WNBA Tiers: Tier 4

Last week I covered players 31-50 in the WNBA, in Tier 5. See there for explanation of the project. This week is players 15-30 in Tier 4. Next Monday will be 8 players in Tier 3. And on, until the final tier is released.

Tier 5 definitely involved some tricky choices, but the differences needed to differentiate the tiers only becomes more fine grained the higher one goes. This will become more true when we get to the top tiers, but even with tier 4 there are some choices that I am sure are controversial.

4a is a smidge ahead of 4b, but as with tier 5, within the subtier the players are simply in alphabetical order by last name. A tier 4b player might be tier 5 after next season, but is unlikely to reach tier 3. A tier 4a player will likely not follow out of tier 4, but could reach, or recently was, tier 3.

Super Role Players

Tier 4b is about as high as I am willing to put a super role player who can not create their own shot at all. This is why Alysha Clark is in this tier. A consummate 3 and D player, she is totally dependent on teammates in setting her up for her scoring. Her defense is excellent, but she mostly stays on the perimeter and isn’t going to guard the very best of the big wings. She is generally not going to draw the assignment on Elena Delle Donne, for instance. 

Alysha Clark is also on the wrong side of 30, so it will be interesting to see how long she can stay effective chasing around the smaller guards. Her offensive game should age gracefully, so she will stay effective, even if she begins to struggle a bit more to guard the Arike Ogunbowale’s of the world going forward.

Shot creation in playoff setting

Arike Ogunbowale has the worst advanced stats of this tier, so her inclusion is a bet on her continual growth. It is also a bet that she would be able to create and score against set playoff defenses. A bet that the things that made Kelsey Plum so valuable in the playoffs against the Mystics last year, is something that Ogunbowale will also be able to do. 

Especially encouraging this past year was her work off ball seeking her own shot. Especially as Satou Sabally continues to develop, the ability for Ogunbowale to be equally effective on and off ball will be important for the Dallas Wings. Her overall efficiency is what is keeping her from being in a higher tier. Her true shooting percentage is 53% compared to Diana Taurasi at 62.5% and Jewell Loyd at 58%. 

Another factor to keep in mind is that similar to Kelsey Mitchell in tier 5, Ogunbowale’s advanced numbers are hurt by her defensive metrics. While Ogunbowale is not a top defender, she has also yet to play with an even average starting center who can back her up on defense. Put Elizabeth Williams behind her for instance, and her numbers might improve. 

Reputation vs. results

Chelsea Gray was maybe the trickiest player to rank in this entire exercise. Based on reputation, she is a tier 3a, if not tier 2, player. The second best player on a team that lost in the 2017 finals, she has simply not been the same player the last few years. In particular, having Jasmine Thomas a full tier below Gray, when Thomas roundly outplayed her two years in a row, is an argument for Gray even lower, or Thomas higher. 

Chelsea Gray at this point in her career might benefit from being moved off ball more and basically playing as a wing. She has the size to defend wings, and her passing would still be beneficial there. She has not been able to attack the rim the last couple of years as point guard, especially if the opposing team has a guard who has the size to not be bullied by her, whether it be Jasmine Thomas, Natasha Cloud, or Jewell Loyd. To the Sparks credit, this was the idea behind signing Kristi Toliver, so we shall see how that works.

Thomas has the best argument for inclusion in this tier, likely over Kelsey Plum. Defense is important, but I ranked them as I did because Thomas is basically a 3 and d point guard. She can occasionally get her own offense, but is not a three level scorer, like Kelsey Plum is. Plum’s ability to shoot 3s off the dribble and attack the rim is a skill set that can force playoff defenses to change their entire approach in a way that Jasmine Thomas can not. Plum is also entering her age 26 season, while Thomas is entering her age 31 season. 

Outlier shooting seasons

Two players put up career best shooting years, one in her seventh season and the other in her eleventh season. Diggins-Smith put up excellent individual numbers this season with the Phoenix Mercury, but she shot much better than she ever had from the field, in what might be an outlier in terms of efficiency. If she does it again, then she will definitely move up a subtier. Better defense and an assist to turnover ratio that isn’t nearly even would also help.

Angel McCoughtry only played 20 minutes per game, and was not able to ramp those up in the playoffs, averaging only 5 minutes more per game. Within those minutes she was the most pleasant surprise of the 2020 season, shooting a career high from the field, with a true shooting % nearly 10 percentage points higher than her career average. She will remain effective so long as she can play defense and use her size on offense, but the shooting numbers will likely come down a bit, making it even harder for her as a player who can no longer justify having the entire offense run through her, and her team surround her with shooting. 

Offensive powerhouse at center

Brittney Griner has a reputation as a good defensive center who can also play well on offense. Some combination of Griner aging and the changing style of play within the WNBA, with an emphasis on spacing and three point shooting, has made Griner not nearly as effective on defense as she once was. 

What Griner can still do as well as anyone in the league, certainly better than any other center, is shoot the basketball. Typically over her career this has meant shooting from the low block over a shorter opponent and sometimes two or even three defenders. This is fairly effective, but it’s no accident that the Mercury were able to play well when she left the bubble for personal reasons. Brianna Turner is a better fit as a more mobile center in the current wnba, Turner is miscast as a power forward. 

One thing I would like to see in upcoming seasons is for Griner to truly see if she can expand her range. Someone who shoots as well from 18 feet and from the foul line should be able to shoot 3s. Without that, Griner is still good, but the replacement level of centers is simply much higher than with other positions, as the Mercury showed with sliding Brianna Turner and Kia Vaughn over and barely missing a beat.

Exercises like this are meant to be argued over. And while the number of players I have in each tier is somewhat arbitrary, I think it is useful to place a cutoff somewhere, in an effort to force us to think critically. I always welcome criticism. If you think a player is too low, let me know who you would bump to move them to a higher tier.

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