WNBA Dissected: Early-season stats, European journeys and more from 2021 Week 4
Interesting numbers, disappearing players, officials who can't throw and more from around the WNBA this week
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1. By the actual numbers
With a few teams having now hit double-digits in games played we're nearly a third of the way through the season, so it felt like time to take a look at some of the more meaningful stats around the league. I do have to stress that 10 games (or as few as seven in LA's case, when writing this before Thursday night's game) is still a very small sample size. Especially when it's the opening games, many of which were contested with players missing due to late arrivals, or were virtually preseason games while teams were still working things out. However, some of the numbers are starting to settle. Stats used are from a variety of places, including our own site, WNBA.com's stats section and basketball-reference.com (some numbers differ due to methodology, but the patterns generally remain the same).
First, one of the most basic 'advanced' stats - net rating. Offensive and Defensive rating essentially normalize scoring for teams playing at different paces, assessing how many points are scored (or allowed) per 100 possessions. Unsurprisingly for those watching the games (or checking the standings) so far this season, the WNBA appears to have three standout teams in Las Vegas, Connecticut and Seattle. That trio is miles ahead of the field, barely able to see the trailing pack when glancing over their shoulders. Then there's a morass of teams in the middle, interestingly led by Dallas according to most sites, but with only a few points separating at least six teams. Despite their 3-7 record and being placed 11th in most 'Power Rankings' I saw this week, Chicago is right in the middle of the pack with a cumulative score this season of 775-779. Losing or winning by a point won't affect your underlying numbers much. New York has dropped a little below that group after their fast start, and further back are Atlanta, who've disguised some ugly numbers with some wins in close games. Far, far back in last are Indiana, which won't surprise anyone.
What might well be a surprise are the statistically best defenses in the league, which is currently a tight battle between Los Angeles, Chicago and Connecticut. The Sky will be delighted to see that, after years where defense was their primary issue, and hope they can retain it while turning their offense back to levels from previous years. LA may have had some help from their schedule - a significant factor when so few games have been played - but after some scrappy performances and a few worrying injuries it gives them something to build on for the rest of the year.
Some of the deeper offensive numbers haven’t been pretty for Chicago so far. They're worst in the league in turnover percentage (despite having Vandersloot at the controls), and their effective field goal percentage (an adjusted number that accounts for threes being worth more than twos) is also rock bottom. Despite their injuries and absences - and performing better than their record would suggest - it's been a rough start for the Sky when they’ve had the ball.
The on-court/off-court numbers can often be fun, but bear in mind that these are very noisy stats, especially this early in the season. Seattle will be concerned about the ugly numbers for virtually their whole bench, especially Jordin Canada and Candice Dupree, which probably led to the changes in Noelle Quinn's rotations on Wednesday night to try to give them more help. The Storm's +/- with that pair on the floor drops off badly (with the opposing rise when they're not playing that you'd therefore expect), so Quinn tried to leave key starters on the floor with the bench to help carry them. You can often tell that either coaches are checking these on/off splits, or they're seeing the same things on the floor without necessarily needing the numbers. Erica McCall is rock bottom in Washington's on/off numbers and has seen her minutes drop precipitously lately, and while Charli Collier is still starting in Dallas she's finding actual playing time harder to come by.
In fact, Dallas has some of the most glaring gaps between success and failure so far, with Collier at the bad end of their list and Isabelle Harrison at the other (with Kayla Thornton and even Bella Alarie not far behind Harrison). Vickie Johnson has stuck by her rookie No. 1 pick so far, but if the trends persist she will likely lean increasingly on her veterans as the season progresses (and the numbers tell her she should).
2. Learning to prioritize
This week, just as players were returning from Olympic 3x3 qualification and teams were looking a little more complete, a different group of players started heading off for distant shores again. This time it's for EuroBasket Women 2021, an international tournament being held in France and Spain from June 17-27. This is the European championships, something we take seriously in and of itself over here in Europe, but in the US you'll also inevitably hear it described as a World Cup qualifier (the top-six advance to the qualifying rounds for the Worlds).
Astou Ndour-Fall (Spain), Jonquel Jones (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Kiah Stokes (Turkey) have left their WNBA teams to take part, and will miss several games apiece. It's also the reason that Maria Vadeeva hasn't shown up in the US at all yet this year, and partly why Emma Meesseman and Julie Allemand haven't (they also have the Olympics to come, as do several French and Spanish players who aren't participating in the WNBA this year). From a WNBA perspective, it's obviously disappointing to lose these players, but it's also a positive that they've been in the US for most of the season and are skipping minimal time for EuroBasket. As those other players have illustrated, for some the WNBA isn't even that high on the priorities list.
This is only going to get more complicated in future years, due to the 'WNBA Prioritization' section added to the Collective Bargaining Agreement when the new deal was signed in 2020. Starting in 2023, players are going to be fined for every day that they're late to training camp, and if they're not in town by the opening day of the regular season they'll automatically be suspended for the year. Players will still be allowed to leave for national team commitments in the middle of the season, but only for a maximum of two weeks of training beforehand and must return within 48 hours after their national teams are out. So Vadeeva and Meesseman, for example, would be blocked from playing in the WNBA at all this year if they missed as much time as they already have.
The hope, obviously, is that the increased wages in the WNBA will be enough to encourage players to put the league first and show up on time, and to skip their international team commitments on occasion. Some are already doing this, with Amanda Zahui B for example putting Los Angeles ahead of playing for Sweden in EuroBasket this summer. The problem is whether some players balk at the new rules and decide to lean the other way, costing the league some key players. Hopefully it won't come to that, and hopefully everyone returns quickly and healthy from their overseas commitments. With the Olympics as well this year, every head coach must watch these games with their hearts in their mouths, desperate not to see any injuries to important players when they're not even on the same continent.
3. Oh hey, you again
I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the quirk in this year's schedule of teams playing the same opponent twice in quick succession on road trips was something I found interesting, because you get to see how teams respond and adapt to the first game. It's almost like a mini playoff series. However, the schedulers don't seem to have prioritized keeping the other game between those teams away from the double-header, so some squads have seen each other three times in quick succession. For example, LA has seen Chicago three times already (and been happy to, since they won all three), Seattle and Dallas have battled to the wire three times, and the final game in the season series between Dallas and Phoenix is tonight.
Of course, there are always elements of luck that play into the schedule. If you happen to catch an unusual proportion of teams with star players out due to injury or other absences then you count yourselves lucky and try to take advantage (knowing full well that you'll probably be on the other side of it in another year). But playing your entire slate of games against one of the other 11 teams inside such a small span is unusual. It means, for example, that LA got to play all three games against Chicago while Candace Parker was out. Which likely helped the Sparks to their three wins, but also robbed us all of seeing Parker play against LA for the first time in her WNBA career.
It can create some misleading records if teams have played a particularly tough or easy schedule. It also means that if these teams run into each other in the playoffs, their previous encounters are going to be so distant as to be largely meaningless as instruction manuals as to how either team might play.
It's not a big problem, but it is an unusual element that this season has thrown up, while the league is trying to minimize travel and stay prepared for issues that COVID-19 could still cause. Of course, without wishing to dive into a complicated issue that the league is only recently starting to address and consider, one way to create a more diverse and interesting schedule would be to expand and add more teams.
4. Lineup Minutiae
Some of the usual nuggets.
Indiana isn't making a lot of sense lately, given the reality they have to admit they’re facing. Minutes for Lauren Cox and Kysre Gondrezick have been very limited, and even Teaira McCowan saw herself benched on Wednesday night in favor of the veteran pair of Jessica Breland and Jantel Lavender. There is so little point in Indiana trying to drag themselves up to vaguely competitive by relying heavily on their vets. They're going to be bad regardless, so they need to give the recently-drafted youngsters a chance to prove whether they're good enough to be part of the core going forwards. Maybe they're not, and the Fever will have to move on from the sunk cost of poor picks. But we just don't really know yet. You have to let these kids play and see if they sink or swim. When you're 1-10 with a net rating of -19, it's not like things can get much worse anyway.
Dallas is significantly better than Indiana, but trying to work through their own lineup issues. Vickie Johnson has stuck with Moriah Jefferson at point guard and Charli Collier at center while finding room for Allisha Gray and Satou Sabally elsewhere in the starting lineup (benching Marina Mabrey, who's having a remarkable offensive season so far). The rotations have varied from game to game, which isn't a bad thing necessarily, but has seemed somewhat scattershot. There's still a balance between development and trying be good now in Dallas, and it's a tricky one for Johnson to find. On the bright side, 90% of her roster is young, so it's practically unavoidable to play someone who could use the playing time to develop and show what they can do.
Minnesota is also somewhat caught between two stools and figuring things out as they go along. Damiris Dantas had a minor injury, which slid Napheesa Collier over from the 3 to the 4 and brought Bridget Carleton into the lineup. Collier's perfectly capable of playing either spot, and it doesn't change how the Lynx play as much as Sylvia Fowles being in or out of the lineup (as happened last season), but it does leave Minnesota in flux to a certain extent. Layshia Clarendon has also started several games since arriving on a hardship contract, pushing Crystal Dangerfield back to a bench role (and making you wonder what will happen when a player returns and Clarendon has to be released). With free agent signing Aerial Powers and rookie Rennia Davis injured everything just feels a little unsettled with the Lynx. They've won a couple of games recently, and winning cures all if they can keep it going, but there's work to be done. While being able to play in a variety of different ways is useful, sometimes it means you're still searching for your identity.
5. Might as well not jump
Two small officiating issues here (maybe not so small if you're a Sky fan). First up, one of my pet peeves - the seemingly complete inability of any referee to toss the ball directly up in the air between two players. I know officials have a hard job, and most of the time I resist complaining about calls because they get stuff wrong like all the rest of us - and most of us get to think and edit, rather than having to decide in a split-second. But I don't get it. This seems like it should be pretty straightforward, but an inordinate amount of jump balls are decided by the toss rather than the jumpers, with whoever the ball is thrown towards winning the tip. This is irrelevant for the jump balls that start games (you get the ball to start the second and third quarters anyway if you lose), but can be vital after the ball is tied up during a game. Like this one:
That's a great angle from above, showing Eric Brewton clearly throwing a poorly angled toss that allowed 5-5 Crystal Dangerfield to beat out Courtney Williams, one of the best leapers in the league. I want officials to practice this more and get better, and/or be more willing to say "that was rubbish, let me try again" when they screw it up. The whole point is for it to be a fair fight for the ball. Let's at least make it close to fair.
Secondly, there is one technical or flagrant foul that the League has rescinded after the fact so far this season, and it's the tech called on Courtney Vandersloot with 37 seconds left in what had just become a one-point game last Thursday night. It looked bizarre at the time, as on the video Vandersloot appeared to have finished arguing and was walking away by the time the whistle was blown. The free throw allowed Phoenix to tie the game, which ultimately went to overtime and the Sky lost. Maybe they decided it was mistaken identity, and someone else did say something tech-worthy, but it wasn't Vandersloot. However, no techs have been added to anyone else's count for that game. You never want officials to blow a call late in a tight game, but to call a technical that the league later decides shouldn't have been given is particularly egregious. Painful error.