2006 WNBA Finals Preview

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Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | August 29, 2006
It began, innocently enough, with a question: How do you beat the Sacramento Monarchs?

As we approach the 2006 WNBA Finals, that question looms large. With consecutive sweeps of their first two opponents, the Monarchs improved to 8-0 over the last two seasons against Western Conference Playoff foes (their last playoff loss to a West team came Oct. 5, 2005 in Seattle in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals) and 11-1 overall in the postseason.

"I've seen the Monarchs play in person nine times and watched on television countless more times. Still, I don't feel like I can explain how to beat the white-line defense."
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty
Since John Whisenant took over the Monarchs midway through the 2003 season, I've seen them play in person nine times and watched Sacramento games on television countless more times. I've listened to both Anne Donovan and Whisenant himself discuss Sacramento's "white-line" defense and read the breakdowns that have been done. Still, I don't feel like I can explain how to beat it with anything beyond generic comments about avoiding turnovers, rotating the ball to the weak side and hitting open shots.

So, it was time to turn to the numbers. My theory was this: Use a team's statistics to explain their performance against the Monarchs this season, adjusted for venue (home and away) and whether the game came before or after Sacramento got going on June 29. (The Monarchs were 7-7 as of that point, 14-6 thereafter.)

To evaluate teams, I used Dean Oliver's Four Factors on offense and defense, as well as three other things I figured might be key indicators against the Monarchs defense - the team's ratio of assists to field goals made (which indicates whether they get their shots by passing or creating off the dribble), their percentage of field-goal attempts that were 3-pointers and their pace of play (presumably a fast-paced team would be less affected by Sacramento's stellar half-court defense).

What I did - and feel free to skip this description - was run a regression to predict point differential for a team playing the Monarchs based on the 11 team statistics I mentioned above, including dummy variables for home/away and whether the game was played early in the season. I then ran the same regression to predict teams' point differential over the course of the season, showing how important each of these factors were for winning over the entire WNBA.

I found five factors which take on extra importance against the Monarchs:

eFG% - Offense
eFG% - Defense

The numbers listed there are the coefficients the regression provided for each factor; they don't mean anything of themselves, but you can compare the WNBA coefficient and the Monarchs coefficient to see how much relatively more important each one is against Sacramento.

The most interesting factor to me is probably the first one - while these results are somewhat uncertain, it does appear that teams that rely on their passing tend to fair much, much better against the Monarchs. League-wide, there is almost no relationship between the percentage of baskets a team assists on and how good their offense is. For example, this year's Storm was one of the league's best offenses despite the league's second-lowest ratio of assists to field goals. Teams like the Storm, however, rely on penetration - and that's precisely what the white-line defense is set up to eliminate. This is good news for Detroit, which assisted on 62.2% of its baskets this season, the league's third-highest mark.

(Aside: Nobody thinks of the Shock as a good passing team because Detroit starts converted shooting guard Katie Smith at the point. The numbers don't bear this out, however, because the Shock has three good passers in its starting lineup: Smith (3.3 apg), Deanna Nolan (3.6 apg) and Swin Cash (3.1 apg). Detroit was the only team in the WNBA with three players in the league's top 20 in assists per game. The Shock's high percentage of assisted baskets is even more impressive when you consider how many points the team gets off of putbacks, which are almost never assisted.)

Both shooting the ball and defending the shot, as measured by effective field-goal percentage, show as more important against the Monarchs. On offense, being able to shoot the ball from the perimeter is obviously important. However, teams that live by the 3-pointer struggled more than expected against Sacramento. Opponents want to make their 3s, but not take too many of them. Nobody in the WNBA allowed a lower effective field-goal percentage than the Shock (42.8%), but Detroit's own shooting (44.5%) was subpar. This is basically a wash.

Defensive rebounding becomes far more important against the Monarchs, which is no surprise: Sacramento was the league's best offensive rebounding team and thrives on second-chance points because the team doesn't shoot the ball that well. In this regard, the Shock and Monarchs are mirror images of each other; they should neutralize each other on the glass.

Lastly, having the ability to force turnovers is critical. This is strange, because the Monarchs actually tended to win more when they committed more turnovers (they were 5-2 when committing at least 18 turnovers, with one of those losses in the meaningless final game of the season), but Sacramento went 11-3 against the five worst teams in the league at forcing turnovers. Detroit was slightly below average in terms of forcing turnovers.

Equally important are the factors that don't show up on the list. Take turnover rate - given that Sacramento's defense relies on forcing turnovers, you would think taking care of the ball would be critical for Monarchs opponents, right? I think what's happening here is that the Sacramento defense causes relatively more trouble for teams that aren't used to committing turnovers than those that play sloppy on a regular basis. The difference between offenses that turn it over a lot and those that don't is usually unforced turnovers, and the Monarchs force turnovers, which is a totally different skill.

Offensive rebounding is also conspicuous in its absence, which could be a problem for Detroit, which was second only to the Monarchs on the offensive glass. In fact, the regression actually shows good offensive rebounding teams to do worse against Sacramento. This might just be a fluke, but it might also be explained by the fact that the Monarchs keep so many defenders in the paint that teams that are used to relying on the offensive glass are hampered.

Los Angeles
San Antonio
New York
Putting this all together, I created the predicted differential for the Monarchs on a neutral court against everyone else in the league, which is shown at right. It doesn't entirely conform to overall ability - witness Charlotte matching up better with Sacramento than the Storm. It does seem to make sense given regular-season results; Los Angeles swept the Monarchs, the only team in the WNBA to do so, while Houston won the regular-season series 3-1. Meanwhile, the Storm lost the series 3-1. Charlotte probably is ranked the furthest from its overall performance, and while the Sting lost both matchups with Sacramento, both were close - Charlotte was within six in the final two minutes at ARCO.

In the playoffs, however, Sacramento has dominated far more than would be expected. Los Angeles is easy to write off; while the Sparks matched up perfectly with the Monarchs when healthy, Chamique Holdsclaw's injury changed all that. (Of course, Los Angeles still nearly stole Game 1 at ARCO.) Houston is more potentially meaningful - the Comets should have had the advantage at home, but were never in either game. I'm wary of reading too much into four games, but the Monarchs come in playing very well.

Based strictly on matchups, two players should struggle for the Shock against the Sacramento defense: forwards Cash and Cheryl Ford. That was the case in the two regular-season matchups (both blowouts won by the home team, four days apart in late July) for Cash, who had 13 points and three rebounds in the two games, but Ford was dominant, totaling 36 points and 26 rebounds. Behind Ford, the Shock had 30 offensive rebounds in the two games.

The big difference between Detroit's blowout win and its lopsided loss was shooting, starting with the backcourt. In Detroit, Nolan and Smith combined for 34 points on 10-for-23 shooting, including 5-for-8 from downtown. In Sacramento, they missed 13 of 15 shot attempts, all five 3-point tries and scored 16 points. Nolan's game - shooting off the dribble - is generally a successful one against the Monarchs, and she and Smith are more than capable of knocking down the open 3-pointers the white-line defense will allow. If Nolan and Smith - as well as Ruth Riley, who should get some good looks from the elbow on the weak side, where she is usually very good - aren't hitting, this could be a short series.

Ultimately, I think your opinion of this series hinges largely on whether you think the three blowouts in four Monarchs playoffs games were just three good games that came at the right time, or are indicative of a team peaking in the postseason. I think I tend to believe they are meaningful. As important as depth has been for Sacramento under Whisenant, there's a clear drop-off from the starting lineup to the bench on the perimeter, and Whisenant has tightened his rotation during the playoffs.

If this series goes to five games, home-court advantage could carry Detroit to the title. But I don't expect it to get quite that far. Following their playbook from a year ago, I think the Monarchs will steal one of the first two games at The Palace of Auburn Hills and return home to clinch their second straight WNBA Championship in four games.

After all, I'm not alone in not knowing hot to beat the Monarchs. No team has figured it out the last two postseasons either.