Storm-Stars Preview: A Battle of Supporting Casts

. Saturday, August 1, 2009
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In the Seattle Storm’s 74-71 loss to the San Antonio Silver Stars on Tuesday night, the Silver Stars came back from down 10 points at the beginning of the fourth to win the game on a last second three pointer.

All-Star guard Becky Hammon had an all-star caliber game with 24 points and all-star forward Sophia Young made an all-star caliber three point shot to win the game at the buzzer.

However, what really made the difference in that game was the supporting cast for the Silver Stars and in particular, the play of Megan Frazee.

Although Young made headlines for her buzzer beating three point shot, she had a difficult game going 5-17 from the field and 2-11 inside the three-point line. The Storm’s taller defenders in Lauren Jackson and Camille Little made it extremely difficult for Young to score inside, at times not even drawing rim on shots around the basket.

For a team whose success last season was predicated on strong post play in addition to Hammon’s perimeter play, supported in particular by center Ann Wauters who has yet to return this season, Young’s struggles necessitated someone to step up and bring a post presence.

San Antonio coach Dan Hughes called upon Frazee and she did not disappoint.

Frazee was extremely efficient from the field, going 7-10, including a three pointer in the second quarter. She fought for a number of difficult rebounds with Storm post players finishing with 7 overall, including two offensive rebounds. She didn’t even miss a shot until late in the fourth quarter.

On both offense and defense, Frazee was often in the right position, even if she didn’t make the spectacular play. And it seemed like just when the Storm started to get momentum, Frazee was there to make a play that swung the momentum in the opposite direction.

For a rookie – who wasn’t even mentioned in my last rookie rankings, but will have my attention in the future – Frazee was impressive.

The Storm’s dynamic All-Star duo of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson had solid games but got considerably less production from their bench.

So heading into tonight’s game, what are some of the key things to watch for?

Frazee is obvious after her previous performance, but their previous match up also illuminated some other things to watch for.

San Antonio: Sophia Young’s jump shot

Young was 2-11 from two point range in the previous game and although a lot of those shots were contested, she also missed a few jumpers that she could easily have made.

In the past, Young has been most successful when she’s been able to put pressure on her defender by scoring off drives and from the perimeter. If she had gotten that game going against the Storm, the game might have had a much different outcome.

San Antonio: Ball movement

When San Antonio keeps the ball moving they are extremely successful. And a lot of that is due to the passing of their post players.

And it just so happens that those defensive rotations are something Seattle has struggled with throughout the season.

What makes the Silver Stars so difficult to defend is that if you go zone to stop stymie their post play, they pass the ball so well to their shooters that they’re able to punish you from the perimeter. If you go woman-to-woman defense, they move the ball and force the defense to rotate until something opens up.

The answer is to have great on ball defenders and unfortunately the Storm struggled to guard the Silver Stars’ shooters and gave up 14 offensive rebounds, which led to 13 second chance points.

Seattle: Tanisha Wright driving

A major reason for the Storm’s 10 point lead at the beginning of the 4th quarter was Tanisha Wright’s ability to put pressure on the defense by driving to the basket and either scoring or passing was essential.

Wright did not end with a bad game – she just didn’t have a very consistent game. Outside of the third quarter, she was not a big factor.

The Silver Stars came out in the 4th quarter in a zone which stopped the penetration and led to the Storm looking a lot more stagnant. Meanwhile, the Silver Stars got hot on offense and erased the big lead, with the support of their crowd of course.

Unfortunately for the Storm, Wright was essentially a non-factor for much of the game and that really hurts the Storm because Wright’s aggressive penetration has been a key factor in the Storm’s victories this season. Whether it means drawing up more plays for Wright to make things happen consistently to put the pressure on or moving her around to get more favorable matchups is hard to say. But when she is on consistently, the Storm are a very difficult team to beat.

Seattle: Bench play

While the Silver Stars’ bench, led by Frazee, had a very productive game contributing 22 points, the Storm only got 5 points from their bench.

When Young struggled for the Stars, someone from their bench stepped up. When Sue Bird, Tanisha Wright, Camille Little, or Swin Cash were absent for stretches, the Storm simply didn’t get support from their bench.

While it’s great that the Storm got double digits from each of their starters, they also need production from their bench in order to keep their opponent on their heels.

Who will step up tonight?

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Communication, Trust, and Listening

. Wednesday, July 29, 2009
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Contrary to what the title of this post might imply, Rethinking Basketball is not going to become a relationship advice blog.

Trust me, you don’t want any of that stuff from me anyway...and I could probably find an ex-girlfriend or two to confirm that.

Anyway, as I was reading an article in the Oregonian by Jason Quick this morning (via TrueHoop), I was reminded that the building blocks of a strong relationship are also essential to building a strong team, starting with communication. The NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers were introducing recently signed point guard Andre Miller to the media and Miller repeatedly emphasized the importance of communication to his job as a point guard.

You may be aware of my obsession with point guard play and figuring out how to describe the intangibles that separate the good point guards from the great ones. Miller was easily one of my favorite college point guards ever (and strangely, one of the few college point guards I liked who has made a solid pro career). He was not only the floor leader of the University of Utah team that made it to the NCAA National Championship game, but he was a triple double threat every time he stepped on the floor.

So given that I admire Miller's game, I find it interesting that Miller emphasized to both the media and coach Nate McMillan’s summer basketball camp that communication is part of what makes him a good point guard.

“And my thing is when I talk to little kids I tell ‘em communication and helping each other get better is my number one goal in the NBA. I’ve been playing ten years now and every team that I go to my job is to help guys get better and to communicate. So my role won’t be too much different comin’ here.”

Andre Miller talks to coach Nate McMillan's hoops campers

Miller reiterated the point to the media while also describing how poor communication (and egos) can inhibit the performance of even the most talented teams.

“…I got traded to the Clippers, that was a talented team but it was too many egos I felt and it was tough to win in that situation. And like I said earlier, about observing this team and the way they play well together, they compete and there’s no big egos. I think when you add a little communication to that as a point guard, it makes the job a little bit easier. And I can tell you, just from being on those different teams, every meeting was talking about ‘We need to communicate more’ and that helps a lot. That helps a team get over the hump. Communication, understanding each other, and that’s a big part of basketball.”

Blazers introduce Andre Miller

Cappie Pondexter made similar comments to ESPN columnist Mechelle Voepel the other day and really complements Miller’s thoughts well by articulating how she communicates with her teammates as a team leader and de facto lead guard. An excerpt from Voepel’s article:
"One thing I've learned is to continue to push my teammates," Pondexter said. "Especially as one of the leaders of the team. I don't think I did a good job of keeping everybody together last year, and that's something I've focused on since training camp this season."

When she and Mercury teammate Diana Taurasi would see each other during their playing stints in Russia, they would discuss what had to be different for 2009 when they got back to Phoenix.

"I'd say, 'We need to challenge everybody each day, as well as demonstrating it ourselves,'" Pondexter said. "Sometimes I am a very quiet person and can be to myself. And I've learned to be more giving to my teammates.

"You never know if someone's having a down day, so if you extend your hand and listen to that person, that can affect things on the court. There are a lot of things that happen off the court that affect what goes on on the court."
Pondexter not only articulates more precisely how she communicates with her team, but also describes two different types of communication – basketball related and just plain ol’ collegial how-ya-doin-today? communication. As a leader, the combination is what education scholars might call the disposition of a “warm demander” – building a relationship with students that lets them know that you are challenging them because you care about them and their growth as human beings.

Whoa…this is getting sort of touchy feely…and yet I continue…

Fundamentally, what a warm demander is doing is building trust between themselves and the student. But something else that Pondexter mentions that seems essential to being a good leader of any type – on the floor or off -- is listening.

One way to read Miller’s comments with Pondexter’s comments is that no matter how much you talk about the importance of communication, it won’t matter if people’s egos prevent them from actually listening to one another.

Sadly, listening is not something people in an individualistic society do very well. When I talk to pre-service elementary school teachers about the oft-ignored need to teach young children listening skills explicitly, I remind that although it’s fundamental to human interaction, it’s not something that just happens naturally – we all know adults in our lives who completely lack the capacity to listen.

Obviously, communication, trust building and listening aren’t the only things a point guard (or leader) has to do – it would seem to really help to be able to dribble, pass, and run as well, if not shoot the ball. Furthermore, possessing these traits does not automatically make one a good leader – the ability to apply these skills in a particular context and know how to actually accomplish goals takes more, whether in basketball or a “real” workplace. (I particularly like Prof. Robert J. Sternberg’s WICS model of leadership – a synthesis of wisdom, creativity, and intelligence – although some academics have critiqued it. That's what academics do.)

However, underlying both of these player’s description of what it takes to be a great floor leader or team leader off the floor is a notion of humility – you know, that thing that sort of happens when you put aside your personal hang ups, realize there’s something bigger at work than your narrow perspective of the world, and start having a little concern for the needs and growth of others.

And hey, the world could certainly stand a little more humility, on and off the basketball court.

Transition Points:

Nate McMillan was a pretty solid point guard in his own right for the Seattle Supersonics back in the 90’s. I sort of imagined myself as more of a Kendall Gill-type player growing up, but McMillan was just one of those guys that I think every player should aspire to be – he knew his role, worked hard on both ends of the floor, and just struck me as someone who was a real student of the game. So it’s quite interesting to hear about what he values in a point guard for this young uber-talented Trail Blazers team.

I just received an email today about an article Bill Maher wrote in the Huffington Post a few days ago about healthcare and he brought up another one of those nagging issues about living in a world with other human beings:

How about this for a New Rule: Not everything in America has to make a profit. It used to be that there were some services and institutions so vital to our nation that they were exempt from market pressures. Some things we just didn't do for money. The United States always defined capitalism, but it didn't used to define us.


Yes, I know all this Pacific Northwest hippie thinking is leading right to a silly and dangerous statement like all we need in the world is more love…or something like that. Thankfully, the Beatles have already lyrically covered that topic in depth…and Love Actually was one of those movies that brought it all to life.

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WNBA Midseason Awards & Review: Liberty Struggling…and Anosike for MVP?

. Tuesday, July 28, 2009
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Late in the fourth quarter of the New York Liberty’s loss to the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday, I heard a little song on the web cast that I assume was also played in the arena.

The line that grabbed my attention was one that seemed to perfectly capture why I liked the Liberty so much last year.

Our team is built to win. Everybody pitches in. The Liberty – United We Play.

If you read this blog last year, you may remember that the Liberty were an early favorite of mine. Leilani Mitchell’s amazingly efficient point guard play caught my eye, I vaguely recalled Janel McCarville from her NCAA tournament run with Lindsay Whalen at the University of Minnesota, and they appeared to be a well-rounded team. But most of all, I liked the fact that they seemed to play so well as a unit. An excerpt from something I wrote last year:

It’s the intangibles, the little things that won’t show up in the box score and are difficult to describe. They’re tough and they play with heart. Their seemingly endless rotation allows them to play with great energy (usually). Of all the teams in the WNBA, they seem to have the strongest collective personality.

But what I like most about them is that they seem to have a nothing-to-lose swagger. Not much was expected of them at the beginning of the season – while they were expected to make the playoffs, nobody really expected them to make much noise in the playoffs. So in a way, they are the WNBA’s consummate underdog.
Watching them on Sunday, I couldn’t believe that I was even watching essentially the same team.

It’s not that they played terribly on Sunday…they just didn’t play particularly well. And to stick with the theme, it didn’t really look like they’re playing very united this year.

So what’s wrong?

I compared their Four Factors numbers for this year and last year. Contrary to what I might have thought, their assisted field goal percentage is not that much different than what they ended with and they have about the same relative position (7th) as they did last year.

However, the one number that really stood out was their offensive rebounding percentage. It is way down from last year. But I’ll spare you the esoteric numbers and just go with what’s listed at – the Liberty are currently last in the WNBA in rebounding differential with a differential of -5.81 per game. At the end of last year, they were at -2.1, which is not much better, but wasn’t exactly league worst.

The other number that stood out was free throw rate, which is the rate at which they get to the free throw line. This number is partially an estimate of a team’s aggressiveness as the theory goes that getting to the foul line often probably means that you’re putting enough pressure on the defense to draw fouls.

Although the Liberty are shooting very well from the free throw line at 81%, their free throw rate is second to last in the league (the LA Sparks are the worst). That’s down from last year when they were just below average.

Even more interesting is that most of their opponents’ numbers are about the same or slightly worse, meaning that the problem seems to be that their performance has dropped off rather than the opponents’ play improving. And the numbers that have fallen – offensive rebounding and free throw rate – seem indicative of a lack of energy and aggressiveness rather than some sort of slump.

So the question for the Liberty in the second half is simple: can they find that energy that made them successful last season?

If they can, there is still time for them to leap frog erratic Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky teams as the Liberty are only 1 game out. But moreso than any other team, it seems like the Liberty will require a shift in mindset rather than a performance upgrade to make a playoff run.

What’s funny is that during last season’s playoffs I was hoping for a Liberty-LA Sparks finals, especially given the amazing game those two teams had on July 25, 2008 in Madison Square Garden. Almost exactly a year later, both teams are fighting for playoff spots. And the sad part is that – as I described yesterday -- with Sparks forward Candace Parker getting better by the game and center Lisa Leslie returning from injury, the Sparks might in fact have more reason to hope for a turnaround that the Liberty…

Anyway, more to come about teams as I watch games over the next week…for now, I turn to players and hand out some mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Player, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Woman of the Year and MVP, what I consider the easiest to hardest right now. Most Improved Player just has way too many candidates to choose one.

Defensive Player of the Year candidates: Nicky Anosike…Tamika Catchings, Alana Beard, Jia Perkins, Sancho Lyttle.

I would like someone to present me with an argument for someone other than Nicky Anosike to win the DPOY for their performance thus far this season. Any defensive statistics you look at make the argument clear that it’s not worth looking at. But I heard something during the All-Star game broadcast that sort of summarizes what makes her the clear favorite for DPOY: “She’s a center and she’s leading the league in steals.”

That’s unheard of in basketball.

She is one of the most dominant defensive players I’ve ever watched. And what makes her so dominant is that she can do the dirty work in the paint but then step out to the perimeter, guard guards, and take the ball from them too. It’s quite remarkable. She’s a defensive weapon almost unparalleled in the basketball world.

If you think I’m exaggerating, watch her and try to prove otherwise…but she’s having an amazing defensive season.

Winner: Anosike

Most Outstanding Player candidates: Nicky Anosike, Becky Hammon, Cappie Pondexter, Diana Taurasi

Notice that I’m dividing MOP and MVP…because I think MVP is a lot less clear. But so far, the most outstanding player, no matter how you want to slice it, is Cappie Pondexter. This one is not nearly as clear cut as Anosike for DPOY…and in fact both Anosike and Diana Taurasi both have legitimate claims on this (fictitious) honor. But I’ve said it a number of times – Pondexter’s transformation from a pure scorer into an all-around player who can both score and make teammates better has been fascinating to watch.

She’s a triple-double threat every night at this point and plays solid defense on a team not normally noted for its defense. She’s made herself almost impossible to defend because even on an off night, she’s demonstrated the ability to take over the game with her playmaking ability. It’s hard to imagine Phoenix having the type of success they’ve experienced without Pondexter’s contribution.

Anosike’s defensive ability makes her a clear candidate for this honor and Diana Taurasi’s typically outstanding play makes her a strong candidate as well. Becky Hammon is also a candidate here as she has put up very impressive numbers after missing some games early in the season to play with the Russian National Team.

Winner: Pondexter

Rookie of the Year candidates: DeWanna Bonnner, Angel McCoughtry, Renee Montgomery, Kristi Toliver, Shavonte Zellous
For rookie of the year, I went through the same statistical process I went through when I last posted rookie rankings two weeks ago on July 14th. The process was essentially designed to answer the question of what we can expect a player to contribute to the team with the ball in their hands, adding some nuance to the standard points per game standard of assessment.

And there’s really no difference in the outcome since that point: DeWanna Bonner is clearly the top rookie thus far, still ranking among the top players in the league in usage rate (how often they attempt to make plays), Chaiken Efficiency Ratio (the ratio of scoring plays they make to non-scoring plays), and Boxscores (how much they contribute to team winning). Meanwhile, she is almost indisputably the most productive player of any rookie thus far.

But Angel McCoughtry is still right on her heels and if she can turn it around she might give Bonner a challenge. I still believe she is probably the most talented player in this rookie class, she just needs time to develop and refine her skills. However, at this point in the season, McCoughtry is the only other rookie to rank in the top tier of the league in the three aforementioned statistical categories and also brings passing ability. What will make her a tough sell, even if she does improve her performance, is that she is still a below average rebounder for a forward. But who knows – if Bonner hits a rookie wall and McCoughtry improves, McCoughtry could win this contest.

The only major change is that Shavonte Zellous has probably moved firmly into third place for ROY. She is still being carried by her amazing free throw rate, but her defensive ability doesn’t exactly hurt – she might be the best defensive rookie guard. Renee Montgomery remains interesting to watch having earned a starting spot and Kristi Toliver is slowly becoming a more efficient player. And statistically, Courtney Paris is making herself relevant, but not yet in the mix for ROY.

Winner: Bonner

Sixth Woman of the Year candidates: DeWanna Bonner, Roneeka Hodges, Angel McCoughtry, Noelle Quinn, Tan White

Whereas Candace Parker took home both ROY and MVP last year, DeWanna Bonner could very well win ROY and Sixth Woman of the Year this year. In fact, Bonner is probably more clearly sixth woman of the year than ROY.

Put simply, Bonner is outplaying most starters this season – as I previously described, she’s one of the few players to rank in the top tier in Boxcores, usage rate, and efficiency ratio. That means you know when she comes off the bench, she’s going to contribute.

The runners-up really are not close, but have all contributed directly to their team’s success off the bench in some way – Tan White and Roneeka Hodges with scoring, Noelle Quinn by scoring and occasionally running the Sparks’ offense, and Angel McCoughtry has a very good all-around game that has made her an important piece to the Atlanta Dream’s bench. But like I said…making an argument for anyone besides Bonner is a real stretch.

Winner: Bonner

Most Valuable Player candidates: Anosike, Catchings, Shameeka Christon, Hammon, Lauren Jackson, Jia Perkins, Pondexter, Taurasi

MVP is going to be a tough one this year and will likely depend upon whether someone is able to carry their team to the playoffs in the second half of the season.

Fundamentally, I think the MVP is not only the player who contributes the most to her team, but also the player who contributes the most with the least help, thus making them most valuable. In other words, the player whose team can least afford to go without them. When you take the MVP away from their team, the team’s likelihood to win games should decrease considerably.

This is of course my belief about how the award should be given rather than the way I think it’s actually voted upon…but here are the five criteria I use to assess a player’s MVP worthiness.

1. As an individual award, I don’t believe that the relative quality of one’s team should decide the MVP award – logically, the best player on the best team might not be the most valuable…it might have just been a very good team. So I’m judging based on the player’s individual contribution to their team.

2. It’s also quite possible that the best player in the league is not the most valuable in the league. Theoretically, a player who is not even considered All-WNBA caliber could be the most valuable to her team if she is single-handedly carrying the team to whatever wins they get. This is why I selected my Most Outstanding Player above – two different awards.

3. The Superstar Teammate principle: I will still find it difficult to argue that a player who is playing next to a superstar teammate could possibly be the most valuable in the league. If the best two players in the league are playing together how can one of them possibly be the most valuable to their team in the league? Chances are if the team was missing one of them – for say a two-game suspension – the other star would step up and help the team win. It’s unfair to the players because one of them might be more valuable in ways that we fans cannot perceive…but if you do make the argument, what would you use to defend it aside from the criteria for MOP?

4. The player should be someone who you want with the ball in their hands at the end of a game or who can at least be expected to be used as a convincing decoy. The player doesn’t necessarily have to be able to score, but when they have the ball, you should expect a MVP to make plays. The same argument could be used to justify voting a strong defensive player MVP, it’s just not as convenient to measure as the points per game that people normally use.

5. When the player is on the court, they should make their team better somehow, not worse. This is obviously leading to an argument for the use of plus/minus in MVP analysis and I acknowledge it’s an imperfect statistic. But if you look at the players who have a negative plus/minus rating, I think it’s reasonable to say a MVP should be on the plus side of the equation.

So these five criteria will be applied to the players who made the 2009 All-Star team – you have to figure that a player who did not make the All-Star team is probably not their team’s MVP.

The candidates above represent two things: the players with the top five Boxscores in the WNBA (in order: Taurasi, Pondexter, Anosike, Catchings, and Jackson) in addition to three other players who are carrying a significant amount of the load for their team’s this season (Christon, Hammon, and Perkins).

To start, the eight players chosen are also the players who have contributed the most value to their teams this season based on David Sparks’ val pct metric:

Anosike: 26.3%
Christon: 25.6%
Perkins: 23.7%
Hammon: 23.1%
Jackson: 22.8%
Catchings: 21.8%
Taurasi: 21.1%
Pondexter: 20.4%

So what makes Taurasi and Pondexter absolutely remarkable as players is that they are among the most productive players in the league and have managed to divide the burden to help the Mercury almost equally between them (note: they might not actually even be the top duo in the league this season – Hammon and Sophia Young have combined for 43.1% of their team’s statistical production).

All Boxscores does is take that percentage of the team’s statistical production and applies it directly to the number of wins the team has for the season. So essentially, Boxscores is a metric that measures the player’s statistical contribution in terms of wins. Here are those numbers:

1. Taurasi: 2.74
2. Pondexter: 2.65
3. Anosike: 2.63
4. Catchings: 2.61
5. Jackson: 2.51
6. (Tanisha Wright: 2.01)
7. (Katie Douglas: 1.93)
8. Perkins: 1.89
9. (Charde Houston: 1.87)
10. (Tammy Sutton-Brown: 1.87)
19. Hammon: 1.61
24. Christon: 1.53

So what we have now is the player who is responsible the largest percentage of their team’s statistical production (Anosike) and the player whose production has contributed the most wins (Taurasi). But to further reinforce the point about the player whose team can least afford to lose them, let’s go one step further and look at who has done the most with the least help from a teammate (the teammate’s Boxscore is in parentheses).

Anosike: +.76 (Houston: 1.87)
Catchings: +.68 (Douglas: 1.93)
Christon: +.52 (Janel McCarville 1.01)
Jackson: +.50 (Wright: 2.01)
Perkins: +.31 (Candice Dupree: 1.58)
Hammon: +.20 (Young: 1.41)
Taurasi: +.09 (Pondexter: 2.65)
Pondexter: -.09 (Taurasi: 2.74)

So obviously the players are only separated by fractions of a win – there’s no way a decision could be made based on these numbers alone. Nevertheless, it becomes an interesting way to look at the players relative to each other. Anosike has probably done the most in the league relative to her teammates -- even though Charde Houston is also an All-Star, Anosike’s performance has been a clear step above hers.

Christon is also an interesting case – although nobody would put her in the conversation for MOP, she is clearly contributing a lot to her team’s ability to win. Meanwhile Taurasi and Pondexter are almost playing each other even, making it extremely difficult to make a clear argument for one being more valuable than the other to the Mercury, much less in comparison to other team leaders.

So perhaps more is needed…

If we look at usage rates – the number of offensive plays the player is individually responsible for – Anosike is the only player in this eight who doesn’t rank in the top 50 of the league. However, in terms of defensive plays, there is no player who makes more of those in the league, so it doesn’t necessarily exclude Anosike from the discussion. But here are those numbers:

Hammon: 28.17
Taurasi: 26.329
Pondexter: 26.325
Jackson: 25.40
Perkins: 25.16
Catchings: 23.82
Christon: 21.94
Anosike: 20.28

And I have yet to find an overall productivity metric that doesn’t have Taurasi #1 and Anosike #2 (MEV, EFF, Tendex). Kevin Pelton’s WARP rating has Anosike #1 and Taurasi #2. So perhaps plus minus number can provide some insight…? Here they are:

Anosike: +20.5
Jackson: +14.4
Perkins: +12.7
Christon: +12.4
Catchings: +11.9
Pondexter: +9.4
Hammon: +8.7
Taurasi: +5.1

This is interesting when compared to the previous usage numbers – Anosike has the 4th best plus/minus rating in the league but doesn’t have the ball in her hands to make plays as often as Taurasi. Taurasi has the ball in her hands and is relied upon to make plays as a ball handler and thus has a much lower plus/minus.

But for me it looks like it’s between Taurasi and Anosike for the MVP. And yes, I acknowledge that Pondexter should still remain in the conversation as a third option who is really almost even with Taurasi. But really it comes down to a potent offensive player vs. a potent defensive player.

So how do you choose?

Looking at any further statistics (rebounding, passing, shooting efficiency) would be so position specific that it would be difficult to gain any clarity.

If it truly came down to Anosike, Pondexter, and Taurasi, I think it’s fair to say Taurasi would win a vote on star power alone, despite the DUI controversy. By the end of the season that will be forgotten if she continues producing wins.

However, here’s the way I’m going to think about it – the one knock against Anosike is her usage rate and that she’s not a player who can create a lot offensively. So you might think that her offensive weaknesses would hurt her overall production as a player, especially since there really is no good metric for defense. And yet despite the obvious “weakness”, she’s right behind Taurasi in any metric you look at as the second most productive player in the league.

So if you consider that with the fact that Anosike is indisputably the best defensive player in the league, it’s hard not to select her as MVP. And just in case you feel adamant about her offensive ineptitude, perhaps you should watch her – I don’t know whether it’s Jennifer Gillom or just a natural progression as a young player, but she is a vastly improved offensive player from last year, displaying an array of moves from both the post and the perimeter. In other words, if Anosike won the award, it would not be solely as a defensive player. It would be as arguably the best post player in the WNBA right now.

Of course, it’s only mid-season – all of this could change by the end and Taurasi or Pondexter could emerge as the clear candidates for MVP. But at mid-season let’s put it to the test – can you imagine the Minnesota Lynx winning even 10 games without Anosike?

Personally, I can’t.

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President Obama Describes Why "Money Isn't Everything": How the WNBA Represents an Opportunity to "Release the Imagination"

. Monday, July 27, 2009
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When President Barack Obama honored the 2008 WNBA champion Detroit Shock today, he once again took the opportunity to mention what the league means to his daughters.

Let me also say something as a father -- I was mentioning it to the team before we came out. It's hard to believe the WNBA has already been around for 12 years. And that means that my daughters have never known a time when women couldn't play professional sports.

They look at the TV and they see me watching SportsCenter and they see young women who look like them on the screen. And that lets them and all our young women, as well as young men know that we should take for granted that women are going to thrive and excel as athletes. And it makes my daughters look at themselves differently; to see that they can be champions, too.

So, as a father, I want to say thank you.

These remarks may strike you as a mundane repetition of the comments he made back in April while congratulating the University of Connecticut championship women’s basketball team.

But it never gets old to me.

Although Obama’s agenda for gender equity may not please everyone, the message he’s sending about the value of female role models is an important one and is worthy of repetition as long as we continue to live in a society with deep gender disparities. What makes Obama’s remarks assume even greater importance is that his daughters are young black girls and the dearth of positive black female role models in the mainstream makes the existence of the WNBA even more important.

Although images of positive black female role models in the mainstream have certainly evolved beyond Oprah and Clair Huxtable – including First Lady Michelle Obama – I would argue that our society could do more to support the dreams and aspirations of black girls. That starts with thinking about how black women are represented in the media.

Unfortunately, mere representation is not enough – it is just as important to consider how black women are represented in the mainstream media (the central dilemma in the controversy surrounding Candace Parker’s ESPN the Magazine cover story). Close scrutiny of how black women are represented in the mainstream media reveals more than mere coincidence or arbitrary action, but a pattern of conscious editorial decision-making that becomes rather troubling in the aggregate.

The fact is that the way in which WNBA women are represented is only one piece of a much larger pattern of decision making that not only includes decisions about representation, but omission. And the invisibilizing of black women often reflects a much more troubling underlying assumption – that black women are not marketable.

If we accept the assumption that black women are not marketable, it seems almost irresponsible not to ask a) why?, b) what are the consequences of that assumption, and c) to what extent are the editorial decisions themselves responsible for perpetuating the problem? Ultimately, the answers to that line of questioning only reinforce the point Chantelle Anderson made in her most recent blog post: Money Isn’t Everything.

The violence of omission

As an example of how these editorial decisions operate beyond sports, Australian young adult literature author and WNBA fan Justine Larbalestier recently blogged about her publisher’s decision to use a cover image of a white girl to represent a black female protagonist for her recent book Liar. Larbalestier points out in her blog that she envisioned the protagonist looking something like Washington Mystics All-Star guard Alana Beard.

Larbalestier’s entire post (click here) is worth a read, but this excerpt seems relevant to the present discussion:
Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”
While these editorial decisions may seem distant from sports, consider the consequences of this whitewashing of young adult literature – it not only sends messages of who/what is valued in our society, but also presents a completely skewed version of what our world looks like. Compounding the problem is that publishers, libraries, and bookstores, are actively making decisions that set these books up to fail…which thus reinforces their belief that the books are worth publicizing.

The same goes for women’s professional sports, and particularly the WNBA with it’s large percentage of black women: it is paradoxical to not market something – or even deliberately hide it – and then standby the claim that it’s not worth marketing because it’s not marketable.

While this phenomenon should not come as a surprise, it is troubling to think that we live in a society that deliberately prioritizes profit over the humanity of our youth.

What I love about Chantelle Anderson’s recent blog post is that it captures what is humanly at stake in having mainstream representations of black women that serve as role models. The value of honoring the humanity of our young black girls extends well beyond commodification, marketability, and profit margins toward something seemingly more fundamental to what makes us all human.

Anderson’s articulation of why the WNBA is valuable is a perfect example of why all this talk of representation and role models really matters.

To summarize, Anderson tells a story about a high school girl whom she met after a speaking engagement who was involved in gang activity and had recently quit her basketball team. The coach asked Anderson to talk to the sophomore and presumably convince her to return to the basketball team. Anderson not only inspired the girl to decrease her involvement with the gang, but also help her get to college on a Division I scholarship. Anderson nicely explains the value of WNBA role models in her concluding paragraphs:
I met Tamika when she was a sophomore in high school. As of now, she just finished her freshman year at a Division one university, which she attended on a full ride basketball scholarship. To say that I am proud of her would be an understatement. To say that I believe God used my position as a professional athlete to help save this girls life would be the truth. We hear countless stories about the NBA players that used basketball as a ticket out of the dangerous neighborhoods and broken homes of their childhood. But what about the little girls left in those neighborhoods? Don’t they deserve a chance too?

This was not meant to be some sentimental plea to keep the WNBA alive or garner fan support. It was meant to show that even if countless men don’t value it, professional women’s sports do and should have a place in our society. This story is not a fluke or an isolated incident. Stuff like this happens regularly to myself and other WNBA players; and not just involving kids. I’ve had women tell me watching how hard I work in my workouts helped keep them coming to the gym and eating healthy. And I’ve had men tell me they use me as an example to encourage their daughters to dream. These compliments are such an honor to me; way better than being told I’m pretty, or even smart. But I would hate to turn around and tell those people that none of what they feel deserves validation because women’s basketball doesn’t make enough money. That’s why the WNBA is important.
There’s a lot going on in Anderson’s story, but as an educator and someone interested in the welfare of youth, I want to bring it back to this notion of what it means to honor the humanity of youth.

While removing oneself from gang activity and going to college is an important accomplishment, I would argue that the even more valuable aspect of this scenario is that Anderson helped Tamika see alternative possibilities for herself beyond what the limited perspective she saw in daily life. That capacity to imagine an alternative vision for oneself and act upon the world with that vision in mind is what makes all this talk of representations and role models so important.

Releasing the imagination of young black girls is of the utmost importance.

Educational philosopher, social activist, and teacher Maxine Greene has written extensively about the topic of imagination and I think she can provide some additional insight to the value of thinking more deeply about the value of the WNBA both in terms of representations of black women and mentoring relationships, such as Anderson’s.

First, the reason that these mainstream representations are important to reflect upon is not just a matter of self-esteem, but more a matter of future orientation and self-concept: encouraging young girls to imagine multiple possibilities for society and letting them know they have support in those endeavors. When we as a society make decisions not to help scaffold that imagination with multiple representations of what could be (e.g. deciding black women are not marketable and thus not worthy of representation in young adult literature), we leave the possibility of positive self-concept and self-determination to chance.

In her book Releasing the Imagination, Greene writes the following about this problem:
Far too seldom are such young people looked upon as beings capable of imagining, of choosing, and of acting from their own vantage point on perceived possibility. Instead they are subjected to outside pressures, manipulations, and predictions. The supporting structures that exist are not used to sustain a sense of agency among those they shelter; instead they legitimate treatment, remediation, and control – anything but difference and release.
When I read Anderson’s story about her experience meeting Tamika, that’s what I see – a young girl who without support in imagining the range of future possibilities fell victim to the deceptive pressure of gang activity. After all, gang activity provides everything school and society often doesn’t – a sense of belonging, an identity of agency, and a peer community of mutual support…not to mention additional street cred that many school-based options simply don’t provide.

We are often too quick to condemn youth involved in gangs without attempting to understand the opportunity structure in society that they perceive in front of them. For some, this society does not look like it’s full of opportunity and rhetoric to the contrary is thus all the more alienating.

Imagination,” writes Greene, is therefore “…the gateway through which meanings derived from past experiences find their way into the present.” To elaborate, imagination is an antidote to the inertia of ill-formed common sense that serves to privilege some ways of being at the expense of others.
To tap into the imagination is to become able to break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real. It is to see beyond that what the imaginer has called normal or “common sensible” and to carve out new orders in experience. Doing so, a person may become freed to glimpse what might be, to form notions of what should be and what is not yet. And the same person may, at the same time, remain in touch with what presumably is.
As President Obama alludes to, the value of the WNBA is not just in inspiring female basketball players or even female athletes more broadly. What it represents is a small departure from a world in which women were once told there were things they cannot do. It lets them know that there is something beyond what some people still espouse as common sense about women’s limitations.

In my ideal world, we would cease asking whether the WNBA or images of black women are profitable in the mainstream and start asking ourselves what the value of either is to society at large. If what it means is a few multi-millionaires lose a couple of bucks here and there for the sake of millions of young girls worldwide, I’ll gladly go along with it.

For black girls in particular – in a world where some people think of their image only in terms of its toxicity to profit – the WNBA provides a glimpse into a world in which there are a range of positive representations of “blackness” and “womanhood” for them to imagine what has not yet come for themselves.

So I don’t begrudge those who don’t want to watch the WNBA. I begrudge those who go out of their way to demean and dismiss it as some sort of irrelevant sideshow.

Understanding the value of women’s professional sports to our young girls shouldn’t require being a father, brother, or husband. Nor should it limited to radical feminists or political leaders trying to establish themselves as advocates of gender equity.

It’s about respecting the humanity of our youth.

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Revisiting the Storm-Sparks Triple Overtime Classic: Do the Sparks Still Have a Shot at the Playoffs?

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With less than a minute remaining in the third quarter of last Wednesday’s triple overtime classic in Key Arena, LA Sparks forward Candace Parker had the ball on the wing guarded by Storm forward Camille Little.

Parker had not yet scored to that point in the game and had been the last player down the court on multiple plays. There was no reason for optimism that Parker could suddenly put the team on her back and make something happen, but there was a lingering feeling from 2008 that she could make something happen.

Although Little had done a very good job defending Parker throughout the game, Parker seemed to have a glimmer of you-can’t-guard-me in her eyes. It was a look of determination, intensity and focus. It was a reason to believe that the momentum of the game was about to shift. Down by five points at the time, it appeared as though Parker was not quite ready to let this game slip away, even if the odds – and the Key Arena crowd – were in the Storm’s favor.

The clip played in Key Arena during overtime.

Parker passed the ball, got it back quickly, turned the corner after recognizing some confusion in the Storm’s defensive rotations, and scored over a helpless Storm help defender with a driving layup punctuated by an authoritative slap of the backboard, more reminiscent of the bravado exhibited in a pick-up game than what the average person might expect from a women’s basketball game.

She went on to finish the quarter with another contested layup and started the fourth quarter by assisting Tina Thompson on a three to put the Sparks up four points. Later, she hit a big jumper down the stretch and at one point gave MVP candidate and former Defensive Player of the Year, Lauren Jackson a challenge, drawing a foul on a short jumper.

It appeared Parker was starting to put the league on notice: she’s hitting her stride and once she does, she could return to embarrassing defenders nightly any game now.

Of course, the Sparks lost the game in triple overtime, partially due to a heroic effort by Storm guard Sue Bird in the third overtime, partially due to the Sparks’ mental lapses and inability to execute down the stretch. The Sparks played well enough to win, but in the end, the Storm just had a little bit more, even after losing some of their star power with Tanisha Wright fouled out and Lauren Jackson ejected.

Unfortunately for the Sparks, this scenario is reminiscent of a narrative that could potentially describe their entire season once the WNBA reaches playoff time.

Even if the Sparks turn it on, show the flashes of determined brilliance required of a champion, and hit their stride as a team instead of a collection of talented individuals, it’s very possible that it simply won’t quite be enough to send off a retiring Lisa Leslie with a trip to the post-season.

But can you really count out a team with four Olympians and a volume shooter having an all-star worthy season if they manage to get that determination, focus and intensity required to win? Do they still have a shot at the playoffs?

Reasons for Optimism

Watching Parker starting to turn it on for that momentum-shifting seven minute stretch in the second half is plenty of reason to spark optimism. Parker went on to finish last week’s game with 10 points, 10 rebounds, 6 blocks, and 5 assists, not bad for a player who is still not playing her best ball consistently. Parker’s increasing comfort on the court combined with Lisa Leslie’s expected return in the next few games, is certainly reason for confidence.

However, Parker’s performance alone was not the only reason for optimism evident in that game. As one might have expected, the Sparks got off to a decent start in the Storm game by playing with a higher energy level and outworking the Storm in the paint – in the second quarter, the Sparks had an offensive rebounding percentage of 70%. During that quarter, they only took one three pointer but had a free throw rate of 72%. So focusing on rebounding, high percentage shots, and moving the ball well, helped them overcome 11 first half turnovers and build an 8 point first half lead.

Further reason for optimism is a matter of scheduling, as described by The’s Martin Johnson:
…the Sparks have played more than twice as many games on the road as they have at home. They are 1-8 on the road and 3-1 at home. In the second half of the season, that split will reverse, giving a bit of hope for the rest of their season.
Johnson doesn’t even mention that the Sparks have three games against the struggling Sacramento Monarchs, who they defeated by 20 points in LA on June 21st.

If the Sparks can bring it all together and continue to play like they did in the second quarter, in addition to Parker playing the way she did for seven minutes in the second half, as well as Leslie contributing on both ends of the floor, they could dominate the second half of the season.

That would be the hope.

However reality might not be so kind.

Their best might not be enough.

Practically speaking, the Western Conference might just be too tough. If the Sparks were to sneak in, who might we expect to fall out?

The Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm – both on pace to win at least 21 games -- would have to completely collapse in order to fall out of the playoffs. When Ann Wauters returns to the Silver Stars, they’ll likely return to last year’s form. The Minnesota Lynx seem to be the most vulnerable team with star player lost for the season due to injury and left with a very young rotation of players, that could collapse. So Lynx coach Jennifer Gillom’s statement that it would take 20 games to make the playoffs this year might be a good barometer for the Sparks.

The Lynx are on pace to win about 20 games, with a record of 10-7 halfway through their schedule. The Sparks would have to win 16 of their remaining 21 games – a winning percentage of 76% -- to get to 20 games. They already lost one game to the Lynx on the road, so if it came down to a tie-breaker, they would need to win all three of their remaining games against the Lynx (2 home, 1 road) to win that. And therefore to avoid a tie-breaker, they’d actually have to win 21 games.

An argument could certainly be made that the Lynx will fail to maintain their current pace in the second half of the season. Kevin Pelton’s expected wins standings have the Lynx finishing with 17.1 wins (and the Sparks with 14.7). Considering that the Sparks are likely to improve on their first half performance as they get their personnel healthy, they are probably more likely to exceed their expected wins than the Lynx.

However, while this is all mathematically possible, it would require an historic run – consider that the Indiana Fever who went on a 11 game win streak in the first half of the season, won 75% of their 16 games. To put it in perspective, the Sparks would have to play a little bit better than the Fever have to this point, for a longer period of time. It’s not unheard of, but it would take a significant turn-around.

Moving to actual game play, the Sparks’ point guard situation has been inconsistent, at best. They get flashes of solid point guard play from either Kristi Harrower, Shannon Bobbitt, or Noelle Quinn, but it’s difficult to predict when any of those players will turn it on, much less which player will do it.

In last week’s game against the Storm, it was Quinn who turned it on, scoring all but one of her 10 points in the overtime periods, including 6 points in the first overtime period just driving right through the Storm’s defense. Bobbitt played well along with Parker at the end of the third, but for most of the game, they did not get much from the point guard position.

For a post-dependent team, it can be a fatal vulnerability – the easy way to beat the Sparks would be to pressure the guards full court and prevent them from getting the team into the offense until late in the shot clock.

Ultimately, this is impossible to predict, which makes it fun to watch.

I said the Sparks would be the number team to watch at the start of the season and I don’t think that’s changed now after a difficult start. Parker will hit her stride. And eventually Parker and Leslie will be playing together. It will be interesting to see what they’re capable of.

However, my biggest reservation about the Sparks at the beginning of the season and the reason I was hesitant to anoint them the pre-destined champion is that I am always skeptical of these type of all-star teams that franchises assemble for one-year runs. They rarely work. When they do it’s because they lack the type of major vulnerability like the Sparks have at point guard.

The number one problem is always figuring out a way to find roles for every player and then finding a chemistry that maximizes each player’s talent within a particular style, not going play to play searching for an option and waiting for someone to step up.

And if they do pull it off, it would actually be a storybook ending for Leslie’s career.

Transition Points:

The energy at Key Arena last Wednesday was amazing. It's not often in life that you get the privilege of being present for a triple overtime game that is as well played as the Sparks-Storm game was (especially in the 4th quarter and overtime(s)). It got so good that Bird's third overtime run was almost anti-climactic -- it felt as though a last second jumper would have been more befitting for the game.

That was one of the games that I wish people on the fence about the WNBA could see -- it had all the passion, big plays, and excitement that you could want for a sport. If you can't appreciate the game after a game like that, then it's not for you...and that's perfectly fine.

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