There were two significant developments in the WNBA last week, both of which were injury-related in some way:
After briefly losing rookie starting point guard Skylar Diggins to injury, the Tulsa Shock were forced to insert Angel Goodrich into the starting lineup at point guard and the Shock smashed the Storm in Seattle. Diggins returned, Goodrich remained in the starting lineup, and now the Shock are on a three game winning streak.
The Indiana Fever began to find a rhythm after suffering a rash of early-season injuries and won 6 of 7 games, including consecutive wins over the playoff-contending Washington Mystics and a road win over playoff hopeful New York Liberty.
To the latter point, prior to last night’s game between the Fever and Liberty, Joylynn Ballard of It’s On My TV wrote about how the two teams seemed to be going in opposite directions with the Liberty losing 6 of their previous 7.
Then the Liberty managed to come back from a 16-point deficit and get a 77-72 win on the road to make them harder to dismiss. Cappie Pondexter came up huge with 8 of her 24 points in the fourth quarter while the Fever struggled through a four-minute scoring drought that essentially sealed the game. On the one hand, it’s more evidence of what we’ve already known about the Liberty: when they’re locked in defensively and keeping the turnovers to a minimum (13 team turnovers in a game is quite a feat for this Liberty team this season), they can be a difficult team to beat.
So how might this outcome change how we look at the Eastern Conference?
Offensive and defensive ratings
Offensive and defensive efficiency ratings as of 7/22/13. Click here to see the full chart at National Sports Rankings.
First, if you compare that to what they did last week, you’ll notice quite a bit of improvement on the defensive end for Tulsa. Just looking through their results from the last three games helps to understand what’s going on there: in holding opponents to 59, 58, and 63 points last week the Shock held teams to three of their four lowest point totals of the season. Add to that the road rout of the Storm and they’ve been quite impressive.
But returning to the matter of the Fever and Liberty, entering last night’s game, you’ll note that they had very similar efficiency differentials – in fact, were the closest of any two teams in the league. Looking ahead to power rankings, had the Fever pulled that one out by double digits at home it would’ve been easy to make the case for leap-frogging them over the Liberty (and Mystics). Now? It’s a bit more difficult to figure out what’s going on in the Eastern Conference.
WNBA Four Factors differentials ordered by eFG% as of 7/22/13.
Click here to see the full chart of Four Factors numbers at National Sports Rankings.
What immediately stands out, consistent with what haunted the Fever last night, is that they have the worst shooting efficiency differential in the Eastern Conference – when they weren’t able to feast on Liberty turnovers, their shooting woes crept up on them at the most inopportune time possible.
The Liberty, on the other hand, still have that major turnover problem but also get their fair share of second chance points off offensive rebounds. Their main problem is that they rely so heavily on Cappie Pondexter: when she’s hot, that’s great but if she’s off they’re bound to struggle.
But the fact remains that the Liberty won a game that you probably wouldn’t have expected them to win based on recent performance: in Ed Bemiss’ latest addition to National Sports Rankings, his WNBA Game Projections predicted a five point Liberty loss based on both teams’ numbers coming in whereas the Fever were predicted to take a two point loss in New York.
So which team is better?
1. Minnesota Lynx: Last week I had to defy the numbers to establish that the Lynx were the top team in the league. This week, the numbers support the notion the Lynx have the edge. Are they finally finding a rhythm?
2. Los Angeles Sparks: The Sparks remain a difficult team to figure out as they have really struggled with consistency. And the negative offensive rebounding differential isn’t helping them.
3. Chicago Sky: I’m not ready to use a Sharpee yet, but right now the Sky are in a class of their own atop the Eastern Conference as they have been the only team to avoid significant injury absences (since Epiphanny Prince was expected to be absent for a time).
4. Atlanta Dream: A few weeks ago, we looked at strength of schedule and wondered if the Dream could maintain their early season pace. Their standing after a difficult 0-4 road trip suggests that there was indeed reason for skepticism.
5. Phoenix Mercury: Before the season, we all knew that someone would have to finish third in the Western Conference and that health would probably be a determining factor. Thus far, the Mercury look like the team settling in at third place. Things could change once they get healthy, but right now it looks like it will be an uphill battle to pass both L.A. And Minnesota.
6. Indiana Fever: The only move I’m making to defy the numbers this week is to move Indiana up three spots – their poor start to the season could be attributed almost entirely to injury and now we’re starting to see them find a rhythm despite still missing a few key pieces. And if Briann January can play anything near the way she did last night – a team-high 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting – they’ll be in good shape once they return to full health. Why excuse the loss to the Liberty? They have still won 6 of 8 games and just beat the Liberty in New York very recently.
7. Washington Mystics: Albert and Zack have already covered what happened to them this weekend, so I won’t belabor the point. But with Indiana heating up, they need to figure something out.
8. Tulsa Shock: Three in a row for the Shock? What’s going on? Health, for one. But starting Angel Goodrich at point guard has really helped them offensively and they managed to shave three points off their defensive rating in a week. This is a big leap after where I had them last week, but it speaks to what we’ve been discussing all season with them: their main problem was the rotation/lineup combinations rather than lacking talent and their efficiency differentials bear that out.
9. New York Liberty: The problems still remain, despite last night’s win and really the fourth quarter was emblematic of their season-long struggles: they did turn the ball over four times and needed a huge performance from Cappie Pondexter to pull out the win. Yes, their defense helped, but those are the very reasons they had lost 6 of 7 games.
Samantha Prahalis hasn’t been the most efficient ball handler in her short career thus far and it remains to be seen how well she fits with the Liberty, but if the very presence of another ball handler helps them keep the turnovers down her addition could be significant.
10. Connecticut Sun: The Sun continue to struggle this season, but like many other teams this season they could improve once they get healthier.
11. Seattle Storm: The good news: Ashley Robinson is back! The bad news: While the Shock saw a total change of fortunes over the past week, the Storm took a small step back to tighten that Western Conference Playoff race a bit.
12. San Antonio Silver Stars: It’s been a really rough season for the Silver Stars and they know find themselves at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and could remain there with the Shock improving and the Storm getting more talented simply by replacing a seldom-used rookie with a veteran.
Who do you think are the best teams in the league? How would you work out the differences between Indiana and New York? Feel free to drop your thoughts in the comments below or create a fan post if you have longer thoughts to share.