One Telling Stat Per Team: Eastern Conference Edition

Boring season preview content is forbidden, per the Winsidr Handbook. What follows is fresh—a nap repellent. If you want to learn about all 12 WNBA teams in a fun and engaging manner, keep reading. If you’d rather snooze, please close this webpage immediately so the rest of us can enjoy ourselves. 

 

Statistics are cool, but only when used to tell a story. Statistics devoid of context are lifeless and often misleading. In this season preview, I’ll highlight a statistic for each team, then explain why the number highlighted leaves me bullish or pessimistic on said team’s 2022 outlook. 

Opening night is too close to be wasting time with wordy intros. In fact, it’s a day away! Let’s dive right in with the Eastern Conference. A Western Conference preview following the same format will be ready for your eager eyes tomorrow. 

All stats in this piece are courtesy of WNBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.

 

Atlanta Dream – 56.9 (assist percentage, 12th in the WNBA)

The season of Tenders & Bites shall never be forgotten. Messy is a kind way of describing the Dream’s 2021 campaign; disastrous is more accurate. Atlanta finished 11th, going 8-24. The entire ride was a public relations nightmare. 

Now comes a reset. New general manager and back-to-back Executive of the Year, Dan Padover, made his first big splash as a member of the Dream by trading for the number one overall pick and drafting Rhyne Howard. Franchise building block? Secured. Now comes the real test: placing a team around Howard that, while still miles from contention, is watchable, promising, and accentuates Howard’s strengths. 

Ranking last in assist percentage is bad, but remember that statistics are only as good as the corresponding context. The Dream weren’t setting each other up for success in 2021, but they rarely turned the ball over (second in turnover percentage behind Las Vegas). Per Synergy, Atlanta was fourth in the WNBA in isolations per game; Phoenix and Chicago—the eventual runner-up and champion, respectively, were 11th and 12th. 

What does all this mean? It means Atlanta played a disjointed, rather timid brand of ball in 2021. Minimal risk, minimal reward, the rock sticking rather than flying from player to player. New head coach Tanisha Wright is working to change that, and she’s operating with a vastly different roster than the one interim head coaches Mike Petersen and Darius Taylor had a season ago. Tiffany Hayes, Cheyenne Parker, Monique Billings, and Aari McDonald are the only returning players—an intriguing if lean core. Howard, Erica Wheeler, Nia Coffey, Kia Vaughn, Megan Walker, Naz Hillmon, and others have hopped on the Atlanta Express. 

Let’s not beat around the bush: the Dream will once again be bad in 2022. The hope is that this version of bad serves a purpose, whereas last year’s version of bad served no one—a dismal exercise in futility and dysfunction. Atlanta’s assist percentage will tell us a lot. 

 

Chicago Sky – 1.07 (points per possession after defensive rebounds, first in WNBA, per Inpredictable)

Inpredictable is a cool website. Among other features, it provides a lens into how fast teams play and how efficient they are in certain scenarios. Inpredictable informs us that Chicago took just 11 seconds to get shots off after defensive rebounds in 2021, the fastest such mark in the league. As stated above, the Sky scored 1.07 points per possession after gobbling up opponent misses, also the best mark in the league. Chicago embodied the cliché but often accurate saying that “good defense is the best offense.” 

People can think of “transition basketball” purely in terms of scoring off turnovers, but the reality is that a large chunk of transition opportunities arise after a defensive rebound. Think about Chicago’s personnel for a second, the roster that led the team to its first ever championship last fall. At the forefront is Candace Parker, one of the greatest rebounders in league history and one of the best outlet passers in today’s WNBA. A Parker rebound gives the Sky offense an instant advantage, one that generally compounds itself when Parker’s outlet hits Courtney Vandersloot’s capable hands, and when Vandersloot slings the ball to a streaking, ready-to-launch Kahleah Copper. 

Chicago lost a dynamic transition threat, Diamond DeShields, and a more-than-capable rebounder and passer, Stefanie Dolson, this offseason. The Sky added a backup point guard, Julie Allemand (expected to arrive after the start of the season), who was among the league leaders in assists per game as a rookie, and Emma Meesseman, one of the best passing bigs in the world and the 2019 Finals MVP. Everyone else of import returns. Chicago should be just as, if not even more fearsome, off opponent misses in 2022. 

Lastly, remember Atlanta’s league-worst assist percentage from the previous section? Chicago led the league in 2021 with the only assist percentage north of 70 percent. A team allergic to isolation basketball and one in love with sharing the rock ended up lifting the trophy in October. That team is adding two above-average passers to the mix without losing any starters. I’ll let you do the math on the Sky’s outlook for 2022. 

 

Connecticut Sun – 56.9 (rebound percentage, first in the WNBA) 

Easy selection here. Like taking a gander at the Popeyes menu, as if anything other than a spicy chicken sandwich will find its way into your bag. The Sun smothered opponents on the glass in 2021, en route to the best regular season record in the W. They led the league in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. They allowed the fewest second chance points—just over six a game. They scoffed anytime a shot was missed, as if it wasn’t an inevitability that Connecticut would secure possession.

Here’s a doozy for you: the distance in rebound percentage between Connecticut and second-place Las Vegas was as large as the distance between Las Vegas and 11th-place Atlanta. 

Jonquel Jones is one of the most prolific rebounders in league history, third all-time in total rebound percentage, per Basketball Reference. The 2021 MVP dominated in all facets, her defense smothering rivals and her offense electrifying crowds. Rebounding is dirty work, but Jones excelled there, too, never caring about what the process looked like as long as the job got done. Brionna Jones chipped in majorly, feasting anytime her own teammates missed shots. Others helped as well. 

A contributing factor in all of this was Connecticut’s stinginess in the paint. The Sun allowed the fewest points in the paint, oftentimes deterring opponents from nearing the basket in any capacity. This cleared the lane once shots went up, leaving many rebounds uncontested for Connecticut players.

Could the chasm in rebounding between Connecticut and the rest of the league somehow grow greater in 2022? Possibly. Remember Alyssa Thomas, the pick-and-roll aficionado with enough defensive acumen to satisfy all of New England? She’s back, one of the 15 best high-volume rebounders during her last full season in 2020. Sun head coach Curt Miller will have the option to play ultra-big lineups featuring J Jones, B Jones, and Thomas. Such lineups will have other issues to work through, but will feast on the glass to historic proportions. 

A part of me feels like the collective WNBA populus is underselling Connecticut’s title chances. Chicago is the favorite, and they’ve earned that status. The Sun are directly behind the defending champions, and now return the core that fell to Washington in the 2019 WNBA Finals. There’s a solid chance no one will be able to compete with Connecticut down low, and that the Sun will ride that advantage to a title. 

 

Indiana Fever – negative 12.5 (net rating, 12th in the WNBA)

For the most part, I’m trying to stay away from offensive, defensive, and net rating in this season preview. These are core statistics in basketball analysis, the most direct way of learning how efficient a team is on both ends of the ball. My goal, however, is to dig deeper, finding stats that point to a certain part of offense or defense and analyzing how the number in question affects team performance at-large. 

I’m deviating from my self-imposed rule here, because Indiana’s ineptitude requires a special subset of directives. The team with the longest active playoff drought in the league has been rather pitiful both offensively and defensively for a handful of years. In 2021, the Fever finished 11th in offensive rating and 12th in defensive rating. For those new to the world of advanced stats, the -12.5 net rating means that Indiana was outscored by 12.5 points per 100 possessions. New York—the second-worst team in the league—was outscored by 8.2 points per 100. Connecticut led the WNBA, outscoring teams by 12.4 points per 100. 

There’s no point getting ultra-specific highlighting areas for improvement when the product as a whole is dreadfully pungent, only topped by the Grinch’s abode. A betting man might posit that Indiana will once again finish last in net rating. As was the case with Atlanta’s assist percentage, it’s less about climbing out of the cellar and more about improving upon the #vibes. If the Fever receive promising signs from their bevy of rookies, this season will be considered a win. Tanking to reunite Aliyah Boston and Destanni Henderson isn’t such a bad plan, either. 

Per Her Hoop Stats, Indiana’s fourth overall pick, Emily Engstler, finished second in the nation in defensive win shares (Boston was first). Indiana’s second overall pick, NaLyssa Smith, finished 22nd, Henderson finished 27th, Ameshya Williams-Holliday (25th overall) finished 32nd, and Queen Egbo (10th overall) finished 49th. That means Indiana netted five of the nation’s 50 best defenders in the same draft. It’s fair to assume a heightened emphasis on defense this season at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. 

See Also

Play the youths, develop an identity, compete on defense, and stack losses—Indiana’s recipe for a successful 2022. 

 

New York Liberty – 38.4 (opponent points in the paint, 12th in the WNBA)

It’s not a secret that New York gushed points in the paint to its opponents over the past few years. Liberty general manager, Jonathan Kolb, took a stab at addressing the issue last offseason by trading for former Defensive Player of the Year, Natasha Howard. Howard wasn’t able to get comfortable in 2021, coming back late from an overseas stint and battling injuries throughout her shortened season. This year figures to be different, as Howard has been present and healthy for training camp in Brooklyn. 

Help is on the way. Free-agent signing, Stefanie Dolson, bolsters a big rotation that was severely lacking with Howard unavailable for stretches last season. Dolson is not a plus-defender in the aggregate, but she has her moments and understands her strengths. Dolson can rebound and defend one-on-one in the post, allowing Howard to roam and cause chaos in larger lineups. The Liberty selected Lorela Cubaj with the 18th overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft, and though competition in training camp is stout, the pendulum favors Cubaj making New York’s roster. Cubaj finished third in the nation in defensive win shares this year at Georgia Tech, per Her Hoop Stats. Han Xu rounds out the big rotation, making her first WNBA appearance since her rookie season in 2019. Xu has looked solid in training camp and is a nightmare to shoot over or around. 

Help isn’t coming only in the form of an improved roster, but also in the form of a coaching upgrade. Whatever your feelings were on Walt Hopkins’ tenure as head coach of the Liberty, one thing is indisputable: his defensive schemes were a mess. Replacing Hopkins is former WNBA champion, Sandy Brondello, a coach who will have her players over-prepared whereas previously they appeared under-prepared. 

Anything short of a second straight playoff berth will be deemed a disappointment within the organization, but the road to claiming a top eight seed this season will be supremely difficult. My hunch? New York improves vastly from a numbers standpoint, but narrowly misses out on the postseason. I expect the Liberty to be better, to allow fewer points in the paint, score more in the same area, yet finish with a very similar record to their 2021 mark. To me, that would not qualify as a disappointment. 

 

Washington Mystics – 46.3 (opponent field goal percentage, 12th in the WNBA)

Analyzing Washington’s 2021 season is a doozy given that the team has been severely undermanned since it won the title in 2019. However, one emphasis reverberated powerfully through Zoom accounts across the planet on Mystics media day in April: DEFENSE. Shocking, I know—a team with a championship pedigree stressing defense in the lead up to opening night. I must say, though, it felt genuine. Washington will almost certainly be better on the defensive end in 2022. 

Last season, the Mystics finished 11th in defensive rating. Alysha Clark is back from a season-ending foot injury and feeling good, one of the best all-around defenders in the league during her time with Seattle. Elizabeth Williams made All-Defensive First Team in 2020 with Atlanta, and now joins the Mystics. Ariel Atkins has been a rare constant for Washington from its championship campaign through present day. Atkins was named to the All-Defensive Second Team in 2021. The Mystics drafted Shakira Austin with the third overall pick in this year’s draft, a center out of Mississippi with wily defensive instincts and the frame to bother many professional opponents. 

This squad has the framework of a solid defensive team, with the potential to be spectacular. When Washington won the championship in ‘19, it boasted the most efficient offense in league history while finishing sixth in defensive rating. The Mystics 2022 roster will almost certainly be unable to match the offensive output from three years ago, but the title team was proof that you can win a championship without being elite on one end. You must simply be solid. 

Natasha Cloud, Atkins, and Clark are stout defenders who offer much on offense as well. Having such solid two-way players at the 1-through-3 positions allows head coach Mike Thibault to mix-and-match down low depending on the matchup. Perhaps the team needs points and won’t be exposed on the boards by going small. Easy: play Myisha Hines-Allen and Elena Delle Donne at the 4 and the 5. Perhaps the team is getting exposed on the boards and leaking points. Boom: shift Delle Donne to the 4 and insert Austin or Williams. 

I’ll end part one of my season preview with the most definitive proclamation yet: there’s a greater chance Diana Taurasi makes it through the whole season without a technical foul than there is of Washington once again finishing last in opponent field goal percentage. I think the Mystics jump five spots at minimum. 

 

Check back tomorrow for part two—the Western Conference!

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