WNBA Dissected: Awards, rules, technicalities, benchings, theories, and more from 2022 Week 14
With just days left in the regular season, another smorgasbord of topics from around the WNBA this week
Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!
Haven’t subscribed to the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter yet?
Okay, for the final week of the regular season we're going quick-fire (relatively speaking - this is still me, after all). Lots of little things that have cropped up over recent weeks. Maybe they don't deserve a deep dive, but they’re worth mentioning as we head into the final days of the regular season and the playoffs.
Positionless Basketball (Awards)
The WNBA announced this week that voting for the All-WNBA teams will be positionless, rather than the two-guard/two-forward/one-center format of previous years. Changing things up makes sense given how messy this has been in some previous years. Even after giving those instructions to the voters, the league often shifted players around once the votes were in to put the final teams together. Angel McCoughtry at guard, when she spent virtually her entire career at forward (especially if you're framing every team with a GGFFC format), was one of their favourites.
So generally speaking, this is a positive move. The All-WNBA teams are now more likely to recognise purely the best players from that year, rather than shoe-horning in players who might not deserve it due to the position they play. The only real negative that I see is that the idea of an All-WNBA team is rather thrown to the wayside in this format. This year, there have likely been enough strong guard performances that the teams may well resemble viable lineups. In recent previous seasons? We could easily have had eight bigs among the ten players if it had been an open vote, maybe more. Maybe that's fine and, if we're recognising the best players, largely irrelevant. Maybe it'll swing round in future years anyway and guards will dominate instead. But it tends to be easier to pile up rebounds - and therefore amass impressive counting stats - when you're a big than it is to add numbers beyond scoring when you're a guard. I could see the WNBA’s smaller players being upset with this change in future years.
The league has also quietly removed the head coaches from the voting process for any of the awards, handing virtually all of it over to the media panel (executives still vote for the Executive of the Year in the only exception). That's not a bad thing - it was always weird that the coaches picked the All-Defensive Team while the media chose Defensive Player of the Year, for example - but it does put even more of an onus on the media to do their jobs. I would like to see the individual votes released, as the NBA does, so that we know who made the occasional bizarre selection that pops up at the end of the lists when the WNBA releases all the vote totals. Then whoever made it would inevitably be forced to defend their choice. Things have improved in recent times as WNBA media coverage has grown. More of the people covering the game pay more attention. But there have definitely been voters over the years who are wildly biased towards their home-team players, or who barely watch the games beyond the handful they're paid to cover. Unusual or surprising choices are fine - I've made at least a few over the years in my 'ballot' articles - as long as you have a reasoning behind it and can make your case.
Also, in case you couldn't tell, I still would really like an official ballot. My email address is easy to find and DMs are open, WNBA. I also promise to make all my votes public and defend them. If I'm going outside the box you'll know exactly why and where that odd vote came from.
Searching for Carter
What the hell is going on in LA? They're 1-6 since Liz Cambage walked out the door, with a net rating of -13 that's comfortably last in the league if we don't count Indiana (and the Fever haven't counted for much since sometime in June). Their playoff chances at this point still exist, but are hanging by a thread. Their 2023 first-round pick is going to Washington, so there isn't even that shred of consolation. And the player they gave that pick up for, Chennedy Carter, has been mysteriously benched.
Carter hasn't had the greatest debut season in Los Angeles. She never seemed to fully break into the rotation of either Derek Fisher or Fred Williams, so the 25-minute-per-game primary ballhandler/scorer we saw in Atlanta has only been witnessed in LA in flashes. But generally speaking, she was at least playing. There was a game or two where she was mysteriously added to the injury list literally seconds before tip-off, but mostly she played. She got over 15 minutes of action in each of the three games following Cambage's exit.
Then suddenly a run of Did Not Play-Coach's Decisions began. Sparks fans are understandably confused, and many are angry given how the season has gone and how valuable Carter was supposed to be. All Williams keeps saying when asked is that it's a "coach's decision". If he'd decided Carter wasn't helping the team win, that's at least a viable reasoning for not using her in their three tight games last week (although it would be odd for recent rookie free agent pickup Kianna Smith to have jumped ahead of her in the rotation). But then on Tuesday night the Sparks got blown out by Connecticut, and Carter still didn't get in the game when they were down 20+ for the entire fourth quarter. That screams that either she's injured - and why wouldn't they just tell us that? - or she's been de facto suspended.
Carter has a clear reputation at this point. To a certain extent she already had it before entering the league, and after arguments, suspension, and eventually a trade in Atlanta, that reputation has only been more cemented. Without knowing her or being around her it's impossible to know for certain how much of it is her fault and how much has been the people around her. But it's hard to shake a reputation as someone who's difficult to handle and will act in ways unacceptable to both coaches and teammates. That, plus her raw talent, are why we were even paying enough attention to notice she was glued to the bench and start theorising about what was going on. Williams is on his way out in LA, and most of the roster is out of contract as well, so Carter could get a fresh start with a new group next year. But at some point, you wonder when she'll run out of chances.
I don't know why the league refuses to make its technical and flagrant foul totals properly public. They're on the league's media site, so it's not like you need a source to discover the numbers. However, for some reason they don't want to add them up for everyone, or tell you all when certain calls have been rescinded. That's why, among my usual blathering, I try to update people on where everyone stands with these numbers via my Twitter account. But as with many things involved with the WNBA, I would be genuinely happy for the league to do it for me. Leaving so much to third-party journalists and websites is ridiculous.
Anyway, the current technical foul leaderboard has Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith as the only ones at six, one away from what I like to call the Taurasi Line. The seventh tech draws a one-game suspension (as do the ninth, 11th, 13th etc). Diggins-Smith has been called for eight during games this season but two were rescinded along the way, hence the lack of suspension so far. Taurasi's now injured and done for the season, as is Arike Ogunbowale, the only player currently on five for the year. Taurasi has proven in the past that it's not impossible to get technical fouls while in street clothes on the bench, but a resulting suspension would obviously be rather less meaningful.
Taurasi is also the only player on the brink of suspension due to flagrant fouls. She has three total flagrant 'points' (one flagrant 1 foul, plus a flagrant 2), which means another flagrant 2 would've resulted in an automatic 1-game suspension. With her out, no one else has more than two points for the season.
To be clear, technical suspensions don't roll over into the playoffs. Back in 2016, Tiffany Hayes picked up her seventh tech in the final regular season game of the year and was suspended for Atlanta's opening playoff game. Virtually everyone agreed that was unfair, so the rules were changed. Now, if Diggins-Smith were to pick up her seventh tech on Sunday, she would be suspended for the first regular season game of 2023. Someone crossing the flagrant foul threshold in the final regular season game actually would be suspended for the playoff opener, but we just established that the numbers make that very unlikely.
Everyone starts at zero for the playoffs. It's the fourth, sixth, eighth etc. techs that prompt a one-game suspension, and four flagrant points that you'd have to reach on that list. No one apart from Taurasi has ever come close to the required tech total in the playoffs, as far as I can remember. There's a reason we named the line after her.
Rules Are Made to be Rewritten
Multiple rules have cropped up in recent weeks that people need to be aware of, or that I'd like to see changed. Firstly, most basketball fans will be aware of the general rule that if you get fouled, you have to shoot the resulting free throws in order to be allowed to return to the game later on. This is why often we see players hobble to the line, take their shots, and then get the treatment they need. Well, the WNBA has a caveat to this rule, and multiple times this season teams seem to have been unaware of it. If the player is being assessed for a concussion, they don't have to take those free throws. The team can nominate someone else. Obviously we don't want players going "ow, my head" after being hit on the wrist so that a better shooter can go to the line, but hopefully the medical professionals on the sidelines would lean towards assessing anyone who takes a hit to the head. So let other people shoot the free throws, and stop forcing players who might still be woozy to shoot. They can come right back in once they're cleared of the concussion.
On a wildly different note, discussing Rebekah Gardner last week made me hope for a rule change on the salary side. She's a 32-year-old rookie, as everyone's aware by now, and it just seems a little unfair that she's now locked in to the same free agent process as players a decade younger. She'll be reserved after this season, assuming Chicago give her the required qualifying offer, which means they retain exclusive rights to her and aren't required to offer anything beyond the minimum salary. She'd need four Years of Service in the WNBA to even reach restricted free agency, by which time she'd be at least 35. Obviously she always has the "pay me more or I don't show up" threat, but a player who's waited this long to break into the WNBA may well not want to pull that move. It just seems unfair. So how about an age-limit on the reserved designation? Say, anyone who's out of contract and at least 28 years old is automatically at least a restricted free agent (unrestricted if the usual qualifiers are met). Then the player's existing team could still match any offer, but the player could get closer to what they're worth. Basketball careers are short, even more so when it takes a while to break through. Lean towards letting players earn whatever they're worth.
Lots More Years?
Just a quick note that veteran contract extensions are still possible for the next four days. We've seen several signed during the season this year, mostly in Las Vegas to retain their core, but they most commonly happen in the final days. Teams know they can only core one player, so if they have two or more impending major unrestricted free agents, it's very helpful if they can get one of them locked up before free agency begins the following year.
You can't extend rookie scale contracts at this point (so Marina Mabrey and Teaira McCowan in Dallas, for example, will reach restricted free agency), but veterans are eligible until the final day of the regular season. The list of possible names is too long to delve into, but you can always see the upcoming free agents for yourselves on our cap sheets. Of course, by this point some teams will prefer cap space over extending their existing players. Extensions require both sides to be interested in continuing the relationship, even before they start arguing over the numbers.
Ewing some, you lose some
Bill Simmons isn't a popular topic with WNBA fans, given the comments he's made about the league over the years, but the Ewing Theory that developed from his old columns has become a widespread concept that has moved beyond him. It's the idea that certain teams who are reliant on a star player - but never actually win anything with that star - can get better when that player is removed from the picture.
From a WNBA perspective, it came up in multiple places this week. Admittedly, the concept doesn't entirely fit in Phoenix. Diana Taurasi has won plenty of things in her career. But if you look at the on-court/off-court numbers this season, the Mercury have actually been a much better team with her on the bench. By WNBA.com's numbers it's a significant gap - a -5.8 net rating with her on the floor, a +3.7 with her off. The Mercury's problem is that between absences, injuries and departures, they're becoming desperately thin. Vanessa Nygaard is running out of players that she's comfortable putting on the floor, even for limited minutes. But it's still going to be interesting to see how they perform if they can sneak into the playoffs without their legend.
Then there's Dallas. This week saw their first five-game winning streak since 2018, which just happens to be the year before Arike Ogunbowale was drafted. She only played in one-and-a-half games of the recent streak, and has now been ruled out through the first round of the playoffs by a hip injury. It also seems like a longshot that she'd return later in the postseason. Given the recent success, and the way she plays - ball dominant, occasionally selfish, isolation scorer - it's inevitably led to some people wondering if they're a better team without her. And as they've won nothing with her, the Wings actually fit pretty well as a Ewing Theory candidate.
The on-court/off-court numbers aren't nearly as dramatic as with Taurasi. They have been slightly better with Ogunbowale on the bench (+1.8 net rating vs -0.8 when she plays) but those numbers put her on the list right alongside players like Marina Mabrey and Isabelle Harrison. She's hardly an outlier. And do they really play that much differently without her? Mabrey likes to isolate and create her own shot as well, and the efforts to push much of their offense through Teaira McCowan in the low post were already well underway before Ogunbowale's injuries. Without her, it means more minutes for the likes of Veronica Burton and Tyasha Harris, players who are still trying to earn the trust of head coach Vickie Johnson. Burton's lack of offensive threat is only going to be more of an issue in the playoffs when teams are gameplanning for the Wings. They might really miss the threat of Arike then, even if they ultimately would like the ball in someone else's hands.
So the Wings in particular are going to be interesting from a Ewing Theory perspective heading into the playoffs. If things go really well without the star, it inevitably leads to conversations about what they might be worth in a trade. It obviously wouldn't be trading them at the peak of their value - your team just got better without them - but the star name is usually worth plenty. If the Wings go on a run, could Arike be on the block? Signed for the supermax through 2025, someone else would have to be convinced they're getting that star she's supposed to be. If Dallas decide they play better with her on the bench, she'd be a very expensive backup once she returns.
She's not a classic Clark's Corner kind of player, but in the final week of what may well be her last WNBA season it felt like one of the league's best 'complementary' players needed to be recognised. As with the players we discussed last week, it took a bunch of years for Allie Quigley to really break into the WNBA. After being drafted in 2008 she made brief appearances for several years with different franchises, then was out of the league entirely in 2012 before finally sticking with Chicago in 2013, and gaining a meaningful role in 2014. What we've seen since then has been the evolution of what has become one of the best shooters in the history of the league.
Like all these Clark's Corner players, she's worked her backside off to get better, and that doesn't stop once you're in the league. In those early years she was often used as a backup point guard, despite never really fitting in the role. I was never convinced:
But as Chicago worked out how to use her and she honed her skills, the minutes and opportunities increased at her actual position off the ball. There have been plenty of players over the years who could shoot the lights out, but their inability to do anything else meant their WNBA careers were short. You have to be at least vaguely competent defensively, and you're going to be a hell of a lot more useful to your team with some dribbling skills and off-the-bounce moves. And look at how far she's come:
All from the same game against Connecticut last week. That's a classic three from the corner when the defense makes the mistake of helping off her; a turnaround almost-baby-hook in the post over Courtney Williams; bringing the ball up, using a Meesseman drag screen, and then a hesitation dribble into a wide-open layup; some non-stop off-ball movement before a runner in the lane; a smart cut into the lane for a short jumper; and finally using her threat as a shooter to go backdoor instead for another open layup. She's so good.
The stuff that gets talked about with Quigley is her shooting, including all the three-point contest wins. But she's become so much more than that. She's still not a point guard, but has become a much more competent ballhandler over the years (you see that all the time when off-ball two-guards are allowed to be what they are for a few seasons, and then become comfortable). Her constant movement is exceptional. And as those clips showed, she's developed a lot more options within her scoring than just throwing the ball up from outside.
If she fancies playing on, there'll be plenty of offers on the table from Chicago and elsewhere. If not, maybe she can round off an outstanding career with another title run over the next month. Just as a nice 'complement' to last year's.