Orange & Oatmeal: 2006 Free Agency

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February 17, 2006
Good morning, afternoon, and evening everybody and welcome to the sixth 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 basketball operations and 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 leading up to and during the 2006 season.

Kevin Pelton: John, after months of rain, the sun has been out here in Seattle the last week and a half (ever since the Seahawks played in the Super Bowl in Detroit, strangely) and it's got me thinking WNBA. That and the beginning of the WNBA's free agency period, of course. You guys in Detroit were more excited for the start of free agency than anyone, kicking it off by signing Kedra Holland-Corn at approximately 12:01 a.m. on February 1. That's the latest (or earliest) press release I've ever seen.

While many of the biggest names, including Ticha Penicheiro and Nykesha Sales, have re-signed with their old teams, we have seen some interesting movement including the big sign-and-trade that sent Anna DeForge to Indy and Kelly Miller to Phoenix. And the New York Liberty's exodus saw Vickie Johnson go to San Antonio and Crystal Robinson to Washington. There's plenty to discuss, but I'd like to start by wondering what the biggest surprise of the first couple weeks of free agency has been.

I'm most surprised by Johnson, to be honest with you. She's at an age (34 on tax day) where winning a championship ring starts to take precedence for many players, including her former backcourt-mate Teresa Weatherspoon, who spent her last WNBA season with the L.A. Sparks. While I think the Silver Stars stand a great chance of being improved next season with forwards LaToya Thomas and Kendra Wecker healthy and another top pick in the lineup, competing for the title seems a bit ambitious given the depth in the Western Conference. It also looks to me like San Antonio might have a bit of a logjam on the wings when Marie Ferdinand returns after giving birth. The Silver Stars will have Ferdinand, Johnson, Wecker and perhaps a draft pick fighting for playing time.

Your take?

"I agree with you to an extent about VJ, but due to the clandestine nature of WNBA contract negotiations, it is always difficult to accurately assess these moves."
Mitchell Layton/NBAE/Getty
John Maxwell: I agree with you to an extent about VJ, but due to the clandestine nature of WNBA contract negotiations, it is always difficult to accurately assess these moves. We have no idea what other teams might have pursued Johnson; no idea what the teams that did bid for her services might have been offering; and no idea what she finally signed for.

Was San Antonio the only team that approached her? Did she sign a two-year deal for the max guaranteed? Is it a one-year deal for the veteran minimum with no guarantee whatsoever? Knowing that information would go a long way towards helping us analyze her signing from her standpoint. But we don't know.

When TSpoon signed with the Sparks it was positioned, or we collectively assumed, that she was doing it for the opportunity to win a title at the twilight of her career. But Los Angeles may have also been the only team to offer her a contract. Or the Buss family may have opened up its checkbook to a greater degree than any other team was willing to.

The idea that players want to win championships is a nice one and undoubtedly true, but I believe that an even greater truth is that players want to play. If you could slice open the psyche of most players, I think you would find that the ranking of things that are important to them would look something like this.

Playing time
Financial Considerations
Opportunity to win

This may not be true for every athlete, but I believe it is true for most.

Ask yourself this. Which would you prefer? To have worked for the Bulls during their championship runs, but had to do so as an intern who did nothing for those six years but make copies and answer phones, or to work for a lesser team but get to play an active role as a writer? I know what I'd rather do, because I find writing to be incredibly rewarding. And I suspect that players find playing more rewarding than winning. If you can do both, great. But most people don't get that opportunity.

I feel like I wandered off the path a little here with my response, so I guess what I'm saying is that VJ probably signed with the team that she felt she could give her the most playing time and pay her the most money. And she still probably thinks she's good enough to help turn things around in San Antonio to make them a playoff contender. We'll know in about six months.

To get back to your original thought about the biggest surprises in the free agency period, I would look to the entire New York Liberty roster situation as opposed to any particular signing. The Liberty will be minus four starters from last year's team when training camp rolls around with Johnson and Crystal Robinson signing with other teams and Baranova and Wauters reportedly not returning this season.

Statistically, that means 54% of the team's points, 65% of its rebounds and 50% of its assists from a year ago are gone. That's a lot of production to replace, and it is going to be interesting to see how New York goes about replenishing their roster.

KP: You're right that we don't have anything resembling all the facts. It's also true that I've never understood people who criticize players for whatever reasoning they use to decide where they are going in free agency. That's purely their choice. Me, I'd rather make copies for the Sonics and Storm - I grew up watching the Sonics and have gotten pretty attached to the Storm, plus I've lived here all my life.

I'm just thinking that Johnson is still a good enough player that she should have been able to find regular minutes, if maybe not starter's minutes, just about anywhere.

What do you think has been the best addition so far via trade or free agency?

I'm going to go with Anna DeForge. She's coming off a down year, but I think she's due to bounce back next year. Something I've discovered in my APBRmetrics research that's not totally intuitive is that changes in a player's shooting percentage year-to-year tend to be fairly random. When a player drops off like DeForge did last year from 3-point range (38.7% to 32.6%), the odds are good she'll go the other direction the next season. DeForge also won't have to worry as much about handling the basketball now that she's playing with Tully Bevilaqua and Tamika Catchings.

The Fever won on the strength of its defense last season, and may have taken a hit there by losing Miller's on-ball pressure. However, I think a much-improved offense will more than make up for that, if Indiana can replace retired Natalie Williams.

"I'm going to go with Anna DeForge. She's coming off a down year, but I think she's due to bounce back next year."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
JM: There has definitely been some interesting movement this off-season in terms of relatively big names switching teams. The Indiana situation is a fun one to watch, as you noted, but I'm additionally intrigued by the Fever because of their Pythagorean Record from last season.

For those who aren't aware, a team's Pythagorean Record is arrived at by plugging a team's points for and against into a formula originally devised by Boston Red Sox executive and noted baseball author Bill James. Daryl Morey, who now works for the Boston Celtics, adjusted that formula for me a number of years ago when I was with the Charlotte Sting so that it would work with WNBA teams.

What it indicates is that even though the Fever were 21-13 last season, they "played like" an 18-16 team over the course of the season based on their points scored and allowed. In baseball, many analysts believe that a team's Pythagorean Record is a better indicator of its true talent level than its actual record.

From a player personnel standpoint this is important because a team's decision-making process could be vastly different if they approach the off-season thinking they are trying to improve an 18-win team as opposed to a 21-team.

You noted that DeForge is likely due for a bounce-back in her three-point shooting percentage this season, to which I would counter, 'then so is Kelly Miller.' Miller topped 40% in her three previous seasons before falling to 32.5% last year. I see them both as very similar offensive players. DeForge has just had more of an opportunity to display those skills given the make-up of the Mercury. Plus, I believe that Miller probably has the better defensive reputation.

The other numbers that jump out at me from that trade are 27 and 30 - that would be the ages of the two players, Miller being the younger of the pair. Which is why I'm going with Kelly Miller as the best addition of the off-season so far. On a team with Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor, and the second overall draft pick (or whatever they might get in a trade for that pick), I think Miller will be able to comfortably slide into a significant yet complementary offensive role with Phoenix.

Now if the Mighty Merc could only find a post player, they'd battle for the top spot in the West.

I would throw out there that I am also interested in seeing how Crystal Robinson (Washington) and Charlotte Smith (Indiana) fare with their new teams since both players are on the wrong side of 30 and Robinson essentially is replacing Smith in D.C. Robinson struggled a great deal with her shot in her final season in New York, while Smith has become one of the better complementary players in the league. I would have loved to have had her in Detroit last year.

KP: Iím not sure I see Miller as due for an improvement on offense, John. She may have seen her 3-point percentage fall off last year, but that was more than offset by her two-point percentage going from 37.4% to 51.8%. Overall, then, Miller was a much more efficient shooter than she had been the last two seasons. Even if Miller has the advantage in efficiency, DeForge has been better at creating her shot, resulting in a higher per-40 minute scoring average:

Player     03    04    05
DeForge  .497  .505  .455
Miller   .473  .457  .505

            Points per 40
Player     03    04    05
DeForge  15.2  16.9  15.3
Miller   14.5  12.7  13.2

( eFG%, or effective field-goal percentage, treats each 3-pointer as 1.5 field goals to reflect their additional value.)

Iíve always seen Miller as a complementary player, whereas DeForge can be a go-to player on offense. I think the Fever needs a go-to player and the Mercury more of a complementary scorer. Also, Indiana was much better on defense last year, Phoenix much better on offense, so this one looks like a win-win to me. But if you forced me to pick which team got the better of the trade, Iíd say the Fever.

JM: I would agree to an extent with your sentiments about Miller being a complementary player and DeForge being a go-to player, and they are probably both going to situations where they will fit in better with the talent around them, which is why this trade should be so interesting to look back on throughout the season.

I would add that I think both teams still need more help to rise into the elite class of WNBA teams. It will be interesting to see how the Fever and the Merc fill out their rosters the rest of the way.