But another way people measure competitive balance takes nothing more than a web browser and access to Wikipedia: who’s actually making the championship round. As Matthew Petersen of the Deseret News wrote earlier this season, “There’s a difference between being close — and being champs.”
Applying that standard to the NBA returns a rather alarming stat: since 1980, just nine franchises have won NBA titles. And the Miami Heat have won 2 of the last 3 with the possibility of winning more as long as LeBron James is around.
The primary reasons for pro basketball’s parity problems are pretty clear, market economics aside.
Moreso than in other U.S. professional sports, basketball is a sport dominated by stars or, to be more specific, the degree to which a team’s top players are unguardable. Grantland’s Zach Lowe made that point well regarding the NBA earlier this summer.
“What you see in the playoffs,” [Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers] said, “is the top six or seven guys basically determining the outcome of every game. You can spend a lot of time trying to fill out the rest of the roster in the perfect manner, but if your top five guys can’t get the job done, it almost doesn’t matter.”
The best guys ultimately decide the NBA championship, which is why a lot of fans think the league is sort of boring, or don’t like the “superteams” they think are a new thing but have actually existed since the league’s toddler years.
Even including the Indiana Fever’s upset of the Minnesota Lynx in the 2012 WNBA Finals, a similar principle has held true in the WNBA: teams without great, Hall of Fame-caliber players simply don’t win titles. To Petersen’s point, you can’t even hope to break into the realm of the elite without a dominant star.
Although the WNBA doesn’t have a “competitive balance problem” anywhere near as dire as the NBA – the financial realities of the NBA almost guarantee a lack of parity – if you look at the last four seasons, the WNBA has gotten less and less competitive over time, as James wrote just last year.
Just two teams have represented the Eastern Conference over the past four years: the Atlanta Dream (2010 & ’11) and Indiana Fever (2009 & ’12). And regardless of the outcome of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, this WNBA Finals is guaranteed to feature one of those two teams for a fifth consecutive year. Perhaps it has been nice for Connecticut Sun and New York Liberty fans that their teams have been close, but – again – it ain’t horseshoes and nobody remembers who came in second in the conference.
In the Western Conference, the Minnesota Lynx have to be the favorites to make their third consecutive WNBA Finals appearance for a rematch of one of their first two trips. If indeed the Lynx advance to the Finals again this year, it will be the least diverse three-year set of Finals participants (5) since Houston Comets era of dominance at the league’s inception. Add to that the Lynx having the third-highest three-year win percentage since that same early period, and there’s a pretty clear argument that we’re in the middle of least competitive stretch in league history both confirming or reinforcing James’ suggestion last year.
Franchise Years Record 1. Houston Comets 1998-2000 80-14 (.900) 2. Los Angeles Sparks 2000-2002 81-15 (.844) 3. Minnesota Lynx 2011-2013 80-22 (.784)
Best three-year sequences in WNBA history.
Compounding all that is having an exact repeat of the 2011 Conference Finals matchups (on both sides) and the Mercury appearing in their fourth Western Conference Finals series in five years, missing last year’s playoffs due primarily to, ahem, injury problems. And really, it’s not entirely unreasonable to expect another Lynx-Mercury rematch in the 2014 Western Conference Finals.
They’ve already re-signed Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen to keep their dynamic backcourt together. Maya Moore was a close second to Candace Parker in MVP voting. And their frontcourt rotation of Rebekkah Brunson, Janel McCarville, and Devereaux Peters perfectly complements their perimeter scorers. Off the bench, Monica Wright is good enough on both ends of the floor to start in this league.
Watching them demoralize opponents at home has seemingly become routine (unless they’re playing the Washington Mystics, which was one of the stranger developments of this entire season), which gives them a massive advantage in their quest to win another title.
In an era dominated by a select few the Lynx are part of a one-team elite right now, moving the exact same direction as the NBA’s Miami Heat and on the cusp of establishing themselves as a true dynasty should they advance to another WNBA Finals.
This obviously begs a second look at the rest of James’ conclusions, but first let’s look at what the 2013 Lynx accomplished.
The 2013 Minnesota Lynx
There isn’t much more to say about the Minnesota Lynx that I haven’t been writing since the moment they acquired point guard Lindsay Whalen back in 2010: in short, this is an extremely balanced, versatile, and deep (enough) team.
In case you hadn’t figured it out, that’s why I didn’t bother with a playoff preview before their series with the Seattle Storm – with apologies to my beloved Storm, I assumed I’d have another shot.
Team MVP: Complementarity
I’ll start out by noting that I’m a coward and I’m refusing to single out any one player as MVP of the Lynx. I know that almost sounds like coachspeak, but an argument could be made for all three players who received MVP votes and All-WNBA selections. And, depending on how dogmatic you are about net plus/minus, you might even throw Janel McCarville in that mix (I kid, but she had a league-high net plus/minus).
Ultimately, I think it’s a purely academic question with the Lynx and that’s best embodied by how the Storm matched up with them (or didn’t): the Lynx are going to find an advantage to exploit somewhere. As teams adjust to being exploited, the Lynx adjust to the adjustment and end up exploiting their opponent’s lack of attention to something else.
It’s a vicious cycle of exploitative basketball when playing the Lynx and the biggest challenge is that their best players are such selfless stars that they know how to strike that perfect balance between selfless deference and individual dominance. But in the way they put pressure on the defense, everyone in that unit benefits from the presence of everyone else to the point where it’s hard to say who’s driving what.
Maya Moore put up not only some of the best numbers on the team this season but the best numbers in the league, working her way into the class of the league’s all-time elite scorers with a deadly combination of scoring volume and shooting efficiency. Lindsay Whalen continues to have a case as the league’s best point guard with her ability to alternate between distributing and scoring without leaning so heavily in one direction that she wrecks the team’s rhythm. Seimone Augustus might not have been the shining example of efficient pure scoring in 2013 that she has been in past years, but Augustus Island is no place anyone wants to plan a trip to. And Rebekkah Brunson and Janel McCarville anchor the interior, with Brunson’s offensive rebounding tenacity helping the team to remain the among the most dominant rebounding units in league history.
Each of those parts contributes to the ability of the others to thrive because the collective pressure on the opposing defense allows for openings for one of them to exploit. And the last space a defense wants to be is in survival mode, scrambling to plug holes and reacting to the offense rather than forcing them to react to the defensive scheme.
It’s an embodiment of the whole basketball-is-jazz thing: it’s beautiful and singling out one part of that system just seems to miss the point.
Strengths: Shooting efficiency, offensive rebounding, transition defense/scoring, balance
Despite all that preceded this, Minnesota’s strengths cannot be summed up by saying “everything” but that’s mostly because they’re significantly better at some things than others.
They were the top team in scoring efficiency during the regular season and tops in limiting opponents’ points off turnovers (12.09 per game); in the Western Conference, they were the best offensive rebounding team and tops in denying opponents fast break points (8.21 per game). Although the only forced turnovers at the seventh-highest rate in the league, they were pretty efficient in converting those opportunities with the third-highest points of turnovers per game in the league (17.38).
So yes: this team is awfully good and it’s not unreasonable to say that they got better after the All-Star break due in part to improved 3-point shooting (42.35% compared to 31.21% prior).
Four Factors statistics for the Minnesota Lynx during the 2013 WNBA regular season.
Weaknesses: Free throw rate, bench depth
The Lynx do have a low free throw rate, which actually isn’t particularly uncommon among elite teams. And really, it just doesn’t matter much when you shoot as well as they do: if you constantly make shots and are flying by a team in transition, you’re just not in position to get fouled very often. The low free throw rate – and the fact that it dropped in the second half of the season – does reflect a tendency for the Lynx to settle for jumpers: they shot mid-range jumpers at the highest rate in the league during the regular season according to the numbers provided on their website.
But the bench depth issue is actually more interesting: they were only eighth in the league in bench scoring, but that might be a misleading number: when you have three All-WNBA players and one of the best offensive rebounders in the league in the starting lineup, I’m going to go out on a limb and say your bench scoring is not all that important (please see Myers’ comment above). Monica Wright comes off the bench as a versatile perimeter player, Devereaux Peters is very good offensive rebounder, and Lindsey Moore has proven to be a competent ball handler toward the end of her rookie campaign. That’s enough to win a title with.
X-factor: The temperature on Augustus Island
Maya Moore is eventually going to get hers, Lindsay Whalen is going to have an impact even if it doesn’t show up in her statistics, and the Lynx frontcourt is almost guaranteed to rebound well.
But as a pure scorer, when Augustus decides to take over a game this team becomes much more dangerous.
This isn’t an “X-factor” in the traditional sense in that it’s not marked with uncertainty: Augustus is an All-WNBA player. There’s no question about her talent. But she’s the player who can cross a defender up and make her look like her feet are stuck in quicksand. Not to troll Mercury fans, but when I think about the experience of being isolated on the wing defending Augustus I still think back to Charde Houston’s experience on Augustus Island last year: long story short, it’s not a fun place to be. At all.
Key to victory: Offensive rebounding
If you can’t stop the Lynx from rebounding, there’s not much hope: it simply means you’ve forced the most efficient team in the league in to missed shots, but given up second chance scoring opportunities. It’s hard to win basketball games that way.
Why to root for the Lynx: This is basketball
Please revisit the “basketball-is-jazz” comment above or, better yet, that whole wirkungsgeschichtliches concept. But this is also a good time to revisit one of James’ points from last year: “Given the weak state of some franchises, the league is not stable enough to survive the “superteams” phenomenon of the NBA.”
With ratings going up this year (due to the 3 to see) as the league continues to look less competitive in terms of who can crack the elite, that point probably requires further analysis. But I’m going to make a Lynx counter-argument: the Lynx are something of a Miami Heat-San Antonio Spurs hybrid in NBA terms: like the Heat, it is indeed extremely unfair to have a Fearsome Foursome like the Lynx have; like the Spurs, this is a team that can play the game of basketball to precise perfection like few teams have. It’s a rare, yet near-perfect, combination to have and even if they’re a major weight skewing the competitive balance of the league, any true fan of basketball has to appreciate what they do on the court.
For more on the Lynx and the Western Conference Finals, check out our Western Conference Finals storystream.