June 25, 2023
Sunday Notes, Week 5: What makes a good or bad offense, featuring Seattle and Atlanta — plus Jewell Loyd
Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA for this week
Welcome back to Sunday Notes, your weekly journey into trends and analysis around the WNBA. Today we’re looking at: offenses, good and bad, from Atlanta, Las Vegas and Seattle, plus a breakdown of Jewell Loyd’s historically excellent season-to-date. For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through last night.
From a certain perspective, the Dream offense is quite hilarious. Despite leading the WNBA in transition rate, per Synergy, Atlanta’s eighth-ranked halfcourt offense has its overall offensive efficiency down to seventh league-wide. And ironically, the reason the Dream excel in transition is much of the same reason they struggle in the halfcourt.
Atlanta’s transition offense is so good because it plays most of its competitive minutes with a number of the league’s best shot-makers on the court at the same time; playing in transition means they get a chance to get any of them one-on-one matchups, usually mismatches, with a head of steam. The Dream’s halfcourt offensive process relies exactly on that same advantage of “we have more elite shot-makers than you do,” but that doesn’t work nearly as well without the fast break. And while it’s hard to say that a bottom-five WNBA offense can have worse process than its numbers indicate, that is the case for Atlanta.
Ninety percent of the Dream’s entire halfcourt offensive philosophy boils down to a simple flowchart, which goes something like this: “Does this two-player action” — usually off the ball — “get us an advantageous shot? If yes, see below”:
The other side of the flowchart being: “If not, find the nearest hooper, and tell her to go get a bucket”:
A more eloquent way to phrase it would be that Atlanta’s entire offensive conceit is, “We’re going to run a well-designed two-player off-ball game into either the open paint or at the slot, and both the players involved are going to be great shot-makers. We’ll kick out to a borderline-elite shot-creator if that doesn’t work.” That’s never going to be able to achieve what the Aces or the Liberty at their best are able to do on offense, both because the Dream can’t match their pace and because it’s a heck of a lot easier to defend a two-player action and the subsequent iso than an offense that continuously leverages all five of its players as scoring threats. And yet I still love the Atlanta offense so much: it’s leveraging some of the most talented offensive players in the league to go out there and hoop, and it means I ain’t really got to worry about watching as many moving parts when the Dream have the ball.
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Can Atlanta improve upon this reliable-but-low-upside offense? I’m really not too sure. Rhyne Howard is basically its only top-of-the-rotation player who’s a plus off-ball threat; the other Dream mostly are not shooting threats, with the exceptions of Nia Coffey, who is purely a stationary shooter, and Allisha Gray, who has always favored the dribble jumper more than a quick catch-and-shoot release and is neither an active nor particularly effective cutter. As long as Haley Jones is still hopefully developing her touch and Aari McDonald is the same type of player she’s been for the past six-plus years, this is the most optimal offense that Atlanta can run. The only way I can see that ceiling being raised is if head coach Tanisha Wright and co. can teach Gray and Jones and Cheyenne Parker to be among the league’s best cutters, drastically increase Gray’s 3-point attempt rate (which is currently at a career-low) and remove multiple non-shooters from the rotation.
Given who some of those non-shooters are, improving the Dream’s overall offense would generally come at the cost of rookie-scale player development. Atlanta should not be sitting below Dallas and Los Angeles in the WNBA standings, but the bigger concern is their terrible transition defense, a subject for another day.
Las Vegas Aces
There’s really not that much to say about the Aces. They’re far and away the best team in the league, playing like a well-oiled machine even while Kelsey Plum struggled to hit from deep, and their 2.5 bench players are better than some teams’ starters. We’ll talk next week about how Chelsea Gray is having the best season of her career and has been at least the second-most valuable Ace this year because I don’t have enough room in this article. So for now, I just want to use the team as an informative example of how good offenses create shots off the ball.
Here, Phoenix defends Vegas’ first couple actions quite well; Moriah Jefferson slides over A’ja Wilson’s ball screen perfectly, and Sug Sutton recovers to deny Plum a finishing angle even after Plum back cuts Sutton’s top-lock. But just by having Plum vacate the strongside corner and Gray lift to the backside slot, the Mercury are forced into rotation and the Aces move accordingly into passing lanes.
If Plum half-asses the back cut, if Gray doesn’t lift, if Wilson drifts along the arc instead of stopping at the top of the key, then there’s no shot here. Far, far too many players in the WNBA don’t have a feel for this movement. Now let’s get into how selecting for that skill is the difference between a decent Storm offense and an unbearable one.
Jewell Loyd is a top-five player in the league, and among the elite guards of the WNBA, there are more strengths to her game than anyone else’s. Between Loyd and the rest of the W’s best this year — Breanna Stewart, Wilson, Jackie Young and whichever of Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike you prefer — only Stewart is asked to do as much as Loyd (ironic, given they just played six seasons together).
After eight years of polycentricity, the Storm have made Loyd their heliocentric superstar. Loyd’s only historical peers, between her efficiency, versatility and playmaking, are Diana Taurasi and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke. No one else in WNBA history has even approached the numbers she’s put up this year, let alone the game-breaking level of attention she’s commanded from opposing defenses. Now, there’s a notable gap between the otherworldly scoring efficiency Taurasi and Cooper-Dyke put up in their best seasons and Loyd’s merely above-average rate; considering Loyd’s premier defensive abilities, that’s the difference between an MVP frontrunner and someone who should be a surefire All-Star and All-WNBA selection. It’s truly remarkable that Loyd has done this despite an incredibly difficult shot diet: Per Synergy, 95% of the league has had easier spot-up looks than Loyd, and the rate of her shots that have been assisted ranks in the 15th percentile, according to WNBA Advanced Stats.
Loyd’s spots on offense haven’t changed so much as they’ve expanded — no more starting every play running off motion strong, but a lot more touches off pistol actions, empty post-ups, and teammates looking for her relocations. To call her the tip of the spear that is the Seattle offense would be a gross understatement; she’s the tip, entirety of the blade and much of the handle.
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But the Storm are punishing defenses across the halfcourt with spacing better than everyone but the Aces and maybe the Liberty. For as much as Loyd’s usage pattern has changed because Seattle doesn’t have the personnel to make motion strong as effective anymore, it’s also because it’s found more efficient ways to play. In the words of Mike Prada, author of “Spaced Out: How the NBA’s Three-Point Revolution Changed Everything You Thought You Knew About Basketball,” “spacing is the currency of the sport.” The Storm have had nearly as much currency as anyone — they’ve just been getting a terrible conversion rate from spacing to scoring.
One key to an offense reducing the inflation in its conversion rate is to actually force defenses to respect its spacing; there’s little advantage to good spacing if defenses still gap off shooters who can’t hit 3-pointers. Part of the reason Seattle has a 101.7 offensive rating over its past five games, which would nearly tie for fourth in the league across the whole season, per WNBA Advanced Stats, is Loyd going ballistic from deep. She’s hit 42.9% of nearly 10 3-point attempts per game over that span. (The only other player who’s done that in league history? You guessed it: Taurasi.) Most have been heavily contested, driving efficient offense and forcing two defenders to the ball to counter her unrivaled pick-n-roll (PnR) scoring game.
How Storm head coach Noelle Quinn and co. have leveraged Loyd’s superstar scoring and PnR play is where this Seattle team and Prime Taurasi’s Phoenix teams diverge. Paul Westhead and Corey Gaines’ Mercury were advanced for their time but still products of a professional basketball landscape that cared little about spacing or off-ball movement. These Storm are opening shots through movement and cutting off of the numbers advantage created by Loyd’s gravity.
Take the following play from Seattle’s game against Connecticut Tuesday. Loyd has a midrange post-up against DiJonai Carrington, a matchup very much in favor of the former. The Storm’s worst spacer, center Mercedes Russell, is stationed by the nail — this way, the Sun either help baseline off a quality shooting threat, or they help off of Russell, in which case Loyd can easily see the help coming and flip to a very good passer and dribble-handoff hub in Russell. When Loyd tells Jordan Horston to slip the PnR that the latter is setting up, Alyssa Thomas traps Loyd to prevent the mismatch. Anticipating this, Loyd instantly dumps the ball off to Horston, who is left open thanks to the exchange between Russell and Sami Whitcomb that prevents Brionna Jones from helping at the nail. Horston’s 6’6 wingspan takes care of the rest.
It is the subtleties in how quickly Horston slips and Loyd anticipates the pass, where Russell is positioned and her exchange with Whitcomb that render a defensively imposing frontcourt scrambling to keep up.
Another feature Seattle has pulled from the best offenses in the NBA (and some of the best in WNBA history) is the ability for anyone to bring the ball up the floor. By having lineups where all five players can grab a board and go, or grab a turnover and go, or be the middlewoman on a kick-out or outlet, a team wastes no time getting into transition offense; with more traditional personnel, the player who secures the rebound or loose ball has to find one of their guard teammates so that she can lead the break instead, which affords the defense time to match up.
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The Storm played nine players this week, eight of which were combo guards, quality playmakers, and/or two of the four best passing centers in the league. That created possessions like the one below, in which Whitcomb brings the ball up after getting a blindside steal on NaLyssa Smith. Ivana Dojkić and Horston sprinting to the corners while Ezi Magbegor settles into the paint stretches Indiana horizontally, which gives Seattle both a geometric advantage and a clear mismatch on the right side of the floor.
The Fever defended that pretty well, all things considered. But when you have personnel who can efficiently use every second of the shot clock, and you coach them up to understand how those little things matter, there’s no defense that can win the numbers game.