Donovan No Fan of New Rules Intepretation

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Kevin Pelton, | May 17, 2005
When the Seattle Storm concluded its 2005 preseason last Saturday against the Sacramento Monarchs, the new rule emphasis in the WNBA this season was on full display. After a new interpretation eliminating - or, at least, severely restricting - contact above the free-throw line was deemed a success in the NBA, the same interpretation is now coming to the WNBA.

The result on Saturday? 63 fouls, 64 free throws and grumbling from most all in attendance.

"I hate it," Storm Coach Anne Donovan said before the game. "I think it's awful. I hate it. It's a rule where the intent of it is to create more points, free up more drives to the basket. We just don't have a long enough season to adjust to that rule. I think most coaches in the WNBA are defensive-oriented coaches, and this rule really challenges everything we've ever taught. And it doesn't give the players enough time to really adjust. I'm not a fan of it at all."

In the NBA, the rules modification has been credited for increases in scoring and the pace of play this season, reversing recent trends. League-wide, the NBA averaged 97.2 points per game in 2004-05, up 3.8 points from 2003-04. Possessions per game increased by 1.1%.

"I think most coaches in the WNBA are defensive-oriented coaches, and this rule really challenges everything we've ever taught."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
The resulting improvement in offensive efficiency (teams averaged 103.8 points per 100 possessions, up 2.9%) can be traced in part to the free-throw line; teams got to the line 7.6% more on a per-game basis. However, the rules also opened up offenses. The NBA went from shooting 46.0% on twos and 34.7% on 3s to 47.0% on twos and 35.6% in 3s.

In the WNBA, scoring and pace of play have been relatively stable over the last five years.

Donovan worries that while the NBA was able to adjust to the new interpretation over a six-month regular season, WNBA players will have much less time to do so. The games are also played differently between the two leagues, with on-ball pressure a much bigger factor in the WNBA.

"The NBA is about defense, but it's not get up on our man defense, so it's been a much easier rule to adjust to than it will be for us," explained Donovan.

To prepare for the new rules, Donovan has changed the way she's taught and the team has practiced during training camp.

"We've adjusted," said Donovan. We brought in a lot of officials to training camp, so we can keep getting used to backing off. Even terminology has to change - I talk about 'Hands, hands, ball pressure!' - can't touch, so it's a different kind of hands defensively."

Still, Donovan worries about what fans - most importantly, those tuning in to a nation-wide ABC broadcast - might see next Saturday when the Storm opens its season against the Los Angeles Sparks.

"There are a lot of the kind of players who like to get to the rim, and it could be a foul-shooting fest if they really call it the way they intend to," she said.

That's exactly what ended up happening hours later on the KeyArena court. Saturday's game was not an isolated example either; 73 fouls were called in an exhibition between the Detroit Shock and the Minnesota Lynx the previous Saturday. WNBA referees may be quick to the whistle during preseason as part of the learning process for players and coaches, but they might be just as foul-happy when the games begin counting next weekend.

Slow Starters?

As she did before her first season with the Storm, 2003, Donovan is cautioning that her team may start the season slowly because of the presence of two new starters in the lineup and several new reserves, as well as multiple players who returned to camp late because they were playing overseas. Added to that is a road-heavy June schedule that is expected to help the Storm financially but could cause some early problems on the court.

"I think there's going to be a lot of tests in the early part of the season for us as we try to develop not only chemistry but players to fill roles," said Donovan. "Backup point guard is critical - we don't have that established yet. We don't have a starting three yet. Who's our first post off the bench? We don't have that established yet. While we try to figure those things out in early June, I think there's going to be some rough patches for us. All I care about is being the final ones standing, and I definitely think we're capable of doing that."

Sacramento Coach John Whisenant still likes the Storm's chances.

"The West is tough, and this is as tough as it gets right here," Whisenant said Saturday. "This crew and L.A. both are loaded. They're the teams to beat."

"We still have the trophy," Donovan said resolutely. "People have to come get it. We are not letting go if it lightly."