2020 WNBA Preview: Minnesota Lynx

WNBA teams have cut down their teams to their official roster, should a new season happen. From now forward we at least will have some clarity on who teams are going to be carrying into a season.

Minnesota played well last year, given the talent they lost from their championship winning team. Lindsey Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson retired. Seimone Augustus played much less because of injury. Augustus has now signed with the Los Angeles Sparks, which will take some getting used to.

Maya Moore also sat out, and will sit out this year as well, as she focuses on fighting mass incarceration and successfully freeing Jonathan Irons. While I would love to see Moore play basketball again, as one of my favorite players of all time, her advocacy off court has been impressive, on an issue very important to me. Particularly in a pandemic, bringing attention to unjust prison sentences is more important than basketball.

Back to this year’s Lynx, this is a team that has question marks at the guard spot to be answered, though their front court is among the strongest in the league. Napheesa Collier had one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in recent history, Sylvia Fowles is still very effective.

The defense should once again be good, as the team had the second best defensive rating in the league last year and returns the key components of the defense. The offense was ok, but was a bit hit or miss, given the lack of shooting from guard, with Danielle Robinson starting at point guard much of the year.

This is a team that was hurt by the league’s use of single elimination games in the playoffs. They had a better net rating than a Seattle Storm team that had a great game to knock them out, and would have had a chance to win a series. Single elimination games are a terrible way to run a playoffs in the WNBA. They should at least be given a best of 3, if not a best of 5.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions:

Rachel Banham, Shenise Johnson

Notable Losses:

Seimone Augustus, Stephanie Talbot, Jessica Shepherd (suspended for season, still rehabbing a knee injury)

Draft Picks:

1st round: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan

2nd round: Crystal Dangerfield

Guards: Odyssey Sims*, Crystal Dangerfield, Lexi Brown, Rachel Banham

Wings: Napheesa Collier, Cecilia Zandalasini, Bridget Carleton, Karima Christmas-Kelly, Shenise Johnson

Bigs: Sylvia Fowles, Damiras Dantas, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Kayla Alexander.

*Odyssey Sims is returning from pregnancy, and starts the season on the inactive list.

Playing Time Breakdown:

Sylvia Fowles is still one of the most effective centers in the league, so center is taken care of.. While she was down a bit from her incredible peak a few seasons ago, she is still very effective, scoring .995 per post up per which was in the 74th percentile on a healthy number of attempts per Synergy .

I am curious to see is whether the team incorporates more pick and rolls using Fowles as screener, given that a play in which Fowles finished in the pick and roll was worth 1.093 points per possession, though on a smaller number of attempts. They may lack guards who are particularly adept at running them, for as long as Sims sits out, but it still may be a better option than asking Fowles to do the shot creation herself.

Napheesa Collier had one of the more impressive rookie years one will see. Especially given that she was moving from the 4 in college to the 3 for Minnesot. Her shooting, 38% from 3, and ball handling, were better than I expected moving out on the perimeter. That she would eventually get there was believable, but not right from the first game. Those shooting numbers may not hold up this year, which would reduce her effectiveness, but even without it, she still has the chance to be the best player from the 2019 draft, an incredible get for the Lynx with the sixth pick. 

I would like to see more of Collier at the 4 more this year, to see if the Lynx can improve their offense. But Damiras Danta played well at the 4 last year, and does provide spacing from there. She just is much less of a threat off the dribble than Collier, and is not much of an upgrade on defense. Another interesting wrinkle would be Dantas at the 5 and Collier at the 4, and go five out, when Sylvia Fowles has to sit. Dantas is big enough to defend most backup 5s, and would be a tough cover at the other end. Could stagger Dantas and Fowles, to make up for the lack of a backup center that is particularly effective.

Guard is the big question mark for this team. Odyssey Sims had a decent 2019 season, though she had the bad luck of her worst game of the year coming in their playoff game against Seattle. Sims was very good in transition. The Lynx hope she can be more efficient in the half court. She is now out, and it is unclear if she will be back this year. 

Lexie Brown played back up point last year, but seems like she might be overmatched in that role as a starter. Rookie point guard is a tough position to play, and Crystal Dangerfield will need to overcome doubts about her size on defense at only 5’5”, but she has shown the ability to be a quality point guard in her time at UCONN. Dangerfield in particular can play off ball and shoot off screens, a wrinkle the Lynx did no really have last year, except sometimes with Lexi Brown.

Rachel Banham was also brought in, but she is more of a theoretical shooter at this point, compared to Brown. Brown has shot better for her career, at 37% compared to 32% for Banham, and Brown was at 40% last year, her first where she played real minutes. Neither player got to the basket much nor shot particularly well there, with Brown at 39% on shots in the half court at the rim, and Banham at 40%, but Brown did get there nearly 4 times as often. 

Shooting guard should go to Cecilia Zandalasini. At 6’2” she would be the tallest shooting guard in the league. Defensively she might struggle with the quickness of opponents in the wrong matchup, but given her shooting combined with her size, would be a tough cover at the other end. She, after Collier, is the player with the upside to help this team over perform expectations.

Minnesota is going to live and die by their guard play this year. My prediction is for an 8th place finish and to squeak into the playoffs, but Cheryl Reeve is a Hall of Fame coach and may be able to maximize this roster. Also, it is possible that Collier is able to shoot as well or better than last year, and takes a step forward as many second year players do, in which case she could drive this team to win even more games, as a big wing with her skill is the biggest driver of winning.

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Phoenix Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury have brought in talented players, though how good they are going to be will ride on Diana Taurasi’s health. A middling team in both offense and defense a year ago, Sandy Brondello will have more offensive talent, but how to improve the defense is going to be a challenge. 

Even maintaining the defense at the level it was at last year may prove to be a challenge, given that two of the more effective defenders on the team have now moved on to other teams, in Briann January and DeWanna Bonner. While January did slip a bit, DeWanna Bonnner is a big loss. While offensively, she is better at the 4, more on that in my Sun preview, she is very valuable in her ability to ability to guard both 3s and 4s.

The Mercury were able to upgrade their point guard position with the trade for Skylar Diggins-Smith. Diggins-Smith was a no-brainer of a trade for 3 draft picks with the Dallas Wings, given their time to win is now.

While point guard is settled, they do not seem to have addressed the hole at the 3 left by Bonner leaving. Bria Hartley got the most perplexing free agency deal in the offseason. She seems prime to be an example of the winner’s curse, where the team that got her services ends up overpaying. Good for Hartley, but maybe not so good for the Mercury. It leaves the Mercury with options for the 3 who are too small, inexperienced, or not good enough.

Shatori Walker-Kimbroughis a good player, but I would have kept Jocelyn Willoughby, a rangy athlete to play on the wing. Walker-Kimbrough will likely be better than Willoughby, as a player who has already proven she can hang in the league, but she plays a position the Mercury already have depth at.

The Mercury have high hopes and are often listed as one of the new super teams. I am skeptical. This team should make the tail end of the playoffs, the 7 or 8 spot. However, unless Diana Tuarasi is able to return and still be the player she was, it is hard to see this team climbing in the standings. 

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions:

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Bria Hartley, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Jessica Breland, Nia Coffey

Notable Losses:

DeWanna Bonner, Leiliani Mitchell, Briann January, Camille Little. Kia Vaughn, Essence Carson.

Draft Picks:

2nd round: Te’a Cooper

3rd round: Stella Johnson

Guards: Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Bria Hartley

Wings: Nia Coffey, Sophie Cunningham.

Bigs: Jessica Breland, Alanna Smith, Britney Griner, Kia Vaughn. Brianna Turner. 

The Mercury only have enough space to carry 11 players, instead of 12 that they could. The Bria Hartley contract and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough trade were both somewhat befuddling moves, and this is one area where that is the case. The opportunity cost of being able to carry one more young player to potentially develop is another drawback to the Mercury’s approach. Coffey is most on the bubble, should a better wing option come available, though as the hardest position to fill in basketball, unclear who the Mercury would want. Teams have to cut down their rosters by March 26th, so this will be updated once that happens. 

Playing Time Breakdown:

Brittney Griner is the starting center. While only 29 years old, her game has been in a slow decline of effectiveness the past few years. She is still a top center, and should remain effective for as long as she wants to play and stays healthy, given that her two main skills, height and touch, don’t diminish with age. The main thing I will be watching with her is the way in which the modern basketball emphasis on shooting and spacing hurt how dominant she is, as she was quite good last year, and the team still struggled.

Skyler Diggins-Smith at point guard is the other guarantee of player and position on this roster. While a center who thrives in the half court and a point guard who likes to get out and run is a bit of an awkward fit, Diggins-Smith has experience playing with Liz Cambage and there are other other players, like Walker-Kimbrough, who can get out and run on the roster. Diggins-Smith has had an up and down career shooting the 3, but given the attention Griner draws, a better year is possible

As an aside, my personal hope is for Griner to shoot 2 threes a game. She has a nice looking shot on the 1 made three she had all last season. The image of Griner blocking a shot, Diggins-Smith sprinting to the other end, and then Griner strolling up and into a wide open trailing 3 and nailing it is wonderful. Griner is a career 80% foul shooter, she has a solid midrange game, and having her shoot 2 threes per game is absolutely doable. I definitely don’t want her to stand 25 feet from the basket whole possessions, but a couple of times a game, she should let it fly. 

What happens in between Diggins-Smith and Griner is up in the air and is where I have some questions about the roster construction of this team. Assuming health, Taurasi will play, and will hopefully be close to the Taurasi we saw in the 2018 playoffs, one of the most dangerous offensive players in WNBA history. But that is a lot to ask of a player who will be 38 whenever we have a season, should a season happen. A healthy Taurasi improves the offense in almost every category.

Who Taurasi will be asked to defend is one of the key questions, should she prove able to play. Taurasi is 6 foot, whereas Bria Hartley is 5’8” and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough is 5’9”. Against quite a few teams, Taurasi will be able to handle guarding the three, or one of Hartley or Walker-Kimbrough will be able to guard a bigger player, but there are teams, such as the Sky with DeShields, or Minnesota and Napheesa Collier, where that seems unlikely to work well. Not to mention whatever kind of jumbo lineups Washington goes with, should Emma Meesseman make it over for the season.

If Taurasi is played at the 2, her natural position, that leaves Nia Coffey and Sophie Cunningham as the only two wings on the team. Modern basketball rewards having more wings, not fewer. Of course the Mercury were not going to get the kind of elite wings that have won championships in the past few years, such as Elena Delle Donne or Breanna Stewart, but I’m still confused as to their vision for this position. This is where the cost of giving Bria Hartley such a large deal comes in for me.

While based on pure production, Kahleah Copper’s contract was even less justified than Bria Hartley’s per herhoopstats, the reason I have Bria Hartley as least justifiable contract of this past offseason is because Copper is 6’1”, vs. Hartley’s 5’8”. Copper provides more defensive versatility, not to mention she is 2 years younger. Not that this was an option, but Copper on this roster makes a lot more sense.

Impossible to know if Skekinna Stricklen was open to going to Phoenix, but Stricklen is making $15,000 less this year than Hartley. Stricklen is a much better shooter, has the size to play the 3 and even some of the 4. While Stricklen is older, and not the swiftest on defense, she would have been a great fit on this roster. They are trying to win now. Brondello is a good enough coach to find a solution that I am not seeing. Let’s hope so, for the Mercury, cause Diamond Deshields ran them off the court twice in the final games last year, and I see little that changed.

Brianna Turner played fairly well towards the end of the year at the 4 for the Mercury, though she really plays like a 5, so I am penciling her in there. Alanna Smith was the Mercury’s 2019 number one draft pick, and Jessica Breland is there. Breland has the defensive reputation, though she had a rough year last year in Atlanta and at 32, may have lost a step. Alanna Smith provides the most shooting, based on college numbers, so may get a look at some point, since to maximize Griner one would want 4 shooters around her.

Phoenix has two positions sewn up, but a bunch of questions up and down the roster elsewhere. Diana Taurasi is one of the greatest players in WNBA history, but she is also turning 38 soon and coming off a year of injuries.  The lack of wings and 4s that complement Griner, make me skeptical of this team’s ceiling. Playoffs are doable, advancing will be a challenge. 

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Indiana Fever

The Indiana Fever had a better year in 2019 than 2018, going from 12th to 9th, and just missing the playoffs. The next step, making the playoffs, will likely need to wait another year or two. While the Fever have some good pieces, it is unclear if this is a team with a player who can be a top 10 player in the W, much less top 5. That will define how this rebuild goes, and I am not hopeful.

While Pokey Chatman knew basketball well, Marianne Stanley will hopefully bring the style of the Washington Mystics with her. More 3s and better spacing on offense. Indiana does not have Elene Delle Donne, so the results won’t be as good, but the style should be playable.

Though the offense should be more dynamic, it was league average at 7th in 2019. The defense, at 11th, was even more of a struggle. In time, Lauren Cox will be able to help with this, but asking a rookie big to make a big difference on defense is a tall order. Year 2 Teaira McCowan should be better, as well, especially near the basket.

The Fever have lots of cap space, according to Richard Cohen, and so should a disgruntled star want out they could be a destination. The difficult part is convincing said player to want to go to Indianapolis. Indianapolis is an underrated city, and is the WNBA city I live closest too, but needless to say it is no LA or Las Vegas. 

Speaking of the difficulty of getting a star, this is why I would have taken Chennedy Carter over Lauren Cox. Lauren Cox’s floor is higher than Carter’s, as a solid big she should have a good WNBA career, but her upside is not nearly as high. For a small market team like Indiana, drafting is the only way to build a championship contending team, and sometimes risks need to be taken.

Unless Cox starts shooting threes at a high volume and increases her shot creation, which is possible, if not likely, it is hard to envision her becoming the kind of star a team can build around. Even a number 2 on a championship team seems like a stretch. Carter may not figure out her shooting to reach her potential, but if she does, watch out. 

The team seems to be in about the same position as last year. Major growth from Teaira McCown and Kelsey Mitchell are the best hope for a better than expected year, but this team is likely to finish in the same spot as last year, if not lower.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions: 

Julie Allemand

Notable Losses: 

none

Draft Picks: 

First round: Lauren Cox 

Second Round: Kathleen Doyle

Third round: Kamiah Smalls (already cut)

Projected Depth Chart:

Guards: Erica Wheeler, Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Kathleen Doyle, Julie Allemand

Wings: Victoria Vivians, Bitnajah Laney, Kennedy Burke

Bigs: Teaira McCowan, Candice Dupree, Natalie Achonwa, Stephanie Mavunga. 

Julie Allemand is a 23 yr old point guard with high level experience in Europe. Given the Fever’s options at point are unsettled, she is worth a look. Kathleen Doyle and Stephanie Mavunga are the players I am least confident about making the team. 

Playing time breakdown:

Teaira McCowan is the one player guaranteed to be starting. She was an effective center last year who generated fouls at a higher rate than comparable centers like Sylvia Fowles and Liz Cambage. She shot only 57% in the restricted area, so a main goal should be to get that up into the mid 60s, where comparable top centers finish. 

She is so big at 6’ 7” that she is a deterrent at the rim, but will continue to need to work on defending in space, and the rest of the roster will need to play a style that minimizes her lack of mobility. But she is a key piece of the Fever’s future.

The swing spot for this team in terms of style of play is going to be the 4. Will Candice Dupree finally take two steps back and shoot 3s? Can Lauren Cox up the number of attempts she takes from 3 to make teams honor her out there? Either way, finding a way to add more shooting to the lineup will maximize Teaira McCowan’s effectiveness rolling to the rim and should be a priority long term for the Fever. 

My vote is for more playing time for Cox. Dupree is a smart player who has had a wonderful career, but she can be an effective backup and mentor for Cox, while Cox learns to play with McCowan. Cox will make more mistakes on defense, but also provide more rim protection.

Some analysts ($) have Candice Dupree playing the 3, but at this point in her career, her lack of foot speed and the lack of 3 point shooting makes that unworkable. A healthy Victoria Vivians would be ideal for this spot. At 6’1” Vivians was a phenomenal shooter in 2018, shooting 40% on 5 attempts per game as a rookie, before missing all of last year with an ACL injury. When healthy, she has the athleticism and size to guard the top wing scorers in the W, which would be big for a Fever team that was limited in two way players at wing in 2019.

Kelsey Mitchell will almost certainly start. The question that the Fever should be trying to answer this year is whether long term she is their point guard or shooting guard. Her assist % was low for a point guard at 19%, compared to her teammate Erica Wheeler at 35%. Her shooting and shot creation are valuable skills that are hard to find. Should she improve her pick and roll decision making, she has the outlines of a dynamic modern point guard who can shoot 3s off the dribble in the pick and roll. The hope for the Fever is in year 3 she is set for a breakout, a la Kelsey Plum last year.

Erica Wheeler is a solid point guard, especially if she shoots like she did last year, at 37% on a decent number of attempts per game. At 29 she is the second oldest player on the team, and as an undersized guard who relies on athleticism might not age well. But for this year, she and Kelsey Mitchell will likely play a lot of minutes together.

Tiffany Mitchell quietly received, after Bria Hartley, the most curious deal in the most recent free agency at $140,000 over 3 years, per High Post Hoops. She is the highest paid player on the Fever, and will likely not start this year. As previously discussed, they have the cap space to add a new player, and pay their players on rookie deals, so it might not cost them other opportunities, but I’m not sure her leaving for Atlanta would have been the end of the world. It seemed like Atlanta made out better when their offer was matched by the Fever. She would be, what, the fifth guard on the Dream?

Mitchell has more offensive ability than Laney or Burke, so she might be able to play backup minutes at the 3 as well as the 2, against certain matchups, but she lacks the size for that to be a long term option, at only 5’9”. She attacks the basket fairly well, but has shot under 30% her 3 years in the league who tends to get tunnel vision on drives.

Year 2 of Teaira McCowan and year 3 of Kelsey Mitchell give Fever fans something to look forward to. I am lower on the long term outlook of this team than some comparable teams. One of their players popping and showing unexpected growth would solve their lack of a star player. Until then, this is a team with a lower ceiling than is ideal. The rebuild continues. 

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Dallas Wings

The Dallas Wings are up next. WNBA franchises don’t get the level of scrutiny or reporting that NBA teams do, obviously, and as such it would be nice to have a better handle on organizations like the Dallas Wings. 

Given these limitations, the Wings seem to have the most dysfunctional WNBA front office in the league, with stars in back to back years forcing trades. Liz Cambage is now in Vegas and Skylar Diggins-Smith is in Phoenix. Cambage reportedly was unhappy with the decision to fire Fred Williams and wanted to play in a bigger market. Diggins-Smith criticized the organizations support of her during her pregnancy, among other concerns.

On the court, they are set up to be exciting and potentially quite good in a few years. Arike Ogunbuwale had a successful rookie year. Satou Sabally has the potential to be the best player from this draft, and at minimum should be a solid WNBA starter. If even one of their other 2020 draft picks hit, that is the foundation for a promising team that should make the playoffs in a few years. 

Cambage’s reasons don’t necessarily mean the organization is dysfunctional. Wanting to work in Las Vegas or LA instead of Dallas is reasonable and not necessarily the fault of Dallas. Though one wonders why moving on from Fred Williams was so necessary, given they will be lucky to develop a player as good as Cambage and he was a decent coach. 

Diggins-Smith’s criticisms are more serious, and Dallas ought to be looking into where they could have provided better service. Also, the new CBA should help WNBA players who become mothers, which is good. 

There’s also the coach, Brian Agler. While the accusations in Penny Toler’s law suit about Agler are from his days coaching the Los Angeles Sparks, it is still notable how media averse he has become. It will be interesting to see what happens when WNBA games begin and he has to answer questions from the media.

For all the off court issues, the on court product is quite promising. The team now has to figure out how to put themselves in the best place to keep their high draft picks, should any develop into true stars. Dallas will never become LA as a destination, but it is still best practice to build a professional organization that players want to play for. Seems obvious, but organizations from across sports struggle with this every year.

This season, though, may not see many wins. For all the exciting young talent on this team, it is hard to win without many veterans who will contribute. Allisha Gray will and Astou Ndour should she come over from Europe, but unclear who else will. If Sabally is pro ready and comes out playing well that pushes their ceiling higher, but is a lot to expect of a rookie. Offensively this team should be better than  second from the bottom as they were in 2019, but the defense will be interesting. Most stats per basketball-reference.com and PIPM per Jacob Goldstein.

Roster Breakdown

Notable Additions:

Katie Lou Samuelson, Astou Ndour, Mariah Jefferson

Notable Losses:

Kayla Thornton, Azura Stevens, Glory Johnson

Draft Picks:

1st round: Satou Sabally, Bella Alarie, Tyasha Harris

2nd round: Luisa Geiselsöder 

Projected Depth Chart:

Guards: Arike Ogunbuwale, Moriah Jefferson, Tyasha Harris, Allisha Gray,

Wings: Kayla Thornton, Satou Sabally, Katie Lou Samuelson

Bigs: Isabelle Harrison, Astou Ndour, Bella Alarie, Megan Gustafson, Kristine Anigwe

Luisa Geiselsöder is unlikely to come over this year. The 6’3” German center is only 20 years old and is a draft and stash player. Twelve names are listed here as definites for the roster, with Anigwe the most on the bubble of the players here. One more spot could open up should Ndour not come over, and the choice wil likely then be between Marina Mabrey and Karlie Samuelson.

While Ndour is the only international player who may not come over, she is also the position they would have the hardest time replacing.

Playing time breakdown:

The guard spot is the most stable at this point for the Wings. Ogunbuwale is starting. Probably moving to the 2 and not at the point guard like last year. She can play point, and maybe long term that will be her role, but between signing Jefferson and drafting Harris, Dallas has other options now. 

Ogunbuwale was productive in raw numbers, but an EFG% of 44% was less than ideal. She will hopefully be more efficient in an off ball setting, for instance by improving her 3 point shooting with easier attempts, given she was a much better shooter in college than she showed last year. Her ability to playmake from the shooting guard will be a benefit, as an assist to turnover ratio of 1.5 was good given she was thrown into the fire with limited talent around her.

For point guard, either Harris or Jefferson will get that spot, with the edge going to Harris. Though I was lower on Harris for her limited upside than where she was drafted, she should be a steady player. She also provides more size than Jefferson and could cross match on defense with Ogunbuwale and guard 2s. Will Harris shoot enough to keep defenses honest and can she finish at the rim against WNBA size and length are key questions for her future. 

Allisha Gray was the Wings best player last year. She played shooting guard last year, but the question will be can she shift up a position. She has the size at 6’0” to play the 3, but may be a bit overmatched defensively. Her playing time will depend on where Satou Sabally is expected to play. She is too good to be a backup, interesting to see if Dallas looks to trade her long term as she enters restricted free agency after this season.

Satou is the long term answer at the 4, while sometimes playing the 3.. But in the short term, she will likely play the three. At 6’4” she has good size, but is also athletic and will likely not be overmatched guarding opposing 3s athletically, as many 4s are. It would also save her some pounding.

One of the big spots will go to Astou Ndour should she come over. She can play either the 4 or 5, and provide shooting and some rim protection. Isabelle Harrison competed hard for the team last year, but was among the least effective starting centers in the WNBA, by both win share and PIPM. Still, the team is without many other options unless Gustafson figures out defense and/or shooting, or Anigwe wows. 

Bella Alarie was a gamble on potential, as it is harder to get a read on midmajor players. Still, she offers good size at 6’4” and shot blocking. It would be very fun to get a look at her and Sabally together early on. While unexpected for Agler to play both rookies together much, the team may not have better options and is the outcome I am rooting for, as a neutral observer.

Takeaway

The pieces are here for a good team in a couple of seasons, but this year might be a rough one. Still, a team with exciting young players and one more top draft pick next year is a positive outcome. Provided the organization can improve its relationships with its top players, the future is bright in Dallas

.

Abolish the WNBA draft. At least the third round.

Sports drafts restrict the labor rights of athletes in ways that no other endeavor in professional life does, as Kevin Arnovitz has written about for ESPN. When a software engineer graduates, they are not forced to work for Facebook, though they would prefer to work at Google or another of the frightful five.

Only in sports does a worker have to work somewhere regardless of how incompetent or dysfunctional a given workplace is. Sabrina Ionescue lucked out with a new ownership group in New York, instead of James Dolan, the worst owner in professional basketball.

However, Satou Sabally and Bella Alarie may very well have chosen to play elsewhere had they been given the choice. Having two stars, Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins, in two years force their way out and a coach who is currently named in a lawsuit around a relationship with a former player, does not inspire confidence.

Maybe a player is very political and they would prefer not to play for the Atlanta Dream, with an owner who is a conservative politician accused of engaging in insider trading while ignoring the early days of a pandemic.

To be clear, none of these examples are digs at players currently playing for their teams. Atlanta is likely to be my #1 League Pass team, but it would be better for players to have options. And it would not hurt interest in the league. A three hour event on ESPN including Sabrina Ionescue announcing the team she has chosen to sign with would be incredibly compelling. 

The salary cap would still exist, (abolishing that is a topic for another day) such that it’s not likely Ionescue would be signing with the Mystics if a WNBA team had to bid closer to what she she would be worth, not holding down her pay through a draft. Though really, how many people would complain at getting to see Ionescue and Elena Delle Donne play together. I certainly wouldn’t.

But the chances of the WNBA abandoning the draft entirely is unlikely. However abolishing the third round, something the NBA does not have, seems far more plausible. 

How many third round picks are expected to make their team’s rosters this year? Mikayla Pivec has a chance with Atlanta. Any others? What is the purpose of having a round of a draft that ties a player to a particular team, but does not give the player even a 50% chance that the player will play for that team?

Over the past two years, not a single third round pick is with the team that picked them. In each draft three players got cups of coffee with the team that drafted them in the third round. 29 minutes total for players drafted in 2018 and 96 minutes in 2019, by my count. Temi Fagbenle was a third round pick in 2016 and has had a good WNBA career, but likely she would have anyways had she signed with Minnesota as a free agent.

With no third round, players who were picked in the third round would have options on where to sign training camp deals. Juicy Lundrum has real talent and a team that was light on guards might give her a serious look, but what are the odds she actually makes the Connecticut Sun? A team that just made the finals is not likely to take a third round guard.

The WNBA should reconsider tying up a player’s labor rights for minimal benefit even to the teams, who simply bring the players in only to cut them. Making the WNBA is hard enough as it is. Tying up a player’s choice in the third round should end.

2020 WNBA Season Preview: New York Liberty

New York Liberty is the next team up in my preview of the 2020 WNBA season, assuming it happens in some fashion. No team in the WNBA has gone through as radical a reshaping (link trade grades for Tina Charles) of their roster as the New York Liberty. With multiple draft picks in the 2020 first round and the first half of the second round, this is going to be the team to watch for the next few years as they play out their vision of the changing dynamics of the WNBA. Lots of wings, few bigs.

Last year’s Liberty team struggled on both defense and offense, but especially defense, ranking last in defensive efficiency per wnba.com. This year’s team may not be much better on defense, but they will hopefully not rank third from the bottom in offensive efficiency. Sabrina Ionescue + a bunch of shooters are promising, even given their youth.

Roster Breakdown

Notable additions:

Layshia Clarendon

Key losses:

Tina Charles, Brittany Boyd, Bria Hartley, Tanisha Wright. 

Draft picks:

1st round: Sabrina Ionescue, Megan Walker, Jazmine Jones, Jocelyn Willoughby (via trade)

2nd round: Kylee Shook, Leonna Odom. 

Projected depth chart: 

Guards: Sabrina Ionescue, Layshia Clarendon, Aysia Durr, Marine Johannes.

Wings: Kia Nurse, Megan Walker, Jazmine Jones, Rebecca Allen, Jocelyn Willoughby.

Bigs: Amanda Zahui B, Kylee Shook, Han Xu, Kiah Stokes

There are 13 players listed here. The max a team can have in the WNBA is 12, so something will have to give. If a 2020 season happens, it is likely that at least some of the international players on the roster will not come. So as long as one of Zahui B, Johannes, Han Xu, Allen does not play this year, that makes things easier. Though it will be interesting to see where the team goes next year. Kiah Stokes has a nonguaranteed contract, so could an option to be cut.

As Gabe Ibrahim points out, second round picks are going to struggle to make rosters this year, nevermind third round picks, so Odom will have to really impress or hope quite a few international players don’t make it over.

Playing time breakdown:

This team has their point guard and center down. Sabrina Ionescue should start from day one. Rookie point guard is the hardest position to learn in the WNBA, so Ionescue may struggle at the start, but she is the long term bet and will get all the playing time she could want. 

While it is unclear to me why Clarendon still plays with Team USA given other options, she is a solid backup who was hurt by an ankle injury last year and likely would have played more without them. I am excited to see if the Liberty use Ionescue off ball at all, given her shooting. Her running off screens and bending defenses will add variety to her excellent on ball skills. I’m as excited to watch Ionescue as I have ever been for a basketball player. 

For center, Amanda Zahui B was the second best player on the team last year after Kia Nurse. While the Liberty should be careful to not overpay Zahui B after this year and hamstring their flexibility going forward, she is a good player, especially given her ability to shoot from deep. Backup center is going to be interesting. If the team keeps Kiah Stokes, she is the most reliable. Kylee Shook provides a stretch factor, but may struggle against bigger opponents, and defense as a big is hard for most rookies.

Han Xu will hopefully get more playing time at center. She showed flashes last year in limited minutes. At only 20 years old, she is a 6’9” center who has a pretty looking shot from 3. Should continue to get stronger and improve her mobility on defense. It will be interesting to see what kind of appetite the Liberty have for a long term project. But given the importance of growing the Chinese market to the WNBA and the Liberty, and Hu’s own real basketball skills, bet on her staying on the team.

Kia Nurse is a guaranteed starter. What will be interesting is whether she plays the three, as she did much of last year, or if she is slid down to the 2 to make way for one of the many wings the Liberty drafted. If Nurse stays at the 3, Marine Johannes would make sense based on production for the 2, but Asia Durr for the future, as the Liberty’s #2 pick from last year. Might see some combo Clarendon + Ionescue lineups as well.

The Liberty appear to be all in on switchable wings for the three and the four. Kia Nurse may play the 3, but if not her, then pick 2 of the Megan Walker, Rebecca Allen, Jocelyn Willoughby, and Jazmine Jones grouping to play the 3 and 4. Allen and Walker together provides a ton of shooting, but will they be able to handle playing defense against bigger players. Who of this group is the least overmatched against A’Ja Wilson will be a key task for Johnathan Kolb to figure out.

Kylee Shook has the size and possibly the shooting. I’m less familiar with her game, good piece on her here by Ben Dull. She would be an interesting option at the four.

Takeaway:

Offense, offense, offense. Offense will be the reason to watch this team. . It is hard to play so many young players and have a competent defense, so the playoffs are unlikely. But the offense should be fun. This will be my #1 League Pass team should the season come to pass.

The value of centers in the WNBA

Only one center was drafted in the first round in the 2020 WNBA draft, Ruthy Hebard to the Chicago Sky at 8. Tina Charles was traded for less than one would think given her resume. These raise a question of what is the value of a center in the WNBA?

Inspiration for this post came from Kevin Pelton from ESPN who wrote about centers in the context of the NBA ahead of the 2018 draft. I was curious if this held up in the WNBA, and it looks like it does.

One can look at how productive centers were using win shares, a stat from Basketball Reference meant to sum up how many wins a player contributed to their team’s total. To get a sense for the value of different positions, I averaged the win shares of the 12 starters at the five positions in the WNBA for the 2019 season. This is an imperfect method, but works as a quick check.

PG: average win share: 2.1

SG: average win share: 2.2

SF: average win share: 2.0

PF: average win share: 2.5

C: average win share: 3.7

Centers are over represented in the most win shares in the league, and this is true up and down the league. What this shows is that production is easier to find at the center position, and thus is more replaceable.

The gap between Jonquel Jones, who led the league in win shares for center with 5.6 and Mercedes Russell, 8th in WS for centers at 3.1 WS, is not large. Compare that with Napheesa Collier at 5.2 and the 8th best small forward, Jackie Young at 1.3 WS. 1.4 is the lowest WS for a center in the WNBA, from Amanda Zahui B, whereas other positions the lowest point ranged from -.1 to .5.

Centers producing high WS across the league extends to backups as well, with Chiney Ogwumike posting a 3 WS, Natalie Achonwa posting a 2.7 WS and Tiana Hawkins a 2.7 WS.

Single stat summations of basketball players do have their limitations. Good defenders who don’t rack up steals and blocks tend to rank lower than their actual value on the court. For instance, I would value Latoya Sanders higher than Mercedes Russell, though their win shares are pretty similar. But for broad purposes, I thought this was illustrative of how teams should be, and in quite a few cases are, looking to build.

This also shows that if anything just looking at a stat like win shares understates Elene Delle Donne’s dominance last year. While her 7.7 WS was the highest by a decent margin in the WNBA regardless of position, when you consider that she was able to play at both small and power forward, both positions that it is hard to find productive players at, her importance really stands out compared to her competition, 3 centers who all performed similarly.

While it matters to have a center, over investing in the position is a mistake, given productive centers can be found outside of the top of the draft and in free agency, where many of the best players at other positions are taken.

Two main changes in the WNBA have caused this. The rise of the 3 point shot has placed a premium on shooting and spacing the floor, while also opening up the floor for a wide variety of centers to post good numbers. Also, changes in rules and strategy for defense has made it much harder for post players to be efficient enough to justify running post ups.

An exception to not paying the max to a center is the very best who can have an offense run through them, like Liz Cambage and Brittney Griner. Even then, it’s no accident both lost to Breanna Stewart and Elene Delle Donne in back to back years in the playoffs.

The replaceability of centers can be seen in the past 3 drafts, in both how teams are drafting and the outcomes of the centers that were drafted in the first round. 

For 2020 only 1 center was picked in the first round, Ruthy Hebard at 8. And Ruthy may end up playing the 4 some of the time for the Sky, at least defensively, next to Stefanie Dolson. Otherwise, teams went elsewhere, drafting wing players in particular that surprised draft observers. 

The 2019 draft featured 3 true centers in the first round, but only Teaira McCown is guaranteed a spot in the 2020 season. Kalani Brown will probably make the Atlanta Dream roster, but Kristin Anigwe is going to have competition in Dallas. Both are also already on their second teams. Players who bounce around can later on thrive, but often it is not a great sign when a player is traded within a year of being drafted.  

The 2018 draft had Azura Stevens drafted 6th. She is also on her second team. She is also not a true center, as she can play power forward, given she is fairly mobile for a 6’6″ player and can shoot the 3. The final two picks of the first round were both centers, Maria Vedeeva and Marie Gulich. Vedeeva in particular was a good pick. Even there one can see that center is replaceable as she was often stuck behind both Ogwumike sisters, or awkwardly playing with one of them in a front court that could not stretch the floor.

Kalani Brown was also on the Sparks, but then traded for Gulich, cause apparently the Sparks can not have enough centers. Chiney does play a lot of power forward, but how effective I think that is will have to wait for my Sparks preview. Put me down as skeptical for now.

In contrast to the Sparks, the New York Liberty appear to be taking this logic and running with it. They invested first round picks in guards and wings, and are only carrying two centers, one a second round pick from the 2020 draft. The Liberty are the most interesting team for the next few seasons for me for this reason, even beyond Sabrina Ionescue, who of course I am dying to actually see play WNBA basketball. Look for my preview of them coming this Tuesday.