“At Last”: Opening Day Preview

. Saturday, June 6, 2009


By some strange coincidence, every single WNBA pre-season game was during a meeting, class, or the NBA playoffs (and I think I overslept a morning one or two). So aside from the Storm game that I went to, I have to confess that I have not seen enough of the WNBA pre-season to give a full preview.

But hey, that didn’t exactly stop a few major national publications from writing something…so why shouldn’t I?

So instead of the typical season preview that either does the impossible and predicts the outcomes or gives a roster analysis, I thought I would present a few themes that I intend to follow throughout the season.

A first will probably come as no surprise if you followed this blog last season: the role of the point guard.

I was talking to some folks the other day about how some people were claiming that last year in the NBA was the “Year of the Point Guard”, that point guards like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Rajon Rondo were emerging to dominate the league.

Then of course, when you look at this year’s NBA playoffs, of the four teams that made the semifinals, only one (Denver) had an established point guard (Mo Williams is solid but not quite “established” yet). So the point guard match-ups in the Finals are as follows: Derek Fisher, Tony Farmar, and Shannon Brown vs. Rafer Alston, Jameer Nelson (still recovering from injury), and Anthony Johnson?

Does it look to you that point guards are the key to these teams? On the surface, not really…but that’s where I took the argument a bit further.

My whole point about the point guard is that it’s a position about decision making and goodness of fit. Successful teams don’t absolutely need a superstar point guard capable of completely dominating a game (e.g. Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups). They need a style of point guard that both defines and fits what they want to do.

The decision making framework becomes a particularly relevant point once you reach the second tier of point guards – does your point guard know when to push the ball and when to slow it down? Do they know when to drive or when to shoot? Do they know when to take the ball and swing it or reset the offense? Can they make an eff-ing entry pass?

All of these things sound super simple, right? Yeah, but some people simply don’t have it even though they have all the physical tools in the world.

What we have seen from the point guards playing in the Finals is solid decision making frm…even if that means pass to Kobe and clear. Derek Fisher’s style of play – as much as I despise him for his performance with and against the Warriors – is a great fit for the Lakers because he generally makes good decisions (as in limiting turnovers). Farmar is nice as a change of pace to pick up the tempo with the second unit, which has been extremely effective at times. Rafer Alston is perfect for the Magic because he can penetrate and find open shooters.

It seems likely that we will see a similar pattern in the WNBA this year – the best point guards in the league (Sue Bird & Lindsay Whalen) might be at home watching the conference finals. But I would argue that the point guard play of this year’s pre-season front-runner (the Sparks) will be huge.

And there will be a few teams whose playoff hopes might be riding on the play of a rookie point guard by the end of the season – there were three point guards taken in the first six picks of the draft and by the end of the season, all three could be starters.

So with that, my top five players and teams to watch as the season begins.

Top 5 Players to Watch

5. Lifelock’s Diana Taurasi: Always interesting to watch and will have quite a burden trying to get her team to the playoffs. Having Lauren Jackson would have been nice, but she showed last year that she can take a team to the brink of the playoffs almost by herself. When you look around at the Western Conference, it will be tough to make the playoffs…and if the Mercury want it, Taurasi will have to have an amazing season. I think she can do it.

4. Kristi Toliver, Renee Montgomery, and Briann January: All three of these point guards could be starting by mid-season depending on how the veterans around them play and how they fit into their respective systems. And I think following the progression of rookie point guards is fascinating. January has already been announced the starter of her team, Toliver has a good chance to challenge Chicago’s shooting guards filling the point guard spot, and Montgomery will have to work. But this will be interesting to watch – by the end of the season, who will be the best point guard in the 2009 draft?

3. Sylvia Fowles: the main storyline this season will probably be Lisa Leslie retiring and passing the torch to Candace Parker. But I see it slightly differently – the torch in terms of WNBA post play is being passed to Fowles. And she’s more than ready. The big question will be how the Sky use her. Last year, it just seemed like she was not incorporated into the offense very well. This year having demonstrated what she can do both in Europe and the Olympics, it seems unfathomable that she would not be the focal point of this team. No pressure, Coach Key.

2. Lindsay Whalen: This might seem like an odd pick, but she just seems like the eternal underdog. The GMs selected Sue Bird as the best point guard in the league in something of a landslide, which makes me wonder, what does Lindsay Whalen have to do to establish herself as the best? Well, winning a championship would be nice, but it seems unlikely this year. Some of their young players will have a year more under their belts though which could give Whalen more support so they don’t go through another 8 game slump like last year. But ultimately the Sun’s chances will boil down to Whalen. And if they do well, might she be anointed the top point guard in the league next year?

1. Candace Parker: Duh. That was easy. Coming back off her MVP season and off-season pregnancy, can she get her first championship?

Top 5 Teams to Watch

5. Diana Taurasi’s Lifelock (aka Phoenix Mercury): I love Diana Taurasi…and really, how can you not? She all about helping the children stay healthy and everything. But seriously – and no disrespect to Cappie Pondexter – the Mercury will live or die based on Taurasi’s performance this season. And if this Mercury team somehow gets to the playoffs – as 50% of WNBA GMs predicted – she is hands down the 2009 WNBA MVP. How 50% of GMs predicted the Mercury making the playoffs and only one predicted Taurasi winning the MVP is actually baffling to me.

4. New York Liberty: OK, ok… yes, I just really like Leilani Mitchel as a point guard. But that’s not really the point. The question for the Liberty is whether they can take that next step and return to the WNBA finals…which ultimately comes down to a question of whether they can take down Detroit.

3. Sacramento Monarchs: This is my dark horse team of the 2009 season. I’ve seen some people write this team off but as usual, this frontcourt is absolutely loaded. And when this team is clicking on all cylinders, they will be extremely difficult to stop. They have added Courtney Paris – who I think will be a force on the boards – and have a constantly improving Crystal Kelly to make up a potentially dominant frontcourt of the future. They have also added Hamchetou Maiga-Ba who should be able to just adds another veteran presence. This is a team with the capacity to challenge the top teams in the Western Conference while simultaneously having a bright future. And that’s always fascinating to watch. And I will never ever…evaevaevaevaeva count out Ticha Penicheiro…ok?

2. Chicago Sky: I just love the Sky. I love the combination of talent they have: two great post players, an outstanding all-around perimeter player in Jia Perkins, and Armintie Price who is just one of the league’s great personalities. Not that personalities win games…but it makes it even more fun to root for (or in the case of Kobe Bryant, against). I have gone on and on about them in the past, so I spare you here. But I’m really really interested in seeing how Kristi Toliver fits into this team. She could easily take the starting spot by mid-season.

1. LA Sparks: the Sparks have put together one of those fantasy teams that almost try to shape destiny by bringing together a group of players that just seems unstoppable…you know, if they all play the way they’re supposed to and actually come together to work as a team. It’s almost as with these squads are supposed to overwhelm you with star power before you even step on the court.

And as we saw last year with the Storm, this doesn’t always work…

In the NBA, the 2000 Portland Trailblazers and the 2004 LA Lakers immediately come to mind. Really, they had two different problems – the Blazers were just loaded top to bottom whereas the Lakers had four Hall of Famers and little depth. What’s interesting is that in this year’s WNBA just as in the NBA in 2004, it could be a gritty Detroit team that was assembled for a particular style of play that topples the fantasy team.

But in addition to trying to bring this talent and mold them into a team, there will be the additional adjustment once Candace Parker comes back to the team. So they will have to do a double adjustment this season…and that doesn’t sound easy in the WNBA’s short regular season. The key will be to see where they’re at near the end of the season. And you have to wonder how that will influence home court advantage in the Western Conference.

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"Cash Rules Everything Around Me": New Theme Song/Slogan for WNBA?

. Tuesday, June 2, 2009
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After building anticipation for something major over the weekend, the WNBA announced yesterday that the Phoenix Mercury will be allowing Lifelock to use their jerseys as human billboards.

Greg Johns of the Seattle PI wonders whether this trend is akin to selling one's soul.

I hardly think so.

The Fanster Phoenix Mercury community blog invited a few of us WNBA bloggers to chime in on a roundtable discussion about the issue along with Kevin Pelton (Seattle Storm/Basketball Prospectus), Greg Esposito (Fanster.com), Alex Chambers (13 Teams, 1 Journey), and Fat Louie (Women's Sports Blog). I enjoyed reading their opinions and recommend taking a look.

The rough consensus: it's a business.

Or maybe that's just what I thought...

I think Pelton makes the best point when he wrote, "In time, however, this is sure to blow over."

I totally agree -- there's a long history of corporate intervention in sport and this is really no different. I'd prefer to have the WNBA around for the long haul than disappear because of fear of taking corporate money. After a while, it would be a waste of time to complain about this.

Sad, I know... but let's get real: cash rules everything around pro sports. Period.

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Was the NBA Revolution Just Televised?

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Saturday night in Orlando, my assumptive basketball world was seriously shaken.

Not because Nike’s million dollar puppet show had convinced me that Kobe and LeBron were supposed to face off in this year’s NBA finals – those puppets were merely a humorous way to reinforce the seeming inevitability of a Kobe-LeBron showdown.

I had already partaken of the LeBron James Kool-Aid long before those commercials were first aired.

Orlando’s presence in the NBA Finals challenges conventional wisdom about how to build a successful basketball team. We are conditioned (perhaps by NBA marketing, perhaps by paying attention to recent history) that star power is the key to success in the NBA. In fact, it is one of the things that bothers many non-NBA fans most – that individuals so often seem to overshadow the team.

And so that’s really what makes the Magic particularly significant at this point in NBA history – this is not a star-powered team in the way we’ve come to think of it. The Magic have put together a very unlikely cast of characters to lead them to the Finals.

FreeDarko’s Bethlehem Shoals
presents a particularly interesting characterization of the Magic:

The Magic offer a far more interesting case. They have this big man who is both more and less than the past. There's a chance they stumbled into it, and that the tandem of Lewis and Turkoglu are both essential and came as a surprise. And when healthy, they have an All-Star point guard. This is old worship of height, plus the age of the point guard, plus a kind of post-Euro Sudoku puzzle that only master coach SVG could make sense of in such a non-obvious fashion (and, as Kevin Pelton has pointed out, this team would suck if deployed in obvious fashion). I also pick up a distinctly Pistons-meets-Suns vine int he way Lee, Pietrus, and even Reddick are used, though maybe now I'm just laying it on thick. In short, this team has everything but a Kobe or LeBron, which is a really fortuitous spot to be in. And chances are, any other squad with this roster would screw it up. So we might be looking at an utter singularity here that both bridges and invalidates the entire ferment of conventional basketball wisdom, past and present. In the end, it comes down to the twist you put on it. Traditions and trends, new and old, can tell you some basics, but past that, you're on your own. The question is, what does it take for a team like the Magic to be absorbed, as the Suns were? The Warriors certainly weren't . .
The logic behind the Magic, as pointed out by Charles Barkley prior to the series, is that they are a match-up nightmare. But even that doesn’t seem to justify them managing to make it past LeBron.

However, what the Magic do is reinforce my belief that there are some fundamental elements of basketball – Four Factors, perhaps? – that can be used to analyze and understand almost any basketball team. And with the WNBA season starting and rosters taking their final shape, it got me thinking again about what makes great basketball teams tick.

Cramming the Magic into the NBA narrative

I vividly remember Kenny Smith responding to Charles Barkley’s suggestion that the Magic would win by saying something to the effect of, when LeBron James is on the court you can just tear up the matchups on paper.

And I not only agreed but thought Barkley was clearly off his rocker.

Sure the Magic were easily one of the top five teams in the league this year, even after all-star point guard Jameer Nelson went down with an injury mid-season. But they got a lucky break drawing the Celtics in the second round with both Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe injured. They were down in their first two playoff series.

At first I wanted to say that this is just a matter of James overcoming an arch-nemesis, just as the Isaiah Thomas-led Pistons had to overcome the Celtics or the Michael Jordan-led Bulls had to overcome the Pistons. This is nothing like that.

In those past cases significant shifts in power occurred. But the Magic were never an established power to begin with which is what makes them being a roadblock to James’ “inevitable” ascent to immortality so weird.

However, they simultaneously demonstrate the value of adhering to some fundamental elements of basketball and that’s what I find interesting.

Dean Oliver’s Four Factors

Last season, I spent quite a bit of time analyzing teams through the lens of what I called “team synergy” but what is essentially Dean Oliver’s Four Factors. And I think the Magic demonstrate the efficacy to such an approach to understanding basketball. I haven’t gone through and crunched the numbers on this just yet, but just from observation of the Magic’s wins against the Cavs, the Four Factors are what led them to victory.

Everybody seems to focus on Dwight Howard as the force that drives the Magic, and while I do think he’s a force down low, I don’t think he’s the primary reason the Magic win.

To me, the key element of basketball is ball movement and nobody has done that better this year than the Magic. And while it’s hard to truly measure ball movement, I’ve found that adding the a/fg statistic to Oliver’s Four Factors is an extremely effective way to estimate a team’s ability to move the ball.

Bruchu from the X’s and O’s of Basketball blog posted recently about how similar Cleveland and Orlando’s spread offenses are. And when you look at the film, they definitely do run similar offenses.

The big difference though is that the Magic move the ball extremely well, have a number of three point shooters around the perimeter, and do a very good job of getting penetration into the lane which draws defenders.

The “collapse” effect on Howard is important, but even when teams choose not to collapse, it’s the ability to move the ball and get penetration that makes this team work.

The Magic are by no means driven by one player. It’s the way that the individual parts come together as a whole that I find interesting both in the way that it helped them defeat LeBron and as a way to think about building a team.

What I find interesting about this is that the Magic did it without having the pieces you’d traditionally think of putting together – neither of their forwards plays very “big”. Rafer Alston is a solid point guard in spurts, but never mistaken for an all-star. Dwight Howard, despite his greatness, does not have a single consistent post move (watch his game carefully…he doesn’t). Courtney Lee, though vastly underrated, is a solid rookie who just does everything well, but nothing spectacular.

A Sudoku puzzle indeed.

The Magic do some fundamental things so well that they are able to maximize their talent, even when up against a superstar like LeBron. Taking down a deep squad like the Lakers is another matter entirely... but it's becoming harder and harder to count the Magic out.

Even when a team builds around a player or two, having a supporting cast that both complements the stars and can keep the opponents off balance is absolutely essential. I think we can support these observations statistically and look forward to seeing how different WNBA teams attempt to balance those fundamentals of basketball as they put together rosters in preparation for the season.

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