Orange and Oatmeal: Predicting the Second Half
Good morning, afternoon, and evening everybody and welcome to the second edition of Orange and Oatmeal, the WNBA Internet exchange between Kevin Pelton, interactive marketing coordinator for the Seattle Sonics and Storm, and John Maxwell, director of public relations for the Detroit Shock. Be sure to check back for infrequent postings and general East vs. West musings with a statistical bent on the W throughout the season and beyond.
John Maxwell: Hey Kevin.
Before we get into the meat of this week’s conversation, I suppose we should backtrack a bit and let people know what the point of Orange & Oatmeal is, especially those who are coming to this section via the Detroit Shock site since Seattle fans are probably a bit more familiar with where we’re coming from given your presence on the Storm and Sonics site.
I actually want to take this opportunity to thank John for sparking my interest in the WNBA. Three years ago, John and a Sonics statistics consultant by the name of Dean Oliver were doing a project to track defensive statistics throughout the WNBA. They invited me to keep stats for the Storm. I had never attended a WNBA game before that, but it took about two games for me to be hooked. The next fall I was hired by the Sonics and Storm as an intern, I got hired on full-time last summer and the rest is history of a sort.
JM: Happy to have made a convert. The more the merrier. As an aside, and a shameless plug, If you’d like to see what came of our defensive study you can read all about it in Dean Oliver’s book Basketball On Paper, available wherever quality basketball books are sold.
Anyway, Orange & Oatmeal, outside of being the official colors of the WNBA’s most iconic symbol – its basketball – always stuck in my head as a cool name for something for the web. I just never knew what. Then it occurred to me that since you and I both share a love of the statistical analysis side of things, that we might be able to write something for our respective sites that analyzes the WNBA in a very casual manner.
What people read, when they tune into O&O (get the marketing machine up and revving. I see T-shirts, coffee mugs and key chains with our logo on it), is actually an e-mail exchange that you and I are having about a particular topic, that we don’t post until the topic has been exhausted.
It will also serve as a primer of sorts, to some of the work that is being done in the field of statistical analysis in the basketball community.
At least that’s how I see it. Anything you’d like to add from a West Coast perspective?
KP: Better those T-shirts have the logo than our faces on them.
I'll confess that as a late-comer to the WNBA game, I actually learned what the term Orange & Oatmeal meant when the Storm's broadcaster, David Locke, threw it into the broadcast of a game last month, just about the time we were starting to get serious about Orange & Oatmeal the column. I found that a funny little coincidence.
JM: So now that all teams have officially passed the halfway point of the season, I thought it might be interesting to look at what teams, and subsequently which players, we think are overperforming and underperforming in the W.
This discussion will also give us the opportunity to introduce to some of our readers to the concept of the Pythagorean Method as a jumping off point for the discussion.
Noted baseball author and current Boston Red Sox employee Bill James realized nearly three decades ago that a baseball team’s points scored and points allowed could be used to accurately predict a team’s actual win-loss record. All you had to do was plug a major league team’s runs scored and runs allowed into the following formula.
( Runs Scored ^2 ) / ( Runs Scored ^2 + Runs Allowed ^2 )
That gives you a team's Expected Winning Percentage, which can then be converted into wins and losses.
That same formula has been adjusted for different sports over the years, and a gentleman named Daryl Morey, who now works for the Boston Celtics, figured out the WNBA version for me about five years or so ago. The useful part of this Expected Winning Percentage is that it actually has better predictive results for future success than a team’s Actual Winning Percentage does. To prove that point, I offer as exhibit A the champions of the WNBA for each of the first eight seasons. In every case, the team that won the WNBA title had the best Expected Winning Percentage, even though they didn’t always have the best Actual Winning Percentage.
So as we get into the discussion of which teams we expect to rebound from a poor first half or to slide back to the pack in the Dog Days of Summer, here are the Pythagorean Standings through Wednesday, July 27.
|WEST||Pyth W||Pyth L||Pyth %||Pyth Diff|
|EAST||Pyth W||Pyth L||Pyth %||Pyth Diff|
Just about everybody is in line with their Actual Winning Percentages, except for Indiana in the East, who is playing two games above expectations, and Charlotte, who is underperforming by two games. What’s your take on the East?
KP: A couple of weeks ago on the Storm broadcast, we decided to poll everyone involved - Locke, color commentator Elise Woodward, sideline reporter Dick Fain and yours truly - on how they figured both conferences would end up. Jokingly, I handed Locke a piece of paper for the East with Connecticut in first place, Charlotte in sixth place and no other picks.
Seriously, I haven't been able to make heads or tails out of the rest of the East most of the season. At various points, all four other teams have looked unbeatable, and at others they've just been beaten.
Your Shock are the wild card, because if Swin Cash is healthy, Detroit has as much talent as anyone in this league. I thought Saturday's game in Seattle might have been a sign the Shock was putting it together, but I'm not so sure after Sunday's loss.
The Fever is a pretty obvious pick to slide a little in the second half, though I still think Indiana will make the playoffs.
JM: The trendy pick to improve out West at the moment is the Phoenix Mercury. The thinking goes that the Mighty Merc’s first-half schedule was dominated by road games. They have played just seven home games to date – the lowest total in the league. Phoenix also had several key contributors show up late this season in the form of Kamila Vodichkova, Penny Taylor and Maria Stepanova.
I can’t say I can argue with that logic. Phoenix should be improved in the second half of the season, but the bigger question is will it be enough to get them into the playoffs. They are two games back of a postseason berth at the moment, but they trail two teams, Seattle and Los Angeles, for that spot.
And there are many who think that Seattle and Los Angeles have underachieved as well. Your Storm had to adjust to the loss of three key contributors to last season’s championship team, and LA had to adjust to playing with Chamique Holdsclaw, having a new head coach who brought with him new offensive and defensive schemes, and the loss of Mwadi Mabika for the first 16 games of the season.
To get to the .500 mark by season’s end, the Mercury will need to go 10-5. In other words, a team that played .389 basketball through the first 19 games of the season will need to play .667 ball over the last 15 games of the year. Not sure they can pull that off since I think both LA and Seattle will play better in the second half of the season as well.
Having said all that, I still expect Phoenix to be the most improved team in the West over the second half of the season. It just won’t be enough to reach the postseason.
On the flipside, I just can’t see Minnesota staying in the playoff mix. As much as I love to watch Katie Smith play, and as good as I think Nicole Ohlde and Vanessa Hayden can be, the Lynx are a little too one-dimensional on offense for my taste. They are lacking at the point, and despite having a twin-towers combination that would have many teams drooling, you can’t find Ohlde or Hayden anywhere among the league leaders in field goal percentage. Minnesota’s defense will keep them in a lot of games, but their playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of Katie Smith, and I just don’t think she will be enough to get them to the postseason.
KP: Well, John, you might have said the same thing about Minnesota this time a year ago - and in fact Clay Kallam of Full Court Press did in a similar piece, writing, "By Pythagorean computation, Minnesota should be 13-13, not 15-12. In pragmatic reality, it doesn't matter, because Katie Smith is done for the year, and with her goes most of the Lynx playoff hopes."
Even without their star, Minnesota won three games down the stretch, going 18-16 despite being outscored by 25 points on the season. Especially working for a rival team, I've learned never to doubt the Lynx's ability to beat their Pythagorean projection.
How about some players to watch in the second half?
On the overachievers side of the ledger, I don’t see too many candidates, but I’m going to focus on the Sacramento Monarchs. The surprise of the league to me this year, Sacramento made a number of moves in the offseason that caused me to question if they were entering a much-needed mini rebuilding phase. Yolanda Griffith was a year older, Nicole Powell had struggled in limited minutes in Charlotte as a rookie, and Ticha Penicheiro was coming off her worst season in the WNBA in terms of her assist totals.
Yet here they stand, at 13-6, in first place in the West. If I had told you that the Monarchs would be 13-6 at this point, that Penicheiro would be averaging 4.0 assists per AND that she would be fourth in the league in free throw percentage, would you have believed any of that? No you wouldn’t have. Stop lying!
Oh, and DeMya Walker is leading the team in scoring while connecting on 52.9 percent of her field goal attempts. As Ted once famously said to Bill, “Strange things are afoot at the Circle-K.”
After consulting my Magic 8 Ball (Ask Again Later), taking a Tarot card reading in one of the seedier sections of Seattle on Friday afternoon (Everlasting love awaits) and rolling the eight-sided die I have left over from my Dungeons and Dragons days (ogre loses two points of strength and must wait one turn before attacking) I’m going to go with Walker as my choice for player most likely to embrace reality during the second half of the season. (Editor’s Note - This was written before Walker was placed on the Injured List last weekend.)
Entering the 2005 campaign, Walker was a 44.7 percent shooter from the field with one season of better than 46 percent shooting under her belt. It says here that Walker comes back to earth some, and is merely a good player the rest of the way as the Monarchs battle to hold on to the top spot in the West as opposed to the all-world player she was during the first half of the season.
So what do you have out East?
KP: I think DeMya might have preferred a few missed shots to her actual fate - she could miss the rest of the regular season after re-spraining her knee. Get well soon DeMya!
It seems like there are a lot of stars struggling this year in the East - I've already mentioned Robinson and Baranova and Ruth Riley's shooting percentage is nowhere near her career mark (Cash coming back should help). But my pick is Indiana's Tamika Catchings.
It seems a little silly to say a trendy pick for MVP can play better, and Catchings has been typically brilliant in her well-roundedness, ranking in the WNBA's top ten in rebounds, assists, steals, minutes, 3s, free throws, floor burns, knee pads and several other categories that have yet to be invented. But Catchings is shooting only 33.9% from the field, which ranks ahead of only seven players who have taken at least 50 shot attempts. I've never played D&D, but I still can tell Catchings is likely to put it together soon.
On the more pessimistic side of things, I don't see a lot of choices in the East. Almost by default, I'm going to take Taj McWilliams-Franklin. While moving to power forward deserves a lot of credit for her performance this season, it's rare you see players peak at age 34 (and after having two children, no less). It already looks like Taj is slowing down a little, averaging 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds on 47.1% shooting in July - still All-Star numbers, but not quite her MVP performance from the first two months of the season.
Sun fans will protest that McWilliams-Franklin has been slowed by a bad back, but it's just that kind of thing that is often responsible for hot players cooling down a bit.