The Weekly Roundup: The Disappearance of Home-Court Advantage, the U.S. Wheelchair Basketball Team Advances, and Angel McCoughtry’s Homecoming
Evaluating the lack of home-court advantage this season and the potential impact on the WNBA playoffs
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What an action-packed week of women’s basketball! In international competition, the U.S. wheelchair basketball team advanced to the quarterfinals at the Paralympics. Team USA is competing to capture its fourth Paralympic gold medal in five attempts. Meanwhile at the FIBA 3x3 U18 World Cup in Hungary, the United States earned its third consecutive gold medal at the event, knocking off Germany 15-14 in the semifinals and Spain 21-14 in the championship. Mikaylah Williams of Bossier City, La. led the tournament in scoring with 8.0 points per game and took home MVP honors. The U.S. U16 squad also won gold at the FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Mexico, defeating Canada 118-45 in last night’s gold medal game. Led by tournament MVP JuJu Watkins and fellow All-Star Five member Jada Williams, the Americans’ average margin of victory was a whopping 88 points!
In WNBA news, Angel McCoughtry’s change in injury status broke the internet. Ok, that’s a tad hyperbolic, but it surprised and confused several people. Elsewhere, in its infinite wisdom, the W scheduled four games for 7 p.m. EDT on Tuesday. Though, a silver lining was that I got to see some awfully creative four-screen setups from WNBA fans on social media - well done! Also, the playoff picture has really started to take form. Connecticut’s eight-game winning streak combined with Seattle’s three-game skid has the Sun well-positioned to earn one of the top two playoff seeds and with it, a double bye. Minnesota and Phoenix, both winners of eight of their last 10 contests, are separated by just a half-game for the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye. Only one game stands between seventh and tenth place, as four teams (Dallas, New York, Washington, and Los Angeles) vie for the final two playoff spots. Washington, whose playoff hopes were fading fast after injuries to Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne, thrust itself back into the playoff picture following an 18-point comeback and win against Dallas Saturday night.
Speaking of the playoffs, home-court advantage has historically played an important role in determining postseason success. However, regular-season data suggests that trend may not carry over this year. Let’s take a closer look.
Not so home sweet home
Author’s Note: Credit to Kevin Pelton whose discussion on Twitter (@kpeltonWBB) about this topic helped inspire this segment.
The historic regular-season winning percentage for home teams in the WNBA is 60.1% based on data from the 1997-2019 seasons. Looking at the same timeframe, home teams score approximately four more points per 100 possessions than their opponents. How do those figures look this season? Home teams have posted a winning percentage of 51.6% and the home team scoring margin has shrunk to 0.036 points per 100 possessions. Both would be historic lows if they hold for the remainder of the 2021 campaign.
The most obvious culprit is the lack of fans, which in turn is likely a combination of COVID-19-related attendance restrictions and fans refusing to attend games due to COVID-19 fears. Per Across the Timeline, the average per game attendance this season is 2,147, which is less than a third of the next lowest season on record. While there’s been an uptick in league attendance as the season has progressed, it’s unclear whether this has materially impacted home-court advantage. For example, home teams won 50% of their contests and scored 0.50 more points per 100 possessions than their opposition in May and June, months this season that saw lower attendance. Home teams upped their winning percentage to 54.4% in July and August, yet they scored 0.77 fewer points per 100 possessions than visiting squads.
What does all of this mean? We could see a few more upsets during the playoffs if attendance figures remain at historically low levels. There are two caveats with this suggestion. First, the conditional statement above is doing a lot of heavy lifting. It’s impossible to say where things will stand with the delta variant of COVID-19 come playoff time, whether additional (or fewer) restrictions or precautions will be necessary, and how that will influence a fan’s decision on whether or not to attend a game. Second, I am not suggesting that a highly unlikely upset will occur, such as a No. 8 seed making the Finals. The road to the Finals is still brutal for the bottom half of playoff teams. Significantly reduced home-court advantage does not remove the benefits of single and double byes enjoyed by the top four seeds. Home playoff teams have a winning percentage of 63.8%; however, given what we’ve observed in terms of home winning percentage this year, more upsets of the No. 8 over No. 5 or No. 6 vs. No. 3 variety would not be shocking.
Three Stars of the Week
Late-season playoff races inspired several outstanding individual performances last week. The competition for this edition of Three Stars was so stiff that the following superb efforts didn’t make the cut:
Sabrina Ionescu missing out on a record second triple-double by one assist Friday against Phoenix
Brittney Griner flirting with a triple-double Wednesday at New York
A’ja Wilson’s 21-point, 12-rebound, 7-assist masterpiece at Atlanta
Jonquel Jones’ 13th double-double this season
Arike Ogunbowale’s 26-point, 9-assist effort in a game versus Washington with major playoff implications
Candace Parker’s game in Sunday evening’s blowout of Seattle where she posted a line of 25 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks in only 24 minutes
It’s entirely possible I’ve taken the greatness of the players listed above for granted. However, the individual games below were exceptional in their own right and all led to key late-season victories. So without further ado, here they are, the three best single-game performances last week.
Third Star: Kahleah Copper - 26 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals on 8/27 at Seattle
Just a day shy of her birthday, Kahleah Copper tied a career-high with 26 points, leading Chicago to a 73-69 comeback win in Seattle. Whether it was running lanes in the Chicago fastbreak or slashing to the bucket, Copper’s lightning quickness proved too much for Seattle to handle Friday night. In a game where the rest of her team shot 19-for-53 from the field (35.8%), the Chicago guard knocked down 10 of her 16 field goal attempts. Her shot chart, chock full of layups and threes, was an analytics guru’s dream. Her 11 fourth-quarter points catapulted the Sky to a key victory that helped separate them from the logjam of four teams fighting for the final two playoff spots.
Second Star: Skylar Diggins-Smith - 27 points, 7 assists, 4 steals, 0 turnovers on 8/27 at New York
Skylar Diggins-Smith had a 27-point, 5-assist performance Wednesday night at New York, and one could argue that game belongs on this list in lieu of this one. After all, her effective shooting percentage of 75.0% in Phoenix’s mid-week meeting was higher than the 50.0% from Friday’s night contest. However, Diggins-Smith filled the stat sheet a bit more Friday night (7 assists, 4 steals, and 0 turnovers vs. 5 assists, 3 rebounds, and 3 turnovers on Wednesday) and elevated her game in the absence of Brittney Griner. Just two players in league history have put forth a better combination of points, assists, and steals. The Phoenix point guard, who has averaged 26.3 points and 6.3 assists over her past three games, has been a critical component for the league’s second-hottest team as it attempts to keep pace with Minnesota in the race for the No. 4 seed.
First Star: Sylvia Fowles - 29 points, 20 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 blocks on 8/24 vs. Seattle
Was there ever any doubt who would top the list this week? Entering Tuesday night’s contest against Seattle, just three players had posted a 25-point, 20-rebound game. Sylvia Fowles added her name to that list and recorded a Pareto stat line during her dominant performance in Minnesota’s victory over Seattle, 76-70. Aside from Fowles, Tina Charles (3) and Chamique Holdsclaw (2) are the only players in league history with multiple 20-point, 20-rebound efforts. Fowles now has four such outings. She’s second in the league in steals per game, blocked shots per game, and defensive win shares. So, it’s no surprise that she is the front-runner to earn what would be her fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. Perhaps indicating how defense is undervalued, it’s Fowles’ capacity for offensive explosions like this that now has her in the MVP conversation.
The dawn of a new age at the Paralympics?
Having captured three of the last four Paralympic golds and medaled in six of the previous seven Paralympic Games, the U.S. wheelchair basketball team has exerted a level of dominance reminiscent of the U.S. Olympic squad. However, we could see a changing of the guard this week at the Paralympics in Tokyo. Some might argue we already have. After all, the Americans, who return just three players from their gold medal-winning team in Rio (Darlene Hunter, Rose Hollermann, and Natalie Schneider), finished 2-2 in pool play. While good enough to qualify for the quarterfinals, it demonstrates that the path to a fourth gold medal in five tries will be laden with stiff competition. Take the Netherlands for example. The reigning International Wheelchair Basketball Federation world champions (a competition in which Team USA finished sixth) defeated the United States 68-58 in the first game of pool play last week. Then there’s China, whose perfect 4-0 record in pool play included 42-41 and 45-38 victories over the U.S. and the Netherlands, respectively. Five-time world champion and three-time Paralympic champion Canada and unbeaten Germany are also contenders for the Paralympic gold.
But don’t count the United States out just yet. Despite their inexperience in Paralympic competition, several players played on the United States squads that took home the 2019 U25 World Championship and earned silver at the 2019 Parapan American Games. And while it dropped two decisions during pool play, Team USA has held its own against the cream of the crop in Tokyo. Buoyed by Lindsey Zurbrugg’s 20 points and Hollermann’s near-triple-double, the U.S. took a two-point advantage into the fourth quarter versus the defending world champions. Against unbeaten China, the Americans stormed out to a 21-7 advantage at halftime and led for over 33 minutes. They have proven they can excel on the international stage, so don’t be surprised if the United States is atop the podium come Saturday.
Will it happen? Tune in to find out when the United States takes on Canada in quarterfinal action tonight at 11:30 p.m. EDT! For the rest of the Paralympic wheelchair basketball schedule, check out the Tokyo Paralympics website.
Welcome home, Angel McCoughtry
At 3:23 p.m. EDT last Thursday, the Las Vegas Aces tweeted the following injury report in advance of that night’s contest at Atlanta: Angel McCoughtry - Questionable (Knee). Questionable? McCoughtry, the all-time leader in playoff points, tore her ACL and meniscus just 110 days prior in preseason action. So, it’s understandable that this announcement raised several eyebrows. Did the Aces’ public relations department simply select the wrong injury status? Had Angel McCoughtry fully recovered from ACL and meniscus tears in under a mind-boggling four months? The answer turned out to be “no” on both counts, yet what transpired Thursday night was one of those heartwarming moments that remind us all why we love sports.
For over a decade, Angel McCoughtry was Atlanta Dream basketball. She helped transform the fledgling franchise into a perennial contender in the 2010s, leading the Dream to three WNBA Finals. Thursday night was her first time playing in Atlanta since signing with Las Vegas in free agency last season. Recognizing the importance of this homecoming, Aces coach Bill Laimbeer asked McCoughtry during Thursday’s shootaround if she wanted to enter that night’s game for a few seconds. She agreed, and when the contest was no longer in doubt with 7.9 seconds remaining, the former Atlanta superstar checked into the game. That she rimmed out her sole field goal attempt was beside the point. The Atlanta faithful (fans, players, and staff), no doubt appreciative of her decade-plus of brilliant play for their team, showered McCoughtry with applause. It was a moment befitting of the return of the best player in franchise history.
"When Bill asked me did I want to play today, get in the game for a couple of seconds, I was ecstatic," McCoughtry said. "There's no word that's going to describe the feeling. It was an amazing day. It's good to be back home because I live here. I had a great time."
WNBA schedule this week (All times Eastern)
Here is a listing of this week’s games, start times, and where you can catch the action.
Adam’s Power Rankings
Check out the Her Hoop Stats Twitter page (@herhoopstats) tomorrow for our latest power rankings! Based on the criterion of who would win if teams played tomorrow on a neutral court, here is my contribution to those rankings:
Her Hoop Stats content in case you missed it
Last week on Courtside, Christy Winters-Scott and Gabe Ibrahim analyzed the teams in the top half of the WNBA standings. This week, Christy and Gabe took a closer look at the remainder of the league, particularly the race for the last two playoff spots involving the Sparks, Mystics, Liberty, and Wings.
On the latest episode of Unplugged, Megan Gauer and TJ Johnson discussed Sylvia Fowles’ big night, playoff contenders, and the W’s top young players.
In June, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Committee approved moving the three-point line back from 20 feet 9 inches to 22 feet 1.75 inches. Ryan Weiss covered the potential impacts of this change in a multi-part series (Part I and Part II).
Is it desirable, or even fair, that a single subpar performance could end the season of the No. 3 seed in the quarterfinals of the WNBA playoffs? Richard Cohen offered his thoughts in WNBA Dissected.
In the final installment of her four-part Pac-12 preview, Kim Doss assessed whether the programs that finished at the bottom of the conference standings (Utah, Washington, and California) will turn things around next season.
Other recommended content
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For Vice World News, Natashya Gutierrez documented how the return of Taliban rule has impacted Afghan wheelchair basketball captain Nilofar Bayat, national Paralympic athletes, and others with disabilities in Afghanistan.
The over/under for last month’s WNBA All-Star Game was initially set at least 30 points too high. Then, a betting syndicate inexplicably bet the over. Why? It’s a gambling strategy called a head fake, and David Purdum of ESPN recently explained in further detail.
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The Connecticut Sun rank last in pace with 77.5 possessions per game. For Winsidr, Myles Ehrlich broke down how this has been an effective and necessary piece of Connecticut’s strategy.
0.4% of total sports sponsorship is devoted to women’s sports and athletes. Meredith Cash of Insider wrote about how the WNBA Players Association reached a multi-year agreement with Parity, an online platform designed to help address this inequity.
Women’s professional basketball trivia question of the week
Who was the last player to win WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and the WNBA title in the same season?