July 2, 2023 

Sunday Notes, Week 6: Chelsea Gray-tness, lessons for the Liberty, Gabby Williams graces Storm

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: the spaced-out Sun, Chelsea Gray and her too-quietly-historic season, where the Liberty go from here and how Gabby Williams fits back into the Storm. For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through last night.

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Connecticut Sun

I have seen the future of WNBA basketball, and it’s the “lost their second-best player” revamped Connecticut Sun. I plan to write a lot more about this at some point soon, so I’m not going to get too much into it here, but just take a gander at what the Sun offense has been able to do to otherwise quality defenses. More specifically, take a look at how they’re able to do this:

The Aces are their own unstoppable force at the moment, so let’s just ignore yesterday afternoon’s game for a moment. Consider that the Sun went from what for the NBA would be considered a fairly 2013-ish NBA offense to one that looks a heck of a lot like a 2020s NBA offense. (“A 2013-ish offense,” for the record, is decently advanced by WNBA standards in and of itself.) And as a result, they’ve had this amount of offensive success against, in Chicago and New York, a couple of good defenses with better talent on paper. But the way Connecticut is playing right now has made Alyssa Thomas almost impossible to stop, and more importantly has turned decent role players into big-time scoring threats.

I do not think a rotation of Natisha Hiedeman, Tiffany Hayes, Rebecca Allen, DeWanna Bonner, Thomas, DiJonai Carrington, Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Tyasha Harris is capable of winning a title in most seasons, let alone one in which you have this Vegas team. But I do think it’s going to get a hell of a lot closer than you’d expect.

Las Vegas Aces

I’m going to talk about the first Battle of the Superteams in the New York section, because here we’ll touch on Chelsea Gray. Her highlight passes this year have been more ridiculous than ever, which I think is almost overshadowing the fact that Gray is having a top-five-all-time season by a guard.

The reason I’m only touching on Chelsea Gray and not diving in deeper is that there’s really very little to say. She’s mostly the same player she’s been the past few years, only better at just about everything. She’s hitting just about any and every shot she’s taking, getting to the line at a decent clip when she doesn’t, and is still an unbelievable passer with an elite assist-to-turnover ratio. What makes Gray’s 2023 nearly unprecedented is the fact that she is providing both premier shot-making and premier playmaking at the same time — ninth in the WNBA in true-shooting and 10th in assist rate, per Her Hoop Stats; the only other qualified players even in the top 25 in both are Breanna Stewart and Nneka Ogwumike.

Outside the Wubble, only Cynthia Cooper-Dyke and Diana Taurasi have ever matched Gray’s combination of scoring and passing excellence.

Anyway, here’s a highlight reel of Gray’s most ridiculous passes and buckets this year, because what is basketball for if not enjoying the absurdity that is Chelsea Gray:

New York Liberty

We got Battle of the Superteams, Part One on Thursday. It was decently close for the first 21 minutes, and then it wasn’t. There were some easily correctable issues for the Liberty — executing help, cleaning up closeouts, remembering to cut — but there’s a more fundamental problem there too.

We knew coming into the season that Vegas was going to have better guard play than New York. And the biggest difference in the game was the fact that the Aces’ guards can all break down a defense by themselves and make the right play once the defense is in rotation; to varying degrees, of course, Plum, Gray and Young are all able to get their own shot against most defenders in the league and leverage that scoring to open their teammates if defensive help comes.

By contrast, Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu are both excellent playmakers but poor isolation threats. Marine Johannès is great at both factors, but mostly as a second-side outlet. Betnijah Laney isn’t great at either.

What that means is that the Liberty are starting off with a disadvantage in this matchup, unless they plan on changing their defense from a catch hedge/at the level coverage to something like the Storm’s rotation-happy scheme. To make up the difference here, New York needs to find ways to make up for its guards not being triple threats. It needs to get its playmakers more touches where the defense is more exposed when providing help. It needs to create more shots off the ball to ease the passing burden on its shot-creators.

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I talked last week about this, and for a team as offensively talented as the Liberty, the difference between “good but not good enough” and “nearly impossible to defend” mostly comes down to heavily increasing off-ball activity. Look at Ionescu, for example. Coming into the Vegas matchup, she was averaging just over 16 points on 7.5 3-point attempts and 3.4 free-throw attempts; she finished Thursday with seven points on just two tries from deep and no trips to the line. Getting her better looks isn’t rocket science. Considering her total offensive package — elite shooter both off the dribble and the catch on movement with deep range, great playmaker, struggles to create in iso — is a lot like Steph Curry’s (the shooting breakdowns through each’s first four seasons are extremely similar), there’s already a playbook for what maximizing her skill set looks like from the Golden State Warriors: baseline split actions, relocation 3s, guard-guard screens and inverted actions.

Most of those actions are also remedies for the other Liberty players’ off-ball usage. It appears we’ve found the upper limit on Jonquel Jones’ post usage and she’s not taking enough 3-pointers, but running more baseline splits and inverted actions requires her getting more touches above the break. Betnijah Laney’s offensive game is too predictable, but using her in more ball screens adds variance and getting room for relocations and baseline splits means she has to vacate the corner more often. Marine Johannès simply isn’t being run off screens on enough possessions, but making her a partner with Ionescu on those baseline splits and guard-guard screening actions involves her in the play with more regularity.

Johannès’ under-usage is an emblematic tale: it’s hard to keep this many mouths fed when they all deserve to have actions run through or for them. The Aces don’t have to worry about that because every one of their starters is a plus passer for their position and very good at toggling between running a given set and providing an outlet for their teammates. New York does not have that luxury. Instead, it has to make sure that every player is an active option on as many possessions as possible.

Making that change requires head coach Sandy Brondello doing something she hasn’t done since Penny Taylor retired. Because for the last seven years, her teams have always featured a trio of featured scorers (at least when they’ve been healthy) complemented by limited play-finishers. Brondello has already been playing a more egalitarian system this year, but if she wants to contend with Vegas, she’s going to need to lean even harder into that. This roster deserves as many openings for its players’ creativity as it can get.

Seattle Storm

Gabby Williams is back! What does that mean? Hard to say! But let’s try anyway.

The Storm figured something out with Williams as the 2022 season progressed, something the Sky weren’t able to figure out in her first three years in the WNBA. Seattle figured out how to use Williams’ combination of superb playmaking, elite finishing and ungodly athleticism to produce an offensively viable W player, resulting in the best stretch of her career: 8.6 points on 60.4% true-shooting, 4.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists (which ranked second on the team) and 1.8 steals per game over her final 14 regular season games. The key was making her a primary offensive initiator and empowering her to eschew thoughts of pull-up jumpers for the sake of only attacking the rim and making plays.

Between the beginning and end of her last season, per WNBA Advanced Stats, Gabby Williams almost entirely stopped taking shots between eight feet from the rim and the 3-point line. Instead, she took a few more above-the-break threes and a whole bunch more shots at the rim. I think it’s pretty straightforward to imagine how these two charts fit together:

Think about the Storm’s biggest offensive deficiencies: lack of primary playmaking, no rim pressure for the thousandth year in a row, terrible rebounding. Now slot Williams into the starting lineup alongside Jewell Loyd and Ivana Dojkić, who now don’t have to take so many reps as the lead initiator. Rising tide, all boats, etc.

Defensively, Williams will either take a Seattle unit that swings from “lockdown” to “fare-free turnstile” and make it much more consistent, or she could unlock its latent potential to be an absolutely smothering force. That’s because Gabby Williams last year was the best individual defensive player in the league, and frankly, I’m not sure it was particularly close. Her skill set was less valuable than that of a rim protector like Sylvia Fowles. But in terms of individual ability to shut down their assignment while also causing hell for players they’re not even assigned to cover, there’s exceedingly few names in league history quite like Gabby Williams.

I mean, just look at this stuff:

Now imagine that as the head of a snake made up of her, Loyd, Dojkić, Jordan Horston and Ezi Magbegor. Scary hours.

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Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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