Yes, the long offseason is finally over, and tonight the real WNBA games begin with the Indiana Fever visiting the San Antonio Silver Stars. If you haven’t checked them out already, WNBAlien’s team-by-team previews are all available to give you an in-depth look at how the 12 squads are shaping up:
So What’s New?
Well if you’ve ended up here, you’re probably well aware of the ultra-hyped new rookie class that’s entering the league. They’re obviously new. We’ve also had coaching changes in New York, Connecticut and Washington since the end of last season. But you can read all about that and the various roster changes in the individual previews. What has the WNBA altered for 2013 on a more basic level?
Every year the league tinkers with something minor like the replay rules, or the timeout logistics. This year the Competition Committee and the Board of Governors went a little further. The first change is evident even before the ball goes up – you’re going to have to take a step back to make three-pointers this season. A couple of years ago FIBA pushed their three-point line back – a move which was desperately necessary for the men’s game where the FIBA three-pointer had become a mid-range jumpshot. The women’s game didn’t particularly need a longer line, but FIBA likes their rules to be virtually universal, so the ladies had to get used to it as well. This left the WNBA with the shortest three-point line in the world game, which seemed a little silly for the strongest women’s league around (even if the WNBA distance was closer to where it ‘should’ be for optimum women’s basketball). So the WNBA have decided to fall into line, so to speak.
FIBA moved their arc from 6.25 meters to 6.75 meters (slightly shorter in the corners – 6.6 meters – to make sure there’s room for feet between the arc and the sideline), which is essentially the same change the WNBA are making. They’ll tell you it’s going from 20 feet 6 1/4 inches to 22 feet 1 3/4 inches, but that’s just because they’re stubborn Americans. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s caused a small yet significant drop to three-point percentages in the European game, and we may well see those numbers fall a little in the WNBA as well. With the advance of analytics suggesting teams should generally take more threes, it’ll be interesting to see whether teams begin to take fewer shots from beyond the arc this year with the knowledge that it’s become a slightly tougher shot.
Three Seconds and You’re Out
In concert with the longer arc – and arguably as a pre-emptive strike against the potential dominance of Brittney Griner – the WNBA are also introducing their first ever limitations on zone defenses. They’re bringing in the defensive three-seconds rule which has been in use in the NBA for many years. The idea here is that big defenders won’t be able to simply hang out under the basket to prevent penetration, so driving lanes to the hoop will open up. Theoretically it works with the longer three-point line because both are supposed to stretch the floor and create more space (of course, you could’ve stood further behind the three-point line in the past, if you wanted to).
The wording of the NBA’s defensive three-seconds rule says “Any defensive player, who is positioned in the 16-foot lane or 4 feet past the lane endline, must be actively guarding an opponent within three seconds. Actively guarding means within arms length of an offensive player and in a guarding position”. Presumably the WNBA’s rule will be identical (I haven’t seen the new rulebook yet). Of course, with all the things officials have to watch during play, they can’t stand around counting 1… 2… 3… every time a player goes near the paint. Basically, in the NBA, they end up guessing. Hang around too long in the lane without an offensive player right next to you and they might call it.
Double-teams are still entirely legal, and this doesn’t make zone defenses impossible. It definitely doesn’t make man-to-man defenses with some built-in zone principles impossible. In the NBA we still see big men like Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol fading into the paint constantly, offering help defense where it’s needed and protecting the rim. But it will cause some teams to re-think their sets, on both sides of the ball. Defensively, we’re likely to see less of the basic 2-3 zone, because that immediately places the center in the lane and at risk for a violation. You can still play it, but the center will have to be constantly on the move or looking for someone to ‘actively guard’. Offensively, even more than before, teams will try to stretch the floor by positioning their bigs away from the rim. Even if that player can’t shoot from out there to save her life, her defender will have to follow her out a little because she’s no longer allowed to just sit under the basket and wait.
The penalty for a defensive three-seconds call is a team technical foul, resulting in a free throw for the offensive team who retain possession and inbound from the sideline. Also, bear in mind that this is a new rule for all the WNBA officials too – there may be some hiccups while they’re getting used to it.
Well the NBA did it…
Yes, the WNBA has introduced ‘anti-flopping’ rules this year. The first ‘violation’ results in a warning, and the fines begin if that same player is caught again. As we saw in the NBA this season, it’s a thoroughly pointless exercise, because on the vast majority of ‘flops’ there’s at least some contact. It might give the commentators something to talk about on ESPN2 if there’s a lull in the action, but it’ll be essentially meaningless as a rule.
They’ve also made the usual tiny changes to the replay rules – this year sensibly allowing officials to review any kind of flagrant foul rather than only Flagrant 2s. Maybe some year the NBA/WNBA will do something about the clear-path foul that seems to baffle officials, never mind viewers and broadcasters.
Here at WNBAlien
As you’ll have noticed, there’s a new look around here (and there may be one or two alterations still to come in that regard). The web address has also become wnbalien.com, if you hadn’t noticed (all previous links should still work perfectly – please let me know if they don’t). There will also be a slightly different slant to the content. Every game will still be reviewed the following day, but the intention is to keep those analyses much shorter this year. That will allow time and space for more feature pieces focussing on teams as a whole, trends around the league and anything else that comes to mind. Please keep coming back to check for new content, or you can sign up for email updates with the handy little box on the right, or follow me on Twitter at @RichardCohen1. All WNBAlien updates are linked to at that account, and you’ll receive the added benefit of my pithy comments throughout the course of the season.
Time to put my neck on the line
Predictions come with the standard money-back guarantee.
New York Liberty
The middle four could’ve easily been mixed any other way. It’s probably giving Laimbeer too much credit, but I don’t particularly like any of the other options. Chicago should make the playoffs with their talent, but I’ve been burned too many times, so I’ll wait until they finally prove they can make it before I’ll pick them to make the postseason.
Los Angeles Sparks
San Antonio Silver Stars
There’s an obvious top three and bottom three, unless you’re really expecting miracles or injury disaster. Health could easily mix up that top three in any order. Seattle may seem like a reach as a playoff team, but they’ve got a history of finding a way to win some games despite adversity. Tulsa may not quite be ready, and San Antonio have serious injury problems. But those three could easily switch around as well.
Indiana 2-1 over Atlanta
New York 2-1 over Connecticut
Minnesota 2-0 over Seattle
Phoenix 2-1 over LA
Indiana 2-1 over New York
Minnesota 2-1 over Phoenix
Minnesota 3-2 over Indiana
(Yes, it’s dull to predict a repeat Finals, but I refuse to entirely swallow the Mercury hype. And can’t talk myself into anyone else in the East.)
WNBA Most Valuable Player:
The usual suspects will all be candidates if they stay healthy. Parker, Taurasi, Pondexter, Catchings, Charles etc. Maybe McCoughtry and Fowles could join the party if their teams are good enough, or Maya Moore could emerge as the top name among the Lynx options. It might come down to who has the least help, thereby promoting the ‘value’ of the star player – which would suggest Charles again, or maybe McCoughtry. I’ll take Cappie Pondexter. New York should be better, but she should still be comfortably in the spotlight and lead them in scoring and assists.
WNBA Defensive Player of the Year:
Brittney Griner. Yeah, as a rookie. I’m not convinced she’ll truly deserve it, but she could put up ridiculous block numbers, and she’ll have plenty of opportunities to look good on help defense. If not her, the usual candidates will likely reign again: Catchings or Fowles.
WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year:
Penny Taylor. Maybe it’s more in hope than expectation, considering we have no idea how healthy she is – or if she’ll even come off the bench behind DeWanna Bonner. But whoever the sixth woman is in Phoenix is likely to be a prime candidate. Otherwise the field is wide open. Maybe Monica Wright could make a run at it in Minnesota.
WNBA Most Improved Player:
Who the hell knows? Always a thoroughly unpredictable award, this could go anywhere. Second-year players are usually a solid place to start, so maybe Liz Cambage in Tulsa could make a leap now she’s playing for a more competent coach, or Shekinna Stricklen’s going to get lots of playing time in Seattle. Once again with hope as my guide, I’ll take Courtney Vandersloot. If Chatman can just give her a chance to build some confidence, and with Delle Donne as a fresh target for assists, maybe she can settle more this year. But it could be anyone.
WNBA Coach of the Year:
This usually goes to someone who outperforms expectations or generates a big turnaround from last year. Or sometimes just to the coach of the best team. Laimbeer will be an obvious candidate if New York improve significantly, and the likes of Thibault, Agler and Hughes should get significant credit if their teams are merely competitive. But I’ll take Lin Dunn, as a kind of retrospective credit for taking her team to the 2012 title.
Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award:
Well Kara Lawson got it for a second time last year, so I’ll go with Tamika Catchings to win it again. Could be virtually anyone.
All-WNBA First Team:
All-WNBA Second Team:
WNBA All-Defensive First Team:
(on the principle that the WNBA will hopefully switch to the 2 backcourt/3 frontcourt team balance)
WNBA All-Defensive Second Team:
Friday May 24th (tonight):
Indiana @ San Antonio, 8pm ET
New feature for inveterate gamblers: my picks against the spread! The line’s Indiana -3, and I’ll happily give up the points and take the Fever to win on the road.
Saturday May 25th (tomorrow):
New York @ Connecticut, 7pm ET
Tulsa @ Atlanta, 7pm ET
(picks coming in tomorrow’s column)