WNBA Dissected: Tanks, techs and secs, plus more from 2021 Week 11
How good is Teaira McCowan, are some teams better off losing, who might miss games due to technicals, and more important questions from this week in the WNBA
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1. Historic, maybe?
Teaira McCowan has been an enticing but frustrating prospect ever since entering the WNBA in 2019. In limited minutes as a rookie moving in and out of Indiana's starting lineup, she looked like she could grow into a centerpiece with experience and development as a pro. The per-minute stats were impressive, which is generally a good sign with young players who can then build up towards more time on the floor while retaining the production. The indications were positive.
The two seasons since have seen more of the same, which is both positive and negative. The lack of growth is concerning. She still hasn't cemented herself in the Fever starting lineup, her production continues to be somewhat inconsistent game to game, and the dominant force that Indiana hoped they were drafting hasn't quite emerged. But the numbers are still there.
PER is far from a perfect stat, but it's a reasonable judge of general overall production. 15 corresponds to an average player, and anyone 20+ is doing fairly well. 14 players currently have a PER over 20 in the 2021 WNBA season, for example (plus Elena Delle Donne as a 15th, but her three games don’t really count). Looking back through the league's history, only 25 players have started their WNBA careers with three seasons all above 20 in PER. It's largely a list of superstar names like Parker, Swoopes, Griffith, Jackson, Moore, Cooper et al. A'ja Wilson was the most recent to add herself to the group just last year. McCowan is on course to be the 26th. Only 50 players have had three seasons of 20+ in PER at any stage in their WNBA careers, regardless of whether it was the first three seasons or not. It makes you at least consider whether McCowan's been doing a great job for the last three years when given a chance, and we just haven't been paying enough attention.
There aren't many players around with her combination of size and strength. 6-7 and built like a brick wall has value in the women's game even if the player is virtually incapable of catching the ball. McCowan's much better than that, often showing decent touch around the rim. She also has one of the highest free throw rates in the league, something which has been the case in each of her pro seasons. That helps her scoring even with a 69% career free-throw percentage which could use a little work. Her rebounding rate is second only to Jonquel Jones this year, and again she's been right near the top of that list in each of the last three years. It's boosted a little by offensive boards on her own misses, but she's hardly the first post to gain a rebound or two that way. These assets are why that PER is so high.
The key question is whether she can do it more. Those advanced stats are all per minute or per opportunity numbers, and the 25 minutes per game she's up to this season is the highest of her career. Avoiding fouls and building the stamina to stay oncourt while continuing to produce at those levels is vital going forwards. She also needs to make her presence felt and demand the ball more when she's out there. Even on a bad team with limited options she's only averaging 12.2 attempts per 40 minutes this season, right alongside the likes of Stefanie Dolson and Damiris Dantas in the rankings. That's not enough for someone Indiana needs to be a star. Some of that falls on the coaching staff and the system, which needs to ensure she's more of a focal point, but a lot of it is on her. She may not have the arsenal of moves inside that some of the more mobile star posts have, but her pure power is enough to compensate for a lot of that. Work hard to establish inside early and those points totals should rise through relatively easy finishes. Developing more moves and counter-moves inside will help, but there's a lot that can be done through simple work rate and positioning, as long as her team is looking for her.
The other end of the floor is a key issue as well. McCowan isn't bad defensively - she's far less of a liability now defending the pick-and-roll than she was coming into the league - but she's still far from the interior enforcer that Indiana would undoubtedly like her to be. The on/off stats for each of the last three years say that they're consistently better with McCowan on the floor, but it's due to improved offense. The defense tends to stay pretty much the same whether she’s out there or not, and the Fever are yet again floating around the bottom of the league's defensive rankings this season. In the modern WNBA McCowan needs to be mobile to protect the paint, able to challenge drivers and follow bigs with range to the perimeter when they step outside. Sometimes that's been a problem. But again, it's also on the coaching staff to build the right system around her strengths. Under multiple head coaches, the Fever have been struggling to fix their defense ever since Tamika Catchings retired and was no longer around to hold it together.
All of this is particularly important for McCowan because there's only one year left on her rookie-scale contract. There could be extension discussions in the offseason but the general impression of an inconsistent big who hasn't developed much from her rookie promise would work against her. Being one of only 26 players in league history to hit that 20+ PER threshold in her first three seasons would obviously be an argument in her favor. If Indiana doesn’t want to pay her big money, someone else will likely take the chance, even if they're not 100% certain of what they're going to get. Players like her just don't come around all that often.
2. To win or not to win, that is the question
On Tuesday night, Indiana scored the final 10 points of their game against Los Angeles to steal a game from the Sparks by two. From a glance at the standings it's a result that appears to mean more to LA, who still have hopes of sneaking into the playoffs, but the players and staff on the Fever bench were unsurprisingly delighted considering how hard wins have been to come by this year. However, do a few quick calculations and you begin to see how important results could be for teams at the bottom of the standings over the next few weeks.
The WNBA uses two-year cumulative standings to set the odds for their draft lottery, and based on last year they won’t adjust for differing lengths of seasons - they just add them together. That means that Tuesday night's win took Indiana to 12-35 while New York's loss dropped them to 13-37 with idle Atlanta sitting at 13-34. The Liberty would obviously have to miss the playoffs for their record to matter in a lottery draw but with both New York and Atlanta in freefall lately and Indiana winning five of their last eight, this has somehow tightened up into a genuine 'race'.
Of course, no one's expecting the players or coaches involved to go out oncourt trying to lose. 'Tanking' is never about actively missing shots or gifting points to the other team. But there's definitely an argument that for the next few weeks these teams would be better off losing. It's not a mathematical certainty just yet, but Indiana and Atlanta aren't making the playoffs. So for them it's merely a case of what their record is going to be at the end of the year. You can gain some experience as a unit and improve how everyone feels at the end of the year with a few wins, but there's likely to be so much turnover on both squads that it won't be worth much in future seasons. New York still has genuine playoff aspirations, and the one-off nature of the first two rounds gives hope to anyone that sneaking in could lead to a run of upsets, but it would most likely be one game. Is that a meaningful experience compared to the potential difference between the #1 and the #5 pick in the draft?
There aren't any certain superstars in next year's draft. There's no Breanna Stewart or Brittney Griner. But the top group with players like Rhyne Howard and NaLyssa Smith is certainly considered a step up from this year's class. There's also no certainty in finishing with the best lottery odds. That only conveys a 44.2% chance of the No. 1 pick, compared to 27.6% for the second-worst team and 17.8% for the third-worst. But the reality remains that the quickest and most realistic way for bad teams to become good is to inject top talent via high draft picks. None of these teams will be trying to lose over the next few weeks, but you could forgive the respective front offices for thinking in the back of their minds that it might not be a terrible result if they did.
3. Well, technically...
One stat the league refuses to list publicly is the accumulation of technical and flagrant fouls over the course of the season. This becomes a particular issue down the stretch because of the league's suspension rules. If a player hits seven technicals for the season it results in a one-game suspension (as do technicals 9, 11, 13 etc.). For some of us, due to one person being the most consistent threat to cross that threshold, this is known as The Taurasi Line.
This year, Diana only has four so far. Only playing 14 games has helped keep that number down - she can get them from the bench as well, but they're less common. Leading the league is Arike Ogunbowale with six, only one away from missing a game. Given that she's Dallas's primary offensive weapon and they're in the middle of a playoff race, that could be a significant problem. Liz Cambage is right behind her with five, which could be an issue for Las Vegas in their fight for playoff seeding, but they're relatively experienced in knowing how to play without her. Erica Wheeler has four, with no one else across the league accumulating more than three. Cheryl Reeve leads the coaches list but isn't threatening to hit seven any time soon.
Just in case anyone was wondering, if someone picks up the final tech to cross the threshold in their last regular season game, they would not miss the first game of the playoffs. That results in a fine, but not a suspension. The list starts over for the postseason, with techs 4, 6, 8 etc. resulting in the one-game suspensions. If I'm bringing that up again in a month's time, someone probably needs to control their emotions a little better.
4. Only when you turn 16
Hey kids, don't do this:
Sabrina Ionescu did the same thing on Tuesday night in the Liberty game. Among all the possible turnovers in a basketball game, walking the ball upcourt too slowly is one of the most unnecessary and your coach really won't be happy.
I bring this up mostly because of an interesting NBA/WNBA quirk (also because I'm picky, but you knew that already). Nearly a decade ago, the NBA switched to a shot clock that displays tenths of a second when they get down to the final five seconds. Because of that, it's actually counting in accurate tenths from the start, even if those aren't displayed. So for the first second of a 24-second countdown it says '23', and so on. This is why 8-second violations in the NBA occur if the clock shows 15 at any point before the player crosses halfcourt, not 16.
The WNBA still uses the old clock. So for the first second of the 24 the shot-clock shows '24', for the next second '23', and so on. This means that for that eighth second the WNBA shot clock shows '17', and therefore an eight-second violation is committed if the clock hits 16 before the player crosses midcourt (the ball and both feet need to be over in time, by the way). This inevitably causes some confusion among fans, given that over the years they've heard the NBA explanation for why their threshold is 15.
All the players should know this of course, especially guards who commonly bring the ball upcourt. So they have no excuse.
5. Lineup Minutiae
Various teams have been battling injuries lately, which is hardly a surprise after the usual grind of the regular season. The number of ankle twists has been ridiculous, and Minnesota had a week off and managed to return with two fewer players available than they had when they left. However, the most interesting lineup tinkering lately has come from the reigning champion Seattle Storm (who, apart from fatigue, are essentially healthy).
After a few performances that weren't up to their previous standards, and then struggling to contain Kahleah Copper in last Friday's game against Chicago, Seattle switched to a three-guard lineup for the rematch with the Sky on Sunday. Inserting Jordin Canada for Katie Lou Samuelson was presumably intended to offer someone who could better contain Copper, wake the team up with some extra energy, and maybe allow Samuelson to concentrate on the backup power forward role that she's been pressed into since Candice Dupree was waived. It didn't work. Canada had a useful game offensively but virtually everything else went badly for Seattle with Chicago shooting the lights out from the perimeter (an insane 15-22 from three) and Candace Parker taking advantage of their lack of size inside.
The Storm are switchy and fluid defensively, and often that's an advantage, but when you're playing three small guards it can be a problem. It makes them easier to pass over or through, and meant there was a mismatch for Parker after virtually any switch or rotation. Samuelson hasn't exactly been a roaring success in Seattle, but she is big and long, especially for a perimeter player. Canada's quicker and more likely to stay in front of a driving guard but can't put up much defense against true bigs.
The worrying element for Seattle isn't really that they lost to Chicago, even though it was their third loss to the Sky in the space of two weeks. It's more that at this late stage in the season they're feeling it necessary to make these tweaks and search for answers. By this point last year they knew who they were, what their best lineups were and which players were coming off the bench. This year it seems like they're still not sure. They've basically already proven that Bird/Loyd/Stewart and anyone else you want to throw out there is going to be pretty good, but it may well not be enough to win another championship. For that, they need to work out what they're doing with the other spots, and how they're going to utilise their bench. There's not much time left to come up with those answers.
6. Clark's Corner
I love this play, mostly because I'm not sure if I've ever seen an alley-oop directly off a jump-ball tip before. Seeing something you genuinely haven't seen on a basketball court before is pretty rare and should be enjoyed.
Brianna Turner can be enjoyed just in general. She gets a little overlooked amongst all the star power in Phoenix but has become a very important cog in their machine with her work rate, rebounding and defense. And while they'd love to see a little more offense from her, you rarely notice hugely compromised spacing due to her presence. She's also the only player in the league who consistently catches and finishes while still in midair. It's a useful skill given how many players get caught up in traffic once they land and bring the ball down, plus it's just fun to watch.
It might even be Turner's effect that's helped push Brittney Griner into stepping up her rebounding to a level she's never produced before. Rather than assuming that she can leave the boards to Turner, Griner has increased her work on the glass to match her younger teammate. It's helped lift Phoenix into the middle of the pack in rebounding, rather than rock bottom where they've been in recent years. Sometimes the impact of youthful energy isn't just what they bring on their own, but also what they can bring out in others.