WNBA Dissected: Small samples or recent reality? Plus more from 2021 Week 13
32-game stats vs post-Olympic surges, contracts teams might regret, record-breaking numbers and late-season adjustments from around the WNBA this week
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1. Half-and-half or whole?
Olympic years always create some weirdness around the WNBA. The season loses its rhythm and momentum, and it presents more opportunities for teams to break down or to find themselves and step up. It also raises the question of exactly which stats you want to believe. 32 games is already a relatively small sample size compared to most US sports leagues, and considering the second 'half' of the season was actually 23 days shorter than the first 'half', the post-Olympic period offers a particularly brief window. But it is our most relevant recent information. So do we believe what we've seen across all 32 games, or should we concentrate on the home stretch?
The most striking examples for this discussion come from the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm, albeit going in opposite directions. The Storm have fallen off so much since the Olympics that numbers like net rating now suggest a clear top-two in Connecticut and Las Vegas, with Seattle joining the chasing pack of Minnesota, Phoenix and Chicago. That was the case even before Breanna Stewart was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season and unknown for the playoffs, which obviously hurts Seattle's chances even more (but doesn't show up in the numbers yet, beyond the embarrassing 28-point loss to LA on Sunday). For Phoenix, the swing has been even more dramatic the other way. Both the eye-test and the standings have suggested a big step up, and their ten-game win streak pushed them into the group of contenders fighting for playoff byes. By net rating things look even shinier for the Mercury. Comfortably the best offense in the league and a defense that ranks third behind only runaway leader Connecticut and LA puts Phoenix in a clear top-two if you look at solely post-Olympic performance. It's not Connecticut and Las Vegas as the obvious favorites to clash in the Finals if you only look at the second-half, it's a question of whether the Aces (or anyone else) can stop the Sun or the Mercury.
Beyond the numbers, health of key players can become a vital question when the season is so long and so broken up. Stewart's issues could destroy Seattle's chances, and Washington's hopes of a late run look decidedly limited with Elena Delle Donne's continuing back problems. There's been good and bad in Minnesota where Damiris Dantas is out and Layshia Clarendon’s health is a question mark, while Aerial Powers returning has given them a boost. Phoenix was looking good, and briefly even had everyone available after Bria Hartley's return, but will now be hoping that Diana Taurasi is 100% for the postseason. Chicago has been relatively complete lately (although Diamond DeShields doesn't look fully healthy) and it's made minimal difference to their play. Meanwhile, as of last night, the best team in the league might be getting a star player back for the postseason. You always worry a little about upsetting the balance when everything is already going so well, but if Curt Miller can smoothly integrate a returning Alyssa Thomas then Connecticut could be getting even stronger right when it matters.
Amid all that, Las Vegas just keeps rumbling along. They've been playing without Liz Cambage in recent weeks due to Covid, and they'll be desperate to get her back for the postseason - especially if they eventually have to battle Connecticut's inside presence. But they've gone 5-1 since Cambage went out, finding ways to win most games even on days when they don't look great. The full-season stats and the consistent success across the whole year suggests that we'll be seeing them in the Finals again, and it won't be a surprise if that comes to fruition. They might just have to hold off some of these Johnny-come-latelys to make it there.
2. Money Matters
This year saw an unusual amount of money paid to WNBA players by teams which did not want those players to play for them. Astou Ndour-Fall, Odyssey Sims, Layshia Clarendon and Candice Dupree were all paid over $100,000 this year in buyouts or after simply being waived. Meanwhile Karima Christmas-Kelly was still on Minnesota's books for six figures after being waived last year, and Ndour-Fall will still be costing Dallas $111,579 next year. So WNBA teams make mistakes, and sometimes they're willing to swallow a significant cost in order to ask that mistake, nicely, to please leave. So what are the most damaging contracts left right now around the league from a team perspective, and which might be on that list of accepted errors by this time next year?
All the information above can be found on our cap sheets, and honestly once you take a look at those it's not hard to spot the worst contracts. It's basically anyone with long-term guaranteed money who isn't a star, or at the very least a key starter. So Tianna Hawkins, for example, hasn't had a great season in Atlanta since signing as a free agent, but her contract isn't onerous because it's non-guaranteed. If the Dream can find something better to do with the $144,200 she's scheduled to cost them next season, they could just waive her and the number disappears. Meanwhile that three-year guaranteed max deal the same franchise gave to Cheyenne Parker isn't looking great any more. After a rocky start to the season due to Covid, then a slow integration into the Dream rotation, she missed the second half of the season due to pregnancy. That's not a contract that Atlanta are likely to cut, but it's also one that would be difficult to trade and a player where they have to plan without knowing quite what they'll get.
Anyone else with guaranteed money that stretches into 2023 better be a star player for it to look like a good thing that they're taking up significant cap space. In trying to install a solid veteran presence and upgrade their culture, Indiana gave a lot of money to Jantel Lavender and Danielle Robinson last offseason. Some of us thought those were terrible deals at the time, and nothing has happened to dissuade us from those opinions. They've been exactly what anyone who'd been paying attention to their careers in recent years should've expected - middling WNBA players who can do a solid enough job but won't lead you to many wins if they're key to your rotation. Also both have missed games due to injury, which was virtually inevitable given their age and history. The Fever paid Robinson and Lavender a combined $330,000 this year, and have them under contract to be paid exactly the same amount in both 2022 and 2023. That's just not smart money in a system where cap space has grown increasingly valuable and scarce around the league. No one else would want those contracts, and it wouldn't be a surprise if one or both was bought out before they reached their scheduled conclusion. Something I'd also have said the day they were signed.
Contracts are short enough in the WNBA that there isn't a lot of other non-star salary guaranteed for 2023. The one that jumps out a little is Natalie Achonwa in Minnesota. The Lynx spent a lot of money in the offseason, but the deals they gave Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers felt like contracts that other teams would've happily matched (and probably still would take on if the Lynx wanted to trade them). The Achonwa deal, on the other hand, felt like the acquisition of a useful player but for a lot of money. It seemed like they were paying her as if she might be needed to help replace Sylvia Fowles, but now she's taking up useful cap space which they're going to need to re-sign Fowles (and players like Layshia Clarendon and hopefully Cecilia Zandalasini). Achonwa has also been hurt, which again isn't a huge surprise given her history. The Lynx probably won't give up on her and her contract as a dead loss just yet, but it's a deal that would likely be hard to move if they wanted to trade it. Like Lavender and Robinson, she's a player you feel comfortable having in your rotation, but committing that much of your cap to a mid-rotation player rather than a star can cause problems. Especially if you have championship aspirations like the Lynx.
The other non-star guaranteed money around the league is at least only on the books through 2022. That makes those deals easier to swallow if you have to agree a buyout, entirely waive the player, or just ride it out for one more year until the contract is over. Moriah Jefferson has at least played and contributed in Dallas this year, even if it hasn't been an overwhelming success. Tiffany Mitchell has one more year left on her current contract and will probably get the opportunity to earn another deal. You wonder whether the veteran core in Los Angeles will all return next year, but players like Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike are certainly under contract to do so. Toliver can hopefully be healthier next year and bounce back but with Ogwumike in particular it appears from the outside like her other jobs might take priority (which could at least remove her money from the books for the Sparks).
What has become increasingly clear is that under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (we can't keep calling it 'new' when it's been around for nearly two years now) fiscal roster planning has become increasingly important. You can't just hand the max to every half-decent vet and fill out the roster with rookie-scale deals and be done. If you're going to guarantee top-end money to players, it has to be the right players.
3. Making history, whether good or bad
The run of recent Connecticut-LA games have been particularly interesting to some of us stat geeks due to this:
It's a stat that remains true heading into the final weekend of the regular season. Connecticut's total rebound percentage of 56.9% isn't just the best the league's ever seen, it's nearly 2% clear of the 2012 Minnesota Lynx that previously led the list. LA isn't quite as separated but they're still dead last all-time, comfortably breaking the record held by the 2000 Seattle Storm (a team which went 6-26). In fact it was against Seattle that LA broke an ignominious streak last week. The Sparks had been outrebounded in every single game they'd played this year, which added to one game from the end of last season meant a 30-game run where they'd lost the battle on the glass. That's more than double the next-longest streak in league history. Against a Stewart-less Storm, LA not only won in a blowout but outrebounded their opponent for the first time in 367 days.
Connecticut outrebounded LA 100-60 across their three games this season, by the way.
Just by the nature of the increased stats we now have at our fingertips thanks to sites like Her Hoop Stats, Across the Timeline and WNBA.com's own improved stats section, there are probably various other historic numbers being broken this season once you look deeply enough. However, the one that jumped out at me this week came in the Aces-Wings matchup on Monday. Replacing Liz Cambage in the Las Vegas lineup, Kiah Stokes managed to play nearly 31 minutes of basketball while scoring zero points (and didn't have a single assist or turnover either). That one game wasn't hugely remarkable in and of itself. Players have played 30+ minutes without scoring over 100 times in the WNBA, and it was the 12th time anyone's done it without an assist or a turnover.
However, it was an illustration of the strikingly unusual season that Stokes is having. Her usage rate - a statistical measure of the percentage of plays 'used' or finished by a player while on the court - has always been low. She's out there to rebound and play defense, not make plays and score. But it was consistently low around 11 or 12% (20% would be average, given that 100% divided by the 5 players on-court gets you to 20). This year, she's at 4.4%. Once you remove players who barely played (say, a minimum of 100 minutes over the whole season), that's far and away the lowest number in league history. Tully Bevilaqua's final season, as a pass-first backup point guard deep on San Antonio's bench in 2012, is next on that list at 6.3%. Las Vegas has plenty of other scoring options, but it's still remarkable that a player can be effective for that many minutes on a good team while offering so little offensively. It's also something that opponents will try to take advantage of in the playoffs if Cambage is still out. There's only so long you can hide on the court before the other team starts to ignore you and play 5-on-4 against your teammates.
4. Lineup Minutiae
As we head towards the postseason, most teams don't want to be making lineup changes but some of them are forced into it. The most glaring has obviously been Seattle, trying to handle losing superstar Breanna Stewart. They started both Katie Lou Samuelson and Stephanie Talbot on Sunday against LA, the two players they've used the most this season at the 3, hoping Samuelson could slide over and be effective for more minutes at the 4. It didn't work, and the Storm trailed by 18 at halftime (to a team that had lost their previous six games by a combined 58 points). The additional problem is that Seattle tried starting a bigger lineup in the second half, putting Ezi Magbegor alongside Mercedes Russell in the post, and that didn't work either. The game got out of hand in the third quarter and the fourth was essentially garbage time.
As you'd expect frankly, the Storm aren't really built to handle losing Stewart. Playing without one of the game's true stars is just very difficult, especially when you lose them midseason rather than before the year, when you could establish different roles. If Stewart doesn't return for the postseason, or she's back but significantly below full power, the Storm look vulnerable to an upset and quick exit. As I wrote about in my hypothetical trades article, they were already thin in the post. Without their primary weapon, that becomes a gaping hole.
Minnesota tweaked their lineup this week, moving Aerial Powers into the starting lineup ahead of Bridget Carleton. It gives them more offensive firepower in the starting group, and additional shot-creation in the absence of Layshia Clarendon. Carleton is still seeing significant minutes, and often finishing games. Cheryl Reeve still has plenty of options at her fingertips, but will be hoping that Clarendon is back for the playoffs. Crystal Dangerfield is starting, but her minutes and production remain inconsistent, and Rachel Banham is doing her best as the backup point guard. The Lynx don't look nearly as lost as they did early in the season when those two were the only point guard options, but the reasons they went out and found Clarendon still remain. They needed the direction, drive and leadership that Clarendon brings, and as much as anything needed someone that Reeve trusts in key moments. Dangerfield and Banham have never seemed to fit that final criteria.