My favorite quote about statistics – aside from the famous “lies, damn lies, and statistics” line – is probably the one attributed to W.I.E. Gates: “Then there is the man who drowned crossing a stream with an average depth of six inches.” Context matters and that notion obviously applies to the use of any stats in basketball and that might be exponentially so for defensive matters.
So I contacted Richard Cohen of the WNBAlien blog to help flesh out the context for 2011 WNBA end of season defensive awards, partially because we’ve had productively contrasting perspectives about the game in the past.
And then he proceeded to throw stats at me while I just wanted to discuss my feelings.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our extended e-conversation in which we tried to figure out “the real depth” of that stream before “crossing it” with our individual picks for defensive awards. You’ll find that we came to rapid agreement on some major points but also found some points of divergence: Where do you place Phoenix Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner and Atlanta Dream forward Angel McCoughtry? And perhaps a bigger shared question: Should we be able to take some liberties with positional confines?
(Bear in mind that since this happened over a number of days, the statistics referenced are not final numbers from the 2011 season and weren’t even from the same day at all times. But since they’re numbers from the final week, they’re not too inaccurate. Now that I’ve expressed my feelings, I will use final numbers in the post with my selections.)
But before you get lost in this maze of the defensive imagination, if you aren’t following Richard on Twitter (@RichardCohen1) and reading his blog (wnbalien.wordpress.com), I’d suggest you do that. Go do that now, then come back for the conversation.
We’re waiting patiently.
Photo by Kailas Images.
Richard Cohen: Defensive Player of the Year: This one perhaps isn’t the easy choice that it’s been in previous years. Tamika Catchings has won this award each of the last four times she’s been healthy from the start of the season to the end. She’s been healthy this season, so she’s the easy pick yet again, right?
She has indeed been a dominant defensive force yet again. But in case you haven’t noticed, Chicago were a very good defensive team this year. And their defense revolves around one player.
The closest thing that the WNBA has to Dwight Howard, Sylvia Fowles is a force of nature in the paint, and changes at least as many shots as she blocks (and she’s comfortably leading the league in rejections). I think it’s a two-way argument this year, although Catchings’s long-standing rep will probably continue to hold sway with the voters. I haven’t decided which way I’m going to jump just yet.
You may also hear Angel McCoughtry’s name thrown into the mix, but I’m still not drinking the Kool-Aid on Angel’s defense quite as much as many viewers. I’m not remotely convinced that she’s the best defensive perimeter player on her own team, never mind in the league. But don’t be surprised to see her pick up a few votes when the official results come in.
All-Defensive Team: This one’s always tricky, simply because it’s so hard to judge defense. I also continue to feel that it’s even more difficult in the women’s game, where there’s more of a concentration on team ethics than individual play. That applies to defense as well as offense, so in many ways the best defenders are those who buy into their coach’s scheme and produce within it. It’s rare to see one player just follow her individual matchup around for an entire game and shut her down.
There are either too many or too few candidates to get into in a preview, so I’ll leave you hanging on this particular group. Just don’t expect to see anyone from Tulsa or LA making an appearance in my selections.
Nate Parham: Well, right off the bat, I think we can just settle on Fowles as the DPOY, for the reasons you stated. I do think you could make an argument for Catchings as a more versatile threat vs. Fowles being a primarily interior force, but that shouldn’t negate the value Fowles brings in anchoring her team defensively from the post.
But your point about McCoughtry not necessarily being the best perimeter defender on her team is a good segueway to begin generating candidates for the All-Defensive team: Armintie Price obviously comes to mind, but Lindsey Harding is one of the better defenders at point guard and Sancho Lyttle racks up steals at a ratethat most interior players (short of Nicky Anosike in 2009) simply couldn’t imagine doing; steals aren’t always a good way of measuring ?defense, but for an interior player it does speak to an agility an awareness that sets her above the other players.
I totally agree about the difference in identifying top defenders in the women’s game vs. the men’s game: in a game less predicated on one-on-one play, top one-on-one defenders don’t stand out in quite the same way. But as someone who has spent the vast majority of the last two years watching the Storm, Tanisha Wright certainly qualifies as one of the league’s best on-ball defenders.
Photo by Kailas Images.
Staying with Storm, when you see how effective players like DeWanna Bonner and Essence Carson have been in containing Sue Bird for stretches – Bonner used in full court press situations, Carson nearly making two game-winning plays – they also have to be in the discussion.
But more to the point about identifying individuals within systems, how do you look at a defensive unit like the Lynx? Obviously Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin’s veteran contributions stand out, but a defense that good has multiple players doing something right?
Speaking of those two, I fell into the trap of focusing on perimeter on-ball defenders – what about other interior players?
RC: Yes, I was thinking both Price and Harding when I said that about Atlanta’s perimeter players. Also, while I’m not a huge fan of +/- as a statistic, the same thing about McCoughtry’s numbers in that area jumped out at me this year as it did last – her team gives up significantly fewer points when she’s off the floor than when she’s on it. I’m honestly not sure why that is, because to my eyes they’re not exactly upgrading the defense when Coco Miller or Iziane Castro Marques comes in for her, but it’s been a statistical fact both last year and this.
Per 40 minutes, teams have scored 81.3 points against the Dream when McCoughtry is on the floor this season, 77.0 when shes sitting. Last year it was an even more extraordinary 85.1 on the floor, 74.1 off (but that made slightly more sense because Price was her backup). It’s not my only concern about McCoughtry’s D – she gambles a little too much, and sometimes quits when she gets caught on a pick – but it adds something more.
I think Lyttle’s been less impressive this year due to all her injuries. She’s not quite been the pogo-stick athlete we’re used to, and I don’t think she’s too fond of contact right now. It’s most obvious offensively, where she’s taking a lot of jump shots, but Tina Charles had a lot more success when she found Lyttle defending her than when she was battling de Souza the other night.
I’m with you on Wright, and what about Katie Smith? Slipping too much due to age, or still one of the best individual defenders in the game? You’ve seen her up close a bunch of times this season, but I had her All-Defensive first team last season for the impact she made in Washington, and I love her fire defensively. Like Wright, she’ll happily fight it out in the post if she gets switched on to a bigger player as well, and often come out on top.
I have to admit, I love versatility in defenders. Someone who can guard practically anyone is incredibly valuable to a coach, and Catchings’s ability to shut down practically any player has always been one of her central skills. It’s part of why I loved watching Erin Perperoglou (n