Phoenix Mercury’s Tough Defense Keeps Playoff Hopes Alive

. Saturday, September 6, 2008

First, I have to get this out of the way – if you don’t think Diana Taurasi deserves MVP consideration, try watching last night’s game against Sacramento.

Yeah, I could just give you the amazing stat line that’s become somewhat routine for her, but you have to watch her play and take over games to truly understand how much she means to her team. She does everything – she scores, she sets up teammates, she rebounds, and she anchors the Rover defense, although it has been somewhat inconsistent this season.

But Taurasi’s performance aside, what really struck me as impressive was the Mercury’s defense. It’s hard to pinpoint one play because really it lasted throughout the entire game. But what I noticed was that they were playing much more physically than they normally do.

In many Mercury games this season, their opponents have essentially had a layup line to the basket. But when the Mercury turn up the pressure on the perimeter they can frustrate their opponents.

What was different about last night is that they turned up the pressure on the interior – even if they fouled a lot, they set a tone that made it extremely difficult for Sacramento to establish anything consistent in the paint. And as a high scoring team, that’s all they need to keep a game under their control.

The play of LaToya Pringle was particularly impressive – she’s able to do many of the things Tangela Smith does, including running the floor. And on defense, Pringle is so active that if she's not actually blocking shots, she's disrupting the offense.

I also find it interesting that they’ve won two straight now with Barbara Farris in the lineup in place of Le’coe Willingham. The main thing Farris seems to add is a bit more of a defensive presence.

Even if the Mercury don’t manage to achieve the unlikely feat of making the playoffs, their play over the last two games has been impressive. They’re winning games with balance rather than being all Taurasi and Pondexter on offense.

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Can the Sky Bounce Back From a Tough Loss?

. Friday, September 5, 2008
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If there was a post-Olympic break award for MVP, Sue Bird would have it all wrapped up.

Not only is she turning in spectacular performances, but with the Storm’s 70-62 win over the Sky last night she has also led the team to a 3-1 record after the break and a 6-3 record without reigning MVP Lauren Jackson. And although she insists that she hasn’t changed her game at all in Jackson’s absence, she’s clearly become more of a scorer.

But aside from Bird’s heroic fourth quarter performance last night that helped the Storm clinch a playoff spot, what really struck me was the Sky’s collapse. It seemed like they were in complete control and then just fell apart in the fourth quarter as Bird took over, scoring 13 points including three 3 pointers. From

"This is very frustrating," Sky forward Candice Dupree said. "We had control of the game until the fourth quarter. That's what hurts the most."

To be accurate, the Sky lost control in third quarter. With 2:42 seconds left in the third quarter, the Sky were up 9. At that point, the Storm went on a 16-1 run and almost exactly 5 minutes later, the Sky were down 4 points.

But what made the run interesting is that it wasn’t necessarily the result of outstanding Storm defense or increased offensive efficiency. The Sky literally just stopped scoring. And the difference -- almost without a doubt -- was that the Sky rested all of their starters at once.

This is not going to turn into another case of armchair coaching where I question the decision to sit the starters – the Sky also sat the starters for a period spanning the first and second quarters and it worked to actually increase the lead. Sometimes there’s just not much a team can do to stop a superstar like Bird when she gets in a zone as she did in the fourth quarter.

Nevertheless, I think there is reason for optimism after this game. As nice as it would be to see the Sky in the playoffs, it’s equally important that they begin laying the groundwork for the future. Earlier in the season, I thought they needed improved point guard play in order to move forward as a team, but now it’s clear that they have a starting lineup that can play with almost any team in the league.

The question is how do the Sky move forward? How can they maintain the momentum and offensive synergy that they showed in the first and third quarters without wearing out their starters?

Well the first big test will come tonight when the face the Connecticut Sun. How will they bounce back? Will they find a way to maintain the intensity that had them up by 11 in the third quarter against the Storm?

The Sun will be tough to beat, especially if they Whalen comes back, but I think that if the Sky can find a way to stick to what works (guard penetration and post play) they might have a shot against the Eastern Conference’s best team.

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Illuminating the Unseen: Statistics Show Point Guards Are Key in Lynx-Mercury Game

. Thursday, September 4, 2008
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I normally don’t follow games that I can’t see, but last night I had the urge to follow the Lynx-Mercury game.

As I’ve written previously, I’m sort of rooting for the Mercury to make the playoffs because it would be a great story for the league if Olympian Diana Taurasi can lead her team to the playoffs. And hey, when they’re on, they’re one of the most exciting teams in the league.

So I decided to casually follow the play-by-play of the game at Yahoo Sports as I watched the Serena-Venus tennis match and later tried to deal with the reality that Sarah Palin is a major threat to the Democratic Party. I put the quarterly team stats into an Excel spreadsheet to calculate the team dynamics ratings for each team and after the game looked at the individual stats to calculate the credit each player deserved, as I did for the Olympics using a method created by David Sparks.

Yes, I know – I’m a basketball junkie, but you already knew that.

Anyway, two things stood out in the numbers – point guards Kelly Miller and Lindsey Harding were the big stories of this game and we see once again that the Mercury are better when they move the ball to complement their individual play.

Points aren’t the only thing to pay attention to in the box score

Normally when we see the headlines about games the top scorer is highlighted as the key figure in the game. Look at the box score and pick out the player for each team who seemed to have the best game. Having not seen the game, you’d probably pick Taurasi and Augustus. They’re both great players who we’d expect to play well and they scored a lot of points.

But as Dave Berri and others have suggested elsewhere, we tend to overvalue points as a means of evaluating productivity – there are other things that are equally if not more important, even in the box score.

So I have used David Sparks’ credit formula in the past to get a better sense of how to assign credit to players for wins. It was helpful to pick out Diana Taurasi’s importance to Team USA in Beijing, but last night it showed that Taurasi should probably have shared the spotlight. Here are the numbers for the Mercury:

Miller: 15.08%
Taurasi: 14.53%
Pondexter: 14.82%
Willingham: 12.35%
Smith: 7.59%
Farris: 2.62%
Mazzante: 2.61%
Pringle: 0.02%
Scott: -0.18%

So how is it that Miller deserves more credit for the win when Taurasi put up such gaudy numbers? Two reasons – this formula values assists more than points and missed field goals and turnovers are the two most harmful statistics. In other words, it (appropriately) devalues volume scorers who have to shoot a lot to score and puts a premium on efficiency.

Miller had 5 assists, only 2 missed shots, and 2 turnovers whereas Taurasi had 3 assists, 7 missed shots, and 8 turnovers. It’s not that Taurasi had a bad game, but in terms of doing the little things that help her team win, Miller did a bit more and put up 20 points as well. It was quite an impressive all-around game.

But the Lynx’s numbers are an even more stark example of how sometimes we overvalue points and the most valuable players aren’t the ones who score the most points. While Augustus and DeForge are probably the players who stand out most in the box score, it’s possible that neither deserves the most credit for the Lynx’s effort.

Harding: 14.17%
Anosike: 13.27%
Augustus: 13.05%
DeForge: 13.00%
Houston: 6.27%
Rasmussen: 3.14%
Wiggins: 2.51%
Ohlde: 1.48%
Quinn: -0.064
Moore: -1.25
Hayden: -3.45

This is really interesting because while Augustus and DeForge scored 27 and 23 points respectively, Lindsey Harding only scored 5. So why does she deserve the most credit for this game? First, she only missed one shot meaning she didn’t expend possessions with missed shots. Second, she had five steals, which are the most valuable statistic in the metric.

It might be hard to accept a system that is so dissimilar from how we normally think about evaluating a game, I also think this formula tells us quite a bit about the importance of efficient play rather than flashy play. It stands to reason that a player who scores a lot while missing a lot of shots can actually hurt a team as much as she helps. And the concept we can derive from this formula is that the most important thing in evaluating a player is how well they manage possessions.

But in this game in particular, I think the formula highlights the role the impact of the point guards on the game in a way that we might not notice just looking at the box score.

Miller Might be the key player for a Mercury playoff run

When looking at the team dynamics ratings for the Mercury, one thing that really stands out is that in the quarters when their synergy score or ball movement was high, they performed much better overall. And part of that can be attributed to the play of Miller.

Miller had a pure point rating (PPR)– a metric that measures a player’s ability to create plays for others – of 3.80. As a comparison, consider that Deanna Nolan’s 3.83 PPR before the Olympic break was third in the league among point guards. Miller’s PPR before the break was 0.16.

In other words, whereas she’s normally a pretty solid point guard who can bring the ball up the court and initiate the offense, last night she functioned as more of a combo point guard, able to score and distribute the ball. And it ended up being the third scorer for the team that Penny Taylor was last year.

In fact, the way Miller plays seems to have an impact on the Mercury’s wins and losses. In wins, Miller has a PPR of 2.65 and in losses she has a PPR of -1.46. That’s essentially the difference between being a creator and a player who’s not doing much to create scoring opportunities for teammates.

But I also looked at assist ratio, the proportion of a player’s possessions that end in an assist. Last night, Miller had an assist ratio of 26.99, which is right around her average for the season. But in wins this season, she has an assist ratio of 30, whereas in losses she has an assist ratio of 23.

To put Miller's assist ratio numbers in perspective using David Sparks’ player styles spectrum, that’s the difference between a scoring guard like Deanna Nolan and a distributor like Ticha Penicheiro. On a team that consists of Taurasi and Pondexter, a distributing point guard that can create scoring opportunities for others is a huge benefit. And I think last night demonstrates how valuable Miller’s play can be to the Mercury.

Transition Points:

It’s important to note that none of these numbers can be used in isolation, but I consider these a starting point for analysis. Clearly, by saying Miller deserves the most credit for last night’s game I’m not saying she deserves the majority of the credit or even that her performance was valuable independent of Taurasi’s or Pondexter’s. Basketball is a team game and lineup combinations as well as defensive match-ups have a huge bearing on player performance. But for a game I couldn’t see, I find this to be more effective than just looking at raw box score data.

"MVDee": The Mercury website has the Taurasi MVP campaign up and running with a few numbers to support their claim. For those of us that enjoy pontificating, what threshold should the Mercury have to break to consider Taurasi the MVP -- .500 or making the Western Conference playoffs?

Relevant Links:

Time running out for title-defense try

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Liberty's Big Win Still Shows Signs of Trouble

. Wednesday, September 3, 2008
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By most accounts around the web, the Liberty’s 90-87 overtime road win against the Comets last night was a great win coming off two tough losses. labeled it an “instant classic” and a “magical moment”, coach Pay Coyle called it a great team win, and color commentator Mary Murphy called it a great moment for the franchise to “pull it together and end that losing streak.” And on the surface of it, it had all the makings of a great game.

There were outstanding individual performances from Janel McCarville and Lisa Willis – McCarville had a career and franchise-high 33 points as well as a career-high 4 blocks and Willis had a career-high 22 points. Olympian Tina Thompson had 34 points and rookie Matee Ajavon had 16 and four assists off the bench.

But as I watched the game, I had a distinctly different feeling about it. Maybe I just had higher expectations for the Liberty or something. But prior to the game, I could find no reason to believe that the Liberty would lose…unless they continued to play poorly.

So the fact that they blew a fourth quarter lead and needed overtime to beat the Comets who were missing two starters (Roneeka Hodges and Hamchetou Maiga-Ba) and a key reserve (Sancho Lyttle) just doesn’t strike me as impressive. Even on the road and without Shameeka Christon and Tiffany Jackson this was a must-win and really a should win against a banged up Comets team for the Liberty.

Against tougher competition and into the playoffs, I can’t help but think the Liberty still haven’t broken out of their Olympics-induced haze, with or without Christon. They are a team that has relied upon a methodical offense for most of the season with hard cuts and crisp passes. For some reason, they haven’t been able to establish that rhythm since the Olympic break.

If they expect to challenge for the top seed in the Eastern Conference or get past the first round of the playoffs, they’ll have to get back to the style that helped make them the hottest team in the league before the break. Here are a few of my observations.

Individual performances are no substitute for a strong collective effort

Janel McCarville had an outstanding game last night. Really, it was another one of those games that you’d want to show to someone who believes that women’s players can’t create their own offense. She scored from everywhere – outside, driving layups, and strong post moves. Plus she had at least four potential assists that were lost because her teammates missed the shots.

In other words, the Liberty’s entire offense revolved around one player and that’s a shift from what’s made them successful for the majority of the season. It’s not just about points scored, but how they scored the points. When they face stronger teams and stronger defenses, they’re going to need more than one or two players to have career scoring nights – they’re going to need to get everyone involved.

McCarville and Willis shot a combined 21-30 or 70% from the field last night. The rest of the team shot 14-41 or 34% from the field. In their losses to Chicago and Detroit they shot 39% and 38% respectively. In other words, they didn’t play well enough as a team to win games consistently. Two players carried them…and even then they needed overtime to win. It would be unrealistic to expect two players to shoot that well again, even if McCarville continues to draw contact and score from the free throw line.

Where is the defense?

In the five games before the break in which they went 4-1, I had the Liberty with a 96.87 defensive dynamics rating. In the last three games, their rating has been 124.72. To put those numbers in perspective, the consensus best defensive team in the league – the Indiana Fever – had a rating of 99.57 for the season before the break whereas the worst – the Atlanta Dream – had a rating of 124.16 before the break.

They’ve gone from being a very good defensive team, to a very bad one. Last night, the Comets actually had a better team dynamics rating (132.82) than the Liberty (102.65) despite losing. In fact, the Comets outplayed the Liberty for the last three quarters of the game. And again, this was a Comets team that was missing three key players.

In the third quarter when the Comets started their comeback, the Comets had a team dynamics rating of 250.33. The third quarter against the Shock was similar – a team dynamics rating of 218.03. So what’s going on?

The common thread in both situations was that the Liberty were not stopping their opponents’ synergy, meaning their opponents had a relatively easy time moving the ball and creating opportunities to score. The reason that didn’t show up in the score as much as it did in Detroit is because Houston didn’t play that well defensively either and New York managed to keep their turnover percentage down.

I believe I heard Mary Murphy mention during the broadcast that Tiffany Jackson is a major part of their “55 press” defense and so perhaps her absence is affecting their ability to defend. But in the third quarter, the Houston got whatever they want going to the paint. If the Comets weren’t scoring inside, they were getting fouled and they made the shots – they shot 9-10 from the free throw line in the third.

It would be one thing to defend the Liberty by saying they had one off game, but it’s appearing ing to develop into a trend. Jackson can’t be the only reason for these kind of defensive lapses though so it will be interesting to see if they can improve on this in upcoming games.

Penetration to the basket

Just as penetration helped the Comets mount a comeback in the 3rd quarter, the Liberty definitely play better when they are able to penetrate into the teeth of the defense. Normally they do that with good passing through the defense. Last night, it occurred with McCarville driving to the basket from the wing or the elbow. But their guards are getting very little penetration.

In fact, the Liberty’s guard play might explain why they’ve been struggling so much over the last few games. If the guards were able to drive and kick out to shooters, it might be easier for the team run the offense and find open shooters.

Right now, we’re seeing point guards Loree Moore and Leilani Mitchell play more of the initiator style of point guard – they get the ball across half court and pass it to just initiate the offense. They’re not really doing much to force the defense to shift out of their sets and create scoring opportunities.

An example of how well penetration works for them was at the end of the first quarter when Leilani Mitchell was in the game running point guard. Mitchell brought the ball down the court and passed to McCarville in the high post. McCarville then turned and drove and passed back to Mitchell. And since the defense was then off-balance as the Comets collapsed on McCarville, Mitchell was able to turn the corner and drive to the basket, finding McCarville again for a nice assist and the layup.

Inside, outside, and penetration works best for the Liberty and for whatever reason they haven’t been able to do enough of that since the Olympic break. Point guards are the ones who have to be active to make plays like that happen consistently.

Some people may argue that the problem is Loree Moore and that Mitchell should replace her in the starting lineup or at the very least get more minutes. It’s hard to say whether Mitchell is ready for starter minutes, but there’s a strong argument for her to get more minutes.

Does Mitchell deserve Moore minutes?

Over the last three games, neither has played very well in terms of their pure point rating – Moore has a rating of -1.06 while Mitchell has a rating of -3.22. In plain terms, neither of them is doing much to create opportunities for teammates. But considering that Mitchell had a league best 6.09 pure point rating in my point guard rankings before the break, it might be reasonable to assume that will more minutes, she could be more effective as a distributor.

But the really troubling statistic is their points per zero point possession numbers. I find this metric to be important for point guards because it measures how effectively a player uses possessions – how often they end a possession with a score vs. how often they end it with a turnover. In simple terms, it’s about decision making – is this player overall helping more than they’re hurting.

The top point guard in the league before the break was Diana Taurasi with 2.62 pts/zero pt. poss. and the lowest was Shannon Bobbitt with .86 pts/zero pt. poss. Over the last three games, Loree Moore has had .33 pts/zero pt. poss. whereas Leilani Mitchell has had 1.74 pts/zero pt. poss.

So again in simple terms, Moore is hurting more than she’s helping in terms of putting points on the scoreboard and she’s not really creating many opportunities for others. Mitchell isn’t creating for others either, but she’s at least managing to score more than she ends possessions without a score.

Due to experience and leadership factors, I wouldn’t advocate for Mitchell to start. However, it’s clear that she deserves more than 10 minutes per game, especially when the team seems to be struggling to create offense.

Simple things rather than magical performances are what the Liberty need

The Liberty don’t need massive changes right now, they really just need to find a way to get back to doing the things that they do well and doing them consistently. Playing strong defense and finding their offensive rhythm are two things that they could easily adjust.

But I am still quite surprised that they’ve been playing so poorly since the Olympic break when you would have thought they had plenty of time to work on the little fundamentals that they need to win games.

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Why the Sparks’ Performance is Finally Meeting Pre-Season Expectations

. Tuesday, September 2, 2008
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With their 82-58 victory over the Lynx last night, the LA Sparks have won three straight games against teams with a collective win percentage of .576 and have tied a season-high with four straight wins.

And so I think it’s safe to assume that the team we’re seeing now is what most of us expected from the Sparks at the beginning of the season: a dominant team that seemed destined to win it all. They’re starting to look so invincible that it’s tempting to dismiss their 12 losses as the result of temporary lapses rather than indicative of some permanent deficiency.

In other words, the Sparks team we’re seeing now doesn’t resemble the seemingly dysfunctional team that looked lost before the Olympic break. They’ve finally found an identity.

And by the time the playoffs come around, the questions about whether their point guards are good enough or whether coach Michael Cooper is employing the right strategy might even be rendered trivial by the fact that this team has demonstrated that they can function as a cohesive whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

So what happened? Are they doing something differently than what they were doing before?

As it turns out, I would argue that the Sparks are not really doing anything “different” at all. They’re just finally doing the things they’re good at more consistently – rebounding and playing defense.

The Sparks have been one of the top rebounding and defensive teams all season. But the Sparks renewed focus on playing to their strengths mostly entails a focus on the fundamentals – boxing out on defense, taking some creative risks on offense, and using their height to stifle their opponents with help defense.

**Image courtesy of

Pick your poison – keep Leslie and Parker off the boards and get beat by someone else

The Sparks are not the most dominant offensive rebounding team in the league – they were fourth in the league in offensive rebounding percentage at the Olympic break – but they might be the hardest to defend offensive rebounding team in the league.

I think of it this way – there are five players on the court at a time. The Lynx were trying to double and triple team Lisa Leslie, which worked for a while. That leaves only 2 or 3 players in position to box out Candace Parker and DeLisha Milton-Jones. That means either teams are going to get punished by Parker on the boards or leave Milton-Jones with easy opportunities because teams will focus so much on Leslie and Parker. There’s not really a way to stop them from dominating the rebound story.

Statistically, their offensive rebounding is the thing that stands out as the reason why they beat the Lynx -- while they had an offensive rebounding percentage of 35.94% for the game, they were grabbed 57 and 55 percent of the available offensive rebounds in the second and third quarters respectively when they mounted their run. Anything over 50% should absolutely be considered dominant.

But that’s been a reality of playing the Sparks all season. What they’re doing differently now is deliberately putting pressure on the defense a little bit more. Rather than focusing on pushing the ball and scoring quickly, they’re focusing on setting up their offense and running one of two post plays.

When they get into a rhythm with their post offense, no matter what the defense does one of three things is bound to happen – a post move for a score, a pass to the cutter for a score, or a missed shot with a cutter running unchecked to get the offensive rebound. A perfect example of what has been working well occurred in the third quarter in the middle of a dominant 23-3 run that essentially in which they absolutely dominated the offensive boards.

With about 1:30 left in the third quarter, Temeka Johnson brought the ball up the court with Jessica Moore on the left wing. Johnson passed to Moore who patiently waited for Parker to establish position on the left block. Parker received the ball, passed the ball over the defense to a cutting Leslie who hit the layup and got the foul. The second half was like a series of variations of that play.

There are very few teams that can defend those post sets one-on-one and if they try to double team, someone is inevitably left open for the offensive rebound. And again, it’s not that they weren’t doing this before, but it’s that they look much more comfortable doing now and are looking to deliberately set up these plays much more often during games.

Defense doesn’t always win championships, but it’s key for the Sparks

The other benefit of having a frontline that boasts Lisa Leslie, DeLisha Milton-Jones, and an ever-improving Candace Parker is that it’s an extremely difficult defense to score on. And when a team starts playing good defense – especially when that includes 8 blocks from Lisa Leslie – it’s much easier to establish an uptempo game and keep the defense on their heels.

Since the Olympic break, it seems like the Sparks have embraced defense, as coach Michael Cooper noted after their victory against San Antonio:

“Defense wins games, and though we did not have a great offensive game, we brought it in at the end and capitalized on the win,” Sparks head coach Michael Cooper said. “[The players] believe in our defense now, and that’s half the battle. If they believe in it they will continue to do it and commit to it.”
But you don’t have to take Cooper’s word for it -- just look at what they’ve done to Sophia Young in their last two meetings against the Silver Stars.

Young is clearly one of the leading candidates for the Most Valuable Player award, but the Sparks have managed to completely neutralize her in their two wins against the Silver Stars. In those two games Young was 2-16 shooting, which completely took away a player the Silver Stars are dependent upon for success – Young averages 52.6% from the field in wins and 39.6% from the field in losses.

By the fourth quarter of their two wins against the Silver Stars, Young looked extremely frustrated – she was missing layups in traffic that she would normally make and forcing shots she normally wouldn’t take. And the reason is that on almost every play – or every other play – the Sparks had a different defender or set of defenders guarding her. They completely took away her ability to establish a rhythm with their combination of on ball defense, double teaming, and help defense.

Perimeter defense has been a problem that they're fixing with help defense

However, their defense has not been stifling at all times. One of their biggest weaknesses has been their perimeter defense. That’s why both the New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury have beaten them twice – big performances from Leilani Mitchell, Shameeka Christon, Diana Taurasi, and Cappie Pondexter have given the Sparks trouble. They haven’t had a good answer for perimeter-oriented teams.

The fact is that the Sparks’ point guard trio is going to over-matched against any team they play – both Shannon Bobbitt and Temeka Johnson are small guards and Keisha Brown is a step slower than either. Even when they play good position defense their size deficiencies put them at a disadvantage against players like Augustus or Wiggins.

So early in the season it seemed to me like a zone defense would be the optimal strategy for this team. After Augustus and Wiggins gave them fits in their first two meetings (Wiggins was out for the second meeting), last night the Sparks held them to a combined 7-21 with three turnovers each. The difference seems to be the intensity of their help defense.

Almost every shot Augustus and Wiggins got was contested. In the second half when the Sparks really pulled away, Augustus was 1 for 8 from the field with two turnovers. She was trying to shoulder the entire scoring burden, being turned away by the Sparks defense, and getting little help from her teammates. In the fourth quarter, the Sparks held the Lynx to a field goal percentage of 13.33%...and a paltry synergy score of 27.

By taking Augustus out of the game, the Sparks made it very difficult for the Lynx to win. Similar to Young’s value to the Silver Stars, Augustus is shooting 51.3% in wins and 41.7% in losses.

Are the Sparks the favorites to win the West once again?

The Sparks are certainly not invincible – their perimeter defense and their tendency to turn the ball over on offense is a glaring weakness. But in recent games, it appears that instead of trying to hide their weaknesses, they’ve forced opponents to respond to their strengths and that makes them very difficult to beat. None of this should be considered “new” strategy – it seems like they’ve just focused on the best of the strategy they’ve used all season long.

But when the Sparks are playing like this, who in the Western Conference is going to knock them off if they play to their strengths?

The best two perimeter teams in the Western Conference are Minnesota and Phoenix and it’s likely that neither of them will make the playoffs. The Storm are good, but with Lauren Jackson out for the playoffs, it’s hard to see how they would match up against the Sparks. And we’ve seen how the Monarchs and Silver Stars match up with them.

Instead of trying to fit the “Showtime” style that people tried to compare them to at the beginning of the season, the Sparks have finally found their own identity that almost seems antithetical to the predominant notions of what “LA basketball” is about. It’s a grittier, “blue collar” style of basketball that starts with defense and rebounding. And it might be good enough to bring a WNBA championship back to L.A.

Transition Points:

Seimone Augustus deserves some MVP votes: When I did my last MVP rankings before the break, Augustus came in 5th, right behind Lauren Jackson who will probably be less of a candidate after missing so many games. She's as important to her team as any player in the league and if they do manage to make the playoffs, she deserves serious consideration.

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Candace Parker Finds Ways to Score

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The Value of Synergy: Connecticut’s Trust in Their System Makes Them a Contender

. Monday, September 1, 2008
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I honestly did not think the Connecticut Sun could beat the Storm without Lindsay Whalen.

Coach Mike Thibault has called Whalen the “engine” the runs the Sun. She’s an MVP candidate, the best point guard in the league, and the Sun’s second leading rebounder. It just seemed that Sue Bird would control the game even without Lauren Jackson and pull out a key road victory that would give them sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.

So how did the Sun win without Whalen?

The victory against Seattle demonstrates that while Whalen is a valuable player for the Sun, the Sun are not entirely dependent on Whalen to be successful. And it’s not just because they have Asjha Jones to fall back on. It’s clear from the way the team played in Whalen’s absence that their collective faith in their system is what has them at the top of the Eastern Conference right now.

Commentator Doris Burke compared the Sun to the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs – the entire organization has committed to a basketball philosophy and they only bring in players who they know will buy into that philosophy. So when one player is missing – even an MVP candidate – the system doesn’t fall apart. Someone will be there to fill in.

Jamie Carey’s performance yesterday in Whalen’s absence is a perfect example of how the Sun’s success is due to their system rather than individual talent.

Carey Filled in For Whalen Admirably

Carey does deserve a considerable amount of credit for the win – you normally hope that a back-up will just step in and not blow the game, especially when filling in for a player like Whalen. Carey did more than that – she ran the offense well, played excellent defense, and made great decisions with the ball (with the exception of a tough turnover late in the fourth that led to a fast break lay-up by Bird).

Of course Carey didn’t make the plays Whalen can – she had a pure point rating of -2.11 for the game, which is not indicative of an outstanding play maker. But even without Whalen’s play making – she had a pure point rating of 5.40 prior to the Olympic break – Connecticut managed to keep the ball moving and create shots within the offense.

An excellent example of this is their synergy score. From what I’ve tracked this season, a synergy score of below 70 is indicative of a team that is more focused on individual scoring, 70-80 is a fairly balanced effort (where most teams in the league fall), and above 80 is indicative of creating offense from outstanding ball movement.

Connecticut has a synergy score of 72.78 for the season, which is fourth in the league. Against Seattle yesterday, they had a synergy score of 85…without their lead ball handler. Part of that is explained by outstanding shooting – they shot 48.3% from the field for the game and a whopping 66.66% in the fourth quarter. But almost a third of those scoring opportunities came from assisted field goals and plays where players found themselves with good shots as a result of good ball movement.

When the entire team is moving the ball, all Carey has to do is initiate the offense and keep the ball moving. You sometimes notice the same thing with Whalen – she gets the ball moving and steps aside. While it sometimes appears that Whalen is simply being passive, I think we can say after watching the team get a win in her absence that she’s just relying on the system to do most of the work for the team.

Seattle’s “equal opportunity” offense

In contrast, Burke described Seattle's offense as an “equal opportunity” offense that depends on screens and individual play-making. And really, it’s a great offense when you have an all-star cast of players that are able to create scoring opportunities for themselves of screens and dribble drives.

Unfortunately, when one of those players is missing or having an off game, their absence is magnified. And there’s another problem that hurt them at the end of the first game against the Sun when they had Jackson – who takes the big shot at the end of the game?

The Sun went on a long 15-1 run in the 3rd quarter and it wasn’t just because they were hot or the Storm were playing terrible defense. The Storm were just getting good, but not great, scoring opportunities – they were taking a number of outside shots and a number of them were contested shots off the dribble, which are difficult.

Bird did as she needed to do taking on a bulk of the scoring load with 24 points and the team shot 45% overall, including 4 for 9 from the three point line. But when Bird went cold as she did for long stretches in the 2nd half, the entire team seemed to have trouble scoring.

Depth is what makes Connecticut’s system work

This is not to say that Connecticut’s system is better than Seattle’s – a large part of what makes the Sun's system work is their depth. Outside of their two major stars – Whalen and Asjha Jones – they have a number of solid, but not great players coming off the bench. And that includes newcomers Erin Phillips and Svetlana Abrosimova who combined for 10 points and 4 assists off the bench as well as Barbara Turner who contributed 4 rebounds.

Seattle doesn’t have quite the depth Connecticut has, so they have to rely on their stars to make things happen. But as the season has worn on and players are sore or out due to injury, it’s becoming a problem.

It’s not that Seattle has poor chemistry or that they’re a bad team, but I think they do demonstrate that just having a crew of all-stars and an offense predicated on individual performance is not necessarily the most reliable way to win basketball games. And that does seem to be the reason why Connecticut has beat them with and without Lauren Jackson.

“I thought we played a good game,” Storm coach Brian Agler said. “I thought we competed hard. We came in and had to rebound. We did that. We had to be efficient. We were. But keep in mind we played against an excellent basketball team.”
Connecticut is an excellent basketball team in the truest sense of the term and that ability to play together -- on both ends of the floor -- is what allows them to overcome the loss of one player.

Transition Points:

9/04 Update: I just saw an interesting piece on Eric Musselman's Basketball Notebook about the NBA that makes the comparison to the Spurs even more clear:
But while the Spurs are a somewhat different team with (Tim) Duncan on the bench, they have the same team identity and system. They can plug in a reserve and continue on, albeit at a lower level.

That's not the case when (Steve) Nash is out of the game for PHX. He gives the Suns their identity.
Again, you hate to say one style is better than the other because both teams are very successful...but when you get to the point of counting championship rings, it seems team structure might be generally preferable if the right personnel is available.

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Sue Bird Shows Off Her Point Guard Versatility in Lauren Jackson’s Absence

. Sunday, August 31, 2008
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In a sense, Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen -- easily the top two point guards in the WNBA -- make playing point guard look like more of an art form than an arbitrary positional classification.

On one hand, there are times when they can dominate a game by creating scoring opportunities for themselves, seemingly able to get to any spot on the court they want. But on the other hand, they might not score for long stretches, usually because they’re trying to get others involved or trying to establish the tempo of the game.

Either way, they usually seem to have complete control over the action, choosing their opportunities wisely and making the best decision for their team’s success. They are combo guards in the truest sense of the term – they are versatile enough to adjust their style to play the role of either facilitator or scorer depending on what their team needs.

Although both are versatile point guards, Sue Bird’s versatility will take on increased importance when the Storm face the Sun today. The Storm will be without reigning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Lauren Jackson for the remainder of the season and if they want to keep their championship hopes alive, they’ll have to collectively make up for her lost production on both ends of the floor.

As the team’s second leading scorer, Bird has taken on the brunt of the scoring burden for the Storm. However, has the need to score changed the way Bird plays? She doesn’t seem to think so.

“I’m just taking what comes my way,” Bird says. “I don’t think I played any different tonight than I have all season. When the shots are there, you gotta take them. I’m just trying to stay aggressive.”
However, the statistics tell a different story – the need to score more has actually changed the way she’s playing point guard. The shift in style simultaneously says a lot about Bird’s versatility as a point guard and the importance of having a point guard that fits the combination of players in a team’s lineup.

So has Sue Bird changed her style of play?

The Storm played five games before taking the break for the Olympics without Jackson in addition to the one game against Houston on Thursday night when play resumed. I first wondered about whether Bird had changed because when I looked at their synergy score in the five games before the break.

The Storm’s synergy score had dropped to 64.19 during that five game period from 70.47 over the entire season. Since synergy is a measure of ball movement, a logical explanation for such a change would be the point guard’s play.

In the six total games that Jackson has missed, the biggest statistical change for Bird has been in her assists – she’s averaged about half as many assists (2.8) as she’s averaged for the season (5.4) in those six games. The reason might be that she has needed to take more shots in order for the Storm to win in Jackson’s absence – in their four wins she’s averaged 14.75 shots per game whereas she’s had 8 shots per game in their two losses.

But assists alone are not the best measure of a point guard. For that we have other metrics.

How Bird’s playing style has shifted

I’ve found that the best single measure of point guard quality is John Hollinger’s pure point rating. The formula essentially measures the true value of each assist (2/3) minus turnovers per minute, in other words evaluating how productive a point guard is per minute by looking at their net value to the team as a play-maker.

Although Bird has scored more during this stretch of six games, her pure point rating has dropped considerably indicating that she has been less of a playmaker. For the season as a whole, her pure point rating is 2.61. In the last five games in which Jackson has been out, Bird’s PPR has been -3.96 meaning that she’s not spending as much of her court time distributing the ball and making her team better.

But another statistic created by Hollinger is perhaps more telling. Assist ratio is an opportunity rate measuring how often a player gets an assist when they touch the ball. For the season, Bird’s assist ratio was 25.57, which is above average for point guards. In the last five games during Jackson’s absence, her assist ratio has been 14.09, which is well below average for point guards.

However, a low assist ratio doesn’t mean a player is bad – all-star caliber guards like Jia Perkins (14.87) and Diana Taurasi (13.96) are in about the same ball park and they are clearly not bad players. What it does say is that Bird has transitioned from a combo guard who balances passing and scoring to a scoring guard who is passing much less.

And as it turns out, assist ratio tells us a lot about the type of point guard a player is according to the Sparks Playing Styles spectrum. From that player styles spectrum, we can derive five types of point guards: initiator, distributor, pure facilitator, scorer, and combo guards (for descriptions of each click here).

Players with high assist ratios tend to fall in what I have called the pure distributor end of the spectrum (e.g. Leilani Mitchell and Shannon Johnson) whereas players with low assist ratios tend to be what I call scoring guards.

Players across the spectrum can have all the skills of a traditional play-maker, but the mark of a great player (under a good coach) is the ability to play to her strengths while providing what the team needs. And fundamentally, that's a matter of decision making -- if you’re a good scorer, sometimes the best decision is to shoot.

Right now Sue Bird is playing more like a scoring guard because that is what her team needs. That’s not a bad thing at all and, in fact, it appears to be the best decision for her team -- in games that she's shooting more without Jackson, they're winning. But it's clear that has an effect on their team dynamics -- as a team there appears to be considerably less ball movement and they're turning the ball over more often (21.11% of possessions vs. 18.30%) with Bird operating as more of a scorer.

Where this will be even more interesting to watch in the playoffs. How sustainable is this adjusted style of play against the league's top competition? Can Bird carry the team to realize their championship expectations without Jackson?

What does this mean for the Storm’s chances against the Sun?

For true fans of basketball, it doesn’t get much better than watching Bird and Whalen run their teams (update: unfortunately, it looks like Whalen will be out due to an ankle injury). They both exemplify the new breed of combo guard and have the ability to take over a game just by taking what the other team gives them, scoring or not. As Diana Taurasi has said, that’s what makes Bird so great.
“She's one of the few players in this league that can go the whole game without taking a shot and affect the game more than anyone else. That's why she's the best point guard in the league, hands down.”
But in the last game against the Sun that became a problem. Bird deferred to her teammates so much in a tight fourth quarter that she almost disappeared – she didn’t shoot, get an assist, or set the table for someone else to make a play. In fact, it looked like everyone was just waiting for on their stars to step up.

So the more aggressive Bird might be a huge asset to the Storm, even without Jackson. In the last game they needed someone to assert themselves in critical moments. Since the ball will be in Bird’s hands most of the time anyway, it is to the benefit of the team that she make the decision to step up and take control of the game when appropriate.

However, the Sun might have too much for them – they beat the Indiana Fever and Atlanta Dream by 26 points each in back-to-back games on Thursday and Friday. Plus they added Erin Phillips and Svetlana Abrosimova, who played on the Australian and Russian Olympic teams respectively. Both add additional scoring punch and defense.

Seattle has a chance to win if they can play the type of defense that they apparently played Thursday night against the Houston Comets. But let’s be honest – the Sun are playing some of the best basketball in the league right now whereas Houston was missing a key player.

Given that the Sun beat the Storm in Seattle with Lauren Jackson earlier in the season, it seems like the Sun have an edge in this game, as they are playing extremely well and have added firepower.

Edge: Sun (if Whalen plays), Storm (if Whalen is out).

Transition Points:

The Sun are definitely a team to watch: The Sun were one of my five teams to watch after the break, but I never imagined them to play this well. From Tamika Whitmore via, ""We're sending a message to people that it's time to get down to business,'' Whitmore said. "We just have to keep it rolling."

The importance of offensive rebounding
: it’s also worth noting that the Storm were missing Yolanda Griffith -- the team’s leading offensive rebounder – in their first game. Might a few extra offensive rebounds help them against the Sun this time around?

Whalen for MVP
: Other players attract more media attention, but Lindsay Whalen is a clear candidate for the WNBA's Most Valuable Player award, as described by Matt Stout. If she's able to lead the Sun to the best record in the East, it will be difficult to make an argument against her.

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