The 2014 WNBA All-Star break is not actually the mid-point of the season, but it is a convenient break in the action to reflect on what occurred in the first half of the season. To get you ready for games starting tomorrow, we take a look at the statistics for some of the league’s most disappointing and surprising teams, beginning with the one that just fired their coach.
The L.A. Sparks’ 79-75 loss to the Washington Mystics on Thursday night was disappointing on a number of fronts, as described in our recap of the game that night and (possibly) confirmed by the team firing coach Carol Ross last night.
It was disappointing because they lost at home. Disappointing that it was the second loss in a Mystics sweep of the season series. Disappointing in the context of the season in that they were clearly out-coached once again. And maybe more disappointing because you might have expected that they would find some extra motivation from the opportunity to move into third place in the Western Conference before the All-Star break.
And yet despite all of that, which we can add to a list of indictments of the Sparks this season, they headed into the All-Star break as one of four teams in the WNBA with a positive efficiency differential – the lone “non-contender” above zero.
Los Angeles Sparks
New York Liberty
San Antonio Silver Stars
2014 WNBA efficiency differentials as of 7/18/14 (via Basketball-Reference).
As ugly as that loss to Washington was on Thursday, the Sparks have actually improved to move above zero since the last time we looked at the numbers due to a three-game win streak on the road, no less, that came to an end against a road-weary Mystics team at home.
So when we look at the rising numbers above and where the Sparks stand currently, have folks been too hard on the Sparks this season? Were they starting to turn things around before firing Carol Ross?
The numbers behind the Sparks’ disappointing season
A closer look at the Four Factors numbers across the league begin to tell a story of why the Sparks have struggled this season.
FT Rate diff
Los Angeles Sparks
New York Liberty
San Antonio Silver Stars
Weighted Four Factors differentials for the WNBA as of 7/18/14.
There are two statistical problems that stand out for the Sparks that have plagued them in losses: shooting is their biggest weakness and turnovers are their biggest strength. That’s correct – the fact that a positive turnover differential is their biggest strength is actually a problem.
The numbers don’t actually tell the full story for the Sparks – which we have discussed in greater depth this morning – but the Sparks’ shooting struggles have been a problem all season. When they also turn the ball over – they had 19 turnovers against the Mystics – that means they’re throwing away possessions and don’t really have the means to catch up by hitting a bunch of threes. And what makes the turnovers stand out is that it’s not so much that they’re an especially turnover prone team, but when they do turn the ball over they’re of the ugly, unforced variety: 5 of their turnovers against the Mystics were just passes thrown out of bounds, a few were basic ball handling errors, and most were forced plays in traffic. Credit the Mystics’ defense for some of that – they’re an above average defensive team for a reason – but most of that was just careless play, which reflects another problem for the Sparks.
Why the Silver Stars have been surprisingly better than their numbers
Part of the Sparks’ problem might be best illustrated by looking at what the San Antonio Stars have conversely done well in spite of their numbers: the Stars have the worst shooting efficiency differential in the league, about the same turnover differential as the Sparks, and have the second lowest offensive rebounding percentage this season. And yet, they’re ahead of the Sparks in the standings. Why?
The Stars have the highest three point percentage in the league (38.3%), which gives them an ability to compensate for their other weaknesses or at least makeup for the scoring opportunities they squander otherwise. Second they have two efficient ball handlers in veteran Becky Hammon and All-Star Danielle Robinson – the Sparks just haven’t found a steady ball handling option. Lindsey Harding is relatively efficient in terms of assists and turnovers, but is shooting a career-low 31.4% from the field. As described earlier today, their other ball handling options have better shooting numbers, but aren’t nearly as efficient as what the Stars have.
In some ways – and without even going to the film, which tells a much more dire story – it’s amazing to think that the Stars could even be ahead of the Sparks in the standings. Based on star power (on paper) and the Four Factors numbers – a strong turnover differential is the Stars’ only strength relative to opponents – you’d expect the Sparks to be the clear favorite for third place entering the season. But the Stars just do a much better job of maximizing their strengths and minimizing their weaknesses.
Why the Fever might be the biggest surprise of the first half
Yet the biggest surprise and best example of minimizing weaknesses might be the Indiana Fever, who find themselves in second place in the Eastern Conference despite having Tamika Catchings for just six games so far.
With Briann January and Erlana Larkins making her first All-Star appearance and Erlana Larkins leading the Eastern Conference in total rebounding percentage there’s certainly an individual aspect to the story of how the Fever have stayed afloat. But as a team, sitting in second place now is pretty significant given that they have the third worst efficiency differential in the league.
Similar to the Stars, they’re doing it by relying on three point shooting: they’re the best 3-point shooting team in the Eastern Conference (35.5%) and the fourth-best offensive rebounding percentage team in the league. With Catchings healthy and shooting a career-best 50% (7-for-15) from beyond the arc – sample size aside – the Fever have five players shooting over 35% from behind the three point line. When you’re a team that can spread the court by shooting the three, rebound well for second chances, and force turnovers – their positive turnover differential is due to forcing opponents in turnovers on 21% of their possessions – you can at least compete in games. When you add a perennial MVP candidate and Olympian to that foundation, you have a good chance to win more often.
Why the Liberty have arguably been the biggest disappointment
Yet another part of the reason why the Fever are able to rise to second place despite relatively poor numbers is that the New York Liberty struggled for the majority of the first half of the season.
To be fair, the Liberty have won four of their last six games. And they’ve been bad in predictable ways: the All-Star pairing of Tina Charles and Cappie Pondexter were not reasonably going to be an efficient scoring duo. And point guard play was an obvious problem for them entering the season, although (WNBA) rookie Anna Cruz has seized control of that position as best as she can.
But the most interesting thing about the Liberty has been that Eastern Conference-worst turnover differential – their problem isn’t committing turnovers but that they don’t force many. Liberty opponents committed turnovers on a league-low 16.70% of their possessions to this point in the season. And even though the Liberty are the league’s second-best defense statistically, their inability to force turnovers and create easy points in transition (they have a WNBA-low 13.19 points of turnovers) exacerbates their struggles on offense: they’re tied for the second-lowest shooting efficiency in the league because their two main scorers (Charles and Pondexter) are so inefficient and they’re not at all a good enough rebounding team to make up for that.
The disappointment here would be missing the playoffs after giving up their 2015 first rounder to the Connecticut Sun in the trade for Tina Charles – and they’re not exactly far from missing the postseason. The Fever should be expected to get better with Catchings in the lineup. The Sky have lost 9 of their last 11 games, but that is mostly described by injuries to starters Elena Delle Donne and Courtney Vandersloot – they could find their way to the playoffs the moment Delle Donne returns to health. Compounding matters is that six of their next seven games are on the road.
The Liberty went into win-right-now mode when they traded two young players and an upcoming draft pick for Charles. That leaves them with an aging roster and limited room for internal improvements. The disappointment here is not just about their performance in the present but that they’ve already mortgaged their future.