How Seattle and Las Vegas Match Up
A position-by-position look at the WNBA Finals
|Clay Kallam||Oct 2, 2020|
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There are a lot of ways to analyze a series, and none can really cover all the scenarios perfectly. Stats can only do so much, the eye test is unreliable and coaching often is less of a factor than people think.
For simplicity, this article is a position-by-position look at the 2020 WNBA Finals between Seattle and Las Vegas. Things probably won’t play out exactly as anticipated -- it could be that Breanna Stewart doesn’t guard A’ja Wilson, or Angel McCoughtry doesn’t go head-to-head with Alysha Clark all over the floor -- but this lens does allow for a closer look at each player’s strengths and weaknesses, and hopefully sharpens the focus on what should be a fascinating Finals.
Point guard: Sue Bird will turn 40 on October 16, just a few days after the Finals conclude. It’s no insult to say that she doesn’t have the same athleticism she did when she was 25 -- but her decline in quickness may prove to be a significant problem against the very fast Danielle Robinson. Robinson can explode to the hoop, and it will be Bird’s challenge to stay in front of her consistently. On the other side, Robinson has been guarding Bird for years and knows her tendencies well -- for example, that she much prefers to go left. She’s also aware that Bird attempted just four free throws in her 257 regular-season minutes, so even when Bird tries to penetrate, the odds are she will pull up rather than go all the way to the basket. Robinson, on the other hand, took a total of 13 three-pointers all season, and wants to get to the rim -- and Bird, of course, knows Robinson just as well as Robinson knows her. All in all, this is a much closer matchup than the reputation of the two players would suggest, but it is still a slight advantage to Seattle.
Shooting guard: In many ways, Kayla McBride is the key to the Las Vegas offense, as she is their primary perimeter threat. If she’s not scoring from outside, then the defense can collapse into the paint to make life difficult for A’ja Wilson. Connecticut had Briann January stick with McBride all over the court and never drop into help, and it would be no surprise if Jewell Loyd did the same. The numbers suggest that Loyd is a better all-around player than McBride. She’s a better shooter, rebounder, defender, which the eye test reinforces. However, McBride can shoot it, and it would not be a shock if she suddenly started raining threes in the Finals. Still, advantage Seattle.
Small forward: Of the several really intriguing matchups in the series, this one might be the most fascinating. Angel McCoughtry -- masterfully handled by Bill Laimbeer through the regular season to have her ready to go in the postseason -- is an all-time great with a history of stepping up in big games. On the other hand, Alysha Clark has a reputation as one of the best defenders in the game, so it’s a classic case of the unstoppable force coming up against the immovable object. When Seattle has the ball, the equation shifts. McCoughtry is an above-average defender, even at 34, and Clark is very efficient but not spectacular at the offensive end. If McCoughtry stays disciplined defensively, she should be able to contain Clark more than Clark can contain McCoughtry, or so the numbers suggest. Regardless, it will be fascinating to watch this classic matchup, but from here, the advantage goes to Las Vegas.
Power forward: If you thought McCoughtry vs. Clark was fun, how about the two MVP favorites going head-to-head? Some thought Breanna Stewart should have won the league’s most prestigious award, but instead, it went to A’ja Wilson so Stewart may have even more motivation than winning another title. Stewart does have more breadth to her game, at least in terms of court coverage. Stewart, for example, hit 36.8% of her 95 three-point attempts; Wilson didn’t even shoot once from beyond the arc. Defensively, Stewart will jump out and attack the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll, while Wilson is more cautious and more likely to drop into the lane. Otherwise, there’s little to choose between them, as both are excellent rebounders, very good passers for post players, and able to draw fouls and make free throws. Despite Wilson’s possession of that MVP trophy, I give a slight advantage to Seattle at power forward.
Center: If I had a vote for Defensive Player of the Year, it would go to Natasha Howard, because the 6-foot-2 29-year-old is the almost perfect combination of athleticism, experience, and attitude. She’s quick enough to blow up pick-and-rolls, explosive enough to counter taller players in the lane, and hungry enough to treat every loose ball as though it’s a ticket to paradise. With all that said, the one thing she lacks is the one thing Carolyn Swords has plenty of: Strength. Well, there’s also the height issue, as the 31-year-old Swords is 6-foot-6, but “explosive” is not a word that comes to mind when it comes to Swords’ leaping ability. What matters more is Swords’ ability to carve out space in the lane and absorb rebounds at both ends of the floor. And since Howard is not a perimeter threat -- she only took 20 threes all year -- Swords shouldn’t be at too much of a disadvantage defensively, unless Gary Kloppenburg decides to let Howard fire away from distance. Overall, even though size matters, Howard has the edge in too many other categories, so we have another advantage to Seattle.
Bench: The past isn’t much of a guide to how the benches will play out in this series, primarily because of the injury to Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby. Of course, Hamby was really a starter, playing the second-most minutes on the team, which is one reason to take all that chatter about the power of the Las Vegas bench with a boulder-sized grain of salt. Nonetheless, without her, Bill Laimbeer’s rotations are now a work in progress, especially with Jackie Young’s recent struggles. Remember, though, that Young was the first overall pick in the 2019 draft, and that she holds the Indiana high school scoring record for boys and girls, so there’s plenty of reason to believe she can shake off her slump and contribute. If she doesn’t, then the options for Las Vegas are pretty much limited to Sugar Rodgers and Lindsay Allen, who only played 17 minutes in the five-game Connecticut series.
On the other side, the loss of Sami Whitcomb -- who returned to Australia for the birth of her child -- is a major blow to Seattle as well. Whitcomb played 17 minutes per game, and the high-energy veteran was not only a three-point threat (38.1%) but a dogged defender and excellent all-around player. That will put more of a burden on Epiphanny Prince, but the veteran has put together a solid WNBA career and could easily find five more good games left in the tank. Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbebor are fine off the bench, but obviously a significant dropoff after Stewart and Howard. Still, there’s no question the bench is a significant edge to Seattle.
Coaching: Prior to this season, Gary Kloppenburg had one playoff win. Bill Laimbeer has three WNBA championships. This is not to say that Kloppenburg isn’t a good coach, but a case could be made that Laimbeer is the best the league has ever seen. For example, he stuck with the game plan of letting Briann January and Jasmine Thomas fire away from the perimeter, even though the Aces were down 3-1, and it paid off in the final two games. His biggest challenge in this series, though, will be to somehow restore Jackie Young’s confidence and extract some production from a thin bench -- and if anyone can do it, it’s probably Laimbeer. Advantage Las Vegas.
In conclusion: Adding up the categories, the edge goes to Seattle, 5 to 2, and given the critical loss of Dearica Hamby, that does seem to reflect the reality of the series. The Storm are, and should be, the favorites, but it’s not hard to see McCoughtry, Wilson and Laimbeer combining to make this a much more difficult road for Seattle than many expect. In the end, the Storm just have too many weapons: Seattle in five.
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