The W Dozen, 2020 Week 4: In a League of Their Own
12 notable, interesting, silly or amusing things from around the WNBA this week, starting with the dominant Seattle Storm
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1. Storming the League
When trying to put a framework on how you see a league, or a draft class, or the players you're selecting in your fantasy league, it's become pretty common to use tiers. For a draft, unless there's a very good reason, you'd choose among the players remaining in your highest tier, and only move on to the next tier once everyone in the current group was gone. For a league, it's more about which teams are on a similar level, or might have a chance to beat each other in a playoff series. Which brings me to something that's become increasingly clear over the first half of the WNBA's 2020 regular season:
One team, and one team only. The Sky have been impressive at times, the Aces and Sparks both look dangerous on their day, the Lynx have been a pleasant surprise - but the Seattle Storm have been the class of the league and it's not been close. Their offense is tearing opponents apart, allowing them to coast past teams for double-digit wins without even seeming to move out of second gear. Meanwhile their cohesion defensively and the way they take collective responsibility for stopping opponents has made them just as impressive at the other end of the floor. They just set WNBA records for victory margin over a four-, five-, and six-game margin. Look at the unselfishness here:
Loyd grabs the defensive board, advances the ball to Stewart, and the best player in the league - currently shooting 46% from three - turns down the open look to make the pass to Bird, who inevitably makes the extra pass to Clark for an open layup. No one cares about individual stats or their own production, just the success of the team.
In fact, right now Seattle has both the top offense and the top defense in the WNBA. Their offensive rating of 108.7 is three points clear of the field, while their defensive rating of 89.1 is over five points ahead of everyone else. That's rare. Usually elite teams are atop one of those lists, and then 'good' or even just 'good enough' on the other. Six teams in WNBA history have finished the season with both the #1 offense and #1 defense: the Houston Comets in 1998, 1999 and 2000 (winning the championship in all three years), the Phoenix Mercury in 2014 (won the Finals in a sweep), and the Minnesota Lynx in both 2016 and 2017 (one title, one heartbreaking loss to the Sparks). Three of the four other teams on this list won titles, as well:
We're talking about squads that were the absolute cream of the crop.
There are even some parallels to the Steph Curry-Kevin Durant Golden State Warriors here. This season, a team that already had some exceptional talent - Natasha Howard (Defensive Player of the Year, sixth in MVP voting last season), Jewell Loyd, Alysha Clark - added a league MVP to the mix (plus, in Seattle's case, a high-class veteran point guard as well). Now, they have so much talent that they barely know how to fit everyone in. Breanna Stewart looks just as good as she did before her Achilles injury, scoring inside and out at outstanding levels and leading the MVP race again. At point guard they now have both Jordin Canada with a year of experience leading the team, plus Sue Bird back to take control. Loyd as the scoring guard and Clark as the do-everything wing are as good as ever, with the reserves deepened by Mercedes Russell dropping back to the bench and rookie Ezi Magbegor looking tailor-made for her role providing energy, length and athleticism inside. In fact, Howard has had some difficulty finding her way now that her role on the team has changed significantly due to the return of Stewart. If Howard can find her way back to her form from 2018, the Storm become even more unstoppable.
Right now, the only thing that looks like it could slow down the Storm is injury, although even that is debatable. As with those Warriors, part of the point of having so much talent is to defend yourself against the possibility of losing some of it along the way. Sue Bird went down for five games with a bone bruise in her left knee, and the situation was exacerbated by backup combo-guard Epiphanny Prince leaving the bubble for personal reasons at the same time. Canada simply slid back into the starting spot, Sami Whitcomb took on some backup point guard duties, and the Storm carried on winning regardless. The only injury that looks like it could stop them in their tracks is if Stewart got hurt, and as long as she was ready for the playoffs even that should be survivable. This has become both the best, and probably the deepest, team in the league.
It's a scary combination.
2. Shooting in the Dark
That was all far too positive, time to whine about something. These Minnesota Lynx uniforms are far too dark (on the back, at least):
When the WNBA decreed that both uniforms for every team would be a colour of some type - i.e. no more white unis - I don't think they were imagining different shades of grey. Especially not a shade dark enough that it verges towards the dark uniforms of the other teams. Good thing nobody watches black-and-white televisions any more.
Also, without wishing to fall too far into 'grumpy old man' territory, does anyone else miss the days when you could tell who the home team was instantly by who was wearing white (or yellow, if it was the Lakers/Sparks)? Just me? Okay.
We'll get into the overall disaster that is WNBA uniforms in a later week.
3. When you can't (or sometimes can) believe your eyes
There are a lot more advanced stats available for the WNBA these days than there used to be. Pretty much all we used to have in the public domain were the (much appreciated) efforts from the Lynx and Paul Swanson. Now, between Basketball Reference, Across the Timeline, the vastly improved WNBA.com stats site and our own WNBA stats section coming soon, we may not have the depth of coverage you see on the NBA side, but we're getting there. This leads to an interesting phenomenon - you can check if you're 'right' about things. However many stats are at your disposal, the eye-test of actually watching games should always be part of the analysis, and in my case it tends to come first. You watch the basketball, you think something, you probably forget it for a while, then you think it again, and then you go look it up. Sometimes, the numbers back you up, which is always nice. Sometimes, they say you're wrong, which leads to the intriguing activity of working out why.
One example in each direction cropped up this week. For those who've followed my output for a while, you'll be aware that I tend to go on about Phoenix's defense. Outside of the couple of years when Brittney Griner was at her defensive peak, they've been either bad or not-as-good-as-they-should-be for a long time. Diana Taurasi and her combination of matador defense and just grabbing people has never helped the situation. This season, Skylar Diggins-Smith joined the Mercury, which given the size and strength increase from Leilani Mitchell might've been expected to help. But to my eyes, she's been terrible. Constantly blown up on screens or simply beaten off the dribble, having Diggins-Smith at the point of attack has caused repeated issues for Phoenix on defense. Then I looked it up.
I'm right! While I stress that we're still working with small sample sizes - we may be halfway through the season, but 11 or 12 games still isn't many - Phoenix have a defensive rating with Diggins-Smith on the floor of 105.9, compared to an overall team rating of 102.8. The scarier number is that when she's off the floor, the Mercury have a defensive rating of 86.5, over ten points better than when any other player sits (and a number that would comfortably beat out Seattle for the top figure in the league). With Taurasi next to her in Phoenix's first-choice lineup, Diggins-Smith has to step up her work on the defensive end for the Mercury to genuinely contend. They can score with anyone, but are immediately giving it all back.
Then there's Brionna Jones. I admit, she's on my fantasy squad, and her production (or lack thereof) in that arena probably coloured my viewpoint. It seemed like the downgrade from Jonquel Jones to the far more plodding Brionna was a central part of Connecticut's poor play, and that maybe the Sun should try going small with DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas as the 4/5 pairing rather than the 3/4. While obviously the Sun have missed Jonquel, the numbers also say that they've been much better with Brionna on the floor. Of course, some of that is their lack of backup for her. Bonner/Thomas inside is undersized and doesn't put them in their best position to succeed, while the likes of Beatrice Mompremier and Theresa Plaisance have been unreliable at best off the bench. But Jones has also done a lot of what Connecticut has asked of her. They've played through her more in recent games, taking some of the pressure off Bonner and Thomas, while also creating some extra space for Jasmine Thomas to provide some offense.
There are still far too many possessions like this:
That's two plays in under 30 seconds where Jones gets both hands on a rebound and then can't hold on to it under pressure. She gets outmuscled, or can't finish inside under minimal pressure, too frequently. But she also gets her fair share of buckets, and at least looks like a genuine WNBA player now (the jury was very much out on that until this year). I can admit when I was (at least half) wrong.
4. Own Basket!
We have own goals in soccer; why aren't own baskets a thing?
I'm pretty sure that Azurá Stevens inadvertently tipped that ball back in her own hoop. We keep 'team turnovers' and 'team rebounds', why not 'team points' when they're scored for you by the other team? Or you could add them in an unfortunate line on the other team's box score. Seems like giving them to an offensive player in the general vicinity is a bit of a cop-out.
5. WadeTO strikes again
Yet another Las Vegas-Chicago game came down to the final seconds on Tuesday night, and when the Sky desperately needed a bucket James Wade drew up yet another beauty:
A tied ballgame with under 10 seconds to play and you come up with a team-basketball set that results in a wide open layup. So pretty.
Opinions are divided on whether this is a true 'Spain' pick-and-roll, but it's fantastic design regardless. The motion on the left side gets the defense scrambling from the start, rather than just walking into the main play. Then it's a staggered screen on the right, with the first one from Stevens shaking off Danielle Robinson and the second from Stefanie Dolson rocking A'ja Wilson. Dearica Hamby has to come over to cut off Courtney Vandersloot, who makes the perfect read to find Stevens rolling to the hoop wide open. Vegas either needed to switch everything from the start - which still could've led to problems - or help far more aggressively. But that's where the gravity of players like Allie Quigley plays its part. You can see Kayla McBride think about coming inside to help, but she's petrified of leaving Quigley alone in the corner.
It was a great play, expertly executed. Although the game never should've been that close, and Chicago have to be a little worried about the number of close games they've been involved in. It could come back to bite them.
6. Foreigners Unite!
I mention this largely because I kept telling everyone how good Julie Allemand was before this season started, and very few people listened - over half the All-Rookie Team this year could end up being non-American. This in a year when most international players decided that, given the health concerns, they weren't going to play in the US at all.
Between Allemand (Belgium), Satou Sabally (Germany) and Ezi Magbegor (Australia), it's been a solid year for foreign newbies. It's a good thing for the league, too. When international players become part of the WNBA at a young age they're more likely to stick with the league, and the WNBA can continue being the best of the best, not just the best of America. This is a global game, and we want the elite from everywhere to be part of the premier league in the sport.
7. Hammer Falls
Remember when we took a closer look at the 'hammer' play a few weeks back (#5 here), and how it created this game-winner for Allie Quigley (via another outstanding Wade ATO):
Well the problem with great offensive sets is that defenses know them as well. This is what happens when you run a hammer play and it really, really doesn't work:
Diggins-Smith drives the baseline, expecting Brianna Turner's back-screen to spring Bria Hartley open the same way Quigley was in the other video. But Dallas do what a lot of teams do defensively in late-game situations, and switch. Katie Lou Samuelson barely moves for the entire play, and it's exactly the right thing to do. Diggins-Smith passes her the ball, turnover, and it essentially ended the game. You would hope that a play like that would have a second option, but if it did, Diggins-Smith never looked for it. A well-executed hammer play is really pretty, but you still have to react to the defense and switch to Plan B if necessary.
8. Miller Time! Part 2
A coach riding a bike during the game. You do you, Coach Miller.
He later put the action down to "missed layup stress".
9, 10 and 11. Lineup Minutiae
Everyone's favourite section is back again:
The carousel continues in Dallas, where Brian Agler continues to promote and relegate players from his starting lineup from game to game. Injuries to Satou Sabally and Moriah Jefferson have played a part, but Jefferson had already been benched for several games when she got hurt. Even with Sabally out, Astou Ndour can still barely get off the bench, and you wonder if she and the max contract she signed in the offseason are now thoroughly available if anyone wants to make the Wings an offer. Marina Mabrey got her first start against Phoenix and played her part in a win, so may stick in the lineup for now, but don't bet your house on it.
Chennedy Carter's injury led to some changes in Atlanta, where they went from a big lineup where either Betnijah Laney or Shekinna Stricklen was the 2, to a small lineup where one of them had to play the 4. Then Monique Billings came back in and Stricklen went to the bench. Nicki Collen is trying anything to drag the Dream out of their malaise, and not having much success.
Meanwhile, we hit the midpoint of the regular season on Tuesday, which is when non-guaranteed contracts become guaranteed for the remainder of the year. As always, this leads to players on the end of rosters being cut so that teams aren't tied to paying them for the rest of the season. Washington waived both Essence Carson and Shey Peddy, signing Stella Johnson and Sug Sutton instead. That might be Mike Thibault admitting that this year needs to be more about planning for the future than trying everything to stay afloat in the 2020 season. Connecticut claimed Carson and waived Jacki Gemelos. Gemelos was then picked up on a 7-day contract by Washington, while Peddy went to Phoenix. Finally, Las Vegas waived Megan Huff, leaving themselves an open roster spot to use later in the season if something presents itself.
12. Clark's Corner
This isn't exactly the kind of play I was imagining when I started this feature, but it's exactly the right kind of player. Sami Whitcomb from Lillard range:
Whitcomb took her opportunity when Bird and Prince were out, proving herself too valuable on the floor to be left out of the rotation. Plus she does things like this. It's also another illustration of the team-ethic of Seattle, with all her teammates screaming from the bench to let her know the clock was running out. Beware the thundering Storm.