The Los Angeles Sparks: "Expect Anything"

. Friday, August 21, 2009
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After the Los Angeles Sparks' 67-66 overtime road win over the Silver Stars last night, San Antonio forward Sophia Young perfectly articulated why this was the one game I was looking forward to seeing all week.

"With LA we expect anything,'' said Young. "It's always going to be a good game. They never blow us out, we never blow them out, and it's always an exciting game for the fans.''

Too bad nobody could see it on WNBA LiveAccess...because there's more than one reason to want to watch the Sparks.

Consistent with Young's statement, this was a tightly contested game, perhaps even an ugly one. Looking at the Four Factors statistics, the only major thing separating the two teams last night was the Sparks' dominance on the offensive boards, which is typical of when these teams play.

Combined with the San Antonio Silver Stars' uncharacteristically low assisted field goal percentage -- meaning they were not moving the ball well -- the Sparks got enough of an edge to pull this one out.

However, what makes the game more significant is that it marks a major turning point for the Sparks season -- the night when they became a legit playoff team. Not just because the Sparks moved into third place in the Western Conference after an abysmal start to their season, but also because of how they did it.

The Sparks beat the defending Western Conference champion Silver Stars in San Antonio in a (seemingly) gritty overtime battle to extend a 3 game winning streak to 4.

That’s the type of game hungry and serious playoff contenders win, not only because they have to fight for playoff position, but just to prove to everyone else that they are a team to beat. It forces us to shift our thinking about the Sparks from wondering about what has transpired thus far this season to wondering what might come to pass in the post-season.

And that’s what makes this most significant to me and the reason why I’ve taken an increasing interest in the Sparks since the All-Star break.

Los Angeles fans shouldn’t be the only celebrating the Sparks transition into a legit playoff team. The Sparks are in the midst of constructing what could become one of the league’s great narratives…and that’s good for anyone who cares about the health of the WNBA.

Having center Lisa Leslie make a deep playoff run in her final season and Parker emerging as a real post-season performer after all the mess of a season this has been for them so far really is a great story that sports fans should be able to step into.

Leslie and Parker are arguably the two most prominent women’s basketball players in the U.S. Dramatizing the transition from one to the other with a successful final run for Leslie is exactly the jolt the league needs.

Given the narrative of this season – maternity leave, injuries, inconsistent rotations – having those two at the center of a successful turnaround also creates a hero narrative for the WNBA that is so rarely applied to women’s team sports. It gives people reasons to continue following.

Part of what attracts people to pro sports are hero narratives – people we can root for and who accomplish things that we can only imagine. People who can overcome adversity when everyone has counted them out and persevere to reach the top of their craft.

We can talk all we want about how basketball is a team game and that's what makes it beautiful, but let's be real: it's individual figures like Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson that make leagues successful.

I’m not saying I am rooting for the Sparks to win it all. But it’s hard to deny that every step closer they get to the WNBA Finals from this point on will be good for the WNBA.

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Storm Reach Out to NCAA Season Ticket Holders: Do NCAA Fans Fit the Profile of Potential WNBA Fans?

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There are plenty of creative ways to expand the WNBA's fan base and most recently, we've seen efforts to "convert" NBA fans.

Getting NBA writers to games is one way to create positive press through someone considered a "credible source" to NBA fans.

Mercury blogger Ben York has challenged a hater to watch a live game and actually base their opinion on evidence rather than spurious assumptions.

But I saw a different strategy yesterday while clicking around the University of Washington website to check out their women's basketball schedule: why not tap into local university season ticket holders?

Women's basketball season ticket holders are invited to attend a meet and greet session with Husky head coach Tia Jackson and members of the 2009-10 women's basketball team, and attend the Seattle Storm vs. Connecticut Sun game at Key Arena on August 27.
I don't know whether this has been done before at UW or elsewhere. And perhaps UW is in a unique position to do this well because head coach Tia Jackson is a former WNBA player coaching a team in a WNBA city.

Nevertheless, it's an interesting idea.

NCAA women's season ticket holders likely don't have the same biases as NBA fans or outright haters. And they might enjoy watching the "best of the best" compete as an extension of a sport they already follow.

But most of all, you know they're willing to spend money on women's basketball, which makes them particularly attractive as potential fans.

Of course, I know that college and professional basketball don't mix for everyone -- I know plenty of fans who like one and disdain the other. (Update: Clay Kallam has written about this problem as part of larger phenomenon of "Our Girls Syndrome".)

But if the goal is to expand a fan base, this seems to be a strategy worth pursuing more aggressively, even if the assumption is that this demographic of NCAA season ticket holders have already consciously chosen to either follow the WNBA or ignore it. In the event they have not been to a game, it might be a good way to tap into a group of people who you know are willing to pay to watch women's basketball.

I am planning on being at that August 27th game with two UW maybe I'll check out Jackson's meet and greet before I fixate on comparing Storm point guard Sue Bird and Connecticut Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen. And maybe, we'll come away wanting to check out a UW game as well.

(Extended) side note: I took a look at season tickets for UW women's and men's basketball, which are both reasonably priced, I think. The men's team figures to be better than the women's (again), but I want to give women's NCAA basketball a shot this season. But wouldn't it be cool if you could get some sort of discounted package deal for getting both? Wouldn't that be another interesting way of attracting fans to the NCAA women's game?

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Heads Whalen Wins, Tails Liberty Lose

. Thursday, August 20, 2009
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Good teams – playoff teams – are supposed to beat cellar dwellers at home.

So I really want to give the Liberty a pass for losing 74-69 on the road to the Connecticut Sun last night.

And ultimately, you can’t – the Liberty threw away a much needed victory and crept a little bit closer to securing that bottom spot in the East.

Even sadder, is that the collapse was almost predictable.

I’m not sure if the Liberty lack talent or lack motivation…but they really don’t seem to care. I’m not even sure you could say they panicked once the Sun started their comeback…it literally looked like they weren’t interested in the outcome.

Body language, facial expressions, hustle…it just wasn’t there..

Instead, they chose to settle for jump shot out of jump shot, slowly shooting themselves out of the game.

It was almost as though they were officially waving the white flag in preparation of heading to an early vacation.

Rebecca at Game Notes of Dooooooom recently compared the Liberty to a waterbug or a giant flying roach – they move from arbitrary action to an untimely death. And that’s sort of what happened, but not entirely.

They decided to just throw the game during the third quarter this time and then had a small burst of life in the fourth, when Connecticut Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen decided to stomped out all remaining signs of life by driving to the basket treating the Liberty like lesser forms of basketball life.

Or as Whalen said in her post game interview, just playing basketball.

Whalen is an amazing point guard by any standard. People compare her to Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird and I ranked San Antonio Silver Star point guard Becky Hammon above her, but Whalen is unparalleled in the point guard universe.

A knowledgeable fan emailed and suggest a better NBA comparison than Deron Williams would be Jason Kidd, but then Whalen is a better shooter than Kidd hands down (in fact, I recall telling my high school junior varsity basketball coach that I was a better shooter than Kidd, who was hands down the best high school player I’ve ever watched in the Bay Area… but I did shoot 40% from 3 point range on varsity. Take that!)

Whalen can do just about anything you want a basketball player to do for a team. And last night, she did that to the point of carrying a team to victory without her all-star forward. And when I say carried, having watched the game or looked at the box score, can you really say that anyone else significantly helped Whalen during the game?

Forward Kerri Gardin had a good defensive game, recording 4 blocks and 2 steals and guard Tan White had a solid game with 8 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists…but this is one of the few cases in team sports where the game was won on the strength of one player’s performance when it counted most. And that’s impressive.

Of course, the Liberty did everything in their power to help the Connecticut Sun during the third quarter – shooting 27.8% and allowing your opponents to shoot 60% is an excellent way to blow a lead on the road.

But credit Whalen for being the ultimate point guard in this game – leading the team on the court, making teammates better, and doing the little things that allowed her team to win.

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Patiently Watching the Sparks: "The Olympians Have to Figure Out How to Play Together Every Night"

. Wednesday, August 19, 2009
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A good friend of mine is a LA Lakers fan and for years I – a Golden State Warriors fan – have had to listen to him whine and complain about how inconsistent and discombobulated the Lakers are…as they end up in the NBA Finals or infinitely closer to anything resembling success than my beloved Warriors.

So thankfully, he’s not a (huge) LA Sparks fan…because then he’d actually have something legitimate to whine about.

The Sparks’ 72-68 victory over the Washington Mystics last night was a perfect example of a situation where I would actually have to feel sympathy for the suffering of a LA fan.

And that's hard.

But that game was just brutal on so many levels.

Both teams entered the game on the outside of the playoffs looking in and there were times when I wondered if either team really even wanted to play in the post-season at all.

Just when one side seemed to make a play that would catalyze a shift in momentum, something goofy happened – dumb foul, turnover, a flurry of contested jump shots – that killed the momentum. And no, it did not shift the momentum to another side…it was like a momentum vacuum.

And it’s a special kind of bizarre to watch the Sparks struggle like that.

The Sparks have four Olympians on the team – center Lisa Leslie and forwards DeLisha Milton-Jones, Candace Parker, and Tina Thompson – all of whom have a post game or at the very least are capable of posting up players who defend them. When they make the effort to slow the game down and make entry passes into the post – as they did for a stretch of about 2 minutes 30 seconds in the third quarter when they briefly help a lead of 11 points until Leslie left the game – they do well.

But then they just stop.

And then I am literally sitting at my laptop, arms folded and rolling my eyes wondering why I’m watching a team full of post players take jump shots…over and over again. They shot 38% in the final quarter, which seems paradoxical for a team with a strong post game.

But that wasn’t even the worst part: the worst part didn’t come until the fourth quarter when I had to watch a team with four Olympic front-court players essentially play a two person game with guards Noelle Quinn and Marie Ferdinand-Harris in a tie game with less than two minutes left.

What saved them was making 10 of 12 free throw attempts in the fourth, which were partially a result of attacking the paint.

It’s inexplicable…right?

We could waste our time pointing fingers at various players, coaching, or the refs for making last night’s game so excruciating to watch. But ultimately, it does seem to come down to the one thing that everybody associated with the Sparks keeps saying ad nauseam – this team needs time to gel…and unfortunately, they have not done that to this point.

Of course, to some fans that type of answer is unsatisfactory because after all, they have four Olympians! They were destined to win this year! It’s the point guards, the point guards!


But how reasonable is it that this team would be playing good basketball right now?

Parker is still getting her legs back and trying to find her stride since starting her season late on July 5th. Leslie returned from an extended injury on August 4th. Once Leslie returned, guard Betty Lennox got injured.

All of that means that in addition to not having a pre-season together, they also have not even had a consistent healthy roster until August 11th.

That means the Sparks have only played 4 games with their full complement of players and have had no extended practice time together yet.

Therefore, they have not only had adjust to shifting lineups and new players adjusting to the system, but also the 2008 WNBA MVP slowly playing her way back into shape.

In those four games, they have gone 2-2, not losing by more than 6 points.

Are they meeting expectations? No. Most people had them winning a championship.

But is it really any one player’s fault? No.

Anybody who has played or coached a game of basketball knows that it is a game in which team chemistry/cohesion/togetherness/kumbayaness matters. The track record for these teams of all-stars across sports, and particularly basketball, is not so good.

Putting a group of players used to being the number one option -- or at least a primary option -- on one team and expecting them to magically work out roles is ridiculous, especially without practice. It’s not a fantasy league or all-star showcase…like, real defense is played and stuff.

Yes this team has a ton of talent, but does anybody really believe this is a well-constructed or balanced team?

And from what I watched last night, that lack of cohesion was the root of their problems – they are terribly inconsistent partially because they can’t seem to get themselves into a rhythm with one another. Even when they find a strategy that works, there doesn’t yet seem to be any confidence in that strategy…and thus they just move on to the next haphazard option.

With two minutes left in a tight game they all stood there looking at each other. There was no movement. No attempt to support the point guard – yes, it is the weak spot on this team of Olympians – and really no effort to make a play. So with the shot clock ticking, of course Ferdinand-Harris or Quinn had to take jumpers.

But how on earth can a team win like that?

They can’t. And they won’t win consistently until they establish what works well for them and what roles they each have in that strategy.

That’s common sense. The players keep saying it. Coach Michael Cooper keeps saying it. I buy the line. Mainly, because it’s common sense.

Once they get a chance to play more than four games with one another, perhaps I’ll change my tune.

Maybe it is coaching. Maybe it’s the point guard situation. Maybe Parker, Leslie, Milton-Jones, and Thompson are just a terrible combination. Right now we really cannot say. The WNBA season is simply not long enough for the Sparks to manage these circumstances.

All we can say is that it takes time for teams – even the uber-talented – to come together and play well as a unit. The Sparks are no exception.

And wasn’t it my friend from LA wailing about something similar in the summer of 2004 when the Hall of Fame saturated Lakers lost the NBA Finals to a gritty Detroit Pistons team that everybody thought was far inferior?

But I do hope this whole coming together thing happens before the next time I choose to watch the Sparks play.

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Point Guard Rankings (New & Improved!): Harding, Quinn Recovering Nicely from Minnesota Sophomore Slumps

. Tuesday, August 18, 2009
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When the Washington Mystics face the Los Angeles Sparks tonight in Los Angeles it will include a match-up of two former Minnesota Lynx point guard teammates who are enjoying career years in their third season on new teams.

Last year, Mystics point guard Lindsey Harding and Sparks point guard Noelle Quinn split point guard duties in Minnesota and both experienced drop-offs in production from their rookie year in 2007. Both were among the worst shooters at the point guard position and both seemed to struggle coming up with consistent performances on the Lynx.

So perhaps sometimes a change of scenery is all that is needed.

Clearly, the similarities between these players only exists at the broadest level of analysis – not only are they very different types of point guards, but by any reasonable standard, Harding is by far the better player. Harding was a strong Rookie of the Year candidate in 2007 and a fringe All-Star this year.

Harding’s numbers are up across the board and combined with the athleticism that was previously limited due to injury – one commentator recently said it looks like she’s on ice skates on the fast break compared to everyone else – she has arguably been the best point guard in the East.

In contrast, Quinn is on the opposite end of the point guard spectrum. She has typically been the most basic of point guards, one that merely gets the ball over half court and initiates the offense.

But this season, Quinn has been much more than that for the point guard-starved Sparks. She has come up huge in fourth quarters (and overtimes) for the Sparks attacking the rim and loosening up defenses to give her four Olympian teammates room to operate.

Quinn is definitely not having an All-Star caliber season, definitely not the leader of her team, and she isn’t starting. But she has a role on the Sparks and she has fit it well.

Not too long after the Los Angeles Sparks traded for point guard Noelle Quinn, I asked the following question:

Which Noelle Quinn will the Sparks get – the one that was a rather efficient distributor in 2007 or the one that was a marginal initiator in 2008?

My thinking was that the Sparks were a great fit for Quinn because she would be able to fill a role that matches her capabilities and wouldn’t be expected to do anything beyond that given the number of talented players around her.

Really, that line of reasoning applies to both Quinn and Harding – Harding is playing a system and under a coach that seem to maximize her capabilities.

Honestly, Harding's whole mindset seems to have changed this year – last year she appeared to be much more focused on her own scoring -- and while it’s hard to account for that, it’s obvious that the 2009 Mystics are a much better fit for her than the 2008 Lynx.

Ultimately, when evaluating point guards it’s helpful to consider the context – what the player has demonstrated they are capable of and what role they fit on a team. If being a point guard is more than just creating assists, but making decisions that make teammates better and helping the team win, then the structure within which those decisions occur is important.

So these latest point guard rankings – my ongoing obsession – are an attempt to do all of that: evaluate decision making within the roles players fill, and how much they’re able to contribute to their teams. Coincidentally, it was Harding and Quinn that gave me the hardest time in the process.

Moving beyond the statistics…but keeping them close to my heart…

In my past rankings, I’ve just taken the critical statistical categories, ranked each point guard (and others who fill the lead guard role) and just added up the points.

However, that seemed to contradict my argument about point guard styles – if each player is different, then how could I possibly argue that I could judge them on one blanket standard?

For example, I fully admit that comparing Phoenix Mercury guard Temeka Johnson’s assist rate – the percentage of plays she makes that end in an assist – to Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird’s assist rate is unfair.

Bird is a point guard that also assumes a large portion of the Storm’s scoring burden and that’s because she is the better shooter and craftier scorer. Therefore, Johnson’s plays end in assists more often simply because she’s not asked to do other things as much.

But that’s hardly a knock on Johnson or a claim that she should do more. It’s just an argument that most knowledgeable sports fans are already familiar with: the numbers describe a fragment of the story, but don’t necessarily explain the entire story.

So what is to be done?

Bob Corwin of Full Court Press suggested I weight numbers. However, that still assumes that some point guard traits are more valuable than others, which I don’t think is always true. As Bird said in response to the suggestion that she is the best point guard in the world, part of being a good point guard is understanding “what’s needed and when”.

However, that does provide some guidance – it is fair to say that some styles of point guard objectively do more than others, not just do things differently.

Last week I revisited the point guard styles I created last year defining five types of point guard – initiator, distributor, facilitator, scorer, and combo guard. And if you look at how I defined those there is a clear hierarchy although each one of those styles can be effective within the right system.

For example, having a player that can create scoring opportunities for others is probably objectively a more skilled player than one whose limit is bringing the ball across half-court and initiating the offense. And I can also say that a player who’s able to balance scoring and creating for others is better than almost any other type of point guard.

So by looking at a) the relative quality of each point guard within their style, b) comparing players across styles, and c) looking at the influence of each player on the game given their style, I think I can find a more reasonable way to rank point guards.

So which players fit which styles? And then what?

I fit players into styles and ranked them based on four criteria:

1) Using the point guard styles framework described last week to categorize the league’s point guards and rank them based on their relative ability within those styles.

2) Using the previous framework for evaluating point guards – which evaluated players on the ability to distribute, score, and impact the game – as it applies to their style. So for example, in looking at distributors, I evaluated them primarily on their distributor statistics whereas I looked more at scoring statistics to rank scorers…and for combo guards I looked at both. I looked at their game impact of each style.

3) Using a standard that I drew from the rookie evaluation framework – a player’s ability to make plays (usage %) for their team efficiently (Chaiken scoring efficiency) while contributing to wins (Boxscores).

4) Defense: it matters. So I took that into account using a combination of observation and some numbers I’ve been playing with.

Yes, this is not exactly an example of statistical parsimony, but the constellation of statistics helps to describe overarching patterns in a player’s game and make arguments about why one player is better than another. In addition, there’s a much more subjective quality this time – I am looking at what the statistics describe and making judgments rather than allowing the numbers to explain themselves.

And another change – although I think players like Jia Perkins, Cappie Pondexter, and Tanisha Wright are very effective lead guards, the reality is that they are not usually the primary ball handlers when they are on the court. So I decided not to include them in the rankings, though all three of them compare very favorably to the players below, which is a testament to their quality as players.

So don’t fear math phobes – I actually did not rely entirely on the statistics to make my arguments. It’s just a way to complement my own observations/biases and describe each point guard’s play in terms that allow for comparisons.

The Rankings:

10. Noelle Quinn, Los Angeles Sparks – Initiator: Trust me this one strikes me as odd too. But the fact is, Quinn is having the best season of any initiator in the league. And when you compare her impact on the game to the lower tier of distributors or even combo guards who just don’t do anything particularly well, it’s easy to make the argument for her in this spot.

Quinn has emerged as a strong fourth quarter scorer for the Sparks recently, but overall she is more of an initiator who brings the ball up and passes it off. While her Sparks teammates are a large part of that, she actually fell in the initator category last year.

What sets her apart from the rest of the players in my mind are two things: scoring efficiency and defense. Quinn has the best two point percentage of the group and among the best efficiency ratios of the entire league.

9. Ticha Penicheiro, Sacramento Monarchs -- Distributor: She’s arguably the best point guard in WNBA history. And it’s hard not to include Penicheiro on the list even though her career is on the decline and I have to admit a major reason she’s here is that I’m biased: she’s the first WNBA player I ever saw play in person and I fell in love with her game.

However, as a distributor she’s still performing well and has one of the highest pure point ratings of any point guard. But what makes Penicheiro especially valuable as a distributor is that she is still one of the best ball handlers in the league and has the ability to penetrate and find open teammates. Her free throw rate is among the top third of the league and is by far the best of any other point guard that fits the distributor category.

8. Kristi Harrower, Los Angeles Sparks – Distributor: I know Sparks fans are not particularly fond of Harrower, but she’s really having a solid year in terms of distributing the ball from the point guard position.

The key to Harrower’s game is that she’s efficient – she doesn’t take a whole lot of risks (she has the second lowest turnover percentage among point guards) and makes solid decisions with the ball (highest pure point rating in the WNBA).

She is not the quickest, the best ball-handler, or the greatest defender. But in terms of a player who is able to bring the ball up the court and find players open for scoring opportunities she’s solid. And a team like the Sparks – which is already overflowing with talent – does not need a whole lot more than that.

If you were picking players based on reputation or overall talent, you might take Penicheiro over Harrower. However if you’re judging Harrower on performance within the Sparks system this season, there are not many point guards having a better season.

7. Loree Moore, New York Liberty – Distributor:
Moore is not a player that immediately jumps to mind when I think about the league’s best point guards, but she’s having a solid year, on both ends of the ball. I’ll borrow a comment from Liberty forward Shameeka Christon from after their recent victory over the Sparks:

"Loree Moore was the difference in the second half for us,'' Christon said. "She pushed the ball for us in transition which led to easy baskets which we needed. She was also everywhere on defense. She stepped up big for us.''
She is one of the better defensive point guards in the league and that means that she is not only facilitating offense for her teammates, but also disrupting the offense for opponents. She does a little bit of everything, but seems to disappear for long stretches of time. And unfortunately, her high turnover percentage limit her effectiveness as a distributor.

6. Tully Bevilaqua, Indiana Fever – Distributor: Bevilaqua was not even supposed to be the starter for the Fever this season but has ended up having one of the best seasons of any point guard in the league. She is still one of the best defenders at the position, if for no other reason due to the effort she puts into just bothering opposing ball handlers, and she is extremely decisive with the ball and almost always seems to make the right decision at the right time.

In addition to having one of the lowest turnover percentages of any point guard, she also has among the highest scoring efficiency ratio. Which means that even though she does not take a whole lot of shots, when she does she is selecting opportunities that result in points for her team as well as any other point guard.

5. Temeka Johnson, Phoenix Mercury – Distributor: Although Johnson has among the best assist ratios and pure point ratings of any point guard, she is actually not the best of this group. What sets her apart is her game impact – she has among the highest plus/minus ratings of any point guard in addition to the highest Boxscore rating of this group. And that pretty much reflects what you might expect based on observation – Johnson makes excellent decisions and has been an essential part of the Mercury’s success this season.

She dropped a little from the last rankings I made because her numbers have leveled out as the season has worn on, but she is still by far the best point guard of her type in terms of getting the ball in the hands of her teammates within the flow of the offense.

4. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm -- Facilitator: So if saying that Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen is better than Bird doesn’t get me run out of Seattle, putting her fourth among all WNBA point guards might.

Again, the issue is Bird’s talent, but her performance this season. She disappears for long stretches of time and as I described previously, she shoots a large number of jumpers at a very low percentage. As a result, her impact on the game can be limited, despite single-handedly winning games at times. Although Storm fans would probably not agree, all three of the point guards listed ahead of Bird on this list are having demonstrably better seasons than Bird.

3. Lindsey Harding, Washington Mystics – Combo guard:
So here’s the justification of Harding over Bird: Harding has been both an efficient scorer and distributor as well as being arguably the better defender. And the thing that really sets Harding apart from Bird this season is that Harding goes aggressively to the basket – she has among the highest 2 point percentages of any point guard and a much higher free throw rate than Bird. In other words, Harding does a very good job of creating easy scoring opportunities for herself both from the field and from the free throw line, hence allowing her to do more for her team.

So the argument for Harding this season is simply that she brings more to the court overall as a point guard…and perhaps is able to do so more consistently.

2. Lindsay Whalen, Connecticut Sun – Combo guard: I made my argument in favor of Whalen the other day and stand by it. But what separates her from Harding? On the offensive side of the ball, there really is not much that Harding does that Whalen does not do better, with the exception of a small advantage for Harding in terms of 2 point percentage. The argument in favor of Harding is that she has one of the best plus/minus ratings in the WNBA and she is probably the better on ball defender. But its hard to find much beyond that.

Based on observation, it’s harder to think of a point guard who sees angles and is able to creatively use those angles better than Whalen right now (a few years ago, the answer would have been Penicheiro). And she uses that ability to draw fouls and get herself to the free throw line if she doesn’t finish with an array of creative shots. And while she is not a great defender, she has the instincts to play the passing lanes and play pretty good help defense.

It’s hard not to argue that Whalen is the best “traditional” point guard in the game right now.

1. Becky Hammon, San Antonio Silver Stars – Scoring point guard: So last week I wondered aloud if Hammon was the best point guard in the league this season and after watching all the other top point guards, I came to the conclusion that she definitely is.

Here’s why – she’s a weapon on the court from the point guard position that is almost impossible to stop right now. She is by far the best overall player playing the position by a long shot – she is the only point guard who is among the league’s best in terms of the ability to make plays (usage %) for her team efficiently (Chaiken scoring efficiency) while making a large individual contribution to the team’s wins (Boxscores).

It goes right back to the quote from Bird – no point guard in the league is better at understanding what’s needed and win and getting it done.

If she’s not scoring, she’s setting up others. If her team needs her to score, she can do that from anywhere on the court at a high percentage. And moreso than any other player in the league right now, Hammon is able to create plays for herself and others seemingly out of nothing.

People can try to dismiss her as “just a scorer” but ultimately, her abilities as a distributor are comparable to most of the players on this list and her decision making with the ball in her hands is arguably the best in the league.

Transition Points:
  • Obviously, I use some statistics to support and complement observational evidence...but I'm hardly a statistician. In fact, I hated math for most of my life. And even as a self-proclaimed, lifelong math-phobe, Kathy Goodman's LA Times blog last week entitled, "Basketball is Not Math" (but somehow it *is* chemistry, physics, and maybe psychology) was hardly moving.

    Rather than dissect it, I thought I would redirect to a more nuanced and less myopic approach to the same subject by Shoals at the Baseline. Shoals clearly has a bone to pick with Berri, but he makes a solid argument. To summarize his argument: statistics are fine as long as they are placed in context and based upon common sense assumption. Out of context and devoid of common sense, statistics are completely pointless. Taking an anti-statistics position is silly unless you want to also claim that your observations are honed to perfection...and if that's so, more power to you. All the numbers do is allow us to see trends and make comparisons that are very difficult to make otherwise...and if you care about make substantive arguments with some nuance, yes stats help.

    I am not as anti-Berri as Shoals is because honestly, I think the premise of many of Berri's arguments is solid -- our observations are often based on completely arbitrary assumptions about the game that really don't reflect the things that every coach knows lead to victory. But ultimately, both the "Basketball is not math" and the "Basketball is econometrics" arguments are misguided and incomplete.

  • Speaking of finding middle grounds, you may notice that despite my defense of Shalee Lehning last week, she was not in my top 10 here. There are a few reasons why she didn't make it, but I want to reiterate my point: it's not that Lehning is great, it's that she's not nearly as bad as people assume at what she does well...which is of course running the offense and getting the ball to scorers.
    For the record, she classified as a "distributor", which means she does more than just bring the ball upcourt -- she finds ways to get it to players in scoring position. Never an all-star, but she has a career in his league likely as a strong back-up.

  • After pilight compared Becky Hammon to Allen Iverson last week, I got an email from a Lynx fan I consider rather knowledgeable who suggested that Renee Montgomery is more like Iverson -- right now, she is a score first player, who has a great handle, gets to the line but is the worst distributor of any WNBA point guard right now. As a side note, the Iverson we most remember was not actually a point guard at all but an off-guard; Eric Snow ran point. And it's no coincidence that it's when Iverson was at his most effective.

  • If I were to add players like Pondexter, Perkins, or Wright to these rankings, Pondexter could be labeled the best "lead guard" in the league. And I'd probably have Perkins in my top five. And really, the number of non-point guard lead guards in the WNBA is one of the league's biggest selling points in my mind. It makes for an even more fluid and dynamic game of basketball.

  • Speaking of which -- will Kristin Haynie really be a better option at point guard for the Sacramento Monarchs than Kara Lawson has been? I'm not sure I see how...but then again, she hasn't really played enough this season to make an assessment. And trading forward Crystal Kelly to Detroit for Haynie strikes me as a very bad move. Whatever happened to player development?

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Positive WNBA Press at the Sporting News: "The WNBA: Much Better Than You Think"

. Monday, August 17, 2009
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About two weeks ago I went to a Seattle Storm- Phoenix Mercury game with Bethlehem Shoals of and we had some extended conversations about his thoughts about the WNBA.

Today, Shoals (finally) posted his first-hand account of the WNBA on the Sporting News and did a great job of transforming my description of our conversation into a more coherent argument in support of the WNBA, in addition to challenging the dominant assumptions that NBA fans might hold. An excerpt:

As far as I can tell, WNBA players can't jump, run or throw their weight around like their male counterparts. And they do play a more technically adept game. But they are also seriously skilled, in ways that college (amateur) athletes are not, for simple reasons of arithmetic. Both guards handle the ball and run the offense; big men—er, women—post up all over the place, regularly pass off the ball, and reliably hit jumpers like it's expected of them; everyone cuts like crazy, keeping up a level of activity that at some point is bound to outstrip or shed the coach's instructions.

It's less a diminished version of the NBA than a mutant strain of it, not unlike various incarnations of Nellieball or D'Antoni Land. It might be even a more sophisticated form of basketball than either the NBA status quo or men's college ball, which it pretty much makes a mockery of when it comes to both style and content. I don't know enough about European ball to draw that analogy with confidence, but there might be a family resemblance there.

It also reminded me quite a bit of the NBA of the 1960s, at least in the non-differentiated guard and forward positions, emphasis on movement and cutting, and varied offensive sets. Maybe it wasn't by accident that Bill Russell was at the game that night. Yes, he's a friend of Mercury GM Ann Meyers, but he's also on record as being a fan of the WNBA's style of play. And when Russell first entered the league, it had just discovered the shot-clock and was finally developing an identity apart from college ball that was to its benefit. A decade-plus down the road, the WNBA players not only have gotten better, they also have a better idea of what makes their league unique.
It's definitely worth a read and I think it provides further insight into how the WNBA could be marketed in ways that appeal to NBA fans.

It's not making nebulous pleas to just "expect great" -- it actually makes a case for why WNBA basketball is worth watching, opening up the black box that the WNBA's marketing scheme created...and assuming that those insistent on making sexist assumptions about the WNBA won't be convinced anyway.

So after reading his piece, I wonder (again), what could the WNBA hypothetically take from perspectives such as Shoals' to think about how to market the league?

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The Beauty of Basketball: "Making baskets...and playing with my teammates."

. Sunday, August 16, 2009
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When people ask me why I like basketball, I often give some convoluted or esoteric answer about fluidity, coordination between individuals, and the beauty of a (real) no look pass.

Today in the Seattle Times there was a nice article about Eunice Shriver and the impact of the Special Olympics on a local girl's basketball player born with Down Syndrome.

"At a time when people were being told to put their special needs kids in a home," said Shelby's sister Lexie, a student at Western Washington, "Eunice Shriver was more than willing to say that, 'Yes, I have a sibling with special needs and I want to make her life better, rather than ignore the problem and pretend it isn't there.' I find that very, very inspiring."

Basketball helped Shelby Corno find her place. Ask her what she likes about playing basketball and she'll tell you, "I like making baskets and I like playing with my teammates."
Of course in this case it wasn't necessarily anything unique to basketball that was so important, but the opportunity for this particular girl to play that made such a huge difference in her life and the life of her family.

A short but beautiful tribute to Shriver.

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