Any Ideas On What Happened to the Sun?

. Friday, September 19, 2008
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I actually missed the Sun-Liberty game yesterday...but apparently I didn't miss much.

This description from Mike DiMauro of The Day makes the game seem horrific...

The Sun's loss to New York inside The Big Room on 33rd and 7th was well deserved. No team that treats the ball like a live explosive, especially 35 games into a season, should be leading a playoff series.

Their offense was disheveled. They did not honor basketball's No. 1 rule: treasure possession of the ball. There was enough one-on-one offense to qualify for the schoolyard. Terrible shots. Worse shots than that. Forced shots with the shot clock in single digits. Passes to nowhere. Not nearly enough ball movement.

You wonder how. How does a team that looked so good two weeks ago, a team Seattle coach Brian's Agler and San Antonio coach Dan Hughes raved about recently, look so putrid?

The thing is, this seems reminiscent of their losing streak earlier in the season when they just didn't seem to have it together.

For the sake of a competitive opening round series, I hope they get it together. For the sake of the Liberty's chances, I'm kinda hoping they remain stuck in first gear...

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The Playoffs Are Here!

. Thursday, September 18, 2008
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Finally...the playoffs.

I was thinking of doing some sort of playoff preview, but then I decided that I would just take in the games and enjoy the best time of any sports season. Because of that, and the fact that life is starting to get in the way of writing, I'm probably going to write less during the playoffs, unless something happens that I just have to write down.

So no playoff preview analysis from me... but Kevin Pelton had a really nice analysis comparing this year's playoff teams to teams of the past. It's an interesting way to look at the playoffs and the results definitely pass the laugh test.

Here's his description:

Obviously, this analysis can't take into account midseason trades or injuries which tend to skew a team's performance when we look at the entire season. Still, I think there's some benefit to seeing which styles have historically been successful in the WNBA Playoffs. For each team, I've reported the average playoff score of their 10 most similar teams, the number of finalists and championships amongst this group and the most comparable team and its playoff outcome.
Check it out...and then enjoy the playoffs!

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Does Depth Really Matter For the Playoffs?

. Wednesday, September 17, 2008
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I saw an interesting article from last week about how Plennette Pierson's return gives the Shock depth and versatility as they head to the playoffs.

But while the main theme of the article is the importance of depth, it's also clear that versatility and balance count. From the article:

Rather than drafting and signing players merely for depth’s sake, Laimbeer, assistant coach Rick Mahorn and director of player personnel Cheryl Reeve identified backups that would the starters’ strengths. They also found a bona fide backup for each starter, a departure from previous seasons when subs like Pierson and Johnson covered multiple positions.
Although it seems that people generally assume that depth is a good thing, this example from Detroit tells us that depth might not be as important as having a balanced and versatile rotation.

Conversely, the Storm have succeeded during the end of the season despite lacking depth...and health. In fact, they've been almost entirely reliant on Sue Bird during the second half of the season. Their lack of depth was on full display in Sunday's match-up of benches against the Sparks as both teams rested their starters. And certainly the Sparks are no model of depth, not to mention balance.

But without depth, the Storm have remained successful by focusing on the little things like defense and rebounding, according to Sue Bird.
"The reason we've been able to play so well is the system that we have," Bird said. "We rely almost entirely on our defense. No matter who's in the game, you can always play tough defense; you can always control the boards. That's really what keeps us in games and allows us to have opportunities to win."
So as teams head into the playoffs, how important is depth? And is there a way to concretely understand the value of depth as we look at the eight playoff teams' chances at success?

David Sparks from the Arbitrarian column at Hardwood Paroxysm has already explored this question for NBA teams and came up with an interesting result -- statistically, there's a negative relationship between depth and team success. Huh? How does that work?

Well he sent me the numbers for the WNBA today and I think once we actually understand how he's defining depth and look at which teams are considered deep, it starts to make sense. And perhaps starts to illuminate why certain teams succeed despite lacking depth.

Understanding depth and rotation size

Part of understanding the value of depth is understanding the difference between depth and rotation size. Sparks describes it as follows:
Depth and rotation are not necessarily the same. Since there must be five players on the court per team at all times, the theoretical minimum for rotation size is five, which you would see if a team played only five players, all game, every game. However, depth concerns not playing time, but production, and it is easy to imagine one of those five players contributing more than 20% of the team's total production, while one or more of the others produces less than their share. (There is a metric, called the Valuable Contributions Ratio, which I use to measure players' productive contributions relative to their floor time.)

If each player produced in proportion to their allocation of minutes, it would make no difference which players were on the floor, but obviously this is not the case. Rather, better players produce a greater proportion of their team's production than their proportion of a team's minutes played. This implies, of course, that a team's rotation size will likely not be the same as its productive depth, and further, that depth will likely be smaller than rotation.
I think this is an important distinction because at least in the NBA conventional wisdom is that teams should shorten their rotations for the playoffs. So if we believe that the small rotation strategy works, then perhaps the key is having a "deep rotation" -- a rotation with as many productive players as possible, independent of how long it is.

Both rotation and depth size are measured by concentration of minutes/production or how well minutes or production are distributed among players (described in depth here). Here's Sparks' NBA example:
In the first game, Indiana played only six players in total. Of those six players, five played more than 40 minutes, and the sixth played 15. The Herfindahl Index of concentration for this game is a very high 0.18.

In the second game, 12 players saw 12 or more minutes, with the most playing time being 23 minutes, which is less than half of a game. As you might expect, the Herfindahl Index is much lower here (the index increases with concentration), just 0.09.

The third game sees Minnesota employ 14 players in their quest to defeat Houston. Based on this alone, you might expect even less concentration than in the Sacramento game. However, the distribution of minutes here is much less uniform than above. Seven players saw over 20 minutes of action, the other seven saw less then ten minutes, and four of these had almost negligible floor time. As a result the Herfindahl Index is somewhere between the two games above, at 0.12.
A high concentration number means a few players played/produced. Lower numbers mean less players played/produced. He then translated these numbers into reasonable looking rotation sizes.

Let's look at the numbers.

Team-by-team depth and rotation numbers

(Playoff teams in bold.)

Team Depth and Rotation
 Atlanta Dream10.959.87
 Chicago Sky9.096.82
 Connecticut Sun10.077.75
 Detroit Shock9.558.27
 Houston Comets9.968.58
 Indiana Fever8.657.32
 Los Angeles Sparks9.525.88
 Minnesota Lynx9.708.10
 New York Liberty10.178.94
 Phoenix Mercury8.896.65
 Sacramento Monarchs10.058.40
 San Antonio Silver Stars8.136.39
 Seattle Storm9.508.21
 Washington Mystics9.587.35

The first thing I notice is that the statistical depth of a team does not seem to have much bearing on a team's success. Of the five teams with the least statistical depth, three are playoff teams (Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Indiana). The team with the most depth was the expansion Atlanta Dream.

So what if anything can we conclude from this?

When looking at the Sparks and Silver Stars -- both of which have little depth -- you could conclude that it's superstars that matter more than depth, balance, and all the other stuff. But then you look at teams like Detroit and Seattle with average depth (when healthy) and an average rotation and conclude that balance is the key.

As it turns out, the top three teams in the West would seem to support the superstar theory -- none of them is heading into the playoffs with a lot of depth, once you take Seattle's injuries into account. Will that hurt when they face the East with more depth? If San Antonio's regular season success is any indication, depth is not the problem -- having a balanced set of stars might just be more important.

And for the Sparks? They might prove the same theory if they fall short of a championship -- stars without balance are not very effective.

I don't have the time for it now, but perhaps it would be fruitful to take a look at the interaction of depth and SPI playing styles to see if certain combinations within a rotation are more valuable than just having depth for depth's sake.

Anyway, it will be exciting to see how this plays out in the playoffs.

Transition Points:

Another way to look at depth is by Boxscores -- Sparks sent me the updated Boxscores graphic for the season as well. Take a look at the Sparks -- 3 players consume most of the production. That production equals the production of exactly 5 Liberty players and almost five Detroit players if you can visualize the image without Cheryl Ford.

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My Choice for MVP: Diana Taurasi

. Tuesday, September 16, 2008
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So this MVP question has been looming for weeks and I think my favorite candidate has been clear for some time: Diana Taurasi.

Although the Mercury did not make the playoffs, missed making .500, and were not one of the top 8 teams in the league, I think a convincing argument can be made for Taurasi, with both statistics and observation.

As a refresher, here's my criteria for the MVP in the form of questions:

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

As a twist, I only evaluated my selections for the All-WNBA team...and the ever-popular Becky Hammon. The outcome was similar in the top 3, but Taurasi pulled away from Young in this one. Let's see why.

First, a change to the process

I also changed the "Boxscore differential" piece after a brief email exchange with David Sparks. He came up with a new way to calculate player contributions to team success called Marginal Victories Produced. The formula is as follows:

Player percent valuable contributions * (team total points/(team total points + opponent total points)) * team total games played

What you get in that equation is the percentage of point production that can be attributed to an individual player. Is it skewed to base production only on points? Yes and no. Yes because obviously there's other things an offense does. But no because, hey -- points win games AND it takes defense into account by incorporating opponent total points. So it says something about how much a player's contributions contributed to actual production.

Anyway, on to the numbers.

The Numbers

 Sue Bird15.3
 Sophia Young13.4
 Deanna Nolan10.7
 Seimone Augustus10.5
 Asjha Jones10.4
 Candace Parker9.6
 Janel McCarville7.8
 Diana Taurasi7.5

 Diana Taurasi29.49%
 Asjha Jones27.70%
 Becky Hammon26.92%
 Sophia Young26.29%
 Lisa Leslie25.37%
 Seimone Augustus25.15%
  Candace Parker24.62%
 Janel McCarville24.34%

 Diana Taurasi2.61
 Sophia Young2.54
 Janel McCarville2.50
 Seimone Augustus2.49
 Lindsay Whalen2.41
 Candace Parker2.40
 Asjha Jones2.27
 Deanna Nolan2.16

 Diana Taurasi5.10
 Asjha Jones5.07
 Candace Parker5.00
 Lindsay Whalen4.70
 Becky Hammon4.18
 Sophia Young4.14
 Seimone Augustus3.77
 Janel McCarville3.76

 Candace Parker293.65
 Lisa Leslie271.27
 Diana Taurasi270.53
 Deanna Nolan227.88
 Lindsay Whalen224.63
 Sophia Young224.07
 Asjha Jones219.45
 Becky Hammon206.11

What about defense?

I do think defense is important to consider for the MVP and I suggested a way to evaluate defense statistically the other week. But the problem is a player's defensive value is so difficult to quantify even with a number of statistics.

In the Mercury-Shock game on ESPN the other day, they were talking about Katie Smith's defense so I watched her the whole game. She does an amazing job defensively just because she's so strong. But it doesn't show up in the stats at all. And there are countless other players like that.

So given the difficulty of coming up with a way to assess defense and the fact that I'm already using plus/minus and MVP as proxies for overall contribution, I'll forgo the use of independent defensive stats for now.

My five picks

 Diana Taurasi46
 Sophia Young40
 Candace Parker37
 Asjha Jones37
 Seimone Augustus30

A narrative defense for MVDee

Statistically, what we see is that Taurasi has the ability to win games for her team (MVP), heavily relied upon to produce with the ball in her hands (usage), is extremely versatile, and does all of that efficiently (pts/zero pt. poss.). That she does all of that with another Olympian on the team is even more impressive.

Then there's just the fact that Taurasi is flat out spectacular at times. She fills the stat sheet. She makes big plays. She makes you say, "Wow." As for the fact that the team did not win much, we have to remember that the team was built with Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, and Penny Taylor in mind. With Taylor out all season and then Tangela Smith out down the stretch, you could say that the reason they missed the playoffs is that they were missing 2 key contributors. That should not influence our assessment of Taurasi's performance -- she still carried that team and had them in the playoff race until the last week of the season. That alone is impressive.

In comparison, Parker is more versatile but less efficient and less relied upon by her team. It's not a bad thing, but for me it's sufficient reason to go for Taurasi instead of Parker, despite the Sparks' better team performance.

The point guard problem

However, there is (at least) one problem with these metrics. As I've said before, most of these statistics are not favorable for point guards and those that do favor point guards disadvantage everyone else. So Bird came in last and Whalen came in 8th. Most people would have them higher on their MVP lists.

Here's my way of rationalizing it -- in Bird's case, I would say that while she's been great all season, she didn't really turn it on until Jackson left. In fact, she was in a horrible shooting slump for the first third of the season. The award is given for a season's worth of work, so I think there are just stronger candidates this year.

As for Whalen, I think she is truly disadvantaged by this system because she's a player who focuses on running the system rather than collecting big stats. But she also plays with Jones who is a very strong MVP candidate as well. What surprises me though is Whalen's low plus/minus rating -- +2.8 -- compared to Jones' -- +10.4. Since plus/minus is the strongest non-box score stat we have for the WNBA, it's important and it's a little surprising she doesn't rank higher. It was also somewhat interesting to see the Sun win two games without Whalen...that certainly hurt her MVP chances.

Because we can't watch all of the games, I stand by the notion that statistics are helpful in evaluating MVP candidates, despite a few quirks. With or without statistics, Taurasi would be my pick this year. Hopefully next year she'll give us a repeat performance and take the award without any caveats...if not for that perky Parker...

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My All-WNBA Teams

. Monday, September 15, 2008
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Well the season is almost complete and now it's time to hand out those post season awards before the playoffs. I'll start with All-WNBA teams because I haven't done those before...and they will get me a step closer to figuring out my MVP candidates.

When I look back at the past All-WNBA teams I don't see any positional requirements so this is truly my top 10 players from the season, plus an honorable mention third team.

I'm going to use statistics to justify, but not determine, my choices. I'd be interested in seeing other people's picks and their justifications as well. The three statistics I looked at were Model Estimated Value, plus/minus, and efficiency rating. Rather than going strictly by the rankings, I just used these to sort out who deserved to make the cut.

** The plus/minus numbers used here are from games through September 7th.

All-WNBA Second Team

Deanna Nolan

There should be no doubt that Nolan deserves All-WNBA recognition. Even though I'm not a big fan of the Shock, I really enjoy watching Nolan play. She's one of those players that goes about the game in an almost business-like fashion just doing what she has to do to help her team win, whether that be scoring or distributing the ball.

She didn't put up particularly gaudy statistics this season -- statistically, Jia Perkins had a better season. But she was right within range of the top players in every category. One thing does stand out however -- she shot 46% from the field. That's phenomenal for a guard who takes as many contested jump shots as Nolan does.

The reason I put Nolan on my team is that I don't think you can disregard the intangibles she brings to the Shock in terms of leadership and consistency. It comes down to this question -- if it comes down to one shot at the end of the game, who am I going to trust with the ball? Nolan can create her own shot off the dribble from anywhere on the court, make smart decisions with the ball, and make the right pass if she can't get off a shot.

Janel McCarville

As I've written before, it's hard not to like McCarville's game. She's tough inside, she's smart, and she's shown the ability to face up her defender and take her to the basket. She ranked 9th in MEV and 9th in efficiency rating which pretty much sealed the deal for me. She's also consistently been one of the best defensive post players statistically.

What I like best about her though is her passing ability. Having a post player that can make good decisions with the ball and be a central element of the offense is a huge asset. She's first among centers in assists per 40 minutes which means she is doing a relatively good job of finding others from the post. And again, you can't disregard the intangibles -- the fire and passion she brings to the court has been invaluable on a number of occasions. She's just a great player.

Sue Bird

For all the talk about her late season rise, she's consistently been at the top of the plus/minus rankings all season. And with Lauren Jackson out after the Olympic break she just picked it up a notch. Through last week, her plus/minus rating was +20.7.

Bird is a combo guard in the true sense of the word who can easily shift between scoring and distributing depending on what her team needs. It's been impressive to see how well she made the switch from a pure distributor to a scorer in Lauren Jackson's absence.

She could easily be the most dominant player in the league with her skill set, but instead chooses to pick her spots and make her teammates better. Perhaps Jackson's injury was just a nice little reminder of just how good she is.

Ashja Jones

The best way to describe Jones: dominant post player. She has an array of post moves and seems to score almost any way she chooses to. She had the 7th highest plus/minus rating and the 9th highest efficiency rating.

I didn't really take notice of Jones till the second half of the season, possibly because I was always so focused on Lindsay Whalen. But while Whalen has been described as the engine that makes the team go by Mike Thibault, it's quite clear to me that they would not be where they are without Jones.

Lisa Leslie

Leslie is in my mind the Defensive Player of the Year. She anchors LA's defense which has been one of the best in the league all year and when she leaves the game there's a noticeable difference. But she's also been huge offensively combining with Candace Parker to create a deadly high-low post game.

Statistically, she was 8th in MEV ratings and 4th in efficiency rating. It's hard to keep her off the first team, but there are so many great players there, that Leslie fell to second

All-WNBA First Team

Lindsay Whalen

If it weren't for Sue Bird's second half performance, Whalen would be by far the best point guard in the WNBA this season. She does everything -- she can score, distribute, rebound, and plays the angles so well that she's hard to stop. Like Bird, she tends to spend a lot of time trying to set up teammates which makes her appear passive, but as a point guard, that's a valuable asset.

In terms of the numbers, she's 4th in MEV and 5th in efficiency, making her the most productive point guard in the league. In my opinion, she could be putting up better numbers but in Connecticut's system individual performance seems to be subordinated to team performance so she often just comes down the court and gets her team into the offense rather than trying to immediately make a play. Like Bird though, it's not a bad thing -- she just has the ability to shift from a distributor to scorer whenever she needs to do so.

Seimone Augustus

She's a scorer who seems to be able to get to wherever she wants on the court. Any shooting guard who can score 19 points per game on 47% shooting is impressive. And like Nolan, those are mostly contested jump shots.

But what's most impressive is that for a player who is such a volume scorer, she can also defend and make her teammates better. Her plus/minus rating of +18.4 is second only to Sue Bird. She also ranks 10th in efficiency rating and 12th in MEV. She's quickly becoming one of the best all-around players in the league.

Sophia Young

Easily one of my top MVP candidates, she's a player who gets the job done quietly, but does so as one of the most efficient and productive players in the league. She ranks high in MEV, plus/minus, and efficiency rating. She's an athletic inside-out post threat who can also defend well, although she's occasionally giving up a few inches to her opponent. It's difficult not to like what Young has done this season really.

Diana Taurasi

Love her game. I have already written about why I think she's arguably the best player in the league here.

Candace Parker


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"Forever Opti-Mystic": When Will the Mystics Rise Above Mediocrity?

. Sunday, September 14, 2008
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Like I wrote about the Sky yesterday, the Mystics didn't have much to play for against the Sun except pride.

And like the Sky, they lost to a playoff team that was missing two MVP caliber starters. In other words, the Mystics lost to the Sun's bench as the Basketcases pointed out. That's not exactly an encouraging way to head into the last game of the season for a lottery-bound team.

Which begs the question: how far away is this team for success?

One of the commentators during yesterday's game mentioned a poster a fan made that read "Forever Opti-Mystic". Which I find impressive...because I haven't been.

I have a secret -- when the WNBA first started I lived in the DC area and the Mystics were my team. Or rather, Nikki McCray was my favorite women's basketball player. I liked everything about her -- her game, her off-court personality, and at the time I thought she'd be a star. Then when they got Holdsclaw I thought it was a done deal -- the Mystics were destined for a championship.


Of course, as the Mystics only continued to wallow in mediocrity, not only did my interest in the team fade, but my interest in the entire league faded. Everything just seemed, well, predictable and by extension, boring. The Comets seemed destined to win every year and the Mystics couldn't even win with Holdsclaw and McCray. And when the Mystics traded McCray what little interest was left disappeared entirely (I can't even remember what year that was without looking, but I remember rolling my eyes when it happened).

I was crushed. And it took me years to even bother watching the WNBA again ("Expect Great" actually worked on me. I realized I had to let go of the mediocrity I experienced in DC). I write all this to say that from my perspective as a born-again WNBA fan, it seems like the only constants in the league's history have been Tina Thompson and the Washington Mystics (I could be wrong about that and I'm sure someone will correct me).

So it's not just a matter of how far from success this team is but moreso how much time it will take to change from a culture of mediocrity to a culture of success -- just bad enough to miss the playoffs but just good enough to miss out on the highest draft picks. And most of those draft picks just haven't panned out.

So watching yesterday loss to the Sun was a painful reminder of a frustrating past -- how does this team finally get over the hump? After reading a Rebkell thread about it, I have to say I agree with most of the posters there: trade Beard.

All signs point to change

I said before Welcome Back Week that I thought the end of the season for the Mystics would be interesting to watch. It was a(nother) key turning point for the franchise after trading Taj McWilliams-Franklin for Tasha Humphrey while in the middle of a playoff race.

Well, all they've done after the break is go 0 for 7. Not particularly encouraging. And when I see comments like the following from Alana Beard, you have to wonder if their star longs for greener pastures:

"[The Sun] have a great coaching staff," Mystics' guard Alana Beard said. "They get the most out of their players. They have a good bench, too. The players accept and play their roles."
One Mystics fan, CC, has sent me a few emails regarding whether the Mystics should trade Beard and although I think they could build around her, it seems tempting to just move her and continue cleaning house. CC wrote the following via email:
As the fate of DC is unknown, and with so many other factors involved, I both hope she is traded to a more successful team and will return to her 2006 level. Yes,I agree trade of first Melvin, then Milton-Jones' and Teasley's loss were intrinsic to DC performance this year,also.
CC echoes the sentiment of many on Rebkell who have also suggested trading Beard and cleaning house. As long as the team is going to struggle, they might as well bring in some new blood to energize fans.

So what direction should they move in?

I'm honestly at a loss on this one because really, they're not yet close enough to any standard of success to suggest one direction. The key is that everyone from the owner down to the 12th player on the bench needs to commit to a direction, something like Connecticut has done.

The fact that Connecticut beat the Mystics with their bench playing major minutes speaks volumes about Connecticut's team building strategy. They have built a system that functions even without their stars. Nobody expected them to be at the top of the Eastern Conference this year, but there they are with home court advantage.

That seems like a good way for the Mystics to start to me -- establish a system, find players who fit the system, and build slowly toward a cohesive unit. It might not result in instant success, but at least fans might feel like the team is building toward something rather than floating around in the abyss of mediocrity. And perhaps that will help the fair weather male fans like me stick around for a little bit longer.

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