Apparently we here at WNBAlien have a new tradition. Whenever two WNBA teams are a combined 23-0 to start the season before finally facing each other, then play out a barnburner that almost goes to overtime on one of the most extraordinary near-miss plays you’ll ever see, in the middle of the day when many working fans couldn’t even watch – we break the damn thing down, old-school recap style. Except these days with the benefit of video, so that I don’t have to describe every important play in excruciating detail. Let’s get to it.
This was the very first possession of the game:
It immediately highlighted that this is a Los Angeles team (and head coach, in Brian Agler) who’ve faced the Lynx many, many times before. The first option is a high-low from Candace Parker to Nneka Ogwumike, but Kristi Toliver’s back screen doesn’t really work, so Alana Beard curls around into dribble-penetration. And that’s where the experience counts. Over the years, this is the way teams have had some success against Minnesota’s stout defense. The Lynx are so determined to protect the paint and the rim that they sag inside, which can leave shooters open on the perimeter if you find them quickly enough. Beard kicks to Toliver, who drills the three before Lindsay Whalen can recover (with a little help from Ogwumike blocking Whalen off). It’s a pretty play, that LA didn’t re-use enough over the rest of the game.
This is the first of a whole host of examples I could’ve picked of something that plagued LA throughout the game:
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).
I realised this week that for some dumb reason the WNBA haven’t released this in full, so for those who want to take a leap of faith and start booking flights and hotels really early, here’s the expected 2016 WNBA playoff schedule:
First Round (single-elimination: #5 seed vs #8, and #6 vs #7)
Wednesday, September 21st (both games)
Second Round (single elimination: #3 vs lowest 1st-rnd winner, #4 vs other 1st-rnd winner)
Sunday, September 25th (both games)
Semi-Finals (best-of-5, 2-2-1 format: #1 vs lowest 2nd-rnd winner, #2 vs other 2nd-rnd winner)
(Game 1s) Wednesday, September 28th
(Game 2s) Friday, September 30th
(Game 3s) Sunday, October 2nd
(Game 4s) Tuesday, October 4th (if necessary)
(Game 5s) Thursday, October 6th (if necessary)
WNBA Finals (best-of-5, 2-2-1 format)
(Game 1) Sunday, October 9th
(Game 2) Tuesday, October 11th
(Game 3) Friday, October 14th
(Game 4) Sunday, October 16th (if necessary)
(Game 5) Thursday, October 20th (if necessary)
All weekend games in the afternoon, all weekday games in the evening. Obviously, all subject to potential change due to ESPN’s whims or arena availability.
Those double-headers for the first couple of rounds should be exciting, essentially fast-forwarding to the deciding games that we only got in the past when a series went the distance. Whether it’s fair or not is a different debate, but the entertainment should be there. We’ll also have the inevitable ‘rest vs rust’ debates this year in the WNBA, with the top two seeds having 10 days off before joining the competition at the semi-final stage. At least some of the games should be better attended this year – both thanks to the immediate excitement of single-elimination, and the extra time teams will have to sell tickets for the second round and semis. The hosts will know the dates as soon as the playoff seeding is set, and can start the publicity and sales immediately. Early playoff games have been sparsely attended in previous years because teams only have a couple of days’ notice to draw fans.
2. Dallas’s Dismal Defense
I’m going to get into this in more detail in a future piece, but this is why the Wings aren’t going to go anywhere meaningful this season unless things change dramatically.
This is the first basket of the game on Wednesday night:
There’s a half-hearted switch on the initial 4/5 screen-the-screener action (top-left of video), when Plenette Pierson kinda quits halfway through. Then Courtney Paris jumps out a mile to chase Natasha Cloud while Odyssey Sims tries to recover, before the ball goes back to Emma Meesseman. Here’s where Dallas repeatedly struggle. They like to trap and pressure so hard on ball-screens, but they’re a) not that good at it, and b) terrible at the help rotations necessary behind it. In that video above, both Erin Phillips and Karima Christmas take steps towards Meesseman (showing confusion on whose job it is) and Meesseman takes one dribble away from Phillips into a wide open shot. And that’s better than what Dallas offers up on a lot of similar plays. Often there’s no rotation at all, and Meesseman would’ve just been left standing on her own. Or one player moves but there’s no secondary movement, so one extra pass leads to a wide open shot (or easy lane to the hoop) instead.
First up, I already wrote at length this week about the surprise starts for the Atlanta Dream and Phoenix Mercury HERE. So if you haven’t read that yet, please take a look. Now, on to the 12 items that have caught my eye, drawn my attention or rattled my brain in the WNBA this week.
1. If you haven’t seen this yet, then you damn well ought to
This one’s nice:
But this one’s just special
Enjoy the next decade, Storm fans.
2. Y’know what? That’s not enough on Loyd
Breanna Stewart’s the big story around Seattle this season, and that’s understandable. After four national championships at UConn, making the Olympic team, being the #1 pick, and just how damn good she is, there should be plenty of talk surrounding her. But don’t lose sight of how much Loyd has improved in just her second WNBA season, and the kind of performances she’s putting in alongside Stewie.
You could already see the improvements coming last season, where Loyd grew as the year went along and started to become more comfortable. But beyond that, her offseason under a heavy spotlight at Galatasaray has done her the world of good. She’s playing with much greater confidence, there are finishes at the rim sliding in that weren’t always there last year, and oh my – the jump shot. It’s so pretty now. That was the primary thing holding her back last season, when absolutely no one was scared of her jumper, so they all sat way off her and just let her shoot. Now it looks great, and opponents are going to have to respect that jumper (although at time of writing her three-point percentage has dropped to 29%, I’d expect that to rise).
Early season hot streaks can be a bit of a masquerade in the WNBA. Training camp is so short, often with players arriving late due to overseas commitments, so the squads that are ready for the first couple of weeks may not actually be the best teams. Connecticut got everyone excited by opening last season 7-1, then went 8-18 the rest of the way when they fell back to Earth. But at the same time, it’s a short season in the WNBA. This isn’t the 82- or 162-game slog of other US sports leagues. The Sun ultimately didn’t make the postseason last year, but they would have tied for the 8th spot under the new playoff system. A hot start can take you a long way towards the playoffs, even if a collapse follows. So it’s worth paying attention to the surprises of the young 2016 WNBA season.
Let’s start with the most obvious pleasant surprise. After an ugly 2015 and most prognosticators dumping them in the lottery before this season began, the Atlanta Dream have opened the year 5-1 and resembling their old selves. I mentioned that this was a possibility in my season preview, even if it didn’t seem likely. Three key pieces of their successful teams were still in town in Angel McCoughtry, Tiffany Hayes and Sancho Lyttle. They had a new center in Elizabeth Williams who in an ideal world would replace what Erika de Souza used to give them. And while no one was quite sure what they’d get from the point guard spot, they’ve survived before without much more than replacement-level talent in that spot. So far, it’s working like a dream (sorry).
The new acquisitions have fitted in well, exceeding the expectations of virtually everybody. Layshia Clarendon was a late addition from Indiana for minimal cost, and has slid into the starting point guard spot, so far looking a more impressive player than she ever did for the Fever. She always seemed like something of a square peg being asked to fit a round hole in Indiana, who always wanted her to become a point guard despite her scorer’s instincts. And even now in Atlanta she’s not really playing as a true point. But she looks freed up to play her more natural game, driving and scoring whenever the opportunity presents itself. Between her, Hayes and McCoughtry they don’t have anyone who particularly likes to pass on the perimeter, but they’re all creative enough to get the job done. And they can all initiate the offense or bring the ball up the floor when they need to. Clarendon’s backup, Carla Cortijo, is more of a true point guard, looking to probe the defense or create for others to a greater extent, and between them they’ve solidified the spot for Atlanta. I’m not as convinced by Clarendon’s defense as Dream head coach Michael Cooper keeps claiming to be, but she’s solid enough after three years learning at the feet of Tamika Catchings, Lin Dunn and Stephanie White.
In the middle, Elizabeth Williams looks like a very nice fit at the heart of Atlanta’s defense. She had a quiet, relatively anonymous rookie year in Connecticut, seeing limited playing time behind Kelsey Bone’s breakout season. Giving up the 4th overall pick for her seemed expensive when Atlanta made the move, considering most front offices tend to prefer the unknown of college kids over players they’ve already seen look fairly unimpressive in the pros. But combined with Lyttle and McCoughtry in the frontcourt, Williams makes the Dream annoyingly long and athletic. And she can do things like this:
Eleven days into the WNBA season, it’s a little early to be drawing any real conclusions (although the ‘Minnesota good’, ‘San Antonio bad’, and ‘What the hell is going on in Phoenix?’ hot-takes are already emerging). So we’re going to take a look at one of the key building-blocks of virtually every modern offense in professional basketball. The pick-and-roll – or even just the pick – is an incredibly simple concept. You put a teammate in the way of your defender, and then force the defense to deal with the problems that creates.
We don’t see quite as much ‘true’ pick-and-roll in the WNBA as in the NBA, where a big sets a screen for a ballhandler, then immediately barrels down the lane looking to receive a pass for an easy score. That’s probably because it’s slightly more difficult to gain the full advantage. If DeAndre Jordan finds a sliver of room, Chris Paul tosses the ball near the rim and it’s a dunk; if Rebekkah Brunson finds that same space, Lindsay Whalen still needs a lane to get her the ball.
But we still see plenty of it, and plenty of success:
And we see a whole hell of a lot of pick-and-pop, or pick-and-amble-around-outside-looking-for-something-else-to-do.
The most interesting elements come in all the different ways teams try to defend the pick-and-roll (or just the on-ball screen, considering the defensive team doesn’t initially know whether the screener will roll, pop, or do something else). In that video above, San Antonio tried to trap ballhandler Erin Phillips, and she made the pass to the wide open Plenette Pierson for the finish. In an ideal world Jayne Appel-Marinelli was probably expected to get there quicker to help, but this is San Antonio we’re talking about. Literally a couple of minutes later they tried something different on essentially the same play, and that got beaten as well:
The most important thing that’s different for the WNBA’s 2016 season is that the league blew up their playoff system in the offseason, and balanced out the regular season schedule at the same time. Conferences have essentially been made irrelevant, as each team will now play every other team three times, plus one extra game against a local-ish opponent to get the total up to 34 as in other recent years.
The teams with the best eight records make the playoffs and will be seeded in order, regardless of ‘conference’. #5 hosts #8 and #6 hosts #7 in single-game elimination matchups in the first round. Then for the second round they re-seed and #3 hosts the lowest seed remaining, #4 hosts the other, in another pair of single-elimination games. They re-seed again, so #1 faces the lowest seed remaining, and #2 meets the other team left, in best-of-five semi-final matchups (2-2-1 format, as in recent WNBA Finals). Then the WNBA Finals will still be best-of-five, again 2-2-1.
The main impact of this is that the regular season becomes more important, because teams will fight to avoid the potential pitfalls of those single-game playoffs. It also means that if everything goes to plan, the two best teams will meet in the WNBA Finals, when easily the largest audiences are paying attention to the league. If one conference is weak, we won’t all be sitting there knowing that one of the Conference Finals is essentially deciding the title, before an ugly sweep in the showcase event. I’m not a big fan of everyone playing 34 games apiece only to have your season decided by one night, as will be the case four times in the opening couple of rounds. But it should be exciting, and the US is certainly enraptured by the NCAA tournament every year. If the WNBA can capture even a slice of that, this plan will be seen to have worked.
There are two slight rule-tweaks for this season. Firstly the WNBA has brought in FIBA’s rule where the shot-clock will be re-set to only 14 after an offensive rebound, not all the way to 24. The only time you’re likely to notice or care is late in games, where an offensive board for the team in front has always been incredibly helpful in running down the clock. That advantage is slightly diminished now. The second change is that everything that used to be allowed in the final minute of a fourth-quarter or overtime now applies to the final two minutes. Things like being able to advance the ball with a timeout, or any foul putting your team automatically into the penalty. Expect teams and/or referees to screw that up at least a couple of times early in the season. Sadly they’ve done nothing to fix the interminable reviews and endless confusion surrounding the clear-path foul rule.
The WNBA have changed the name of their streaming service LiveAccess to WNBA League Pass for no particular reason. But you can now buy single games, or a single-team season passes, or follow links from the WNBA’s social media accounts to watch games. That stuff’s new.
Most Valuable Player
It seems like a glaringly obvious choice, but I’m going with Candace Parker. It’s obvious because of the recent furore around her being left off the Team USA squad for the 2016 Olympic Games, which has led a lot of people to expect her to come out all guns blazing for the WNBA season. I lean towards her more because she’s the one superstar who’s currently scheduled to have a month of rest in the middle of the season, rather than be flying down to Rio. Maya Moore was my secondary choice, purely because she’s in her prime and could put up even better numbers this year, and because history says it’s very hard to win this award two years in a row. Combined with her chequered health history, that pushed Elena Delle Donne down my list, but if she plays something close to 34 games she’ll be right in the mix.
Dietrick beat out Tiffany Bias as Bird’s backup, a final cut made minutes before publication.
Significant additions: Stewart, obviously, the latest player offered up as the saviour of the WNBA. They’ll also be seeing Wright in a Storm uniform for the first time, after adding her in a trade last season while she was injured.
Significant losses: Basically nothing, but from a bad team.
Y’know what’s good about being terrible? The US sports system tries to help you out. And sometimes you fall ass-backwards into a superstar or two. Jewell Loyd was the first significant piece of the Storm rebuild last year, after she declared early and made the 2015 draft a much happier event for Seattle. A year later and another #1 pick offered up Breanna Stewart, the latest virtual can’t-miss star to emerge from the University of Connecticut. Just like when Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird arrived in consecutive drafts over a decade earlier, the Storm now have key building blocks in place for their team to form around. The only question is how long it’s going to take for everything to fall into place.
It’s possible that it might take Stewart a little while to fit into the pro game. She’s a little like Elena Delle Donne in her ability to score from inside and out, and her surprising fluidity for someone of her size. She doesn’t quite have the handle of Delle Donne, but based on college performance she’s significantly more prepared to help on the defensive end than Delle Donne was when she turned pro. She’ll have an immediate and significant impact, even while Jenny Boucek and the Storm are working out exactly how best to use her. Loyd took a while to settle as a rookie, and still needs to work on her outside shot so that teams stop sagging way off her to combat her speed and athleticism. But after a strong European season under a bright spotlight with Galatasaray, she should be ready to flourish in her second year. The defensive attention Stewart will draw can only help Loyd.
They suspended Danielle Robinson for the full season, so she can’t return until 2017, even if she were physically capable.
Significant additions: Jefferson was the #2 pick in the draft, Currie was a recent trade acquisition from Phoenix, and it’s nice to see young post Ndour back to give the WNBA another shot after a brief cameo at the end of the 2014 season.
Significant losses: Sophia Young-Malcolm retired, Danielle Robinson had surgery on a torn Achilles and is done for the year, Jia Perkins was traded away for the pick that became Gwathmey, and Danielle Adams was cut after arriving out of shape yet again. So outside of McBride, that’s basically the core of their team from last year. Although it was a pretty terrible team, so gutting it might not be the worst idea in the world.
If this team rises to the heights of mediocrity, it’ll be a surprise. They were terrible last year when an experienced and talented point guard was running the show, Young-Malcolm was still around the help out inside, and Perkins and Adams gave them some additional scoring punch. Now they’re just hoping for signs of progress. Jefferson was a star at UConn, and will have plenty of opportunity to learn the ropes of the pro game with Robinson out of the picture. Then they’re looking for other young pieces like Hamby and Ndour to show they can be significant parts of the future for the Stars, while veterans like Currie and Appel-Marinelli help teach and lead. The generous term is a ‘rebuilding year’
The backcourt could at least be pretty exciting. Jefferson’s lightning quick, knows how to run an offense, and showed strong defensive ability in college. She can also shoot from outside, one thing that Robinson’s never been able to provide from the same spot. McBride’s a serious threat from outside as well, and they’ll be hoping that she takes a step towards being a real star rather than just a good player. The scoring’s going to have to come from somewhere, and there’ll be plenty of shots available.
Trading away Monique Currie virtually finished the job for them, creating the cap space to keep 12 players while simultaneously making the final cuts fairly easy.
Significant additions: Taurasi, obviously, is the big story after taking a year off from the WNBA. But Taylor’s back as well and has always been a huge part of any Mercury successes in the past decade. Harrison and Petrovic deepen the options in the frontcourt, while rookie guard Williams could be a nice injection of energy on the perimeter.
Significant losses: Not a huge amount. The Currie trade was a surprise, and they might miss her a little if injuries strike. Marta Xargay is still in Spain, and won’t be seen until after the Olympics, if at all. Leilani Mitchell is gone, but given Taurasi’s return to run the team, that’s not a big deal.
Optimism is high in Phoenix, now that all the key pieces are back from the 2014 team that went 29-5 and only lost one playoff game in their march to a title. Diana Taurasi turns 34 next month, but she’s looked just as good as ever while playing overseas, and with Griner, Taylor, Bonner and Dupree alongside her this team should be scary once again. They were pretty damn good last year when Taurasi and Taylor didn’t bother to show up.
As with the Lynx vets, people have started to wonder how many years we have left with stars like Taurasi and Taylor. But for now we can just enjoy it while it lasts, and the Mercury fans certainly will. Taurasi is a gifted creator with the ball in her hands on top of her natural scoring ability, and this time around they’re not even pretending to put a point guard alongside her to run the offense. She’s be running the team, with Bonner and Taylor helping out and young guards like Williams and Fields as options off the bench. It should be the usual superior level of entertainment.
And while Taurasi leads the offense, the dominance of Griner in the paint provides the single-greatest impact of any player in the game on the defensive end. She had her personal issues last year, and didn’t take quite the step forward in Taurasi’s absence that some people were hoping for, but she’s still an absolute force. She’s also been playing with Taurasi overseas in Russia, so their connection should be even smoother. She has a nice touch on the offensive end when her team uses her, and few teams have anyone who can contend with her one-on-one. Candice Dupree’s mid-range game and smooth finishing are a nice complement offensively, and Bonner’s individual defense on whoever the primary perimeter threat is has improved exponentially. Unlike their championship teams under Paul Westhead and Corey Gaines, this squad can do serious damage at both ends of the floor.