First Olympic Weekend; Time For a Writing Break

. Saturday, August 9, 2008
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I'll be using the weekend for a writing break again and look forward to seeing how the 39 WNBA stars perform in Beijing.

(To keep up with all the sights and sounds in Beijing, check out the little widget below.)

And a brief moment of idealism -- The best part about the Olympics though is that it is essentially a much-needed celebration of the human spirit. Of course, good intentions alone will never solve the world's problems, so I won't make any claims about the "power" of the Olympics. But as a representation of the human spirit at its best, I do think it's a time to step back and reflect on a higher vision of human interaction. Ravi Antani writes:

When in our time do we get to do something like this? When do we get to revel in the purity of cultural immersion, bridged borders, and triumph? When does the news get dominated by celebrating the power of human resolve? Where can so many hands shake that would otherwise never shake?

That's the power of sports, of these Olympic Games. It has the power to bring people together, to foster peace, and once upon a time, to stop wars. What else has had the power to stop wars?
As difficult as it is to apply these principles to the complexity of "real life", it's worth taking the time to appreciate those who take pride in playing a sport simply because it brings them great joy at some level. It's something I really enjoy and the reason why I love sports. (please allow me to ignore the inevitable doping tests that will be failed and those that have endorsement deals riding on the games).

Enjoy the weekend and see you Monday.

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U.S. Women’s Basketball Medal Outlook: What Can We Learn from the FIBA Diamond Ball Tournament?

. Friday, August 8, 2008
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If there is one thing that U.S. basketball fans should have learned by now, it’s that talent alone is not enough to win international competitions.

So perhaps due to past losses as much as present circumstances, there has been plenty of attention paid to the U.S. women’s basketball team’s on-court chemistry. Of course this problem should be expected considering that the 12 players on the roster have never played together as a full unit. From head coach Anne Donovan (via

These players know our system. Every one of them has played at different times with different players, but these 12 have never played together before. If anything, it’s just getting chemistry, working together at both ends of the floor and getting the kinks out. There’s going to be mistakes early as they learn to play with each other and get familiar with who’s good at what, and how we can parlay strengths and cover up weaknesses. Overall, I’m really pleased so far.
Their widely-acknowledged struggle with on-court chemistry – in addition to a 25-game Olympic winning streak and a loss to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World championships – make this team one of the more intriguing storylines of the U.S. contingent to Beijing. How quickly can this talented team come together and will it be enough to beat teams like the Australia who already function well as a unit?

Although they won the FIBA Diamond Ball exhibition tournament, their chemistry problems did creep up at certain points, as described by AP writer Doug Feinberg:
At times the U.S. players looked to be in total harmony, scoring at will and containing Latvia. At other times, the Americans struggled, turning the ball over and missing defensive assignments that led to
easy baskets.
So what can we learn about this team from their exhibition games? Although I acknowledge that looking at the statistics from such a small sample of games is “dangerous at best and foolish at worst” as phrased by Kevin Pelton of the Seattle Storm, there were some general trends that are worth watching for in their upcoming quest for the gold medal. From those I believe it’s possible to create some keys to winning a gold in this Olympics.

How can we account for chemistry?

The simplest way to get an idea of a team’s on-court chemistry is to look at who they have on their roster and see how the associated styles of play fit together. Using a unique tool from the Arbitrarian blog called the SPI player styles spectrum, we can get a better idea of the styles of play of each player and how they fit together.

“SPI” stands for scorer-perimeter-interior—and as you can probably guess, what it does is show us the extent to which a player is a scorer, perimeter, or interior player. A player’s scoring is determined by field goal and free throw attempts, perimeter play by assists and steals, and interior play by rebounds and blocks. Players with a mix of all three are in the center of the graphic as “mixed”. I like to consider the non-scorers “utility players”.

What’s great about it is that it gives us a sense of how players compare to one another, how productive they are (the size of their name) and the degree to which players fit a particular style (click here for more about the methodology).

Here’s a rough approximation of the rotation they have used thus far:

G: Sue Bird (combo point guard)
G: Katie Smith (perimeter scorer)
F: Diana Taurasi (perimeter scorer)
F: Tina Thompson (interior/scorer)
C: Lisa Leslie (pure interior)

Second team:
G: Kara Lawson (perimeter scorer)
G: Cappie Pondexter (perimeter scorer)
F: Seimone Augustus (perimeter scorer)
F: Candace Parker (interior utility player)
C: Sylvia Fowles (pure interior)

F: Tamika Catchings (perimeter forward)
F: DeLisha Milton Jones (interior/scorer)

It’s worth noting that defense is not taken into account with this spectrum. However, this team has a number of outstanding defenders at each position: Augustus, Catchings, and DeLisha Milton-Jones are all among the best position defenders the WNBA has to offer and Fowles, Leslie, and Parker are some of the best help defenders.

A few points about this roster regarding chemistry:

First, the most noticeable thing is that this team lacks any of the play-makers that fall in the "pure perimeter" category that we would normally consider point guards. Sue Bird is one of the best point guards the WNBA has to offer and Taurasi is also among the best ball handlers, but they’re both starting – there’s not a true lead guard available on the bench.

Second, this team is scorer heavy drawing very little from the opposite side of the spectrum with utility players. Those non-scorers at the other end of the spectrum tend to be the players we sometimes consider “glue players” or the players that support the primary scoring options.

Third – and this is also not really delineated in this representation – this team does not have a lot of players who can drive to the basket and score effectively. Pondexter is one of the best in the WNBA and Bird is among the best at picking apart defenses, but aside from those two most of these players make their living either inside or outside.

So just from looking at the roster, we see that a lack of balance, a lack of distributors, and a lack of players who can attack the basket could affect their on-court chemistry. They have a number of outstanding three point shooters (Augustus, Catchings, Lawson, Smith and Taurasi), but if for some reason they have an off shooting night from the outside they could be easy to shut down because they lack players who drive to the basket and score.

This is part of the reason that I thought Connecticut Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen would have been a great addition to this roster – she’s more of a player who can have a huge influence on the game by distributing and rebounding instead of just scoring. There was legitimate reason to pass on her (she was not able to attend all of the training sessions), but her skill set will be missed.

Glue players are the players who will make the extra pass, go for offensive rebounds, or hustle for loose balls and they could use more of those vital players as well. An interesting choice for the roster in that regard would have been Janel McCarville, a player that would likely excel in the international game.

Unfortunately, they may have put together more of an all-star team than a harmonious unit. A look at their stats from the Diamond Ball Tournament shows how some of these problems manifest themselves.

Team chemistry from a statistical perspective?

It would be foolish indeed to assume that we could account for chemistry with one or two statistics because ultimately chemistry is an intangible factor, which is not always visible even if we watch the games live. However, I think if we look at some of the core elements of basketball, chemistry becomes something we can capture much more easily.

There are a few component parts of basketball chemistry that most experts would agree upon as the most important: ball movement, shooting, offensive rebounding, and turnovers, and fouling (the latter two being negative, of course). Defensively, a team’s ability to prevent the other team from establishing an offensive rhythm is huge as well.

In looking at Team USA’s statistics, a few things stand out as points of concern: their opponents have outscored them from the free throw line in 2 of 3 games and they are turning the ball over almost 19 times per game. Despite having the WNBA’s top two rebounders in Leslie and Parker, Australia beat them on the offensive rebounds 14-11.

Consistent with Feinberg’s analysis, these numbers indicate is that the team is struggling with the little things in the game – fouling too much, not taking care of the ball, and not boxing out in the case of the Australia game. A team like this one can overcome shooting slumps, but these problems get to the core of what chemistry is all about – team defense and offensive rhythm. To this point the U.S. women have not yet hit their stride.

It would be reasonable to argue that had Australia not turned the ball over 19 times themselves in the final game, they could have beaten the U.S. Pelton reports that teams like Russia “treat pool play as an opportunity for scouting and experimentation before raising their level of play in the medal rounds”. If that is so then the 22 turnovers by the U.S. against Russia are cause for concern.

Even taken with a grain of salt, the gold medal cannot be taken for granted

I remember eight years ago sitting around with friends speculating when someone would finally beat the U.S. in international play. We were tossing out wild numbers like 2030 or 2050 – in other words, it barely seemed like a possibility. However, the open concerns about chemistry on the women’s (and, to some extent, the men’s) basketball demonstrate that things have shifted more rapidly than any of us believed they would.

It’s very possible that if the team cannot find its chemistry before the medal rounds, they will end up going home without a gold medal. It may be tempting to assume that this team is so talented that they would just steamroll the competition. But very recent history tells us that is not the case.

Relevant Links:

Women's basketball showing how physical it can be

USA Wins Thriller, Diamond Ball

Nice video on how the men's basketball team put together their team

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WNBA MVP: The Most Irreplaceable Player & "The Superstar Teammate Principle"

. Thursday, August 7, 2008
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The toughest – and most annoying – part of Most Valuable Player selections is defining the criteria for “value”.

There are a few ways to look at the “MVP” award:

1) The most productive/dominant player: the most outstanding player in the league
2) The most successful player: most responsible for their team’s regular season wins
3) The most irreplaceable player: the most depended upon to carry their team

When you consider that the WNBA has only given the award to five players in 12 years, four of them receiving more than one, you see that the award is given to a combination of #1 and #2, leaning toward the most outstanding player. What I like is that defense is a strong factor in the decision, at least in comparison to the NBA, which is much more difficult to figure out.

By all indications, this year’s MVP race will bring a new face to the elite class of WNBA MVPs. In fact, the race might seem extremely simple to some observers – Candace Parker has been atop the MVP rankings all season and she could certainly fit all three definitions presented above. However, I actually think there’s reason for pause – Parker plays next to a superstar teammate. So in order to determine the MVP, we have to figure out what it means to play next to a superstar.

Superstars Can't Share the MVP

Parker exemplifies what I like to call “The Superstar Teammate Principle" (STP). It’s a simple principle really that just represents common sense – if player A and player B are both superstars, we cannot deem one more valuable than the other unless we can argue that the absence of one would be considerably more detrimental than the absence of the other.

The underlying concept of this principle is that the very presence of one superstar is likely to make every player around them better. So when two superstars play together, it is likely that they are actually making each other better as well. Therefore it would be extremely difficult to call either “most” value when either would be disproportionately dependent on the other to win that award

That’s why I tend to most enjoy defining value by replaceability -- it takes into account the Superstar Principle and rewards players who can single-handedly lift an entire team. What I like about the perspective of replaceability is that it tells you something about a player’s ability to take over games but also creates a hero narrative of the player who has to step up in the face of adversity, even if their team loses. I think that drama is a huge part of sports and the notion of an irreplaceable player captures that drama element.

Sound individualistic? Of course it does – it’s an individual award. Team awards go to the conference and playoff champions; there’s no “Team” in MVP.

Well…that all sounds great…but how on earth do we figure that out?

Criteria for the Most Irreplaceable Player

A few years ago, Kevin Pelton laid out five criteria for an MVP – efficiency, consistency, versatility, winning, and a propensity for being spectacular. As much as those criteria could be used to identify the most dominant player, I think they also form the foundation for finding the most irreplaceable player, if we can somehow take the STP into account.

So it usually helps me to break down criteria like these into questions:

1. Can the player be relied upon to have a positive influence on the game when they’re on the floor?
2. Can they create their own offense when the team needs it?
3. Do they use possessions effectively?
4. Can they be used multiple ways on the floor to adjust to match ups?
5. To what extent do they help their team win games?

So the STP would apply most directly to question five – if there are multiple superstars on a team, can we figure out a way to figure determine a) which superstar contributed more and b) how much more they contributed compared to teammates? I think David Sparks’ Boxscores can help us in that regard.

According to the Arbitrarian blog, Boxscores are an estimate of individual player value that combine individual contributions and team success, allocating the most credit to players who did the most to win the most. So what we could do to address the STP is look at how much more credit a player deserves for wins than their teammates. That will help us determine which players are doing the most for their team relative to their teammates. So that you can visualize what I mean, here's the latest Boxscore graphic as created by Sparks:

It is tempting to just name the player with the highest Boxscore the MVP, however I think it is also necessary to use a few other numbers to answer the above criteria questions and bring us closer to finding the most irreplaceable player. So here’s how I laid it out, with each number referring to the criteria above:

1. Plus/minus
2. Usage rate
3. Points per zero point possession
4. SPI versatility
5. Boxscore differential

I do think consistency is important, but I don’t know of a good consistency statistic without doing advanced statistics…so for now, we’ll try this. Usage is in there as an indicator of how much a team relies upon a given player to make plays.

Since it’s unlikely that a MVP would be a non-all-star, I will draw my candidates from the list of all-stars I posted yesterday.

The Numbers

 Sue Bird18.8
 Sophia Young16.6
 Seimone Augustus16.3
 Lauren Jackson15.5
 Sancho Lyttle10.3
 Candace Parker9.5
 Candice Wiggins9.4
 Candice Dupree9.3

 Diana Taurasi28.5%
 Lauren Jackson27.5%
 Asjha Jones26.5%
 Candice Wiggins25.9%
 Katie Douglas25.9%
 Sophia Young25.8%
 Candice Dupree25.8%
 Jia Perkins25.6%

 Sancho Lyttle2.8
 Diana Taurasi2.63
 Sophia Young2.62
 Seimone Augustus2.59
 Lauren Jackson2.56
 Lindsay Whalen2.56
 Candice Wiggins2.41
 Janel McCarville2.38

 Lindsay Whalen1.0
 Candace Parker0.9
 Diana Taurasi0.89
 Sophia Young0.8
 Lauren Jackson0.7
 Taj McWilliams-Franklin0.6
 Deanna Nolan0.6
 Janel McCarville0.5

 Candace Parker268.95
 Lisa Leslie246.44
 Diana Taurasi238.92
 Lindsay Whalen226.02
 Sophia Young208.44
 Candice Dupree204.97
 Deanna Nolan201.48
 Katie Douglas193.51

The Top Five

The top 5 was determined by ranking each player in each category and then assigning them points in reverse order. The points were tallied and here's what I got:

 Diana Taurasi95
 Sophia Young95
 Candace Parker84
 Lauren Jackson80
 Seimone Augustus78

I have to say that I’m surprised Sophia Young is second on this list – given the STP and the fact that she plays with two star teammates, I was originally thinking she wouldn’t have a chance. However, she has the highest Boxscore on the Silver Stars and it is .8 of a win above Ann Wauters, who is second.

Young’s numbers indicate that she is able to score efficiently without wasting many possessions (6th highest points per zero point possessions in the WNBA) and she has the second highest plus/minus rating in the league. When she’s on the court, she has a very positive effect (offensively and defensively) and that’s definitely makes her valuable to the Silver Stars – perhaps more than people give her credit here.

As for Taurasi -- would it be fair to consider her the MVP with her team in last place in the Western Conference? Well, think of it this way – where would the Mercury be without Taurasi? Likely much worse than the 12 wins they’ve put up so far this season. Also keep in mind that 12 wins would put them a half game out of 4th in the Eastern Conference as well.

Although Taurasi’s plus/minus numbers are lower than Young, she is clearly relied upon heavily by her team, as evidenced by her high usage rating (third highest in the league) and she's the third most versatile behind Leslie and Parker. Her defense isn’t really taken into account, but as Taurasi goes, so goes the Rover defense. So as an all-around player, it’s not that difficult to make a case for Taurasi as the MVP. If the Mercury even get close to the playoffs, I’d say Taurasi is a lock for the MVP.

The Tie-Breaker: Performance in wins vs. losses

So how would we break the tie if the season ended today? I would compare how each of them has performed in wins and losses to try to determine how important their performance is to their team’s success. And I think that illuminates an important distinction between the two.

Taurasi is one of the best scorer’s in the league, but also one of the best ball handlers and passers. So although both Taurasi and Young have perform a lot better in their team’s wins, the major difference is that Taurasi has twice as many assists in wins (5.0) than losses (2.5).

That says to me that Taurasi is a huge contributor on her team not only for defense and scoring, but also facilitating scoring opportunities for teammates. When you watch the Mercury play, I think that holds true, however she only seems to play the role of the facilitator in spurts, partially because of the uptempo style of play that is predicated on taking quick shots on the break. This is something that I’ve observed about Mercury games previously.

So for right now, Taurasi’s additional abilities as a playmaker are what give her the edge as the Most Irreplaceable Player in the WNBA to this point and therefore, my MVP.

Transition points:

Despite the fact that STP that was built around Parker’s situation, Parker still comes in third, which is quite a testament to her talent. She still has the second highest Boxscore differential in the league. The fact that Leslie holds the Sparks together defensively should be taken into account as well. Her ability to play strong team defense has enabled Parker to win a few games offensively. There’s also the intangible factor that Leslie has drawn double teams in the post which gives Parker a little more room to make things happen.

I’m surprised the Lindsay Whalen didn’t rank higher (she came in 6th). She has the largest Boxscore differential and is definitely one of the more versatile players in the league. However, her plus/minus and usage ratings are lower than expected, which hurt her chances. If those numbers improve after the break and others’ decrease, she could end up in the top 5. For the record, I’ve been rooting for Whalen as MVP for some time.

If mentoring rookies were a factor in the MVP selection, Lisa Leslie would deserve some credit for the way she's helped Parker on and off the court. And there's no way to account for dynamics like that "objectively".

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Contemplating What Functional 2008 All-Star Teams Would Look Like

. Wednesday, August 6, 2008
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What makes all-star games great is that it gives the fans a chance to choose their favorite players and then watch all of them play at once.

In fact, that’s what I remember most about my first encounter with an all-star game. I was about nine years old at a baseball game and someone handed me a bunch of those punch hole ballots and said to choose the all-stars. This was probably my first live baseball game and maybe the second or third I had ever watched to completion in my life. But I punched away, just finding all of the players from my home team (the Oakland A’s) and then dropping them in the box on my way out. It sure is a good thing that I didn’t just choose the guys with the coolest names -- that REALLY would have skewed the vote that year.

Let’s not kid ourselves – all-star games are popularity contests more than true competitions among the league’s best talent. And why not? It’s all for the fans. But that is probably exactly what annoys me most about all-star games as I’ve “matured” as a fan – any fool with a ballot can pick the most popular player but I want to see the best of the best play a game for bragging rights.

So since this is a hypothetical all-star team selection, I have the chance to pretend that the all-star game is about putting together a coherent team using the best players the WNBA has to offer. And here's what I came up with...

By “best” in this instance, I mean “most productive” or the players who GMs would identify as worthy of building a team around from scratch. (in contrast to those contributing the most value to their current team). By “coherent”, I mean a team that is functional and balanced, while also featuring the best players.

Of course, I want to use statistics to determine most productive…and this is one of those cases when statistics might not match what might be considered “common sense” about who is most deserving of an all-star spot. So here’s how I picked my all-stars and an analysis of why I think they are the best all-star “teams”. Ultimately, I wanted to put together functional Eastern and Western conference teams that would make for a competitive and entertaining game…without regard for player popularity.

Finding the best of the best

At first I set out to pick an all-star team based purely on statistics, thinking I would just pick statistical leaders in key categories. But those results were too zany and contradictory.

I believe in what I’ll call the Hollinger-Calderon All-Star principle: always select the best basketball players at each position over popularity or one-dimensional dominance. Statistics can help illuminate the best players, but no one statistic can determine them. So I thought of a simpler approach – create teams from a pool of the best players in each conference rather than trying to find the right statistics to choose from.

First, I made a pool of the top 20 players from each conference by using the WNBA’s official player rating statistic, Efficiency (EFF). Many APBRmetricians dislike this stat because it overvalues scoring, however common sense judgments of basketball players also generally overvalue scoring. So EFF becomes a decent estimator of a top tier of players, if not identifying the best in order. I ended up excluding Sylvia Fowles and Erica DeSouza, who haven’t played many games. And to things even, I excluded Lecoe Willingham and Tangela Smith from the Western Conference (sorry Phoenix fans, but they were the 10th and 11th rated interior players in the West so I figured it was ok to drop them). But I won’t stop there.

Next, I decided to narrow the list down by identifying the top five all-around players in each conference using Model Estimated Value (a rating designed to estimate a player’s productivity, described in depth at Hardwood Paroxysm by David Sparks), defensive plus/minus (described yesterday), and SPI versatility (a player’s versatility in scoring, perimeter skills, and interior skills, based on John Hollinger’s versatility rating).

My logic here is that it’s always helpful to start a team with versatile players who can produce on both ends of the floor. Then I just ranked the players in each category and then selected those with the top scores as my “core players”. This gave me a good idea of the best all-around players in each conference.

Last, I took the styles of those five core players and made some assessments of how to build a team around them using the players available in my best player pool. In the end, I believe I constructed two competitive teams composed of the best players in the game.

The core players

Here are my five core players from each conference based on their statistical offensive and defensive ability as well as versatility.


C: Janel McCarville
F: Candice Dupree
F: Taj McWilliams-Franklin
G: Deanna Nolan
F: Lindsay Whalen

C: Lisa Leslie
F: Lauren Jackson
F: Candace Parker
G: Seimone Augustus
G: Diana Taurasi

Thus far, although the EC team might be “grittier” the WC team of Olympians looks poised to destroy someone. So I will fill out the WC team first and then the EC team.

How knowledge of player styles can help in building a team

To fill out the teams, I’m going to use David Sparks’ SPI player styles spectrum to see what type of chemistry each team has and determine who would be the best players to add. I will also take into account my point guard and defensive rankings, just to make sure all elements of the game are considered. For the point guards in particular, I will use the point guard playing styles that I laid out the other day to get a better sense of how they work with the team.

EC: Ball handling and passing are key

Right now, this is a pretty versatile team, but not well balanced in the sense that their forwards are somewhat redundant.

McCarville (utility), McWilliams-Franklin (post presence), Candice Dupree (interior scorer), Nolan (scoring pg), Whalen (combo pg)

While they have a number of scorers, they could probably use another distributor as the backup point guard and forwards who are able to drive to the basket. A strong post presence to rebound and block shots (McCarville’s weaknesses) could also be helpful.

So to take care of the center position first, I would choose Tammy Sutton-Brown who is another hard working center who can rebound and block shots.

At the forward spots, I would add Asjha Jones just because she’s the best player left available, but she’s another interior scorer, so it would be nice to have at least one forward with better perimeter skills. That would be Katie Douglas.

At the guard spots, there really aren’t a whole lot of options in the way of distributing point guards among the players left. So I’ll go with another scoring guard in Jia Perkins who is having an excellent season. With the next spot there are options – Alana Beard, Katie Smith, and Shameeka Christon (if Douglas slides to the guard spot) are all good options and I have two spots left.

Christon is more of a pure scorer, whereas Beard and Smith are players that can provide a little more versatility in terms of playmaking and definitely defense. Beard is having a terrible shooting season thus far with a 49.81% true shooting percentage and that alone could be enough to eliminate her. But there are also arguments in favor of Smith and Christon – Smith is the best ball handler left in the pool and Christon is having one of the best shooting seasons among guards in this pool. So I’ll fill out the roster with Christon and Smith.

So here’s the final roster for the EC:

C: McCarville, Sutton-Brown
PF: Dupree, McWilliams-Franklin, Jones
SF: Douglas, Christon
SG: Nolan, Smith
PG: Whalen, Perkins

Not a bad roster – it’s balanced with scorers and outstanding passers, including McCarville who is a huge asset to this team in facing the WC. There are also a few solid team defenders, including Douglas and McCarville.

The key to this team would be ball movement and finding shots for their power forwards in the mid-range and cutting to the post as well as Christon on the perimeter. Whalen and Nolan is a lethal combination on the perimeter and Smith and Perkins are two very efficient guards off the bench. You figure that one thing a team like this might do is try to spread the court with Dupree and McCarville playing around the wings or high post and allowing Nolan and Whalen to drive and kick. This could work.

But let’s withhold judgment until seeing the WC’s team…

WC: Throw it to the post and clear out

The WC team is potent on both ends of the floor, with great defenders at four of five starting positions and great scorers at every position.

Leslie (post presence), Jackson (interior scorer), Parker (utility), Augustus (perimeter scorer), Taurasi (scoring guard)

So off the bat it’s clear that this team could go two ways – continue to load up on scorers and post players or find some passers to complement the scorers.

The center position should be pretty easy to fill as Ann Wauters is definitely the next best option at center. She’ll add another interior scorer to complement Jackson and Leslie.

At the forward positions, the starters are pretty strong and Augustus and Taurasi can play small forward easily. So I’m going with best available. One such player is Sophia Young, who is have a great season defensively in addition to efficient scoring output. She is also more of a perimeter oriented forward, which will give the team some nice inside-outside balance.

If we continue to define Augustus and Taurasi as guards for the sake of this team, then I have no problem choosing between Rebekkah Brunson and Sancho Lyttle for the other forward spot. As much as I love Brunson’s game, I have to go with Lyttle here. She is having a great season – the best rebounding percentage, true shooting percentage, and block percentage left in the pool. She is just the type of efficient, do-everything utility player that would complement a team like this really well. In term of numbers and production on both ends of the floor, Lyttle is the clear choice.

As the two backup guards, I think adding a combo guard like Sue Bird who can score and pass would be helpful. She’s the second best point guard in the league right now behind Whalen and would be perfect to distribute the ball to the players on this team.

At the other guard spot, there’s a choice between Candice Wiggins, Becky Hammon, and Cappie Pondexter. All three can score, but Pondexter has the lowest true shooting percentage… so she’s out. So if it’s between Wiggins and Hammon (both of which have broad fan bases to anger) I’m going to go with Wiggins. The reason is simple – defense. Wiggins is the best perimeter defense option left and along with her scoring and play making ability, she’s the best all-around player available.

And for the 11th and final spot, I should choose a guard because the roster is already so forward heavy. And it’s a tough decision – Ticha Penicheiro would be the perfect point guard for a team like this, but Hammon and Pondexter are great scorers. Again, I’m going to go with defense over offense and pick Penicheiro. She has among the highest steal percentages among guards and her pure facilitator playmaking ability would go perfectly with this team.

So here’s what the WC roster would look like:

C: Leslie, Wauters
F: Jackson, Young, Lyttle
F: Parker, Augustus
G: Taurasi, Wiggins
G: Bird, Penicheiro

That’s a pretty dynamic roster. It’s clearly a post oriented team, but they could go “small” with Jackson at the center and Parker at the power forward and run as well. This is also an extremely talented defensive team with almost every bench player added being a candidate for the WNBA All-Defensive teams.

What would the game look like?

The WC should be heavily favored in this game… it would almost be too easy for them. All they would have to do is bring the ball down the court and initiate a high-low post game. Watching it would probably make Sparks’ fans cry as they imagine what could have been with a better point guard this season. Once they established the inside game, they’d have perimeter scorers everywhere who would be ready to pick up the scraps.

The EC really has nothing with which to stop that strategy. If the WC went to a zone defense with their starters, it would be almost impossible for the EC to crack, even with good passing. And there are great defenders all over the WC roster.

Nevertheless, I argue that this could be an interesting game to watch. The EC team would probably play well enough together to make the game engaging, although it’s difficult to imagine them winning.

Transition Points:

Lyttle and no Hammon??? What?!?!?
Here I insist the numbers tell the story. Hammon's game is predicated on scoring. When she's not shooting well, the team is more likely to lose. And her shooting percentages (FG and 3P) are down this season.'s difficult to make an argument for her...other than the fact that she's popular.

The big snub in the WC to me is Brunson. And that was a tough choice. She’s a great player and has put up amazing numbers considering that she’s been injured. But right now, Lyttle is the better all-around player and Young and Jackson are definite MVP candidates. It just shows how talented the WC is.

If the WNBA wants to play another outdoor game
, why not make it the 2009 All-Star game? The game is meaningless, it’s all about entertainment, and it would be an event worthy of the national television stage.

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Olympic Break All-Defensive Teams Yield Surprises: A Vet and A Rookie Sleeper

. Tuesday, August 5, 2008
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I didn’t know a whole lot about Morenike Atunrase before I found her name leading all guards in blocks per 40 minutes the other day.

Apparently, Atunrase is not just one of those bench players who puts up inflated per minute stats in limited garbage minutes either – she’s an important part of the San Antonio Silver Stars. From the Express-News:

She’s only averaging 2.5 points and 11 minutes a game, but she’s flashed that potential in several key moments.

The 5-foot-10 Atunrase has had the task of guarding Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi and Cappie Pondexter, Detroit’s Deanna Nolan and Atlanta’s Betty Lennox, some of the WNBA’s top scorers.

“They’re good, but I really don’t look at their name on their jersey,” Atunrase said. “I just go out and defend, and that’s something I’ve always taken pride in.

“You just really have to be smart and know how to play them.”
Similarly, Sheryl Swoopes has demonstrated defensive smarts with the Seattle Storm, although she’s at the opposite end of her career. There may be some doubts about Swoopes’ defense given her age and health, but if you’ve watched her this season, she still plays good position defense and plays well within a team defense concept. From the Seattle Storm website earlier this year:
"It's going to be nice to be on her team," Agler said. "I've been on the opposite side, watching her play and disrupt offenses for her whole career. She has great instincts defensively, both on the ball and away from the ball, which not many people have. To incorporate her abilities into what we want to do is going to be exciting for me as a coach."
The core defensive qualities that Swoopes and Atunrase possess – anticipation, effort, footwork, and instincts – are tough to capture statistically. That’s not to mention the role that pure strength and position have in interior defense. Add to that the fact that the television cameras rarely focus on off the ball defensive effort and it’s especially difficult for fans to evaluate players defensively.

However, when I went through the process of trying to identify the league’s best defensive players these two came up near the top of the list. Surprised? I was too…but I think either could make a sound argument for making the WNBA All-Defensive team this year using a few statistics that go beyond blocks, rebounds, and steals per game.

So here’s an attempt to put those numbers together and present the leading candidates for the WNBA All-Defensive teams and the Defensive Player of the Year.

(To see the final rankings, skip down to the section titled "The All-Defensive Teams and Nominees for Defensive Player of the Year" at the bottom)

In search of the best defenders

Similar to the rankings I’ve done previously on point guards and rookies, the goal here is to construct informed arguments for the strongest defensive players at each position rather than just choosing the best overall. However it is a bit more difficult considering the dearth of defensive stats…even just choosing the candidates.

To identify potential candidates, I borrowed selection criteria that David Nelson and Damien Walker used to select the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. In particular, I looked at previous defensive award winners and the defensive reputation of players based on Rebkell posts and media reports.

Next I went to the statistics. I identified players who ranked in the top 5 at their position in blocks, rebounds, or steals per 40 minutes, as listed on Then I looked at defensive plus/minus leaders as posted by p_d_swanson at Rebkell. To choose players, I looked for those that were dominant (leaders in a statistical category) or versatile (players ranked in the top 5 in more than one category) and picked them as finalists.

Finally, I divided those players into four position types: point guard, wing (shooting guard + small forward), power forwards, and centers. I then added additional players who only appeared in one category to fill out the list and bring it to about 40. To narrow them down I looked to additional statistics.

Percentage Statistics

It seems that percentage statistics say a lot more about defense than a player’s average numbers. Block percentage, rebound percentage, and steal percentage tell us how often a player makes a defensive play when they are on the court. I like to think of these statistics as a measure of how disruptive a player is on the defensive end.

So after using averages to select the initial list, I used percentages to narrow it down. To keep the list balanced, I wanted to have at least five point guards, 10 wings, five power forwards, and five centers to make an initial list of 25. Players that clearly had no chance of being in the top 3 at their position were dropped. Then I used another five spots to include players based on reputation or previous awards to bring the total to 30: 10 wings, 8 centers, 7 power forwards, and 5 point guards.

So after all that, I was finally ready to figure out who the best defenders are.

Four statistical categories: Some established, some invented

The statistical categories I used are designed to capture as many elements of individual defense as possible.

Defensive plus/minus tells us how well the team’s opponent did when a given player was on the court and off the court. It’s a way to approximate a player’s defensive impact. A positive number would indicate that her team did better with her on the court.

Personal foul efficiency is an expanded version of the stl/pf and blk/pf stats available at looking at (steals+blocks)/personal fouls. Since we’re looking at players who are adept at getting steals and blocks, it’s nice to know if they can do so without fouling.

Defensive versatility: This is a “made up” statistic, but is derived from John Hollinger’s versatility statistic that looks at the cube root of points x rebounds x assists. Instead, I look here at the cube root of block% x rebound% x steal %. The results end up being almost identical to what they would be if you just ranked players in all three categories. It’s just helpful to have one number to look at.

Defensive contribution: This is completely made up but designed to give additional credit to players who contribute to the success of good defensive teams, even if their stats are a little lower. The goal is to get a (very) rough estimate of the player’s contribution to their team’s defensive success per minute.

First, I took the percentage of team minutes that each player played. Second, I (and Excel) looked at their team’s defensive rating and figured out how many points above average it was – a below average team got negative points to help create a hierarchy of contributions. So then I (er, Excel) multiplied the percentage of team minutes by the points above/below average to get a player’s contribution to their team’s defensive rating. It’s not perfect – certain players are playing big minutes because of their offensive prowess. However, combined with defensive plus/minus, you get a sense of how much they played and how effective they were doing it.

The Rankings

Each measure has it limitations, but overall, I think the results bring us closer to identifying the league’s best defensive players than the standard practice of using subjective combinations of rebounds, steals, and assists. So here are the top players in each category, as well as the leaders in the percentage stats (which compose the defensive versatility statistic).

 Sanford, Nakia10.1
 Jackson, Lauren6.4
 Atunrase, Morenike6.0
 Swoopes, Sheryl5.8
 McCarville, Janel5.8
 Snow, Michelle5.6
 Ford, Cheryl5.6
 Augustus, Seimone5.2

 Douglas, Katie118.72
 Sutton-Brown, Tammy96.31
 Bevilaqua, Tully83.20
 Catchings, Tamika58.10
 Young, Sophia55.84
 Jackson, Lauren53.29
 Wauters, Ann50.77
 Parker, Candace48.28

 Lyttle, Sancho9.14
 Leslie, Lisa8.11
 Anosike, Nicky7.52
 Pringle, LaToya 6.97
 Parker, Candace6.63
 McCarville, Janel6.25
 Jackson, Lauren6.25
 Wauters, Ann5.77

 Atunrase, Morenike1.36
 Leslie, Lisa1.28
 Douglas, Katie1.25
 Parker, Candace1.18
 Swoopes, Sheryl1.12
 Wauters, Ann1
 Augustus, Seimone1
 McCarville, Janel.98

Lyttle, Sancho39.13
Ford, Cheryl34.71
Wauters, Ann34.71
Leslie, Lisa31.56
Parker, Candace31.49
Snow, Michelle31.19
Brunson, Rebekkah29.67
Sutton-Brown, Tammy28.29

Pringle, LaToya9.99
Leslie, Lisa7.08
Lyttle, Sancho5.23
Sutton-Brown, Tammy5.19
Parker, Candace4.82
Jackson, Lauren4.04
Atunrase, Morenike3.49
Anosike, Nicky3.36

Hornbuckle, Alexis5.31
Anosike, Nicky4.65
Penicheiro, Ticha4.31
Catchings, Tamika4.13
Lyttle, Sancho3.72
Bevilaqua, Tully3.38
McCarville, Janel3.30
Swoopes, Sheryl3.10

The All-Defensive Teams and Nominees for Defensive Player of the Year

Point guards

Honorable mention: Vickie Johnson (49)

Second team: Ticha Penicheiro (49)

First team: Tully Bevilaqua (60)

Point guards didn’t fare well in these rankings as rebounds and blocks are statistics for bigger players, so it’s interesting that all three of these players are veterans with a positive defensive plus/minus. I separated them from the wings because generally point guards are guarding players who are good ball handlers and mostly initiate the offense meaning the opportunity for gaudy box score statistics decreases. Some of the most effective point guard defense comes from just pressuring the ball and forcing opponents to use up shot clock (the classic example to me is when Scottie Pippen guarded point guard Mark Jackson in the 1998 playoffs and completely shut him down).

Vickie Johnson is another player having a surprisingly good year defensively. She’s second among point guards in defensive rebounding and she doesn’t foul very often. But what consistently impresses me about Johnson is her toughness and aggression on both ends of the floor. She’s quick and knows how to play the game.

Penicheiro makes the cut on the strength of a strong steal percentage and she also does so while keeping the fouls to a minimum. But like Johnson and Bevilaqua, the key for Penicheiro’s defense is her basketball intelligence and playing smart defense rather than physically dominating her opponent.

Wing players

Honorable mention: Seimone Augustus (55) and Morenike Atunrase (93)

Second team: Alexis Hornbuckle (62) and Tamika Catchings (63)

First team: Katie Douglas (67) and Sheryl Swoopes (91)

Whoa – that’s right…that 93 next to Atunrase’s name is not a typo. But the reason I put her as honorable mention is that she only plays 10 minutes per game, usually to lock down the other team’s best player. If you’ve watched her play, you might know why she made the list – she plays with tons of energy and is an impressive stopper for a rookie.

Her energy on the defensive end is perhaps what helped her earn a defensive plus/minus of +6.0, which ranked 3rd among defensive candidates. I didn’t expect this, but she is almost definitely a defensive diamond in the rough and if she keeps it up, she might be a perennial first team candidate.

The other two surprising players for me were Sheryl Swoopes and Seimone Augustus. Augustus is known for her offensive skill, but she’s also becoming an excellent defender as she has prepared for the Olympics.

"Everyone knows what I can do on the offensive end, so defense is key to my role on this team," said Augustus, fourth in the WNBA with nearly 20 points per game. "We have enough people who can score, I just know when my number is called that I need to be able to stop someone."

She doesn’t put up big box score numbers defensively, but like Swoopes she does play excellent position defense. She gets in a good defensive stance, moves her feet well and does a good job of preventing her opponent from beating her to the basket. That is probably why her defensive plus/minus is currently at a +5.2. She’s a perfect example of how box score statistics only tell half the truth and she’s not the only one.

Against the Lynx on July 27th, Sheryl Swoopes matched up with Augustus and was primarily responsible for keeping Augustus scoreless in the first half (Swoopes then left the game due to injury). It was a great example of how defense is as much about basketball intelligence as physical ability. Swoopes missed the All-Defensive team last year, but perhaps there Seattle’s system – as well as the presence of Yolanda Griffith (5th ranked center) and Lauren Jackson – allow a smart defender like Swoopes to stand out even more.

Watching Augustus and Swoopes go at it defensively was one of the best silent battles you’ll see. If Augustus got the ball, Swoopes just didn’t let her go anywhere. Every time Augustus shot the ball, there was a hand in her face. And vice versa when Swoopes was on offense. In fact, neither even got a clean shot off unless someone else was guarding them.

Power Forwards

Honorable mention: Sancho Lyttle (80)

Second team: Candace Parker (80)

First team: Lauren Jackson (97)

Again, two surprises here. Lyttle is rarely discussed as a great defensive player, but the stats tell a different story. She was the most versatile player among defensive candidates, but does so in limited minutes meaning she doesn’t show up on the per game leader boards very often. What I particularly like about Lyttle is her energy on defense – she’s active and had the highest defensive rebounding percentage among forwards and the second highest block percentage.

Parker offense and dunking gets all the attention, but her defense might be underrated. She could become the best help defender in the league within a couple of years, if not already. That’s high praise for a player that could simply rest on her offensive laurels. She’s not quite as versatile as Lyttle, but with Leslie and DeLisha Milton-Jones also grabbing rebounds, there’s not as much opportunity for her – yet she still ranks 1st in defensive rebounds per game and 2nd in blocks…behind Leslie. Parker doesn’t get many steals and has a negative defensive plus/minus, but she clearly has promise as a defender.


Honorable mention: Ann Wauters (77)

Second team: Janel McCarville (83)

First team: Lisa Leslie (98)

Other than Leslie, the centers surprised me – I definitely would have expected Sutton-Brown (4th among centers) or Nicky Anosike (6th among centers) to be in this group. But when you look at the numbers, Wauters and McCarville are having very good seasons on above average defensive teams. It would also seem that both are also able to take up space in the paint, which helps defensively.

Wauters is fourth in the league in blocks per game and 10th in defensive rebounds per game, which makes her a versatile defensive player. Most importantly, she’s able to block those shots while keeping the fouls relatively low with a personal foul efficiency of 1.00.

McCarville is less dominant defensively, but more versatile her defensive rebound, block, and steal percentages were all in the top 10 among defensive candidates. She’s 10th in the WNBA in steals and like Wauters, she keeps the fouls low with an efficiency rating of .98. But what sets McCarville apart from the other top centers is her defensive plus/minus rating of +5.8 – that’s among the best in the WNBA and 4th among the defensive candidates. It would seem that McCarville has the intangibles and basketball intelligence that make her a solid defender.

Defensive Player of the Year

So we now have five nominees for defensive player of the year, by position: Bevilaqua, Douglas, Jackson, Leslie, and Swoopes. As it turns out, Leslie, Jackson, and Swoopes are the three highest rated players (not including Atunrase, who is third ahead of Swoopes). Leslie and Jackson are separated by one point right now for the top spot and it’s hard to say who might be on top by the end of the season.

On the one hand, Jackson was out five games and the defensive contribution statistic was not done on a per game basis, but total minutes (it’s hard to say you’ve contributed if you missed games). That is of course unfair to Jackson as she missed games to represent her country. So with one point separating them, one could say Jackson deserves the top spot because she would be #1 had she not missed games.

However, I don't think awards should be given based upon hypotheticals. At this moment, Leslie is not only #1 right now, but she is also the backbone of the Sparks’ defense. I described this in a summary of the Sparks' home game against the Liberty how there was an 18 point swing when Leslie fouled out of the game. Leslie is also more versatile defensively, but fouls less.

So until the season ends, we’re left with a bunch of questions that will be fun to answer over the next few games or so: is Jackson or Leslie the DPOY? Should Morenike Atunrase get consideration for the All-Defensive team? How good can players like Lyttle and Atunrase become defensively? Are players like Deanna Nolan and Chelsea Newton having poor defensive years or just bad statistical years?

Transition points (added):

I would also have to nominate Sancho Lyttle for the Most Improved Player award (which I am not going to examine). A lot of times these most improved awards go to players who got an increase in minutes but had already displayed considerable skill (McCarville, for example, won the award after being traded and seeing an increase in minutes). Lyttle is one of those rare cases where it’s clear that her game actually improved rather than just getting more minutes. I think that makes it a tough award to hand out…and a firm handle on the stats really helps.

I had Deanna Nolan in my sights, but there was no statistical reason to keep her on this list. Her steal percentage is currently close to a career low (1.9%) and it has been dropping for each of the last 3 seasons. Furthermore, last year she had a 6.6 defensive plus/minus rating and this year she has a -4.6. So all in all, it seems Nolan is having an off year defensively.

This approach is unfair to DeLisha Milton-Jones
. She’s not going to put up good defensive numbers playing next to Parker and Leslie. And she’s guarding perimeter players, which to my knowledge is not her strength. But then that’s part of the point of doing rankings this way -- it highlights some of these things.

Diana Taurasi deserves credit for role in the rover defense. When she turns up the pressure on the opposing ball handlers and picks them up above the three point line, it’s one of the best defenses in the league. The whole system completely falls apart when she’s out…but then again, it hasn’t worked so well when she’s in either.

Tammy Sutton-Brown is a very good defensive center and is next in line for an honorable mention behind Wauters. There are two reasons she isn’t ranked higher – first, her personal foul efficiency is lower than Leslie, McCarville and Wauters. Second, Leslie, McCarville, and Wauters are all more versatile defensively than Sutton-Brown – they all rank among the top 25 in steal percentage.


I borrowed some ideas (and some HTML code) from the Nelson and Walker article at

All plus/minus statistics were gathered from the Lynx plus/minus site and a Rebkell post by p_d_swanson.

Defensive ratings were taken from the Storm Tracker site.

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Point Guard Rankings Update: Hot July For Bird, Mitchell, & Penicheiro

. Monday, August 4, 2008
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If you were to judge solely by assist to turnover ratio, Leilani Mitchell would be named the best point guard in the league, just ahead of Lindsay Whalen.

And even the most die-hard Leilanians probably wouldn’t agree with that. For some knowledgeable fans, it probably illustrates an obvious point: we really don’t have good statistics to assess point guards despite the fact that they are arguably the most important players on the court.

So that’s the whole point of these point guard rankings: to get beyond the oversimplified assist to turnover ratio and create a more nuanced assessment of point guards. Being a point guard requires more than just getting assists and limiting turnovers; as Eric Musselman described last week in his blog, being a point guard includes a whole bunch of intangibles.

Nevertheless, even the “more nuanced assessment” yielded a surprisingly similar result – Mitchell is third behind Bird and Whalen. That’s elite company for a point guard. Is Mitchell really that good? Or are we being deceived by her limited minutes per game (15.2 min/g)? I think the answer is a little of both and some of the key point guard statistics that I’ve used in the past demonstrate that point well.

And those aren’t the only interesting results – Jia Perkins really has outplayed Dominique Canty at point guard for the Sky…and all three of the Sky’s point guards have outplayed the Sparks’ rotation of point guards. Ivory Latta has plummeted out of the top 10 since I last did these rankings…and Becky Hammon has finally cracked the top 10 after a strong July. The ongoing changes are what makes doing these things fun.

The point guard position figures to play a prominent role in the playoff race as multiple teams will rely heavily on their point guard play in order to win games. So here’s the latest update with some explanation as to what all these numbers mean.

Totally subjective candidate selection

I chose point guards on the following basis: 1) they start for their team, 2) they spend significant minutes handling the ball and initiating the offense, or 3) I like them. As I’ve watched more games and gotten to know players better, I’ve had a chance to add players who I previously ignored.

So for this iteration, I dropped Candace Parker (though she ranks highly with these numbers) because I think the point is proven – she is a good ball handler. I also dropped Helen Darling because she was consistently last.

I added the following point guards who have caught my eye since the last rankings – Jia Perkins, KB Sharp, Lindsey Harding, Tan White, and Shannon Bobbitt. So that expands the list to 25. I’m aware that there are a few other point guards missing from this list, but I may have left them out due to poor numbers overall.

A few changes to the statistics

I compared players in 7 different categories across seven different statistical categories to make an overall assessment:

Pure point rating
Net plus/minus rating
Points per zero point possession
Hollinger assist ratio
Usage rate
True shooting percentage

For descriptions of any one of these statistics, just click on the links. You’ll notice two new statistics since the last iteration – boxscores and true shooting percentage.

I replaced Win Score with Boxscore because a) all of that data is readily available at the Arbitrarian blog and b) because the results are generally pretty solid.

I replaced turnover percentage with true shooting percentage, although that might seem like a conceptual leap at first. But here’s my reasoning:

Turnovers and overall possession management are clearly important aspects of what a point guard does. So in previous iterations of these rankings I had three statistics that took those elements into account – pure point rating, points per zero point possession, and turnover percentage. Out of those three statistics, if you think about it, turnover percentage tells us the least because you need to know other things to make sense of it – it doesn’t provide much context for understanding why they’re turning it over or how harmful those turnovers were.

True shooting percentage, along with points per zero point possession and usage rating, give us a sense of how well a point guard is balancing scoring and distributing – if a poor shooting point guard has a high usage rate, low points per zero point possession and low assist ratio, they’re just burning possessions for their team and it’s helpful to know that. Giving the importance of offensive synergy, I find this to be an important principle.

While each of these measures is limited on their own, I think it gives us a better big picture than statistics normally available for the WNBA, such as assist to turnover ratio. And it also helps to create stronger arguments for why one point guard is better than another based on available evidence. What these numbers do is help us to understand each point guard’s strengths and weakness.

I think they strike a balance between being descriptive and prescriptive – I think the point guards at the top would probably fit in with any team. The point guards near the bottom could possibly fit well in certain situations if a team is able to make up for their weaknesses. These numbers don’t really take defense into account (except for net plus/minus) but the logic to that is similar – a team can mask a poor defender with all kinds of defensive schemes. However, a point guard who can’t dribble the ball up the court and at least initiate the offense is a problem.

So I can’t claim that these numbers are infallible and any input as to what is missing or flat out incorrect is welcome.

The Numbers

Pace Adj. Pure Point Rating
 Mitchell, Leilani6.09
 Whalen, Lindsay5.40
 Nolan, Deanna3.83
 Bird, Sue3.16
 Johnson, Temeka3.15
 Johnson, Shannon2.92
 Canty, Dominique2.78
 Johnson, Vickie2.48

 Bird, Sue18.8
 Mitchell, Leilani9.4
 Wiggins, Candice9.4
 Penicheiro, Ticha8.3
 Canty, Dominique7.9
 Taurasi, Diana7.2
 Perkins, Jia5.7
 Hammon, Becky3.8

 Whalen, Lindsay60.40
 Taurasi, Diana59.41
 Wiggins, Candice56.62
 Hammon, Becky 55.13
 Smith, Katie53.97
 Mitchell, Leilani53.80
 Bevilaqua, Tully53.62
  Latta, Ivory52.65

 Taurasi, Diana2.62
 Whalen, Lindsay2.56
 Wiggins, Candice2.41
 Perkins, Jia2.22
 Nolan, Deanna2.00
 Smith, Katie1.96
 Hammon, Becky1.93
 Latta, Ivory1.92

 Mitchell, Leilani38.86
 Moore, Loree36.47
 Johnson, Shannon33.27
 Johnson, Temeka33.17
 Quinn, Noelle32.29
 Blue, Nikki31.75
 Bobbitt, Shannon30.25
 Penicheiro, Ticha29.23

 Hammon, Becky4.39
 Whalen, Lindsay4.21
 Nolan, Deanna3.1
 Johnson, Vickie3.06
 Taurasi, Diana3.06
 Bird, Sue2.96
 Penicheiro, Ticha2.63
 Smith, Katie2.48

 Taurasi, Diana28.48
 Hammon, Becky26.79
 Wiggins, Candice26.21
 Perkins, Jia26.05
 White, Tan22.63
 Nolan, Deanna22.10
 Whalen, Lindsay21.78
 Bird, Sue21.78

The Top Point Guards

The top point guards were determined by ranking all 25 players in each category and adding up each player’s ranks to get a total number. To put it in perspective, that means the maximum was 175 points.

 Whalen, Lindsay143
 Bird, Sue129
 Mitchell, Leilani126
 Wiggins, Candice125
 Taurasi, Diana124
 Nolan, Deanna121
 Penicheiro, Ticha120
 Hammon, Becky118

Commentary & Analysis

I’ve had more than a few posts about point guards over the course of the season so I thought this might be a good time to revisit some old questions as a way to dig deeper into these rankings.

1) How can Sue Bird influence the game without shooting well (the question that inspired this whole point guard ranking thing)?

Bird is remarkably consistent going by her plus minus numbers (18.9 in May, 18.8 now) and I think that’s a testament to how good she is at managing the flow of the game. Her plus/minus numbers have remained constant all season despite her points per zero point possession and true shooting percentage numbers improving (42% - 52% for true shooting percentage). The fact that her scoring numbers improved and her plus/minus stayed the same seems to indicate that she is making good decisions with the ball and running the offense well, independent of her scoring.

We could say that her increased scoring is what led the team to an 8-2 July, but you could also attribute that to the acquisition of Camille Little and the added depth she brought to the forward position, especially in Lauren Jackson’s absence. Little has shot 54.1 percent since joining the Storm and added 7.7 points. And they’ve been 9-2 since Little has arrived. Add: The Chasing the Title blog has just posted the Storm's most frequently used lineups and Little is in third most effective.

2) How big a problem is the point guard position for the Sparks?

Temeka Johnson, Kiesha Brown, and Shannon Bobbitt ranked 15th, 16th, and 24th respectively in these rankings, but I still maintain team strategy is more of a problem for the Sparks than their point guard position. Prior to July, Brown was ranked in the top 10. During July, she only registered 20 minutes in a game three times, meaning her production went down. And that’s understandable, it’s hard to produce when you’re not playing.

A flashy play maker is always nice, but I don’t think they need that. When you have Candace Parker, DeLisha Milton-Jones and Lisa Leslie on the court, you only need a point guard to bring the ball up the court and run the offense. Johnson and Bobbitt do that better than Brown, but that’s not the point – they have to find a strategy that maximizes the talent they have because right now they’re way underachieving.

3) Is Dominique Canty an elite point guard?

I said this at the beginning of the season when Canty was surprisingly among the elite point guards, ahead of Sue Bird and Ticha Penicheiro – it was probably due more to sample size that the quality of Canty’s play. The big difference: Canty’s pure point rating fell from 5.01 at the beginning of the season to 2.78 now. Her career pure point rating is -.306. Her points per zero point possession rating and assist ratios have fallen considerably as well. In other words, it’s likely that Canty was playing better than we might expect (statistically) at the beginning of the season and eventually fell back down to earth.

Right now, Jia Perkins (ranked #9) is the better point guard – she is not an outstanding distributor based on her season-long numbers, but she makes better scoring decisions with the ball as evidenced by her rank in points per zero point possession. She also has the lowest turnover percentage (8.21%) among this set of point guards. It would be interesting see what Perkins’ numbers might be if she spent a whole season as a team’s point guard.

4) Is Ticha Penicheiro just an average point guard at this point in her career?

The opposite of Canty happened to Penicheiro – all her numbers went up, closer to where we would expect based on her career. And it should come as no surprise that her improved pure distributor numbers to go along with a career year in scoring are associated with a seven game win streak in July. There should be no doubt that she is the heart and soul of that team, as evidenced by her plus/minus numbers.

5) Should Candice Wiggins be the starting point guard for the Lynx?

Well, a number of people have made the point that it’s good having Wiggins come off the bench because it keeps opponents off balance. I agree with that point. So now I have a slightly different position: the Lynx need to find a consistent style of play and stick to it. They seem to be one of the more inconsistent teams of the season and have underachieved based on expected full-season wins by point differential, according to Kevin Pelton. If that means it’s better to start Wiggins to avoid slow starts, fine. If not, fine. But I don’t understand why their style is so erratic.

6) Is Leilani Mitchell really that good?

As much as I like Mitchell, I do not think many people would take her over all the point guards she’s ranked ahead of. The same thing that happened to Penicheiro happened to Mitchell: July.

As mentioned the other day, she had a pure point rating around 7 and 35 assists to 7 turnovers in July. That’s pretty amazing. That has to be one of many reasons the Liberty went 8-3 over that span. But right now, a large part of her success is likely due to her limited minutes: Loree Moore has playing almost twice the minutes of Mitchell. If Mitchell played more minutes against starters, there’s reason to believe her production might go down. But here’s one for faithful Leilanians: when Mitchell plays 15+ minutes, the Liberty are 6-2 this season. When she plays under 15 minutes they are 6-12.

Further questions…

Which players are over/underrated by these numbers? For people that want a change in the Sparks’ point guard situation, who should they trade for? For all the talk about Bevilaqua’s absence, does not having a top 16 point guard hurt the Fever (Bevilaqua is #17, Tan White is #23)?

Transition Points:

Giving credit where credit is due: Boxscores were obtained from The Arbitrarian blog. Plus/minus statistics are available at the Lynx plus/minus page.

Another side note: I’ve noticed some people around the web commenting that it’s strange when rankings like this shift so much during a season. The reason is simply sample size. Take Dominique Canty for example – she ranked really high early in the season and has now dropped out of the top ten (she’s #11). The reason is not my own flexible subjectivities, but that Canty was not able to maintain that level of play over the course of more games. It also demonstrates a problem with any WNBA statistics – the sample for a season is only 34 games, which makes it hard to strong predictive value.

Relevant Links:

Visualizing Point Guard Playing Styles: Defining Five Types of Point Guard

Point Guard Rankings -- June 22nd, 2008

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