June 29, 2022
Basketball, In Theory: This one stat explains why the Seattle Storm offense has struggled
Rim pressure. It’s a concept that goes by many names — dribble penetration, downhill scoring, slashing. No matter what you call it, it’s one of the most important elements of basketball. And the Seattle Storm have none of it.
With just 37.8% of their shots coming within 10 feet of the rim, the Storm rank dead last in the WNBA.
“Teams know our stuff. They’re loaded up; we’re not a team that’s going to go downhill and blow by people and get into the paint and pound you,” Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn said. “We like to play free-flowing and teams have been physical with us.”
There’s merit to the idea that defenses being more prepared for the Storm’s actions is slowing down their offense. Seattle doesn’t have quite the same trouble on set plays, ranking seventh in the league in points-per-ATO (after-timeout play) per Synergy, three spots higher than its overall halfcourt mark. That suggests that there’s a problem with the Storm’s more common actions, but also that there’s a problem with their unscripted offense.
Seattle ranked fourth in offensive rating last year, then effectively traded in a shooter defenses didn’t respect (Katie Lou Samuelson), a dunker’s spot-bound center (Mercedes Russell), and a non-shooting backup (Jordin Canada) for a non-shooter (Gabby Williams), a versatile center (Ezi Magbegor), and 3-and-D guard (Briann January). So why has the Storm’s offense dropped all the way to ninth in the league?
The biggest differences between this year and last: Seattle is taking about 5.5% less of its shots within 10 feet of the rim and 5% more of them from three while shooting worse from both spots. Despite that regression, the Storm still rank third in shooting both above the break and from the right corner, per WNBA Advanced Stats.
That’s what you’d expect from an offense led by Jewell Loyd, Breanna Stewart, and Sue Bird: efficient shooting. You’d also expect an offense led by that trio to not exert much rim pressure, which it never has. But in 2022, Seattle has taken that to the extreme; eight of the team’s nine rotation players are attempting shots within 10 feet less often than they had over the four years prior.1
That’s how the Storm, after last year taking the ninth-most shots within 10 feet, have this season taken the fewest in the WNBA.
The easiest way to understand the resulting problem is through basic geometry: defenses are best when they can help and make shorter rotations, so the most effective defense is the one in which all five defenders are able to stand nearest together; accordingly, the most effective offense is one in which the defenders must spread themselves thinly as much as possible. So an offense that doesn’t shoot effectively (like many of the Sparks’ lineups) or an offense that provides little rim pressure (like these Storm), is just allowing defenses to need to defend less space.
Recent matchups have underscored this problem. Take a couple of the team’s early possessions against Washington, for example:
On the first play, Seattle runs staggered screens for Loyd, setting her up to reverse into what I’m calling a “pitchback” from Stewart. But since the other three Storm are just standing on the backside, Shakira Austin can help nail, which allows Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud to effectively ICE the action and force Loyd into a tough jumper.
On the second, Stewart starts posting-up Delle Donne at the elbow, so when she gets the ball, there’s no one in the paint. When Williams begins cutting towards Stewart and Loyd lifts, Bird needs to slip her step-up screen or Magbegor needs to cut rim. Without either, the Mystics don’t have to help and can play tight to the Storm.
Another example near crunch time. Bird isn’t quick enough to get by Rui Machida. Then Loyd’s back cut is taken away by Mystics center Shakira Austin occupying the paint, able to do so because Magbegor and Stephanie Talbot aren’t big enough threats on the backside to warrant more than Ariel Atkins zoning up. The ball has to be recycled to a late-clock Loyd-Magbegor pick-and-roll (PnR), and while Talbot’s 45 cut opens Bird in the corner, Loyd isn’t the kind of playmaker who’s going to see that.
There is also the overall problem of a distinct lack of offensive production from many spots in the rotation: Starting off-ball guard Gabby Williams currently ranks seventh-to-last among qualified players in true-shooting; the first two players off the bench, Briann January and Stephanie Talbot, rank in the bottom-25 in true-shooting; of the 115 players who have played at least 100 minutes this season, backup center Jantel Lavender ranks 108th in Positive Residual’s wins above replacement model.
On top of that, combo guard Jewell Loyd is taking 5.5% fewer of her shots in the paint compared to her prior career rate, and point guard Sue Bird‘s declining athleticism appears to have effectively kneecapped her ability to score inside the arc. Even center Ezi Magbegor has contributed to the struggles, ranking in just the 54th percentile in finishing non-post up possessions, per Synergy.
Compare Seattle to Chicago.
The Sky feature similar roster construction to the Storm. Both are led by one of the few greatest passers in W history (Courtney Vandersloot/Sue Bird), have arguably the league’s best shooter starting at the two-guard spot (Allie Quigley/Jewell Loyd), feature a contender for the greatest player in league history at the four (Candace Parker/Breanna Stewart), rotate a versatile and often overwhelming frontcourt (Emma Meesseman, Azurá Stevens/Ezi Magbegor, Tina Charles, Mercedes Russell), and play a defense-first bench that mixes in with all their starters (Rebekah Gardner, Dana Evans/Briann January, Stephanie Talbot).
The teams of course have more than one difference. But chief among them is their shot distributions: Chicago ranks third in attempts at the rim per game (23.5), while Seattle ranks second-to-last (17.1), per WNBA Advanced Stats. Despite the Storm also ranking third-to-last in field goal percentage at the rim, both teams easily shoot their best when they get to the cup.
“I think we just have a lot of aggressive players. So we want to get to the rim, we want to create fouls,” Sky big Ruthy Hebard told The Next. “[Chicago head coach James Wade] likes to say ‘get the easiest basket’ too, so I think [it’s] just our quick guards, and we have really good posts that bully in the paint too.”
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Among each team’s qualified players, Chicago has four players who get to the rim more often than all but one Storm player. And Seattle features five players who get to the rim less often than all one Sky.
“I think just individually, we work on the things that you do well,” Chicago wing Kahleah Copper told The Next. “Before practice, I’m working on different finishes at the rim. And I think that we play together; we’re playing off cuts, just trying to get a good feel for each other.”
What this leads to is a less diversified offense for the Storm. Loyd, January, Talbot and Epiphanny Prince all have extremely similar shot profiles, whereas Chicago has a mix of three-level scorers, two-level scorers, shooters, post threats, and penetrators.
The only major outliers for Seattle, really, are Magbegor and Stewart — the team’s only consistent rim threats — and Williams.
“We have a lot of players that can do a variety of things,” Parker told The Next. “So, it’s important for us to set screens and put the defense in a position of, like, ‘what are you doing?’ [And then] take what the defense gives you.”
“Being able to play without the ball, it’s a plus,” said Copper.
The value in a diversified offense is apparent in Seattle and Chicago’s games against Connecticut.
The Storm played the Sun on June 17, and lost 80-68, despite holding a 60-56 lead in the early fourth quarter. Much of Connecticut’s 24-8 run came from generating shots at the rim, while Seattle missed jumper after jumper. Without rim cuts or downhill threats, the Sun defenders held tight on their coverages without needing to worry about getting beaten or needing to help. The Storm got one Magbegor layup when Connecticut blew its coverages, but the only other possession that approached the restricted area in that span was this Loyd drive off the catch.
Loyd’s proclivity for short pull-ups could be problematic in and of itself, but like Stewart’s sudden mastery of the short-roll jumper, it’s in part a function of defenses not letting her get closer to the rim. Here, Jonquel Jones is helping off of Williams, since she’s not a shooting threat. That means Loyd can’t keep driving towards the right side of the rim and she has to settle for a much tougher jumper.
One week prior to that game, the Sky rolled into Uncasville, Conn. and notched a win. It trailed by nine in the late third, but was able to come back in large part thanks to — you guessed it — generating good looks at the rim. Here’s how the Sky ended an 11-0 Sun run:
The staggered screens for Emma Meesseman get her deep into the paint and force help, and Candace Parker’s flare for Allie Quigley keeps that help occupied as Rebekah Gardner relocates to the corner. And with her defender out of position by the time Gardner gets the ball, she gets herself downhill.
A few minutes later, in the middle of what would be a 25-10 Chicago run, the Sky used off-ball rim pressure from one player to open up what was effectively an alley-oop for a different player. Here, Quigley’s off-ball gravity forces Brionna Jones to sag off of Li Yueru on Quigley’s 45 cut. That leaves Jones a bit out of position when she needs to hedge the Julie Allemand-Yueru PnR, making Quigley’s back screen2 extremely effective to give her a gator pass to Yueru.
Compare these fourth-quarter shooting charts to the ones from the Storm’s game in Uncasville.
It’s true that Seattle doesn’t take a double-digit loss to the Sun if it doesn’t shoot an uncharacteristic 3-for-11 on jumpers in that final frame. But this is still going to be a problem come late August — not only are long jumpers less efficient than short jumpers and layups, but year-in and year-out, long jumpers get harder to hit in the playoffs.
So where does this leave Seattle?
No matter what they do, the Storm need to add rim pressure. And as I see it, that leaves them with three options:
- Add a dribble-penetrator
This is the simplest option since it (theoretically) solves the problem in one fell swoop. And there’s a case to be made that yesterday’s addition of Tina Charles takes care of this. The former Phoenix center has taken 52.3% of her shots in the paint over the past couple of years, which would rank second on the 2022 Storm. Getting a healthy Russell back in the fold would also give Seattle one of the most dangerous dunker’s spot threats in the WNBA, which would further force teams to respect its ability to attack the rim.
Outside of Charles and Russell, the Storm’s full rotation and unremarkable moveable assets means there really aren’t many realistic targets.3 Free agent wing Crystal Bradford, who was cut from Sky’s training camp due to a lingering injury, provided good rim pressure for Atlanta last year; and off-ball guard Jazmine Jones, currently with Connecticut on a seven-day contract, was a consistent slasher for New York in her first two years, though she was a poor finisher. Adding either would require shedding salary elsewhere, making that an unlikely move.
- Develop someone already on the roster into a stronger rim threat
This is the easiest option, given the fact that it doesn’t require making any moves. But most of the roster is established veterans. While it’s certainly possible to teach an old dog new tricks, most Storm players just don’t profile as significant rim threats, either because of unexceptional explosiveness or subpar finishing. Which leaves Seattle needing to maximize the talent they already have…
- Change the offensive scheme to manufacture more rim pressure
And here’s where Gabby Williams factors back in. She entered 2022 with more than half her career attempts coming within 10 feet of the rim, an astronomical rate for a backcourt player. And it looks like Quinn has been trying to get her in downhill situations more often as of late; since June 11 (a six-game sample), Williams has increased the share of her attempts in the paint by 30%, while nearly halving her rate of non-paint twos, per WNBA Advanced Stats. At the same time, she’s increased her accuracy on “short-range” shots by 7.8 percentage points — her 50.0% clip from within 16 feet over that span would tie MVP frontrunner A’ja Wilson for the seventh-best season-long mark, per Synergy.4
Williams has been asked to shoot less — her spot-up jumper rate has decreased by about a third — and apply more rim pressure — her cutting and driving attempts have gone up by nearly 50%. And defenses can’t just drop to the rim when she has the ball, on account of her 23 assists against only nine turnovers over this span; that translates to 3.8 assists per game with a 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio, numbers only Natasha Cloud and Jackie Young have matched this season, per Her Hoop Stats. With Seattle already boasting arguably the second-best playmaking duo in the W in Bird and Loyd,5 Williams’ adjusted role not only provides rim pressure directly…
… but it also shifts the court geometry, allowing better looks for everyone else.
“With her having the ability to get to the rim and finishing, that gives us some easier looks at the rim,” said Quinn. “Her activity, her ability to get downhill and into the paint, that ignites our offense as well. So it’s not just the scoring; it’s the way in which she can play-make.”
The sustainability and playoff-viability of this strategy will be tested in the coming weeks. If defenses adjust easily, then Seattle may be back to square one. But if it does prove viable, the Storm may have not only addressed their rim pressure problem, but simultaneously discovered how to play a truly elite defender for 30 minutes every night.
- Basketball Reference’s shot-tracking data goes back to 2018.
- This is called a “Spain” pick-and-roll: a PnR where a third offensive player, who isn’t the initial ball-handler or roller, sets a back screen on the roller’s defender.
- Additionally, backcourt players in the WNBA get to the rim less often than their NBA counterparts, overall. I’m not quite sure why this is.
- Synergy defines “short-range” jump shots as coming fewer than 17 feet away from the rim, while WNBA Advanced Stats can only bin shot attempts every eight feet. So shots taken from between 16 and 17 feet may factor into Synergy’s leaderboard, but would not be included in that 50.0% mark for Williams. Meaning that this comparison could be very slightly off in one direction or the other.
- Second to Las Vegas’ Chelsea Gray–Kelsey Plum pairing.
All stats per Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted