Before jumping into a breakdown of the 2013 WNBA Playoffs matchups, let’s take a look back at the final WNBA regular season statistics.
First, using the schedule adjusted offensive and defensive ratings from National Sports Rankings, we see three teams that seem to qualify as “contenders” (a +6 advantage).
Final 2013 WNBA regular season efficiency differentials.
The simple story is that the top of the order pretty much fits what we see in the standings: the Minnesota Lynx should be considered the favorite to win the title based on regular season results, the Los Angeles Sparks and Chicago Sky are the other two teams that we can consider “contenders”, and then there’s a pack of challengers.
But the who’s actually playing the best ball as we enter the playoffs?
We’ll get to the Eastern Conference a bit later, but let’s begin with the Western Conference by looking at some Four Factors differentials since the All-Star break.
Weighted Four Factors & MEV differentials for the 2013 WNBA regular season.
National Sports Rankings has the sortable list of the actual Four Factors numbers for the season and we’ll share the actual numbers since the All-Star break within playoff previews, but I think looking at the sum total of these numbers actually contributes to the Coach of the Year argument too.
The Seattle Storm vastly outperformed their numbers this season – regardless of what numbers you look at – and one plausible explanation is that they improved in the second half of the season. They were a more efficient scoring team than their opponents and turned a significant disadvantage on the boards (a weighted differential of -0.15) into a rather manageable differential.
The problem for the Storm is that they have one major weakness: turnovers. Although they do force more turnovers than the New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury, they also commit more than either. But when they can control the ball, it’s clear why they’ve been such a competitive team. And they’ve been outshooting opponents since the All-Star break, which is a major positive for them.
Nevertheless, they don’t have a dominant strength either, which leads to the coaching argument: for a team with that profile to finish at .500 and make it into the playoffs not only took chemistry but an impressive ability to minimize their opponents strengths while maximizing their own. That could certainly be attributed to veteran savvy, but their ability to stick to their principles game-to-game – even when those games were often ugly – is also a clear testament to coaching that kept this unit together.
Also noteworthy – though not in the playoffs – is the performance of the Tulsa Shock. Despite their record, it’s hard to look at them as a terrible team anymore. They did “underperform their numbers” a bit, but that could be attributed to injuries as much as anything else. Of course, just as many have credited Brian Agler for his coaching job this season, it is reasonable to wonder about the coaching of a team underperforming and with Gary Kloppenburg’s contract up it will be interesting to see what Tulsa does this offseason.
The East is not even that simple though – every team except the Washington Mystics experienced significant in-season injury setbacks, which makes it hard to know what to make of some of those numbers. Yet that’s what makes the 2013 WNBA Hollinger Power Rankings particularly interesting.
2013 WNBA regular season Hollinger ratings.
Wait, what? Washington fourth?
Well, there you might have another Coach of the Year argument.
What’s being weighted there is their margin of victory over the last 10 games, which you’ll note is fourth in the league. The question for them all season has really been about consistency though, as reflected surprisingly well by their Four Factors differentials: they play almost exactly even with opponents on the turnover and free throw rate front – something that’s somewhat uncommon – and have been outshot by opponents this season, a recipe for uneven outcomes.
Nevertheless, over the last 10 games, they’ve gone 6-4 while the Dream have gone 3-7. The fact that they’ve finished so strong, gotten so much out of their rookies, and found themselves in third is a pretty solid argument for the coaching job that was done there this season as well.
Heading to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, what might stand out is just how poorly the New York Liberty performed across the board this season. And even their one strength is sort of a downer: they managed to rebound at a lower rate in the second half of the season (their 28.02% offensive rebound percentage was 3.6% lower than their first half rate). In addition, a team that both shoots more poorly than opponents and turns the ball more often is a team that simply isn’t going to win many games. Similar to the Storm, it’s surprising that they were even in the playoff race as long as they were but the Mystics’ inconsistency and the Connecticut Sun’s disappointing season (significantly minimized by their too-little-too-late end-of-season surge) are the primary reasons for that.
So which teams are hottest heading into the playoffs? You have to look at Minnesota as a team in particularly good position to win a second title in three years. They’ve been shooting the ball so well and have so many weapons that they’ll be hard to stop. Similarly, Chicago is playing well heading into the playoffs, but they will face another improving team in the Indiana Fever in the first round which might be a bigger challenge than people are saying.
Which teams might be wildcards? I’ve spent most the season trying to figure out the Sparks and the stats above show a team with only one significant advantage over opponents. In contrast, the Phoenix Mercury is a team that has improved a few fronts and we really don’t know how good they can be at full strength. As good as preseason expectations? Maybe. But certainly better than the disaster that they were early on.
On the other side of things, the Fever are another team that has been wrecked by injuries and is approaching something resembling full health now. Against a Chicago team that they beat 3 of 4 times this regular season it wouldn’t be shocking to see them make noise (again) in the playoffs.