Seattle Storm: “Absolutely Nothing to Play for Other Than Pride”

. Friday, September 11, 2009
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As a WNBA fan who has just completed his first (near) full season watching Storm basketball at Key Arena, last night’s overtime loss against the Mercury will stand out as one of the most memorable because it demonstrated something about their character.

The reason is simple: there was absolutely no reason for anyone to believe that the Seattle Storm would compete in last night’s game. That the Storm made it to overtime almost boggles the mind.

The game itself was meaningless, expectations were low, and they limped into the game with four players injured and two replacement players aboard just to field a full rotation.

Taking a loss and looking ahead to the playoffs would have been a perfectly respectable outcome given the circumstances. A blow out might have been justifiable.

Yet it never seemed to occur to the Storm that they were supposed to lose.

It’s as though there is nothing about playing in Key Arena that even begins to imply that they might lose a game, despite home losses this year that serve as objective disconfirming evidence.

And I love that.

But before you dismiss this as fluff, consider that not every team responds to this type of situation in the way the Storm did. Many teams – not only in the WNBA, but also in professional sports more broadly – would just mail it in. I will let you use your imagination to think of concrete examples of that occurring, but I think you get the point.

Really, gutsy performances like that – competing for the sake of it or having fun – is what I love about sports. It’s part of what I love about watching people compete and competing myself. It’s a trait that I admire in people – the willingness to set a goal and pursue it even if there seem to be insurmountable barriers ahead.

And honestly, I normally detest the notion of a “moral victory” because so often it’s used to connote finding the silver lining of a hurricane rather than actually speaking to the illumination of a team’s character. But the fact that the Storm even pushed that game to overtime last night says a ton about the Storm’s character.

It was enough to make me put off meeting a friend to finish watching the game. Enough for me to spend time writing about a game I promised myself not to write about. Of course that may be more indicative of a basketball obsession turned pathological more than anything else, but that’s neither here nor there.

That game was the epitome of what people might call a “moral victory”.

Not just because it shows that the Storm can play with playoff intensity or that a consistently struggling bench has the capacity to play ball against the league’s best. The game showed that the Storm have heart. That they’re more mentally tough that I had previously given them credit for. And that losing is not an option they care to explore, even when it’s the justifiable path of least resistance.

Win or lose, I can watch a team like that every single day of the week.

Brief Statistical Update:

In contrast to the limping Storm who had to play their guts out to even keep pace, the Mercury played about five minutes of disciplined basketball to pull this out.

The Mercury's best period was arguably the overtime period when they shot 71% from the field, had a game low turnover percentage of 11% committing only one turnover, and controlled the boards. After going 0-6 from the three point line in the fourth quarter and shooting no more than 5 per quarter during the game, guard Diana Taurasi shot the only one in the overtime period. And suddenly, it looked like they were starting to play defense.

Transition Points:

I made the grave mistake of discussing my basketball fantasy of Storm forward Lauren Jackson playing with the Mercury with Storm fans. I was appropriately shamed. Forgive me Storm fans for I know not what I do.

After watching Phoenix forward DeWanna Bonner up close
, I'm more firmly on the Bonner for Sixth Woman bandwagon. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, in fact, because it's an award earned relative to a larger pool of players, it should be the *more* prestigious award.

Again, I'm relatively new to the WNBA. But has there ever been a better *regular season* experience in Key Arena? The combination of five overtime games and the amazing parity around the league means that almost every single game at Key Arena this summer was exciting. I am making that claim without any sort of first hand please do educate me.

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Defense Defines Sparks Victory Over Silver Stars

. Wednesday, September 9, 2009
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If what you like about basketball is high-octane offense, elegantly executed offensive sets, and great scoring performances from stars, then the Los Angeles Sparks’ 76-68 victory over the San Antonio Silver Stars was probably agonizing.

However, there is something equally compelling about the level of defensive intensity that both teams played with last night that seems to add to the drama of transitioning from the regular season to the playoffs.

The type of defense played last night is not only indicative of a level of aggression, grittiness, and tenacity not normally associated with women’s sports, but also makes the anxiety and sense of urgency of the playoffs start to become tangible.

It’s easy to write off last night’s game as merely an example of poor basketball by pointing to the 16-16 first quarter or the Sparks’ abysmal second quarter in which they shot 28.6%. And as with any game there were missed assignments or mental lapses.

Instead, I suggest that the defining element of both halves was the defensive tone that was established early and particularly caught my eye on a play in which Silver Stars center Ann Wauters made a stop on Sparks forward Candace Parker.

It’s rare to see a Rethinking Basketball post focused on defense, which is somewhat ironic considering that I was a defensive specialist for most of my non-descript organized basketball career. As such, this season I’ve been keeping track of defensive statistics, no matter how futile a cause it may seem.

Defense is probably the most difficult thing to analyze in basketball because there really is no reasonable way to assess it without knowing a) the team’s scheme, b) the overall strategy that the scheme is part of, and c) what is expected of each individual within that strategy.

For example, there are times when a team will live with giving up one thing in hopes of shutting down another. Play to play it might look like “bad defense” on the part of a player when it reality it’s a reasonable strategy to win a game given the personnel. What might seem like a lapse in one situation, may be a stroke of brilliance in another.

The Silver Stars used a creative defensive scheme in the first quarter to keep the Sparks off balance, playing a man defense that functioned something like a zone when players switched.

For example, with 8:55 left in the first, Sparks point guard Noelle Quinn set up the offense for the Sparks and initiated the play by dribbling around a Parker screen on the right wing. Normally on a screen such as that against a man-to-man defense, one would expect a simple exchange of defensive assignments in which Becky Hammon who was guarding Quinn would stick with Parker and Sophia Young would switch from Parker to Quinn.

Instead the Silver Stars made a much more complicated move. Young did step up and stop Quinn, who was clearly setting up a play to Parker, who was rolling to the basket. But rather than Hammon picking up Parker, Ann Wauters – who was sagging way off Lisa Leslie -- picked up Parker and Hammon picked up Leslie who was at the top of the key.

Confusing? Yes, and it’s just as confusing if you have to play against it. That’s the point.

And the Silver Stars did it all game to great effect. It wasn’t until halftime adjustments were made that the Sparks were able to really turn a corner.

Of course, part of the Sparks second-half turnaround was a matter of running more of a fluid motion offense rather than standing around trying to merely exploit their size advantage in the post. Nevertheless, what stifled the Sparks repeatedly in the first half was the Silver Stars defense.

But what actually got my attention is when the uber-athletic Parker actually went to make a move against Wauters on the same play.

Parker took two dribbles with her back to Wauters, subtly giving shoulder fakes to try to catch Wauters off balance and make a spin and drop step. When Parker finally did turn and make a drop step, Wauters did not budge and was able to bother Parker’s shot and send it off the far side of the rim strong.

Obviously, this was a combination of good scouting and good defensive strategy that made that entire sequence happen. But the reason it grabbed my attention is that those are the type of defensive plays that don’t show up in the box score and often go unnoticed.

In the second half, it was the Sparks’ defensive intensity that defined the game flow as the Sparks just used their size and physical advantages to prevent the Silver Stars from doing much of anything – finding scoring opportunities, making interior passes, or even cutting through the lane.

Moreover, the Silver Stars didn’t get to the free throw line once in the third quarter, which was a result of the Sparks defense, regardless of whether the game was called perfectly (no basketball game in history ever has been to my knowledge).

Both sides played physical in the post throughout the game and most of the time it was simply a matter of being disciplined enough to hold one’s position, resist the temptation to bite on fakes or wilt at the sign of any potential contact, and being willing to take a hit and not back down.

And despite the obviously strong defensive play exhibited by both teams, the Silver Stars finished the game shooting 44.6%, while the Sparks shot 50%, including 70% in the second half on 19-29 shooting from the field.

When you combine that type of gritty play with strong offensive play you get what I consider the best of basketball.

It’s not just about the pretty highlight reel plays that excite us on the most basic level. It’s the ongoing chess match from play to play of each team trying to one up the other – on both sides of the ball – and constantly making adjustments, forcing their opponents out of their comfort zone, and improvising as a unit to try to tough out a win.

It’s not the prettiest thing for fans to watch, but it’s good all-around basketball that I have great appreciation for. It seems to give the game an edge that draws you into the competition and helps the player’s passion come alive.

And for a junkie like me, that’s beautiful.

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Rookie Rankings: A Resolution for the ROY Debate

. Tuesday, September 8, 2009
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After the Phoenix Mercury’s 100-82 victory over the Atlanta Dream on Saturday, Phoenix Stan declared Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner Rookie of the Year.

Before you dismiss Stan as a biased Mercury writer, the argument he lays out in favor of Bonner over Dream forward Angel McCoughtry is quite strong, especially the part about consistency. After all – and forgive me for being so semantic – but the award is for the Rookie of the Year, not Rookie of the Post-All-Star Break or Rookie of the Future. The year, as in this year.

For most of the season, I have argued something similar – that although McCoughtry strikes me as the more player with more star potential, Bonner is clearly the most productive rookie in the league, if for no other reason than her style of play fits perfectly with the Mercury’s style.

However, over the last month or so, that claim has been proven wrong – these are both very productive, very talented players, with bright futures, that are best compared as “different” rather than judging one as superior. And of course, the award is irrelevant to the young players themselves, as reported by Stan – all they care about is winning (which I suppose is a shame because if one of them didn’t care about winning it would be quite easy to choose between the two of them).

But even if they don’t care, I do. We (fans) do.

As such, I first want to modify the consistency argument that some people have made – statistically, McCoughtry has been right behind Bonner for most of the season. Bonner has maintained a pretty firm grasp of the #1 spot, but McCoughtry has been the clear #2 by any reasonable basketball standard for the majority of the season.

So given that, it probably should come as no surprise that the numbers reveal something different after McCoughtry’s consecutive Rookie of the Month awards: Bonner and McCoughtry are almost even now based on the framework of analysis I have used for rookies this season.

That pretty much negates the consistency argument – even if McCoughtry was not great during the first half of the season, the fact that she has drawn even with (or arguably surpassed) Bonner statistically means one of the following:

a) Bonner’s rate of production has declined, as McCoughtry’s minutes increased

b) McCoughtry has made up statistical ground so rapidly that she must be the superior player, or

c) Both.

With the consistency piece negated, it becomes much more difficult to determine who should win Rookie of the Year. makes an unconvincing argument for McCoughtry by citing one game, which is insufficient because the award is for performance for the duration of the season.

Most of the performance metrics – Efficiency, Tendex, and Model Estimated Value (I don’t have PER or WARP) – are too close to make a clear assessment. So it will probably come down to each individual voter selecting the person they just like better.

Nevertheless, I want to find an argument that goes beyond merely arbitrary. In doing so, I think there might be another variable that points to a resolution – since both of these players have been reserves for most of the season, they are also eligible for the Sixth Woman award.

As such, is it possible that one should win the Sixth Woman of the Year award and the other the Rookie of the Year award? I say yes.

The rookie ranking standard

In evaluating rookies this season, I’ve used the following standard for analysis based upon observation and the statistical work of others:

The best rookies can create their own scoring opportunities – and do so efficiently – while contributing to a team’s success.

As such, I’ve used a combination of three statistics – usage rate (the rate at which a player creates plays for themselves), Chaiken efficiency ratio (the ratio of scoring plays a player is individually responsible for vs. turnovers and missed shots), and Boxscores (a player’s individual to team wins).

As it has been for months now, Bonner and McCoughtry have been the only two rookies to rank in the top tier of the league in all three statistical categories. Just to establish the significance of that accomplishment, there are only 15 players – All-Stars and MVP candidates -- in the entire league who share that distinction. It makes it an impressive standard by which to judge rookies.

The numbers are as follows:

Usage: 22.07
Chaiken Efficiency Ratio: 2.65
Boxscores: 2.79

Usage: 26.77
Chaiken Efficiency Ratio: 2.07
Boxscores: 2.39

While Bonner is slightly more efficient and contributed slightly more to her team’s success, McCoughtry is more effective at creating plays for herself.

And the latter point about McCoughtry is what swings my opinion in favor of McCoughtry: she’s a playmaker, while Bonner is still primarily a player who is dependent on the players around her to set her up.

Although Bonner has a much higher offensive rebounding rate (20% to McCoughtry’s 7%) and free throw rate (44.9% to McCoughtry’s 30%), McCoughtry has a much higher assist rate (13.4% to Bonner’s 3%) and slightly higher 2 point percentage. McCoughtry is often heralded as the better all-around defender, but Bonner is an improving help defender and that’s extremely valuable in the Mercury’s defensive scheme.

Yes, Bonner’s playmaking ability has improved, but McCoughtry is clearly the better playmaker. Or to put it in Jeopardy terms, McCoughtry is probably the answer to the question, “Which rookie would you want to have the ball in her hands at the end of a game?” McCoughtry is that type of player that can create plays for herself and others when her team needs it.

McCoughtry has demonstrated the ability to take over games in addition to putting up statistics almost equivalent to those of Bonner.

Although the Dream have only gone 3-4 with McCoughtry replacing forward Chamique Holdsclaw in the lineup over the last 7 games, it’s worth nothing that 5 of those games were road games and the losses were to Los Angeles, Phoenix, Detroit, and Seattle – teams that were all hot when the Dream encountered them.

So when we consider which rookie is better, yes, it’s worth considering which rookie has demonstrated the ability to clearly dominate a game and carry her team to victory. It’s an intangible that we cannot measure statistically, but I think we have to agree that McCoughtry has more of “it” however you want to define that “It Factor”.

Conclusion: McCoughtry as ROY, Bonner as SWOY

But with these two players being the best two reserves by my rookie standard -- which is really just a playmaking ability standard – I think it’s fair to say that one of them is probably the Sixth Woman of the Year as well.

That is Bonner.

The reason is simple and less arbitrary than merely finding a way to reward Bonner for what she’s done. If we consider that the bulk of McCoughtry’s production this season has been as a starter, then it’s easy to claim that Bonner has been the better reserve. She has consistently brought more off the bench than any player in the league, while McCoughtry has emerged as clearly the most dominant rookie starter.

So yeah, ultimately that does look like a compromise, but I think it’s the reasonable way to go.

Here’s my ranking of the rest of the rookies, with statistical backing:

3. Shavonte Zellous

I really like Zellous’ game and over the course of the season her shot selection has improved and she looks like she’s playing much more under control as the Shock have settled into life after Bill. Statistically, she’s also the third best defender behind Bonner and McCoughtry. As has been the case all season, she still gets to the free throw line at a higher rate than anyone else in the league. If she can work on her playmaking ability in the offseason, she’ll be a dynamic second year player.

4. Anete Jekabsone-Zogota

The consistency argument in comparison to Zellous (and defensive ability) is what has Jekabsone in the 4th spot as opposed to #3. But in terms of offensive ability, she is probably one of the most well rounded and polished rookies of any. She doesn’t have the same type of game-changing ability that McCoughtry does, but on the other hand there isn’t much she cannot do.

5. Renee Montgomery

Montgomery is not the best rookie point guard in terms of making plays for others, but she is by far the most dynamic rookie point guard with her ball handling ability and ability to take opponents off the dribble, as evidenced by her top tier 2 point percentage.

Second Team/Honorable mention:

6. Briann January
(I’m partial to point guards, but she has demonstrated ability to lead her team as well as any other rookie)

7. Courtney Paris
(needs more post moves, but still one of the best rebounders in the league)

8. Quanitra Hollingsworth
(among the best rebounders in the league and working on scoring ability)

9. Shalee Lehning
(the only way you could argue against her being among the top rookies is if you are drinking a large glass of haterade. Even by the rather weak standard of EFF, available at, she’s #9. I could say more, but I think I’ve made the point by now).

10. Kristi Toliver
(if she played more…I would put her higher. But this is not a judgment of talent, but production)

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Downsize This: What Effect (If Any) Have Roster Cuts Had on the WNBA?

. Monday, September 7, 2009
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"We'd keep talking about the economy and trying to figure out how, from a budget standpoint, to move forward. It was just something the union and the WNBA agreed on. That's not to say it is what it is, but we want to stay around awhile. We don't want to . . . stay at 13 and then down the road look [back] and say we wished we would have went down [to 11]. So now we have that opportunity and it's going to make the league stronger." - Tamika Catchings, during a pre-season conference call (via Washington Post)
Bob Corwin of Full Court Press – the self-proclaimed “doom and gloom” writer of the WNBA – recently wrote a rather thorough and less gloomy article reflecting on the state of the WNBA.

Yet there was one thing that he left out: the effect of the league’s decreased roster sizes.

Downsizing WNBA rosters from 13 to 11 players was probably an economically sound decision to keep the league fiscally viable for the near future.

In fact, the WNBA should be applauded for recognizing the warning signs and, like, doing something about it.

As described by Paul Krugman in a New York Times article last week, it was widespread “blindness to the possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy” that precipitated the country's current economic situation. Further blindness by WNBA executives in the form of doing nothing would have only compounded already difficult circumstances for the league.

However, we should have learned something else from our current economic situation, regardless of whether you call it a “crisis”, “downturn”, “natural ebb and flow of the free market”, or “recession” – sometimes sound economic decision making comes from people who “mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth,” as described by Krugman.

None of us have the capacity to foresee the future, whether it be the long-term viability of the league or determining which teams will make the upcoming playoffs. Nevertheless, with a season’s worth of data in hand, it’s hard not to wonder about the non-economic impacts of shrinking rosters on a still-evolving league like the WNBA.

With the rash of injuries affecting the league’s all-stars at near epidemic proportions this year, people have naturally wondered whether the roster reductions are contributing to player injuries. And yes, the injuries are getting so bad that some games are almost unwatchable.

The Minnesota Lynx didn’t really win on Saturday, the Seattle Storm just lost. With three players out due to injury, the Storm shot a combined 6-32 in the 1st and 4th quarters, casting a dark cloud over the 2nd and 3rd quarters in which they shot over 70%.

And yesterday’s Chicago Sky-Detroit Shock game was not a whole lot better – despite a third quarter in which the Sky did not commit even one turnover, the Sky looked typically out of sorts with Sylvia Fowles limping around and Brooke Wyckoff out due to injury. And Detroit – with their own set of injury problems – was forced to play Deanna Nolan for the full 40.

In any event, I’m not sure shortened rosters explain the injury epidemic – we’d have to dig deep to figure out whether there is an increase in fatigue injuries relative to freak accidents compared to past years…and even then, figure out how roster sizes contributed. I’m not a sports doctor, so I’m going to leave that argument alone.

However, I did do a cursory survey of some people’s concerns about the roster reductions prior to the season and as the regular season comes to an end, I found it interesting to return to people’s pre-season speculation. Two points stood out to me: running effective practices and developing young talent.

Although it is difficult to make the argument that roster reductions have had a strong influence on game play this season, I think an argument could be made that it might harm the quality of play in the future, especially as the league looks to expand.

So how might this season’s roster reductions affect the league in the future?

“We talkin’ about practice – what are we talkin’ about? Practice?!?

Basketball is a 5 on 5 game. Therefore, it is nice to have 10 players in practice to work on both offensive and defensive sets.

So even if 8 or 9 players is enough to play a game with a pretty normal rotation of players for most teams (in the WNBA, pretty much all except Connecticut), it’s difficult to use practice time effectively, as CJ from TIB wrote in April:
Well…until you want a full practice when you are on the road. Let’s say that you have and 11-player roster, one person is injured and one is tweaked enough that you’d want to save her for the game. Now the best you can do is practice 4-on-5. Hardly ideal.
Of course, there are things teams can do with 8 or 9 players that are just as important as working on execution of plays with “live” defense. But if you’ve ever played or coached basketball, you know that those 5 on 5 simulations – even in stop-action drill situations – are valuable.

In theory, that practice time becomes even more valuable in a league with a relatively short regular season and a pre-season with fatigued players flying in from around the world. As such, in theory, teams would be much less crisp in games and the quality of play throughout the league would decline.

This is only the second full WNBA season I’ve watched so I have a limited frame of reference, but I would say the game play overall this season has actually been better than last. And I’ve seen and heard multiple people say this is among the strongest seasons ever.

But still I wonder, what might be the effect of limited practice time on teams?

Player development…or lack thereof…

A bit of wisdom drawn from other sports I’ve watched over the years is that for young players, that practice time against the vets in “game-like” situations is as valuable, if not more, for certain players.

To be more specific, I’m thinking about rookie NFL quarterbacks who sit out a season and observe games while participating in practice and countless NBA early entry rookies over the years who have publicly stated that practicing with/against the best on a daily basis was as much a contributor to their development as anything else.

The WNBA has now done two things that potentially harm player development: first, with shortened rosters, keeping a player on the roster merely for the sake of having them “learn” is a risk, especially for a playoff team that could use depth in their rotation. Second, even if you do choose to keep these “learners” on the roster, they won’t get the type of simulated situations that they might otherwise get with larger roster sizes.

Unfortunately, for a league to prosper long-term, it has to consistently bring in and develop young talent. While the level of competition has gotten more intense with the least talented players in the league now unemployed, what about the future?

With 19 rookies making rosters this year, who steps up as our current stars age and decline?

If a second year player has not shown enough development at the beginning of next year will they be cut instead of being given a second chance?

Theoretically, the league has put a constraint on its product that will limit its future prospects. Or maybe not.

Could a change in roster management philosophy be upon us?

It seems like rather than lamenting the limits the roster reductions have put on the league, we should focus instead of how teams can make this work because it is a legitimate economic decision.

What will be interesting is how general managers adjust player personnel strategies to work with the new limits put upon them.

Mechelle Voepel suggested in May that tweeners – a slightly more negative connotation than a versatile star -- and “pure point guards” would be the most likely victims of the roster reductions because they the least to offer. Prior to the draft, former Detroit Shock coach Bill Laimbeer said something slightly different – he went into the draft looking for versatility and landed Shavonte Zellous who has been among the top rookies, despite being something of a “tweener”.

However, when I look at what actually transpired this season, I see something slightly different. In needing to maximize roster space, teams cut players that did not have immediate use to them, but the best of the chopping block ended up catching on somewhere else. And in many cases – Tan White, Kiesha Brown, and Ketia Swanier come to mind (all coincidentally connected to the Connecticut Sun) – the waiver wire activity has benefited both teams and players.

So the roster cuts may have enabled the amazing parity we’ve seen this season simply because teams had to be more prudent with their roster slots. What we’ve seen is a redistribution of talent. And that has almost indisputably contributed to the immense parity of this season.

We could do a deep statistical analysis of the percentage of various player types that ended up making rosters, but I’m not sure how valuable that would be – the defining characteristic of the players cut is that they were previously unproductive for one reason or another rather than of a particular style of play.

Final answer: Inconclusive

Ultimately, I would say that the roster reductions have simultaneously contributed to this season’s parity and limited player development. However, the key will be to understand how exactly teams will approach player development going forward.

Do those 2nd and 3rd rounds of the draft become less important because teams figure they can’t use those players? Or do those picks become more valuable as teams are more likely to take risks on potential diamonds in the rough that may not play with them for a few years?

However, a bigger question for me right now is given the increasing parity and the economic crunch, why exactly is the league choosing to expand now? If we accept common wisdom that expansion dilutes a league, then won’t that negate the one potentially positive outcome of these roster reductions?

Does the league really need a struggling team full of leftovers? Or will we just see players who were cut this year getting another chance to prove themselves next year and stepping up?

Whoa – that’s six straight questions, which probably says something about what I think about these roster reductions – it’s too soon to determine any sort of effect.

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