With the regular season almost upon us, I wanted to look at one stat that stuck in my mind as I got ready for the season and told an important story for each team. This is part 1 of 3. Starting from the bottom of last year’s standing, let’s look at teams that missed the playoffs.
9. Las Vegas Aces: Average years of experience—3 years
Las Vegas should change the name of the Aces to the Avengers for this season. This squad missed out of the playoffs by just one game last year, which would enrage any team the following year. The fact that the Aces were forced to forfeit a late season matchup in Washington due to travel woes gives the team all-time revenge material. Oh and they just traded for Liz Cambage, a MVP candidate upset with her treatment in the WNBA. The Aces’ trade for Cambage was basically Tony Stark telling Loki “we have a Hulk,” and they’ll be hoping that Liz can smash their ceiling.
The Aces came into training camp anticipating a first trip to the playoffs in LV and growth of their young core. But the Cambage deal changes the expectations for Vegas. The part-time DJ, part-time destroyer of worlds was unstoppable last season. She led the league in points per game with 23 on 64.3% true shooting, which is totally bonkers. Liz willed the Wings to a playoff spot last season (at the expense of her new team) and she’s hoping to take the Aces even further.
Vegas is now thinking championship this year. The team will be fired up and led by a roster full of energetic, young players. A’ja Wilson is the star of the group. She won Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star game, finished 4th in points, 5th in rebounds, 5th in blocks, and 1st in “oh my god, she’s 21?!?!?”s in the W as a rookie. Kelsey Plum actually increased her offensive production on less possessions while dramatically decreasing her turnover rate (22% in 2017, 13.1% in 2018).
While the team is unquestionably very talented, most of the players are under 25 and have very little experience in the league. Even Cambage at 27 years old has just 3 years of WNBA experience. The W is an odd league with a very short season and almost no time to prepare in the offseason. It’s a sprint, rather than a marathon. Vegas certainly has the talent to win a title, but they need steady play from their vets to get there. Kayla McBride will need to bring calm leadership to the starting unit, just like she did last season. Carolyn Swords and newly-acquired Sugar Rodgers, 2017 Sixth Woman of the Year, will need to provide scoring when droughts happen.
In short, the Aces have Ironman, Peter Quill, and the Hulk but they need a Captain America to reign them in. If you have no idea what I am talking about, Vegas will go as far as Cambage and the young guns take them but need their vets to stabilize them on the way (also, go watch all 22 Marvel movies right now).
10. Chicago Sky: 2nd in frequency and efficiency of transition possessions
Chicago missed the playoffs for the second time in a row last year, after making it every year from 2013-2016. The Sky can blame their awful defense for that. They finished in dead last in defensive rating, giving up 112 points per 100 possessions. A lot of smart people would advise the Sky to focus on improving defensively and signing players to that effect. But the Sky are taking a very different approach and I love it. Chicago is committing fully to running it and gunning it, rather than addressing the defensive concerns.
New head coach, James Wade, wants to find an identity fast and the organization shouldn’t overthink it. The Sky have the talent to employ a transition-based offense focused on shooting 3s. They got out in transition often and very effectively last year. Diamond DeShields does a great job leaking out (1.85 points per possession) and Allie Quigley bombs from the wings on the break (1.46 PPP). Courtney Vandersloot set the record for assists in a season last year and can drop dimes in transition. Chicago’s first round pick, Katie Lou Samuelson, fits in perfectly as she finished 4th among Division 1 players in points per possession in transition (1.426).
The team also has the shooters for this type of system. Allie Quigley won the three-point contest for a second straight year and no player who took more than 150 threes shot a better percentage. Courtney Vandersloot is no slouch from 3 as she shot almost 40% last season and Diamond DeShields is a willing shooter with 122 attempts, 2nd most on the team. Katie Lou finished second all-time at UConn in threes made and scored 42.4% of her points from threes. James Wade must adjust the offense to get more three-point chances than the 671 attempts last year, which ranked 7th in the league. Having more leak outs by the guards and break outs on defensive rebounds will produce a very entertaining and more importantly, high-powered offense.
However, the Sky still have to corral some more defensive rebounds and get some stops. Wade’s idea seems to be that the defense will feed off the offense and vice versa. Getting out in transition to tire out teams can help a defense immensely. Despite the Sky’s paltry defense, Chicago still managed to lead the league in steals and Gabby Williams showed plenty of defensive potential, leading the W in steal percentage. With a new system focused on threes and transition and any improvement on defense, the Sky may be back in the playoffs this season.
11. New York Liberty: 7.5 million people in China watched the Liberty’s preseason debut.
The W reported last week that the Liberty’s preseason opener against the Chinese National Team generated 1.2 million viewers across traditional broadcast formats and an additional 6.3 video views on social media platforms in China. Game 5 of the 2017 WNBA Finals, one of the most watched games in the league’s history, drew 902,000 viewers. So how exactly did an exhibition get more eyeballs than Game 5 of the WNBA finals? The answer is the Liberty’s second round pick, Han Xu.
The 6’9” center from Shijiazhuang became the fourth Chinese player in the W’s history and hopes to avoid the fate of her compatriots. None of them lasted more than two seasons. Han has inevitably drawn comparisons to Yao Ming. However, Han comes to the W with much more experience in the WNBA caliber basketball as she battled with the league’s stars playing the Chinese league. Yao was much a more heralded prospect as the #1 overall pick and Han plays a very different, more modern game at center. While it is easy to draw the comparison, the players are very different and Han should not have to face the expectations from Yao’s success.
That being said, the league hopes Han can have a similar impact as Yao. The ratings for the preseason game show what she can do for this league. The NBA has secured its future as an international league by investing in China and growing the sport there. Women’s basketball is already very popular in China, but the WNBA has yet to gain a foothold there. Yao became the launching point for the NBA’s push to the far east and the W would like Han to be that for them.
To do that, Han has to help the Liberty improve from last year’s 7 wins. The ownership changing from James Dolan, leader of a band the New York Times describes as “well known sidemen backing a karaoke grade singer,” to Joseph Tsai, co-founder of Alibaba, should also allow the team to progress on the court. Trading Sugar Rodgers for Tanisha Wright is a head-scratcher but may give the team’s young potential stars more minutes. Asia Durr, the team’s first round pick, could be in line for a huge year. She should get a lot of usage and run the two-woman game with Tina Charles. The potential of her spotting up off of Charles post up is tantalizing. The Liberty should be a little better in the win column if not the standings next year, but this group may have a much larger role to play in the W’s international growth.
12. Indiana Fever: Won 15 games total over the past two years after winning no less than 16 in every season from 2005-2016.
The Fever have broken in the last two years. From 2005 to 2016, Indiana exemplified franchise stability in the W by setting a WNBA record of 12 straight playoff appearances in that span. Then, Tamika Catchings retired after 2016 and everything went south. The Fever won 9 games in 2017 and just 6 games last year, which ranks as the lowest WNBA season win total since the Mystics won 5 games in 2012.
Here’s an incomplete list of stats in which the 2019 Fever finished last in: offensive rating (95.3), net rating (-11.4), true shooting percentage (48.9%), rebound percentage (47.2%), block percentage (5.6%) and effective field goal percentage allowed (52.2%). They finished second to last in many other categories. To put it succinctly, Indiana posted one of the worst seasons in the history of the W last year.
Luckily, Tamika Catchings is back as the Fever’s Vice President of Basketball Operations. The legend already worked in the Fever/Pacers organization and now will have a larger role within the Fever’s front office. Catchings will take the reigns at a rough time for the Fever, but all is not as hopeless as it may appear. While you never want to finish with single-digit wins, Indy can now fully commit to rebuilding with their young players and has already embraced a youth movement. Players 25 years old or younger accounted for 63.4% of the Fever’s minutes in 2018.
The Fever should focus the 2019 season on figuring out which of those young players are worth investing in and developing them. Kelsey Mitchell certainly seems worth the investment as she showed core-player potential last season despite struggling on defense. Indy’s 3rd overall pick, Teaira McCowan, brings some much-needed help on the boards and in the post. She pulled down 13 rebounds a game at Mississippi State and finished 4th in the country in field goal percentage (66.2%). McCowan’s gives Indy a potential franchise centerpiece at the 5. Natalie Achonwa showed improvement across the board last year and should continue to progress with more touches now that Cappie Pondexter retired.
Unfortunately, Victoria Vivians will miss the season with a torn ACL. But Vivians played so well as a rookie that she is likely a lock to be a building block for Indy. Tiffany Mitchell is a question mark for the future. Tiffany has the goods to contribute in the W, but she regressed in true shooting percentage, PER, and rebounding rate last season. Obviously playing on the worst team in the league affects these numbers, but Mitchell will need to show progress to solidify herself as a franchise piece for Indy. Even though the Fever won’t win a ton of games this year, 2019 could be crucial their future.