If Anything, They Should Be Rewarded

The WNBA is in its 11th season, and, up until last night, I’d never watched a full game. In fact, until a few weeks ago, I hated the WNBA. I’m not exactly sure why—probably from the constant ads during NBA games—but I couldn’t stand anything to do with the league. Then, a few weeks ago, deep in the dog days of summer basketball withdrawal, I caught a few minutes of a regular season game…and kinda liked it. After talking with Carter about it, we decided to write some general impressions of Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, figuring that if we didn’t like that, we wouldn’t like anything. (Note: Terrible logic on our part. Can you imagine showing a non-NBA fan the Spurs-Cavs series and expecting him to like it?)

Since we made that decision, several other sites in Blogburgh have sang the praises (or at least given respect to) the WNBA: Michael of Project Spurs wrote this little ditty on his newfound appreciation for the San Antonio Silver Stars (via Ballhype) and Sports Media Watch brought up the curious situation of the league’s exciting playoff games and dismal ratings (via TrueHoop). These articles, though, tend to focus on the general perceptions surrounding the league. In this post, we want to talk about the style of basketball played on the floor between the East champion Detroit Shock and West champion Phoenix Mercury.

I’ll start with the positives. First, both Phoenix and Detroit have pretty impressive offensive transition games. (Phoenix, with its trio of Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter, and Kelly Miller, seems to have more of a reputation as a running team, but Detroit doesn’t exactly slow things down.) They know how to space themselves on the break, make an early pass to get the ball back, and execute their clear game plan. Detroit won this game by a high final score of 108-100, and that score does not happen by accident.

That offensive execution extends to the half court, where both Phoenix and Detroit moved the ball excellently. A good portion of the credit for that has to go to terrific cuts and off-ball screens. When people suggest that women’s basketball has better fundamentals than the NBA, they’re talking about these things. As such, the offenses tend to flow pretty freely. The league is not without star power, too—Taurasi and Pondexter get into the lane quite often by way of their superior athleticism. Pondexter in particular is fun to watch.

Of course, the style play is not without some gigantic problems. The WNBA’s unpopularity is usually chalked up to the lack of dunks and other above-the-rim antics, but the speed gap is a much more important issue given that these women play on the same-sized court as the men. As any third-grader knows, a pass moves faster than a runner in any situation, which explains why quality ball movement will beat quality defense nearly every time at any level of basketball. In the WNBA, the offense makes smart passes, but the defense can’t move quickly enough to break them up or close out on shooters as often as more athletic players do. The result is a lot of open shots and easy looks, but it doesn’t look like great offense so much as a combination of solid offense and slow defense. It’s nice that offenses move quickly, but it's tough to say how much that matters when defenses aren’t equipped to handle that movement.

Those defensive problems were most obvious when one of the teams played a zone. With an NBA zone, smart passing can get the defense to scramble. In the WNBA, zone defenses have to contend with the fact that the women can’t slide over for help D quickly enough to deny penetration, which leads to even more collapsing and countless open shots. Frankly, I can’t fathom why a WNBA team would ever use a zone. Additionally, in a person-to-person (we’re PC here) defense, perimeter defenders can’t play up on the true playmakers for fear of getting burnt.

The relationship between quickness and the ball also has a noticeable effect on the boards, where boxing out was a major weakness for both teams. On a basic level, it’s tough to get a body on someone when you can’t move very quickly, but that becomes much more of a problem when you have to get a body on someone and grab a rebound at the same time.

The drop-offs in speed and athleticism were made clear in the quality of each team's non-stars. The best players, such as Pondexter, Taurasi, and Detroit’s Deanna Nolan were clearly the most talented players on the court in the first half because of their creative abilities. However, their actual stats were quite terrible: Pondexter had a horrific shooting half (I don’t have the exact stats in front of me, but she was 2/13 on field goals at one point in the 2nd quarter), Taurasi picked up four fouls in the half and made just a few baskets, and Nolan took just two shots from the floor. The NBA certainly has discrepancies between its superstars and average players, but the difference is nowhere near as stark. If, in my first game seeing LeBron, he put up a statline like those, I’d think him overrated, not the best player on the court by far.

Interestingly, I get the impression that the speed issue is what convinces many fans of women’s basketball that this version of basketball features superior fundamentals to the men’s game. In a system without so much athleticism, the fundamentals necessarily become a more visible part of the game. However, it seems foolish to suggest that NBA and NCAA men can’t make entry passes or slide over for help better than the women at their equivalent levels.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. In a few of my Bloggin’ to the Oldies posts this summer, I’ve mentioned that the NBA needed to introduce the three-point line as a way to limit the clutter produced when ten athletic players all play around the key. Watching this WNBA game makes me think that the three-point line has a similar, yet negative effect on their style of play. If less athletic players set up away from the basket, that puts the defense at an extreme disadvantage. Ditching the three-point line would likely lead to players operating much closer to the basket, likely improving the competitiveness of each possession.

Again, I enjoyed this game, but these issues make it impossible for me to declare the WNBA a great league. There are problems, and I think they can be fixed. Even if they aren’t, though, I can still get behind this league, and I’m glad to know it’ll be there for me again during men’s basketball’s late summer drought. If I can love college basketball while still admitting that it’s not better than the NBA, I don’t see any reason why I can’t like the WNBA while still admitting that it’s not better than college basketball.

Random notes: Nancy Lieberman is an atrocious analyst. During the pregame, she actually said “It doesn’t matter if it’s Macbeth or Shakespeare, the antithesis is Laimbeer.” Now, that quote was in response to a comment about Phoenix Coach Paul Westhead quoting Macbeth to his players, but Lieberman still brought out a complete non sequitir and expected us to follow along. Shockingly, she topped herself at halftime when she asked league MVP Lauren Jackson “Was this part of the plan for you, to have the best season of your career, in your mind?” No, Nancy, I’m pretty sure she wanted to be terrible this year. … The Palace was mostly empty, which makes me wonder why they don’t move the games to smaller arenas to create a better atmosphere. I guess NBA teams like the extra money, but I’m sure they could work out some sort of profit-sharing deal. … The WNBA on ESPN has much better theme music than their NBA friends. I’m not sure what it was—I just know it wasn’t the Pussycat Dolls. … ESPN actually has the assistant coaches do interviews (with headsets!) while the ball’s in play. Even weirder, they interview players at the corner of the bench while the game’s going on, too. I can see how access could improve ratings, but those shenanigans have to have an effect on the quality of play. ... Carter actually put Diana Taurasi on his team in NBA Street a few months ago. After watching the game, he claims that she does not deserve her 100 shooting rating. ... The Mercury and Shock seem to have taken on the personalities of their NBA counterparts, which makes sense given marketing concerns. If the WNBA wants to build up its product amongst the established NBA fanbase in those cities, it makes sense that they'd want to show those fans something they already like.


Trey said...

This is the longest WNBA post I've seen in a long time. Good read though.

don said...

Yes, it was a very good read. When I began reading it, I didn't think I would finish it, but to my surprise, I did.

I am not a WNBA fan but the arrival of Candace Parker may change that.

Ty Keenan said...

Yeah, on second thought, it probably should have been two different posts. And longest "in a while," Trey? You've seen longer?

I'm not sure I'm a fan, but I must say that I won't blindly make fun of it anymore. It was really an eye-opening experience--I'd recommend watching at least a quarter of one of these games just to try it out.

Ben Q. Rock said...

I watched the tail end of a playoff game while waiting for a FIBA game to start and was surprised at its watchability.