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The Ball Out’s amazing WNBA preview

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Unsurprisingly, this preview is going to be about as chalk as chalk can be. That is: what we saw in 2017 with the WNBA is likely to repeat itself in some similar pattern in 2018. Last season had more than a few blockbuster trades before it, shaking things up (more so in the #contentmills part of the internet than the actual play on the court), but things have not been popping off in the same way for this season.

We’re going to be looking at each WNBA team in a specific way: using data from Synergy, a lovely tracking site whose named I could not remember for the longest time. It’ll be an overview of how they played in 2017, with predictions at the start of the discussions, and a paragraph at the end discussing how 2017 applies to 2018 and why I chose my specific predictions.

Alright, that’s enough of that. Let’s talk some god darn basketball.

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MINNESOTA LYNX

2017 RECORD: 27-7

2017 PYTHAG%: 30-4

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 28-6

Using the genuinely perfect and lovely Synergy database, we can get a clear picture of how good the Minnesota Lynx were in 2017. They graded out as Very Good in both the half course and in transition, scoring 1.079 points per possession (PPP) in the fast break and .935 in the overall half court. Their overall PPP was .957, which was the third best in the entire twelve team league. Their most used scoring play was spot up shooting, done 17.5% of the time and scoring .934 PPP.

Their spot up shooting plays was third-best in the league. One spot of worry for them offensively was the pick and roll, when the ball handler took it herself. They used this type of play 15.2% of the time, scored only .745 PPP, and ranked 9/12 in the WNBA, grading out as Below Average. Not being able to score as a pick and roll ball handler puts a lot of pressure on the roll woman to make up for it. Thankfully, they were good to great at virtually everything else.

Defensively is where the Lynx championship was made. They had the best defense in the league in 2017, allowing .846 PPP, and generally turned teams into mush in the half court. However, they were the worst team in the WNBA in transition, a problem mitigated by their opponents playing in the half court nearly 90% of the time.

That is a weakness for this team that, if a team is aware of and able to exploit, could really put a crimp on their repeat plans. Minnesota defended spot up shooting and pick and roll ball handlers the best, but, along with transition offenses, they also were Below Average guarding the pick and roll woman and when fighting Off Screens. These are the cracks in the armor that give teams opportunities where they usually would not exist.

I chose the Lynx to win 28 games because of how they underperformed their pythag numbers. But you’ll notice that they performed them by four games, not just two; the reason I chose only two is because I suspect they’ll take the foot off the gas once they’ve clinched, to conserve energy. Though that one seed is very important, I think they’ll qualify for it fairly easily, even with the Sparks on their tail.

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LOS ANGELES SPARKS

2017 RECORD: 26-8

2017 PYTHAG%: 28-6

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 26-8

The Los Angeles Sparks have my favorite player in Candace Parker, and my second-favorite player Nneka Ogwumike. I almost always pick them as the champions before the season., and considering that they almost always go pretty far into the playoffs, I feel comfortable about picking them as the champions for this year, as well.

They had the best offense in the league, scoring 0.976 PPP, and were Excellent in both the half court and in transition. They relied on spot up shooting for 23.4% of their offensive positions, but were merely Good at it.

Where they really excelled is in things that the Minnesota Lynx, their only real competitor for the title, struggled. They kill people in transition and with the pick and roll ball handler and even cutting. High movement plays are their bread and butter, and that makes them a unique foil for the Lynx. It’s not fair to only describe them relative to their toughest opponent, but considering the battles they’ve had over the last few years, it’s almost inevitable.

Los Angeles had the second best defense in the league, and especially excelled in the half court. They’re virtually flaw-free, at least overall, though they grade out as Excellent only guarding post-ups, an offensive set they saw only 8.6% of the time. Interestingly enough, they are just Average on jump shots and around the basket (not including post-ups). I don’t know how that will apply to the upcoming season, but as a basic extrapolation I think it’s fair to say that, should things go bad, we could look back at those numbers as a predictor. Though probably not. I don’t know.

The Sparks are going to be pushing hard for that one seed, which could mess up my predictions. But I’m not sure that they care all that much, as they are clearly the second best team in the league. The one seed is valuable, but how valuable is it when you know that you’ll just end up facing the one seed in the championship anyway? They may want to conserve stamina for the real fight just up ahead.

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NEW YORK LIBERTY

2017 RECORD: 22-12

2017 PYTHAG%: 22-12

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 22-12

The thing that doomed the New York Liberty, as it has the last few seasons, is the lack of a strong offense. They graded out as Below Average, ranking as 9/12 in the WNBA. They graded out only as Very Good on running the pick and roll with the ball handler as the attacker, graded out as Good in a few more things, but were generally regarded at best as Average.

One thing that does paint them in a more positive light is that Synergy regards them as a Good three point shooing team, which is an offensive type they ran around 45% of the time. Shooting threes well can paper over a lot of flaws.

They have a Very Good defense, according to Synergy. They ranked as the third best in the WNBA, behind Minnesota and Los Angeles. They’re especially gifted at taking on pick and roll ball handlers, and Below Average when dealing with transition attacks. Most offense is run in the half court, so that’s not too worrisome, but it does present a weakness. If a team pushes them hard in transition and bottles the Liberty up behind the three point line, they could fall behind very, very quickly.

I think the Liberty have maxed out how good they can go. A 22-12 record is a very good record, and I’m just not sure that the Liberty can do better than that.

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CONNECTICUT SUN

2017 RECORD: 21-13

2017 PYTHAG%: 23-11

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 22-12

The Sun offense runs through three main play types: the pick and roll in which the ball handler takes the shot, transition buckets, and spot up shooting. They run those types 18.6%, 17.5%, and 15.7% of the time, respectively, grading out to Average, Very Good, and Excellent. Overall, they had a PPP rate of .927, good for fifth in the league. But I think that they could easily jump into the top two or three, should they shift their offensive focus. We already see that the thing they do the most is the most ineffective of the things they do the most. What if they were to stop using the pick and roll ball handler as the primary attacker, and instead shifted that to a more pass-around offense? More kick in than slash in a slash-and-kick sort of offense, I suppose.

The Sun are a very good defensive team, and a meat grinder when it comes to defending transition buckets. You can get them with good spot up shooting and if you cut and run off screens (they rank 12/13 on both of those things), but in the fast break they clamp down like a vise, or, if a vise is not a thing that clamps, then they clamp down like an oyster, or whatever.

They struggle with guarding three point shots, and are best at taking on mid-range attacks. The only thing that really holds them back is that they don’t really have the star power to get them through.

I’m reminded of those early 2010s Denver Nuggets teams; schematically, they were excellent, but when things broke down, they had nobody to pick up the slack. Jonquel Jones is the closest thing they have to a true blue franchise player; she isn’t far off from being a franchise player, to be clear, but her defense grades out as Below Average, and I am of the opinion that you have to be either be transcendental on one end of the floor to make up for being bad on the other.

But, regardless, should Jones improve even to Average on defense in 2018, the Sun will have a real shot at winning the title.

This is the wild card team. If Jonquel Jones does improve like she could, they’ll overtake the Liberty, and make a real charge for the title. But, assuming the Jones takes a leap, but not the full franchise leap, I think they’ll probably overtake New York, but not win the title.

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PHOENIX MERCURY

2017 RECORD: 18-16

2017 PYTHAG%: 17-17

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 20-14

Even if the Phoenix Mercury didn’t have the numbers to back it up, they would be a favorite for contention, simply because of the star power of Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi. Thankfully for them, though, they also have a pretty good offense. They rank 4th in points per possession, at .928, and have one of the highest half court-transition offense splits I’ve seen (90%/10%).

It’s to their benefit: their best offensive possessions end in post-ups, where they average over a point per possession. That’s not what they do all the time, however, as they do spot up shooting (I’m going to do a spot-up shooting!) and have the pick and roll ball handler attack about the same amount of time, about 19% of all possessions.

The thing that is shocking about this Mercury team is how bad they are on defense. It’s all relative, because they still grade out as Good, according to Synergy. But that’s not acceptable when you have a player as great as Brittney Griner. She is such a physical marvel, and a borderline basketball genius, that she alone should be enough to turn anything around the rim into a hole of despair.

And, indeed, it’s not Griner’s fault. She allows less than .7 points per possession. She struggles with guarding the pick and roll roller, but beats the hell out of post up defensive possessions and easily contains spot up shooters. The rest of the team is who is letting her down.

The Mercury are going to be better. Griner is going to be the defensive star, as always, and she and Diana Taurasi will have had another offseason to learn to work together offensively. This is a team with a high-ass ceiling, and I think they’ll do their best to reach it.

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WASHINGTON MYSTICS

2017 RECORD: 18-16

2017 PYTHAG%: 18-16

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 15-19

The Mystics are a frustrating team. They grade out as Good, offensively, but with the talent they have, they should be much better. Elena Delle Done was perhaps the best offensive player in the league last year, grading out in the 92nd percentile as a spot up shooter, as the literal best on post ups, and in the 89th percentile on isolation attacks.

The team itself, in comparison, graded out as Average on spot up shooting, and as Very Good on post ups. What that says to me is that Delle Donne papered over a lot of weaknesses, and, with Emma Meesseman taking the year off to play for Team Belgium in the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup, they’ll be under even more offensive stress.

Defensively, they’re merely Average, allowing .912 PPP, seventh-best in the league. They are especially bad at guarding spot up shooters, which is the offensive play set they come across the most. The only type of offensive possession that Synergy says they defend well (at least in terms of offensive possessions they see at least 10% of the time) is post ups; they grade out as Excellent.

Delle Donne is usually regarded as a poor defensive player, but that was at least not the case in 2017. She ranked in the 90th percentile overall, and defended post ups and spot up shooting the best. Emma Meesseman was a Very Good defender for the Mystics last year, and now that she’s gone, they’re going to have an even harder time stoping over the teams.

Emma Meesseman is gone for this season, and that’s only going to make things more difficult. I just don’t see how they get to eighteen wins again. It’s too much to ask of Delle Donne and this team. They could improve, and I hope I’m wrong. But at this stage, it’ll be tough for them as currently constructed.

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DALLAS WINGS

2017 RECORD: 16-18

2017 PYTHAG%: 13-21

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 14-20

The Dallas Wings were, frankly, a team of overachievers. They were 16-18, two games under .500, but their numbers reflect a much worse team. They had the 8th ranked offense, barely averaging over .9 PPP. They were Below Average in transition and merely Average in the half court.

The offensive set that they end up in the most is a spot up shot, which occurs about 20.5% of the time, and in which Synergy grades them out as Below Average. Of the three main set types (offensive types that that happened more than 10% of the time), their best is when the pick and roll ball handler is the attacker, and even then, Synergy says they’re only Average.

The only reason they’re even Average is because Skylar Diggins-Smith is an alien who scores at least one point on 41% of her pick and roll attacks. Without her, they would have a hard time scoring from anywhere.

But what really hurts them is that they had the second-worst defense in the entire league. The only type of offensive attack that they defend well is isolation basketball, and they only see that about 4.6% of the time. The type they see the most is when teams run in transition, the second most is spot up shooting, and Synergy says they’re Below Average on both.

They give up over a point per possession transition baskets, and .935 PPP on spot up shots. One positive spot is that, in the half court, they rank out as Good. Another positive: Skylar Diggins, their best offensive player, is also their best overall defender. She’s a real franchise player, and that puts them in the position of being able to rebuild quickly, or just improve quickly in general.

They’ll be much closer to their 2017 pythag% this year. Skylar Diggins-Smith will have a lot of heavy lifting to do, because this team was not very good when she was almost at her very best. She has another level to get to, and I think she’ll do her best to get there.

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SEATTLE STORM

2017 RECORD: 15-19

2017 PYTHAG%: 17-17

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 20-14

Now this is a team with some room to grow. They finished four games under .500, but have the second best offense in the entire league. They graded out as Excellent, with .969 PPP, and a lot of that has to due with the fact that they are the best team in the league in spot up shooting.

They attack in that manner 23.9% of the time, a smart decision considering how good they are at it. The rest of the offensive picture isn’t quite as rosy. Their next two highest offensive types are the pick and roll ball handler and in transition; they grade out as Below Average and Average, respectively.

They’re maximizing their skills, but also me themselves predictable. As an aside: they are Excellent at jump shots, averaging .962 PPP and an affected field goal percentage (a statistic that adjusts for the impact of three point shots) of 47.9%. Jump shots made at a near 50% clip will win you a lot of games. Breanna Stewart is, unsurprisingly, the best player on the team, when factoring in number of attempts with points per possession. She was always destined for superstardom, but she’s moved even faster than expected.

Where they have to improve, still, is on defense. If I were to pin down why they underachieved, it would be because of their defense. It’s not the worst in the league, but it is bad at things that can lead to flukey results.

When spot up shooting is the area you face the most, and one in which you grade out as Below Average, you can get buried in an avalanche of shots. They also struggle with pick and roll ball handlers, shots often end up high percentage, and in which draw defenders from the perimeter (or benefit from poor opposition perimeter defense).

Not a single one of their top five most used defenders (the percentage of possessions that they defended) grades out as better than Average. This is the spot, too, where Breanna Stewart will truly become a franchise player. If she becomes the defender she clearly could, then the Seattle Storm will go from an underperforming disappointment to a potential title contender.

My dark horse title contender. I am a Breanna Stewart stan, and she’s ready to break out. She’s already incredible, and I think that she’ll become the future Hall-of-Famer this year, both on defense and offense. A 20-14 record is the lowest I think they could go.

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ATLANTA DREAM

2017 RECORD: 12-22

2017 PYTHAG%: 12-22

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 15-19

My hometown Atlanta Dream struggled in 2017. The had the second-worst offense in the entire league, averaging only .851 points per possession. The only area that they grade out as Good is when the pick and roll ball handler attacks; Layshia Clarendon is the primary reason for that, ranking in the 57th percentile, meaning she’s better than 57% of all players running that type of play. But it’s not enough to put them over the top, whether that top be a .500 record or a playoff record.

Defensively, though, they were the real deal. They were fifth best in the league, and that is something that you can attribute to good team play, good coaching, and the stellar play of Elizabeth Williams and Tiffany Hayes. Hayes, who defend 9.2% of plays, is better than 85% of players; Williams, who defend 8.6% of plays, is better than 65% of players.

Williams, especially, has been a revelation. I was personally skeptical when the Atlanta Dream, but I’ve been proven wrong. I’m not sure if Williams is a franchise player, but she is the perfect, perfect third player on a championship team, and if she develops even a little bit more, she could be one of the best players in the league.

The Dream test out as the second best defenders of spot up shots in the entire WNBA, and being able to defend that kind of offense makes it a lot easier to defend. You can’t get buried under an avalanche of shots if you defend them well (genius insight!).

I bumped them up three games from their 2017 pythag% because I think Elizabeth Williams is going to make another leap. She could become one of the really great rim protectors, and I think she will. I only wish I hadn’t been as skeptical as I had when she was traded from the Connecticut Sun.

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INDIANA FEVER

2017 RECORD: 9-25

2017 PYTHAG%: 6-28

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 6-28

The Indiana Fever had the third-worst offense in the league in 2017, and were generally bad at everything. They ran two plays 50% of the time: one in which the pick and roll ball handler was the scorer, and on spot up shots. This is the only team I’ve come across that puts so much into two types of offensive attacks, and that doesn’t speak well to their ability to score on top flight defenses. Throw in their lack of a superstar and all of the sudden, you’re looking at a recipe for an offensive disaster.

I’ll give the Fever one thing; they defended transition attacks very, very well. However, in the half court, where the vast majority of offense is run, they were the worst team in the league. They struggled the most with pick and roll ball handlers and with spot up shooting, and generally got batted around in every way, shape, and form. I’d say more, but it’s pretty straight forward; the Fever were not good in 2017.

I don’t think they’ll improve much, and if anything, take a step backwards. But these things are fluid, and young players often step up, and I would not be surprised if they out-performed my predicted record.

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LAS VEGAS ACES

2017 RECORD: 8-26

2017 PYTHAG%: 8-26

2018 PREDICTED RECORD: 11-23

The Las Vegas Aces (then the San Antonio Stars), were the worst team in the league in 2017. Offensively, they were Good in transition (scoring 1.063 points per possession), and Poor in the half court (.812 PPP). Not a single actual offensive attack graded out as better than Average (except for offensive rebound putbacks, which, come on), and most of them were Below Average or worse.

This was a team that struggled offensively, and have virtually nothing underlying to give any indication that it was at least partly a result of flukey play. Kayla McBride, by far their best player, was graded by Synergy as Very Good, and she still shot under 40% from the field. She had to work her ass off to keep them in games, though her teammates worked hard, too. This was a team in a bit of transition period.

Defensively, they have more room for optimism. Though they had third-worst defense in the league, they were the fourth-best at guarding pick and roll ball handlers. That, to me, says that not an unintelligent team, as defending the pick and roll requires both intelligence and coordination, but that they got lost in other situations.

They were only Average on spot ups and in transition, their first and third most seen offensive attacks, and those two things can lead to big scoring bursts that make it impossible to catch up. With another year under their belts, and with more good coaching on defense, they should be ready to compete with the better teams for a playoff spot.

The Aces are probably a year away from true playoff contention, but they’ll make a good try at it this year. Eleven wins feels high for them, but I put my trust in Kayla McBride and the rest, and would be very happy to be surprised by their year to year improvement.

Hunter Bishop
Hunter Bishop
Senior Editor for The Ball Out: Hunter Bishop has been published over two hundred times on topics such basketball, television, and film. He holds a BA in Creative Writing from Georgia State University, and is nearing the completion of his MFA in Stage and Screenwriting. He has written for Uproxx, Swish Appeal, TVOvermind, the award-winning local newspaper the Henry Herald, and many others.

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