June 22, 2020
Crunching the Numbers: a 22-game WNBA season
How much could a balanced, shorter schedule have impacted the league in recent years?
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Graphic courtesy of WNBA Media Central
A month after the 2020 WNBA season was supposed to have tipped off, the league announced its plan for a shorter, modified season to begin toward the end of July, in the wake of the delay due to COVID-19 implications.
That plan revolves around a 22-game regular season schedule, down 12 from what had become the norm and 14 fewer than what was originally scheduled to begin this season. Though not explicitly spelled out in the WNBA’s update, it can be reasonably assumed that schedule will give each team two games against each of the other 11 teams.
That got me thinking, and after putting together some hypothetical standings in a discussion with Mel Greenberg pondering the idea that more teams may end up tied, I thought I’d take a look at what recent seasons could have ended like under a 22-game regular season. I’m focusing on the 2016-2019 seasons due to their (more) balanced nature with the advent of the conference-less playoff format.
Turning 34 games into 22
I ran through several different methods to get a 22-game season from the 34-game seasons that were really played:
First 22: Use each team’s first 22 regular season games.
Last 22: Use each team’s final 22 regular season games.
First 2 match-ups: Use each team’s first two games against each of the other 11 teams.
First and last match-ups: Use each team’s first and last game against each of the other 11 teams.
Last 2 match-ups: Use each team’s last two games against each of the other 11 teams.
Each method offers a slightly different picture. (1) and (2) are not balanced across each of the 11 opponents but might paint a reasonable picture of what it looks like for teams to find a groove (First 22) or to push toward the postseason (Last 22). (3), (4), and (5) offer a balanced approach, but depending on scheduling, may result in major variance with regard to exactly how early or late in the season each team’s games reflect.
I won’t go in to gross detail over the game-by-game results for these 22-game schedules, but the final standings are presented for a few interesting examples that stood out.
Of course, any number of factors could have changed in these past seasons if the league and teams went in planning for 22 games, so all of these projections are offered as representations of how much standings can change, not expectations of how different any given season would be.
Method: Last 2 match-ups
I’m starting with this one mostly because it produced the least change in final standings of all the seasons and methods I tried, particularly at the top, due to just how strong the Lynx and Sparks were in what would end up being the Sparks’ third title season.
Each end of the standings remains relatively unchanged, with the Sun jumping up into the postseason and the Mercury dropping out. Otherwise, the Storm benefited the most from this alteration, jumping up four spots to a first-round bye and home-court advantage until the semifinals.
Chicago / Atlanta becomes a first-round match-up, and the Liberty probably would have preferred a potential second-round game against the Sun, who they swept that season.
Method: First 2 match-ups
Look at all the changes! The Liberty and Stars stand pat, but every other team changes position, some drastically. In this model, the Fever and Storm both drop out of the Playoffs, while the Sun and Mystics are back in the picture. The Sky lose their first-round bye, while the Dream move in to that fourth spot on the relative strength of their earlier games.
The thing that stands out to me most about these standings (and the previous 2016 standings produced) is the sheer number of ties. Before tiebreakers, there is a three-way tie for 1st, a three-way tie for 5th, and ties at 8th and 10th. Each was breakable using the league’s tiebreak procedure, but it certainly produces a complex field to follow down the stretch of the season.
Even beyond the postseason implications, this new model of 2016 has major ripple effects on the 2017 Draft. By this model, the Draft Lottery odds look like this:
A couple of implications to consider:
Without a lottery pick, what do the Mystics have to package up for the Sky to complete the Elena Delle Donne trade? In the real world, the Mystics sent Stefanie Dolson, Kahleah Copper, and the 2017 No. 2 pick, which they no longer have.
The Fever now drop in to the lottery in a Draft where they did not (in the real world) make a first-round pick. They gave up their No. 8 pick in a trade that involved the Mercury and Sun to land Candice Dupree. Would they do the same with a top-four pick in their bag?
Method: First and last match-ups
The movements here are relatively small, though there are a lot of them throughout the middle of the league, and there are noticeably fewer ties this time around, a very clear ordering revealing itself.
The Sky earn the last spot in the Playoffs, whereas the Storm drop out. The Sky lose their earned lottery pick (No. 4, Gabby Williams), but it’s plausible the Storm take Jordin Canada at No. 4 instead of No. 5 anyway, making the exchange uninteresting.
With Dallas moving up to No. 5 and the Mystics down to No. 7, Mike Thibault and crew would have first dibs after that; does he still shock WNBA pundits by drafting Ariel Atkins, or does early entrant Azurá Stevens still get selected there?
The swap in postseason positioning sets up a potential second-round game between the Liberty and Sun, who had split in the regular season, which New York may have preferred over their 82-68 loss to the Mystics.
Method: First 22
Admittedly, these last two methods are a little fraught, considering Team A could have a match-up with Team B in their first 22 games which isn’t in Team B’s first 22 games. Nevertheless, overall it shows how important that ramp up to the last third of the schedule has been for teams in the past.
It’s also worth considering that 2018 was the most volatile season of the four; every method I applied resulted in pretty drastic changes.
In this version, Seattle remains the clear leader, and there’s no way for the Fever to get past their worst season. The Mercury benefit from their success before Sancho Lyttle’s injury, and the Wings look much better by virtue of 13 of their 15 wins that season having come early.
There’s a log jam around 3rd place, where four teams end up tied, and it results in Atlanta Dream losing their double-bye and falling all the way to a first-round match-up against the Lynx. Eventual Finalist Washington Mystics similarly fell from 3rd down to 6th, looking at a first-round game against their 2019 Finals counterpart, the Connecticut Sun. Those two split their 2018 regular season series, so it could have been just as interesting as a one-game postseason “series” that year.
Method: Last 22
Looking at the last 22 games still faces the same issue of being unbalanced, but it gives a version of the season where teams have potentially built some momentum and cohesion they may not have at the beginning of the season, especially with teammates still potentially returning from overseas leagues. Of course, it also comes with the added wear and tear — and too often, injury — accumulated over the course of the earlier games.
Nevertheless, what stands out here is the setting of the Connecticut Sun. They had just 3 of their 11 losses in their first 12 games, so lopping those off results in a severely different final record (14 – 8), moving them from double-bye positioning down to a salacious first-round match-up with the Mercury. That would have been the third straight postseason meeting between the two teams, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a WNBA fan who would have been against more of those fireworks.
The Sky avoid the Aces in the second-round, and we may all be deprived of the Hamby Heave, one of the most memorable postseason finishes the league has seen.
Unfortunately, we’re not going to have the benefit of seeing the 34-game version of the 2020 WNBA season to compare to its potential 22-game version, but there’s no doubt that because of it, we’ll see pile-on effects on playoff positioning, Draft Lottery odds, and free agency possibilities for the next couple of years.