Toliver Impresses in Victory Over Should Start at Point Guard for the Chicago Sky?

. Wednesday, June 24, 2009
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Where should I even start with the Chicago Sky’s 99-98 victory over the Dream?

If you have any sort of affection for the Sky, yesterday’s win against the Dream was actually painful.

It was one of those exceptions to the cliche “a win is a win” -- sometimes even a win is best construed as a learning opportunity.

You may know that the Sky are my favorite WNBA team. So I was particularly excited to watch Kristi Toliver’s progress on the court after having stared at her statistics over the last few days.

However, as I watched the Sky yesterday morning while trying to focus on Toliver, I couldn’t keep from getting extremely frustrated about the same question I wondered last year abut the Sky: what exactly are they doing?

Hmm…that might sound harsh. So let me clarify….

It’s not so much that I expect a team to justify what they’re doing to me, a random WNBA blogger. Nor should I really expect to understand a professional basketball offense will be totally transparent to fans who haven’t spent time watching practice or reading at playbooks. But panic is one of those feelings that comes through pretty clearly even through a webcast, both in watching the coach patrol the sidelines and watching the players trying to create seemingly arbitrary answers to a worsening problem.

Just before the start of overtime, WNBA LiveAccess commentator Art Eckman said the following about the game just before the start of overtime.

…the kids’ day has been delighted with a surprise. The surprise is a team could be down 18 points and come back and take a two point lead and then take the game into overtime.
LaChina Robinson may call it a valiant effort on the part of the Dream and, yeah, it was. But I call it a massive collapse on the part of the Sky.

And coincidentally, I would say that the Sky’s collapse yesterday was partially related to the object of my observation: the point guard position. I entered the game wondering who should start at point guard for the Sky after comments on a previous post from KT #7 suggested Toliver should start over Dominique Canty. What I think this game demonstrated is that before answering that question, the Sky need to figure out some sort of identity that they can depend on when things get rough.

The collapse

After Armintie Price made a jump shot from the wing at the beginning of the 4th quarter, the Sky were ahead by 18 points. With a minute left in the game, Atlanta had not only erased the deficit, but taken a two point lead.

So what happened?

Really, there are two connected explanations for the collapse – one is evident just by looking at the play-by-play, the other is less obvious from the stats or play-by-play: the Sky’s apparent lack of a coherent offensive system to rely on when things get tough.

If you’ve spent time watching basketball at any level, you probably know that momentum is a really strange phenomenon, which is not only about strategy or ability, but also the mindsets of the teams involved. It is generally a convergence of the losing team feeling like they have nothing to lose and the winning team either getting arrogant, playing not to lose, or starting to question the strategy that got them the big lead to begin with.

But pinpointing the shift in momentum during this game was much simpler.

About a minute after a three point play by Jennifer Lacy cut the deficit to 15, KB Sharp entered the game for Toliver. I thought to myself, “Hmmm…that’s weird. Has Sharp even played yet this game?” The answer was no, she had not played. But it probably didn’t seem to matter at the time – the Sky clearly assumed the fourth quarter would be a smooth garbage-time coast to a victory. At that point, the Sky had the following lineup in the game: Sharp, Price, Shyra Ely, Chen Nan, and Erin Thorn.

Within the next minute the lead was down to 12.

So after the Sky emptied the bench and watched the Dream’s confidence grow as the momentum swung their way, they then brought Jia Perkins, Sylvia Fowles, and Candice Dupree back in the game with 7:09 left. But essentially that was a panic signal. But I’m not going to explain the loss entirely psychologically. Something else happened…or didn’t happen.

It would be easy to look at Sharp’s -9 plus/minus rating and put the blame on her. But a) she did not insert herself in the game for the first time after sitting all game and b) three starters re-entered the game with a 12-point lead.

When the starters re-entered the game – Canty came in at 5:38 – things didn’t get better. They were scrambling, taking contested jump shots and trying to force plays that weren’t there. The ball movement that helped them successfully find shots to that point stopped, despite having three guards on the floor (Perkins, Canty, and Sharp/Toliver). Even if we ignore the fact that they had not played a three guard lineup all game until the fourth quarter, the bigger issue here is that after building an 18 point lead, they suddenly looked lost.

Normally, one might say, well it was a lack of execution. But that assumes there is something in place to execute. So what is it, may I ask, that the Sky are even trying to execute? I can never figure that out. And it really doesn’t matter who is in the game if the team doesn’t have a common understanding of what’s supposed to happen.

System: "a method or set of procedures for achieving something."

There is certainly value to having a looser approach to basketball rather than a rigid system that limits players. And that appears to be the way Sky coach Steven Key likes to run the Sky. In fact, Toliver even said that at the beginning of the season in an interview with Slam Magazine.
“He’s a really nice guy, first and foremost, and he’s really fun to be around,” said Toliver. “He lets players play and that’s one of the things I like a lot. He’s not going to do a lot of X and O type of stuff because he wants to get up and down the floor and let you use your strengths. He knows that this team is balanced inside and out and he knows where to get people into the right spots to be successful. He knows how to get the best out of his players.”
Fun, loose, fluid, and player autonomy are nice when you have a veteran team that has experienced success in the past and knows exactly how to bring it about. Or for a team that has Kobe Bryant (+ all-star cast) or Michael Jordan. But at the end of a game when the momentum is swinging in the opponent’s direction, a young team that has yet to play in even one playoff game together needs a little structure. They don’t have that implicit sense of how to win games together yet, by no fault of their own. They just haven’t been together long enough.

And that was painfully obvious at the end of yesterday’s game – there was no structure with which to fall back on when everything started to feel chaotic.

The Sky rely very heavily on jump shooting and guard penetration. Dupree is often getting points taking baseline jumpers – which she is pretty good at – and Fowles will get an occasional touch if she happens to be open off a pick and roll or a result of the defense shifting in response to guard penetration.

Really, it sometimes looks like they are relying on some sort of dribble drive offense, which is somewhat effective, but assumes that you have multiple players who can get to the basket from the perimeter. Really, the Sky only have two players who have demonstrated the ability to themselves to the rim for easy shots or assists: Canty and Perkins.

Given that, it would seem to make more sense to do the exact opposite and focus on setting up their two talented post players and surround them with three point shooters, like Toliver and Brooke Wyckoff. Spread the defense, give the post players some space to work off of each other and move the perimeter players around the gaps.

People might say that a post-oriented system would not work for the Sky because Fowles is not the type of aggressive personality that demands the ball. However, it’s really difficult for me to forget that Fowles was not just solid at the Beijing Olympics last year, but Fowles was arguably Team USA’s most productive player. It’s not that she cannot be a more productive player, it’s that Team USA found ways to put her in position to succeed and the Sky have not.

But I digress..

So back to the original question about who should start at point guard for the Sky, how can we really answer that question if there is no clear system for the point guard to run? I don’t think anybody could really come up with a definitive answer, but I think yesterday’s game did give us a good sense of their options.

Status quo: Dominique Canty

Canty offers something that I highly value in a point guard: the ability to drive and put pressure on the defense. She’s not the most efficient scorer off the dribble, but she’s among the top point guards in the league when it comes to getting herself to the line. After missing her first three free throws in the first quarter, she went 7-7 the rest of the way. And in the beginning of the game, her ability to drive and get to the line was really giving the Dream problems.

Typically my knock against Canty is that she’s not particularly effective at getting her teammates involved within the “offense”…but that was not really the case in this game. She had a pure point rating of 3.70 for the game, which is solid. Her assist ratio, though not stellar was above average at 24.19%.

These numbers are well above Canty’s numbers for the season thus far, but from this game, she played the point guard position well just in terms of her ability to run the team and distribute the ball. And if it is some kind of dribble drive the Sky want to run, then it makes sense to start Canty.

However, I would argue that the dribble drive does not actually play to the Sky’s strengths because they really only have two players who can execute that type of offense effectively.

So hypothetically, it might make more sense to start Toliver at point guard next to Perkins and spread the defense to create space for Fowles. And Toliver gave us a glimpse of what she could do yesterday.

Supporting a shift in strategy: Kristi Toliver

I admit that I have a bias in favor of point guards that are able to break down the defense and create offense for others. And so when considering Toliver as a potential starter in the WNBA, that’s what I’ve been looking for.

And although she has not demonstrated the ability to get deep into the lane, she would actually be an outstanding option to run a post-oriented offense next to a guard like Jia Perkins who could drive to the basket.

If you did not watch yesterday’s game, what might stand out to you is that she’s shooting the ball better and getting a decent number of assists. When the Dream tried to run zone defense, Toliver also showed that she could easily be used as a zone buster as well, further supporting the idea of using her to spread the court. She can get her shot and has an array of jab steps, fade aways, and a relatively quick release that help her as a scorer.

However, what impressed me most was that she did a much better job of moving the ball in this game. It doesn’t really show up in her numbers (pure point rating of 0.00 and turnover percentage of 16.6%) but she looked much more patient in her decision making, swung the ball across the court against the zone very well, and took advantage of scoring opportunities when they came to her.

With 12 seconds left in the third quarter, she ran a beautiful high pick and roll with Fowles, drawing the defense toward her and zipping a perfect pass to Fowles for the layup. It was more of a defensive lapse by the Dream, but Toliver recognized it quickly and made the play happen.

Toliver is not by any means going to be a traditional “pass-first” point guard, but she has shown the ability to score and make plays for others as she has gotten more comfortable with her teammates. My initial question was whether she could run a team rather than looking primarily for her own scoring and I think she’s starting to show the ability to do that. The next question is whether she can do it consistently.

Then again, maybe wondering if she or Canty is the better starter at point guard is the wrong question altogether.

Jia Perkins may be the best point guard on this team

Last season when Dominique Canty was injured, Perkins demonstrated the ability to run the team extremely effectively. And contrary to what you might think, it’s not just because she’s a great scorer. She has all the ball handling, passing, and intangible ability that you might want a point guard to have.

Yesterday, she recorded 6 assists and 0 turnovers for a pure point rating of 11.11. In my latest point guard rankings, she ranked in the top five. She is one of the most productive guards overall in the league and has the ability to score efficiently. Furthermore, she’s the type of player who can put up near triple-double numbers occasionally.

Putting the ball in her hands and allowing her to make decisions in an open and loose offense, seems like a good bet. The only downside of putting her at point is that it might detract from her ability to score. But in the right type of system, she’ll be able to find her scoring opportunities while also getting the ball to her teammates…as she managed to do yesterday.

If she were in charge of making plays with Toliver next to her expected to score and both of them focused fundamentally on creating easy shots for Fowles inside and Dupree on the baseline, the Sky could be an extremely difficult team to defend. Then depending on the matchups, Canty could come off the bench either to get more penetration in the key or continue looking to the post while Toliver and Wyckoff spread the court.

Of course, this just reinforces my original point – given that there is no clear point guard starter on the Sky, they need to work out their system before they make that personnel decision.

Trade possibilities: Could swapping Kristi’s help?

If the Sky were to decide that Toliver simply doesn’t fit into their dribble drive scheme (and I argue she has not demonstrated the ability to run that kind of offense) then could a trade be in the Sky’s best interest? CJ at the TIB blog suggests exactly that and even proposes a trade idea:
So is KT stuck with the Sky? I don’t think so. I could definitely see a trade with L.A., swapping the Kristis: Harrower and Toliver. I think then you put two talented guards on teams that are better suited to their sensibilities. Harrower could certainly take over the PG duties in Chicago without missing a beat, and matching Toliver with Parker could be a formula for a decade’s worth of very interesting basketball (KT’s four years partnered with Marissa Coleman being ideal training for a combo with Parker).
On the surface, this makes a lot of sense for the Sky: Harrower has been one of the most efficient facilitators in the league thus far this season, keeping turnovers low while having a high assist ratio and pure point rating. However, given the Sky’s other personnel, I’m not sure it’s a “traditional” facilitator that the Sky need -- if they want to play an inside-out game, Toliver is a much better outside shooter, and if they want to play a dribble drive system, Harrower is not necessarily more effective at that than Toliver (though she has posted a better 2 point field goal % this season).

The Sky clearly have options at point guard and I don’t think an analysis of individual strengths and weaknesses really helps to figure out who should start there. If they keep falling apart down the stretch with an Olympian and two other potential all-stars on the team, then the problem has to go beyond individual players making poor decisions. They have to develop a system that will prevent these fourth quarter implosions.

In the end, the Sky’s success will come down to them figuring out what exactly they are trying to do. And with so many young and constantly developing players, that is no easy task.

Related Links:

7/2009 - Sky 99, Dream 98 (OT): Just Warming Up

Chicago's Steve Key on Kristi Toliver

Transition Points:

Shalee Lehning vs. Nikki Teasley…
How do you measure Lehning’s impact? From watching the game, Shalee Lehning played much better than Nikki Teasley. But is there a way to show that statistically, especially when Teasley ranked #8 in my most recent rankings? I think so: one of the statistics included in my rankings is plus/minus. In yesterday’s game, Lehning recorded a plus/minus rating of +10 while Teasley had a plus/minus of -11 (click here for complete numbers).

It wasn’t that Lehning did anything spectacular, but she got the ball into the hands of the players who needed it down the stretch comeback. And it was a pretty impressive performance for a rookie point guard in a tight game. But what was most interesting was her enthusiasm – all throughout that comeback, Lehning was high fiving teammates and clearly the most excited one on the court during every stoppage of play. Part of being a leader is keeping people’s spirits high. And whereas young players are sometimes reluctant to try inspiring teammates, Lehning is clearly willing to do so. I don’t know whether she should assume a larger role on the team (her shot is really inconsistent) but she is a solid back-up nonetheless…

But after seeing so little production from the point guard position during this game, I have to wonder why they chose to waive Ivory Latta…