Looking Forward: The Atlanta Dream’s Forwards

The Atlanta Dream have had as tough a 2020 season as any team not named the Washington Mystics when it comes to opt outs, injuries, and players coming back after testing positive for covid-19. Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery opted out, Glory Johnson, Courtney Williams, and Kalani Brown all joined the team late and have needed time to get back into shape and in tune with their teammates, and Chennedy Carter has missed time with an ankle injury.

This has left Nicki Collen having to play some lineups she probably was not planning on playing coming into the year. Notably, Monique Billings at the power forward spot. Billings does bring some positives to the Dream. She is a good offensive rebounder, she is able to outrun opposing bigs in transition, and can sometimes beat opposing bigs off the dribble using her speed.

However, Monique Billings’ lack of any kind of shooting also highlights some of the ways the WNBA is changing to emphasize shooting. Simply put, it is very hard to craft a top 6, so top half of the WNBA, league offense while playing two front court players who can not shoot 3s. Billings spends much of the game playing next to the Dream’s center, Elizabeth Williams, who also does not shoot 3s. 

The obvious counter to the need for spacing is the Las Vegas Aces. A team that shoots far fewer threes than any other team, but as of 8/31 is 2nd in offensive rating, per wnba.com. However, the Aces actually manage to have better spacing than one might think, by where they station their players. 

In the Aces best lineups, Dearica Hamby plays the 4 on offense. While Hamby is only attempting 1.5 3s per game this year, she will stand behind the 3 point line and teams will at least somewhat guard her. This allows the Aces to give just enough spacing to A’ja Wilson and whoever else to attack inside. McCoughtry will similarly stand at the three, and take them sometimes. Both are also excellent cutters and better post up threats than Billings, which helps. 

Something to watch for in the playoffs is how teams guard the Jackie Young, Angel McCoughtry, Dearica Hamby trio, as teams will often be more extreme in ignoring non-threatening shooters in the playoffs when they have time to focus on a single opponent. The benefit the Aces have is all 3 of those players can attack and make plays off the dribble, which makes up for some of those spacing issues.

Back to the Dream. Even when Monique Billings puts up decent numbers herself, when she is playing next to Elizabeth Williams, she tends to make it harder for her teammates to succeed. A big question the Dream should answer going forward is who is going to be their power forward of the future.

 Of course playing Billings next to a stretch 5 who can shoot 3s might work, but there are 2 of those currently in the WNBA, Stefanie Dolson and Jonquel Jones. I guess 3 if you include Natasha Howard, who occasionally hits her 3s. While that would be great, figuring out a better solution for who plays 4 seems more likely.. 

This play against the Minnesota Lynx is a good example of the drawbacks of two non-shooters in the front court. On the box score, this play is recorded as a turnover by Betnijah Laney. However, the play breaks down largely because of how Napheesa Collier is able to completely ignore Monique Billings. Watch where Collier goes and where Billings goes.

Atlanta Dream pick and roll. Leads to steal for Minnesota Lynx.

The play is a pick and roll with Elizabeth Williams screening for Betnijah Laney. Right off the bat, Damiris Dantas, who is guarding Williams, knows she can double team Laney hard, because Collier is right behind her to pick up the rolling Williams. 

Then, when Laney stops to look for someone to pass to out of the double team, all she sees is Billings running right at her. That might be the best pass, but it’s understandable why Laney tries for something riskier. Billings isn’t likely to make a shot from long 2, and if she tries to drive, Dantas and Collier are there to cover her, since Elizabeth Williams is still under the basket. 

This is why willingness to shoot 3s can matter, even when the outcome is not particularly good. If Glory Johnson had been with the Dream from the beginning, she might have gotten the starting nod at the 4. And while Johnson is by no means a knock down 3 point shooter, a career 31% 3 point shooter, she is at least willing to stand behind the three point line and let it fly when open. 

Especially in the regular season, opposing teams tend to guard players who let it fly, even when the percentages say they could back off. DeWanna Bonner has benefited from this tendency for years. Letting Bonner shoot a 3 is about as good an outcome as one could hope against the Sun, but teams still guard her out on the perimeter, even though she is below 30% from 3 for her career. 

Monique Billings has flirted with shooting 3s a couple of times this season. One avenue to improvement would be for her to add that to her game. But the Dream should be making plans as if Billings is best off as a smaller 5 off the bench, who can use her quickness to outrun opposing bigs. Can Betnijah Laney give them minutes at the 4? All questions to keep an eye out for over the final 7 games of the 2020 season and into the offseason. 

The Dream have found some good pieces this year, even in a frustrating season in terms of wins and losses. Betnijah Laney is most likely going to win Most Improved Player of the year and Chennedy Carter has looked at times like a future superstar. Courtney Williams is rounding into shape and looks like the player the Dream signed. Shekinna Stricklen is still an excellent role player. Reinforcements from Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery will hopefully be coming. How this team handles the forward position is going to be key to the next few years for the Atlanta Dream.

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.

WNBA Championship runs through Breanna Stewart

The Seattle Storm are heavy favorites to win the championship this year and Breanna Stewart returning is the main reason. Stewart is the best player in the WNBA, assuming good health. She can play anywhere from the small forward to center, but fundamentally she is a big wing.  

A big wing is a player who is 6’+, who can shoot 3s, dribble and pass. They are the most valuable player type in modern basketball and drive winning more than any other position. Big wing to me is more accurate than power forward because the separator for these players is the ability to handle the ball and play make for their teammates from both the perimeter and in the post.

Look at who won MVP and finals MVP the last two years. Breanna Stewart is 6’4” with a wingspan that lets her play even bigger. Elena Delle Donne is 6’5”. Emma Meesseman is 6’4”. Meesseman’s lack of length and strength makes her the least impactful defensive player of the three, but she is the best passer of the bunch. EDD is the best shooter, Stewart the best defender. Candace Parker is of course the prototype in the WNBA for this type of player, and the Sparks will go as far as she can take them.

What made Maya Moore great was at only 6’0” she had the athleticism and wingspan to be able to play bigger than her size. To me, she was the key member of those Lynx teams, even more than 1st ballot Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles, as Moore was their lone 3 point shooter and was the team’s best defender on opposing big wings like Candace Parker. 

The Washington Mystics were able to dominate in 2019 because they had both Elene Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman. In the finals, the Sun could have handled one of EDD or Meesseman, but having to guard both at once proved too much. Alyssa Thomas could slow whichever she was guarding, but that then left the other to be guarded by someone too slow or too small. Hence Meesseman winning finals MVP, as the big wing who was healthy and not being guarded by AT she did a ton of damage.

The value of big wings showed up for the Mystics this past Sunday, when the presence of Emma Meesseman and Myisha Hines-Allen caused Indiana Fever coach Marianne Stanley to bring 6’7” Teaira McCowan off the bench. It didn’t work. Both Meesseman and Hines-Allen hit 3s, posted up anytime a smaller player guarded them, and simply dominated whichever players the Fever threw at them. If Hines-Allen can continue to be a credible 3 point shooter, this Mystics team is going to be feisty and may justify my season prediction of them finishing 4th.

As  good as Hines-Allen and Meesseman looked, there is a reason I and many others have picked the Seattle Storm to win the championship. This team in 2020 might be even better than the 2018 team that won the championship. Breanna Stewart should still be improving, as she is entering her prime this year as she is only 26. She showed few signs of rust in her first game back with the Storm against the New York Liberty, an encouraging sign.

The big difference for this team though is Natasha Howard. Howard had to do her best big wing impersonation last year with Stewart injured and was fairly effective at it, shooting 31% on 3 attempts per game from 3 and posting by far her highest assist percentage of her career at 14%. While neither number is what one wants from an elite big wing, as the second big who is also the reigning defensive player of the year, her improved skill is a luxury any other team in the WNBA would love to have. 

No other team in the league has two players who can credibly guard both Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard both 25 feet from the basket and in the post. Add in the fact that the Storm have good contributors everywhere else and the best backup point guard in Jordin Canada in the WNBA, and they are heavy favorites for a reason.

Some other big wings to watch as the season goes forward are Diamond DeShields, Napheesa Collier, and Satou Sabally. DeShields did not look herself physically, which is concerning for the Chicago Sky’s chances of making the finals. Hopefully she is able to recover. And start hitting 3s. She is good at everything else, but shooting is still her swing skill between being a good player and a great player.

Collier for the Minnesota Lynx had a good fourth quarter, but I was a bit disappointed to not see more improvement in her ball handling. She is still a player who needs to be assisted on nearly every basket, it seems. The team really took off when Crystal Dangerfield, the team’s only point guard at the moment, started playing well. However, Collier was still able to use her size and quickness to make an impact against the Sun, and her shooting continues to be impressive for someone who shot so little in college.

Sabally looked the part for the Dallas Wings. There is a reason some draft experts like Ben Dull put her over Sabrina Ionescue in their draft rankings. At 6’4”, she was able to use her quickness and size to score against the Dream. The most promising part of her game for me was her passing, as she had a couple of plays where she made fairly advanced kickout passes to waiting shooters and hit them on target and on time.

6 2020 Season Predictions

1. MVP: Breanna Stewart. When the reigning MVP, Elena Delle Donne is most likely missing the season, and the MVP who won the year before that is back, and only 25, it makes sense to pick Breanna Stewart as MVP. Fun dark horse pick would be Emma Meesseman, as the finals MVP goes from the bench to the best player on her team.

2. Rookie of the year: Sabrina Ionescue. While there are other rookies who will likely get serious playing time and put up numbers, notably Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter, it makes sense to favor Sabrina. Carter will split playmaking with Courtney Williams and Sabally is playing with Arike Ogunbuwale. Ionescue is going to be leading the team in usage from the very start.

3. Champion: Seattle Storm. This is the year for the Storm to get to defend their championship, with a hopefully healthy Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. Add in a much improved Jordan Canada, an improved Natasha Howard, and this team is deeper and more talented than any other team. 

4. Projected Standings:

  1. Seattle Storm
  2. Los Angeles Sparks
  3. Chicago Sky
  4. Washington Mystics
  5. Minnesota Lynx
  6. Las Vegas Aces
  7. Atlanta Dream
  8. Phoenix Mercury
  9. Connecticut Sun
  10. Indiana Fever
  11. Dallas Wings
  12. New York Liberty

5. DPOY: The boring answer is to say Natasha Howard, who won it last year. But I also think it is a good answer, as she is squarely in her prime and there is no reason for her to drop off. The only thing standing in her way is with Breanna Stewart back will they split the credit and the vote. Another player with a good chance worth highlighting is Napheesa Collier. Wing players are less likely to get this award, as bigs are more integral to defense, but Collier excelled last year with high steal and block rates for a wing. In year 2, she should be even better.

6. Mystics make semifinals. This is definitely my most ambitious prediction, but I believe in the Washington Mystics organization and in Emma Meesseman’s ability to be the most valuable type of player in modern basketball, the big wing. This team is lacking in other areas to get farther, but the semifinals is possible. 

2020 Season Preview: Washington Mystics

The Washington Mystics are going to have one of the odder championship defenses in recent memory. While the Storm lost Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird last year, they had their other 3 starters from their championship team. The Mystics are returning 1 starter Ariel Atkins, and 1 bench player who played starter minutes, Emma Meesseman.

That said, this is a team that does still have talent and is the best run organization in the WNBA, apologies to the Storm and Lynx. Coach Mike Thibault has already talked about this team shooting Houston Rockets’ level of 3s, which I for one would love to see. Ariel Atkins may be ready to take on more responsibility. Emma Meesseman has the chance to show just how good she is with a high usage rate.

The playoffs is in reach for this team, but a win in the playoffs would be a testament to players stepping up and great coaching. Predicting how players who are effective in smaller roles respond to heavier usage is one of the hardest things in basketball to do, see free agency, and so the range of possible outcomes for the Mystics is particularly wide. 

Roster Breakdown:

Notable additions: Leilani Mitchell

Notable losses: Tina Charles (medical exemption) Elene Delle Donne (injury/ sitting out) LaToya Sanders (opt out), Natasha Cloud (opt out), Kristi Toliver.

Guards: Leilani Mitchell, Kiara Leslie, Shay Peddy, Aerial Powers. 

Wings: Ariel Atkins, Emma Meesseman, Essence Carson

Bigs: Tianna Hawkins, Myisha Hines-Allen, Alaina Coates

Tina Charles and EDD bring the roster to 12, so these are the ten players the team will actually have to play with. If a player is injured, the team may be able to get an injury exception to add another player, but given the time needed to quarantine and enter the clean site, unclear how practical that will be. Let’s hope for limited injuries so we do not have to find out.

Kiara Leslie was the Mystics #1 draft pick in 2019, but was injured all of last year. She is a dark horse candidate for rookie of the year, since she never played last year. I do not think she will get sufficient usage to earn it, even if she plays well, but it will be nice to see her play finally.

Lineup Breakdown:

Ariel Atkins is the only returning starter, so needless to say she is an important piece of this team. She has in her first two years excelled as a prototypical 3 and D player in a small usage role. Now she will get the opportunity to ramp up her usage. She has had a positive, but not great, assist to turnover ratio, so it might work. Whether she can run pick and rolls as a ball handler, or create her own shot with any consistency, is something to watch.

Emma Meesseman would have started for any other team in the WNBA, she just plays the same position as EDD and so it made sense to use her as a super sub. Now, Meesseman will get to be the featured player, and we will get to see how close to the top 10 of the WNBA she really is as the go-to player. 

The gap between EDD and Meesseman is larger on defense than it is on offense, something that was noticeable in the finals when the Sun dominated inside when EDD could not play. Thibault will have his hands full crafting a good enough defense with Meesseman and without LaToya Sanders.

As great a passer as Meesseman is, this is the year for her to really embrace her shooting and scoring, as this Mystics team is not going to be the humming offensive machine of year’s past. Losing EDD, Toliver, and Cloud means the team has lost their 3 best shot creators all in one go. Meesseman should shoot every time she is even semi-open, like EDD does, which should unlock her passing even more.

Leilani Mitchell played well last year, but at 35 the Mystics are relying on her maintaining her level of play from last year. She should be able to keep up her passing and shooting, as those age well, but the Mystics will have to find their slashing from other players. She shot 44% at the rim last year, compared to 78% for Kristi Toliver and 62% for Natasha Cloud. 

Going from Phoenix, where Mitchell was their best shooter, to Washington where even this year they will be playing a lot more shooting than the Mercury may improve Mitchell’s numbers, but likely not to the level of Toliver and Cloud. 

The other guard spot is a mystery for this team. It may change by the game as Thibault figures out what he has. For now, I will pencil in Aerial Powers, as she was the first guard off the bench for this team last year that is still with the team. Powers was effective as a microwave scorer last year and is a decent on ball defender.

The biggest question with her as a starter is whether she can create at all for others. A negative assist to turnover ratio last year is not a good sign, but with more playing time and experience, hopefully she can bring down her turnover numbers and improve her playmaking. 

Center will be by committee. Tianna Hawkins should get the most important minutes, as she is the only center who can provide any spacing on this team. She was yet again another Mystics player who was effective in a bench role, who will now get to do more. An adequate defender as a backup, she might be overtaxed against frontline bigs, but should provide good effort. 

None of these players, with maybe the exception of Leilani Mitchell, are going to be playing in the roles that they have succeeded in to this point in the WNBA. My hunch is Meesseman plays well in a bigger role, while Atkins struggles a bit as she has to adjust as all the attention her teammates used to garner shifts to her. This is a team that should make the playoffs, but winning a game would be a victory. 

2020 Season Preview: Connecticut Sun

The Connecticut Sun were a bit lucky to make it to game 5 in the WNBA finals last year. If Elena Delle Donne is healthy for the entire series, it is probably over in 3 or at most 4 games. However, the Sun did play well and did have success with a roster that fit well together.

Their decision to move on from a key younger player, and sign and trade for an older player, is one that I question. Courtney Williams is 26. Dewanna Bonner is 32. Bonner may have been better last year, but that is a big bet on Bonner keeping her value into her 30s, and Williams not continuing to improve.

However, the biggest impact on the Sun for the 2020 season is nothing to do with Bonner or Williams, but rather Jonquel Jones opting out. Not only is that big for the Sun because Jones was the second best player in the WNBA last year, but the drop off to her backup is more dramatic than it would be for quite a few other teams.

Even with a full team I was not picking this team to return to the finals, but now, I would not pick them to make the semifinals. Defensively they should be good, but I think their offense may slip too much given who they have lost.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions: Dewanna Bonner, Briann January.

Notable Losses: Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen

Draft: 2nd round Kaila Charles

Guards: Briann January, Jasmine Thomas, Jacki Gemelos, Natasha Hiedeman

Wings: Bria Holmes, Dewanna Bonner, Kalena Mosqueda-Lewis, Kaila Charles

Bigs: Alyssa Thomas, Beatrice Mompromier, Brionna Jones, Theresa Plaisance

I like the signing of Beatrice Mompromier. This is a good year to sign a younger player and see what they have to offer. There were more consistent bigs available, but none with the potential upside of Mompromier.

Playing time Breakdown:

Alyssa Thomas is the best player on the team as their 4 and one of the most interesting players in the league. While she is unable to shoot outside of about 5 feet from the basket, she does everything else one would want out of a 4 and she does them very well. Passing, defending, setting screens and more. While she would be undersized, Thomas is strong enough and smart enough defensively to even play some center, which I hope to see.

Even before Jones opted out I was lower on this team than last year’s team, however, because A. Thomas’ inability to shoot is going to be even more of an issue next to Dewanna Bonner. Going from Shekinna Stricklen to Dewanna Bonner is an upgrade in every area except for shooting. But shooting next to a complete non-shooter like Alyssa Thomas is so important, I wonder about the fit.

Dewanna Bonner has typically played most of her minutes at the 3. I do hope Curt Miller experiments more with playing smaller with Dewanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas in the front court, as Bonner has the size and strength, though you may not see it looking at her, to play against most 4s in the league. Playing at the 4 also allows her to use her speed, and makes her poor shooting less damaging.

Briann January in place of Courtney Williams is a downgrade at the 2. While January is a good defender, she has slipped the season or two, and Williams is a good defender. The bigger issue is on the other end, where in the playoffs Williams became a much better player by taking more 3s, particularly off the dribble. Williams love of long 2s is and was frustrating, but when she cleaned up her shots, her dynamism as a shot creating guard really improved the Sun.

The Sun now do not have a player who is a danger to shoot out of the pick and 3, and attack the rim, which limits their ability to puncture the defense. This combined with non-shooting at the 3, 4 and 5 when Theresa Plaisance is not playing, make me skeptical of this team’s offense. 

    Brionna Jones has a lot to prove if she is the starting 5. She has not been particularly effective in her limited minutes in past seasons, with a propensity to foul, below average finishing at the rim at only 51%, and trouble defending in space. She’s undersized for the 5, and is not particularly imposing as a rim protector. She can surprise, as Mercedes Lewis did last year for Seattle, but I am not optimistic.

    Jasmine Thomas is a great example of why the point guard is the hardest position to learn on the court for young players. She was maybe the second most effective point guard in the WNBA last year, something that would have been unexpected prior to the last couple of years. She figured out her shooting the last three years and is an excellent defender. Keeping her in mind when evaluating other young guards like Kelsey Plum and Kelsey Mitchell is worthwhile.

    This team still has the talent to make the playoffs, and even the semifinals. I don’t see them being able to generate enough offense to get much further, but the defense will stay good. Their games may not be the most fun to watch aesthetically speaking, but they will be effective.