Spacing And The Small Ball Revolution

I’m not going to reveal the player we were discussing, but last week the Winsidr Slack exploded with an argument over whether a current WNBA player was a starter or not. The argument for her being a starter was that her shooting ability helped space the floor. The argument against was that if she played at her natural position, there were very few teams that she would be good enough to start for.

I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m a fan of spacing, so I leaned on the side of that even if that particular player’s status as a starter can be debated, teams need to embrace spacing more when putting together their starting lineups.

It’s no secret that the WNBA has long been a league dominated by bigs. Lisa Leslie. Candace Parker. Sylvia Fowles. Even the most dynamic players in the league like Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne are fours. But what I want to argue is that teams shouldn’t be afraid of playing smaller as a way of increasing their spacing. Stretch fours are great, but what about playing those stretch fours at the five? What about playing three guards?

Let’s explore some lineup data from last season to see how sizing down helped some teams.

The Dallas Wings’ Satou Sabally/Kayla Thornton Frontcourt

Let’s start with something that I’ve already written about for this site, which was the Wings using  Sabally/Thornton frontcourt down the stretch last season. How did that center-less lineup fare?

Pretty well!

Per Positive Residual, the Wings had an offensive rating of 104.4 and defensive rating of 108.8 last season, leaving them with a -4.3 net rating that seems to be pretty perfectly in line with what this team ended up being.

But if we filter things down to just minutes where there were no bigs on the floor other than Sabally and Thornton, we get 104 minutes of action. In those minutes, the team had a 112.3 offensive rating and 112.3 defensive rating. So, the defense ended up giving up a fairly notable number of points per 100 possessions more than the other lineup, but the offensive production more than made up for that.

How? Because spacing.

I probably don’t need to explain the importance of spacing in basketball to y’all, but just in case, here’s my theory on spacing: if you have players who can score from anywhere on the floor and you put them at the four and/or the five, you’re able to stick them on the perimeter and draw the defense out of the paint, which then opens up more space for driving and then, when the defense tries to defend the drive, opens up open shooters on the perimeter. In theory, a four-out or five-out offensive system should be incredibly efficient, with the biggest concern being how the lack of size will impact things on the defensive end. But with the right defensive players—think switchable, multi-positional defenders like Sabally—you can help steady things on that end.

Anyway, that was what this Dallas lineup did. Thornton and Sabally aren’t elite interior defenders, so that lineup was susceptible on the inside. But if the Wings do as expected and add Texas center Charli Collier in this year’s draft, they’ll be able to do the whole spacing thing without going small for large parts of the game. But when Collier sits, why not try to keep the same offensive approaching by throwing Thornton at the five? That small lineup would continue to put immense pressure on opposing defenses.

Another example of this idea is from 2019, when the Liberty were forced by injury to move Rebecca Allen to the four. If you look at lineups where Allen didn’t play with Tina Charles and Amanda Zahui B. —so that essentially we’re looking at Allen at the four and a smaller big at center—, the team’s offensive and defensive ratings were improved, especially defensively, where Allen’s versatility on that end made a big difference.

What Are Some Fun Small Lineups For 2021?

Alright, here’s the whole reason I wanted to write this: to think about what some teams could do by sizing down. Let’s run through some potential examples.

Atlanta Dream: Cheyenne Parker/Shekinna Stricklen/Courtney Williams/Chennedy Carter/Odyssey Sims

Atlanta has a good center in Elizabeth Williams and a nice prospect on the bench in Kalani Brown. They have some nice frontcourt pieces like Monique Billings and Tianna Hawkins. And yet, I really want to see them play Stricklen—who shot under 38 percent from deep for the first time since 2016 last season—at the four some, where she can take advantage of the spacing and get some more open looks. I also ostensibly put three point guards into this lineup. Look: the Dream are in a weird position right now where I can’t tell if they’re going to sneak into the playoffs or continue to rebuild, so get weird with it. 

 

New York Liberty: Natasha Howard/Jocelyn Willoughby/Betnijah Laney/Sami Whitcomb/Sabrina Ionescu

See Also

I’d guess we see a lot of this lineup this season. Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins wants to run a five-out offense that also has the positional versatility to create havoc on the defensive end, so this grouping is perfect for that. Howard and Laney are excellent defenders. All five players can shoot. You’re trusting the two-game sample of Ionescu from 2020 a lot by not pairing her with a ball-handler like Layshia Clarendon in this lineup, but there will be plenty of time for that duo to play together.

 

Phoenix Mercury: Brianna Turner/Megan Walker/Kia Nurse/Diana Taurasi/Skylar Diggins-Smith

Playing Turner and Brittney Griner together is a thing Phoenix will do a lot and I can’t blame them at all for going big when you have players of that caliber. But I also think the team should try to stagger their minutes some, allowing us to see some fun lineups with Turner (or Griner) surrounded by shooting. I put Megan Walker at the four here because I’m still a firm believer in her ability to succeed in the WNBA—the bubble season didn’t let us see a fully unlocked Walker, especially since she entered late because of COVID. Nurse can be a third option here, which should help her efficiency.

 

Seattle Storm: Breanna Stewart/Mikiah Herbert Harrigan/Jewell Loyd/Sue Bird/Jordin Canada

STEWIE AT CENTER.

With the departure of Natasha Howard, Ezi Magbegor will fill the hole at the five, but when Magbegor sits, Seattle will turn to either Mercedes Russell or Candice Dupree at the five. That’s fine, but I’d be really interested to see an extremely spaced-out version of this team with Stewart and Herbert Harrigan in the frontcourt. You could sub Canada out for Katie Lou Samuelson and slide Loyd and Bird up a position if you wanted to ensure every player could shoot, but I like what Canada would bring to this lineup defensively, plus you can never have enough ball-handlers on the floor, right? The other four players can space things out, opening room for Canada to drive inside. She shot 64 percent inside of five-feet last season; of all guards with at least two shot attempts per game, only nine guards ended up with a higher field goal percentage from that sector of the court.

 

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