Los Angeles-San Antonio Scouting Report: Offensive Rebounding is the Key

. Saturday, August 30, 2008
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Based on their record, San Antonio has to be considered a favorite to win the WNBA championship right now.

They’ve arguably been the most consistent team in the league, not losing more than two in a row and they’ve only lost two games at home.

But they have one glaring, consistent weakness – defensive rebounding, reflected in their opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage in losses. And if their last meeting is any indication, the Sparks will look to exploit that weakness when they meet the Silver Stars tonight in Los Angeles.

In their last meeting, the Sparks dominated the paint getting 18 offensive rebounds to the Silver Stars 1. That’s right – one offensive rebound the entire game. The height and length of the Sparks’ frontcourt was just far too much for the Silver Stars, not only dominating the glass, but also shutting down Sophia Young, holding her to 1-5 shooting from the field.

The Sparks would do well to repeat the strategy when they face the Silver Stars tonight, but was that just a fluke? And with a battle-tested strategy going in, do the Silver Stars even have a shot to win? The team dynamics numbers provide some cogent insight

The Sparks rely upon offensive rebounding to win

The Sparks aren’t leading the league in offensive rebounding and that’s because the teams ahead of them – Detroit, Houston, and Sacramento – are much deeper in the frontcourt. But having 2 of the top 10 offensive rebounders in the WNBA (Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker) puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses.

Parker and Leslie are in the low post grabbing offensive rebounds, they’re also talented enough to score second chance points and those are what really hurt the Silver Stars. It gives the Sparks a bunch of high percentage baskets from their most highly skilled players.

It’s doubtful that the Silver Stars will shut down the Sparks on the offensive glass, so they might just have to bite the bullet and accept that a) the Sparks will get offensive rebounds and b) they will get a number of second chance point. But the key is to try to hold the Sparks to a more reasonable number of rebounds, like somewhere around 10 instead of the 15 or 18 they had in the first two meetings.

And the Sparks can also win with defense

The Silver Stars rely upon offensive synergy, moving the ball well and finding open scorers from good passing and cutting rather than one-on-one play. But in their last game against the Sparks, they were shut down. Why?

Two of San Antonio’s top scorers are in the post and obviously, the Sparks strength is the post defense of Leslie, Parker, and DeLisha Milton-Jones. In the last game against the Silver Stars, the Sparks chose to key in on Sophia Young in particular.

Young is arguably the most valuable player in the league and certainly the most valuable player on the Silver Stars – she’s efficient, versatile, and has one of the top plus/minus and efficiency ratings in the league. Young is typically a player scores by moving from the outside in, using her quickness to score on cuts to the basket or facing up her opponent.

But the key stat in understanding how dependent the Silver Stars are on Young is that in games won, she is shooting 52.6% and in games lost she’s shooting 42.7%. That’s a huge difference and neither Becky Hammon nor Ann Wauters has such a huge effect on wins and losses.

So the Sparks' strategy of shutting down Young is definitely sound. And with bigger players like Leslie, Milton-Jones, and Parker who are able to stay with Young on the ball and help off the ball, Young becomes a non-factor. If they bring the same defensive intensity they showed against the Monarchs on Thursday night, they should be able to win.

But the Sparks also commit turnovers more often than any team in the Western Conference

So far this season the only teams who commit turnovers more often than the Sparks are the Fever and Mystics, not exactly shining examples of ball control. And in addition, the Sparks have the highest turnover differential in the league, committing almost three turnovers a game more than their opponents. And when they lose, you can be almost certain that they turned the ball over a lot, even when they do well on the offensive boards.

When the Sparks are at their best, they’re moving the ball well and allowing Leslie and Parker to play off each other in the high-low post game. But if a team can pressure their guards, force them into turnovers, and force them to revert to one-on-one basketball, the Sparks become a very beatable team.

However, it’s always worth noting that the Sparks' turnovers are not limited to their guards – it’s Leslie, Milton-Jones, and Parker who lead the team in turnovers. Part of that is because they are often forced to become playmakers when the team’s guards falter.

We should also look at the type of turnovers they’re making. On Thursday against the Monarchs, they had a characteristically high turnover game, but also managed to have a high synergy score. They did an extremely good job of looking for Parker in the post with lob passes and a lot of those passes caused turnovers. So it was one of those cases where they were making turnovers in the process of taking measured risks…not just tossing the ball away or making ball-handling errors.

Nevertheless, given that they are a turnover prone team, the way to beat them seems to be by forcing them out of their offense and into turnovers.

Edge: Sparks

I’m giving the edge in this game to the Sparks not only because of the offensive rebounding problem the Silver Stars have, but also because I expect the Sparks to come out with the same renewed sense of purpose and urgency that they showed against the Monarchs. And if they bring the same defensive intensity, the Silver Stars will be in trouble.

If the Silver Stars could turn the game into a shootout and get the Sparks caught up in trying to play a perimeter game, things could turn out differently than the last game. But I see no reason to believe the Sparks won’t try to use the same high-low strategy we saw against the Monarchs last night that worked against the Silver Stars.

Transition Points:

The Sparks started Shannon Bobbitt and Keisha Brown last night in the backcourt which I thought was an interesting choice. But it makes sense – if you can’t depend on one ball-handler, why not divide the ball-handling responsibilities between two players and allow different points of attack?

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How Chicago Set the Tone For a Playoff Run With a Win in NYC

. Friday, August 29, 2008
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If the Chicago Sky are trying to make the playoffs, last night’s victory against New York in Madison Square Garden was a damn good start.

I mentioned yesterday that this game between my two of my favorite teams would help me finally pick a favorite. And being a fan is fundamentally based on emotion, then I have to say my heart was with Chicago from the jump ball.

It’s not just Sylvia Fowles, but Jia Perkins, Candice Dupree and even KB Sharp off the bench that I like about this team. And last night, having the extra scoring punch that Canty provided made a huge difference in the game. Then of course you have Armintie Price providing entertainment off the court that makes her easy to root for.

Having said all that, I didn’t expect the Sky to win this game, though I think I secretly hoped they would. I actually agonized over yesterday’s post in which I picked the Liberty to win. But ultimately, it looks like my reasoning was partially correct although my conclusion was wrong – turnover percentage was certainly the key, but the Liberty were not able to force a high percentage of turnovers past the fourth quarter. I also thought Perkins would have to come up huge to win and it turns out she had a huge game.

But what does this tell us about the Sky’s chances at the playoffs? What might hold them back? I think this impressive road win tells us a lot about what we can expect.

Jia Perkins is playing outstanding basketball

Perkins was one of the five players I was most excited to watch and last night she showed why.

In previewing the game (not realizing the Sky would have Canty back), I thought that the point guard match-up of Perkins vs. Loree Moore and Leilani Mitchell would be a huge match-up. As it turns out, those three players probably did end up being the difference in the game although Perkins spent more time playing the off guard than the point guard.

But what makes Perkins so effective is her decisiveness. When she gets the ball she doesn’t just waste dribbles hoping to create something that isn’t there. Instead she does an excellent job of evaluating her options quickly and making a decision that’s best for the team whether that be to dribble, pass, or score.

A perfect example of that is a play at the beginning of the fourth quarter when Perkins got the ball around the free throw line off a drive from Armintie Price, took a dribble toward the center of the court, initiated contact with Erin Thorn, and hit a fading jumper.

That’s the kind of play great players make – executing the offense, recognizing an opportunity to make a play, and capitalizing on the opportunity with a score for themselves or another player. But fundamentally it’s about having a good sense of one’s own abilities, recognizing what the defense is you, and being able to force the defense to shift position.

Right now, Perkins is having an all-star caliber season and playing her way into the top tier of players in the league.

Imagine if the Sky actually ran plays for Fowles…

Looking at the box score, you could say that Fowles played a good game considering that she’s a rookie who just returned from the Olympics earlier this week. But watching the game, you can’t help but wonder if there’s more that she could be doing for the Sky. And the possibility of her having a break out game during the Sky's playoff run is why I also consider her one of the five most intriguing players to watch right now.

It’s clear that they weren’t running plays for her and that’s been pretty consistent with what they’ve done all year. But there were times when they did an extremely good job of getting her in scoring position that I wonder if they could replicate more often.

In the first half Fowles looked frustrated. She spent a lot of time in the high post, either setting screens or being in position to pass the ball. When the Sky tried to get Fowles the ball in the post, but the Liberty immediately collapsed on her. She ended up scoreless with three turnovers in the first half by my count (although the official count only credited her with two turnovers).

And when Fowles didn’t turn the ball over, she was either missing shots or forced to make a difficult pass. As McCarville said, the key to stopping her in the first half was forcing her to make decisions with the ball rather than allowing her to use her scoring instincts.

But in the second half, things changed for the Sky – rather than just looking to find Fowles by posting her up, they got creative: they found her in transition, cutting to the basket, and even on an alley oop play from Perkins to start the half. What that did is help her avoid the double teams while still having an impact on the games.

By moving Fowles around and allowing her to use her superior athleticism to complement the outstanding perimeter play of Perkins, the Sky took the Liberty out of their defensive scheme and the double teams on Fowles eventually stopped.

I wonder how a high-low offense with Dupree in the high post and Fowles down low would work for the Sky. Dupree’s game is much better suited for the high post and pairing her with Fowles in the post would take some of the pressure off. Right now they play Dupree off the wing a lot but that doesn’t allow her to play off of Fowles as well. There are plenty of very simple double post offenses that they can run even if Fowles hasn’t had the practice time they wish she had.

Armintie Price and Dominique Canty provide a nice boost of energy

The x-factor for the Sky all season has been their ability to penetrate on offense. They seemed to do a much better job of that when Perkins was running the team with Canty out.

Last night, I thought Price and Canty did a good job of shouldering some of the burden to drive and distribute to others. Although both players have the tendency to make bad decisions off the dribble at times, last night they did an excellent job of penetrating and setting up scoring opportunities for others. Ultimately, it helped make their offense more fluid. Price had a game-high five assists and Canty didn’t record a turnover all game.

If they want to continue winning, putting pressure on the defense through penetration to the basket and good decision making from Canty and Price will help them immensely.

They still play New York two more times…

Ultimately what I like about Chicago is that their roster is full of potential and possibilities.

They can play a power game in the half court with players like Fowles and Chastity Melvin. They can play an uptempo game with Perkins and Price in the open court and Fowles running the floor as a trailer. Or they can play a half court offense with Canty, Perkins, and Price driving to the basket and creating that way.

The key is that they need to find their identity. Right now it seems like Coach Steven Key is concerned about Fowles not having the practice time to learn the offense, but it seems like if they just continue playing to her strengths they’ll be better off.

But most interesting in terms of Chicago’s playoff run is that they have two more games against New York before the end of the season. That means that tonight’s performance bodes well for their playoff chances. We can’t expect them to sweep a team as gritty as New York, but if they can take two of three using the strategy of attacking the basket and creatively finding Fowles for high percentage baskets, they will be in good position for the playoffs.

Transition Points

Team defense was solid
: the Sky might not be known for their defense, but they played excellent team defense against the Liberty. In the first half that showed up just by shutting down most of New York’s penetration. In the fourth quarter, it showed up in the form of forcing turnovers – 4 of New York’s 7 fourth quarter turnovers were due to Chicago steals.

New York’s ball movement fell apart: New York had trouble with their synergy all game. A lot of their offense is based on spacing and ball movement to get the open shot. Rather than penetrating into the key, they make smart cuts and score off good passes. Throughout the game, they pressured the Liberty ball handlers and helped off of shooters, essentially daring the Liberty to beat them from the perimeter, which doesn’t seem like the best strategy considering the Liberty are the top 3 point shooting team in the league. But it worked…

Chicago stifled New York’s ball movement for most of the game, but they really put the clamps on in the 4th quarter – New York shot 25% from the field and had a synergy score of 37.5 in the 4th. So it should come as no surprise that they were outscored 20-8 and squandered the 3 point lead they had at the beginning of the quarter.

Chicago vs. Washington has huge playoff implications: Chicago’s next game against Washington tonight will be a big one if the Sky intend to make the playoffs. They’ll have to leap frog Washington to even have a shot so beating the Mystics head to head would go a long way to achieving that goal. Too bad we can’t see that one…

Related Links:

Liberty Lack Execution Against Sky

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Top Five Teams to Watch After the Break: What Does It Take to Turn a Team Around?

. Thursday, August 28, 2008
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Although having a month-long break might be tough for us fans, it’s a great opportunity for players to rest and teams to fix some things before continuing a tight playoff race.

So what makes “Welcome Back Week” particularly exciting to me is getting to see how teams come out and play after having some time to practice. With trades, injuries, and players arriving late to the pre-season, it seemed like every team had something to work on heading into the break.

One team that I’ll be paying closer attention to after the break is the Washington Mystics. After a disappointing first half of the season, the break gave them a chance for a fresh start. And Team President Sheila Johnson called for a “new era of accountability” after they traded Taj McWilliams-Franklin in an effort to begin rebuilding. The question is whether that new era will begin with a playoff berth or another trip to the draft lottery.

Either way, someone sent me an email that triggered a bigger question: what does it take to turn a struggling team like the Mystics around? And how does a struggling star on a struggling team (e.g. Alana Beard) fit into that revamped “big picture”? Is a player like Beard better off being traded in order to return to top form?

As it turns out, I found a tentative answer just by revisiting my “team dynamics” ratings…and it appears that the problem might have less to do with Beard than with the composition of the team around her.

The issue of team composition and “chemistry” is something I’ve been interested in all season and the Olympic break gave me some time to play with those team dynamics numbers and tweak a few things. Ultimately, I think I found a few ways to make the numbers more useful for future analysis and I’ve shared that in another post.

Anyway, as I looked at the numbers for the Mystics, I found a few other teams that will be interesting to watch as the season resumes. So here’s a look at those new numbers and the top five teams to keep an eye on as the season resumes.

The Numbers:

As I said previously, the in-depth explanation for these numbers is in another post, but here are team dynamics numbers for each team as of the last game before the break.

The offensive and defensive dynamics are simply the synergy, offensive rebounding rate, turnover rate, and free throw rate numbers added up for the team (offense) and their opponent (defense). The differential is pretty much the same thing I do in my game analyses – the difference between their numbers and their opponents’ numbers.

The team with the highest differential between their offensive and defensive numbers is first with the lowest differential last.

Team Dynamics
 San Antonio108.71100.45+8.26
 Los Angeles109.23101.48+7.76
 New York106.71103.51+3.15

The numbers are not an exact reflection of the standings, but actually come pretty close with the exception of one or two teams. Where they are really helpful is describing a team’s level of cohesion and identifying areas that are hurting them.

So with that, on to the top 5 teams to watch…

5. Will the Mystics be able to turn things around?

So back to the question posed to me via email, the question with the Mystics is whether these trades and extra time for Kenlaw will help them win games. And without doing another player comparison, it’s safe to say that this will not improve them much in the short-term – if they want to make the playoffs, they’ll probably have to depend on Indiana losing a few games.

But what about Alana Beard? Can she step her game up in the last few games? Unfortunately, when you compare her 2006 success to this season, there’s a major difference – synergy.

I like to use synergy as a proxy for ball movement and whereas the Mystics had a high synergy score of 76.64 in 2006 (which, by the way, is better than San Antonio’s this season), so far in 2008 their synergy score is only 69.42, just below league average.

The way that may have affected Beard is that she is taking as many shots, but at a lower percentage. In addition, her assists are up which means she is probably just stretched too thin this year trying to play the roles of playmaker and scorer on a team with a stagnant offense. So it looks like that instead of moving the ball to find good shots within a system, Beard is forcing bad shots because her team isn’t move the ball as well.And part of that is the loss of Nikki Teasley.

In 2006, Nikki Teasley led the WNBA in assists per game with 5.4 and in addition had a Pure Point Rating (PPR) of 4.61, which is high for a WNBA point guard. And off the bench, Nikki Blue didn’t get quite as many minutes per game, but had a PPR of 3.31. They both had assist ratios – the percentage of baskets they assisted while on the floor – of 30%.

In contrast, from what I’ve seen this year, Blue is now the starting point guard and Beard has also assumed some playmaking responsibilities. And this season Blue has a PPR of 1.6…and nobody else on the roster even has a positive PPR.

So part of Beard’s – and the team’s -- success could probably be attributed to having two point guards around who could distribute the ball well. Shay Murphy and Tasha Humphrey are simply unlikely to help with that.

So with all that, why am I excited to see what they do after the break? Well, the game after Kenlaw took over – a blowout against the Storm – they turned into a very up-tempo team, which favors the players they have. If they cannot be efficient moving the ball in the half court, then perhaps they can try to get baskets off of fast breaks or early offense.

From watching Humphrey in Detroit, she has the skills to excel in an uptempo game because she’s such a versatile player, even able to lead the break at times. Beard might have to continue being a playmaker rather than a scorer, but in terms of the team’s success it will be interesting to see if they can improve.

4. Will the Sun’s changes help them stay in first place?

The Sun have been one of the hardest teams to figure out this season. They’ve had a five game win streak and then eventually fell into a five game losing streak before starting a three game winning streak before the break.

As a result of having a number of inexperienced players, coach Mike Thibault has made a number of changes to the lineup in search of the right combination. And now after the break, we should see even more changes to their rotation.

First, as a team with four rookies in the rotation, you have to figure the extra practice time will help them work out anything they needed to improve. Second, Erin Phillips returns to the team after being out for almost two seasons due to injury and preparing for the Olympics. Mike Thibault commented on how they plan to use Phillips during the league’s Welcome Back conference call:
“As far as Erin Phillips, she got here today on about three hours of sleep, but I think by playoff time she can be a big part of what we do. She can play both the 1 and 2. We can play her with Lindsay. She’s an above average defender and her offense has improved greatly since she was here before. It remains to be seen. I like the players we have here but she has a little more experience and she is a strong, physical player and hopefully that can help us.”
Third, the Sun have signed Svetlana Abrosimova and waived Jolene Anderson. This is an interesting move to make right before resuming play because it will likely be difficult to integrate Abrosimova into the rotation so quickly. But also, Anderson was a contributor, even starting 7 games over a period when the team won 7 of 8 games in late May/early June.

So how do we make sense of all of this? Well, part of the reason why Anderson lost her spot in the starting lineup was poor shooting and inexperience. Abrosimova and Phillips bring a little bit of both, particularly from the three point line. Phillips was a decent shooter in her rookie year shooting 34% and Abrosimova was an outstanding shooter last year shooting 44.6%, which was fifth in the WNBA.

The Sun were at the bottom of the league in three point shooting before the break and the way that caused problems for them is that it made it hard for them to spread the court. If you watched the Sun while Barbara Turner was playing well at the beginning of the season, her shooting allowed the team to spread the floor, which made it easier for Lindsay Whalen to drive and create opportunities for others. Now they have two players to spread the floor, which will make it easier for Whalen to drive.

In addition, with more opportunities to drive to the basket the Sun should get more free throw opportunities, which are important to winning games. They were near the bottom of the league in FTM/FGA before the break, which is really indicative of two things for the Sun: they are about average in free throw attempts per game and near the bottom in the league in free throw percentage.

Even with Detroit adding Taj McWilliams-Franklin, if Abrosimova and Phillips can contribute right away, the Sun could stay in first because those two give them things that they need – the ability to spread the court and take some of the scoring load off of Whalen. If they can extend the winning streak they started before the break, the argument for Whalen to win the MVP should be even stronger.

3. Can the Sky make the playoffs with the return of Sylvia Fowles?

Early in the season, I declared the Sky as my favorite team in the league. Then just like a fair-weather punk, I abandoned them once they lost Sylvia Fowles to injury. Well, after watching Jia Perkins and KB Sharp step up at the point guard position in Canty’s absence, I’m ready to move back toward the Sky.

This is no disrespect to the Liberty, who I've also proclaimed as a favorite, but the Sky have such a promising future…if they can figure out how to put all the young pieces together.

Although some Sky fans might want to see them tank instead of making a run for the playoffs, wouldn’t it be a great story for the league if Sylvia Fowles returned from an outstanding Olympic performance to lead her team to an improbably playoff run? I think so. Wouldn’t it be great if we could start a semi-legitimate argument about who will be the more valuable player in five years between Parker and Fowles? And who wouldn’t want to see more Armintie Price videos? And I haven’t even mentioned Candice Dupree…

This team is extremely talented and well-rounded, especially with Perkins and Sharp playing well at the point guard. They don’t necessarily even need another lottery pick – they need experience playing together and a nine game run for the playoffs will get them some experience playing meaningful games as a unit.

But what I find fascinating in looking at their team dynamics is that they might be better than their 8-17 record suggests. Although they’re below average defensively, they are third in terms of their offensive cohesion. And in fact, they’re above average in every single category that I’m using to measure team dynamics. So what’s they’re problem?

The Sky are second to last in field goal attempts per game – they’re not squandering possessions, they protect the ball well, they shoot it well, but they just don’t get shots. And if you neither take that many shots nor stop the opponents from taking and making shots, then you’re in trouble.

In other words, the Sky play very safe basketball normally – not turning the ball over, not taking many shots, and not aggressively forcing turnovers on defense. We know that Fowles’s mere presence will have an impact on defense. But now that we know for sure what Fowles can do on offense, will the Sky finally try to generate more offense by giving the ball to her more often for high percentage shots in the post? Will Perkins continue her stellar play at point guard? And with Perkins on the ball and Fowles taking more shots, will Candice Dupree become a more productive player?

All of those questions depend on team strategy. And honestly, they cannot afford to continue the same strategy that involves not shooting the ball.

2. Will the Mercury ever wake up?

Honestly, this is just a personal issue that I need to work out – I just don’t want to believe the Mercury are the worst team in the Western Conference. And I don’t think that’s an entirely arbitrary opinion either.

For the Mercury, it all comes down to their Rover defense. When they keep their defensive intensity high – which means pressuring ball handlers before they get to the three point line -- they’ve proven they can play with anyone in the league. And we know that they can score more than anyone else.

But the reason why I think they’re a team to watch is because their success or failure depends almost entirely on one player on both ends of the floor – Diana Taurasi.

Taurasi is responsible for putting the pressure on opposing ball handlers. And Taurasi is definitely the leader of that team’s offense. And I don’t believe that Diana Taurasi will come back from the Olympics unmotivated.

It might be unrealistic for the Mercury to make the playoffs, especially with both Penny Taylor and Tangela Smith missing. But you can be almost certain that it will be exciting to watch Taurasi fight to get there.

The key for the Mercury is keeping their synergy high and that doesn’t necessarily mean good ball movement for them – part of their style is to take quick shots on the break which limits their number of assists. But when they take high percentage shots and move the ball at moments that they can’t find a good shot on the break, they are a dangerous team.

And there is reason for hope for them to make the playoffs – they are only three games behind Sacramento but the teams ahead of them also have injuries to key players. Sacramento is without Rebekkah Brunson and Houston is without Hamchétou Maïga-Ba. And I haven’t heard much about Candice Wiggins on Minnesota, but she was injured before the break.

The Mercury play the Minnesota twice as well as Houston and Sacramento once each, so they’ll have a chance to improve their own position. But to me, everything is riding on Taurasi and that Rover defense.

1. Can the Los Angeles Sparks finally bring it all together?

Usually after watching a team a few times, it’s possible to get at least a surface level understanding of what a team does well and what they can improve upon.

I haven’t found any reliable way to figure out the Sparks or their game strategy thus far this season. And their complete unpredictability is what makes them so exciting to watch.

Coming back from the Olympics with Candace Parker and Lisa Leslie looking to cap off milestone seasons, I would expect them to play better than before. With their big three having time at the Olympics to work closely with one another and Parker getting a chance to learn from other league veterans, I expect them to come back fired up.

But as people have noted all season, their success during the final stretch of the season will depend almost entirely on their point guards’ ability to get the team into the offense and keep the ball moving. They don’t have point guards who can singlehandedly breakdown a defense, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to bring the ball down the court quickly and get the ball to Parker or Leslie to initiate a high-low offense.

The addition of Margo Dydek is also interesting and I wonder if they plan to use her in the high-low scheme as well to keep the pressure on for the entire game. It would make them difficult, if not impossible, to defend and take some pressure off their point guards to create scoring opportunities, which is not their strong point.

The key for them is not so much point guard play as it is keeping turnovers down. And if you watch closely, their turnovers are a team-wide problem, perhaps indicative of not having outstanding point guards. Their top three players in turnovers – Parker, Leslie, and DeLisha Milton-Jones…the same three players who are expected to make plays for them most often.

Their turnover differential is the worst in the league and they will have to improve that if they want to earn home court advantage in the playoffs. They also have an opportunity to move up in the standings because they are only three games behind Seattle, which is missing Lauren Jackson…and they play them once on the last day of the season in what could be a game with huge playoff implications.

OK… enough talk… I’m just waiting for the games to begin now…

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Finding the formula for team chemistry…or dynamics…or cohesion…or something…

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A few weeks ago, PT from the Pleasant Dreams blog commented that “chemistry” didn’t seem like quite the right word to describe what I’m looking at since that implies that players don’t get along with each other. But I recently got some clarification on that.

Eric Musselman, a former NBA coach who blogs about basketball and observations on sports coaching had a post last Friday entitled, “Finding the formula for team chemistry”. He cites an article from Pat Bloom, the head baseball coach at the University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point, that separates chemistry into two types – task cohesion and social cohesion. Uh oh… more terms…but the explanation is insightful:

Task cohesion "refers to a team’s ability to function as a collective unit and perform effectively on the field. If your team has a high level of task cohesion, meaning that they play well together and remain united in the pursuit of the team’s goals, then they are more likely to enjoy success."

Liking each other, simply being friends and enjoying hanging out together, i.e., a team with high social cohesion, "means very little in the way of predicting your team's performance." In other words, just because your team gets along doesn't mean they'll win any games.

In fact, according to Coach Bloom, "it has even been found that teams who are high in social cohesion play worse as a team."

But a team with high task cohesion isn't guaranteed to succeed. However, there's good news for basketball coaches, according to Coach Bloom.

"For team sports like basketball and ice hockey, where players’ movements and verbalizations must be highly interactive and coordinated to achieve success, it has been found that greater levels of task cohesion relate to greater team success."
It would be interesting to find a way to read more about the theory that teams that are high in social cohesion play worse as a team, but that’s besides the point for my current task. The point here is that finding ways to measure task cohesion is of huge importance to basketball analysis.

So during the break, I spent some time looking more deeply at the “team dynamics” ratings I have used in the past to make them more useful for analysis. Here’s what I came up with.

Deriving a formula

Originally I started my analysis with the concept of synergy, which was a metric created to say something about a team’s offensive cohesion by adding their assisted field goal percentage to their true shooting percentage. I then looked at a team’s opponent’s synergy to get a sense of their ability to disrupt the opponent’s synergy. Thus, I used synergy differential to measure defensive and offensive task cohesion.

However, synergy differential didn’t seem to do much to explain why a team won and lost, so I added other statistics based on things that seemed to explain why certain teams succeeded despite having low synergy – offensive rebounding rate and turnover rate.

So then you have the following formula, which I have called "Team Dynamics":

(Team synergy – opp. Synergy) + off reb rate – turnover rate = team dynamics rating

Essentially, those numbers described the core principles of basketball: the ability to move the ball to create high percentage scoring opportunities, the ability to disrupt the other team’s offense, and the ability to manage possessions effectively. In terms described by Bloom above, team dynamics are used to measure the degree of cohesion for a given team.

However, that still didn’t fully describe why teams win or lose – unfortunately there were six games in which the team with the higher team dynamics rating lost. And so I tweaked the formula again.

Adding the fifth factor of team dynamics

You may notice that the formula bears a striking resemblance to Dean Oliver’s Four Factors. However, there was one factor I left out as I “derived” the formula from common basketball sense – free throw rate.

Free throw rate is a ratio of free throws made to field goals attempted. In plain language, it describes the percentage of their offensive production that comes from the free throw line. An opponent’s free throw rate says something about how many free throws a team is allowing, which is also a proxy to how much they are fouling.

When I added that to the existing formula it described the winners and losers in every game except one -- Los Angeles vs. New York on Friday, July 25th (Los Angeles had a huge fourth quarter and a massive offensive rebounding advantage in that game). But that also required an additional change – instead of using true shooting percentage (which includes free throw and three point shooting), I switched to effective field goal percentage (which just weights three point shots more heavily).

In addition, I realized that looking at synergy differential over the course of a season was not that useful – synergy will vary from opponent to opponent depending on match-ups, so it’s more useful to just know a team’s average differential and compare it to the opponent they’re facing. So here’s the new formula:

Team synergy + off reb rate + free throw rate – turnover rate

But now there’s an additional problem – it only measures offensive cohesion. But there’s a very simple solution to that based on what I’ve done with game analysis – it’s simple one team’s offensive cohesion vs. the other’s. So the opponent’s offensive cohesion really tells us quite a bit about a team’s defense. So over the course of a season, if we look at a team’s offensive cohesion and their defensive cohesion based upon their opponents’ statistics, we get an offensive and defensive cohesion rating.

Why is this useful?

The reason I find this useful is that it’s not just a simple way of comparing teams to see how they’re playing, but it also allows us to say something about why a team is playing well or poorly on both sides of the ball.

When we want to know what happened in a game or even in a given quarter, these numbers give us the opportunity to actually tell a story of what happened beyond the final score and why a team won or lost. For a basketball geek like me, it’s extremely helpful just to get an idea of what makes each team tick.

So here are the team dynamics numbers for each team (their overall offensive and defensive numbers are on today’s other post):

Team Dynamics
 TeamSynergyOReb RateFT RateTov RateDifferential
 Seattle Storm70.4730.98%26.32%18.30%+8.82
 Connecticut Sun72.7831.19%23.90%17.62%+8.29
 San Antonio75.2725.29%27.53%19.39%+8.26
 Los Angeles72.9132.72%24.53%20.93%+7.76
 Detroit Shock71.6634.21%22.31%17.66%+4.99
 Chicago Sky71.1931.29%26.88%18.91%+3.88
 New York Liberty73.4528.22%24.57%19.52%+3.15

The San Antonio Silver Stars are an excellent example of how these statistics are helpful. They currently have the best record in the league while having a below average offense statistically and above average defense. The easy explanation is that they are just a very good defensive team. However, that doesn’t tell the full story.

You can’t really say they’re just winning with defense when they have two of the league’s top ten scorers (Sophia Young and Becky Hammon) and a third (Ann Wauters at #21). But when we look at their team dynamics, we see that they have consistently had the best synergy rating of any team in the league. In other words, they not only have a versatile set of scorers, but they also move the ball extremely well, which makes them difficult to defend.

When we can look at teams in terms of strengths and weaknesses it only enhances our ability as fans to talk about and understand what makes our team great…and vulnerable. It helps us analyze player transactions and perhaps even matchups.

A preview of tonight’s match-ups

So I’m going to stick my neck out a little and try to make some predictions about two games tonight that I plan on watching: Chicago vs. New York and San Antonio vs. Phoenix.

Chicago vs. New York

The playoffs will start early for me this season – the playoffs to decide my favorite team, that is.

The Liberty and Sky will play three times before the end of the regular season and by the end, I should have a good idea of which team is my favorite. As I’ve implied previously, I’d say I’m leaning toward the Sky, but there’s just something I love about the Liberty’s style of play…


I’ve already noted that the key players for Chicago in this game will be Sylvia Fowles and Jia Perkins – a post presence and a perimeter scorer, two positions that are actually a strength for New York. Fowles vs. Janel McCarville and Perkins vs. Loree Moore/Leilani Mitchell will be exciting to watch.

But based on these team dynamics Chicago is the more efficient offensive team whereas New York is the stronger defensive team. In fact, these are two of the teams whose numbers don’t at all reflect their records – New York is over-performing its numbers and Chicago is under-performing its numbers. But there’s a story even there.

The key appears to be turnover percentage – Liberty opponents have committed the third most turnovers in the league whereas the Sky’s limited success is predicated on playing a safe brand of basketball. In addition, the Liberty are a poor offensive rebounding team, but the Sky allow the third highest offensive rebounding rate in the league.

In other words, the Liberty have won games despite poor offensive rebounding but the Sky allow a high percentage of offensive rebounds. And the Liberty win by creating turnovers while the Sky thrive on playing it safe and waiting for shots. Then there’s the x-factor of Fowles who should influence the game on both ends of the floor.

So my pick? Right now, I really like the Sky’s lineup and think Fowles will help them keep the Liberty’s offensive rebounds down. But offensively, I’d imagine that McCarville and Catherine Kraaveld could force turnovers from Fowles and Dupree that will minimize their effectiveness and force the Sky’s perimeter players to win the game.

Even as well as Jia Perkins is playing, I don’t think she’s the type of player who can singlehandedly win a game. Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that the Sky have lost seven consecutive road games while the Liberty have won six straight games in Madison Square Garden.

There is hope for the Sky -- IF the Sky use Fowles as a key component of their offense to take pressure off of Candice Dupree and Jia Perkins AND Fowles can respond well to the inevitable Liberty double teams then MAYBE the Sky could pull off the upset. But I see it as extremely unlikely tonight.

Edge: New York

San Antonio vs. Phoenix

I'm excited to see how Diana Taurasi plays in her first game back, so I'm watching this one as well instead of the Sparks-Monarchs game which should also be pretty good.

Phoenix needs to set the tone for the rest of the season and this game would give them a huge energy boost. But really, San Antonio is the worst possible match-up for the Mercury – they play ball control offense and solid team defense.

Los Angeles exposed San Antonio’s one key weakness – their opponent’s offensive rebounding. But without Tangela Smith, it’s unlikely that the Mercury will be able exploit that weakness, even though they are an average offensive rebounding team.

Even if Taurasi and Pondexter go off for huge games, it’s unlikely that the Mercury will find a way to stop both Wauters and Young from dominating on the boards and extending possessions.

The way the Mercury could win? If Taurasi scores 30+ points and they find a way to contain Young with the Rover defense, the Mercury have a chance. But with the season Young was having prior to the break, it’s unlikely that will occur.

Edge: San Antonio

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The Five Most Intriguing Players To Watch Down the Stretch

. Wednesday, August 27, 2008
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I don’t know about you, but watching the dominance of Team USA in the Olympics just wasn’t an adequate substitute for good competitive basketball games.

Thankfully, we only have one more day to wait for the WNBA to resume.

And what will make the completion of this season so exciting is that the league is experiencing a year of parity, which definitely benefits a growing league. Every single team except the Atlanta Dream has a shot at making the playoffs. It doesn’t get much better than that.

But as a relatively new fan of the WNBA game without a real home team to root for, I often watch games based upon players or match-ups that I find particularly intriguing. That has led to me prioritizing a few teams over others but almost constantly changing my favorite team as I grow to appreciate different players or styles of play.

So this post is about five players that I’m particularly excited about as the WNBA resumes play. They are not necessarily the best five players in the league, but instead players at the center of some of the more intriguing storylines around the league as we look forward to the playoffs.

5. Crystal Kelly

Kelly was one of the most productive rookies before the break and has also shown enormous breakout potential.

But there are two things that will make her one of the most interesting players to watch as we get close to the playoffs.

First, and perhaps most important, she’s had practice time during the Olympic hiatus and I think she will benefit from that practice more than any other player. It was obvious from watching her play in their first half that she was relying on her instincts rather than the team’s system. It stands to reason that with time to learn the system better and use her instincts within the team concept, she’ll be even more productive.

Second, she has a real opportunity to shine while Rebekkah Brunson recovers from injury. It’s a chance to prove the point that her Diamond Rating has shown all year – that with increased time, she’ll be even more productive.

Considering that the Monarchs are currently fourth place in a very tight Western Conference playoff race, Kelly’s performance in place of Brunson could be the x-factor that determines whether they make the playoffs or go home early.

4. Jia Perkins

Honestly, I just enjoyed watching Perkins play point guard in Dominique Canty’s absence.

But what I like most about her is that she’s a scoring point guard who is also extremely efficient and makes good decisions with the ball as shown by her ratio of points to non-scoring possessions that she was responsible for and her plus/minus rating.

Here’s what I’ve wrote about her in my last point guard ratings, in which she ranked 9th:

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 (than Canty) 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.
Her outstanding season before the break is probably what led WNBA.com to list her as their top candidate for Most Improved Player right now. And had their been an all-star game this season, she would have almost certainly made the team based on her numbers.

What makes Perkins a player to watch is that the Sky still have an outside shot at the playoffs and if that’s their goal, Perkins’ point guard play will be a critical part of their playoff run. What she brings to the team is someone who is able to manage the offense and make the best decision for the team at any given moment. She will have to continue that for the Sky to have a chance.

3. Camille Little

Like Kelly, Little is a player who could be expected to benefit greatly from the Olympic break.

She performed extremely well for the Storm in Lauren Jackson’s absence before the Olympic break. But she’s on her third team in two seasons and arrived in Seattle mid-season. So the additional practice time should help her use her instincts more effectively within the Storm’s system.

Kevin Pelton already gave a good synopsis of Camille Little’s game so I’ll just copy and excerpt:
Little is very creative in traffic, showing off reverses and scoring with her off hand. The ability to convert down low is very important in this league, especially for an undersized post player like Little. Last year in San Antonio, Little shot 41.2 percent and she was at 42.0 percent in Atlanta, so we'll see if she can keep up her 50-plus percent shooting with the Storm. One thing that should help in that regard is that Little is playing virtually exclusively at power forward for the Storm, having played more on the wing in her last two stops.
What makes Little a player to keep tabs on as the WNBA resumes play is that with Lauren Jackson out for the remainder of the regular season, Little’s performance will be critical, especially considering how close the Western Conference playoff race is.

Although other players stepped up for the Storm as well and they have the weakest strength of schedule to finish the season, it’s also clear that they will need Little to continue her high level of play in order to maintain their position in the playoffs. Because she’s replacing the reigning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, this is going to be one of the more interesting stories to follow over the next few weeks.

2. Sylvia Fowles

You probably know by now that I think Sylvia Fowles is on her way to becoming one of the most dominant post players in the WNBA.

She played extremely well in the Olympics, arguably being the second biggest contributor to Team USA’s success, based on the numbers. By all reports, her game improved by the day with the help of Lisa Leslie’s mentorship. But I’ve gushed about her enough.

The reason I believe Fowles will be one of the most intriguing players to watch after the break is that the Sky could really use a boost if they want to make a run at the playoffs. But the key lies in the Sky’s strategy – will they find a way to fully integrate Fowles into their offense and allow her to continue the progress she showed in the Olympics?

In the first part of the season before her injury, she looked almost like an after-thought in the Sky’s offense scoring mostly on broken plays or by just being in the right place at the right time. If the Sky actually start running the offense through her, she’s the type of player who would demand double teams and open up scoring opportunities for Candice Dupree and Jia Perkins.

So really what makes Fowles one of the more interesting storylines has little to do with her – I think we know what she brings. What makes this storyline interesting is whether the Sky will figure out a way to maximize her talent.

1. Diana Taurasi

Taurasi is arguably the best player in the league right now and has demonstrated the ability to singlehandedly take over a game…on both ends of the floor.

What makes her an interesting player to watch is that you figure that a competitor like her wants to be back in the playoffs to defend their WNBA title. It would take an MVP performance to pull it off. And Taurasi is the kind of player who could make it happen.

She was arguably the biggest contributor to Team USA’s success and a strong contender for the WNBA MVP despite her team being last place in the Western Conference.

What’s underrated is her role in Phoenix’s Rover defense. When she applies pressure to the other team’s lead ball handler above the three point line, the Mercury play extremely well. Their strategy is usually to play relaxed defense in the first half and then ramp up the pressure in the second half (maybe to save energy?) but they’ll have to turn it on for every minute of their last seven games if they want to make the playoffs.

Moreso than the other stars in this league, the Mercury’s success is almost entirely dependent on Diana Taurasi…on both ends of the floor. Despite the temptation of tanking for a high lottery pick, I can’t see a competitor like Taurasi just throwing in the towel. And that fire is what will make her the most intriguing player to watch over the next few weeks.

Transition Points:

Unfortunately, I don’t know much about Erin Phillips
, but Connecticut is justifiably excited about her return to the lineup. I used the 2006 rookie class as a point of comparison for this year’s rookie rankings. Phillips ranked as the third most promising rookie from that class, behind Seimone Augustus and Cappie Pondexter. With the power of hindsight, that sounds ridiculous because Candice Dupree and Sophia Young are clearly all-star caliber players, but with increased minutes, Phillips is a prime candidate for the type of breakout performance that could give the Sun a boost heading into the playoffs.

An interesting side note, speaking of players to watch – the WNBA has made an interesting decision to allow fan voting for the MVP this year.
T-Mobile will also be the presenting partner of WNBA MVP voting, which for the first time will enable fans to participate (at WNBA.com/mvpvote). Voting beings Aug. 28 and will continue through Sept. 15. The winner will be named during the WNBA playoffs. The online fan vote will comprise 25% of the total vote, while media votes will account for 75%.
When I first look at that, it seems like a terrible idea – the MVP voting is already extremely vulnerable people’s subjective definitions of “most valuable”, which makes it difficult to arrive at a consensus MVP. So it seems that leaving it in the hands of the media is best since one would think they have a professional responsibility to make an informed decision. My fear is that fan voting will reduce the MVP race to nothing more than a popularity contest – so right now, I would predict Candace Parker as the winner.

On the other hand, this is an excellent opportunity to encourage fan involvement and since the award is so subjective anyway, the league might as well allow fans to have some input. Just more material to analyze!

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A Note on Hillary Rodham Clinton's DNC Speech

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As you may have noticed, part of my motivation in watching/supporting the WNBA is that I think it does have a role in empowering young girls as part of a much larger agenda for gender equity.

So after commenting yesterday on the power of Michelle Obama's speech, I have to take a moment to comment on Hillary Clinton's speech.

And I have to say I was moved. Some people may question whether the speech was genuine...but what got me so excited (enough to write about it) was that it was probably the most substantive speech I've heard of this campaign season, rivaled only by Obama's speech on race. It was the speech I was waiting for her to give a long time ago and never got.

So I was sort of bothered by commentators that immediately commented on how appropriate/effective the speech was in endorsing Barack Obama because I think that minimizes the potential significance of this speech. To be sure, I do think she had to do something to convince the more dedicated Clinton supporters to vote for Obama. It's absolutely necessary for the sake of the democratic party regaining control of the White House.

But there's something about that speech that seemed to call for a broader movement that partisan politics and I think it would be a trageshamockery if it was reduced to nothing more than a partisan endorsement for a male counterpart. That is the kind of speech that can serve as the foundation of a movement that goes beyond partisan politics. From Lani Guinier via TheRoot.com (and it's worth reading the whole article):
The advancement of an exceptional symbol of women's accomplishment is a powerful motivator. However, it does little concrete good for ordinary women, unless more attention is paid to organizing fervent supporters into a mobilized constituency that can hold the next president, the next Congress and the media accountable to a pro-women and pro-America agenda. Being agents of change will require rolling up our sleeves and holding all politicians more accountable, including those who wear pantsuits and pearls.

Why not come together around concrete proposals to better the lives of poor and working-class women, rather than merely championing the stepping stones to which many college-educated professional women now feel entitled? From the proliferation of HIV among black women to the double bind of work and family faced by all women, it is time for a women's agenda that enlists support from all classes, all races and from men as well as women.
It strikes me that what Clinton's speech could inspire and what Guinier is calling for is a grassroots women's movement that makes all these lofty claims tossed around in presidential politics real for the women who need it most.

So here's a what if that goes beyond the obvious what ifs of what it might be like if Clinton were the democratic nominee or selected as vice president: what if members of Clinton's campaign were able to use the same new media movement model that Obama used to win the nomination for the sake of empowering women? Why not start to turn all this talk into concrete action?

I know that Clinton's constituency tends to be older than Obama's so the new media strategy might not be quite as "catchy". But the opportunity to build something historic -- perhaps as historic as becoming the first black or woman president -- is in Clinton's grasp. And ironically, after spending the primaries critiquing Obama for lacking legislative experience, the lasting significance of Clinton's campaign will depend on her similarly untested capacity for grassroots organizing.

I only wish that Clinton had given a speech like this during the primaries. It not only voiced the need for change, but the outline of an agenda for a movement. That's not just something I could believe in, but something I could actually work for. But perhaps losing out on the presidency this year is a blessing in disguise -- there are limits to what one can say and do as a president...like leading a grassroots movement.

But the even greater opportunity that Clinton insinuated by skillfully integrating the narrative of Harriet Tubman into her speech is that of overcoming the false dualism of "blackness" and "feminism". Of course, the way that plays out in people's life is hardly false, but if Clinton were to make a genuine effort to reach out to black, Asian, and Latina feminists, as Guinier suggests, she could begin to address problems that no single elected official could solve alone.

And she already has a good starting point in building a relationship with Michelle Obama, both ideologically in following Obama's speech and politically as she campaigns for Obama's husband. What if the two of them worked together on a grassroots new media women's movement, drawing upon the best of Obama's organizing strategies and the momentum generated from Clinton's campaign?

(Actually, I was thinking immediately after the speech that Ella Baker would have been a nice movement leader to quote -- her model of grassroots organizing embodied to some extent in the Mississippi Freedom Schools was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement. There's no link that does Baker justice, so if you're interested, pick up Barbara Ransby's book Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement. Great read, great political organizing insight, vastly underrated movement leader.)

OK...I'll stop dreaming now and get back to basketball...but sometimes we have to appreciate the power of the moment. And I think we all witnessed a powerful moment last night that helps remind us that even those of us who don't have the privilege of living in the White House for four years can influence radical social change.

Related Links:

Clinton's journey awakens a new women's movement

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The Cultural Significance of Lisa Leslie's Olympic Success

. Tuesday, August 26, 2008
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I was watching Around the Horn yesterday and the first question was about the significance of the “Redeem Team’s” gold medal.

The brief conversation pretty much went as one would expect, including Kevin Blackistone commenting that they should be called the “Self-Esteem Team”.

But I would have liked to hear more people weigh in on the significance of Lisa Leslie’s fourth consecutive gold medal. There’s a significance to Leslie’s legacy that extends beyond basketball – and it is not just that she is a role model for young girls and aspiring female athletes.

She is a black female role model and a winner, which has been a rarity in the mainstream media for anyone not named Oprah.

And as a black female athlete who has publicly embraced her responsibility as a role model, Leslie was a great Olympic story and continues to be a great WNBA story.

Leslie manages to represent so much simultaneously – a role model, the success of Title IX, and the success of the women’s sports movement to this point. And she does it all with grace and humility. So when she passes the torch, she’s passing on more than a legacy on the court, but one of the most underrated cultural icons that has never gotten enough attention in the mainstream media.

A representation of Title IX success

Cathy Young of Reason Magazine writes that “It's an article of faith among advocates of women's sports that the remarkable growth in women's athletics over the past quarter century has been the fruit of Title IX…” And as a founding member of the most prominent women’s professional sports league, Leslie might be the poster child of that success.

Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote the following:

The next time some fool argues that Title IX should be rewritten, just show them the highlights of the U.S. women's basketball team at this Olympics, and of Lisa Leslie in particular.

Twelve years of playing for her country, never a single loss, and four gold medals. Think she was worth the funding?
With so much focus on the impact of Title IX on intercollegiate sports, I think the impact on academics often go overlooked. So I’m a little wary of how people reduce the value of Title IX to a matter of sports legislation.

Nevertheless, I do think women’s sports serve a unique function within the broader Title IX agenda and Leslie represents that well. As perhaps the most concrete and visible example of Title IX success in the public sphere, women’s sports – and particularly the WNBA – might represent a means by which to rally people around broader women’s issues.

Of course, there is still plenty of progress that needs to be made toward gender equity in sports, despite increased participation from women. Brett Zarda of ESPN the Magazine writes that men typically receive significantly more prime time coverage than women in the Olympics. And unfortunately, that disparity in coverage continues after the Olympics.

But staying in the moment, Leslie’s individual success, her role in advancing women’s sports as part of the WNBA, and her participation on among the most dominant Olympic teams ever, make her a relatively easy figure to rally around and celebrate the progress that has been made and inspire further progress.

A strong role model for little girls everywhere

As rare as it is for black female role models to garner positive mainstream media attention, this week we’ve had the pleasure of seeing two shine on major stages: Lisa Leslie and Michelle Obama.

I know that seems like an awfully distant connection but if you look closely a close analysis of the function they each play as a role model reveals similarity.

Obviously, Leslie and Obama have pursued very different careers. But as articulate, educated, and successful black women they both represent dreams of success for black women that seemed unattainable only a few decades ago.

Look closely at Obama’s words from her Democratic National Convention speech last night and you see her articulating what Leslie’s Olympic success exemplifies.
And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children - and all children in this nation - to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Honestly, I acknowledge that the speech was somewhat cliché and clearly design to construct a more palatable political image for Michelle Obama, much to the dismay of some critics. But the inescapable theme of the speech is one of hope and empowerment.

Leslie embodies the spirit that Obama speaks of and has taken on that same responsibility as a role model in her own right. She captures that with her words in a 2006 WNBA.com article about the 10th anniversary of her first gold in Atlanta:
It's been amazing, this opportunity to be a role model… Plus, the ability to inspire young girls and women to want to be professional basketball players as well as going back to school are opportunities that I have embraced and feel a lot of gratitude to have been able to accomplish.
Whether they are inspiring young girls to go into politics or women’s basketball, what's important that they are both expanding the range of possibilities conceivable for young black girls. Just as Leslie helped to change the face of women’s sports as a WNBA pioneer, Obama is on the cusp of the opportunity to be part of a major shift in the way we perceive black women in politics.

But more importantly, both of them appear to do it with a grace and strength that almost makes it look easy to bear such a heavy burden. Why wouldn’t we want our youth to emulate the model they set forward? Kim McLarin at TheRoot.com describes the model of woman hood that Obama represents in words that could easily be used to describe Leslie.
Her sense of self comes across as being as natural a part of her as her beautiful skin or her bold and funky walk. It is a birthright, immutable and clear. For a woman—especially a black woman, especially a black woman who did not grow up clutching either the silver spoon of wealth and privilege, or the silver spoon of a normative kind of beauty—to possess such an unshakable sense of self is, as my grandmother would say, something! It is also something not often seen in America. Which is precisely the reason Michelle Obama has sparked the reactions that she has.
The way Leslie has represented the U.S. in the Olympics and as an icon for women’s basketball exudes a seemingly natural sense of self and sense of purpose, unshakable by the world around her.

However, none of this is to say that we have arrived at a post-racist or post-sexist society. But as Mallika Chopra describes, it is important to celebrate the accomplishments of these positive black women for the sake of our youth and a reminder of what’s possible when we continue to challenge structural barriers that limit blacks and women.

And it’s those narratives of continuing to dream and fight despite the odds that make both women’s stories particularly important additions to mainstream understandings of what it means to be a U.S. citizen and the challenges that plenty of people still face. Ding at Bitch, Ph.D. speaks to what Obama’s narrative means to black women.
What I'm hearing in her speech is the same narrative that I, and other people of color like me, have lived. It's familiar to us. It's a narrative, however, that mainstream America still cannot believe about communities of color; like the Mark Penns of this country, mainstream America can't grasp the fact that black, brown or non-white people have the same American dream as they and that they have lived by that dream and hoped for the day when their lives as full Americans would be acknowledged.

I was saying to a friend today that people of color are the last idealists in this country. Fundamentally, we believe - despite the slights and the snubs and the daily presence of racism - that the Great American Story of fairness, hard work and reward for that hard work still has the possibility to exist.
When Leslie celebrates those four gold medals around her neck she’s not just inspiring the next Candace Parker or Sylvia Fowles, but she's representing a narrative of life in U.S. society that so often goes unheard and misunderstood -- the actualization of seemingly impossible dreams.

Conclusion: Part of something bigger than basketball?

Young wrote the following in 2001 about the cultural implications of women’s sports:
Women's sports do have revolutionary cultural implications. This isn't just about equity for little girls but about a vision of womanhood that includes sweat and strength, competitiveness and even ferocity. One could say that this is feminism at its best -- it revels in female power and accomplishment, instead of wallowing in victimhood.
In Young’s terms, Lisa Leslie has become among the most enduring example of female athletic power and accomplishment that we have in U.S. society today, the accomplishments of past female athletes notwithstanding.

But having said all of this, I think it’s also important to point out that Leslie is not perfect in terms of shifting perceptions of women in society – the barriers still exist for black women, but Leslie had the right combination of ability, beauty, and intelligence to succeed. And with that caveat some may have legitimate critiques.

First, due to her exceptional qualities, she has succeeded in spite of racism and sexism whereas many other black women still face barriers. And second, as a former model, she still represents elements of the traditional beauty ideal that favors a very narrow definition of femininity.

Nevertheless, I think the best way to understand Leslie is as part of an ongoing “revolutionary” process that will be carried forward by the next generation, currently embodied by Fowles and Parker, among others. People like Leslie have opened doors and created new opportunities for women, but it will take a collective effort to realize a society in which women can participate equitably once they walk through those doors.

Although the WNBA is first and foremost a business, with women like Leslie creating a foundation for future generations, it could develop into something of a modern women’s movement by embodying a new vision of womanhood for young girls. But for now, instead of critiquing the WNBA for what it has not achieved politically, I think it’s worth celebrating for the accomplishments of accomplished women like Leslie.

Relevant Links:

Dreamy: Leslie says American women have earned name, too

Thoughts on a Black First Lady in Waiting

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The Future is NOW: How Lisa Leslie Passed the Torch and Sylvia Fowles Grabbed It

. Monday, August 25, 2008
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I assume that a large portion of this morning’s proverbial water cooler chatter will center on the Olympics and someone might eventually try to make the argument that “The Redeem Team” is the most dominant basketball team in U.S. history.

Hopefully someone else will rescue your discussion from that historical vacuum by at the very least bringing up the obvious fact that the 1992 “Dream Team” was objectively more dominant. But if you’re feeling a little argumentative and willing to challenge people’s gender biases, you might want to make the point that J. Douglas Foster at NBCOlympics.com made on Saturday: the U.S. women’s basketball team that has won four consecutive gold medal is objectively among the most dominant Olympic teams ever…in any sport.

Of course, once the discussion turns to the subject of women’s basketball, someone should bring up the fact that they heard something about Lisa Leslie’s fourth consecutive gold medal in her final Olympic appearance. And that could turn into a discussion of how Candace Parker is the future and how exciting it might have been if she had dunked in the Olympics.

This hypothetical discussion is a rough reflection of the hierarchy of media headlines as the Olympics closed yesterday: men’s basketball first, then historical men’s basketball, women’s basketball, Lisa Leslie, and a smattering of Candace Parker (a sad commentary on media bias, but check Google News for yourself if you don’t believe me).

But lost in the media hype is the outstanding performance of WNBA rookie Sylvia Fowles.

Before the Olympics, it seemed like the passing of the torch from Leslie to Parker was nothing more than a formality. But somewhere between the pre-Olympic hype and the actual games, Fowles has turned heads and made a strong case to fill Leslie’s enormous shoes – both in future international competition and the WNBA.

**Picture above courtesy of SPMSportspage.

An overview of Fowles' performance

Fowles did get a few mentions here and there for leading Team USA in scoring with 13.4 points per game. But that’s only the beginning of a very impressive international portfolio for Fowles.

Fowles also led Team USA in rebounding and was first among all women’s basketball players in field goal percentage. She recorded 26 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks in the medal quarterfinals against South Korea.

And oh yeah, she’s a WNBA rookie with eight games of professional experience.

Without digging too deeply, we see that Fowles had an outstanding freshman Olympic campaign. But digging a little deeper, we can also see that Fowles was indisputably one of the top contributors to Team USA

Assigning credit to Team USA players

After the first two preliminary round games, I made a post about Fowles being Team USA’s biggest contributor using the David Sparks’ technique of assigning game-by-game credit for wins. The metric is called “Marginal Victories Produced” (MVP) and a detailed description of this metric is available at Hardwood Paroxysm, but here’s an excerpt:

…here I will develop a value estimator that works at the game level, to give us an even more accurate picture of just how much each player contributes…in each game, there is a total of 1.00 MVP to be allocated. Each individual's contribution to the total production in the game is considered their Marginal Victory Production. This way, players on losing teams can be seen as producing valuable contributions--they might be valuable enough to get their team right to the cusp of victory--and this value shows up in MVP (but not in BoxScores).
I’m using an older version of this metric because that’s what I was working with when the Olympics started, but the concept and spirit is the same despite the change in formula.

Anyway, here are the final MVP values for Team USA, along with Sparks’ metric of Model Estimated Value per game (MEV/g), which measures productivity:

China vs. USA
 Diana Taurasi11.951.08
 Sylvia Fowles14.211.04
 Tamika Catchings12.220.94
 Candace Parker10.350.79
 Tina Thompson10.090.78
 Kara Lawson10.310.71
 Lisa Leslie10.010.66
 Cappie Pondexter8.440.53
 Seimone Augustus7.180.50
 Sue Bird5.530.40
 Katie Smith5.190.37

**Correction: As I re-examined the formula, I miscalculated MVP and these numbers are actually numbers for a different metric, which was simply called, "credit". The results are rather similar but the distinction is important to make.

So one of the first things you might notice is that Fowles has a higher MEV/g than Taurasi, a lower MVP. This illuminates the point that MVP is looking at the productivity in specific games relative to the production of both teams.

So for example, in Fowles' most productive game, her MEV was 34.45 but her MVP was 0.28. In Taurasi’s most productive game, her MEV was 23.43, but her MVP was 0.45. In other words, though Taurasi produced “less” statistically that production made a larger contribution to the team’s winning effort than Fowles’ “more” productive game.

But anyway, what we see is that Fowles was the most productive player by a significant margin and the second biggest contributor, behind Taurasi by only .04 MVP credits. Again, that’s from a player who hasn’t yet finished their rookie year.

The future of WNBA post play

After the game against the Sparks in which Fowles suffered her knee injury, I wrote that Fowles is the next generation of WNBA post play. It seems that her Olympic performance has only confirmed that. And as described by Leslie and the Team USA coaching staff on multiple occasions, Fowles is still learning…and doing so quickly.

Leslie and Parker definitely deserved the attention they got prior to the Olympics. And Leslie’s four medals is a great story for women’s basketball in its own right – she leaves an amazing legacy and some huge shoes to fill for the future.

But Fowles has proven that she’s a star among stars even on the sports world’s biggest stage. She will never get the media attention of Parker for a number of reasons, but it’s clear that she could easily rival Parker and Diana Taurasi as a perennial MVP candidate in the not-too-distant future.

By no means is any of this meant to suggest that Fowles is better than Parker – as of right now, I think Parker is the better player. However, Fowles might have more potential than most people give her credit for and her Olympic performance is evidence of that.

Transition Points:

A note on Taurasi: Even if she doesn’t win the MVP award this year, I think Taurasi has made a strong case for herself as the best player right now in the WNBA. Lauren Jackson is a legitimate candidate and Fowles and Parker may have something to say about that in a few years, but right now, I would pose this question regarding Taurasi: if you were starting a team today, how many players would you take over Taurasi?

But very few players in sports have the ability to singlehandedly win a game the way Taurasi can. Need evidence? A team needs at least .50 credits to have a chance at winning a game (meaning they have to be at least as productive as their opponent). Against Becky Hammon and Russia – Team USA’s closest game – Taurasi had .45 credits. In other words, she almost won the game by herself (at least statistically).

And from all reports, it’s Taurasi’s leadership abilities
as well as her basketball talent that make Taurasi so good. From Team USA coach Ann Donovan after the Russia game:
“The bigger the game, the bigger Diana is and her energy, players feed off that… Her confidence just kind of oozes from her and gets passed on to everybody else. She has done a tremendous job for this team.”

An interesting little statistical tidbit -- every one of the starters has a negative plus/minus for the tournament overall. This is probably a case where their plus/minus reflects the fact that they were the ones in the games while they were actually close...the bench players normally came in with a lead in hand.

It sounds as though Sky coach Steven Key
is looking forward to resuming the WNBA season with a more experienced Fowles on the roster:
"She's gaining a lot of confidence, and she's learning a lot, too. She's being exposed to a great coaching staff. And just the players she's getting to play with on her own team, she's seeing how the game is supposed to be played. I expect her to bring all of that knowledge and intensity to her teammates here. We're so happy to see her coming back."
It will be interesting to see how Fowles’ Olympic performance translates into post-Olympic marketability. The track record for female Olympic athletes’ marketing deals after the games end is dismal. What role could the WNBA play in building her up a little as the Sky make a long-shot playoff push? Will she get consideration for the All-Rookie team despite missing a large chunk of the season?

Related Links:

The Chicago Sky: My Choice for Team of the Future

Sky's Fowles coming up big in Olympics

U.S. Women Pass the Torch, Win Gold

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