Last week, I wrote that the WNBA has a two-team elite, with the Minnesota Lynx and San Antonio Silver Stars at the top.
With nine consecutive wins, we should now probably add the Los Angeles Sparks to that elite group. But as the hottest team in the league, should they be considered the strongest team right now?
Rank Team 1 Minnesota Lynx 2 San Antonio Silver Stars 3 Los Angeles Sparks 4 Indiana Fever 5 Connecticut Sun 6 Atlanta Dream 7 Seattle Storm 8 Chicago Sky 9 New York Liberty 10 Tulsa Shock 11 Washington Mystics 12 Phoenix Mercury
ESPN’s WNBA Hollinger Power Rankings as of 8/28/2012
So after a 24-point rout of the #2 San Antonio Silver Stars, why are the Sparks still sitting at #3?
First, we have to acknowledge that San Antonio (108.776 rating) is less than two tenths of a point ahead of L.A. (108.627) so they’re essentially tied. Second, and perhaps this should be obvious, but one game – even head to head – doesn’t suddenly erase the rest of the season (especially when that one game is at home); although we can say the Silver Stars’ winning streak ended at 12, we can also say that the Silver Stars have still won 13 of their last 14 games and have played pretty well during that time.
But third, there’s a question of overall quality of play rather than merely looking at outcomes and up to this point, San Antonio has had a definite edge there as the deeper team and has had the better defense.
San Antonio has been among the teams in the league in points off turnovers and the best in the west in denying second chance points, which might strike some as counter-intuitive given that they are a notoriously poor rebounding team. However, they’ve really improved their offensive rebounding differential this year and are approaching league average as a rebounding team this season. That improvement on the boards coupled with their outstanding turnover differential and even more depth makes them an extremely tough team to beat even with a noticeable weakness.
In contrast, the Sparks really have had three players carrying them and have relied heavily on at least 2 of 3 having big games in order to win. In addition, they have a negative turnover differential – meaning they turn the ball over more often than opponents – which stems, at least in part, from inconsistent ball handling. Although they have a rebounding advantage over opponents that the Silver Stars don’t, it’s not as significant as the Silver Stars’ turnover differential.
But what these Hollinger power rankings don’t take into account are the Sparks’ more recent “additions”: post Nicky Anosike and wing Jenna O’Hea.
In her four games with the Sparks thus far since returning from injury, Anosike has been a more efficient passer than most post players (assist and turnover ratios at 14.5% for a pure point rating of -1.23) and hasn’t really made her typical impact on the boards yet, which will only add to that strength. She has only played limited minutes, but if she gives even half of what she has given teams in the past – particularly on the boards – she could be an asset.
Similarly, O’Hea was an efficient passer compared to others at her position, hit 44% of her 3-point attempts, and was one of the most efficient scorers in the league with a true shooting percentage of 59%. If she matches anything close to that and can fill in some of the minutes currently used by less efficient scorers, this team will unquestionably get better.
O’Hea gives Sparks coach Carol Ross a number of lineup options, with the possibility of spreading the floor a bit more effectively by playing three 40%+ 3-point shooters (Beard, O’Hea, Toliver) around a post threat. There’s also the distinct possibility that distributing playmaking touches makes the team an a more efficient ball handling team.
In that regard, moving L.A. ahead of San Antonio actually makes quite a bit of sense – even if the Silver Stars just maintain the status quo, there’s reason to believe that L.A. will only get better. But what of moving them ahead of Minnesota?
Sure Minnesota beat the league’s two last place teams for the first four games of their current 6-game winning streak and has a bit of a turnover problem of their own. But there’s a reason why Minnesota has only lost four times this season: their depth is unmatched, they have top players at a few positions, Monica Wright has emerged as a leading candidate for Sixth Woman of the Year, and they’re not relying on any one player to carry them with big games. The Lynx are strong because they’re not only a top defensive team but their balance and willingness to share the ball also makes them by far the most efficient offense in the league and a lot of that is from their ability to get out in transition to get high percentage baskets.
At their idealized best – which we have not come close to seeing yet – the Sparks definitely have a claim as the top team in the league. But for right now, they’re not quite there yet – it’s still difficult to argue that the Lynx aren’t the best in the league.
Either way, we’ll get a chance to see the elite face off against each other in this next week: while the Lynx and Silver Stars play tonight, the Sparks will get their shot at the Lynx a week from today. And after that point, we’ll probably have a clearer idea of where things stand among the elite.