learn to enhance your “fan vision” just by watching games and observing trends over time. The problem is that our minds have this nasty habit on fixating on things we like rather than approaching each game with an open mind. Even simple stats like points, rebounds, and assists can help us to judge a player’s performance more effectively and see the story of the game for what it was rather than what we want it to be.

Second, for a sport that leaves so many of its games unseen by fans who can’t show up at the arena, statistics are the only way to tell the story of how the season is progressing. And to really get into that, you have to do more than look at wins, losses, and terse recaps that don’t do the game justice. If I really enjoy a sport, I want to know the latest trends, what’s hot, and exciting new (and future) developments.

Although I believe stats enable quite a bit in trying to understand a new sport (for those who did not develop permanent math-phobia in high school), I think it’s important to know that they are only part of the story. Even statistics are not completely “objective” – the statistics that people choose to tell us inherently demonstrate one’s own subjectivities.

For example, assists don’t tell the story of turnovers, assist to turnover ratio doesn’t take into account pace, and pure point rating doesn’t tell us if a player is simply the beneficiary of a strong system. The statistical choices we make illustrate our own biases.

The last point has to be made...

Third and last, in the interest of full disclosure, I have always hated math. So it’s sort of weird that I’ve been drawn to statistics as a means to understand a league I’m unfamiliar with. In fact, I can say with confidence that I hated math in school…college…grad school…or looking at deductions from my paycheck (this could be used to build a much broader argument about the systemic flaws of school math, but that could fill a dissertation…and actually, I’m pretty sure it has filled more than a few).

My feeling has always been that in order to understand something well, we need to pay attention to the general patterns of the activity first and then work to figure out which patterns are significant. So the value of good observation is that it lays out the different dimensions of an activity so that we can better understand how all the pieces fit together. Good observations should not be dismissed as irrelevant or “biased” (what isn’t?) because they aren’t grounded in numbers; instead, it they are providing accounts of how a given activity operates so that we can better understand how people understand their own world or (in some cases) how to best intervene.

And that’s something I try to do here – identifying defensible patterns in how individual players and teams achieve the outcomes we seen in the box scores. To truly understand any game, even Risk, it helps to have some mental representation of how the action occurs. Within the best observations, we are able to identify the author’s dependent/independent variables, trends, and perhaps a low level association between variables. In other words, making good observations brings us closer to objectivity, not further from it, by contextualizing how things actually occur.

What it boils down to is that observations and statistics are just two halves of a whole truth. So what statistical half-truths can do is complement the half-truths that we observe. Rejecting one or the other – or favoring one over the other – is unproductive. To truly understand a game we need both. And I would hope that in the coming years, we’ll see more WNBA APBRmetricians trying to get WNBA statistics to reach the depth of NBA statistics.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep on doing my applied APBRmetrics work and waiting for others to do the tough stuff. The stats greatly enhance my experience watching the WNBA, and that’s why I continue to post them for others. But for those that doubt the value of statistics, I understand – I hated math too.

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Crystal Kelly & Camille Little: What makes for a potential diamond in the rough?

. Monday, July 28, 2008
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Crystal Kelly and Camille Little may not be the type of players that attract fans to the WNBA, but they are the type of key players that are essential for making a strong playoff showing after the Olympic break

If you don’t pay close attention, you might miss how players like Kelly and Little impact the game. They go about their business on the court quietly and without making the kind of plays that make you go “wow”. But when you look at the box score, you realize they have had an extremely effective and efficient game.

The Olympic break is an important time for players like Kelly and Little and not because they’ll be playing for someone in Beijing. Kelly is one of the more underrated players in a talented rookie class whose minutes have increased over the season because of her amazing efficiency. Little was traded to Seattle earlier this season and got inconsistent minutes prior to Jackson’s departure for the Olympics.

For these players, and other talented players who have shown great promise in limited minutes (e.g. Alison Bales, Sandrine Gruda, and Crystal Langhorne), this time is like the pre-season that most teams never got. It’s a chance to, you know, actually learn the plays and their team’s system. So while the spotlight will be on the players in Beijing on the world stage, the players who stand to benefit the most are these players who have shown considerable promise.

So I chose to watch Sacramento play Seattle yesterday because of Crystal Kelly (and Seattle has been web casted so little this season). Little was a “bonus” because she is already having a “breaking out” of sorts, but I had not watched her since she was inserted into the starting lineup. For me, Kelly and Little are just the types of players that are exciting to follow not only because it’s exciting when they actually do breakout, but also because it’s great to see hard working players get the job done off the bench.

What I think both players showed in the Storm’s 77-71 win is that they have an impact game by doing the simple things on the court really well. And I noticed something else that I think indicates a brighter future for Kelly – whereas Little production could be attributed to the strength of the Storm’s system, Kelly is productive as a rookie because she just seems to always be in the right place to make things happen. So I would bet that with experience Kelly ends up being the better player and I think that is demonstrated well with statistics and personal observation.

Finding “diamonds in the rough”

I first “noticed” Kelly when I did my original rookie rankings this season. She was the biggest surprise on the list, mainly because I hadn’t heard of her. I had even watched a few Monarchs games and she just didn’t stand out. And that is probably the classic example of a diamond in the rough.

Every year in every sport there are players just seem to improve dramatically from one season to the next and make you say, wow, where on earth did that player come from. Sometimes it’s attributed to hard work in the off-season or a rookie getting experience and learning the system. However often times, these players are quietly productive in limited minutes and we just don’t notice because they don’t do anything particularly spectacular.

Kevin Broom created a metric called diamond rating to identify these types of players in the NBA and Petrel at the Pleasant Dream Blog created an adjusted version called “Petrel Adjusted Diamond Rating”, which is adjusted for WNBA minutes (you can take a look at the formulas here). However, though I’ve looked at the statistic for rookies from the 2006 class as a means of comparison and see reasonable results, Little is not a player that ranks very well on this metric.

I think the Kelly – Little comparison is a nice example of the two different types of breakout players, and maybe even which is more desirable. Kelly is the type of player that ranks quite well based on whichever version of the diamond rating you use and Little is a player who appears to have found the right fit on her third team in two years.

The Numbers

The best way to identify a diamond in the rough intuitively would be to look for players that are extremely efficient in limited minutes. Kelly fits that bill moreso than Little.

When Kelly is in the game, she makes things happen. As I described in my mid-season rookie rankings a few weeks ago, Kelly is among the tops among rookies in plus/minus and true shooting percentage. Even more impressive, Kelly led the league in true shooting percentage as of July 21, according to Kevin Pelton at the Storm Tracker blog. The way she puts up those statistics is even more impressive.

First, her true shooting percentage is so high because she is a very good free throw shooter, at 84% for the year. She also ranks number one in free throw attempts per 40 minutes (which is significant and I’ll come back to it later). And most impressive about Kelly is that her production leads to winning – her boxscore 1.51, which means even as a rookie playing 15.2 minutes per game, she’s able to make a contribution to the team’s success. There aren’t many other non-starters who can claim the total package she brings to the game.

At this point scoring is her forte – she ranks 10th among rookies in rebounding with 3.3/game, which isn’t spectacular (guards Alexis Hornbuckle and Candice Wiggins rank ahead of her). Not every rookie post player is going to be a Fowles, Parker, or Anosike, so it’s understandable that Little is not yet a great defender.

There’s nothing particularly spectacular about Camille Little’s statistics except that she has managed to nearly double her productivity across almost every statistic with twice as many minutes as a starter. Considering we should expect efficiency/productivity to go down with increased minutes, the fact that all her numbers have increased is impressive.

But the statistics only tell half of the story for these players. It’s the way they put up these numbers that’s impressive.

Good basketball instincts lead to productivity

The key element of both of their games is good instincts. However, they each display those instincts in different ways.

Little’s increased productivity seems to illustrate a good fit with the Storm’s system. She knows how to play within that system and make an impact. She’s shown the ability to score all over the court, but is especially adept at scoring off of cuts to the basket. The most important thing is that she’s decisive with the ball – when she gets it, she looks to do something with it quickly and that allows her to be effective even when she’s not in the game very long.

In contrast, Kelly often seems to float around on offense as though she doesn’t quite know where she wants to go. But she flourishes when she improvises. She recognizes opportunities to contribute extremely well. Once she recognizes the opportunity, she knows how to take advantage whether that be off of a cut to the middle or establishing position in the post.

The big difference between Kelly and Little is that Kelly is a bit bigger and gets to the free throw line like a veteran. It’s not so much that she uses a whole lot of advanced moves down low, but she is just a physical player who looks to initiate contact once she gets the ball. The fact that she knows how to get herself to the free throw line without an intimate familiarity with the plays or the array of post moves that teammate Rebekkah Brunson has means that she’ll only be more effective once she has time to develop.

Another thing that might not stand out at first about Kelly is that she has quick hands. She had two steals recorded last night against the Storm and I noted an additional one. She got them just by being in the passing lanes or sticking her hand in the way of a ball handler’s dribble. That won’t make her dominant, but it is indicative of a defensive awareness that many normal rookies don’t have.

What both do well is play with energy, especially Kelly. She doesn’t seem to stop until the play is completely dead. And when you’re a bench player who gets limited minutes, that’s a huge asset to the team because it allows them to trust you during important stretches of a game. Kelly is a fighter down low who doesn’t back down and she has some good role models in Sacramento to help her develop.

Being in the right place at the right time

Neither Kelly nor Little are players that are going to dazzle you with their ability to create points off the dribble or put 5 seconds worth of moves on a defender. But what they specialize in is being in the right spot at the right time.

What separates them is that Kelly produces the hard way – she makes a lot of hustle plays on both ends of the court, just finding her way to the ball when she finds the right opportunity. That she’s able to score at all when she just seems to float around on offense is equally impressive – it shows that she knows how to get things done even if she’s not well integrated into the team’s game plan.

What both players illustrate is that diamonds in the rough are hard to pick out without painting the whole picture. The questions I still have are why did Little not perform better in San Antonio or Atlanta (her PADR scores are negative for both)? What is it about the Storm’s system that allows her to thrive in Jackson’s absence? These questions are the type that are hard to answer statistically – Little’s improved performance could be due to better chemistry with the team, better relationship with the coaching staff, or similarity to an offense she’s known in the past. It’s hard to know.

It will be fun to see what players like Kelly and Little do after the Olympic break and whether they can show flashes of the future as their teams aim for the playoffs.

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A Review of Media Attention to the Melee & Perceptions of Female Athletes

. Sunday, July 27, 2008

If there was any doubt about whether female athletes faced double standards, the reactions to Tuesday night’s scuffle should be convincing evidence of the challenges they must overcome.

That is not to say that the incident will have an adverse effect on the WNBA’s popularity (though I don’t think it is positive effect either). In fact, I think we can conclude is that it’s not the fight itself that says anything particularly insightful about female athletes, except that female athletes can show a lack of judgment too (“It was just a couple of people being stupid," as Rebecca Lobo put it).

Instead, I think the incident makes the double standards female athletes face obvious for those who try to deny their existence. And in admitting their existence, I think it’s reasonable to say that those double standards distort people’s ideas about women’s basketball and shape what’s acceptable to say about it publicly.

The WNBA provides a meaningful lens through which to understand mainstream perceptions of women because it is one of many growing spaces that challenges traditional notions of what constitutes “womanhood”. What makes the commentary on the fight particularly interesting is how various people in the media deal with the intersection of gender, race, and sexuality in the WNBA (even in choosing to ignore them).

Those additional stereotypes that female athletes face are one major way that makes this scuffle different from the 2004 or 2006 brawls in the NBA -– like it or not, women have much less room for error than their male counterparts. Tuesday night’s fight was a much different phenomenon with different implications.

A look at some of the commentary from the past week may help us answer some important questions for women’s sports: how exactly do double standards influence perceptions of women’s sports ? Is any publicity really good publicity for women’s sports?

If this is gender equity, why do we laugh when women fight?

Some commentators believed that the scuffle might help the WNBA because it shows the intensity, passion, and toughness that mainstream society assumes women lack. From Harvey Araton of the New York Times:

A sports culture that historically has preferred its female athletic icons ponytailed or pixie-framed (our Olympic gymnasts will soon be tumbling their way across television screens, into American hearts) could stand a little reconditioning on the appeal of strong, aggressive women, who not only can dunk but can dish it out.
From this perspective, a fight is a good thing because it shows that female athletes are as capable of the average nonsense that men are capable of. And in doing what the men do, some believe a fight may encourage a gender neutral approach to women’s sports. From Ray Ratto, via the Wall Street Journal blog:
It was the stuff of stuff-happens, and to get one’s Under Armour in a bunch over it is exactly the wrong overreaction. But it was also a gender-neutral nostalgia-fest, a more ground-bound Lakers-Pistons battle from the late ’80s when the Lakers were winding down and the Pistons were trying to overthrow the established order.
However, the other day I posted the following quote from columnist Tom Haddock regarding the scuffle’s implications for gender equity:
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.
And I think Jemele Hill of ESPN.com nicely elaborated on this point:
It's interesting how differently we look at boorish behavior when gender is involved. The reaction to women fighting is usually a mixture of astonishment and fascination. Sure, some of it is because it plays into juvenile male fantasies… We treat girl fights like a novelty, when they shouldn't be seen as such. News flash to those still using sticks to create fire: Female athletes are just as competitive as men and when some are pushed to the edge, they'll exhibit the same lack of control.
If we agree with Haddock and Hill then any increased attention to women’s basketball over the remainder of the season could be attributed to a “novelty effect”, which will naturally end at some point. The notion of aggressive, rugged women throwing down on the court will be “cool” to watch for a while, but won’t sustain an audience if it’s treated as nothing more than a spectacle. Again from Harvey Araton of the New York Times:
Wednesday night, I happened to catch the last 20 minutes of a cable news show (I won’t say which one, except that it was mostly fair-and-balanced Obama bashing), which signed off with the Sparks-Shock fisticuffs — without commentary, context or even an identification of the combatants.

Chick fight on court, no details at 11.
Ultimately, all this fight shows about gender equity is that we’re not yet there for female athletes and that WNBA players will likely continue to face negative perceptions as long as they play ball. From Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant:
If this is gender equity, give me a little gender inequity where the women have held the high ground on athletic anger management.

There is a line between Billie Jean King and Don King. There is a line between Title IX and Title Asinine.

And these two WNBA teams crossed it.

After we laugh about women fighting, we assume they're "acting like men"

What I think the discussions on gender illustrates is that we’re still constantly comparing female athletes to men and when that happens, it’s difficult for women to establish legitimacy, even if they’re doing the “same” things. From Marie Hardin of the Sports Media & Society blog:
It's also these kinds of assessments of women's sports -- judging them by male standards -- that feed the tremendous struggles of female athletes for legitimacy.
And of course, when women do what the men do, surely they are trying to be like men… From Gregg Doyel of Sportsline.com:
It was one thing back in the day when Cynthia Cooper mimicked the men and overdosed on that ridiculous "raise the roof" sign to the point that Amy Winehouse thought maybe Cooper needed an intervention. But it's something else entirely -- something so unnecessarily male -- for WNBA players to throw down, as they did Tuesday night in Auburn Hills, Mich.
And if the women are acting like men, people will inevitably call into question their sexuality…because of course, women who fight, must be lesbians too… From SOHH.com:
There’ll you’ll see what looks like Mahorn pushing Lisa Leslie (Deuce Bigalow style: “Now, that’s a big, bi**h!”) down to the ground. One of Lesbian’s, er Leslie’s, teammates then slaps Mahorn in the back seconds later (around the :51 mark).
We shouldn’t have to detail the personal lives of the participants involved to show how inaccurate this comment is. That’s beside the point. The fact is, women who play sports are not only seen as unladylike but also homosexual.

And without conducting a large scale study about why people don’t watch the WNBA, it’s safe to say that “concerns” about women’s sexuality might be enough to create a stigma about women’s sports that keeps people from watching. I can’t prove it, but at this point, I don't think it's fair to dismiss it either.


We also cannot forget that society is not particularly fond of the “angry black woman”…and of course, that would be any black woman who dares assert herself publicly (see Michelle Obama at Feministing.com). The fact that the participants in this fight were primarily black women (Katie Smith was on the court but to my knowledge, not a primary participant) constitutes nothing but “gender trouble” – black women “complicating” an already complex discussion of womanhood. From the Womanist Musings blog:
Black women count only when the talk turns to sacrifice. The black male cannot speak on behalf of the black female because even though we share the same race it effects us differently. Yes the black male is constructed as a violent criminal rapist, but it is our bodies that are violated.
Returning to the notion of a novelty effect, in a way, this is not a novel situation at all in terms of mainstream perceptions of black women – this only perpetuates a long held notion that black women are a monolithic group of angry people and therefore, a group to fear. From the 1369 lightbulbs blog:
This, to me, speaks to a deeper problem - how readily America pigeonholes that which it cannot readily understand, or seems at all foreign. And America surely has not figured out the Angry Black Female. Jemele's aside, public reactions to this fight have ranged from sanctimoniously horrified to sexually condescending ("Cat fight!"). Obviously this is not how the WNBA would like to project itself, let alone market itself - but it may have been a necessary evil to expose, once again, the very attitudes that hold back women's sports in this country. We love to compartmentalize women into roles that were set for them generations ago, and sometimes we even have their help in doing so.
Racist attitudes affect the men’s game as well as the women’s game. So I am surprised when people remark that there is no reason to worry about the scuffle because it a) is a common occurrence in men’s sports and b) never causes a problem for men.

Aside from statement “a” being historically inaccurate (it’s happened less than once a year in the last decade in men’s professional basketball…which is hardly "often" considering each of the 30 teams play 82 games), I don’t think the NBA would agree with statement “b”. And a large reason it causes a problem for men could be attributed to racism. From TrueHoop:
The league has had grave PR trouble at various times in the past (mostly because there's some racist seeming notion on the part of ticket-buying fans that when basketball players do things that other athletes also do, like fight, or party, they're in dire need of taming). When that trouble gets serious enough, it really hurts the bottom line, and nowhere does it say that leagues like the NBA will never have real financial trouble. With some bad decisions, it can happen. Ask the NHL.

One of the bigger NBA PR problems of recent years was fighting (oddly, a feature in hockey, but whatever) which used to happen quite often. So the league took some serious -- even draconian -- steps to prevent it. One of those anti-mayhem rules was that no NBA player should ever leave the bench during an altercation, and if they do, they are instantly suspended, with, essentially, no questions asked.
The black athlete has always been seen as a problem for professional sports even as they are so often also cast as heroes, generally heroes that have “beat the odds” to succeed. So yes, black athletes face double standards male or female. To say that a fight among black athletes is positive for the perception sport, is to ignore the fact that men’s professional basketball has always struggled with constructing a public image with black players. From the Daily Fortune blog:
Professional basketball has continuously worked on perfecting its public image, one that requires using many black americans faces and bodies, for decades. After the drug and alcohol abuse situations in the NBA during the late seventies into the late eighties, the NBA has enforced strict laws that however have unevenly vilified black players as destroying the game… So when WNBA players emphasize their hard work and love for the game, perhaps its in fear of being vilified as greedy black male athletes…except the fact that the average salary for a WNBA player is somewhere between 60,000-80,000 dollars.
Even if you don’t agree that black WNBA players are consciously fighting against being vilified as greedy black athletes, the fact remains that black athletes are a tough sell for mainstream U.S. society because of long-standing racial stereotypes. A nationally televised scuffle is just more reason to vilify these black athletes despite their best attempts to separate themselves from their male counterparts.

It’s been a long, long time, comin’…

Again, I think this incident demonstrates more about perceptions of female athletes than the implications for the popularity of women’s basketball. I believe that the WNBA’s core fan base is likely less concerned with the gender, race, and sexuality of the players, perhaps to the point of being color/gender/sexuality-blind (which can be dangerous, but is an entirely separate conversation). However it would seem that the casual fan is quite concerned with the identity of the WNBA’s players, if the commentary around the web is any indicator.

The underlying theme to me is this – our society, our world, still struggles with the notion of femininity. What’s disturbing about some of these accounts (and many others I didn’t post here) are that I didn’t find them at “AverageLunkheadMale.blogspot.com” – many of these are national media outlets. The fact is that most of us know what to say to be politically correct, but on the whole we simultaneously condemn women who step outside of the mold.

And isn’t it odd that in a season that began with the league providing makeup and fashion tips for rookies (read more at smartlikeme.wordpress.com) to ensure that they presented themselves as “women first”, we now have a fight that calls into question their womanhood? It seems like overall we’re got our priorities wrong with regard to what is important for female athletes and this is just a very public example of that. From Jeff Jacobs at the Hartford Courant again:
What should be celebrated is toughness. What shouldn't be celebrated is a loss of composure. This isn't a matter of X and Y chromosomes. This is about the ABCs of athletic play. Toughness is taking a hit and getting back up. Idiocy is throwing a punch, getting in a brawl.
It seems like some people have confused a hyper-masculine display of strength with passion and toughness and for inexplicably applied it to women’s basketball. And that does nothing to help a sport that already struggles with the notion that these women are “unladylike”.

It’s a beautiful thing to say that basketball is basketball and that athletes are athletes, but the fact is the majority of our society simply doesn’t agree. And it’s hard to conclude that these factors have no bearing on ratings, even when there is a fight that garners attention for the wrong reasons. From Barry Horn of the Dallas News:
Of course, that didn't translate to an overflowing eyeball convention for Thursday night's follow-up between the Shock and Houston Comets on ESPN2. That game featured the Bill Veeck-like return of 50-year-old Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, who made a cameo on-court appearance for the depleted Shock.

Average major-market rating for the season's first 11 games on ESPN2: 0.23.

Average major-market rating for the first post-brawl game on ESPN2: 0.25.
I think this is a chance to put things in perspective. The biggest benefit of this scuffle to the WNBA would be a sustained increase in media attention. I think the blogosphere is helping greatly with that, but the major media outlets would have to do more than focus on a fight. Regardless of whether you think people are dumb, the media is a major factor in shaping people’s opinions about the world, even when something is omitted.

Part of the burden of increasing media attention does of course lie with the WNBA and I think the web can play a major part in that, as Helen from Women’s Hoops points out often (so often that I can’t even keep up). And of course, there’s already been plenty written about the “Expect Great” ads.

But the other part of that burden rests with the “journalists” that perpetuate blatantly homophobic, racist, and sexist ideas about the WNBA in the public sphere. And that responsibility seems to lie with editors and producers.

If all people see of the WNBA this year is a circus act with women fighting, I don’t see how the league will increase its popularity, though it might just stagnate. And it really can’t afford stagnation at this point in its development.

Relevant Links:

Like it or not, melee lifts WNBA's exposure

Why The WNBA Brawl Could Be Good For The League

Taking it seriously.

Blog Hound: Fight During Tuesday's Game Good Or Bad For WNBA?

Hey, WNBA, don't run away from this fight (…and an idea for a new ad campaign)

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