Most Interesting Stat: Top 4 teams

This is the finale of my most interesting stat series. I’ve been picking out a stat that has stuck in my head as I got ready for the season and tells an important story for the team. You can find part 1 here and part 2 here. Part 3 focuses on the best teams from last season. Unlike the last two parts, the season has already started so I will be using information from the first few games.

  1. Seattle Storm: Only 1 champion has missed the playoffs the following season.

The Storm have faced a hurricane of adversity this offseason. First, Breanna Stewart tore her Achilles in the Eurobasket final and will miss the season. Then, Head Coach Dan Hughes announced that he would undergo surgery to remove a tumor in his digestive tract. Just before the season started, the Storm revealed that Sue Bird would miss an indefinite amount of time to get a scope on her knee. There’s no other way to say it: THIS SUCKS.

As for the most serious issue in Seattle, Coach Hughes has said he’s in good spirits and is hopeful to be healthy soon, but he may not come back this season. As for the on-court product, the Storm are seemingly in deep trouble. Stewart, the 2018 MVP, dominated last season while the legend Sue Bird was the team’s rudder. No team can replace those two, especially when the Storm only signed one non-rookie free agent this offseason (Shavonte Zellous). Many analysts (including your boy in our awards column) fear that the Storm’s hopes for a repeat have dissipated, with some even predicting that they will miss the playoffs.

However, a defending champion missing the playoffs just doesn’t happen in the WNBA. The only champion to do this was the 2008 Phoenix Mercury. Diana Taurasi led the league’s best offense, but inexperience and the league’s worst defense led Phoenix to a disappointing finish in a very strong Western Conference.

The 2019 Storm share a couple of concerning traits with that team. The Mercury lacked its head coach from the previous year (Paul Westhead left for the NBA) and was missing two stars (Tangela Smith for the playoff race and Penny Taylor for the entire year). Also, this year’s Western Conference (and the East for that matter) feature a ton of fantastic teams with healthier rosters just like it did in 2008.

Still, defending champs make it back to the playoffs 95% of the time and this team has a ton of talent. Natasha Howard is expected to have a huge year and showed why in the team’s opener on Saturday by putting up 21 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. Point guard Jordin Canada looked like a young Sue Bird in that game with 16 points and sooooo many clutch plays to put away the Mercury.

The team looked poised, polished, and like the champions they are. If WNBA history is any indication, the Storm will be back in the postseason. If Saturday night is another clue for the team’s fate, the Storm will be competing for a title again.

  1. Atlanta Dream: 25 points on 9 of 19 shooting from their power forwards in the season opener

When I set out to write this series, I figured I would write about how the Dream would not be able to match their success from last season without Angel McCoughtry, who seems likely to miss the entire year. The Dream did make it within a game of the WNBA Finals without the 5-time All-Star last year, but they still won just 12 games in the last full season without McCoughtry (2017). Even with Tiffany Hayes coming off an All-WNBA season and a burgeoning star in Renee Montgomery, Atlanta seemed certain to have a big fall off from last year’s Eastern Conference first-place finish.

My main concern for Atlanta is a lack of scoring from their wings. They mainly rode their top-ranked defense to wins last season, while the offense languished near the bottom of the league. Angel McCoughtry finished second on the team in points (463) and ended up with the ball about 17% of the time on offense, the highest percentage on the team. Without her, the offense could fall even further and drag the Dream down.

The replacement options for Angel did not look promising entering the season. Tiffany Hayes doesn’t spot up like McCoughtry does and, frankly, asking her to increase her production is almost unfair. Jessica Breland had a below average year efficiency-wise, finishing in the 29th percentile for points per possession. Nia Coffey, acquired from Vegas for a 2020 second rounder, has showed promise but remains unproven.

After their first game, it seems that the Dream will weather the storm without McCoughtry more successfully than I thought. Jessica Breland put on a show with 17 points on 46% shooting and 6 rebounds. Nia Coffey made the most of her 22 minutes with 8 points on 50% shooting. Most importantly, Atlanta put away Dallas 76-72 despite trailing by 8 points entering the 4th quarter.

While  scoring get the headlines, the physicality that Coffey and Breland brought was more impressive to me. They both got into the lane either to drive or rebound and banged bodies all game. Their physicality turned into 10 combined rebounds and free throws. Breland went 5 of 7 from the charity stripe, the most attempts she’s had since 2016 and way above her average of 1.3 last year. Coffey got 3 free throw attempts for her effort. Getting to the line is huge for these two considering that McCoughtry averaged 4.3 free throw attempts per game last year, second most on the team, and that production needs to be replaced.

The Dream’s season rests on the shoulders of Mitchell and Montgomery, but someone needs to fill in for Angel McCoughtry if they want any chance at a top 4 seed again. Breland has the lion share of that responsibility with Coffey also needing to step up. The season opener provided a promising data point for Atlanta. However, they will need Breland and Coffey to consistently bring that type of effort and production to repeat last year’s success.

  1. Washington Mystics: 4,200 is the capacity of St. Elizabeth’s East Entertainment and Sports Arena, the Mystics new home.

The Mystics are largely going to be the same team on the floor as the 2017 version. They bring back 83% of points, 84% of assists, and 79% of rebounds from the team that lost in the Finals last year. The only major changes are Emma Meessemen’s return and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt’s exit to LA. If they stay healthy, the Mystics should be right back in the title conversation. Check out Jenn Hatfield’s preview for more about DC on the court.

I want to talk more about the court itself. In September, the Mystics’ new home stadium opened in Southeast DC (Southeast is one of the many parts of DC undergoing gentrification for better or worse). The District of Columbia built the arena to house the Mystics, the Captial City Go-Go of the G-League, and the Wizards practices as well as other events. Of course, the citizens of D.C. (myself included) footed the bill for this project.

While I will never not bash public spending on sports areas (Ted Leonsis could have afforded this himself), my concerns are more with the size and placement of the arena. The team drew just over 6,000 fans a game last year, down from nearly 8,000 in 2017 (shouts to Jenn Hatfield again and Her Hoops Stats). In 2019, the maximum attendance figure that DC could reach is 4,200 and that’s if they sell out every game.

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The team would counter that the arena gives the Mystics a permanent home and one that won’t feel cavernous like the Capital One Arena did at times last year. The assertion is not baseless as last year’s playoff fiasco shows with the team being forced their last regular season games and home playoff games in three different arenas. But still, it feels like the Mystics are being relegated to the outskirts of town and a tiny stadium.

The arena is supposedly beautiful, and the fans will be right on top of the floor to (hopefully) create a great atmosphere. It may very well be great, but limiting the capacity so much just seems short-sighted and almost like a slight against the Mystics. One day soon, we will not have to talk about slights against the W and by then the Mystics will be playing in a stadium able to fit all of their fans. But until then, I will remain skeptical of moves like the one happening in D.C.

  1. Connecticut Sun: When Chiney Ogwumike was out in 2017, Jonquel Jones posted the highest rebounding rate in WNBA history at 23.56%.

The WNBA community has reacted weirdly to the Chiney Ogwumike trade to Los Angeles. On one hand, pretty much everyone believes the trade was a steal for L.A. and Chiney makes the Sparks a title contender. On the other, most of those people also believe that the Connecticut Sun will improve in 2019.

While the reaction is odd, it is based on a logical foundation. In 2017, Chiney injured her Achilles and missed the season. Yet, the Sun improved their win total by 7 games and made the playoffs for the first time since 2012. So, what changed for the Sun without Chiney in 2017 and what does it say about 2019 now that she’s gone for good?

First and foremost, the Sun’s other players improved drastically in 2017. Jonquel Jones posted that ridiculous rebounding rate (an estimate of the percentage of missed shots a player rebounds while on the floor) and won Most Improved Player. Both Jasmine Thomas and Alyssa Thomas made their first all-star game and developed great chemistry. Connecticut added Courtney Williams to provide clutch scoring, as well.

The Sun also got out on the break a lot more and scored more efficiently in transition in 2017 than in either 2016 or 2018. Transition accounted for 17.2% of the team’s possessions in 2017, as opposed to 16% in 2016 and 14.2% in 2018. Connecticut finished 3rd in transition efficiency in 2017, which is a far cry from finishing at the bottom of the W in the other two seasons. Anecdotally, the Sun just looked more fluid and energetic in 2017 than 2018. The ball was flying around and so were the players, yet the team’s turnover rate was at its lowest in 2017 over the three seasons we’re looking at.

The 2017 Sun were not necessarily better than the 2018 Sun (even though they may have been), but the Chiney-less Sun looked very different while being just as successful. I believe a similar phenomenon will happen in 2019 with Connecticut running more and getting even more players involved. Jonquel should have a huge year and hopefully will improve her outlet passing to kick start transition opportunities. It’s going to be fascinating to watch Connecticut this year. Either the Sun will rise with growth and strategic changes or set without their star.

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