Breaking Down the Best Offense in the WNBA Piece-by-Piece

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Seattle and Las Vegas boasted the top two offenses in the league this season (Seattle was first). 

The playoffs have woven a drastically different tale. In five games against Connecticut, the Aces’ offensive efficiency dropped off a cliff, falling from 107.3 points per possession in the regular season to 92.4 in the postseason. Meanwhile, the Storm looked even stronger in three wins over Minnesota, posting a mark of 112.1 points per 100 possessions. 

Much is made of Seattle’s defense, and rightfully so. Natasha Howard was named the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year. Alysha Clark finished second in voting for the same award this year. Breanna Stewart is one of the best frontcourt defenders in the league. Jewell Loyd and Jordin Canada are also above average defenders, capable of putting the clamps on opposing guards. Ezi Magbegor has immense potential on the defensive end and is already a force as a rookie. Sue Bird is the only player currently in the Seattle rotation who the coaching staff attempts to “hide” when the opponent has the basketball. 

Guess what? The Las Vegas defense is damn good, too. It’s why the Aces made it this far. Offensively, though, Connecticut and Seattle fall on different ends of the spectrum. More than anything, I’m intrigued to see how Seattle’s steamroller offense concludes its time in the Wubble. Will the Storm struggle to score against the elite defending of A’ja Wilson and Angel McCoughtry? Or will the absence of Dearica Hamby open things up for Seattle to score in bundles? 

The Storm are missing a key contributor of their own in Sami Whitcomb, who left Florida after Seattle’s semifinal series to be with her wife for the birth of their first child. Whitcomb isn’t as valuable to the Storm as Hamby is to the Aces, but she’s one of those players who makes everything easier for those around her. Whitcomb’s departure is a significant blow. 

Still, the Storm remain deep. Let’s run through Seattle’s primary rotation pieces, listed in order by regular season usage percentage, to see how each player fits into the offensive puzzle and how each one may be deployed against Las Vegas. 

Breanna Stewart

The linchpin of the whole operation, Stewart this year sported her lowest true shooting percentage and lowest effective field goal percentage since 2016 (her rookie season). Still, she was incredibly impactful. Duh. 

Stewart’s offensive value is revealed in how Seattle uses her as a screener. The wraparound pass Stewart slung to Whitcomb in Game 2 against Minnesota illuminated her abilities as a creator in a non-scoring capacity. So when Stewart sets a screen for one of Seattle’s shooters, the defense is caught between a rock and a hard place. If Bird or Loyd are handling the ball, defenders must go over Stewart’s screen. If Stewart’s defender shows just an inch toward Bird or Loyd, that leaves a comfortable amount of space for the former MVP to operate within. 

Stewart is so dangerous because her talents aren’t confined to a single area on the floor. Where she wreaks havoc out on the perimeter, facing up or running pick-and-pops, Stewart also excels in the post. Doubling her on or around the low blocks is a risky proposition. Stewart logged a 20.42 assist percentage in 2020 per Across the Timeline, easily the highest mark of her career. It’s a lot easier to improve as a passer when surrounded by top-level shooting on a well-spaced floor. 

Stewart versus Wilson will be must watch TV on both ends, but specifically when Seattle has the ball. We saw Napheesa Collier bother Stewart at times in the semifinals, and Wilson is more than capable of doing the same. 

Seattle will likely try to get Aces center Carolyn Swords involved in as many “to switch or not to switch?” scenarios as possible. Let’s say Stewart sets a cross screen for Howard, forcing Wilson and Swords to switch. Then Stewart bolts to the top of the key, running a pick-and-roll with Bird or Loyd. All of a sudden, Swords finds herself in the middle of one of the most lethal actions in basketball. 

It will take a lot for the Aces to stay afloat if Stewart is screening all across the floor and setting up others with the gravity of her presence. 

Jewell Loyd

If Stewart is the linchpin, Loyd is the most reliable contributor, the player who makes everything pop off the page. Loyd is the one who allows Seattle to win even when Stewart is suffering an off-night shooting the ball. Loyd is the best pure off-the-dribble shot creator on the team. In the playoffs, that’s among the most important skills a guard can possess. 

Loyd’s step-back jumper is mesmerizing. Her off-balance shot attempts feel impossible, yet they often fall. I’ve yet to see a rattled Jewell Loyd. The moment certainly will not faze her. 

2020 was the most efficient season of Loyd’s career. She shot 39 percent from downtown and posted the highest true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage of her career. During the regular season and in the playoffs against the Lynx, it felt as if Loyd would go on a scoring run whenever Seattle’s energy was low. Her shot-making at the end of quarters was elite. The game-winner she hit against Los Angeles is among the contenders for “Play of the Year.” 

It will be intriguing to monitor who draws the primary Loyd assignment. One would assume Kayla McBride, but with how much screening and switching is customary in the league today, on-paper matchups don’t carry as much weight as they used to. Loyd can score against anyone, but the Aces do feature length on the perimeter, potentially the one thing that could bother Loyd. Because of that, look for Loyd to attack often in one-on-one scenarios. Clear the lane and let your best shot creator cook. 

Natasha Howard

The discourse surrounding Howard’s 2020 season has been odd. Of course, she wasn’t going to match her 2019 levels of production. When Howard entered the Wubble looking extremely rusty and choppy on offense, a narrative was birthed. Choosing not to revisit and interrogate that narrative as the season progressed is a collective failure. 

Howard’s usage understandably declined in 2020 and her efficiency rose. She was elite on the offensive glass, posting the best rebounding percentages of her career. She remained a stellar defender and hit 35 percent of her threes. To imply that this was some sort of precipitous drop-off in production and not simply an adaptation to a reduced role is absurd. 

Howard’s assertiveness in this series will be a major factor in determining Seattle’s success. The Storm need to seek as many looks for Howard in the pick-and-roll as possible, forcing Swords to move laterally and track Howard behind the arc. If the Aces are scrambling, Stewart, Alysha Clark, and others will take advantage of cutting lanes. It will be incumbent upon Howard to find her teammates. When the ball is zipping around, Seattle is nearly impossible to stop. 

Ezi Magbegor

Magbegor’s role diminished significantly against Minnesota, which isn’t a huge surprise. Rotations tighten come playoff time and rookies often suffer the brunt of that shift. With Whitcomb out, I think Magbegor could help fill the void. 

Despite her inexperience, Magbegor can stay on the floor in the playoffs because of her defensive mettle. For a rookie, Magbegor is incredibly proficient at switching onto perimeter players. She can guard Swords if Howard gets in foul trouble, and poses some fairly fascinating matchups on the other end. 

Magbegor has obvious All-Star potential. No one is expecting her to have major sway in the outcome of the WNBA Finals. But 5 or 10 points per game off the bench could prove to be the difference. Head coach Gary Kloppenburg knows Magbegor will bring it on both sides of the ball, and sometimes that’s all you’re looking for when the stakes get high. 

Jordin Canada

Canada is an odd fit on this roster because she’s one of the few players who doesn’t shoot from outside at an efficient clip. Canada brings so much that is vital to Seattle’s playstyle, such as high-risk, high-reward defending, vigorous rim-runs in transition, and slick handles. Canada knows how to dish the rock, too. 

Canada sported a higher usage rate than Bird in the regular season, but that all adds up. Bird is 39. Canada is 25. Bird had the third-highest usage rate against Minnesota whereas Canada and Magbegor had the two lowest usage rates among the ten players who saw the floor. I have no doubt Canada will slide into the action and affect the tenor of the game at some point against Las Vegas. But the Aces will likely breathe a small, muted sigh of relief when Canada is on the floor simply because it allows them to relax a tad defending the perimeter. Guarding five shooters is near impossible. Guarding three or four shooters is a little more manageable. 

Epiphanny Prince

Prince did not play in Game 1 against Minnesota. She played a little bit in Game 2 and hit a three-pointer. She played over 16 minutes in the clincher, scoring 9 points and dishing 4 assists while only missing one shot. Without Whitcomb in the picture, will Prince continue to see increased playing time, or will Kloppenburg tighten his rotation even further with the end of the season in sight? Most of Prince’s minutes in Game 3 came in the second half with Seattle enjoying a fairly comfortable lead. 

Though not an outstanding three-point shooter, Prince is very competent and can knock down shots if left open. She might even hit you with a step-back if her game is flowing. I doubt Prince will play much against the Aces, but Kloppenburg must enjoy having a vet on his bench who he can count on in any situation. 

Sue Bird

I don’t have too much to say here. This article is already a bear and if you’re unaware of what Sue Bird brings to the table, I suggest tools such as “Google,” “YouTube,” or “any website that only provides cursory coverage of the WNBA.” 

Bird will play more than she has all season in this series. She’ll be attacked on defense. She’ll attack on offense. She’ll knock down 3s and put her team-best 3.17 assist-to-turnover ratio to good use. Need I say more? 

Mercedes Russell

Russell has really grown during her three seasons in the league, developing into a very competent backup center. Serving that role on the team with the best NetRating in the WNBA isn’t small potatoes. 

These are the WNBA Finals and players like Russell just won’t move the needle all that much in their limited run. Things become a lot more clogged on offense when Canada and Russell play the 1 and the 5. Las Vegas will need to win the Canada/Russell minutes if it has a chance at winning the series. Whether Kloppenburg lets those two share the floor at all will be another aspect to monitor. 

Alysha Clark

It’s both fitting and an absolute travesty that Clark is the last person mentioned in this article. Clark’s usage percentage usually hangs in the low teens, yet she’s among the most impactful players on the floor at all times and on both ends. The embodiment of efficiency – owner of the highest true shooting percentage in the WNBA. Always in the right place at the right time. A representation of all the things that make Seattle incredibly fun to watch. 

I won’t end this breakdown with more analysis. I went pretty long on the two-way impact of Clark and Loyd a month ago. Not much has changed. 

Instead, I’ll end it with a homework assignment: 

Choose a couple stretches of two-or-so minutes over the next few games to watch Clark and no one else. Zone in on her movements, her decision making, and her leadership. Take notes. Show your children. 

You won’t be disappointed by what you find.

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