When looking at team statistics it can help quite a bit to look at trends illustrating how a team is performing currently rather than a team’s performance in the aggregate over the course of the season.
So with most teams having played 25 games now, I began to look at each team’s pre- and post-All-Star statistics to see which direction teams are headed as the end of the season nears. Two teams really stood out, one of which is probably obvious given a coaching change.
But first, let’s take a look at the offensive and defensive ratings for the season.
Offensive and defensive efficiency
Adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings for the WNBA as of 8/18/13 (via National Sports Rankings).
Two things stand out, especially in light of the two teams in the league who could be considered “hot”: the Atlanta Dream are still a below average offensive team and the Phoenix Mercury are still last defensively.
Anybody who has watched the Dream probably knows why they can’t get over that hump of league average: they shoot a league-low 26.5% from beyond the 3-point, which can hurt their spacing against defenses who decide to pack it in.
But there is actually a more intriguing story for the Mercury: they’re slowly creeping upwards defensively since they made the coaching change from Corey Gaines to Russ Pennell and it’s especially evident in their Four Factors numbers since the All-Star break.
Four Factors numbers since the All-Star break
FT Rate opp
FT Rate opp
Picking up the theme of the Mercury’s defense, they’ve had improvements across the board when you compare these numbers to their numbers prior to the All-Star break but the most significant improvement might be in their rebounding: they’ve gone from being just below average in opponent offensive rebounding percentage (29.12%) to not just above average (23.67%) but league-best. They still hold a negative offensive rebounding differential, but that’s a major development for them this season. And although the rebounding stands out because of the dramatic improvement, they’ve also allowed the second-lowest opponent eFG%.
We’ve already had some discussion about what might be contributing to the Mercury’s improvement, with at least three factors probably at play: the coaching change, more consistent appearances from All-Star rookie Brittney Griner, and a weak schedule. But let’s not overthink it either: part of defense comes down to effort and what we’ve seen since Pennell took over is quite simply greater defensive intensity that is showing up across the board statistically.
The Dream have improved as well, but mostly stylistically: for a team that isn’t proficient at shooting threes, you might expect them to win by pounding the boards and getting themselves to the free throw line. Although they’ve slipped on the offensive rebounding front since the All-Star break (they had an offensive rebounding rate of 31.85% just prior to the break), which can easily be attributed to having to play more small ball with Sancho Lyttle out due to injury. Yet they’ve been getting to the free throw line considerably more often since the break, with a 35.7% free throw rate (best in the Eastern Conference since the break) compared to 26.94% just before – for reference, they’ve gone from about average to the top of the list.
The return of Tiffany Hayes is a huge part of the Dream’s attack offensively: her 57.5% free throw rate for the season is a league-high among qualified perimeter players. Add that to what Armintie Herrington (47.24%) and Angel McCoughtry (38.56%) do and you have a team that puts a ton of pressure on defenses to rotate and stop penetration. Of course, it would help if the Dream knocked down some of those free throws – their 73.6% free throw percentage is the second-lowest in the league – but just having that kind of aggression is essential to their offense and possibly a stronger formula for success.
Yet the Dream stood out when looking at the numbers not because they’ve made dramatic improvement, but because they’re the only team to stay consistently good since the first half of the season. The Dream did go through a rough patch during a Western Conference road trip but that essentially counterbalanced their hot start against a weaker schedule – statistically, at least, things have just evened out and if they continue playing as they have since the break they’ve made themselves the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Overall production since the All-Star break
Atlanta’s relative consistency was borne out not using the efficiency differentials that I’ve been using this season but the production differentials that I’ve looked at in the past might show using the Model Estimated Value (MEV) metric on the team level (click here for more on that).
The following are those numbers from before and after the All-Star break.
MEV differentials pre- and post-All-Star break as of 8/18/13 (ordered by post-ASG differential).
Similar to what you see from the efficiency numbers for the season, the elite in the 2013 season looks like a two-team club right now. But Atlanta might be making a case for themselves as the top team in the Eastern Conference despite remaining 2.5 games behind the Chicago Sky in the standings – compared to the other two teams that are consistently outperforming their opponents right now, the Dream look to have established themselves as the steadiest.
So what’s hurting Chicago right now? Let’s jump to power rankings.
WNBA power rankings
(Though games played as of 8/21/13)
1. Minnesota Lynx: Some might be surprised to see the Lynx remaining atop the league given that they’ve lost four of five games. But a look at their post-All-Star break numbers pointed to a potential “excuse”: their offensive rebounding has fallen off a cliff since the All-Star break (24.42% compared to 31.57% prior to the break), which is sort of odd given that they’ve been one of the league’s best rebounding teams for three years running. Yet there’s a pretty easy explanation for that: the three losses prior to Tuesday’s road loss in Atlanta came without Rebekkah Brunson (once) or Janel McCarvile (twice). Brunson is one of the best offensive rebounders in the league and McCarville is the team’s third-best offensive rebounder, if not dominant. They simply didn’t have people to replace that production with those two out – it’s not like they just forgot how to rebound. They didn’t look good against the Dream, but then their closest competitor didn’t look any better on the road.
2. Los Angeles Sparks: The Sparks haven’t had quite the dropoff that the Lynx have had since the All-Star break, but their turnover rates might be something to watch: since the All-Star break they’ve had a small negative differential while they had a positive one prior to the break. Their free throw rate has also been low since the All-Star break, but I feel bad to continue harping on the potential reason for that.
3. Atlanta Dream (tl:dr version): The Dream have been one of three teams to continue considerably outplaying their opponents since the All-Star break, due in part to their ability to get to the free throw line at a higher rate (which is helped by the return of Tiffany Hayes).
4. Chicago Sky: So what has happened to the Sky since the break? Since the break, you’ll notice that the Sky have shot the ball less efficiently than their opponents which is a change in what they did prior to the break. Although it’s allowing an eFG% of 46.31% isn’t terrible, as a team that leans heavily on a pair of high usage perimeter players they’re subject to get beat if jumpers aren’t falling.
5. Phoenix Mercury (tl;dr version): Phoenix is working harder defensively.
6. Indiana Fever: The Fever have struggled to score all season, but they’ve picked up the offensive rebounding since the break (their 32.11% offensive rebounding percentage since the break is third in the Eastern Conference). But home court advantage in the playoffs looks like a distant goal – right now they’re still fighting for a chance to defend their title in the postseason after overcoming a rash of early-season injuries.
7. Seattle Storm: Who ever said basketball should be beautiful? The Storm continue to define whatever statistics that one might try to hold against them by winning games with blue collar basketball. Yes, they can experience some serious scoring droughts, but take out that terrible fourth quarter against the Chicago Sky recently and you have a team that is playing very competitive basketball over the last four games.
8. Washington Mystics: I’m not sure any team has been streakier than the Washington Mystics this season: they can lose six of seven games, end their streak in Minnesota to start a new three-game streak, then go back to playing poorly albeit against two of the league’s best right now. The result is that they current sit in fourth a half game behind the third-place Fever and one game ahead of the New York Liberty. Any guesses on what Albert would prefer they do?
9. San Antonio Silver Stars: Danielle Robinson might not be the best point guard in the league, but she is a) the most efficient (league-high 6.1 pure point rating) and b) entered this week with the highest plus/minus of any player who had played every game entering this week, according to the numbers provided by the Minnesota Lynx (+19.6). That alone separates this team from the following three, but the Stars just don’t have enough advantages over opponents to win consistently.
10. Tulsa Shock: Similar to the Storm, the Shock have consistently defied their statistics this season. Unlike the Storm, they’ve underperformed their numbers. In the cases of both teams, that puts an associated spotlight on the coach, and in Kloppenburg’s case that hasn’t been a good thing. The excuse for the Shock though: they’ve had just one player on their roster play in all 25 games (Roneeka Hodges). Although other teams can claim more disastrous injuries, the Shock just haven’t been able to establish any rhythm because it has been hard to field the entire roster.
11. New York Liberty: To varying extents, the Liberty are allowing opponents to shoot better, rebound better, and control the ball better while still turning the ball over more often than any team in the Eastern Conference since the All-Star break. Yet they’re a game behind the fourh-place Mystics for a playoff spot with their final game of the season in D.C. Can someone grab a photo of Albert if he shows up to that game wearing a Liberty jersey?
12. Connecticut Sun: With Kara Lawson reportedly on her way back, the Sun announced that Kelly Faris and Allison Hightower will be out for the remainder of the season. That likely won’t help their league-low offensive rating that has earned them just seven wins.