1. Super Tuesday (part 1)
It’s a big day for the WNBA on Tuesday. June 21st is the anniversary of the inaugural game back in 1997, so the League has chosen it as the appropriate date to announce their ‘Top 20@20’ on ESPN – the WNBA’s 20 greatest players over its first 20 years. They did the same thing after both 10 and 15 years, so it was an expected element of the 20th season celebrations. However, only revealing that they had selected a Top 20 five days before the announcement date was a frankly ridiculous move by the WNBA, and yet another shortsighted and poorly thought-out misstep.
This group of stars and legends, who’ve made the league what it’s been for 20 years and provided a large part of the entertainment that the WNBA is celebrating, should’ve been a centerpiece of the 20th season festivities. It was made slightly more complicated by the lack of an All-Star Game this year – the natural stage for the announcement – but it still shouldn’t have been screwed up this badly. Why aren’t you giving all the fans and analysts weeks (or months) to debate the various members of the group? These arguments could’ve gone on at length among fans of the league, and features on the candidates could’ve filled various websites. Instead, everyone’s rushing to state their picks just in time to barely beat the announcement. It’s silly, and so easily avoidable.
On that note, I’ll try to get a piece on my own personal selection up on Monday, before the announcement. The league’s official release with the 60 nominations is here. Beyond that, if you want more information on how the league arrived at the 60 candidates, and on the information provided to the media who voted, Mel Greenberg helpfully provided that here. These things are always fun to argue about. I just wish we’d been given a little longer to do it.
2. Super Tuesday (part 2)
The other reason Tuesday is big for the WNBA is that the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx will finally be facing off, and if the Lynx can beat Seattle on Sunday night they’ll both be undefeated. Currently sitting at 11-0, both have surpassed the old record for a perfect streak to start the WNBA season, set by Minnesota in 2012. It’s unfortunate that the clash takes place at 3.30pm ET (12.30pm local to the game in LA), so a lot of fans won’t be able to watch it live, but they didn’t know how big the game would be when they set the schedule.
Obviously, both teams have been playing great basketball. Brian Agler has the Sparks playing as a unit, and has found a rotation that works – with actual wings playing on the wing, rather than shifting square-ish pegs into round-ish holes. Between the all-court game of Candace Parker, the shooting of Kristi Toliver, and Nneka Ogwumike playing out of her mind – plus the best team defense they’ve pieced together in years – the Sparks are looking like we always knew they could if they were healthy and their talent managed to gel. Meanwhile, Minnesota are doing what we’ve seen them do before so many times. Continuity helps a lot in this league, especially early in the season, and when you’re damn good as well that tops things off. Like LA, the Lynx are healthy, and taking care of business at both ends of the floor. Sylvia Fowles is more integrated into the team this season, and they even look a little deeper than in previous years with several backups Cheryl Reeve actually seems to trust (rather than the maybe two of many previous seasons).
While a lot of things can change, as of right now this would be most people’s pick for the WNBA Finals matchup in October. And on top of everything, they play again back in Minnesota on Friday night, so the coaching chess-match becomes even more intriguing. The adjustments either team might make after whatever happens on Tuesday lunchtime could be almost as interesting as the games. Neither side is going to want to let their streak die, and the season series tie-break between them could also be important come the end of the season. It’s gonna be fun.
3. Monty’s Spacey Defense
While we’re talking about the Lynx, I wanted to mention one of those bench players who’ve been helping them out this year. If you’ve watched some of Minnesota’s games early this season, you’ve seen Renee Montgomery shooting well from deep, and being an absolute pest as an on-ball defender. In the opening weeks she came up with a bunch of steals purely by picking the pocket of the opposing point guard. I give a lot of credit to Reeve and her assistants for focussing Montgomery on the defensive end and getting these kinds of performances out of her. This version of Montgomery didn’t exist when she was in Seattle last season. But they’ve given her a defined role with the Lynx, and she’s flourished. It’s similar to how Sandy Brondello turned DeWanna Bonner back from an awful off-the-ball defender into a long-armed menace in Phoenix (although some of that’s faded again this year).
But I wanted to use Montgomery to illustrate how difficult it can be to judge players as defenders. Because despite all the plaudits she earned this year, she still does some of the stuff that left me shaking my head last season when she was with the Storm.
In both of those, she’s at the top of the arc and completely loses track of her man while watching the ball. The first time Ivory Latta misses an open look at a three, the second time Maya Moore bails her out by cutting off the pass to her wide open man under the basket.
In this one at least she has the excuse of being cut off by a screen:
The problem is that the reason she’s so drilled by the pick is because she’s not paying much attention to her surroundings, and then she’s left standing in the middle of the floor with no real idea where to recover to.
‘Head on a swivel’ is one phrase you hear a lot from coaches teaching defense. You have to constantly be aware of both where the ball is and what’s going on around the floor. Having active hands and quick feet isn’t good enough if your concentration wanes or you fail to communicate with your teammates. Or if you can’t follow the instructions your coach has put in place. All of which is to make the general point that judging defense is really hard (and we still don’t have great stats for it, either). While also illustrating that I wasn’t completely crazy when I was calling Montgomery a crappy defender last season. Even now, when much improved, it still depends on what you’re looking at.
4. Positive Stat(s) of the Week
I couldn’t decide this week, so you get two. Nneka Ogwumike scored 23 field goals in a row without a miss across three games, which is frankly ridiculous. Yes, many of them were layups, but that’s because she’s constantly running the floor hard to get easy looks in transition, or she’s beating her man so comprehensively down on the block. The 69% that she’s shooting from the field is similarly insane, and illustrates both how well she’s playing and how well Agler is utilising her this season. After shifting her around to play a lot of 3 last year when he was fitting Ogwumike, Parker and Jantel Lavender on the floor together, Ogwumike’s back where she belongs under the rim.
But that 69% isn’t the second stat of the week. It’s that Maya Moore is a +46.2 in net plus/minus so far this season (according to most recent available numbers here). The Lynx, who’d likely still be one of the better teams in the league if Maya had decided to spend the year on a beach somewhere, are 46.2 points better per 40 minutes with Moore on the floor than when she’s off. That’s nuts. And it’s not just the dominance of Minnesota overall, or of their starters. No one else on the Lynx is above +6.5. For all the talent on their roster, and the team-ethic of their defense, Maya’s at the center of it all.
5. Curious Stat of the Week
Offense is up, and pace is up. Everywhere. League-wide, we’re talking three extra possessions per game for each team, and four extra points per team per 100 possessions. That’s a hell of a lot. The only meaningful change the league has made this season to rules or equipment is the re-set to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound (rather than 24). That could speed up games slightly, but doesn’t seem like enough to produce quite such dramatic results.
It could be that the offenses have settled in more quickly than the defenses this season. In Indiana, for example, it’s felt like the players know the defensive scheme but don’t quite have the chemistry yet to fluidly rotate into the right spots and cover for each other. But maybe it’s just the modern progression of the game. Teams like the Golden State Warriors have shown that you can produce winning basketball by pushing the pace and taking quick open shots if they’re on offer. Everyone wants easy offense and cheap points, and the easiest way to find those is by beating the defense down the floor. It’ll be interesting to see if the increases hold up over 34 games.
6. WNBA Hair of the Week
Is this mean? I think Catch would laugh, right?
7. Olympic Qualifying
In a tournament of very few surprises, Spain, Turkey, China and France have made it through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and booked their tickets to Rio. The one minor upset was China beating Belarus in the quarter-finals, but the Belarusians still have a chance to make it. The final spot will go to the winner of the Belarus-South Korea game tomorrow afternoon in Nantes.
From a WNBA perspective, Sancho Lyttle should be on her way back to Atlanta by now after helping Spain coast through the tournament. LaToya Sanders might show up in Washington for a few games after spending the season so far with Turkey (the Mystics would have to cut someone to make room for her, likely the recently signed Jamie Weisner). Meanwhile the other WNBA player at the tournament is technically no longer a WNBA player…
8. Long Distance Never Works
New York cut Lindsey Harding this week, while she was 3,498 miles away from New York, helping Belarus try to qualify for the Olympics. Apparently Bill Laimbeer and the Liberty decided they were happy enough with Tanisha Wright, Brittany Boyd and Shoni Schimmel as their options at the point.
There’s no obvious sign that the Liberty are going to be signing anyone else immediately, so it could just be a move to create a little room for manoeuvre later in the season, given how close they are to the salary cap. There’s always the chance that Epiphanny Prince will be healthy enough to play at some point, and/or that Australian wing Rebecca Allen will show up (either post-Olympics, or if the Aussies cut her from their training squad).
The move was a little strange because they didn’t cut her as she left, but waited until she was almost on her way back instead. But it may just be an early version of the move that we often see just before contracts become guaranteed at the official mid-point of the season, which this year is June 27th. Teams often open up a roster spot at that stage so that they can rotate through a few 7-day contracts, taking a look at various options or picking up a player who meets their immediate needs. Harding could well re-sign with New York, although a vet like her might not be keen on signing week-to-week deals.
9. Remember that point guard controversy?
Around two hours after last week’s Dozen went up, saying that I expected Courtney Vandersloot to regain her starting spot in Chicago, the Sky tipped off a game with her back in that familiar role. Smart move by Pokey Chatman, defusing any issues that might’ve arisen. Vandersloot and Jamierra Faulkner are both comfortable in their roles, and Chatman can go to whichever is most effective in any given game.
10. Matchup Fun!
Talking of the Sky, a lot of the most interesting cross-matching in the WNBA occurs in their games, purely because of the issues that Elena Delle Donne presents. She’s been starting at the 3 for much of the season, and often matched up with the opposing small forward. But LA, for example, wanted to cover her with Nneka Ogwumike (even though Nneka has spent most of the season covering opposing centers). So Candace Parker slid down onto the Chicago centers for most of the night, and Essence Carson, at least initially, made the slightly awkward move to guard power forward Jessica Breland. But it was ultimately Chicago who did most of the adjusting. Breland barely played, leaving Delle Donne primarily at the 4, and making the matchups much easier for everyone on both sides of the ball.
That game also had one of the more obvious ‘sending a message’ moments so far this season from a head coach. Chatman started the second half with Delle Donne, Vandersloot and Breland sat on the bench alongside her, while Faulkner, Tamera Young and Clarissa Dos Santos started instead. The Sky only trailed by nine at the break, but clearly Pokey wasn’t happy. It was a reasonably effective move early in the third quarter, but Chicago eventually lost by double-digits anyway.
The other lineup change of any significance this week was in Indiana, where Steph White tried to liven up her starting unit by benching Shenise Johnson for rookie Tiffany Mitchell last night. The Fever eventually managed to beat the worst team in the league in San Antonio, but it took a fourth quarter surge and probably Tamika Catchings’s best game of the season to manage it.
11. Oh, and there’s that player in Dallas
Yes, Skylar Diggins is finally back, and in the starting lineup for a couple of games now for the Wings. She still looks a long, long way short of her best, but at least she’s out there and moving. The way Seattle played her on Thursday night made no sense to me, showing far too hard on screens and giving her far too much respect as a shooter. The first couple of games back her legs just weren’t there, leaving every shot from distance a mile away from going in, and she still has no lift. But the basic fact that she’s playing and managing 20+ minutes per night is a positive step.
But please don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the return of Diggins has led directly to Odyssey Sims making a few shots lately. Sims is playing on the ball just as much, and very little has changed in her play in recent games. A couple of efforts have just dropped. It’s going to be a little while before Diggins has a truly significant impact on the Wings’ performances, except maybe as an emotional lift from seeing their star back on the court. And their defense is still awful, Skylar or no Skylar.
12. Ladies and Gentlemen, your Defensive Player of the (first third of the) 2016 season
Back next week.