What Does the Future Hold For the Sky?

. Saturday, September 13, 2008
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The Sky entered last night's game against the Liberty with not much to play for beyond pride and perhaps the opportunity to build some confidence for the future.

Unfortunately, they ran into an inspired Liberty team who wanted to build some momentum for the playoffs, even without injured players Janel McCarville and Tiffany Jackson. Sure they already knew that they'd be facing the Connecticut Sun in the first round of the playoffs, but no team wants to "stumble into" the playoffs. From Pay Coyle in the AP article:

"That was playoff-atmosphere basketball," Coyle said. "We want to get rolling and I thought that was a good start."
But this has to be a disappointing loss for the Sky.

The Sky had already beaten the Liberty once since the Olympic break. One would think Candice Dupree and Sylvia Fowles would have a strong game against the depleted front court of the Liberty. And although the game doesn't mean very much for the playoffs, it was an opportunity to win a series against a playoff team, which could be a nice confidence boost for next season.

But unfortunately, things fell apart during a 14-2 run at the end of the third quarter when the Liberty took control of the game. And unlike their 4th quarter collapse against the Storm, it wasn't the bench that let the game slip away. It was mostly starters. So what, if anything, does this say about the Sky for next season?

Still having problems in the half court

The momentum in the game shifted with about four minutes left in the third once the Liberty switched to zone and Shameeka Christon and Leilani Mitchell started wreaking havoc on the perimeter causing three straight turnovers.

But the primary reason for the shift was something that has been a problem for the Sky all season -- they have these dry spells, as the commentators said coach Steven Key describes them. But this wasn't just one of their dry shooting spells...the Sky just seemed to stop moving. And when you stop moving against a zone, it becomes much easier to defend because one defender is able to guard 2 players in an area without moving. The result is frustration and then confusion.

Some of the stagnation comes when Fowles is playing on the high post. She doesn't yet look comfortable making decisions in their offense and it just results in turnovers. One of the turnovers came on an attempt to make an entry pass to Fowles that Fowles just didn't step to.

But the main reason is that when the Sky face a zone and cannot get penetration from their guards, it becomes obvious that they don't yet have a well-defined post offense despite having one of the best young post combinations in the league. So rather than moving the ball and trying to find spaces in the zone to get the ball to their post players, they end up holding the ball around the perimeter and making predictable passes. The Sky somehow need to find an identity beyond the perimeter.

Still a perimeter oriented team

The Sky's brief spurt in the fourth quarter with about 3:30 left starting with Armintie Price's drive and missed free throw which was rebounded by Jia Perkins exemplified their strength this season. They are at their best when they get into that dribble drive set, get players moving toward the basket, and score in transition.

The problem is that when they get so focused on the perimeter game, their dynamic duo in the post becomes an afterthought...almost glorified rebounders rather than offensive threats. And yet we know what Dupree and Fowles can do -- Fowles has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the season and Dupree has been an all-star. Right now, their strengths just don't appear to be well integrated into their offense.

When a post player disappears as Fowles did in the fourth quarter, it's not really her fault. Sometimes, it's a matter of just not getting the ball. Fowles hardly touched the ball in scoring position at all in the fourth quarter. Ditto for Dupree. And it seems to be something they've struggled with all season -- finding a way to consistently feed the post rather than just waiting for post players to get loose balls or offensive rebounds.

All the pieces are there, it's just a matter of putting it all together

You have to figure that in the off-season, the Sky will put in more post plays and perhaps retool the roster to find players who can distribute the ball to post players more effectively. But with a lottery pick and a talented roster that has four threats offensively and some decent defensive players in Perkins and Fowles, they don't need to change a whole lot. They just need time to bring it all together.

Some Sky fans are calling for Steven Key to be fired, but that might be unfair after one season with a young team. It takes time to put Fowles' injury and absence during the Olympic break have to be taken into account when evaluating the Sky's season.

We also don't really know what's going on behind the scenes -- are the plays in place but the players not executing or are the players not executing because the plays aren't in place? Either way, time could be the primary remedy for the Sky's struggles.

I still believe the Sky have a bright future. There are plenty of examples in sports where extremely talented young teams take a few years to put it all together...and some never do before making major changes. But this team has at least four positions in their starting lineup pretty well set and just needs to add to the bench so they can give the starters a rest.

And once they fill out their roster, they can become much more dangerous. Missing the playoffs just gives them a chance to add more talent through the draft lottery and focus on their growth for the future. And perhaps it will make them more hungry for next year.

Relevant Links:

The Chicago Sky: My Choice for Team of the Future

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Atlanta "Grows Up" In Upset Over Sparks

. Friday, September 12, 2008

Perimeter defense has been a problem for the Sparks all season and it absolutely haunted them in a 83-72 loss last night against the Dream.

The Sparks commentators talked a lot about the lack of offense from the Sparks' guards, but it wasn't just a case of the Sparks playing a bad game. The Dream had an outstanding game plan and executed well.

From Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors:

"We grew up a lot tonight," Atlanta coach Marynell Meadors said. "L.A. by far has the best talent of anybody in the league. But our team controlled the tempo, especially in the last part of the third quarter and in the fourth quarter. I thought that was the difference."
I haven't watched a full Dream game in a while, but this was the first time I've really seen the Dream play a game so well together.

The scoring of Iziane Castro-Marquez from the perimeter and Betty Lennox in transition was difficult for the Sparks to stop. Ivory Latta played more like a pure distributor than a scoring guard, with a pure point rating of 13.56. The Dream's defensive game plan of staggered traps and forcing the Sparks' guards to beat them. And the Dream's guard play combined with the Sparks' turnover problems was too much for the Sparks to overcome.

But what's most impressive is that they were able to close out the game in the 4th quarter with the game on the line. And for an expansion team that's impressive.

Clutch play

With 6:53 left in the 4th quarter, Candace Parker stepped to the free throw line with the game tied at 63-63. After that point, the Dream went on a 20-9 run to close the game. So what happened? Well, it seems as though the Dream kept the pressure on and the Sparks just fell apart.

The Sparks had 4 turnovers and only shot 37% in those final 7 minutes. Conversely, the Dream shot 45.5% and had two turnovers. But two statistics stand out as especially surprising -- the Dream had 9 free throw attempts in the last 7 minutes and had an offensive rebounding rate of 60% in the last 7 minutes. Those are numbers the Sparks should have.

What seemed to occur is that the Sparks panicked down the stretch. Whereas they should have stuck to the formula that's worked all season for them -- post play -- they reverted to a lot of one-on-one play. As the Sparks color commentator said, they weren't cutting as hard, weren't making the crisp passes they normally make to win, and didn't have the defensive intensity that helps them beat perimeter oriented teams.

So is this a fluke loss or indicative of a permanent weakness?

This loss actually fits a pattern in Sparks losses: high turnover percentage and poor perimeter defense. It's why they lost to the Dream last night, the Mercury and Liberty twice, and had two tough matches against the Lynx. They just don't do well against perimeter oriented teams.

If you think about it, the Dream have a very similar player style profile as the Lynx when Castro-Marquez plays the way she did last night: two strong perimeter scorers, a third guard who can run the offense, and a crew of post players who aren't dominant, but get the job done.

BUT, none of those perimeter teams they've really struggled against are even in the Western Conference playoffs. And the Sparks have proven that they can beat the Silver Stars, Storm, and Monarchs. In other words, the Sparks could go on to represent the West in the Finals even with a huge weakness. It won't be easy and it's obviously going to be treading on thin ice with the WNBA's best-of-three playoff format where one bad game can mean the end of an entire playoff run.

If the Sparks can remain focused during the playoffs, they are still a dangerous team because not many other Western Conference teams can beat them the way the Dream, Liberty, Lynx, or Mercury have. Just one more reason to be excited about the WNBA playoffs.

Transition Points:

Asleep in Atlanta: As reported by the Pleasant Dreams blog, there was no coverage of this game in the Atlanta Journal Constitution beyond the AP story. How can a league grow when the media doesn't bother to make mention of the team's milestones?

San Antonio experiments with web casting: Last night the San Antonio Silver Stars webcasted a game without the help of local TV. They took the center court feed and the radio feed and made it work. Was it perfect? Not really -- the picture was slightly distorted. But it allowed fans to see an exciting game featuring two of the best teams in the league. Hopefully other teams will follow suit and make sure that fans are able to watch more games live.

Relevant Links:

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

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CafeMerc: The WNBA's First Social Networking Site

. Thursday, September 11, 2008
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A few weeks ago I posted about new media marketing ideas and looked at a few professional sports teams who have created social networking sites for their fans.

Well, just yesterday I saw an article about the Phoenix Mercury's new social networking site -- CafeMerc.com. It's the first of its kind in the WNBA. From an article at KNXV TV in Phoenix:

“Mercury fans want more than just the latest news and information,” said Mercury and Suns Vice President of Interactive Services Jeramie McPeek. “They want to be able to interact with the site, voice their opinions and help us create exciting new content. CaféMerc.com will be a new hot spot for our fans to express their passion for Mercury basketball.”
What makes this phenomenon interesting to me as someone interested in digital media is the assumption -- an assumption that I hold too -- that social media is good for professional sports teams.

The question is how do we turn that assumption into a statement of fact? In what ways might we be able to quantify the benefit to teams from these sites? Here are a few of my thoughts...

Minimizing development costs

One of the things I mentioned in my last post is that the development (and maintenance) costs of these sites could get rather pricey, especially for some of the fancier one. So the first thing that caught my eye about the Mercury's site is that they found a corporate sponsor for theirs -- Verve Energy Drink, the official drink of the Mercury. Again from the article:
As part of the five-year marketing partnership between the Phoenix Mercury and Verve, the Mercury’s home at US Airways Center is one of the select locations to offer Verve to fans, offering healthy energy to fans at all Phoenix Mercury home games at select concession areas in the arena.

Fans will also be able to purchase Verve product at CaféMerc.com, by clicking through to VerveEnergyDrink.com. The arena features the Verve Energy Zone- a high-energy section for Phoenix Mercury fans to cheer on their defending champs.
So one obvious benefit of social media sites to teams is the potentially attractive revenue stream for corporate sponsors.

Both sides benefit from this partnership -- the corporate sponsors gain exposure to what could be a target market and the Mercury have a place for fans to interact when not at the games. But what I also wonder is how much the Mercury benefit.

What's the added value of having a proprietary social media site?

So here's the part I struggle with -- as nice as these proprietary sites look, what's the added value of a team having their own site as opposed to using Facebook/MySpace or just targeting fan boards like RebKell?

First, I imagine that most fans of a team use multiple sites -- their favorite team's site and league-wide sites (like RebKell)...so they're not really competing entities I suppose. Second, there's the obvious benefit of the additional advertising revenue...but they could get that from their standard sites, right?

The primary benefit in my opinion is interactivity -- allowing fans to interact directly with the team in ways that were previously difficult. A blogger community for fans to express opinions, profiles that help build a sense of community and a better grasp of who the fans are, and of course instant access to fans and their opinions. It's one thing to have fans just sign up for email alerts and quite another to have fans help create the content that becomes part of those alerts.

If part of "fanhood" is establishing a sense of identity, this is an outstanding way to get fans engaged with the team and hopefully establish an increased level of commitment. But commitment without additional profit doesn't do a pro sports franchise much good. So how can we determine if users of these social network sites are putting their money where their commitment is?

Committing to attend

I guess the first thing that leaps to mind when I think of ways to get fan commitment from these sites is by giving discounted tickets or having some other kind of special offer that they couldn't get elsewhere. Maybe even better some discounts on season tickets somehow?

But perhaps the biggest benefit is the data mining possibilities. Could a team survey users to see how many games they attended or how many are season ticket holders? Are ticket sales among social networking site users higher? How do we know these sell tickets at a higher rate than a standard web presence? Are there specific campaigns that these users -- likely die-hard fans -- like more than others?

I suppose the question, to put in political terms, is whether these sites are good for "the base" or "the independents". With these sites though, it brings teams one step closer to their fans and understanding who their base is and how they should target that base. Data mining from a site like that does sound invasive, but from a team's perspective it seems like a massive opportunity.

Grassroots marketing

The one thing that these sites seem to lack is access to people's broader social networks that Facebook/MySpace provide. If the league wants to grow its base, having Facebook users that can place a group identifier on their profile or easily forward messages along to friends about the team's information seems like a huge benefit. These proprietary sites are asking users to build a new interest group network in a world that seems increasingly saturated with interest groups.

Again, I'm struck by the fact that the Mercury's site does not have a visible Facebook badge on it. Starting a new network is nice, but building on people's existing networks *seems* more effective to me. The benefit of the web is that things are interconnected; the more connections a team can make the closer they are to their fan base.

Again, it's really hard to say what's good and bad because this is all so new and I have yet to see any strong marketing research on the dollar value of social networking sites. In fact, just a year ago I would have thought it a pipe dream for a presidential candidate to run a new media campaign...so anything is possible.

In the meantime, kudos to the Mercury for being the first team to take advantage of social media in a formal way.

Transition Points:

MySpace discount for the Liberty: I got an email the other day about how the Liberty have distributed a 50% discount via MySpace. That seems to be one of the best ways to get people to turn social media into profit. If you're interested in getting the discount go to the following link and type in the code "LIBERTY":


Enjoy! (Thanks Adriana)

Another idea from the world of soccer
(from Amanda of Women's Professional Soccer): Major League Soccer's newest franchise -- the Seattle Sounders -- has done some pretty cool things with social media and they aren't even playing until 2009. One tangible outcome is that fans have already been gathering on Facebook and agreeing to sit together. The cool thing about it is that this grassroots marketing has the potential to take off once friends get more friends to join the party.

But the coolest thing about the Sounders?
They've used their website to display the profiles of the fans (season ticket holders I assume) who are sitting in each section. Want to sing the whole game? Try the seats behind the goal. Want to sit with other rec league soccer players? Try to upper deck. Pretty cool stuff and an innovative way to use the web to bring fans into the game.

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Mercury Eliminated From the Playoffs, But Can Still Get To .500

. Wednesday, September 10, 2008
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Well, as could probably be expected, the Shock pounded the Mercury in the paint and eliminated them from the playoffs. That's sad -- I was rooting for them.

After playing a close game for three quarters, the Shock got 67% of the available offensive rebounds and took as many free throws as field goals in the 4th quarter. Once the Shock started focusing on their strengths, the Mercury just didn't have an answer.

But the fourth quarter isn't the whole story. Being the defensive team that they are, the Shock completely took away the balance that helped the Mercury get out of the Western Conference cellar. Kelly Miller had a negative pure point rating, which means she wasn't creating for others as well as she had in past games. The Shock forced the Mercury into their old one-on-one habits and forced them into taking bad shots.

The Mercury didn't play a bad game, the Shock just stepped up their defense in the second half when it counted. I was hoping the Mercury would turn it around, but you could just feel the game slipping away in the third quarter. The Shock just seemed to have complete control of the game.

It's hard to even say what the Mercury could have done to pull that one out...short of having Penny Taylor and Tangela Smith in the lineup. They were just over-matched and the better team won. Oh well.

There's still a shot at getting to .500 and for Taurasi to get the MVP. It will be an exciting end to the season.

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Darnellia Russell Returning to the U.S.

. Tuesday, September 9, 2008
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After announcing that she would play for Lakehead University back in July, Darnellia Russell has decided to return home to Seattle and not play basketball in Canada this season.

It will be interesting to see if she ends up finding somewhere else to play basketball and continue pursuing her WNBA dream.

Here's the full press release:

Sep. 9, 2008
Thunder Bay, Ont.

Russell Returns Home Due to Family Comittments

Lakehead Thunderwolves Women’s Basketball Head Coach Jon Kreiner regrets to announce that recruit Darnellia Russell has decided to return home to Seattle and not play for the Thunderwolves this season.

Kreiner said Russell wanted to return home as she found being separated from her two daughters was much more difficult than she had anticipated.

Russell said it was not an easy decision. “I am really sorry for letting everyone down. I knew it was going to be very difficult leaving my kids but this was way more difficult then I can put into words. I want to thank everyone who worked so hard to get me to Thunder Bay; the Lakehead University Athletics Department, coaching staff, players, friends in Seattle, my Seattle coach and all the media who have been so kind to me. This was a tremendous opportunity for me and my decision to leave had nothing to do with the coaching staff or players. I miss my kids and need to be with them.”

Coach Kreiner said he was disappointed but was sympathetic to Russell’s choice. “Darnellia’s decision to go back home is an understandable one but also a disappointing one. I had hoped that she would take a little more time to give it more of a chance but we are very happy to have provided her the best opportunity and situation we could for her to achieve her degree while playing at Lakehead University. Darnellia has brought great international media attention to our program and I am honoured that she decided to play for us.”

Lakehead Athletics Director Tom Warden said he understood Darnellia’s decision. “I understand about commitment to family and we’re very sorry it didn’t work out for her here at Lakehead. We wish her the best of luck in the future.”

Transition Points:

Russell alluded to missing home only a few days before the announcement was made in an article in the Chronicle Journal.
How often do you think of them?
“All the time, 24/7,” Russell says. “I want to go home to them but I know I‘ve got to do this for us: Me and my kids.”
Russell‘s in Thunder Bay pursuing a dream. She‘s here to get a university degree so she can play professionally in the WNBA.

Relevant Links:

Russell on the rebound

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

E-Conversation with Lakehead University about Darnellia Russell

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All-Rookie Teams: Where Does Sylvia Fowles Fit?

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Although the MVP race has generated a lot of debate, the Rookie of the Year race was pretty much decided after Candace Parker’s first game of the season.

In fact, I’d say that at least the top 3 rookies – Parker, Candice Wiggins, and Sylvia Fowles (despite injury) – have been obvious to most people for some time. In the world of my opinion, there’s a second tier of equally obvious candidates: Nicky Anosike, Tasha Humphrey, Crystal Kelly and Leilani Mitchell.

In other words, although the top of the order is pretty well decided, there’s very little room at the bottom which should make for some tough decisions for voting members.

But the real drama in rookie award giving this year is whether Sylvia Fowles has done enough to earn a spot on the All-Rookie team and if so, whether she deserves recognition as a member of the first team.

On talent alone, it’s clear that Fowles should make it. But given that she will have unfortunately missed half of the season, it would be perfectly reasonable to leave her off the team.

So what would I do? The statistics haven’t changed much since my last rookie rankings during the Olympic break, so here’s my opinion on who should make the rookie team…using the statistics to support my arguments.

Second Team

Alexis Hornbuckle:

Hornbuckle has been one of my favorite rookies this season ever since I saw her grab 14 rebounds against the Mercury early on. She’s not the flashiest player, but she’s gritty, plays excellent defense, and has the tools to be an excellent offensive player.

Statistically, her greatest asset – defensive anticipation – has led her to second place in the WNBA in steals per game, which is an impressive feat for a rookie. Offensively, she has a lot of skills, but isn’t exceptional in any one area. But one thing worth pointing out is that she’s fifth among rookies in assist ratio, which underscores an important point about Hornbuckle – she’s a great team player and will be an excellent piece for the Shook as they try to take back the WNBA title.

Amber Holt:

The question I have to ask about Holt is whether she’d be a candidate for the All-Rookie team if she was playing for another team. But this pick is as much about potential as it is production for this year.

Statistically, the thing that stands out about Holt is that she has not had a great shooting season. Her true shooting percentage of 49% ranks her 13th among rookies and her VCR ranks 14th among rookies, although it is above league average. But what I find interesting about Holt is that she has all the instincts to be a great offensive player eventually.

She usually gets to where she wants on the court and is able to create shots for herself even though she has yet to become a consistent scorer. But most impressive about her statistically, especially in comparison to Hornbuckle, is that she generally makes good decisions with the ball – she is among the rookie leaders in assist ratio and turnover rate.

In other words, aside from her streaky shooting, she doesn’t waste a lot of possessions. And as an aside, that makes her one of the few shooting guards in the league who has a positive pure point rating, which is a testament to her future versatility. It will be interesting to see how she performs for the Sun in the playoffs.

LaToya Pringle:

Pringle is another personal favorite of mine. She’s super athletic, plays hard, and could develop into a defensive presence over time.

Statistically, she’s one of the best help defenders in the WNBA statistically and has shown the ability to score as well. She leads all rookies in offensive rebounding rate and is sixth in true shooting percentage. She’s a player that has the ability to extend possessions on offense and disrupt opponents defensively.

Crystal Kelly:

WNBA.com finally gave her the recognition she deserves in their most recent rookie rankings, placing her fifth on their list. I’ve thought she deserved it all season so it’s good to see her finally getting national recognition.

But the thing that makes her most impressive is probably the thing most overlooked about her game. She’s leads the WNBA in free throw per 40 minutes and free throw rate. That doesn’t seem that significant until you consider how she gets those shots. She does an extremely good job of making decisive moves to the basket and drawing contact to get herself to the free throw line. Once she refines her post moves and gets more experience in the league, she’ll be a huge offensive threat.

Statistically, she’s been one of the most efficient rookies all season. She has led rookies in true shooting percentage all season and she’s been among the top five in VCR. So why not on the first team? As efficient as she is, other rookies have been more productive. And that’s not a knock on her but a testament to the talent of this rookie class.

Sylvia Fowles:

So given the way the other rookies in the league have played, I decided to put Fowles on the second team. And it’s not just because she hasn’t played half the season. It’s also the fact that she hasn’t been quite as productive as some of the other rookies in terms of her rate of production when she’s been in the game.

Obviously, that’s no reason for concern in terms of her future – we just really didn’t see her come into her own until the Olympics. Part of the problem was that she hasn’t ever really looked comfortable in the Sky’s offensive scheme, which has hurt her ability to produce effectively.

Next year when she has more time to adjust to the Sky’s system she’ll be a lot more productive and hopefully more consistently involved in the offense. So although she’s definitely one of the most talented rookies, her output this season hasn’t quite been good enough to be considered ahead of the more productive rookies this year. It’s just hard to reward someone for half a season when others have played a full season, but I see second team as a reasonable compromise.

First Team

The top two should be obvious: Candace Parker and Candice Wiggins. The other three might be debatable.

Leilani Mitchell:

I might be a little biased here, but I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made for Mitchell to be on the All-Rookie team. The problem is that we don’t have good statistics to evaluate point guards so her numbers don’t stand out. But she’s definitely been the best point guard of any in the rookie class, one of the best backup point guards in the WNBA and already one of the best pure facilitators in the league.

Her run in July when she had 20 assists and only one turnover sealed the deal for me. She has great instincts to create scoring opportunities for others. The one question about Mitchell is whether she’ll be able to produce consistently with increased minutes or if she’s just the product of an extremely deep team with a methodical offensive system.

Regardless, it’s hard to deny Mitchell’s talent and she’s one of the better rookie stories this year after being almost cut by the Mercury.

Tasha Humphrey:

Humphrey hasn’t been nearly as efficient with the Mystics – she’s taking more shots and missing more – but her season as a whole has been pretty amazing. With the Shock she was 3rd in true shooting percentage, a 38% three point shooter, one of the most versatile rookies, and the second most productive overall. She was able to do it all.

I haven’t seen her play with the Mystics, but something has changed drastically. Maybe she’s being relied upon more as a second option instead of the fourth option she was on the Shock. Maybe the Mystics schemes are just less well-suited to her game. But since she played most of the season with the Shock, it’s hard to deny that she deserves consideration for the All-Rookie first team.

Nicky Anosike:

For this season, Anosike has been extremely productive for the Lynx. Not only has she been a consistent starter, but she’s also leading the league in steals right now…as a center. That’s impressive not just for a rookie, but especially for a center.

She’s somewhat raw right now in terms of having strong post moves, but she runs the floor well and has a nose for the ball. The Lynx have put a good team together and it will be interesting to see how she and Wiggins develop over the off-season.

Transition Points:

A quick note to critics of the statistical ranking of players:

The statistics help us evaluate and compare players, but shouldn’t necessarily determine our opinions of players. But given that we can’t possibly watch every single moment of every single player’s season (especially in the WNBA when so many games go untelevised), statistics can help us identify things that we otherwise wouldn’t notice because of unavoidable limitations. We’re all human and statistics can help us as we make judgments and try to develop informed opinions.

Relevant Links:

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

Basketball Statistics Glossary

Other posts about rookies

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“MVDee” Taurasi Shines, but Willingham Deserves Credit For Mercury Victory

. Monday, September 8, 2008
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It was an outstanding day of sports yesterday, but if you missed the Mercury-Comets game yesterday, you missed yet another MVP performance from Diana Taurasi.

But don’t worry – there will probably be at least a few more of those this season.

Honestly, I thought Diana Taurasi’s had one of the best individual performances of the day in the Mercury’s 99-74 victory over the Comets.

Perhaps Taurasi’s 33 point, 5 assist, 4 rebound, 3 block, and 3 steal performance in a must-win game was not quite as good as Serena Williams winning the U.S. Open without losing a set. But Taurasi looked as dominant yesterday as Williams looked in the U.S. Open.

In fact, Taurasi was absolutely unstoppable at times. The reason she ended up with 18 free throw attempts (of which she hit 17 of them) is that the Comets had to foul just to try to contain her. But she’s just so strong and plays with so much tenacity that it seems impossible to stop her at times. And yet she’s so balanced and controlled that she just seems to be a step ahead of the defense.

There were consecutive possessions around the 5:00 mark in the third quarter – when the game was still close – that exemplified how Taurasi’s dominance over the Comets. On the first possession, Taurasi took the ball from the right corner, dribbled around a screen to wing, drove past Tina Thompson who had switched on to her, and then literally drove through all five Comets players before getting fouled on a reverse lay up attempt.

On the very next possession, she took a fast break pass from Kelly Miller, changed directions at full speed to freeze Tamecka Dixon, and then jumped off the wrong foot to put a little floater off the backboard from just outside the key…and drew the foul on Dixon.

It was a series of plays that just made me shake my head in disbelief.

Yet while Taurasi will get the headlines for this game, it was clear from watching the game that Le’coe Willingham might have been the reason they won the game, as Taurasi acknowledged in her post game comments:

Le’coe was great today. When you have a spark like that off the bench, it changes the game. And today she changed the game today with energy, with rebounding. So a lot of credit to her.
In fact, were it not for Taurasi’s other-wordly performance, Willingham might have deserved most of the credit for this game. When she entered the game with 6:43 left in the third quarter, the Mercury were actually down 55-54. When she left the game with 6:37 left in the fourth quarter, the Mercury were up 83-67. That’s a 17-point swing…and yes, I think it was due to more than coincidence.

Making up for weaknesses

All season, one of the Mercury’s biggest weaknesses has been defense, particularly defensive rebounding. They’ve allowed an opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage of 33.86%, which is second only to the expansion Atlanta Dream.

They didn’t exactly stop the Comets from getting offensive rebounds, but they did do a better job on the offensive boards than usual and it was a huge help – they had an offensive rebounding rate of 44% which is rather unusual for them and a number you’d expect to see from a bigger team like the Sparks. Willingham’s play exemplified that.

There was a play with 2:22 left in the 3rd quarter where Miller shot up a three while Willingham was standing on the wing. As the ball went up Willingham followed, snuck in between two Comets players, seemed to almost fly through the air fully extended to grab the offensive rebound, and then had the presence of mind to quickly make the open layup.

It’s that kind of play that the Mercury have lacked this season – just pure effort and grit to fight to do the little things that don’t draw the big headlines or show up in the stat sheet. Willingham on that and so many other plays was just consistently alert and in position to make a play that helped her team. And that’s what it will take for them to win out and make the playoffs. From the Arizona Republic:

"Right now, everybody is contributing huge, whether it's an offensive rebound or a stop," Willingham said.

And another way that’s showing up right now is with the Mercury’s ball movement.

Despite Taurasi’s presence, the Mercury are always better when they move the ball

In her post game comments, Kelly Miller said, “We’re looser now and we’re playing well together.” And even with Taurasi putting up big numbers lately, that shows up in how the Mercury have been playing.

The Mercury had a synergy score of 76 for the game, which is indicative of very good ball movement. For an uptempo team that relies so heavily on transition points and quick shots to keep their opponents off balance, the increased ball movement is especially noteworthy.

One reason for it is that Kelly Miller has done a great job of distributing the ball and facilitating scoring opportunities for others. She’s playing like much more of a facilitator rather than a point guard who just initiates the offense. Her assist ratio was 30% for the game and her pure point rating was an amazing 12.26. She’s looking to create for others more lately and doing what it takes to capitalize on those opportunities. But she’s not the only one moving the ball.

With less than a minute left in the third quarter, Willingham got the ball in the post, wrapped a pass around Mistie Williams as a double-team converged on her and found Barbara Farris open for a layup. When they can get that kind of interior passing from their post players they become a much more difficult team to defend.

The Mercury need balance to win

What the Mercury need to win out and have a shot at making the playoffs is more balance. Offense with defense. Shooting with rebounding. Perimeter play with post play. All season they’ve been out of balance and it has lost them games. But so often they show flashes of balance like during the 17-point swing across the third and fourth quarters of yesterday’s game.

The way they’re going to get that balance is from players like Miller and Willingham continuing to complement the play of their Olympians – Miller as a facilitator and Willingham as a hard-nosed player off the bench who can do the dirty work, along with Barbara Farris, LaToya Pringle and Olympia Scott.

If they keep playing this way, what will end up being most impressive about them is the way they came together after the Olympic break when all seemed lost. From Willingham in her post-game comments:
There’s been a sense of urgency for us, we have to try and win out from here on out. After that San Antonio game we all came together and figured out what we could do individually and collectively to make this a better situation for all of us. And right now everyone is contributing huge. It’s been really big because we’re getting it from everyone.
If they can keep that up, they’ll be an even more dangerous team next summer when they’re back to full strength, regardless of whether they make the playoffs now.

Transition Points:

Another thought on MVDee: I do think the MVP should be able to lead their team to some level of success or else it would be difficult to justify giving them the award over a good player who contributes to a winning team.

Originally I said Taurasi should be a lock for MVP if she could lead the Mercury to the playoffs. But now I’m rethinking that threshold -- Taurasi should be a lock for MVP if she’s able to lead her team to one of the top 8 records in the league or good enough to make the playoffs if the Mercury were in the Eastern Conference.

There is no minimum threshold for me assuming a player has been among the most productive in the league. But I think it would be considerably harder to justify her as the most valuable player if her value didn’t translate into some significant number of wins and being a playoff caliber team is the best indicator we have of success. Given the strength of the Western Conference, being in the top 8 is quite an accomplishment.

Relevant Links:

Mercury Spreading the Floor on Fast Breaks

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Basketball Statistics Glossary

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Here is a list of some of the statistics I use most often for your (and my) reference. It’s helpful to me so I thought I’d share.

Each entry has the following:

Name of the metric
A description of what it’s used for
The question it answers
A more technical definition
The formula itself
A link to a description from someone more intelligent than I

Please add any corrections, questions, or suggestions in the comments section.

Assist ratio: Used most often for point guards, assist ratio can be considered a proxy for passer decision making or a means to understanding the degree to which a player facilitates scoring opportunities for others. How often does a player create an assist? The formula is an opportunity rate that describes the percentage of plays on which a player creates assist. Ast/(Ast + (FGA + .44*FTA + TO)). Read more >>>

Assisted field goal percentage: Used primarily for teams, assisted field goal percentage tells us how often a team’s scoring opportunities were facilitated by a pass. What percentage of shots were created by an assist? The formula describes the number of assists per field goals attempted to give us the percentage of assisted shots out of all shots taken. A/FGA. Read more >>>

Boxscores: Used for all players, Boxscores tell us how much an individual contributes to team wins. What portion of team wins can be attributed to a given player? The formula describes a player’s valuable contributions to the team in terms of team wins. Click for the formula and to read more >>>

Defensive contribution: Used to very roughly approximate a player’s contribution to her team’s defensive quality, on the assumption that players who play more minutes on a good defensive team deserve credit as quality defenders. How much does a player contribute to the quality of her team’s defense? The formula describes a player’s contribution to helping a team play defense above or below average in terms of their percentage of team minutes played. (Mins/TM Mins)*Tm Defensive Rating.

Defensive plus/minus: Used to measure a player’s defensive impact in terms of the difference between points scored when they are on the court and off the court (therefore positive numbers indicate a positive defensive impact). How much does a player influence the opponents’ ability to score? The formula describes the number of opponents’ points scored per one hundred possessions when a player is on the court vs. off the court.

Defensive value
: Used to approximate a player’s defensive value to her team based upon blocks, defensive rebounds, steals, and personal fouls. How valuable is a player to her team defensively? The formula describes the value of a player’s defensive contributions per 40 minutes.
((dreb * .511 + stls * 1.60 + blks * .98 + pf * -.22)/minutes) * 40. Read more >>>

Diamond Rating: Used to approximate a player’s capacity to increase their statistical production if they played more often. How much more would a player produce if she got more minutes? The formula describes the difference between a player’s current production and expected production given their current minutes played and estimates their level of production with increased minutes. R*40 - R*Min/G + (R - leagueR)*40. Read more >>>

Effective field goal %
: Used to measure a player’s shooting ability in terms of field goals and free throws. How well does a player shoot when taking free throw shooting into account? The formula describes the percentage of field goals and free throws made per field goal attempt. eFG% = (FGM + .5*3PM)/FGA. Read more >>>

Free throw rate: Used to measure the how many free throws a team (or player makes) for every field goal attempted. How often does a team score from the free throw line? The formula describes the percentage of free throws made per field goal attempted. FTM/FGA. Read more >>>

Net Plus/Minus
: Used to describe a player’s net impact on the game’s score. How does a player's presence impact the game score? Read more >>>

Offensive rebounding rate
: Used to measure how well a team gets available offensive rebounds. How often does a team get an offensive rebound? The formula is an opportunity rate that describes a team’s offensive rebounds per total rebounds available as calculated by their offensive rebounds and the opponent’s defensive rebounds. Team OReb% = TmOReb / (TmOReb + OppDReb) Read more >>>

Points/zero point possession: Used for individual players, points per zero point possession could be considered as a proxy for scorer decision making or a means to understand how efficiently a player manages scoring opportunities. How often is a player individually responsible for scoring possessions and non-scoring possessions? The formula describes the number of points a player scores per missed field goals, missed free throws, and turnovers. Pts/(FGx*.693 + FTx/2*.693 + to).

Pure point rating: Used mostly for point guards, pure point rating can be used as a proxy for point guard quality by approximating the rate at which a player creates scoring opportunities for others. How well does a player create scoring opportunities per others? The formula describes the net value of scoring opportunities a player created for teammates per minute played. 100*((ast*2/3)-to)/mins (not pace adjusted). Read more >>>

SPI Player Styles Spectrum: Used to describe the type and quality of each player in terms of scoring, perimeter skills, and interior skills. What type of player is she and to what degree does she exemplify that type? The formula describes the degree to which a player is a scorer, perimeter play-maker, or interior play-maker. For the formula and to read more >>>

SPI Versatility: Based upon the player styles spectrum, this looks at how versatile a player is in terms of scoring, perimeter skills, and interior skills. How versatile is a player in terms of playing style? The formula is based upon John Hollinger’s versatility formula which takes the cube root of a player’s points, assists, and rebounds. In this case, the formula takes the cube root of the components of a player’s SPI style multiplied together.

Synergy score: Used to describe the type of offense a team plays in terms of ball movement and individual play. For example, a score of 60-70 is indicative of a team that relies heavily on individual play, a score of 70-75 is a team that balances individual scoring and ball movement, and a score of 75+ is indicative of a team that relies heavily on ball movement to create scoring opportunities. (It’s important to note that while a team’s synergy score is a descriptive statistic, an opponent’s synergy score can explain how well a team disrupted their opponent’s offense.) How well does a team move the ball? The formula simply adds a team’s assisted field goal percentage to their effective field goal percentage to approximate how well they move the ball to create quality scoring opportunities. A/fga+eFG%. Read more >>>

Team Dynamics rating
: Describes how well a team executes the fundamental aspects of basketball: ball movement, managing possessions, and making free throws. Offensive dynamics describe a team’s performance, whereas defensive dynamics describe the opponent’s performance. (It’s important to note that there is no magic formula to win – different teams will balance the elements of team dynamics depending on personnel and match-ups.) How well does a team move the ball, manage possessions, and make free throws? The formula adds together synergy, offensive rebounding rate, turnover rate, and free throw rate to arrive at a team’s score. With a few exceptions, the team with the higher score will win the game. Read more >>>

True shooting percentage
: Used for players or teams, true shooting percentage describes a team’s field goal, three point, and free throw shooting. How well does a team shoot when taking free throw shooting and three-point shooting into account? The formula is a ratio of points scored per total field goal attempts and free throw attempts, thus accounting for the additional points scored on three pointers. TS% = Pts/(2*(FGA + (.44*FTA))). Read more >>>

Turnover rate: Used for players or teams, turnover rate describes how often a player(s) turn the ball over. How often does a possession end with a turnover? The formula describes the number of turnovers per possession for a team or player. TO/(FGA - OR + TO + 0.4 * FTA). Read more >>>

Usage percentage
: Used to describe how often a player tries to create a play for their team – scoring or turning the ball over -- while on the court. The theory goes that having the ball in position to create any type of play is indicative of either ball dominance or a team’s faith in a player’s ability…which is why it is best used with some indicator of efficiency. How often is a player involved in making a play for their team? The formula describes the percentage of a team’s plays that a player is individually responsible for while on the court. For the formula and to read more >>>

Valuable Contributions Ratio: Valuable contributions rating provides us with an idea of an individual player’s ability to make contributions to the team, independent of team success. How much does a player contribute when she is on the floor? It’s a ratio of player production to team production and he describes the basis for the “production” aspect of this statistic at Hardwood Paroxysm.

Relevant Links

Basketball-Reference.com glossary

Storm Statistical Analysis Primer

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The X-Factor in the MVP Debate: How Do We Measure Defense?

. Sunday, September 7, 2008
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As the WNBA’s regular season draws to a close, the MVP is heating up and there are a number of worthy candidates which makes the discussion both difficult and exciting.

But usually the MVP discussion occurs without regard for defense. Usually people compare basic stats like points, rebounds, and assists or occasionally more subjective assessments like clutch play or relative ability to carry a team. In the previous MVP rankings posted here, I used plus/minus as something of a catch-all statistic for net impact, but that is by no means a strong indicator of defense.

Conceptually the argument for taking defense into account is simple – the game is played at both ends of the floor and theoretically the most valuable player would be able to contribute to offensive and defensive production. An argument could be made that the MVP is purely an offensive award, but for the sake of argument let’s a assume that good defenders are of more value to a team that poor defenders.

But the reason defense rarely enters into these conversations should be obvious – it’s difficult to impossible to make reasonable defensive comparisons between players. It’s difficult to parse out the influence of team defensive strategy from the measurable aspects of defense and it would require hours of game to make a valid comparison of defensive intangibles.

Nevertheless, just to make the MVP arguments a little more interesting, I’ll revisit the defensive player of year rankings with a change that might make it easier to judge a player’s individual defensive contribution. One problem is that not all defensive statistics are created equal. So to address that, I’ll borrow the weights for blocks, rebounds, steals, and personal fouls used in David Sparks’ metric for overall NBA productivity while also taking into account plus/minus numbers and the strength of a player’s team.

By looking at individual box score stats, team stats, and on/off court stats, I hope to arrive at a better way to account for defense during MVP discussions and evaluate candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

A brief explanation of Sparks’ Model Estimated Value statistic

When I previously looked at defensive statistics I used a combination of four statistics including something I called “defensive versatility”, which was based on a combination of a player’s block percentage, defensive rebound percentage, and steal percentage.

The advantage of percentage statistics, so I thought, was that they look at the percentage of plays on which a player makes a defensive contribution, which helps to adjust for minutes played (though not pace).

And in order to reward players that get lots of blocks and steals without fouling, I used a metric called “personal foul efficiency” to evaluate see the ratio of blocks and steals to personal fouls.

The problem with that system is that it assumes blocks, defensive rebounds, and steals are equal and thus valued equally when combined to evaluate versatility. So how do we take into account the actual value of these statistics?

David Sparks created the Model Estimated Value (MEV) statistic as an effort to measure overall productivity of players (you can read more on that here). In the process, he looked at the contribution of box score statistics to team scoring margin and came up with a list of weights for every statistics – including blocks, defensive rebounds, steals, and personal fouls.

Here are the weights that Sparks came up with:

drebs 0.5115741
stls 1.6032249
blks 0.9811934
pf -0.2251647

While some have critiqued MEV for not taking defense into account, I’m going to borrow those weights in order to come up with measure an individual player’s defensive contribution to victory. Of course, these numbers were created in relation to the entirety of a player’s box score statistics, so these numbers are probably at least a little inaccurate...not to mention that they are based on NBA numbers.

So for the sake of this analysis, I’ll call this number “estimated defensive value”. The formula is as follows:

dreb * .511 + stls * 1.60 + blks * .98 + pf * -.22

And since I am comparing players who have played different minutes on different teams, I adjusted it to make it a metric to measure production per 40 minutes.

((dreb * .511 + stls * 1.60 + blks * .98 + pf * -.22)/minutes) * 40

The process

So I took three statistics – defensive plus/minus, defensive value, defensive contribution (which is an approximation of the player’s contribution to their team’s defensive dynamics rating) and ranked 15 of the top MVP candidates in each category. There will be some worthy candidates missing of course, but I’m sure someone will let me know if there’s a missing player.

As a reminder, here’s how defensive contribution is calculated as described previously:

The goal is to get a (very) rough estimate of the player’s contribution to their team’s defensive success per minute.

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

The only difference is that now I’m using the defensive dynamics rating I use to calculate defense, which is loosely based on Dean Oliver’s four factors.

The numbers

The results are interesting and I think strengthen the arguments for a few of the MVP candidates…particularly one who continues to be overlooked in the popular debate. Here are the 15 players I started with:

Young, Sophia

I ranked each player 1-15 and with the top player in each category getting 15 points and the lowest getting 1 point. The following are the top five in each designated defensive category:

Top 5 Defensive Value/40

1. Lisa Leslie 9.99
2. Candace Parker 8.49
3. Janel McCarville 7.073
4. Ann Wauters 7.072
5. Candice Dupree 6.60

Top 5 On/Off Defensive Plus/Minus

1. Janel McCarville +6.2
2. Seimone Augustus +4.1
3. Lisa Leslie +3.1
4. Sue Bird +1.8
5. Sophia Young +.9

Top 5 Defensive Contribution

1. Becky Hammon 1.36
2. Sophia Young 1.27
3. Ann Wauters 1.17
4. Sue Bird 1.17
5. Candace Parker 1.05

**The raw numbers were acquired from Dougstats.com and the plus/minus numbers are from the Lynx Net Plus/Minus and statistics page.

And here are the totals – the top 5 defensive players among the most talked about MVP candidates:

Top 10 Total Points

1. Leslie 38
2. Young 34
3. Parker 34
4. McCarville 34
5. Wauters 33
6. Bird 25
7. Jia Perkins 21
8. Asjha Jones 21
9. Dupree 20
10. Whalen 19

By no means are these numbers definitive, but it adds to the argument for two of the top 5 candidates from my last MVP rankings – Sophia Young and Candace Parker. Young was ahead in the last rankings, tied with Taurasi, so you could also argue that Young deserves the MVP more than Taurasi based on defensive impact.

It does seem biased toward big players, but really, that’s not surprising – given that basketball is a game where the goal is 10 feet high, bigger players should be more effective at defending the basket.

Conclusion: How much of a factor should defense be in the MVP award?

I’ll allow others to make claims about what this actually means for the MVP race, but I think it sheds some light on a few things, though I’m left with a few questions.

First, how can we balance defensive and offensive production when considering MVP candidates? Should a poor defender be eliminated from consideration as we often subconsciously eliminate poor offensive players?

Second, since most people start with offensive statistics to choose MVP candidates, is there a strong defensive player that we’re ignoring?

Third, how do we take into account the difference between positions among defensive players when considering defense as a factor.

And fourth, do these rankings pass the "laugh test"? For example, do we really buy the idea that Bird is a better defensive player than Whalen? Whalen has a higher defensive value while Bird is last among MVP candidates. Conversely, Bird has a much better on/off plus/minus while Whalen has a -5.2.

And ultimately, the latter question is the problem with trying to assess defense statistically -- it's even harder to capture defensive intangibles. But it's worth a try if we want to make even stronger MVP arguments.

Transition Points:

A note on Sue Bird: There’s been plenty of talk about Sue Bird as an MVP candidate recently due to her performance with Jackson out. And as you might already know, I’m a fan of Bird’s game. So what might considering defense do for her?

If she’s the top defensive guard among the popular candidates, then perhaps it makes the argument that she deserves consideration. However, I still think it’s difficult to make an argument for Bird over Parker, Young or even Augustus and Whalen – all have done a lot for their teams and one could argue Augustus and Whalen have done more for their teams over the course of the entire season.

My MVP list is definitely shortening by the day and that will just make the end of the season more fun to watch…

Lisa Leslie as DPOY? The numbers still point to Leslie as the Defensive Player of the Year and observation always seems to support that. She's a huge presence in the post and really anchors the Sparks' defense on most nights.

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