Weekly Roundup: Everything’s Coming Up Aces (Again)
Las Vegas clinches its first WNBA title and breaking down 10 numbers that defined the 2022 WNBA season
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Congratulations to Las Vegas on capturing its first-ever WNBA title with a hard-fought 78-71 road win over Connecticut in Game 4! While the Aces’ potent offense had been their calling card all season, it was their defense that carried them across the finish line. Las Vegas brought home the city’s first championship from a major sports league despite averaging just 76.5 points in the Finals. During the regular season, the Aces were 0-4 in games in which they scored 76 or fewer points, losing those games by an average of 17.5 points. Maybe that guy in the Progressive Becoming Your Parents commercial was right and that defense wins championships?
What a game. What a series. What a postseason. What a season.
Whether you’re reading the weekly roundup for the first time or you’ve followed along all season, I just want to thank you all for your support. I can only hope you got as much enjoyment from reading this as I did putting it together each week. Special thanks to Morgan Reeder for putting together many of the great graphics you saw in the roundup throughout the season. Thanks also to Chris Poss for graciously allowing me to use his collection of high-quality WNBA photos. And of course, thanks to the entire Her Hoop Stats team for their insight, edits, and support durin the season.
While the weekly roundup is going on a bit of a hiatus, it will return for the college season (which tips off in only 46 days!). In the meantime, be on the lookout for newsletter articles covering the FIBA World Cup, WNBA free agent destinations, WNBA prioritization, and college basketball previews. And lastly, check out our stats site for a wealth of stats covering the WNBA and all three divisions of NCAA women’s basketball.
10 numbers that defined the 2022 WNBA season
A first-time champion, an MVP race for the ages, unprecedented parity, and one of the greatest individual postseason performances in history - the WNBA delivered in 2022. So, let’s take a look back at the season that was through a numerical lens. Most of these relate to on-court accomplishments and trends, while some address important off-court developments. These are in no particular order.
1. Nine triple-doubles
Before the 2022 season, 11 players had recorded a triple-double in a WNBA game. It was a feat so rare that zero such games occurred in the eight-season span from 2006 through 2013. That all changed when players notched a mind-boggling nine such games this season alone. Yes, nearly half of all the league’s triple-doubles happened in 2022. That’s thanks to Alyssa Thomas, whose four triple-doubles this year puts her at the top of the list, Candace Parker (2), Sabrina Ionescu (2), and Moriah Jefferson (1).
In a draft of a weekly roundup last year, I wrote that Ionescu would break the then-career record of two in a single season. It felt a bit silly, so I tempered that prediction down to her merely tying the career record. And yes, while Ionescu ultimately didn’t accomplish the feat in 2021, it no longer seems like such an outlandish forecast.
Whether it’s the uptick in assist rates (more on that below), the increase in three-point rates (again, more below), higher offensive efficiency, the existence of special, versatile players capable of reaching the milestone, or some combination of thereof, the triple-double revolution is upon us.
2. 67.3% assist rate
Almost certainly related to the triple-double revolution, the league saw an uptick in the percentage of field goals that were assisted (i.e., the assist rate). In fact, “uptick” might be an understatement. The reality is that in addition to seeing its highest assist rate ever, the WNBA saw its biggest year-over-year increase in assist rate in 2022 – 67.3% of field goals were the result of an assist, 4.1 percentage points higher than last season.
Ok fine, you might say, it’s the highest assist rate ever, but 4.1 percentage points? Big deal. Here’s perhaps a more vivid example of how unprecedented this season’s assist rates – the three highest single-season assist rates in league history are all owned by teams from this season. In order, Chicago, Seattle, and New York top the list.
Similar to the triple-double revolution, this is likely the confluence of factors like the increase in three-point rates (three-pointers are more often the result of an assist than twos) and a special crop of point guards. Just consider the assist leaders on the three teams mentioned above – Courtney Vandersloot, Sue Bird, and Sabrina Ionescu – and the assist uptick, I mean explosion, starts to make sense.
3. 29.5% three-point rate
The percentage of scoring attempts that came from beyond the arc reached an all-time high this season, continuing an upward trend that started in 2015. WNBA teams are taking full advantage of the fact that a three-pointer is worth 1.5 times more than a shot inside the arc. A whopping four of the top eight single-season three-point rates occurred this season - New York (second all-time), Phoenix (fifth), Seattle (seventh), and Las Vegas (eighth).
Impressively, teams also made threes at a higher clip this season (34.6%) than at any point since the three-point trend began in 2015.
4. Chelsea Gray’s 71.9% effective field goal percentage in the playoffs
Otherworldly. Unconscious. Phenomenal. Whichever adjective you pull from your thesaurus to describe Chelsea Gray’s shooting during the postseason, the conclusion is the same: it was the greatest shooting performance in WNBA playoff history. Her effective field goal percentage of 71.9% during the 2022 postseason was the highest ever among players with at least 50 field-goal attempts, beating out coach Becky Hammon’s 66.7% effective field-goal percentage in the 2002 playoffs. I’m sure Hammon didn’t mind relinquishing that record to her player. When you toss in free throws to look at true shooting percentage, Gray again tops the all-time list.
And rest assured, Gray’s field-goal attempts weren’t all wide-open threes or easy looks in the restricted area. From well-contested threes to mid-range fadeaways off the dribble, these shots had such a high level of difficulty that it begged the question: when will she cool off? I mean, it had to happen at some point, right? I’m sure Phoenix, Seattle, and Connecticut fans all had the same thought, but it turned out to be wishful thinking. It will be interesting to see if her hot shooting continues when Team USA takes the floor in Australia at the FIBA World Cup.
It was the greatest shooting performance in postseason history, and digging a bit deeper, it was one of the finest examples of a player creating their own shot and executing. She took nearly 100 shots off the dribble in the playoffs and averaged almost 1.5 points per shot on those attempts. As Synergy’s Todd Whitehead recently demonstrated, that puts Gray in a league of her own.
5. Las Vegas’ 108.1 offensive rating
A list that didn’t recognize the entire Aces team, your 2022 WNBA champions, would have felt incomplete. Las Vegas averaged 108.1 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, the second-best offensive rating in league history. The Aces flourished under Becky Hammon’s offense, which emphasizes greater spacing, ball movement, and yes, the three-point shot. Kelsey Plum had arguably the greatest regular season in WNBA history from behind the arc, hitting the second-most threes ever in a season while still shooting over 40% from long range. A’ja Wilson had by far her most efficient season on offense, setting career highs in field-goal percentage, effective field-goal percentage, and points per scoring attempt on her way to her second MVP award. Jackie Young had a career year, knocking down 50 threes when she had hit only 22 in her first three seasons combined. And while this is a regular-season mark, I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out Chelsea Gray’s superhuman performance in the playoffs.
With their core returning next season, the Aces are well-positioned to replicate this success next season. That’s thrilling for fans of high-octane offense but quite the harrowing thought for the league’s other 11 teams.
6. A net margin difference of 2.2 among the league’s top five
Maybe it’s recency bias, but this year’s postseason, particularly the final two rounds, was one of the most exciting in recent memory. It’s no coincidence that it happened in a season that featured the highest level of parity among the league’s top five teams. The difference between the league’s No. 1 team in net rating (Connecticut) and the league’s No. 5 team (Washington) was just 2.2 points per 100 possessions. It’s a margin so razor-thin that a legitimate championship case could have been made for any of the five heading into the postseason.
7. 32 points separating A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart
The 2022 MVP race between A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart was decided by just 32 points. Voter points, that is (first-place votes receive 10 points; second place gets seven points; third, fourth, and fifth earn five, three, and one point, respectively). According to Across the Timeline’s database of MVP votes, that’s the third-closest race in league history. It was a result in line with both the eye test and statistics, as each suggested that Wilson and Stewart had equally-impressive seasons. In a decision that was hard to begrudge regardless of who won, voters gave the edge to Wilson.
8. Fowles’ fifth season of 60%+ FG% and Bird’s 7.7 assist-to-turnover ratio
Yeah, I know. That’s two numbers. Sorry, I don’t care. I’m taking any opportunity available to write about Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird. Their ability to produce at such a high level after so many years in the league is astounding.
In her 15th WNBA season, Fowles recorded her fifth season shooting at least 60% from the field. The rest of the league has combined for seven such seasons (minimum 200 field-goal attempts). Given this, it’s unsurprising that she finishes her career as the league’s most efficient scorer, putting up 1.27 points per scoring attempt. Simply remarkable for the WNBA’s greatest center of all time.
A point guard is expected to facilitate scoring for a team’s offense and take care of the ball. At the age of 41, Bird performed those tasks to near perfection during her final postseason. She dished out 46 assists and committed only six turnovers in Seattle’s six postseason contests. That equates to a 7.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, the best in playoff history among those with at least 15 assists. While she didn’t ride off into the sunset with a fifth WNBA title, that’s still quite the swan song for the league’s greatest point guard of all time.
Indeed, age is just a number.
9. 22% year-over-year increase in TV viewership
The 2022 WNBA season was the league’s most-viewed in 16 years, In terms of viewership on Disney’s family of networks (all of ESPN’s channels and ABC). Yes, there were a few bumps in the road during the Finals going up against the NFL regular season, and putting more games on ABC this season helped matters. However, given how much more fragmented the TV landscape is now, that’s a particularly encouraging result. If such growth continues over the next few years, the league will be in a strong position to negotiate a new TV contract when its current one with ESPN expires in 2025. Howard Megdal recently reported that the WNBA’s primary broadcast partner, ESPN, paid the league $27 million for broadcasting rights in 2021, with that number growing to $33 million by 2025. This summer, Apple TV inked a 10-year $2.5 billion deal with Major League Soccer, a league with comparable TV ratings to the WNBA. If the new TV deal is anywhere in the ballpark of the MLS’ $250 million per year contract, then it could trigger the league’s revenue sharing mechanism, allowing the league to pay its players more (check out Jacob Mox’s excellent pieces – Part 1 for the basics and Part 2 for a detailed example – explaining how WNBA revenue sharing works).
Maybe down the road, players don’t feel the need to play overseas in the offseason to supplement their WNBA incomes. Maybe the unpopular prioritization clause becomes less of an issue. I’m getting ahead of myself, but the fact remains that this season’s strong performance in the ratings laid the foundation for a potentially transformative TV deal in the future,
10. 216 days
Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained by the Russian government for 216 days. Her plight was on the minds of players, coaches, and fans throughout the season. Of course, that continues to be the case. There’s been some progress, including the United States’ proposed prisoner swap and President Biden’s meeting with Brittney’s wife Cherelle, but nothing has resolved this situation yet. International diplomacy can be a painstakingly slow process, so please don’t forget about Brittney Griner. And please, U.S. government, bring Brittney Griner home.
Her Hoop Stats content in case you missed it
The WNBA season has ended, but the women’s basketball fun continues at the FIBA World Cup in Australia this month. In his comprehensive preview of the competition, Robert Mummery broke down all 12 teams and identified each group's game of the day.
The Her Hoop Stats Podcast Network was busy during the WNBA Finals! Christy Winters-Scott and Gabe Ibrahim broke down Las Vegas’ convincing win in Game 2. Then, Gabe, Dano Mataya, and special guest Myles Ehrlich of Winsidr offered their reactions to Connecticut’s blowout win in Game 3.
In his latest WNBA Dissected column, Richard Cohen argued for transparency in WNBA awards voting.
Gabe Ibrahim recapped Team USA’s training camp in Las Vegas and explained why USA Basketball’s future is bright.
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Trivia question of the week
First, here’s the answer to last week’s trivia question:
Who has played in the most WNBA Finals games in league history?
Answer: Rebekkah Brunson (34 games)
And now, here’s this week’s question:
From 1986-2018, the United States compiled a 69-2 record at the FIBA Women’s World Cup. What two teams defeated the U.S. during this timeframe? One of the losses happened in 1994, the other in 2006.