WNBA Finals: Aces-Storm

The Connecticut Sun did their best to put a scare in the number 1 seed, but after a grueling 5 game series, the Las Vegas Aces will meet the Seattle Storm in the finals. The first two games between these two teams have limited utility for predicting this match up, as Sue Bird missed both games and Breanna Stewart missed the second. Also, Dearica Hamby played in both games, and will miss the finals with a knee injury. 

My prediction for this game is that the Storm win in 4. Here are 2 big questions I have for the series.

Can the Carolyn Swords survive on defense?

Swords is clearly the Aces second best big at this point. Swords is a tough player to evaluate holistically, because she has clear limitations that can overshadow her positive contributions. Swords is a skilled, professional WNBA player. She is opportunistic in her scoring, even  busting out a running hook over a smaller player in the game 5 against the Sun. Defensively, she challenges a lot of shots at the rim, even though she blocks few of them. Trying to score over 6’6” Swords and 6’4” A’ja Wilson is challenging.

She was a +29 in the Aces series with the Sun, including a team best +18 in the final game of the series. This in a series in which the Aces were outscored overall by the Sun. Some of that is an artifact of how much Jackie Young struggled and Hamby before she was ruled out with her injury, but Swords did not hurt the Aces in the series overall.

Unfortunately for the Aces, the Seattle Storm are much better set up to pick at her limitations on defense than the Sun. Jasmine Thomas and Briann January were able to scoot by Swords, and neither are nearly as dynamic offensive players as Jewell Loyd or Sue Bird. Swords really struggles guarding in space.. Especially with Natasha Howard having at least somewhat rediscovered her 3 point shot, the Storm play 4 or 5 out most of the game, which will further stress Swords’ foot speed.

Jewell Loyd may be the key to this series. She has been playing as the best guard in this series, and is the key player in this series who can both shoot 3s off the dribble and get to the rim. If the Aces hedge or trap with Swords, the Storm have too many other players who are comfortable making plays 4 on 3. Look for Loyd to attack Swords in the pick and roll over and over and over again. 

Sue Bird will not penetrate all the way to the rim often, but she can shoot a high enough percentage off the dribble from the elbow that she still demands attention from the opposing team’s center. She is also a patient, expert pick and roll passer who can let Natasha Howard either pop or roll hard to the basket, and use her speed against Swords. This may be a series in which Swords does not have a place.

If that is the case, Bill Laimbeer’s options are challenging. Credit to the Aces making it this far, but they missed on the margins before the season at the back end of the bench. They could have had Beatrice Mompromier instead of Avery Warley-Talbert, and Mompromier would be a better fit in this series. Any positive minutes from Emma Cannon would be huge.

Moving Angel McCoughtry to the four could work. Wilson could guard Breanna Stewart and McCoughtry can handle guarding Howard. That forces Laimbeer to dig deeper into his wings and guards than is ideal. If Jackie Young got going, that would help, but more Sugar Rodgers is not the answer, unless she gets going from 3.

Can anyone on the Aces shoot well for 3 games?

For the Aces to win they will need shooting for 3 games. Ideally 3s, but even long 2s will help. Angel McCoughtry and Kayla McBride did just enough to beat a Sun team that was also starved for offense at times. The Seattle Storm are a team that is not starved for offense. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Sun were 10th in offensive rating at 100.1, while the Storm were the best offense in the league at 108.3. Oh, and the Storm also had the best defense in the league. 

If McCoughtry can play 34 good minutes a game, as she did in the final 2 games in the semifinals, the Aces will have a chance. McCoughtry has had her best season ever shooting the ball, and has not lost much athleticism, if any. She will have to be the second or third best player in this series for the Aces to win.

Unfortunately for the Aces, McBride had her worst shooting season this year, and has only gotten worse in the playoffs. Jewell Loyd may not be the defender Briann January is, but Loyd is a good defender. McBride has shot 14% from 3 so far in the playoffs. She has been too good of a shooter for too long for this to continue indefinitely, but the Aces will need her to start making some in this series. 

If McBride continues to struggle, and Jackie Young gives the Aces nothing, Sugar Rodgers is the only possible adjustment. She has yet to make a 3 in the playoffs, but has the ability to hit them. This is where the Aces miss Kelsey Plum even more than they miss Liz Cambage

In a vacuum, Liz Cambage is a more accomplished WNBA player than Kelsey Plum. But for this current iteration of the Aces, Plum’s presence would be more beneficial. Her combination of shooting and ability to attack the rim is simply something no one else on the roster possesses. Whereas A’ja Wilson has shown that she can carry the load in the paint ,and if anything, has benefited from not having to alternate possessions with Cambage.

That makes for an interesting subplot to watch in these playoffs and going forward. Until Wilson starts shooting 3s, her MVP season and Cambage’s absence will hang over this team, unless they are able to make another run to the finals next year.

But for now, a hopefully competitive series is here. Storm are the favorites, but the Aces have been surprising me all year, and maybe they can do it one last time.

Unlocking the Aces Offense

The Las Vegas Aces are one game away from being sent home as the first number 1 seed to lose in the WNBA semifinals since the league implemented the current playoff design in 2016. The Aces are lucky to even be in this series at all, since they did not win game 2 by much even after the Connecticut Sun’s best player, Alyssa Thomas, went down with an injury.

The biggest culprit in the Aces struggles in this series to date has been the offense. While offensive efficiency tends to go down in the playoffs from the regular season, as teams go against only good defenses and not the Indiana Fever, the Aces offense has fallen off a cliff, from an offensive rating of 107.3 in the regular season to 89.5 in the playoffs.

Not coincidentally, the only team that fell even further was the Los Angeles Sparks, the Sun’s second round playoff opponent. The Sun were a good defensive team in the regular season, but not dominant like this. Being able to shorten the rotation and lock onto a specific opponent, with a mostly veteran rotation, has worked wonders for the Sun. The Aces’ struggles appear to be because of the Sun defending the Aces well, not the Aces missing shots they normally hit or making unforced errors.

Part of the reason the Sun can defend the Aces is because of the Aces on limitations on offense. Offensive success in the playoffs comes down to the ability to play multiple styles. The Aces so far are running into the issue that they are used to having the physical advantage at multiple positions over opponents and they use that to score close to the basket and earn free throws.

This size advantage does not exist against the Sun. The Sun are able to match the Aces at every position, and have been able to help off of the Aces shaky outside shooters, to shrink the advantages even more. Alyssa Thomas is one of the few players in the WNBA with the strength and lateral quickness to hold up one on one with A’ja Wilson. DeWanna Bonner can guard Angel McCoughtry or even Dearica Hamby if the Aces go big.

This even extends to the Aces bench. Jackie Young has been much better in her second year at using her size to bully smaller guards. But in this series the Sun are only playing one guard who is at a notable size deficiency, Natisha Hideman, and she is only playing 4 minutes per game in non-garbage time to spell Jasmine Thomas. Speaking of Jasmine Thomas, outside of Chelsea Gray, Thomas is the strongest point guard in the league, and her ability to hold up, even on switches, has been key for the Sun.

This is where the Aces really miss Kelsey Plum, someone who can shoot pull up 3s off the dribble and introduce more stylistic diversity into the Aces offense. But given that she is out, it is up to Bill Laimbeer and the Aces players to figure out some other approaches to get their offense unstuck.

The first adjustment to consider would be for Laimbeer to actually play his best players. (edit to add: Hamby was in fact injured, and will miss game 4. Aces lose their third best player) Dearica Hamby may be dealing with an injury, per a Holly Rowe report during game 3 but if she is not, it is baffling that she is playing less than 30 minutes per game. Maybe Hamby can not play 37 minutes like Wilson, Bonner, and both Thomas’ have in this series, but Laimbeer should be considering how many she can and hitting that number.

Carolyn Swords should not be starting. As the third big she is a fine choice, especially as she hasn’t been killing the Aces, but Hamby is better. Even struggling in this series, Hamby raises the Aces ceiling. So long as the Aces stop trying to play through Hamby when she is being guarded by Alyssa Thomas, she needs to be playing as many minutes as she feels she can handle. 

If the Sun continue to keep Brionna Jones on Wilson when she is in with Hamby, it should also allow Wilson to have an easier match up to attack on offense from the start of the game. Though the Sun should consider flipping that matchup, and having Jones guard Hamby and keeping Alyssa Thomas on Wilson.

The other change should be how to leverage McBride’s shooting to make life easier for Wilson. Wilson can score on Thomas, but letting the Sun single cover her is part of why Wilson has been the only Ace showing up consistently in this series. For instance, using McBride as the entrance passer to a Wilson double team will make it trickier for the Sun to bring a double, since McBride will be one pass away, rather than a much poorer outside shooter like Danielle Robinson or Jackie Young. Swapping McBride and Robinson on this play, for instance. This pass lead to an Aces turnover, whereas McBride could have stayed at the 3 point line, and not cut into a covered paint like Robinson did.

The Sun have been good at bringing help from different areas including from across the court, but making the passes simpler for Wilson will ideally help. She was able to score some over double and even triple teams, but passing, along with 3 point shooting, is the main part of her game she still struggles with compared to her peers like Candace Parker and Breanna Stewart.

Assist per gameAssist %Assist to turnover ratio
A’ja Wilson2.011.11.25
Breanna Stewart3.620.51.38
Candace Parker4.624.91.59

Wilson had a few bad turnovers in game 3, and while long term she will improve her passing, as players who came into the league accomplished scorers have, like Elena Delle Donne, making the reads easier in this game will help.

The other way the Aces could involve both Wilson and McBride is to run some inverted screens, with Wilson handling the ball and McBride screening for her. Similar to how the Nuggets will use Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Because while Wilson may not be the passer her peers are, she can punish mismatches better. Even a guard as big and strong as Jasmine Thomas is going to struggle to deal with Wilson.

The Aces tried this once in Game 3, but only for an out of bounds play. They also ran it so close to the basket that the Sun had time to send help. Wilson still hit the shot over 3 defenders, because she is that good, but doing something similar further out on the floor would give Wilson more space to attack. Briann January switches onto Wilson, forcing immediate help from other Sun players.

The traditional pick and roll has been tough sledding for the Aces, as the Sun guards are too good at avoiding being screened, especially since they can go under screens with any of the Aces guards who are not McBride. This play from Briann January is a great example of this, as Wilson tries to screen her but January sticks with Jackie Young, and the Aces do not gain any advantage. 

Even as good as Alyssa Thomas is, she is not as adept at avoiding screens, and Wilson is a good enough shooter to hit open long 2s. While in time she should add the 3, she can still do damage if you leave her open inside the arc. Brionna Jones has good hands and uses them to get steals and has competed hard on defense, but is at a speed disadvantage and the Aces should be looking to put her in space.

It also will hopefully unlock McBride, who has been taking far too few 3s in this series. She is the Aces only plus shooter this season, and yet she has been taking far too many shots with feet on the line or just inside the 3 point arc. Screening for Wilson and then popping out for a 3 will hopefully help get her going. She is averaging three 3 pointers per game, after averaging over 4 in 2019 and nearly 6 in prior seasons.

The Aces have the talent to come back from down 2-1 in this series and win the next 2 games. But all year the concern was that the Aces lack of shooting and offensive variety would catch up with them. While the regular season the Aces were able to earn the number 1 seed, so far the playoffs are showing why shooting threes is important.

WNBA Semifinals Preview

The WNBA semifinals are here. Actual playoff series with the best teams. The best time of the season. Certain lineups which work in the regular season are mothballed in the playoffs. Weaknesses are magnified, as we find out who can succeed even when a team has time to scout in depth. The playoffs are different. The Aces and Storm are both favored in this match up. They tied for the best record, with the Aces getting the tiebreaker by beating the Storm twice. The Storm had the better net rating and were #1 in both offense and defense. Any outcome other than Storm-Aces would be an upset, but would also make for a great final.

Las Vegas Aces (net rating: 10.0) vs. Connecticut Sun (net rating: .6)

Predilection: Aces in 4

The biggest advantage the Aces may have in this series is the ability to extend the minutes of Angel McCoughtry. McCoughtry played only 20 minutes per game in the regular season, in an effort to keep her fresh. If the Aces can increase that load to 30 minutes per game, that’s ten more minutes of one of the top 5 most effective players this season on a per minute basis. This combined with extending both A’ja Wilson and Dearica Hamby into the mid 30s in playing time, will make the Aces even more dangerous than in the regular season. A deep bench is useful in the regular season, especially when playing every other day, but now is the time for the top 6 or 7 to play the vast majority of the minutes.

Who loses time in this scenario will be a key question to watch. Ideally, Laimbeer would start Hamby over Carolyn Swords, and limit Swords to the 10 minutes or so that Wilson and Hamby need to rest. Though the Sun with Brionna Jones do not pose a particular match up issue for Swords, so in this series it likely will not matter. Sugar Rodgers may not get to play in this series. A shooter who has not shot that well this year, the Aces have better options. Jackie Young can also play more minutes, and a lineup without a point guard would be one way for Laimbeer to get his best 5 players on the court. 

For the Sun, this game is going to be a real test for Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas. Brionna Jones will be able to hang for as long as Laimbeer insists on playing Swords, but once she leaves, Jones is either going to have to bang with A’ja Wilson or cover Hamby at the 3 point line. Neither will be particularly comfortable positions for her. Curt Miller has to my knowledge never run a zone defense with the Sun, but now is a time to try different, junk defenses when a massive underdog. A box and one, as suggested by Clay Kallam and herhooptats, in particular might be worth a try.

The Sun should be trying to pack the paint as much as possible. Their players have the smarts and speed to close out under control on the Aces shooters, but mostly stay near the paint. This might lead to the Aces winning on Wilson mid range jumpers, and the occasional three from Aces players not named McBride, but if that happens the Sun were losing anyways. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are two of the better help defenders in the WNBA, and need to be ready to roam. Both also need to be locked in on avoiding cheap fouls, as foul trouble will sink the Sun as well. 

Luckily for the Sun, their guards have shown up in the playoffs. In particular, Jasmine Thomas has come to play. She was the best player in the Sun’s surprisingly dominant win over the Sparks. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner have played well, to be clear, but it was Jasmine Thomas’s defense on Chelsea Gray that made scoring such a chore for the Sparks. The Aces do not rely on a single guard to generate quite a bit of their offense, but if Thomas continues to defend like this, and shoot well from 3, the Sun will have a chance. The more aggressive she is shooting and scoring, the better for the Sun.

Seattle Storm (net rating: 15.0) vs. Minnesota Lynx (5.1)

Prediction: Seattle in 3

The Storm’s dominance had been a bit obscured because they were not as dominant at the end of the season as they were in the beginning. Assuming Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart are able to play, the Storm should be treated as overall favorites, and especially in this series. A big win in the first 5 games of the season is as relevant to a team’s quality as is a big win in the final 5 games. Momentum is a myth, and this Storm team has been historically dominant all season. Only the Houston Comets dynasty in the early days of the WNBA posted a better net rating in the regular season.

Especially with a rusty Sylvia Fowles, do the Minnesota Lynx have an advantage more than 1 position in this series? However, Clark will be able to guard and make Collier’s life hard, nearly as hard as Brianna Turner did in the Lynx’s game against the Mercury. Natasha Howard has not had her best year, but still she is likely better than the rusty Sylvia Fowles seen in the Lynx’s playoff game. Jewell Loyd over Odyssey Sims is pretty clear. And as good as Crystal Dangerfield has been, she is not as impactful as Sue Bird. Stewart over Damiris Dantas is the clearest advantage for the Storm.

The Lynx will win if they are able to shoot enough 3s and at a high enough percentage. That is a tall task, but this team does have shooters up and down the roster. Odyssey Sims is a more well rounded player than Rachel Banham, but if Sims struggles to score against the Storm’s defense, Banham may deserve a chance to bomb away from 3, as she has been shooting it well.

Another option that the Lynx have not used that I would like to see them take advantage of is, especially when Fowles is not in the game, and Bird is playing, would be for the Lynx to use Dangerfield as a screener for a Collier pick and roll. The Storm won’t want to switch and leave Bird on Collier. They would likely trap Collier with both Bird and Clark or Stewart. Collier would then have to be able to get a pass to Dangerfield, who would then be able to attack 4 on 3 with all 4 Lynx players capable of shooting from 3.

For the Storm, they should be able to run their offense. Particularly, pick and rolls with Jewell Loyd and any big for the Storm, especially a big not being guarded by Collier. Fowles is coming off a tough injury and long layoff, and even fully healthy she is not as quick as Natasha Howard. Stewart can either pick and pop or roll to the basket. Dantas has had a good year, but guarding Stewart is going to be a challenge. 

MVP, All-WNBA first and second team, MIP Player, and 6th Women of the Year.

The level of play in the bubble was everything WNBA fans could have hoped for. Here are my awards, if I had a vote, which of course I do not. This post will cover ALL-WNBA, Most Improved Player, and 6th Women of the Year. Defensive Player of the Year, All-Defense teams and Rookie awards to come Sunday. Only Dearica Hamby has clearly run away with an award, so it will be especially interesting this year who the actual voters end up awarding.

MVP:

  1. Breanna Stewart: 

A’ja Wilson had a wonderful season, but Stewart was just a bit more impactful on the court this year. She was the best defensive player on the leading defense in the league. To be fair, she did get a lot of help from good defenders up and down the Storm roster, but with Natasha Howard scuffling compared to her normal standards to start the season, Stewart has been great all season. Her passing and shooting provided needed variety to a Storm team that has dealt with injuries. Stewart led or was very near the top in whichever all in one stat one looked at, from pipm, to WARP, to win shares, to player impact estimate. These all in one stats are imperfect, but I do think they are capturing something about how good Stewart has been when they all point in the same direction.

  1. A’ja Wilson

A’ja Wilson was great this year. She very well might win MVP, and that would be a reasonable choice. It will be interesting to see what happens next year when Liz Cambage comes back, because until Wilson is willing or able to shoot 3s, she is at her best as a center. Cambage and Wilson can play together, but it may not be optimal usage of them. Defensively, Wilson has been a good on ball defender since she came into the WNBA, even switched onto guards and wings, but this year she really improved her help defense. She anchored the second best defense in the WNBA, and while her teammates are all good defenders, none are on the level of Alysha Clark or Natasha Howard, except possibly Angel McCoughtry, but she played far fewer minutes than either Clark or Howard.  

  1. Candace Parker

This is the toughest choice when it comes to MVP. Napheesa Collier has played extremely well, and at 2 positions where it is tough to find contributions, at 3 or 4. But she is just a bit behind Parker and for whatever reason the Lynx do not run their offense through her the way the Sparks can with Parker. 

Courtney Vandersloot was excellent as usual. But a guard to compete for MVP needs to do it on the offensive end because they just do not impact defense to the same degree as the forwards who tend to dominate MVP voting. Vandersloot of course led the leagues in assists, and nearly shot 50/40/90, but her attempts from 3 were not as high as one might want from such a good shooter, she took the same amount of 3s per game as Jasmine Thomas. Diana Taurasi is the weakest defender of the potential MVP candidates, but her offensive explosion helped the Mercury to fourth place without Brittney Griner. 

But Candace Parker has been the most impactful. Parker has been able to shift between the 4 and the 5 as needed. Chelsea Gray has been good, but not her best self, as she has struggled shooting a bit. Nneka Ogwumike has been effective when she has played, but has missed time. Parker’s 3 point shooting and passing has been key. Kristine Anigwe and Marie Gulich have improved as 2nd year players tend to, but both were among the least effective players in the WNBA last year and both have been helped immensely by playing next to Parker. While talk of defensive player of the year is a bit much, Parker is tall, still mobile, and knows where to be.

All-WNBA First team:

My understanding is the WNBA asks voters to keep to traditional positions. While I would prefer to simply make a list with the 5 best players regardless of position, I slot players in positions they at least spent some of the year playing. 

First team:

Center: Candace Parker

Forward: A’ja Wilson

Forward: Breanna Stewart

Guard: Diana Taurasi

I briefly mentioned Taurasi, but it’s worth emphasizing that she has been the single most effective offensive force in the WNBA this year, at age 38. That is incredible. She is taking 9.2 3s per game, with the next closest player who played more than 10 games being Kelsey Mitchell at 6.5. Taurasi shoots from deeper than anyone else in the WNBA, off the dribble, in a way that warps defenses like no other player. I limit my WNBA – NBA comparisons, but there’s a reason Taurasi has said that “Steph Curry highlights are just WNBA highlights.” No one else does it like Taurasi or Curry, though I am excited for Kelsey Mitchell, Sabrina Ionescu and other up and coming guards who clearly take inspiration from the shooters before them. What a gift to get yet another great year from Diana Taurasi. 

Guard: Courtney Vandersloot

The most underrated aspect of Vandersloot’s game might be her defense. There are limits to how much the Sky can crossmatch her, as she can get overwhelmed physically by bigger guards and wings like Chelsea Gray, but there’s a reason James Wade will at key moments have Vandersloot switch assignments with Allie Quigley and take the more dangerous guard. She’s not quite on the level of Jasmine Thomas or Jordin Canada, but she is a good athlete, and competes hard.

2nd team All-WNBA:

I’m staying away from anyone who played significant minutes at center for my second team, as it is challenging to find someone more deserving than the plethora of forwards this year. Swapping Collier for Parker and sliding Wilson to 1st team center is tempting just to make my lineups work, but probably not worth it.

Forward: Napheesa Collier

Sometimes it is hard to remember that Collier is only in her second year. She plays like a seasoned vet, one who handled a huge load for the Lynx, especially after Fowles went down. She led the WNBA in minutes, and maintained her energy throughout. Her versatility is key to the Lynx success. Her three point shooting seems real which allows her to play the 3, and her off ball defense when she is at the 4 and even occasionally a small ball 5 is impressive for any level of experience, but especially for a second year player. She has struggled a bit lately guarding the bigger forwards, namely A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.

The next step in her development is for the offense to run through her more, particularly in key moments. When will Cheryl Reeve have her take more direct responsibility for the offense, as wings with her skill set tend to? They have the shooting to run plays through her, have her run pick and rolls as both ball handler and screener, and it would raise Collier’s ceiling if it could be incorporated. Whether Reeve is simply reluctant to move towards a less democratic system, or Collier needs to improve her handle and passing, or both, that seems like an area the Lynx could look to work on.

Forward: Angel McCoughtry: 

On a per minute basis, McCoughtry had a good argument for first team over Candace Parker (and moving Wilson to center) or being slotted in as a guard over Taurasi. Getting to watch McCoughtry play so well has been wonderful. She did only play 411 minutes, compared to 521 for Taurasi and 600+ for her other competition. Still, she was so impactful in those minutes I am fine putting her on 2nd team. The low minutes for Mccoughtry is a good sign for the Aces playoff hopes, as reporting has indicated the Aces will try to increase her workload closer to 30 minutes per game than 20, which will only make the Aces better, assuming she is able to handle the increased load for the playoffs.

Forward: DeWanna Bonner: 

I stand by my piece on the Sun and the awkward fit offensively between Bonner and Alyssa Thomas. But even at the time I wrote the piece, when the Sun were 0-5, it was clear they were a better team than that. Briann January returning and Jasmine Thomas shooting more have helped. And for all that Bonner and Thomas cause spacing issues on offense, they are so hard to score against. They can both guard multiple positions, switch any pick and rolls, and are good at generating turnovers without unnecessary gambling. Bonner cooled off from 3 after a hot start, but she had her usual impact with her passing, ability to draw fouls, and rebound well for her position.

Guard: Alysha Clark

This is a bit of a cheat, as Clark mostly plays small forward. But she is often tasked with guarding the other team’s best player, including guards, whether that be Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Mitchell, or Arike Ogunbowale. They also will sometimes guard her, and she is good at using her post skills to score down low a couple of times a game. She is also an unusual choice for the all-wnba team, because of how low usage she is, she either passes or shoots immediately when she gets the ball. She can do basically everything one wants from a modern guard/ wing, except for dribble. Which admittedly is a big part of basketball. But she is so good as the perfect role player, and her ability to be impactful off-ball helps her more ball dominant co-stars thrive, that she has earned this spot. 

Guard: Arike Ogunbowale

Advanced stats are really down on her defense, and that hurts her when if one relies on those. But the Wings as a whole are a poor defensive team, and it’s hard to pin that solely on Ogunbowale. Sure, she could stand to improve her defense, but she’s not a complete mess there. Offensively though, Ogunbowale took a step forward. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jewell Loyd also have good arguments for this spot. Ogunbowale is not as efficient as SDS or Loyd, but she is the main focus of opposing defenses night after night, unlike those other two. She is second in the league in usage and still manages to be reasonably efficient. Loyd is the best defender of the group, but even though the Storm were the best team in the regular season, they were not three players on All-WNBA team good. 

Most Improved Player

I’m not a huge fan of this award, as it is the award with the least clear standards. More clarity on the criteria would be nice. But for me, I don’t consider second year players, as they all tend to improve, as they should. I also prioritize players who are playing similar amounts in a similar role, but simply doing it much better. So Kaleah Copper had a good year, but she was pretty good last year. The big improvement she made was that Diamond DeShields was hurt this year, so Copper played more.

  1. Betnijah Laney

Laney went from playing 26 minutes per game for the Fever, who cut her, to playing 33 minutes for the Dream, and improving offensively in basically every category one can improve in. Massive improvements like hers can be flukey, but the fact that her shooting splits went up in basically every category gives me some hope that this is repeatable. Going from 36/30/68 in 2019 to 48/40/85 in 2020 on significantly more attempts in the fifth year of a player’s career simply does not happen. What a great year for her. 

  1. Myisha Hines-Allen

Hines-Allen’s improvement was somewhat just that she went from being buried on the Mystics bench behind two of the best players in the world to starting, but she still took her opportunity and ran with it. Her shooting numbers went up and she showed off a more versatile game than she had before, at least in the WNBA. She is going to among the most interesting players to watch over the next couple of seasons, as 25 year old players with her skillset simply do not become available very often in the WNBA, the Mystics are unable to resign her.

6th Women of the Year

  1. Dearica Hamby

Hamby winning this seems like violating the spirit of the award, as Hamby was a starter for all intents and purposes. She played the 25th most minutes in the league. She was second on her own team. Not to take anything away from Hamby, but on most teams she’s a starter. Still, she is clearly the best player who came off the bench in the bubble. She is a key reason the Aces were so successful this year as she is effective next to Wilson or Carolyn Swords. While she did not shoot very many 3s, her diligent work to expand her range helped the Aces manufacture just enough spacing. She can guard the toughest matchups from 3-5 and hold her own switched onto quicker guards, if forced to.

Honorable mention: Riquana Williams, Jackie Young, and Sami Whitcomb.

Reassessing Predictions: or Where I was Wrong.

Halfway through the WNBA season is a great time for me to look at some of my predictions and feelings at the beginning of the season to see where I was wrong and need to update my analysis.

  1. Bria Hartley looks like a fine signing for the Phoenix Mercury.

I was down on the Bria Hartley signing because I was not sure she was worth the money, but more importantly, I thought this team had a much greater need at the 3 and the 4. Hartley has been better than I anticipated as a scoring combo guard off the bench. This may be an outlier season for Hartley from 3, at 39% for a career 32% shooter, however she is also taking more than she has before. If she can settle into the mid-30s and keep up her ability to attack off the dribble, she will remain an effective player for the Mercury.

However, the area I think I was most wrong on was in thinking there was another player out there who the Mercury could have signed and could have been an upgrade at the 3 or 4. My concern about those positions has borne out, but it does not mean a better player was available for the Mercury to sign.

Since from reporting it does not seem like either Angel McCoughtry or Shekinna Stricklen were available, there likely was not a 3 available for the Mercury to sign. While the Mercury could use an upgrade on Sophie Cunningham, the 3 is the thinnest positions in the WNBA, and there may simply not have been a better player available.

  1. The Aces’ offense was going to be middle of the pack if not below average.

The Aces have the 2nd best offense in the WNBA, though they are only a smidgen ahead of the Mercury. Some combination of Angel McCoughtry and Dearica Hamby canning just enough 3s to keep defenses somewhat honest, A’ja Wilson dominating when she plays the 5 on offense, and better than expected production from Daniel Robinson + Jackie Young seem to have the Aces clicking.

I still have my doubts about how this roster will perform in the playoffs. Teams may focus on abandoning the Hamby and McCoughtry’s of the team in favor of swarming Wilson even more than they do now, when they have time to scout the specific team. But the Aces are a better team than I expected.

I’m not sure my analysis failed in the sense that it was always an open question how effective Angel McCoughtry would be off a knee injury. But she has been great, and that matters for future evaluation of the Aces.

  1. Tyasha Harris’s shooting and ability to get to the rim

In my draft board, I am glad to say I was high on Crystal Dangerfield, who only 3 days after my article on awards favorites so far, has vaulted herself to the head of the Rookie of the Year award race. However, I appear to have been off about Tyasha Harris. While I only had Harris 2 behind where the Wings took her, my specific critiques were still off.

While it is early to be coming to conclusions on any rookie, so far her shooting is more for real than I thought it might be. She really only shot well from 3 in her senior year so I was unsure if it would translate to the W. So far so good. She is also able to get to the rim and finish well for a rookie. I knew she was a heady, smart player, but I thought she might be the kind of care taker point guard who lacks the bust to beat opponents off the dribble. So far, she has been better than that.

She is shooting 39% from 3, after shooting 38% from 3 her senior year and closer to 30% the prior 3 years, so her shooting may come down. But I will be reassessing how I judge a point guards ability to attack off the dribble. Maybe taking into account the added spacing at the WNBA level, though South Carolina played a pretty modern 4 out system.

  1. Derek Fisher has been a fine coach.

To be fair to myself, Fisher looked like a fine coach last year during the regular season and then made some questionable choices in the playoffs, namely benching Candace Parker. So we shall see if I go back to thinking he makes weird choices in this year’s playoffs. .

But after some weird lineups in the first game, Fisher really has the Sparks playing well. He’s making Sydney Wiese look like she should have held off on signing her contract extension, as she may be one of the most underpaid players in the W. Te’a Cooper has been put in suggestions to succeed. 

While I want people to stop saying that Marie Gulich is a stretch 5, just cause she’s tall and white doesn’t make her a stretch 5, Gulich has been giving them solid minutes off the bench. While Gulich has yet to hit a 3 this year, she has been finishing much better at the rim this year (though on not many attempts, to be fair).

I’m still not sold on the process by which the Sparks hired Fisher, without interviewing any of the women putting in work in the league, particularly black women. Fisher has at least been putting the Sparks in the position to play well this year.

WNBA Awards So Far: MVP, Rookie of the Year and more

We are at the 40% mark of the 2020 WNBA season, with each team having played 9 games. To get a sense for where we are at in this season, here are my picks for a few of the awards if the season ended today. Here are my picks for MVP, rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, and most improved player

MVP:

1.  Breanna Stewart

Stewart is averaging 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, on 61% true shooting. She is averaging 2 steals and 1.3 blocks. Even with Sue Bird missing a few games this Storm team has not missed a beat. Stewart has been the best player in the league. I would not rely on a single advanced stat to prove Stewart’s case, but when she leads in PIPM, win shares, and is in the top 3 in the WNBA’s player impact estimate, it helps make the case. 

Her versatility is key to the Storm. She can effectively play the point guard on offense when the team is short handed, while still providing above average rim protection on the defensive end. Good luck having your power forward try to run the offense out of the high post. Damiras Dantas had the ball stripped multiple times by Stewart. She is a key part of the Storm’s trapping scheme, with her speed and long arms.

The big wing who can provide some rim protection while also offering shot creation on the other end is the most valuable type of player in modern basketball. With Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore sitting out, Breanna Stewart is the best version of this player in the WNBA.

2. Sylvia Fowles

Fowles does not have the shot creation burden that other top MVP candidates do, and that in some ways can hamstring the Lynx. The flip side, however, is the Lynx can afford to play more limited defensive players around Fowles and still end up with a top defense. Crystal Dangerfield is 5’5”, if that. Dantas, Napheesa Collier, and Lexie Brown know where to be, but none are shut down defenders at this point. It is mostly because of Fowles that the Lynx are top 4, and were top 2 before Fowles missed a couple of games, in defense. In particular, her ability to combine being 6’6” near the basket and effectively defend in space makes her the front runner for DPOY.

While it may no longer be the most efficient play to throw the ball into Fowles when she is guarded by a decent post defender, she is still very effective in the pick and roll as a screener. She also will punish any switches, such that teams have to fight to get through her screens, leaving space for Dangerfield and Brown to excel. The one knock is she does not pass, with a negative assist to turnover ratio. Passing is not a necessary skill for a center like Fowles, but it does limit how she can be used a bit, along with her lack of shooting. Hopefully her calf injury is not too serious and we get to see more of Fowles this season soon.

3. A’ja Wilson

Apologies to Candace Parker, who I had penciled in here before looking closely at both players. Either one would be a fair choice here. Wilson has been a dominant scorer in the face of double and triple teams this year. She is third in the WNBA in usage among starters who have played 7 games, behind two ball dominant guards in Chennedy Carter and Arike Ogunbuwale. She has managed a TS of 55%, even though she has yet to shoot a 3 this season. That is a middling efficiency number,  but given how starved the Aces are of shooting and Wilson’s lack of a 3 point shot herself, it’s frankly amazing she has been even that effective.

Defensively, Wilson is not as airtight as a help defender as one would like from someone with her physical gifts. However, she is a very good on ball defender both in the post and when switched onto smaller players. She has been a key cog in one of the best defensive teams in the league this year. 

The main area in which Candace Parker is leaps and bounds ahead of Wilson is passing. Parker is a great passer, whereas Wilson has an assist to turnover ratio below 1. One day hopefully we will see Wilson play with more than 1 shooter in a modern offense, because that would give us a more accurate read on her passing. As it is, the few times she does pass, she is passing to players close to her who can’t shoot. 

Others Considered:

As mentioned, Candace Parker and A’ja Wilson are basically a coin flip at this point. I went with Wilson because the Aces have been slightly more successful, with a better net rating, but it has been great seeing Parker be so effective. She also provides more spacing than Wilson, allowing for LA to play a wider variety of bigs successfully. 

Angel McCoughtry stands out in advanced stats. I’m not sure the rest of the Aces are so limited to justify 2 MVP candidates, but she has been very good. Still a bruising force slashing to the basket, and she is even canning just enough threes to force teams to at least somewhat guard her out there, which is great for Vegas. 

Rookie of the Year:

This year the rookie of the year race looks like it’s going to be somewhat a battle over how to define best. In particular, how to balance a player who plays a lot of minutes for a bad team, and puts up ok numbers, vs. a player who puts up excellent stats on a good team, but only plays limited minutes. The Chennedy Carter vs. Ezi Magbegor conundrum, if you will. For now, I value contributing in large minutes at an ok level.

1. Chennedy Carter

Carter has been as advertised on offense. Her ability to get to the rim is already among the best in the WNBA. She is shooting it better than expected, 42% from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game and 88% from the free throw line. Her turnover rate is high, but paradoxically that is a good sign for a young point guard, as that generally improves with experience. Guard is the toughest position to play for young players, and she is already excellent.

Chennedy Carter’s defense has been poor, which drags down her rating in advanced stats like pipm that look at defense. However, her team is the worst defensive team in the league and it is hard to pin the blame for their struggles on that end on her. Rookies are generally bad at defense, and point guards have more limited impact than bigs on defense anyways. Here is hoping Carter can come back and play more this year, as she is currently out with an ankle injury.

2. Julie Allemand

Julie Allemand will not continue to shoot 56% from 3, or lead the league in TS% at 70. However, even with some regression to the mean, she will likely still be a plus shooter. She is a good passer, who while she has had some befuddling turnovers, is still sporting an assist to turnover ratio of 2.0, second to Tyasha Harris among the rookie crop of point guards. 

Defensively she struggles against bigger guards, but has held her own against other point guards, and has even turned in some highlight blocks. The Fever struggle on defense, but that is more on their bigs and wings than on Allemand.

3. Crystal Dangerfield

Crystal Dangerfield is a rookie playing nearly 30 minutes per game for a team that is currently tied for third in the standings. Her numbers do not stand out, but rather she has simply been solid across the board. For a rookie point guard on a good team, that is impressive. She even has room to grow, as I bet that her 3 point percentage of 31% will go up as the season goes on. She was an excellent shooter in college. 

Her height is always going to be an issue on defense, but she competes hard on that end and has not been the negative that some expected so far. That will likely change in the playoffs, when teams have the time to focus on exploiting matchups, but for the regular season, she has been very good.

Others considered:

Satou Sabally still looks like she could be the best player from this draft, but her shooting has been so bad that she is not on this list at the moment. 35% from 2 and 15% from 3 just does not cut it. She has moments of defensive brilliance, but as with many rookie wings and bigs, is still learning the nuances of pick and roll defense. 

Ezi Magbegor and Tyasha Harris are putting up the best numbers in smaller minutes. Magbegor is shooting 67% from the field and has earned the first off the bench minutes as a big on the best team in the league. She just does not play that much, and benefits from consistently being surrounded by excellent teammates. 

I have no idea why Harris is not playing more, it’s like Moriah Jefferson is killing it. Harris has a ridiculous assist-turnover ratio of 3.88 and is shooting 43% from 3. She’s bigger than Jefferson and can guard a couple of positions. She definitely could leap into the top 3, if given more playing time. 

DPOY:

Sylvia Fowles. She is simply the player on one of the best defenses in the league who is crucial to that defense. The team falls apart defensively without her. Breanna Stewart also has an argument, but she is surrounded by Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, who are all first team all-defense caliber players. If Bill Laimbeer started Hamby, which he should, and played her 30+ minutes, she might have a case as well, given her versatility on defense between the 3, 4 and 5. 

Most Improved player:

This is not my favorite category, as even compared to other awards the criteria are ill-defined. For my sake, I don’t vote for 2nd year players for this category, since they almost always improve simply because it is their 2nd year. I also tend to stay away from players whose  improvements are mostly related to playing more minutes. Good to earn minutes, but not always clear if the player is actually better or simply taking advantage of the opportunity.

For these reasons, I am going with Betnijah Laney. She is only playing 5 minutes more per game this year, but she went from being an offensive liability in Indiana, to being at times the entire offense for Atlanta. She has also done this while maintaining her strong defense. It’s not her fault the Dream can not stop anyone.  

Myisha Hines-Allen has been impressive, even after cooling off after her strong start. She likely improved, but the big change has been that she is no longer buried behind 2 of the best players in the WNBA in Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman. Meesseman starts next to her, given the lack of effective true centers on the roster, and EDD is still rehabbing a back injury. 

2020 Season Preview: Las Vegas Aces

The Las Vegas Aces came in fourth last season, however they had the second best net rating of 3.4, a bit ahead of the Connecticut Sun at 2.9. However, I had picked this team to once again top out in the semifinals with a full team. I was skeptical of this team due to the lack of shooting. Losing two key players in Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum hurt the teams chances.

Liz Cambage is one of the players who is likely missing this season because they are high risk. She will still get her full salary, and count against the Ace salary cap. We are still waiting on official word for her, so this may need to be updated as the WNBA slowly and fitfully actually informs us. 

Without Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum, out with an achilles injury, this team will be relying on A’ja Wilson to provide a lot of the shot creation without much space to operate. This team has the talent to make the playoffs, but to make it back to the semifinals is now a long shot.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Losses: Kelsey Plum (injury) Tamera Young, Liz Cambage (medically excused, probably)

Notable Additions: Angel McCoughtry, Danielle Robinson, Lindsay Allen

Guards: Danielle Robinson, Kayla McBride, Sugar Rodgers, Alex Bentley

Wings: Jackie Young, Angel McCoughtry, Dearica Hamby

Bigs: A’Ja Wilson, Liz Cambage, Carolyn Swords, Avery Warley-Talbert

Veterans make sense when a team is going for a championship, though it helps if they are actually effective. Clearly the Aces feel differently about their full team than I do, since I would have used one of the open spots on a young player instead of Alex Bentley. Te’a Cooper for instance was available. 

Angel McCoughtry at full strength is likely still effective, but at the price the Aces paid, and her odd fit with the existing roster, made her signing curious. Though funnily enough she may be more valuable on this current roster than she would have been on the team the Aces anticipated having. 

Playing Time Breakdown:

Dearica Hamby is one of the best backup bigs in the league and she will be able to slot in next to A’ja Wilson in a lot of lineups. She should start with A’ja Wilson. Hamby is undersized against many fives, but she is tough and can guard a lot of them, and use her quickness on the other end to her advantage. Any continued improvement in her shooting would be beneficial, as this is a team, as I have said, starved for shooting. /She shot 32% on 2 attempts per game in 2019. She should be looking to double her attempts this year, and hopefully increase the accuracy, but spacing is based more on attempts than accuracy so Hamby firing away would be beneficial.

One of the most interesting aspects of this team from a purely basketball standpoint is how much can A’ja Wilson hang as a center. While she’d be slightly undersized there, long term it may be her best position in closing lineups, unless she adds a three point shot, something she has not shown yet. On offense, she would be devastating with four shooters around her, and it is easier to get her those if she plays center, though finding a center who can shoot 3s, a la Amanda Zahui B, would be an interesting idea for a post-Cambage Aces team.

How much Angel McCoughtry has left after a year off playing is the question for the team at the three. In 2018 I was hoping to see McCoughtry at the 4 for the Atlanta dream. Injuries derailed that idea, but we may see it again with the Aces. She has the size against most teams to play it, and it would help her as losing a step at the 4 is not as killer as at the 3. A career 29% 3 point shooter on less than 1 attempt per game, she will not provide much spacing, but that would be slightly less damaging at the 4, when either Hamby or Wilson are not playing.

Kayla McBride is going to be shooting. She always does, but on this team, she will be extra needed to shoot. How much gravity can one player provide? Not enough to craft an above average offense is my guess, but we shall see. McBride is a good player, someone who is above average at all aspects of the game from a shooting guard, though not quite elite in any area. Closest is her three point shooting, at 37% on 5 attempts per 36 minutes. That should be higher, no reason she can not be at 7 like Allie Quigley.  Too many long 2s for such a shooter.

Point guard is an open question. The Jackie Young experiment at point guard did not go particularly well last year, and was pretty quickly mothballed in the playoffs, but might be the best option this year. A year two improvement is to be expected, but it will be tough for her to improve her offense enough to be as impactful as a number 1 pick is hoped to be.

Danielle Robinson was signed to be the backup point guard so might get the call. Even as a backup I wonder why the Aces signed a point guard who can’t shoot or finish at the rim. She can ill afford to lose much of her speed, given she is a total non shooter and an adequate passer, not exceptional. She is going to be 31 and speedy point guards that can’t shoot don’t tend to age well, but hopefully she can still produce.

This team should still be fairly effective on defense, but the offense is likely to be a slog. They have the players to get out and run in transition once again, which should help their offense, but half court will be a struggle. Laimbeer has typically proved to be reluctant to go small, but this might be the year for him to experiment more, especially given how thin the team is in their front court after their starters. Making the semifinals again would be a good outcome for this team.