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The Most Extreme Offenses and Defenses in WNBA History
Using era-adjusted offensive and defensive ratings to pinpoint the biggest outliers in WNBA history.
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When the 2019 Washington Mystics shattered the WNBA record for offensive rating -- calculated as points per 100 possessions -- many wondered if the Mystics’ record was inflated compared to the early days of the league because of the way the modern game is played. The same could be said about defensive rating, where we saw some outliers, both good and bad, in the 2020 regular season. These varying “scoring environments” make it difficult to gauge just how impressive any season is compared to a season in another era.
As the above chart shows, offensive rating (and, as a result, defensive rating) has been steadily climbing since the inception of the league. There have been a few dips, including a significant dip in 2019, but there is a stark difference between the inaugural season’s league average of 89.8 and 2020’s league average of 100.5. While an offensive rating of 95.0 would have been solid in 1997, that would be well below average in 2020.
To adjust for these changes, we set out to compare offensive and defensive ratings on a level playing field. We decided that the best way to adjust for the league’s scoring environment is to calculate how much better or worse the team performed compared to the league average, as a percentage of the league average.
This method is often applied in other sports; for example, baseball uses ERA+ to adjust for how the league has changed over time instead of pure ERA (earned runs per nine innings). This will tell us how dominant a team was in any given season in a way that any two teams can be compared. We think of this as the percentage that a team is better or worse than average and will abbreviate the metrics as ORTG% and DRTG%. In all cases, positive numbers are better.
This method means a team with an offensive rating of 99.0 in a season when the league average was 90.0 would have an ORTG% of +10.0%, as would a team with an offensive rating of 110.0 when the league average was 100.0. The sign flips for defensive rating, as a lower defensive rating means a stingier defense. So, a defensive rating of 99.0 with a league average of 90.0 would be a -10.0%.
Using this method, let’s take a look at the top five offenses and defenses in WNBA history, as well as the bottom five in each category. Only regular-season stats are included in these rankings.
Top 5 Offenses
Well, there’s our answer: Not only do the 2019 Mystics hold up as the most dominant offense in history, but they do so by a solid margin. The 1998 and 2000 Comets come in at No. 2 and No. 3 in their second and fourth WNBA championship seasons, led by their powerhouse trio of Sheryl Swoopes, Cynthia Cooper, and Tina Thompson. Some early teams in the Sparks and Lynx championship runs made the list, benefitting from dips in league-wide efficiency in 2001 and 2013, respectively, while their stellar output held steady.
Top 5 Defenses
The Comets traded offense for defense after the retirement of Cooper, recording a defensive rating that was nearly 10% better than the league average a couple of years removed from their four-peat. Sacramento rode its incredible defense to a title in 2005, thanks to a combination of excellent defenders and a defensive-minded coach in John Whisenant. The 2001 Rockers finished with the second-best record in the WNBA that season, but got upset in the first round, making them the only team on this list (2020 Storm excluded) to not win the title. The 2020 Storm, led on defense by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Alysha Clark, put together a very impressive season to complement their good but not off-the-charts offensive rating. The 2017 Lynx rounded out the list, anchored by All-Defensive Team members Maya Moore and Rebekkah Brunson.
Bottom 5 Offenses
On the other end of the spectrum, here are the five worst WNBA offenses compared to the league average. At the top of the list is this year’s New York squad. Their offensive rating of 85.6 is only the seventh-worst rating in history, but they rank last in ORTG% because that offensive rating comes at a time when teams have an average offensive rating of over 100 points per 100 possessions. The next three teams on the list were expansion franchises, including the 1998 Mystics, who were one of the worst teams in WNBA history on both ends of the court. Tulsa comes in at No. 5 in a season where they finished with a paltry 3-31 record thanks to a defense that was also lacking.
Bottom 5 Defenses
The 2020 Indiana Fever struggled this season, setting a new WNBA record for the worst defensive rating in league history by about 2.5 points per 100 possessions. However, the 1998 Mystics had the worst defensive season in league history based on DRTG%. Their absolute defensive rating was nine points better than the 2020 Fever, but defensive ratings in 1998 were nearly 20 points lower on average. All five teams on this list all had losing records, but the 2008 Mercury stand out, as they had a pretty solid offense that carried them to a 16-18 record.
Coming soon, we will break down the teams’ overall performance. We will identify the most dominant and most tragic teams in WNBA history, teams that went all-out in one aspect of the game at the expense of the other half, and look at how those two dimensions affect postseason performance.