The W Dozen, 2020 Week 7: Potential improvements, significant imbalances and a range of gunners

12 WNBA issues, items, players and events that have piqued interest over the last week

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1. Addition or subtraction?

Last week, we talked about how improved Phoenix has looked since simplifying their system and style in the absence of Brittney Griner. Somewhat similar and yet a little overlooked this season - possibly because they just stayed good rather than becoming good in their star center's absence - is how Minnesota has managed to evolve on the fly in Sylvia Fowles's absence and keep right on winning.

Fowles only played seven games this season before reaggravating the calf injury that had already caused her to miss a couple, and has been out ever since. Considering she played less than two minutes in that final contest before limping out, the Lynx essentially went 5-1 in games where she was available. That means they've gone 8-5 without her - a drop-off, but still a .615 winning percentage that would have them in the exact same 4th-place spot they currently occupy in the season standings.

However, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve, while saying that Fowles won't be returning during the regular season, has been dropping hints that she might be back for the playoffs. Which from an outside perspective could be fascinating. Fowles has been the centerpiece of the Lynx system in recent years at both ends of the floor, but with her gone they've mutated. By necessity they've become more fluid, with rookie point guard Crystal Dangerfield at the controls of a pick-and-roll-heavy offense, Napheesa Collier as a more central hub, and Damiris Dantas popping out for threes. Statistically their net rating has been better since Fowles has been out, with the defense dropping off (96.5 to 102.5) but the significantly improved offense (100.0 to 110.0) more than making up for it.

For all her talents, and the developments she's made in her game since moving to Minnesota, Fowles can't really just slide into this system and join in. While she now takes the occasional mid-range shot, she doesn't have the outside range of Dantas (or even the high-post passing skills). She's not as slippery rolling to the hoop as Collier or anywhere near as mobile. While she'll happily come outside to set screens if it's asked of her, what Fowles really wants to do is find deep position inside and wave for an entry pass (the same thing that Griner primarily does with Phoenix, funnily enough). While that kind of offense can be effective when it works, it slows everything down and clogs the space for everyone else. The Lynx may be reluctant to do that, especially for a rusty Fowles who won't have played a game in over a month before potentially being thrown into a vital playoff game.

That said, assuming she's reasonably healthy, Fowles can definitely help the Lynx defensively. She's been one of the best defensive players in the league for a long time and helps clean up a lot of mistakes made in front of her, while being mobile enough not to have the same vulnerabilities to the pick-and-roll that some big centers suffer from. If she's available, Reeve will probably try to make use of her in small doses and against the right matchups to take advantage of that, without taking too much away from the offensive improvements that have been made in her absence. It'll be a difficult tightrope to walk, but bringing her back into the fold absolutely raises Minnesota's potential ceiling. It just makes things more complicated as well.

2. Heels up

It feels like a long time ago at this point, but we can't ignore last Friday night. Before we get to the main event, this was great:

Everyone knows that Chelsea Gray likes to take big shots. She's also very good at it. That's part of why Sue Bird is creeping towards her on the play above, hoping to be able to add her defense to that of Alysha Clark's on Gray. However, Bird crept too far, Riquna Williams cut hard from the corner when left alone, and Gray had the vision and unselfishness to hit her with the pass rather than fire up a contested jumper. Williams hit the free throws, which left just enough time for this:

This one wasn't complicated. Get it in, get it up, pray. Phenomenal shot from Jewell Loyd who, if you're a Sparks fan, was definitely out of bounds. From an impartial point of view, I couldn't tell. Her feet definitely extended out over the sideline, but on the video I had it was impossible to tell for certain if her heels were touching the floor at any point. If the officials didn't have any better images, I can't blame them for sticking with the original call and allowing the bucket to stand. It would also have been a shame to wave off something that insane. Especially considering OG Anunoby had done something very similar for the Toronto Raptors in the NBA bubble the night before. The parallels were delicious.

3. Worst. Shooting season. Ever?

No one wants anyone to get hurt, but sometimes part of you hopes that there’s an underlying injury that’s affecting performance. Because sometimes you need an excuse. Kia Nurse went down with a nasty-looking ankle injury in the very first game of the 2020 season, but was back in the New York Liberty starting lineup just four days later and has only missed one game all year. But she's missed plenty of shots. Oh so many shots. At time of writing, Nurse is a somewhat staggering 53-207 for the season. That's 25.6% from the field, which somehow is lower than her usage rate of 25.9%. Only one player in league history has managed that feat while playing over 250 minutes in a season - Ashley Shields in 2007 - and Nurse is on course to play more than 500.

The Liberty, of course, have been awful in general this season, and if they finish with just their current two wins will barely hold off the 2011 Tulsa Shock for the worst winning percentage in league history. It's not easy to succeed when you're surrounded by rookies, playing for a new head coach in a new system, and (maybe) less than 100%. Also in some ways it's admirable that Nurse keeps going out there prepared to follow instructions and fire up the next shot. Plenty of people would go into their shell and start passing the ball more or focusing on other parts of the game when nothing goes in for games on end. Nurse finally got benched a week ago and proceeded to take 44 shots in her next three games as a reserve.

She's always been a streaky scorer, prone to sequences where Liberty fans become convinced she's their next superstar and then ones where you wonder why she's even in the rotation. This year she's just stayed cold throughout. The only game all season where Nurse shot 50% from the field was when she had four buckets in garbage time at the end of a 41-point blowout loss to Seattle. The only player in league history to take more than eight attempts per game while shooting under 30% (among players who played more than five games) was Matee Ajavon in 2012, who hit 29.9%. Nurse, taking over 11 shots per game and nowhere near 30%, would shatter those marks. She'd need to hit her next 50 shots in a row to climb to 40% for the season. To this point, she's made 53 shots all year.

The bright side is that there’s going to be an asterisk next to this year for many people, so maybe Nurse will be able to wipe it away and bounce back to her regular levels next season (when hopefully there’ll be a lot more help alongside her in New York). Neither of her first two WNBA seasons broke the ‘average’ mark of 15 for PER, and she floated around 40% from the field as a scorer, but she was a contributing piece for the Liberty with potential to be a meaningful part of their future. That can still happen once this nightmare season is over.

4. But she was open!

She's had a great season, so I apologize for highlighting this, but it was funny. Here's Myisha Hines-Allen kicking a pass out to Ashley Gilpin at the three-point line.

Ashley Gilpin, as you can probably tell, is not on the Mystics roster. She is a ref. Understandably, she refused to collect the pass and fire away for three, even though that would've been an even better clip.

5. Go West, where the skies are blue

When the WNBA went to a balanced schedule and league-wide playoff format in 2016, they essentially demolished conferences. Outside of the occasional All-Star game or Player of the Week award, they no longer really matter. When everyone's in one location and playing on the same court, thereby eliminating travel, East and West obviously become even less of an issue. Which is probably a good thing for the WNBA this year, because otherwise this could've been a topic that a lot of people were writing about over the course of the season.

Only one East team is currently above .500, and that's the freefalling Chicago Sky - who could still drop to 11-11 if they lose their final game. Five West teams are (comfortably) above .500, and the Dallas Wings are also looking likely to make the playoffs despite being rock bottom in the West. The Western Conference is an incredible 54-14 against the East this season.

Some of the Eastern weakness is due to opt-outs. Washington was gutted by multiple absences, including MVP Elena Delle Donne, Connecticut lost star center Jonquel Jones, Atlanta lost last season's starting backcourt and New York had several important pieces pull out. But then you look to the West, and names like Cambage, Toliver, C. Ogwumike, Breland and Zandalasini were also missing from the start. Despite two East teams making the Finals last year, this is a general imbalance that was already in place but has tipped even further this year.

The highest interconference winning percentage in league history was .694 back in 1999 when the West went 50-22, a record which looks like it's about to be smashed. The question is does it matter anymore, now that the schedule and playoffs are balanced out? There won't be any .500 teams missing the playoffs under the current system, or good teams that miss the playoffs in the strong conference then being handed higher draft picks than they deserve. Outside of resulting in a few more late tip-offs than some of us would like, is it a big deal if the cellar-dwellers are all in the Eastern time zone?

The answer is probably 'no', if it was a one-year event or something that had proven to move in waves over time. However, the West has generally battered the East for a very long time in this league. In recent times the balance of power has only very rarely tilted in the other direction. The WNBA's two-year lottery system was a small step towards helping even the playing field, but it's a difficult situation to fix organically. Successful teams attract more talent, so players have mostly looked to force their way westward when they've pushed for trades, and draft luck has frequently fallen the West's way as well. While the talent and potential on several Eastern teams now offers some hope for the future, it can’t have helped to build and maintain fan bases when it felt like nothing was ever going to change.

On the bright side, maybe when they leave the bubble everyone can carpool home.

6. Non-Hammer Time

Last week, I wrote about this pretty play to end a half from Minnesota, with a hammer set creating a three for Rachel Banham in the corner:

Well the Lynx were down three to Washington on Tuesday night with 8 seconds remaining and no timeouts. So they ran it again, with one tiny little difference right at the end:

Dangerfield flies up the right side of the court and turns the corner: same. Back-screen for Banham pops her into space in the far corner: same. Dangerfield goes up for two and tries to draw a foul rather than feeding Banham in the corner: oops. If she’d gotten the call we’d have all said it was a great play, but without the whistle it looked like a team going for two when they clearly needed three. So it seemed fair to point out that we’ve seen this design produce three in the past. It just needed the finish.

7. Young Gunner

The Las Vegas Aces have been a wonderfully odd team all season. I'll admit that coming into the 2020 season I was dubious. They had so little shooting that surely teams were going to be able to swamp the paint, clog the lane, dare them to shoot and then just collect all the bricks. But against all the modern edicts of spreading the floor with shooters and firing away from outside, the Aces have ridden efficiency from two-point range and their ability to get to the line all the way to the second-best offense in the league. Combined with an equally effective defense (much less of a surprise), that’s made them one of the handful of teams with a genuine chance of winning the championship. One of the impressive chapters within this success story has been second-year guard Jackie Young.

Young had a strange rookie year. After playing very little point guard in college, that was where Bill Laimbeer asked her to operate for the Aces and she did the best she could. It was far from natural, but she kept her turnovers down and tried to play the role while making minimal mistakes. Then in the playoffs, when it clearly wasn't working, she lost her spot to Kelsey Plum, a player who absolutely wanted that lead ballhandler role. In the offseason Laimbeer added Lindsay Allen and Danielle Robinson, so even when Plum got hurt there were now multiple alternatives to play the point.

Asking Young to be less of a distributor has opened up her game. She still doesn't shoot much from deep but she's decent from mid-range and has actually been well above league average on two-pointers from 11ft out. Built like a bowling ball, she's so strong and solid that it's incredibly hard to stop her from getting wherever she wants to get, which has made her a dangerous part of Las Vegas's impressive bench. They use her both as a secondary ballhandler and at the point, but as part of the second unit she doesn't have the same responsibilities to focus on feeding the stars that she had last year (Liz Cambage staying home has also lessened that requirement). It's allowed Young to play more to her strengths, and her shooting percentage has skyrocketed from .322 last year to .503 in 2020, despite taking more shots.

She's still willing to look for her teammates:

That's a sharp cut looking to score, and then a nice find to her star post when the space closes up. Her assists and assist-to-turnover ratio are down markedly from last year, but that's because she's not getting as many of the cheap and easy ones from the point guard spot where she's making an entry pass to a big or to a shooter curling off screens. In the aggregate she's been a far more effective player and is finding her place at WNBA level. Like many of the Aces, you might sit off her hoping she'll shoot - only to wince while she uses the space as a runway to fly past you for a layup. Both Young and her team are looking decidedly dangerous heading into the postseason.

8. Stop the hop

There’s a line in the WNBA rulebook in the ‘Traveling’ section that reads:

The traveling section of the NBA rulebook is exactly the same, including that part, and they have this handy video rulebook to illustrate their rules, including a section on just this one. So, for example, this is a travel:

To my eyes, this is exactly the same:

It's a little unfair to pick on Sami Whitcomb, because she's not one of the most common culprits, and the officials didn’t seem to mind. Here’s another example, from one of the players who is a common practitioner:

It’s a highlight play, but it’s a walk. I don’t fully understand why WNBA officials appear to be letting this move go this year, whether they’re missing it or this is considered the correct call by league directive. Head of Officials Sue Blauch is in the bubble and sat courtside at virtually every game to offer her opinions and leadership. Again, to me, it looks like the exact same hop-travel as in those NBA videos. You can't skip. It hasn't been allowed for years (on a basketball court anyway. What you do for fun in your spare time is your own business).

9, 10 and 11. Lineup minutiae

  • For the sake of tradition, let's start with Dallas again. In all fairness, the Wings lineup has actually been fairly consistent lately, which in and of itself has been interesting. A tough schedule means they haven't won that many games, but injuries and Brian Agler lineup decisions have made them look like a more cohesive unit. Astou Ndour has been benched entirely, and Bella Alarie is next to her most of the time (Megan Gustafson has been there all year). Combined with injuries to Isabelle Harrison and Moriah Jefferson, that's created a stable and consistent rotation of 7 or 8 players where everyone actually knows what's going on. It's amazing how much that can help a team, especially with a young roster like Dallas's. They're still a step below the league's good teams, but this was always meant to be a development year for the Wings. The only problem is that they may come back into next season with 12 players all expecting playing time again. If it takes over half the season to decide who to favor again, they'll be right back where they started.

  • Nneka Ogwumike returned from her back problem for Los Angeles, only for more problems to crop up. Sydney Wiese badly turned her ankle on Sunday night against Chicago, which forced Derek Fisher into a lineup change. An abdominal problem for Brittney Sykes forced another. Riquna Williams has been so effective back in the bench role she used to play for many years that he understandably didn't want to move her, which meant rookie Te'a Cooper replacing Wiese and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt sliding in for Sykes (who then picked up a shoulder injury herself). The problem is that Cooper is a very different player from Wiese. While quick and active she still makes rookie mistakes defensively, and she likes to look for her own shot on offense. She's been impressive and effective at creating     those shots, but it's something you don't want to see as much when she's playing with starters who need the ball. Sykes was back last night but that guard spot next to Chelsea Gray could be awkward if Wiese is still out for postseason games. She'd proven to be a nice fit.

  • The Liberty are trying some things. Which is pretty reasonable when you're 2-17 and looking to work out what the kids on your roster are worth, but has also been somewhat indecipherable. Amanda Zahui B was pulled after three minutes of play on Saturday night, despite no obvious injury, and then didn't play at all on Tuesday (still no injury mentioned by the team or any reporters). Kia Nurse was benched and then reinserted into the lineup a few games later. Meanwhile, they're still generally getting blown out, and have one of the worst offenses the WNBA has ever seen. It's not been a pretty season.

12. Clark's Corner

For the last Clark's Corner of the regular season, it seemed only fair to bring back the person it was named for. Alysha Clark is a role player doing her job quietly on the wing for Seattle while the stars do the heavy lifting, right? Well how about some numbers. Among players who've played in at least 10 games, Clark is leading the league in Points per Play; she's 2nd in Points per Shot Attempt; she has the 2nd-best eFG% in the league; she's 7th in Win Shares; 2nd in net rating; 6th in PIPM; and 4th in assist-to-turnover ratio, if you prefer your numbers a little more basic. Obviously, her usage is fairly low due to all the other options around her, which allows her to pick and choose her moments (she's only 50th in points per game, for example). But she's having an absolutely outstanding season.

She also guards the best wing player on the opposing team every night as a key cog in the best defense in the WNBA. Which is another element in her favor when we start to get into complicated conversations like All-WNBA teams. The frontcourt options are crowded this season, as they seem to be virtually every year. There are star players and bigger names who will definitely fill out the first-team, and then a whole tier of options for the second-team. Whether Clark can beat out names like McCoughtry, Bonner or Thomas remains to be seen, but she's definitely in the conversation. On many of those advanced stat lists she's ahead of them this year. This game's about more than just scoring points.

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