Second Round Playoff Preview

While I would like for these second round matchups to be best of five series, hopefully we get another game as exciting as Shey Peddy hitting the game winner for the Phoenix Mercury over the Washington Mystics. Winners of these games go on to play the Seattle Storm and the Las Vegas Aces, when the we will finally get series as playoff basketball is meant to played.

Minnesota Lynx (5.1 net rating) vs. Phoenix Mercury (2.7 net rating)

Pick: Minnesota Lynx

Similar to their first round game, the Mercury will need to rely on their advantage in the back court. Crystal Dangerfield is the front runner for rookie of the year, but she is still a 5’5” point guard going against two to of the better guards in the WNBA. That is a tall task. The Lynx may choose to put Dangerfield on Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. That would leave Odyssey Sims to check Skylar Diggins-Smith and Bridget Carleton to cover Diana Taurasi. 

The Lynx, with Lexie Brown out, do not have a guard who is a plus defender. Sylvia Fowles is listed as questionable. If she were to play, that would be a massive help to this Lynx team, as it would mean they could play good to great defenders at the 3-5 positions, with Napheesa Collier, Damiris Dantas, and Fowles. Similar to my advice for the Mystics, the Lynx should consider trapping the Mercury guards hard. Neither Brianna Turner nor Kia Vaughn are playmakers far from the basket. The Lynx can live with Vaughn hitting the odd midrange 2.

On the other end, this is a big game for Dantas. She should be ready to fire from three whenever the Lynx can get her open, as Kia Vaughn is not going to want to come far out of the paint. Once in a while rolling hard to the rim should also keep the Mercury on their toes. A heavy diet of pick and rolls with Crystal Dangerfield and Odyssey Sims will force the Mercury guards to fight over them, something they are not particularly adept at doing.

Napheesa Collier will struggle to score efficiently against Brianna Turner, especially posting up. If Fowles is able to play, the match ups will slot in much better for the Lynx. The Mercury have one player in Brianna Turner who can credibly guard bigger players like Collier and Dantas. Walker-Kimbrough, Sophie Cunningham, and Alanna Smith can all be overpowered by Collier or Dantas, if they are playing next to Sylvia Fowles.

Even if Fowles is not able to go, it would be worth trying to see if Erica McCall can give the Lynx some good minutes with Dantas and Collier, to force some difficult lineup choices on the Mercury. Ultimately the Lynx have more consistent production. Taurasi and SDS will likely have good games, but the Lynx should be able to score enough to win.  

Los Angeles Sparks (5.5 net rating) vs. Connecticut Sun (.6 net rating)

Pick: Los Angeles Sparks

Always fun to have a rematch of a playoff series from last year. But this time, no Jonquel Jones and no Courtney Williams. DeWanna Bonner has played well, but this is still not as good a team as last year’s Sun. The Sparks have a similar team, but with a healthier and far more effective Candace Parker this year. Now is Derek Fisher’s time to make up for some questionable coaching decisions last year, and not get out coached again by Curt Miller. 

This game will likely come down to shootings vs. not-shooting. The Sparks with Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, have the size, and mobility to slow down and bother Alyssa Thomas, and much more shooting. If the Sparks get rolling with Riquana Williams, Chelsea Gray, and even Candace Parker knocking down outside shots, the Sun do not have the firepower to keep up. 

The Sparks were the third best defense in the regular season, and this game could be a grind for the Connecticut Sun. Brionna Jones is going to have her hands full with either Parker or Ogwumike. If AT gets the assignment to guard Candace Parker, she can mostly handle it, but Parker is a few inches taller than her and may be able to use that to her advantage.

Chelsea Gray vs. Jasmine Thomas will be a great match up, as Jasmine Thomas is one of the few point guards with the size and strength to hold her own against Gray. It would help the Sparks if Gray limits how often she takes contested long 2 pointers early in the clock. The Sparks should value each possession, and work to get better shots. And on the other end, Gray struggles at times guarding the quicker guards in the WNBA, but the Sun really do not have one of those.  

The Sparks also should be careful to play DeWanna Bonner to drive the ball, and let her shoot. She is a career 28% 3 point shooter who shot worse than that this year. The Sparks do not have anyone with the size and mobility to match up with Bonner, and need Brittney Sykes to lay off. An interesting wrinkle will be if the Sparks try out Gray on DeWanna Bonner. Similar to how against the Lynx Gray was sometimes matched up with Collier. This would let Sykes hound Jasmine Thomas on ball, something Sykes is quite capable of doing. 

The Sparks can afford to play their starters heavier minutes, which is an advantage to them. They managed their starters minutes in the regular season more than the Sun, and still ended up with a better regular season record. None of the Sparks players will play all 40 minutes like Alyssa Thomas, but 35 minutes for Candace Parker is 5 minutes where the Sparks get her, instead of a much less effective big off the bench. The Sun can absolutely win this game, but the Sparks are the better team.

WNBA First Round Playoff Preview

Before I get to my previews for the first round of the WNBA playoffs, I want to note that I dislike the current WNBA playoff set up. Basketball, like hockey and baseball, are better when played in series that actually reward the better team. Single game elimination games are ok for play-in games, maybe for the first round of the WNBA playoffs, given that too many teams make the playoffs in the first place, a full 66% of the league. 

But the second round should be a full 5 round series. I am ok with still offering a bye to the top 2 seeds, and just have the 2nd round be a series. Even a 3 game series would be significantly better than the current set up. The Los Angeles Sparks  and Minnesota Lynx played really hard to earn the 3rd seed and 4th seed respectively. They should get to play series against a lower seeded opponent to show that they are the better team, if they in fact are. 

Basketball is too much of a make or miss sport over the course of a single game for it to be a fair representation of quality. All it takes is one player who normally shoots below 30% from 3 to get hot to mess things up. We saw the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers win their first games in the NBA playoffs. But of course, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks were not eliminated, because that would be ridiculous. 

But back to this year’s playoffs. Sub optimal playoff set up or not, these games will hopefully still be exciting and I am looking forward to watching them. An interesting subplot in both of these games is how many minutes the best players can play. All 4 teams are thin on the bench, between injuries and opt outs. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner have a history of effectively playing heavy minutes. Can Myisha Hines-Allen, Skylar Diggins-Smith, or Courtney Vandersloot also play in the upper 30s in minutes? A big topic of conversation in the NBA in regards to Giannis Antetokounmpo, it will be interesting to watch in the WNBA playoffs as well. 

Phoenix Mercury (net rating: 2.7 ) vs. Washington Mystics (net rating: -2.4)

My pick: Phoenix Mercury

Just based on net rating, the Mercury are heavy favorites to win this game. And net rating actually undersells the difference, since the Mystics won some games big with Aerial Powers as their leading scorer. The Mystics major weakness is lacking a guard who can consistently drive to the paint. Leilani Mitchell does her best, but that is not her game.

Phoenix is missing Brittney Griner, but they have been better able to make up for her absence, in particular with moving Brianna Turner to center at times, her more natural position. This is a matchup Griner would have been especially useful in, but Phoenix has played fairly well without her, getting stomped by the Storm aside.

This game is a battle of the Phoenix back court vs. the Mystics front court. Can whichever of Emma Meesseman or Myisha Hines-Allen who is not being guarded by Turner score enough for the Mystics to win? While Kia Vaughn might struggle to guard Meesseman away from the basket, Meesseman has shot poorly this year, down to 29% from 3, compared to 42% in 2019. If Meesseman can hit some 3s, this may be a more competitive game.

The other avenue is for the Mystics to run pick and rolls with their bigs as ball handlers and their guards as the screener. Whoever is being guarded by Taurasi, probably Kiara Leslie, should be screening for the bigs. They should be doing everything they can to get Diana Taurasi switched onto either Hines-Allen or Meesseman. If the Mercury trap either big, both Hines-Allen and Meesseman having the passing ability to hit open Mystics shooters. 

On the other end, Leslie and Ariel Atkins are going to be big in this series. Leilani Mitchell will likely be covering Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, with Atkins and Leslie getting the more difficult assignments of covering Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. This is a lot to ask of a rookie guard in Leslie, but Leslie has the athleticism to at least make Diggins-Smith or Taurasi work.

The Mystics in their second matchup had some success sending two to the ball and trapping high on the court. This is worth the gamble especially if it’s Taurasi, as limiting the chances she heats up from distance is good. Neither of the Mercury starting bigs, Brianna Turner nor Kia Vaughn, are particularly adept at playmaking from near the three point line, and Mystics are a well coached, smart team that should be able to handle scrambling on rotations.

Ultimately, the offensive firepower of the Mercury guards is likely to be too much for the Mystics to overcome. Brianna Turner is a good enough  defender to ensure that Hines-Allen does not dominate, and it is hard to see where else the Mystics will get enough scoring. 

Connecticut Sun (net rating: .6) vs. Chicago Sky (net rating 3.0)

My pick: Connecticut Sun

By net rating it appears that the Sky should be favored, as net rating is a better indicator of future success than win-loss records. However, the Sky rating overstates their current team, because of the loss of Azurá Stevens and Diamond DeShields. The Sun have also benefited greatly Briann January joining the team part way into the season. Momentum does not extend from the end of the regular season into the playoffs, but the Sky are scuffling because of injuries, not just the vagaries of even a 22 game season. 

This game will likely come down to the Sun transition offense vs. the Sky transition defense. The Sky were inexplicably bad at transition defense this year. Per Synergy, the Sky were 4th in half court defense, but 10th in transition defense. But when watching the Sky, the reasons do not jump out. They do not end up with poor floor balance, for instance four players below the three point line when it is time to run back on defense. Hard to believe the Sky are unaware of this, so it may not be fixable for the playoff game. Maybe if they lock in just for the one game they can improve.

Transition matters for the Sun because if the Sun do not advance, it will likely be because their half court offense grinds to a halt. When their defense is being disruptive and the Sun can get out in transition, this team can score. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are two of the more effective players at grabbing a defensive rebound or causing a turnover and leading the break themselves. But their half court offense has been a struggle all year. The Sun do not have a single plus shooter from 3, and it shows in the half court.

The Sky on the other hand, do have plus shooters and a good offense, that ranked 4th in the WNBA. The Sun ranked 4th in defense, so that should be a fun battle. I slightly give the edge to the Sun, as Jasmine Thomas was my choice of first team all-defense guard for a reason, and she should be able to make Courtney Vandersloot’s life harder. Even still, Vandersloot should consider adjusting her approach. Her normal pass first mode makes sense with a full Sky roster, but this Sky team might need her to shoot every time she is even slightly open.

The Sky’s best option on offense is likely to force Brionna Jones to guard Kahleah Copper and Courtney Vandersloot in pick and rolls, with Stefanie Dolson and Cheyenne Parker as screener. They should avoid any and all screens with Alyssa Thomas defending, as Alyssa Thomas can switch those and stay even with Vandersloot. Jones has worked hard to improve her playing, but she is still the Sun’s weakest defender. Ruthie Hebard could also screen for the Sky guards, as she has shown her experience running pick and rolls with Sabrina Ionescu has carried over to the WNBA.

This is likely to be a close game, but I chose the Sun because if they can get a few threes to drop from their guards, be it Thomas, January, or Kaila Charles, they should be able to generate enough offense to win.

Rookie Awards and Defensive Awards

While injuries hit a few of the rookies this year, it was still a good year for rookies performing well. This looks like it will be one of the better drafts, with top end talent and good players stretching into the second round.

Rookie of the Year:

Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx:

Dangerfield combines minutes played and production better than any other rookie. It is very close, and if Chennedy Carter had played the full season she very well might have been my choice for Rookie of the Year.

Both Carter and Dangerfield had impressive rookie campaigns at the hardest position for a young player to learn, as did Julie Allemand. Good year for rookie point guards. Dangerfield was a bit more efficient with 58% TS compared to 55% for Carter. Dangerfield was at times the second best player on a playoff team after Sylvia Fowles went down with an injury. Carter shot a better percentage from 3, but Dangerfield took more than twice as many 3s and hit them at an acceptable rate.

Surprisingly, Dangerfield’s main advantage was she had a much better percentage inside the arc. She did play with better spacing than, Carter, to be fair to Carter. But still, Dangerfield being more than just a 3 point shooter and caretaker point guard really helped a Lynx team that had a somewhat shaky guard rotation.

All-Rookie Team

Julie Allemand, Indiana Fever

While Allemand will probably not continue to shoot nearly 50% from 3 on 4 attempts per game, her ability to shoot lights out from 3 helped a thin Indiana Fever team. She struggled a bit to finish in the paint and had a higher turnover percentage than assist percentage.

Chennedy Carter, Minnesota Lynx

Carter is a wonderful example of how some players will thrive in the WNBA even more than in college because of the expanded spacing. Particularly once the Dream were able to play Glory Johnson more minutes, Carter was often able to take advantage of a relatively open paint, especially compared to what she was seeing at Texas A&M. While it was only on 2 attempts per game, shooting 40% from 3 is also a great sign. Carter can be effective without shooting 3s, but she will become nearly impossible to guard if teams have to worry about her 3 point shooting. 

Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx

Dangerfield will always be somewhat of a liability on defense. Making the playoffs will be a good test of whether the Lynx can cover for her, and whether her offense is valuable enough to make up for her lack of size. But as I expected before the draft, her offense in the regular season is good enough to make up for the limitations brought on by her 5’5” height. 5’5” on a good day as well, as she seems noticeably shorter than even other players listed at the same height like Leilani Mitchell. 

Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm 

On a per minute basis, Magbegor was the most effective rookie this year. She was in a small role surrounded by the best team in the WNBA, but it is a good sign for her future that she was able to carve out a role. She has the potential to be a special defender, with good anticipation, lateral quickness, and long arms. Offensively she was an effective pick and roll finisher. She showed flashes of an outside shot and the ability drive against a closeout, hinting at more than just a rim running big. She was also the youngest player in the league this year, she turned 21 during the season, which makes her performance even more impressive.

Satou Sabally: 

Sabally, like Carter, may have won the Rookie of the Year award had she played the whole season. She was also hurt by a tough year shooting. Based on her college numbers, these should improve, but it’s tough to overcome shooting 37% from the field and 19% from 3. 87% from the free throw line is a good sign that she is actually a decent shooter, so let’s hope. Because she can do everything else. She played anywhere from the 3-5 this year. Her defense for a rookie big was quite good. She can handle like a guard, though she is 6’4”, and her passing is quite good.

Honorable Mention: Jazmine Jones:

Jones played hard and put up decent basic box score numbers. But she was inefficient in the minutes she got. Not her fault she was playing out of position as a point guard, but it was a stretch and she struggled, ending up with a negative assist to turnover ratio. Will be a good defender, but was not quite as effective as her activity might suggest. 

Defensive Player of the Year:

The lack of tracking data in the WNBA means that even the few worthwhile defensive stats that one can use in the NBA do not exist in the WNBA. No second spectrum in the WNBA. So while I am did my best with my choices, I recognize that these awards are more subjective and mostly eye test based. On/off stats can be useful, but over a 22 game season I am skeptical of them as well.

Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm: 

The choices came down to Breanna Stewart, Alysha Clark, Alyssa Thomas, or A’ja Wilson. All had great years on defense. All were surrounded by defensive talent, though Alyssa Thomas’ team had a bit less, which makes sense given that the Sun ended up 4th, with Seattle 1st and the Aces 2nd in defense.

But ultimately, the gap between the Storm and even the 2nd place Aces is enough, along with Stewart’s ability to both protect the rim and generate steals in the Storm’s aggressive defense, edges the contributions of the others. The Storm improved on defense, going from 4th place with a 96.4 defensive rating in 2019 to 1st this year with 92.7 rating. This even when offense was up across the WNBA this year. 

All-Defense First Team

This article is long enough as it is, so only doing first team. 

A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces: Candace Parker was good, but Wilson was more consistent. Her on ball defense is better, it is impressive how she can move her feet guarding even quicker guards.

Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun

Does not quite offer the rim protection of Stewart or Wilson, but she can do anything and everything else on the defensive end of the court. Always funny when teams use her defender in the pick and roll. It just does not work very well most of the time. She either switches and shuts down whichever guard it is, or steals the ball on the pass back to her player. And this year was extra funny, because the center she played with struggled against the pick and roll, Brionna Jones.

Alysha Clark, Seattle Storm: 

Once again, like the All-WNBA, sneaking her in as a guard. Sure, she will guard Napheesa Collier. But she also gets the assignment on Arike Ogunbowale, even though the Storm’s shooting guard is also a really good defender in Jewell Loyd. Clark nearly got my vote for this award, and if a non-big was going to win it, Alysha Clark would be my choice.

Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut Sun:

Offensively, Thomas had an up and down year. But she did not seem to let that bother her defense. Watching the very good rookie point guards go against her was a joy all year, as going from college defenders to Jasmine Thomas is quite a jump. She has enough size to guard shooting guards and has been good regardless of which guard she was paired next to Curt Miller cycled through options before Briann January was healthy.

Coach of the Year:

Cheryl Reeve:

There are a number of quality candidates for this award. Derek Fisher still has to answer questions about his playoff coaching decision, but he did a fine job in the regular season this year. Gary Kloppenburg did well stepping in for Dan Hughes. Bill Laimbeer’s insistence on starting Carolyn Swords aside, he knows his team well and was able to maximize them. 

But Cheryl Reeve showed why she is considered one of the best coaches in the game. It was clear from the first game that Crystal Dangerfield was the team’s best option at the point guard. But not as many would make the change in game 1, playing Dangerfield with the starters most of the second half. By game 3 Dangerfield was starting, and Reeve has trusted her to run the team. Reeve has had success shifting the Lynx from a more defensive team with Sylvia Fowles to one that plays 5 out and relies on its offense to win after Fowles got hut.

Executive of the Year: 

Bill Laimbeer and Dan Padover:

I’m not sure how the league would reward the Aces, as Laimbeer has final decision making power but Padover does much of the day to day work of an executive while Laimbeer coaches. But either way, the decision to sign Angel McCoughtry alone has earned them this award, but Danielel Robinson has been a good signing as well.

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.

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.

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. 

Defending in Space: Sylvia Fowles vs. Teaira McCowan

Sylvia Fowles is a first ballot Hall of Famer who is still playing at a high level at age 36. The 6’6” center for the Minnesota Lynx is good for reasons that are clear when watching her. Her low post scoring, rebounding, and being really tall at the rim are obvious when watching her. An area of her game that is less obvious, but that has allowed her to thrive despite the changes in WNBA playing style over the previous 5 years, is her ability to defend in space.

Teaira McCowan at her best appears to be the best of the next wave of dominant centers in the WNBA. However, she has only started 3 of the Fever’s 7 games, and those starts were due to injuries. For the 6’7” center for the Indiana Fever to reach her potential, she will need to show that she can go from being a liability guarding in space to someone who can hold her own, even when teams repeatedly target her. 

The WNBA, like all levels of basketball, has realized over the past five years that 3>2. Since 2014, the percent of shots from the 3 in the WNBA has gone from 21% to 29% in 2019. That’s from this article in the Athletic ($) about the rise of the 3 in the W, worth reading if you have a subscription. This shift has shown no signs of slowing down this season, as more teams are even having centers like Kiah Stokes of the New York Liberty, who had never shot 3s before this year, fire away.  

While shooting more 3s is better than long 2s because of the extra point, it is not the only benefit to shooting 3s. The other reason 3 point shooting leads to better offense is that it helps create much wider driving lanes for players to attack off the dribble, thus improving offense in the paint as well. This forces centers to spend more time guarding in space against guards and forwards. Post defense is still useful for centers, but defending in space matters as much if not more.

Compare and contrast the 2019 Mystics and the 2015 Indiana Fever. The Mystics had the best offense in WNBA history with an offensive rating of 112.9 points scored per 100 possessions last year with pristine spacing. The Indiana Fever made it to the finals in 2015 and pushed the Minnesota Lynx to 5 games. They were 3rd in offense that year, with an offensive rating of 99.8. They led the league in percentage from 3, at 36%, but they only took 14.9 threes per game. The Mystics in 2019 took 25.4. The Lynx took even fewer 3s and were worse on offense, if you are wondering why I highlight the Fever here.

This can be seen just by looking at the spacing on the floor.

Sylvia Fowles was on the Lynx team that beat those Fever in that finals in 2015. She went from playing against that kind of spacing, to playing the Washington Mystics with 4 or 5 shooters at a time. This is a transition that has run other centers out of the WNBA entirely, or forced them to be situational players. Carolyn Swords, for instance, starts for the Aces, but typically plays between 10 and 20 minutes.

Fowles, however, has been able to keep up with the changes. She is excellent at defending in space. While not the swiftest player laterally, she is significantly more effective on this type of plays than many of her younger contemporaries, such as Liz Cambage or Brittney Griner. One can see this in that teams are disinclined to even challenge her. When she shares the court with Damiras Dantas, teams are more likely to run the pick and roll with Dantas’ defender. And Dantas is a fairly athletic big in her own right.

Sylvia Fowles here is defending a Courtney Vandersloot pick and roll. Vandersloot, of the Chicago Sky, is a good athlete who finishes fairly well at the rim. Even though Vandersloot has a head of steam, Fowles is able to move her feet and Vandersloot hits the bottom of the backboard. Fowles is decisive on where to go. Even one false move or hesitation and Vandersloot is at the rim with an open layup. 

Sylvia Fowles defends pick and roll successfully.

Fowles is able to do this against even the best slashers. Kahleah Copper, also of the Chicago Sky, is as fast as they come in the W, and at 6’2” has the size to finish over and around size. Fowles is called for the foul here, but that was a very questionable call.. She forces Copper to make a wild pass back out.

Fowles good defense on Kahleah Copper

Compare those plays by Fowles, against two talented players with experience in the W, with McCowan trying to defend pick and rolls involving the Wings’ 3 rookies, Tyasha Harris, Bella Alarie, and Satou Sabally. Alarie, being guarded by McCowan, screens for Harris here. McCowan seems unsure of where to be. She is not high enough to contest if Tyasha Harris shoots off the dribble from 3, which fair, that’s a shot the Fever is likely willing to give up, but then she is still completely unable to provide any resistance to Harris at the rim. She is standing on the wrong side of Alarie, and it’s not like Alarie suddenly flipped the screen.

McCowan not defending Tyasha Harris.

This is a regular season game with 3 rookies repeatedly targeting Tearra McCowan. Imagine if the Fever made the playoffs against a team like the Storm, what would happen. Here is another example, about a minute later in the same game against the Wings. Once again, Alarie is being guarded by McCowan, and screens, this time for Satou Sabally.  McCowan switches out onto Satou Sabally, thus leaving her on an island against Sabally. It does not go well for Indiana.

McCowan not defending Satou Sabally

Defending in space, both in the pick and roll and when switched onto a smaller player, is among the hardest things for a young big to learn in the pros. McCowan will get better at this part of the game, but she has a long way to go to reach the predictions some had of her being a top 10 player in the WNBA. While it frustrates Fever fans, this is likely part of why Marianne Stanley has opted to not start Teaira McCowan.

Sylvia Fowles, on the other hand, has a team that is starting a rookie 5’5” (if that) pg in Crystal Dangerfield and giving heavy minutes to other unheralded rookies near the top of the standings in the WNBA. She does have help, in particular Napheesa Collier is following up her rookie of the year campaign with another good season so far.  But Fowles’ ability to keep up with a changing league and stay as effective as she has is as impressive as it comes. Here’s hoping her calf injury is not too serious and she is able to come back soon this season.

The Awkward Fit of DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas

At first glance, the Connecticut Sun look like a team with two players, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, playing well, and the rest of the team letting them down. Bonner in particular has been playing well this year, averaging 28 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and shooting a career high from 3. Alyssa Thomas is averaging 11 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2.5 steals per game.

The other players for the Sun have not been playing well. Jasmine Thomas has been inexplicably unwilling to shoot when teams go far under every pick. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis will shoot better than 19% from 3. The team is missing Briann January, a career 38% 3 point shooter. She will hopefully be back soon.

However, part of the Sun’s struggle on offense can be laid at the feet of the awkward fit of Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner. Each player individually is a great player who would be an asset to many teams, but they overlap too much on the court, with their specific weaknesses magnified when they share the court together, and their strengths minimized. This is especially true for Alyssa Thomas, who has struggled this year with her efficiency on offense.

Both Bonner and AT are at their best with the ball in their hand, and neither have been effective shooters from distance throughout their careers. So far this year Bonner is shooting a career high 37% from 3, and it still has not been enough. Should she regress to her career 3 pt average of 30%, the Sun are going to struggle even more. Alyssa Thomas has not attempted a three since 2014.

Modern basketball makes it very difficult for teams to be successful with more than 1 non-shooter on the court. The Mystics and Storm have managed to play significant minutes with 5 shooters, and the results show, but last year’s Sun are an example of how a team with 1 non-shooter  can still be very effective. 

Alyssa Thomas was able to excel last year because she was the only player who was not a threat from 3. This allowed the Sun to involve her in ball screens, or play through her in the midpost, and station four shooters around her. Look at the spacing in this game against the Sparks in last year’s semifinals, compared to the following picture, a play involving Bonner being screened for by Brionna Jones from this year against the Sparks.

good spacing against Sparks in 2019

all Sparks players in paint or near ball handler.

The poor fit has only been magnified by Jonquel Jones’ decision to opt out, as she is a 6’6′ center who has shot 38% from 3 for her career. Even in a down shooting year at 31% from 3 in 2019, Jones still demands at least some attention at the three point line, compared to Brionna Jones who has yet to take a 3 in her WNBA career. This can be seen above as Nneka Ogwumike has to at least stay somewhat attached to Jones on the wing.

The next picture shows a play from the 2nd time the Sun played the Lynx this year, that ended in a turnover with an errant Bonner pass to AT. Even if the pass had connected, the Sun would have been left with AT attacking 3 Lynx players. I marked where Jonquel Jones would likely have been standing on this play, either drawing Fowles out or forcing the Lynx to rotate to Jones when she got the pass. I tend to put Jonquel Jones higher in comparison to other elite centers in the W than other commentators, and this is one main reason why.

4 Lynx players in paint

Curt Miller knows the fit is an issue, which is why so many plays for the Sun begin with Bonner running a pick and roll with Alyssa Thomas screening. AT is an effective screener in the pick and roll, as she can roll hard to the basket and make the next pass or finish depending on how the other team defends it. The next pass out of a short roll is hard for many bigs, but AT is as good at it as they come, when provided proper spacing.

However, this is not nearly as effective when the Sun are playing only one player, Jasmine Thomas, who teams feel the need to guard from 3. And even Jasmine Thomas is merely an ok 3 point shooter, at 32% for her career. Look at where the Sparks players are standing on this play from their game this season in the next picture. Bonner has just slipped the pass to AT out of a pick and roll, but now AT is staring down 2 defenders in the paint, with 2 others in or near the paint. Yes, AT has missed some makeable shots recently, but this kind of play where she is trying to score over 2 defenders has also contributed to her shooting 2 for 17 in her last 2 games.

4 Sparks players in paint

  

The Sun will not be one of the 2 worst teams in the league this season, as the standing indicates now. They have played a difficult schedule with their 4 losses coming against 3 of the top 5 teams in my preseason predictions. Their defense has been good, keeping them in these games even with the offense scuffling, and against weaker opponents their defense should lead to transition opportunities and easier scoring. Both Bonner and AT can grab and go off of rebounds and turnovers, making this team dangerous in transition.

However, the start has shown why even before Jonquel Jones opting out I thought the Sun were not as good as last year’s team. With Briann January and Jonquel Jones they likely would not be 0-4, but a finals run still seemed unlikely given the loss of shooting and playmaking from their 2019 team. Shekinna Stricklen is not as good as Bonner in nearly every area of basketball, except for shooting. Shooting just happens to be the most important skill to put next to Alyssa Thomas. Moving on from Stricklen and signing Bonner is understandable, but Stricklen’s shooting is hard to replace, as the Sun are finding.

More inexplicably, the Sun let Courtney Williams walk. While she does have a frustrating shot profile, as Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down podcast pointed out, a trend that has continued this year, she is still really good.

Remember when Courtney Williams started off being very effective taking threes and getting to the rim then went back to chucking 17 footers and shot poorly the rest of the series.

She would be an upgrade at guard over who the Sun have, and at 26, is still entering her prime, which is why I was down on the decision to not pay her, as compared to a 33 year old Briann January and even a 32 year old DeWanna Bonner.

Curt Miller has few options to try to turn things around for the Sun. One option to explore is more Jackie Gemelos in place of Bria Holmes. Holmes is not as good a defender as her size and athleticism would seem to indicate, given a tendency to make curious decisions as a help defender, such as helping off of the strong side shooter and giving up open corner 3s. Gemelos has shown she can shoot and might help space the floor, instead of Holmes, who teams ignore.

Another alternative is to let Jasmine Thomas and other guards run more pick and rolls with Alyssa Thomas. This might work, especially if Bonner stops hanging out under the basket while the Sun run a pick and roll. Her willingness to fire from 3, especially this year when they are actually going in, is not helpful when she is under the basket. As shown here, Bonner hung out just outside the paint throughout the Lynx game, whenever she was not involved in the play directly. AT can score on Erica McCall after receiving the pass out of the pick and roll from Natisha Hideman, but it is much tougher with Mikiah Herbert Harrigan waiting next to Bonner under the basket.

This season was never going to be one the Sun were competing for a championship once their best player, Jonquel Jones, opted out. Now the task falls to Curt Miller and co. to figure out how to maximize their talented but flawed stars in Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, while not running them into the ground. The goal should be maximizing this team in 2021.

Next year’s team will be better with Jonquel Jones returned, but Bonner will be 33 (turning 34 during the season). The Sun have to hope one of their younger guards steps up and Bonner’s play does not slip, as Jones is entering her prime and now is the time to capitalize on such a force. If not, it will be interesting to see if Jones wants to stay with the team, or see whether she can find another home.

The Impact of the Chicago Sky’s Other Wings.

On Tuesday I briefly discussed the Chicago Sky’s all-star wing, Diamond DeShields, and what to look for from her this year. Matt Ellentuck had a great piece on her in his newsletter as well. DeShields has the talent to be a top 10 player in the WNBA, but so far this year she has been battling a knee issue which has somewhat limited her.

With DeShields not at 100%, both Gabby Williams and Kahleah Copper have shown the impact they can have for the Sky, and the struggles the Sky will have if neither play well.  Copper is 6’1” and has excellent straight line speed and the burst to get to the rim even against opponents playing her to drive. Gabby Williams is 6’ and more of a fluid athlete who has enough of a burst to put pressure on the rim and use her passing to set up her teammates. Both players have been limited in the WNBA by their lack of an outside shot, to varying degrees.

Both show the peril and promise of drafting wings who can not shoot 3s. At the college and high school level, wings with the size and athleticism of Copper and Williams are able to have success and dominate without being able to shoot. They are just so much bigger and more athletic than their competition, that someone like Gabby Williams can go her final 3 years at Uconn, take only 1 three pointer the entire time, and still be effective.

In the WNBA, that does not work nearly as well. The WNBA is the first time in these player’s careers that they have had to consistently play against women who are as big and as athletic as they are. The good news for the Sky is that both players have clearly worked to expand their range.  The bad news is that working hard at shooting does not always translate into sustained success.

However, a wing who can shoot 3s, like Ariel Atkins, is a force multiplier for her team. They can defend 3 or 4 positions, and cause fits to the other team trying to matchup with their size and strength. So it makes sense teams continue to draft them high, see almost every Liberty draft pick after Sabrina Ionescue.

Copper is only at 20% so far this year from 3, but she has shown in the past more shooting ability. For someone with the speed of Copper, willingness to shoot is almost as important as the actual results. She can sometimes beat an opponent to the rim who is sagging off. Making them take a step or two closer is only going to help. So far in this young season she is up from 2.8 attempts from 3 per 36 minutes to 4.9 attempts. Keeping that willingness to fire will only help her game, though of course seeing a few more go in would be nice.

Williams opened the season 4 for 7 from 3 through 2 games, but then threw up an 0 for 6 stinker last night and is now shooting 30% from 3. If she can settle into the low to mid 30s, that would be a huge step for her game, as she shot 17% from 3 in 2019. With a functional three point shot, she becomes an excellent second side shot creator, with the ability to attack a closeout and make the next pass. To play with the Sky starters Williams needs to be a threat off ball, cause both DeShields and Vandersloot deserve to have the ball in their hands. So far a marked improvement over prior seasons.

Both players ability to shoot becomes even more important in the playoffs. In the playoffs, spot up shooters are easier to scout as teams prepare for a specific opponent and they dial into the shooters. People rightly focused on the shooting of the Mystics, but the other aspect of their success was in the finals they were putting 4 players out there who could all attack a closeout, and either finish at the rim or make the next pass. Cloud, Toliver, Meesseman and Delle Donne were all more than just shooters. For all the value of a Shekinna Stricklen type shooter, her inability to punish a hard closeout does limit her impact in those moments.

Looking beyond 2020, The Sky will have big decisions to make after the 2021 season. Copper already got paid, a deal I am so far happy I did not criticize, though it looked like a lot of money for a backup wing at the time. However, Williams and DeShields are on their rookie contracts through the 2021 season. A wing like Gabby Williams who can shoot, if the shooting is truly improved, is a player teams are going to covet. She would be a great fit next to any superstar in the league. While a max contract for someone who may not have the upside to be a primary shot creator on a playoff team is a lot to swallow, she very well may get one. How the Sky juggle their pieces will be something to watch.