Most interesting stat: Wildcard teams

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This is part 2 of 3 of my Most Interesting Stat series. Here is Part 1 looking at the non-playoff teams. Today, I’m looking at the 5-8 seeds in last year’s playoffs or the “Wildcard teams” as I like to think of them.

5.   Phoenix Mercury: Record in years where Taurasi misses 10 or more games—7-27 in 2012 and 20-14 in 2015

Diana Taurasi had surgery on a disk protrusion in her back and will be out until at least early July. Even though missing the W’s all-time leading scorer will obviously hurt the Mercury, they can likely compete for a title with DeWanna Bonner, Brittany Griner, and largely the same supporting cast from last year. As Grant Afseth explained on WInsidr last week, Phoenix will have to adjust their offense plenty until DT comes back to do so.

Diana has missed 10 games or more twice before: in 2012 when she played just 10 games due to a strained hip flexor (and possibly tanking purposes) and in 2015 when her Russian team asked her not to play. Those seasons had very different results that could be instructive for the Mercury’s expectations this year.

In 2012, the Mercury had their worst season ever. They not only lost Taurasi for most of the year, but also Penny Taylor and Candice Dupree. DeWanna Bonner took her first step to stardom in this season by putting up 21/2/7 on 28.3% usage, the highest mark of her career. Role players made up the rest of the team and just couldn’t produce enough. While the franchise is in a very different place now, we did learn that Bonner could scale up her production to make up for Taurasi’s absence and the rest of the team has to remain healthy for Phoenix to stay competitive.

Phoenix aims to replicate their success in 2015, when they got to the Western Conference Finals without DT. DeWanna Bonner again led the Mercury in usage (24.9%), but she had much more help in all-star Candice Dupree and Defensive Player of the Year Brittany Griner. Griner missed seven games due to suspension, but the team stayed healthy as 11 players averaged double-digit minutes while playing 30 games or more. 2015 showed that Bonner and Griner with a healthy supporting cast can make it deep in the playoffs.

Many around the league think that the Mercury are still favorites to win the title and that DeWanna Bonner will be in the MVP discussion. While I agree that Bonner can take a further step forward to superstardom, Phoenix will need their bench to stay healthy and to step up. With Sancho Lyttle already out to start the year, the Mercury can’t afford any more injuries if they want to reach their full potential in 2019.

6.   Los Angeles Sparks: 24.9% winning percentage for Derek Fisher as a head coach.

There is plenty of great content to prepare you for the on-court product in LA like the WNBA Insidr podcast with Brady Klopfer. Like many of them, I think this team will gel quickly and should be competing for a WNBA championship. The Sparks made moves to get an astounding collection of talent and, frankly, those decisions to bring in Chiney Ogwumike, resign Alana Beard, and chase Liz Cambage took very little consideration. However, LA should have given more thought to their head coach hire.

The Sparks hired former New York Knicks Head Coach Derek Fisher after Brian Agler resigned. Fisher is a big name and has a championship-pedigree as a player. However, Fisher still finished his first head coaching job with a 40-96 record. To be fair, Fisher found himself in an impossible situation in New York under GM Phil Jackson. He was forced to run the triangle offense, Jackson used him as a scapegoat for a terrible roster, and James Dolan owned the team. Fisher, still, did not distinguish himself enough as an NBA head coach to warrant arguably the best job in the W.

The hire of Fisher is questionable from a basketball perspective, but it is downright problematic considering Fisher’s past. As NBAPA president during the 2011 CBA negotiations, multiple well-respected players accused Fisher of looking out for his own interests over the union’s. Some even suggested he was in the owners’ pockets.

More recently, Fisher joined Luxury Asset Capital as executive VP of sports and entertainment. The company offers alternative financing to athletes and, according to their website, their loans require “little paperwork, typically no credit checks, virtually no personal or business information and no waiting period.” In short, Luxury Asset Capital seems to be a predatory lender preying on athletes with the help of Fisher. Fisher has denied this and claims the company will help athletes.

Still, why would one of the W’s best franchises hire a coach with little experience, no history of winning and who has to tell people that he is not a predatory lender? WNBA teams need to get away from hiring nba players as head coaches just because they have legitimacy as a player. Fisher has not showed that he is a good professional basketball coach and clearly, has question marks about his character.

He may be a good head coach and a good guy. Even if he’s not, the team could win a title this year. But the Sparks should have thought outside the box, or at least picked a candidate with less red flags.

7.   Minnesota Lynx: Have won the title every year ending in an odd number since 2011

Lindsey Whalen retired. Maya Moore is taking at least this year off. Rebekkah Brunson has still not been cleared to play and may not return in 2019. For the first time in 8 years, the Lynx did not finish the regular season as a top 2 seed or win a playoff series. I think we can safely say the odd year dynasty is over. Long live the odd year dynasty.

The dynasty produced four titles in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017, along with some of the most memorable moments in the W’s history. The Lynx dominated in a time of unparalleled league growth and will always have the titles to show it. But Minnesota has to move on because that’s life and face the challenge of ending this era gracefully while transitioning their focus to the future. The question is whether the Lynx compete for a title in this process.

If they hope to do that, they will rely on the team’s remaining future Hall of Famers, Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus. Fowles led the league in total rebounds with 95 more rebounds than anybody else and posted the fourth highest rebounding rate in league history (22.83%). Fowles also scored efficiently and often last year as well, so the Lynx can still expect Fowles to anchor the team on both sides of the ball. Seimone Augustus is entering her 14th and final year. The legend has slowed down substantially in the past 3 years, averaging career lows in points, minutes, and field goal attempts. But last dance seasons can bring out whatever a player has left as we saw with Dwyane Wade in the NBA this year.

Minnesota also hopes that their young players grow and can fill the void left by Moore, Whalen, and Brunson. Naphessa Collier, the number 6 overall pick, has the skills to contribute immediately. Collier has elite rebounding and passing abilities, which should continue to improve with Fowles’s mentorship. She needs to fix her jump shot as spacing becomes more important, though. Odyssey Sims, despite her previous bad blood with Whalen, is probably a piece in the Lynx’s future. She can fill some of the scoring void left by Moore and run the offense in lieu of Whalen.

It’s going to be weird and likely a little painful. Some around the league believe Minnesota won’t even make the playoffs this year. The Lynx just have to be patient this year, give Seimone her swan song, and honor the past without forgetting about the future.

8.   Dallas Wings: Liz Cambage accounted for 25% of Dallas’s points, 25% of rebounds, 35% of blocks, and 28% of free throw attempts.

Last year, Liz Cambage had an MVP-caliber year and led the Wings to the playoffs. Last week, she successfully forced her way out of Dallas and to a better situation in Las Vegas. Cambage led the league in usage rate at 30% and finished 6th in points per possession (1.129). The Wings’ task in 2019 is to figure out how to replace a quarter of their team’s production leaving with Cambage. Oh, and Skylar Diggins-Smith, last year’s league leader in possessions used plus assists (803), is out indefinitely after giving birth this offseason.

Without a timetable for Diggins-Smith’s return, it is hard to project how good or bad the Wings will be this year. But it isn’t difficult to see which players need to step up to pick up the slack left by Cambage’s exit: Kayla Thornton and Azura Stevens.

In 2018, Kayla Thornton blossomed into the kind of piece every modern basketball team needs: a 3 and D wing. She showed a knack to cover the entire floor and the skills to anchor a solid defense. Thornton also showed offensive potential last year by setting career highs in points per game, rebounds per game, threes made, and field goal percentage. She needs to keep taking and making threes (35.5% on 3.6 attempts per game) to open up driving lanes for the offense. Coming off even more success in Korea in the offseason, Thornton is poised to take a leadership role and hopefully help fill the production gap left by Cambage.

Azurá Stevens is also crucial to making up for Cambage’s departure. After entering the draft with a year of eligibility remaining at UConn, Stevens put up decent numbers (8.9 points and 4.6 boards a game) despite, as she said, feeling overwhelmed by the league. In year two, she has a chance to solidify herself as the future of Dallas’s frontcourt.

Stevens finished second on the team in post-up possessions with 42. Of course, there weren’t many post-ups to go around when Cambage posted up 257 times! Azura scored decently in her sporadic post-ups with 0.952 points per possessions. She’ll need to work on taking care of the ball in the post and getting to the line more. Stevens, along with Glory Johnson and Kayla Thornton, have to make up at least some of the post production lost from last year.

Overall, the Wings are facing huge changes in 2019 under new head coach Brian Agler. But they may be able to get back into the playoffs if Thornton and Stevens step up.

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