July 23, 2023
Sunday Notes, Week 8: Sun’s defense, Wings’ offense, hope in Seattle and Becky Hammon … the player?
It's 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: our first Tankathon Check-in, why a simple defensive choice against Brittney Griner reveals a larger shift in the W, how the Wings have improved their offense and whatever pieces of hope exist in Seattle. For reference, since this notebook comes out on Sundays, I define “this week” as the prior Sunday through last night.
To be clear, no one in the WNBA is currently tanking on purpose. That being said, let’s see where our teams are right now in lottery standings and where they project to end up (chart vaguely organized by rightmost column):
|Team:||Games back in lottery:||Games back of No. 8 seed:||Strength of schedule remaining (out of 12)*:||Likely finish:|
|Indiana||———||2.5||12th-strongest (easiest)||Either top lottery odds or No. 8 seed|
|Phoenix||10||2.5||1||Top-two lottery odds|
|Los Angeles||8.5||2||8||Top-two odds if they’re in the lottery|
|Seattle||14.5||5||11||Second- or third-best lottery odds|
|Chicago||23.5||———||4||Either worst lottery odds or bottom-two seed|
|Minnesota||12||-0.5||3||Bottom-two lottery odds|
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There was something interesting going on in the Sun-Mercury game late Tuesday night, and not just Phoenix picking up its fifth win of the season against the No. 3 team in the standings. Rather, it was how Connecticut was defending Brittney Griner.
Griner finished that game with 10 points, five rebounds, five assists and two blocks, but on just 4-for-10 shooting. The Mercury won that game mostly because they hit 42.6% of their 26 3-point attempts, their second-highest volume of the season, per Across The Timeline. That they took so many threes was a success of Connecticut’s gameplan: Brittney Griner didn’t beat the Sun and instead Phoenix had to rely on its shooting. That the Mercury scored 23 points on open catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy, shows the Sun’s need to clean up their backside rotations (more disciplined help-and-fly would probably be their best bet).
But even though Connecticut lost, the fact that the hyper-small Sun were able to avoid Griner taking advantage of their lack of size is significant for them. The fact that the Sun were able to do so, however, through a motley crew of 6’2 center Alyssa Thomas, combo forward DeWanna Bonner and some double-teaming wings, all without fully comprising their defense somewhere else, is significant for the WNBA.
It’s not that teams have been unable to deal with Griner before, but generally those teams weren’t playing rotations that featured just two players over 6’2, only one of whom was a center. More notably, that one center is Olivia Nelson-Ododa — a second-year player, drafted in the mid-second round, who was acquired as effectively the sole return in an offseason salary dump. That’s not to say that Nelson-Ododa is a poor defender. Rather, the WNBA has come so far that it’s possible to find as good a defensive center as Nelson-Ododa without spending significant resources.
Five years ago, it’d be hard to imagine an unheralded player such as Nelson-Ododa holding up against Griner for 21 minutes without her team sending hard doubles her way. It’d be even harder to imagine soft doubles from Bonner and some near-six-foot wings could do the trick. (Griner would have been in her athletic peak back then, but she’s also scoring at career-high efficiency this year, so I think that caveat gets canceled out.) Not only have some teams’ defensive schemes improved drastically over recent years, but offenses have been increasingly effective, which means the league’s best scoring units (such as the Sun) enable their defenses more latitude in how they pick their poison.
But no defense can survive throwing out the same look every possession, which is why the minutes someone like Nelson-Ododa provides are crucial. The replacement level for centers in the WNBA has risen quite a lot in recent years. That’s a subtle change that has implications for how rosters are constructed, how salaries are paid and who can be considered a star. It also has implications for how much better a college big has to be than her guard counterparts to justify a high draft slot.
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The Wings’ offense is good. Not that you really needed me to tell you that — they’ve scored at least 98 points in each of their last three games. But what’s happened isn’t just a hot streak.
Dallas is on a hot streak, to be clear: it’s shooting 51/38/70 (FG%/3P%/FT%) over that span with more steals than turnovers. Natasha Howard, Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally are all putting up MVP-caliber offensive lines; Howard’s averaging 23.3 points on 58/50/70, Ogunbowale is at 22.7 points on 45/39/89 and 6.7 assists and Sabally’s put up 20.0 on 49/50/100 plus 6.0 assists. And they’re all taking over 14 shots per game. (Teaira McCowan, for comparison, has been at a casual 13.7 points per game on over 70% field goal percentage.)
That is absolutely not sustainable, so I wouldn’t bet my life’s savings on Wings overs. But the increased scoring efficiency and higher assist-to-turnover ratio does indicate real improvements in the offense (just not “three offensive MVPs”-level improvement). Before injuries struck, Dallas’ offense was much better out of the gate this year than last in large part because its lineups came with clear offensive philosophies. Injuries have meant it’s not playing several different styles a night and instead has had to contend with all of its talented-but-discordant scorers sharing the floor together for 30 minutes a night. All credit to the players and to head coach Latricia Trammell, because they have found a way to play in the halfcourt without resorting too much to “your turn, my turn.”
Take the following play for example, a standard dive pick-n-roll (PnR) between Crystal Dangerfield and McCowan with a roll/replace from Howard. The simple action leverages both McCowan’s roll gravity and Howard’s threat as a cutter to force the Sparks to either give McCowan a one-on-one in the paint, Howard an opening to attack off the catch or Dangerfield an open pull-up jumper at the elbow. Los Angeles picked the second option:
Even if it doesn’t directly create a scoring opportunity, that increased cutting also draws defenders away from help. Meaning that the league’s biggest individual mismatch (pun fully intended) can get easy isos …
… or that her teammates have much more space and many fewer help defenders to deal with:
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And that’s a 33-year-old Hammon! Not even at her peak!
It truly is ridiculous how good Hammon was over 16 seasons. Ringz culture and a recent retirement has flattened the debate over who is the best point guard in league history, but we should have that discussion more often; between Hammon, Sue Bird and the ongoing careers of Courtney Vandersloot and Chelsea Gray, there are a lot of excellent right answers.
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Another thing you don’t need me to tell you: the Storm are not good. They have lost a franchise-record nine-straight games. The offense is discombobulated, the defense can’t navigate a ball screen without giving up an open back cut or lifting 3-pointer somewhere else. Half of the roster is constructed to play an up-tempo space-and-pace attack and a switch-everything defense, the other half wants to play a slower heliocentric offense and a drop-heavy defense. It doesn’t help that Seattle still isn’t starting its best five.
It’s not like the Storm brass doesn’t know this; Ivana Dojkić and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu each played single-digit minutes last night and just one second-half minute, and nine of the other 10 players on the roster got double-digit minutes instead. Part of that was because Seattle was down big early and had no other choice, but part of that was because the only productive approach at this point in its season is “throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.”
The good news is that some things are sticking! Not in a way that’s good for winning games in the year of our Lord 2023, mind you, but good for winning games eventually. For example: Jordan Horston. Over the last three games, the rookie has averaged 15.3 points (leads the team over that span), on 66.5% true-shooting (second on the team, on 57/67/67 shooting splits and 2.0 3-point attempts), 5.3 rebounds (second on the team), 1.7 assists and a ridiculous 2.7 steals (leads the team) in just 25.5 minutes. Jade Melbourne, the Storm’s 20-year-old rookie point guard, earned competitive first quarter minutes last night, shot 2-for-4, and more importantly is clearly growing increasingly comfortable with a WNBA pace of play. Gabby Williams, the x-factor to Seattle reaching a baseline level of competency on both ends, had six points (3-7 FG), three assists and three steals with just one turnover.
I’m obviously partial to the Storm after having been an active beat for two highly enjoyable seasons. But my point here isn’t to make chicken salad out of chicken shit. My point is to say that there’s too much young, exciting talent on this team to not be extremely frustrated when they’re the excruciating kind of bad instead of the fun kind of bad. An Ezi Magbegor-Horston-Williams trio should be one of the most exciting defensive frontcourts in league history, and an offense with Jewell Loyd and Sami Whitcomb and Melbourne in the fold should be slinging swing passes and jacking up 3-pointers without getting bogged down for 15 seconds every possession.
It is also worth noting that Seattle would look way different if Loyd wasn’t averaging 12.0 points on sub-40% true-shooting with just one made three in the team’s last three games. That is probably notable when it comes to sussing out how she’s going to feel come free agency. Which I’ll get to in a week or two in another edition of “Sunday Notes.”
(Editor’s note: Annie Costabile, Sky beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, talked to Loyd (a Chicago-area native) about her impending free agency on Saturday. Annie was recently a guest on the Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast with Jackie Powell, and the two discussed several WNBA topics. You can listen to that episode to anywhere you get podcasts or watch on YouTube.)
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