May 21, 2023
Sunday Notes, early-season and preseason edition: Fun in Dallas and flashes of excellence in New York
Plus, roster decisions everywhere
Have you missed the Daily Briefing the past few months? Then I’ve got good news, probably. Welcome to a new series, running … let’s say weekly. Instead of a daily newsletter partly dedicated to analysis and storylines, here we’ll dive into trends from around the league.
With each team having played their season opener and a couple of preseason games, I want to discuss two things: lessons from the early going and training camp roster cuts.
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What we learned from preseason and season openers
For the first time ever, WNBA preseason games were publicly available, including Indiana at Dallas and the Canada game between Chicago and Minnesota. But tape on the others exists (including the non-exhibition scrimmage between Los Angeles and Seattle), and four of the six season openers were nationally televised (if we include NBA TV). Some of those games reaffirmed what should have already been expected, but there were some new things worth looking at:
I am going to complain about the Sky’s starting lineup all season; starting Courtney Williams over Rebekah Gardner on the perimeter is a crime against basketball. It significantly lessens the quality of their defense, their switchability, their spacing, their connective passing and their rim pressure.
Williams shot 2-for-8 in the Sky’s season opener against the Lynx, including 1-for-5 from 3-point range. Gardner shot 4-for-8 from the field and 2-for-3 from deep with four steals, a couple of excellent passes and no turnovers.
If Williams is starting because head coach James Wade believes she’s a better fit, he’s going to be wrong. If she is starting because she would not have signed otherwise, then she is not going to play for a winning team. Williams taking as many 3-pointers as she did may be a big step in the right direction, though. That is a situation to monitor.
The Wings’ roster exiting free agency was generally considered uninspiring, which morphed into more confusion after the draft (not that either reaction is new to Dallas). And in their opening game against the Sky, the Wings looked exactly as expected for the first eight minutes — playing through center Teaira McCowan as the first and second option, with guard Arike Ogunbowale in isolation when defenses overcommitted. But their defense was putting a lot of pressure on Chicago both on and off the ball, to an extent few teams ever do. The reason few teams do so is because it’s simply exhausting, but few teams have a roster that goes 10 deep with impact players. And it seems new head coach Latricia Trammell has every intention of maximizing each piece of this roster.
The first clue that Trammell had something up her sleeve was with forward Satou Sabally. Sabally subbed in for Natasha Howard after the latter picked up two early fouls, and she immediately had the ball in her hands nearly as much as McCowan. In the late first and second quarters, specifically, of both of its games, Dallas noticeably shifted from playing through McCowan to playing through Sabally:
Things started getting funky once rookie combo forward Maddy Siegrist checked in. The base scheme with Howard or Sabally at the four and McCowan or Kalani Brown at the five was high-activity drop. With Siegrist and Sabally playing the forward spots, the Wings switched any 3-4 actions but played drop on anything else involving Siegrist or the center. Awak Kuier then came on and played the three, followed by several minutes of a Sabally-at-the-five lineup and a Siegrist-at-the-five lineup.
It appears Dallas has finally found a head coach who can make its whole greater than the sum of its parts. If you had any doubts about Trammell, the level of defensive activity she got out of Ogunbowale should be enormous proof of concept.
Las Vegas Aces
After the dust of free agency settled, some analysts called Aces guard Kelsey Plum’s shot creation the X-factor in the battle of the superteams. They were right:
She is going to be a problem problem.
New York Liberty
The Liberty are going to be absurdly excellent. If you saw their game against the Mystics, then you know there will be growing pains. In spite of that 16-point loss, there were signs from that game and the preseason alike that New York may be just a bit of chemistry away from rolling over every defense in its path. That’s not just because of the talent on their roster, but also because the coaching staff appears to be pushing the boundaries of WNBA offense.
Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello has long been one of the league’s best play-callers, and it appears that she is up to the challenge of matching Becky Hammon’s schematic leadership. The first clue we got was from the Liberty’s opening possession against Vegas:
That forward Breanna Stewart and guard Sabrina Ionescu were already nearly seamlessly flowing from side pick-and-roll to rescreen dribble hand-offs was terrifying news for the rest of the league. But beyond those two stars, watch the level of activity from their teammates. Guard/forward Betnijah Laney follows them for a well-timed basket cut and immediately clears out to the corner. Forward Jonquel Jones sees an opening for a post-up, but quickly and correctly spaces above the slot to clear the lane for Stewart’s roll.
These are basic offensive keys in the NBA but not in the W. Jones herself is coming from a Curt Miller system in Connecticut where she was not expected to cut to space outside of a set play. A set is called here to start the possession, but once the ball swings to Ionescu, it’s just the free-flowing offense. And within that free-flowing offense, New York pressures the Aces’ paint defense through a basket cut, post-up and roll, and the offense still ends up with nearly all its players’ feet behind the 3-point line when Ionescu shoots. That’s not common in this league.
At first glance, the Liberty’s offensive performance Friday was underwhelming: They only managed 64 points on 43.7% true shooting, and in the 13 minutes their top six players (Stewart, Jones, Ionescu, Courtney Vandersloot, Laney and Kayla Thornton) played together, they recorded a 92.0 offensive rating, per PBP Stats. Part of that came from uncharacteristically poor shooting — New York shot over six points below the WNBA average on catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy — and part of that came from a team still working out its kinks.
But make no mistake, New York continued to flash what should soon be offensive dominance. It got bogged down in the halfcourt as each half went on, but in the early minutes of both halves, Washington had serious trouble keeping pace. Take the Liberty’s opening set: Ionescu sets a couple of inverted back screens, and the cuts off of them draw help, which gets the ball swinging to an open 37.7% shooter from deep.
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On their next possession, the Liberty push the ball up the court and Laney walks into an open eight-foot jumper. A couple of plays later, they’re in their halfcourt offense, but the combination of getting downhill quickly, Vandersloot’s passing ability and Ionescu’s cut leaves the Mystics scrambling to defend as if it were a fast break. They run blind pig, and Washington can’t provide any help because of New York’s spacing.
To start the second half, the Liberty push in transition, and their pace and decisive passing and Laney’s pin-in screen cause two top-five guard defenders in the WNBA to leave Vandersloot wide open at the break.
New York shot 40% in the plays above. That’s a measly 46.0% true-shooting mark, and regression to the mean will be their friend. The key is simply continuing to push the pace throughout the game, which will only improve as Stewart gets back up to game speed and Jones and Vandersloot recover from early injuries. But even possessions where they don’t appear to be going up-tempo hold hidden promise:
Laney takes a very poor shot there. But by August, she won’t — or at least shouldn’t — be on the court in this situation. In her place will (or should) be Marine Johannès, who is overseas right now but is undoubtedly one of New York’s five most talented players. And for Johannès, that’s an easy, wide-open three.
With Johannès at the three with the other starters, the Liberty have a plus shooter and value-added passer at all five positions. Get ready.
The intrigue is that Mitchell actually had some wildly good playmaking flashes in the Canada game. Minnesota is probably going to struggle this season, but if Mitchell can actually pass at the point (pun fully intended), then this may be the fun kind of struggle. (Mitchell being a competent point guard would also finally open up Rachel Banham to specialize in off-ball and second-side offense.)
Unfortunately, however, Banham started at point guard for the Lynx’s regular-season opener against the Sky, which went about as well as it always has.
Speaking of teams without true point guards, the Storm appear to be hoping that playing two combo guards at the same time and playing almost entirely out of empty-side actions will make up for enough playmaking. It’s probably not going to work, but the offense has looked competent enough in the preseason. Still, I would say that, however much less you think the ball will be slinging around Seattle without Sue Bird, you should temper those expectations even further.
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Training camp roster cuts
There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to roster decisions and camp cuts, and there’s every reason to say that the WNBA has enough talent to warrant expansion while maintaining the level of play. But I have trouble using end-of-training camp roster cuts as a reason to advocate for expansion because the league is far from rostering the best 132 to 144 players available as is.
This is more applicable for some teams than for others.
The Sky’s most notable cut was rookie combo guard Kayana Traylor. She didn’t necessarily set the league on fire during the preseason, but she played quite well, and she did so for a Chicago team that enters the 2023 regular season with just three guards capable of handling and passing at a professional level. In fact, it’s possible Marina Mabrey is the only Sky player who is a value-added passer.
Instead, Wade opted to roster journeywoman bigs Alanna Smith and Kristine Anigwe. Of the six active frontcourt players on Chicago’s roster, Smith and Anigwe were the fifth- and sixth-best during the preseason.
One player who performed better than that pair is Sika Koné, a 20-year-old rookie who New York reluctantly cut. In Koné, the Sky have an incredibly young, incredibly raw, incredibly promising talent. Kudos to Wade for snatching her up as soon as he could.
The Fever waived second-year combo guard Destanni Henderson and rookie off-ball guard Taylor Mikesell late in training camp. Henderson had a very good offensive year in 2022 and was one of only two Indiana guards who were consistently willing to pressure the rim. Mikesell got a handful of minutes alongside real rotation players in the Fever’s first preseason game, looked stellar, and then did not play in their second game.
Instead of rostering Henderson, Indiana’s point guard rotation consists of a vet with a track record that doesn’t include value-added passing (Erica Wheeler), an off-ball guard playing out of position (Kristy Wallace), and a rookie who recorded zero assists and four turnovers in 29 preseason minutes while never driving downhill (Grace Berger).
Instead of Mikesell, Indiana is playing the aforementioned out-of-position off-ball guard, one of the least efficient players in the entire league (Victoria Vivians), and a stationary shooter with a limited defensive track record outside of Athletes Unlimited (Lexie Hull).
The results were horrendous in Indiana’s opening game against Connecticut. When the Sun’s starters finished subbing out in the late third quarter, the Fever offense had scored just 39 points. Connecticut let off the gas at that point, but until then, Indiana had had trouble getting the ball to the bigs or managing any sort of dribble penetration. That is exactly what you’d expect from a team with this kind of point guard rotation and this lack of viable shooting.
On a positive note from the preseason, Victaria Saxton looks like a possible defensive ace. I was surprised she made the roster, but watching her play, it’s clear that Saxton was responsible for a hell of a lot more of South Carolina’s defensive prowess than she got credit for.
Head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve recently said that the Lynx, for essentially the first time in her tenure, are deliberately looking to prioritize winning in future seasons over winning in 2023. That is absolutely what they should do, given their current roster and cap sheet.
But a team prioritizing future wins over current ones is not a team that cuts rookies like Taylor Soule and Brea Beal instead of veteran role players approaching 30 years old. Soule looked every part of a WNBA player in the preseason, and Beal showed promise on both ends of the court. It is concerning to see neither make this team’s final roster.
New York Liberty
I am not saying that the Liberty made any big mistakes, to be clear. But just know the name Stephanie Mawuli. Write that one down somewhere.
The Mystics’ fourth and fifth bigs right now are Amanda Zahui B., who was one of the worst scorers in the EuroLeague this past winter, and Tianna Hawkins, who was arguably their worst defender throughout the preseason. Washington had combo forward Emily Engstler in house, a second-year player who looked excellent in the preseason. It’s incredibly difficult to imagine Zahui B. or Hawkins contributing more to the Mystics’ title chances — both this year and for some years to come — than Engstler would have.