2021 Season Preview: Los Angeles, Minnesota, and New York

Here is my third of four preview pieces in preparation for the WNBA season. the Los Angeles Sparks, a team trying to hold onto relevance but might just be delaying the inevitable need to rebuild, the Minnesota Lynx, a team that may be a year or two away from contention, but is going for it, and the New York Liberty, an interesting mishmash of veterans and young players. 

Los Angeles Sparks

Projected Starters

Erica Wheeler: Wheeler was good, not great, in 2019 for the Fever in her age 28 season. The Sparks paid her as if she will continue to shoot so well from both 3 and 2. Possible, but real downside risk with this contract. And even if she does shoot well, she is still an interesting choice next to another 5’7″ guard in Kristi Toliver.

Kristi Toliver: The most dangerous guard with the ball in her hands behind the three point line not named Diana Taurasi, with the best step back 3 in the league, the main question is how long can she play at a high level going into her age 34 season. Hopefully she can be like Taurasi and stay effective into her late 30s, but no guarantees, given even in the Mystics’ championship winning season in 2019, she missed time with injuries. 

Brittney Sykes: The 33% she shot from 3 in 2020 is acceptable, especially if she gets the attempts back up to what they were earlier in her career, 7 or so per 36 minutes. A slasher who does not finish at the rim nor make plays for others at the rate one might hope, however there were signs of growth in her first year in LA of growth. Even only small improvements in her various skills could have big benefits, as Sykes could better harness her athleticism.

Nneka Ogwumike: A star in every way except for her usage rate, this team might need her to try to step up and provide scoring and create for herself. Her excellent efficiency will likely fall if she is taking on more of an offensive burden without Candace Parker. If she proves unable, this team outside of Toliver might struggle to score.

Amanda Zahui B: Sort of a 3 and D center, hopefully her woeful scoring inside of the arc with the Liberty was due to a weird situation with a mostly young team. A career 32% shooter from 3, her willingness to fire away does provide benefits but it would nice if a few more went in. Defensively she is more competent than stellar, but Nneka Ogwumike is a good fit next to her on that end. 

Key Reserves

Sidney Wiese: If the Sparks do struggle to score, she is the option in place of Sykes to juice the offense. A career 40% 3 point shooter who will shoot off the dribble, she can provide some shot creation next to Toliver. Next step for her is improving her passing, as she went from  2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio in 2019 to an even one in 2020. Not a turnstile on defense, either, if not the athlete Sykes is. 

Chiney Ogwumike: Rumors of her shooting some 3s which would be welcome, as it would ease the fit with her older sister. Her career has been mostly stalled by injury, but she is somewhat caught between being a 4 or a 5. A good backup big.

Te’a Cooper: Earned minutes with her defense, but did shoot 34% from 3. Shot relatively few attempts though, so upping that would be good. Something to watch for is if she can guard shooting guards because that would help earn her playing time next to either Wheeler or Toliver. 

2 Key Questions

  1. The Sparks traded their 2022 first round pick for the 7th pick in the 2021 draft and a 2022 second rounder from the Wings. This was not a trade I liked for the Sparks as the odds are too high that this Sparks team ends up in the lottery. The 2022 draft is deeper than the 2021 draft, so a top 4 pick in next year’s draft is even more valuable than a top 4 pick in the most recent draft, never mind the 7 pick. Jasmine Walker should be a decent player, but the downside risk is that she is out of the league in a couple of years and the Sparks 2022 pick is a top 2 pick and turns into Rhyne Howard or NaLyssa Smith. Odds of that are not high, but still too likely, especially given the best case scenario with Walker is that she is a starter level player. The odds seem remote of her becoming a star. 
  1. Building off the draft talk above, it would be really helpful for this team if one of their just drafted wings pops and pushes for a starting role. The Sparks drafted Jasmine Walker with the 7th pick, Stephanie Watts with the 10th, and Arella Guirantes with the 22nd. Sykes might be the answer, but in the current W, one can never have too many good wings.

Minnesota Lynx

Projected Starters:

Crystal Dangerfield: A player I thought last year was a first round talent who fell all the way to 16th, she showed in the first game in 2020 that she was the team’s best option at the point. I was high on her because of her shooting from 3, an area she was merely adequate in 2020. Now on a team with more shot creation around her, hopefully she can show her ability to shoot off movement and space the floor as well as being an effective on ball option.

Kayla McBride: 3.3 threes per game is too few for such a talented shooter. Even in a down year still she shot 34% from 3 and is a career 37% shooter. An underrated defender, she did an impressive job guarding the much taller DeWanna Bonner in the playoffs in 2020.

Napheesa Collier: Collier has the potential to be one of the top 2 or 3 players in the W at some point. The next step in her growth is seeing what she can do with the ball in her hands more. Would especially like to see the Lynx use their guards to screen for Collier. Teams will  be loath to switch, but not switching risks Collier having an open lane to the rim or McBride or Dangerfield popping for open threes. A switch leaves a small guard on Collier, and she can use her post up skills. She is good at basically everything else already needed for a prototypical big wing.

Damiris Dantas: An excellent complimentary player, she should be the backup 5 on this team as well as the starting 4. Staggering her with Fowles so they keep one on the floor at all times makes sense as the Dantas + Collier front court was very effective last year.

Sylvia Fowles: The best defensive center in the W, question is whether she can make it through the season healthy. Likely to have her minutes limited, but while playing should remain effective on both ends.  

Key Reserves:

Aerial Powers: Tied with McBride for the highest paid player on the team, the Lynx are betting a lot on a 6 game sample in 2020. But Powers is an excellent player to have off the bench. While she does not create much for others, an even assist to turnover ratio, she can score both on and off ball and should pair well with any of the Lynx other back court options.

Natalie Achonwa: If only Achonwa would turn her long 2s into 3s, this contract would make more sense. Achonwa is a fine player, but it is odd that she is earning more than either Dantas or Fowles. Fine as a third big, but the Lynx defense will suffer if she is pressed into more minutes because of injuries. 

Rachel Banham: While she will probably not shoot nearly 50% from 3 this season, she should be a fine backup point guard. Point guards tend to take longer to develop than other positions and she should be a fine option. Can also play off ball, depending on the match up.

2 Key Questions:

  1. Who is their go to player to score in a tight playoff game? I would argue it should be Napheesa Collier, but she did not really play that role last year against the Storm. Was that because Cheryl Reeve preferred to involve other players, was it because Collier does not quite have the handle yet be an on ball creator, or some of both? Collier with the ball in her hands should be the goal and it would be nice to see that leaned on at least some this year.
  2. Continuing with the Collier theme, what is her best position in the playoffs in key moments? The decision on whether to play her at the 3 or the 4 matters for how the team should build as she enters her prime and especially how the team will build for a post Sylvia Fowles world. If Rennia Davis can return healthy and show growth in her 3 point shooting, she might be a perfect fit next to Collier in that then you have two players who are interchangeable between the 3 and the 4.

New York Liberty

Projected Starters:

Sabrina Ionescu: The W has not had the same trend towards super high usage players as the NBA has with players like Luka Doncic and Trae Young having usage rates of 35%+. But if any player in the W were to approach that, it might be Ionescu. I am not recommending that, as Ionescu can and should be used off ball, but young stars who have been successful at every level often prefer to have the ball in their hands. Ionescu was third in her limited minutes in usage in 2020 to Arike Ogunbowale and Chennedy Carter, two other young star guards.

Betnijah Laney: The shooting improvement Laney showed last year seemed real. New York paid her as if it was and will continue. In a lower usage role, she should be able to cut down on the turnovers and still make plays in the pick and roll occasionally. Solid defender across multiple positions as well.

Rebecca Allen: Hopefully even given all the talk of defense from the Liberty, they still play some small ball. A front line of Allen and Howard  should be good enough defensively and very good offensively, with Allen a threat to shoot from anywhere and Howard able to make plays with the ball in her hands against slower centers.

Natasha Howard: Howard played well in 2019, her one year where she was a go to offensive player, but she was not especially efficient. How well she gels with Ionescu will decide whether this team can make it to the playoffs, as they are the best bet at a pick and roll tandem that can really give teams fits. Also will be interesting to see how and how much this team runs their offense through Howard. Do they try her in the post, faving up when facing a slower big, or use her as a ball handler and really let her stretch her game.

Kiah Stokes: Keep shooting, Kiah! While the 3s did not go in in her first season attempting 3s, her stroke did not look broken and the experiment should continue. Especially since it is unclear what her other role on offense would be if she tries to hang around by the basket, her defender will gum things up for the Liberty. She was a big reason this team was not a disaster on defense even given the youth up an down the roster, that should continue.

Key Reserves:

Layshia Clarendon: Played admirably in 2020 as a starter, but third guard off the bench is a much more natural fit for them. She is capable at either back court spot and should be good at filling wherever the Liberty need. High turnover rate will come down too in this scenario, their main flaw in 2020. 

Jazmine Jones: Miscast as a lead guard in 2020 because of injuries and opt outs, Jones played hard and impressively her shooting percentages were not terrible with a TS% over 50. But a negative assist to turnover ratio was not good and should improve in 2021 as she moves to a more natural off ball role and has another year of experience under her belt. 

Sami Whitcomb: Whitcomb could start for this team, with Laney at the 3 and Allen off the bench. But either way, she is going to help this offense as much as any player as someone who can actually make threes. A good example of how valuable shooting is, relative to other skills, as she was undrafted out of college but has carved a very good career for herself. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. In 2020 the Liberty defended ok, if not great, finishing 9th in defense, while struggling to score from anywhere on the floor, finishing last in offense by a mile. They put up one of the worst offensive performances in league history. Yet the talk in 2021 so far has been all about improving the defense. The team did add players who can actually shoot and make plays, but then drafted defense first players. Will be very interesting to see whether this team ends the season better on the defensive or offensive end.
  1. Natasha Howard made sense for this team, but trading the #1 overall pick was a risk. While overall this was not a deep draft, I remain high on Awak Kuier. Kuier will not be as good as Howard in the next couple of years, and possibly ever, but would be able to grow with Ionescu. I am curious how/if this team can get a second star to pair with Ionescu who is closer in age to her. This team clearly does not want to tank again, but another trip to the lottery in 2022 would not be the worst thing.  If Ionescu lives up to her potential, the Liberty have to hope to avoid a situation where they finish somewhere between 5th and 8th each season and struggle to add another star to play next to Ionescu.

Looking Forward: The New York Liberty’s Coming Roster Crunch

Quite a few teams are going to have difficult roster decisions to make next year as players who opted out of this season return to teams. But no team will have such interesting decisions as the The New York Liberty. Relative lack of proven veterans combined with a good collection of high upside young players will make for some tough decisions. As the team plays out their final 5 games, here is a look at the roster decisions that head coach Walt Hopkins and CEO Keia Clarke will have to weigh in preparation for the 2021 season.

First a side note on player development. I have long bought into the idea that young players should be played to give them experience and help develop them. The idea that certain coaches’ habit of playing veterans in a losing season over young players holds the team back. However, the recent history of player development does not really bear this out.

From the NBA side, this article by John Hollinger ($) looks at how the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers have had some of the best player success in the NBA, and they are the only two NBA teams without G League teams. Concerted effort in practice, in 3 on 3s and 4 on 4s, seems to matter in skill development more than game time. A cross sports comparison can be seen in baseball, as this piece from fivethirtyeight dug into.

For the WNBA, the success of young players developing under Mike Thibault and Cheryl Reeve also gives some evidence that playing time is not necessarily a key component of player development. Both have been coaching successful teams and thus have not been able to give lots of playing time to young prospects who are not ready. Yet, Myisha Hines-Allen has been excellent now that she has her opportunity in year 3, after barely playing before this year. Natasha Howard played relatively few minutes for the Lynx, but was ready to step into a much larger role on the Storm with an improved skill set when minutes were there for her.  

While it would be nice for those of us who analyze the WNBA based on watching games if the Liberty rookies would be given more playing time over the veterans, Walt Hopkins playing veterans may not be holding the young players back. The Liberty have plans for developing their young players, and those plans will happen regardless of how many minutes those players get in the final games of the 2020 season.

The New York Liberty will have 12 players on their roster next season. Here’s a look now at where the Liberty players, both those in Bradenton and those who opted out, stand. Who is likely to be on the roster next year and who may be grinding for another spot in the league with another team.

In descending order from most likely to still likely but less so. A real cutoff happens after Johannes. I would be surprised if Walker was not on the team next year, but not shocked, like I would be if Asia Durr for instance was not brought back. The 2021 draft pick won’t be cut, but could be traded.

Sabrina Ionescu

Asia Durr

Kia Nurse

Layshia Clarendon

Marine Johannes

2021 1st round draft pick

Megan Walker

Rebecca Allen

Kylee Shook

Leaonna Odom

Jocelyn Willoughby

Jazmine Jones

Kylee Shook has impressed with her rapid improvement on defense as the season as gone on. Her shooting has not translated yet, but her shot does not look broken and I expect it to improve. Odom has the highest variance of players. If she does not improve her shooting, nor improve her handle, she may struggle offer much on defense. But she is so athletic and offers upside at the toughest position, big wing, to find contributors.

Willoughby and Jones have had typical up and down rookie years, but Willoughby has shot fairly well from 3. Her 2 point shooting numbers are ugly, and so that is an area to keep an eye on. Jones has done fairly well for someone forced to play out of position., playing the point guard when she is much more of a shooting guard. Jones is lowest on the list because she plays the same position as Durr and Johannes, where both Ionescue and Clarendon can play as well, and may be a victim of a numbers game.

That is twelve players right there. This list does not include either of the Liberty’s veteran free agents, Kiah Stokes or Amanda Zahui B. Stokes on an affordable contract, say in the $100,000 range, would be a decent fit if an international player does not come over. She is a reasonable starting center who can soak up minutes. 

Zahui B is the better player, but may be out of the Liberty’s price range. She is more solid starter than top 2 player on a good team, but bigs who can shoot and defend like she can are hard to come by (Dream article), and she may be in line for more money than it makes sense for the Liberty to pay her. 

Han Xu was on the Liberty in 2019. The 6’9” 20 year old from China is so young and has time to develop into a good player, but the Liberty should see if she is willing to stay abroad to continue to develop her game and wait to come over until she’s a bit older and stronger. 

The Liberty have 5 games remaining this year. This is the time to be watching how Paris Kea and Joyner Holmes look, as 2 young players on the outside looking in. At the moment, Paris Kea is making a case for a place in the WNBA with decent shooting, particularly off the dribble, and helping stabilize the point guard position for the Liberty. Joyner Holmes has work to do. She is currently sporting a brutal 28% eFG, which does not inspire confidence in her place on the Liberty next year, or frankly in the league. 

The Liberty have shown they are willing to make trades, and so it will be interesting to see with a high draft pick in this upcoming draft, possibly #1, whether the team holds onto the pick or looks to make a move to get a youngish star who can grow with Ionescu.

Edited because I forgot about Stephanie Talbot. The Liberty got her in a draft day trade. I am leaning against her being on the team, but the Liberty might keep her as they do need players who can actually shoot in their 5 out offense. If she even comes over from Australia.

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.