Projecting the 2009 WNBA Season

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Kevin Pelton, | June 17, 2009
Last fall, I unveiled SCHOENE, an NBA projection system that broke new ground in its ability to project the performance of both players and teams in the context of each other. This summer, I wanted to bring a similar projection system (as yet unnamed) to the WNBA. Alas, that proved difficult. SCHOENE is still very much a work in progress, and for several reasons projecting the WNBA using the same methods is much more challenging.

Underlying SCHOENE and its WNBA counterpart is the concept of player similarity. Using 13 statistical categories adjusted for league, the system picks out the players most statistically similar within six months either way of the player's age. For example, the closest comparison (on a scale up to 100) was Washington's Monique Currie with New York's Shameka Christon (from the 2007 season), with a similarity of 98.4. The idea is to create a group of similar players large enough to project a unique development path for each player. This is possible in the NBA, where we can draw from three decades' worth of data, but the WNBA offers just 12 years and fewer than half as many teams as the modern NBA, meaning the pool from which to draw is much smaller.

The other issue is that the WNBA has constantly been in flux the last decade-plus. The talent level has continually been on the rise, which has meant that veteran players have tended to decline quickly. As a result, the projections are generally quite pessimistic for experience players, particularly guards.

When it was all said and done (a process which, obviously, took longer than I'd hoped), the system came out with a couple of head-scratchers. Still, I think it's worth a look so that we can revisit at season's end and see if there was something there or whether it's simply too soon to project the WNBA using advanced statistics. Some lessons do, I think, make sense - most notably the projected league-wide parity, with no fewer than six teams projected to win 18 games. While the system is by its nature somewhat conservative, tightening the spread, I think that reflects what we're already starting to see with last year's lottery teams taking major strides forward.

I've separated the two conferences in order of projected finish.

Reading the Player Charts: For each player, I've projected their per-minute winning percentage and Wins Above Replacement Player from my WARP rating system. I've also listed their key traditional stats - points, rebounds and assists per game. Playing time is my best guess based on last season and the early numbers this year, though in every other way the projection is assumed to be done before the start of the season (for example, the Indiana Fever still has Yolanda Griffith).

The last four columns give information on the player's projected development. "Imp" is the percentage of comparable players who improved the following season, while "Break" is the percentage who broke out by improving at least 20 percent and "Dec" is the percentage who declined at least 20 percent. Lastly, I've included each player's best comparison at the same age.

Naturally, rookies do not receive a projection based on similar players. Instead, their stats are projected using the historical translation of players' NCAA stats to the WNBA adjusted for strength of schedule.

For more on the system, please see my introduction to SCHOENE.

1. Los Angeles Sparks

Projected Record: 20-14
Point Differential: +3.3
Offensive Rating: 100.2 (9th)
Defensive Rating: 95.0 (1st)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Kristi Harrower-0.20.3895. Johnson
Betty Lennox1.00.45913. Johnson
Candace Parker5.10.79015. Jackson
Tina Thompson1.90.49514. Gillom
Lisa Leslie5.30.66710. McWilliams
DeLisha Milton-Jones1.10.4639. McWilliams
Noelle Quinn-0.50.3714. Wright
Vanessa Hayden1.00.5524. Jones
Marie Ferdinand-Harris0.00.4073. Jones
Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton0.00.4171.31.10.3( R )
Shannon Bobbitt-0.30.3250. Wideman

The numbers agree that, at least on paper, the Los Angeles Sparks have more talent than any team in the WNBA. What is more interesting is the distribution of that talent, a continuation of last season. Despite having a pair of MVPs in Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker, the Sparks won last year with a defense that was as good as any in the league, while their Offensive Rating was 10th. With age-related decline and the time Parker will miss offsetting the additions of Betty Lennox and Tina Thompson, L.A. is projected to move all the way up to ... 9th.

2. Seattle Storm

Projected Record: 18-16
Point Differential: +1.3
Offensive Rating: 101.0 (8th)
Defensive Rating: 98.6 (4th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Sue Bird1.50.47311. Nolan
Tanisha Wright-0.20.3958. Canty
Swin Cash1.40.4839. Crawley
Camille Little0.80.4815. Thomas
Lauren Jackson7.00.74518. Leslie
Shannon Johnson1.10.4774. Staley
Janell Burse1.40.5087. Crawley
Suzy Batkovic-Brown1.70.5935. Sutton-Brown
Ashley Walker0.30.4434.42.60.5( R )
Katie Gearlds-0.50.3323. Hodges
Ashley Robinson-0.20.3400.31.00.2---Markita Aldridge

The projection isn't exactly enthusiastic about a Storm offense that has ranked fifth in the WNBA on a per-possession basis thus far, but the overall combination makes the Storm a very legitimate contender.

3. Sacramento Monarchs

Projected Record: 18-16
Point Differential: +1.0
Offensive Rating: 107.2 (1st)
Defensive Rating: 105.5 (11th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Ticha Penicheiro3.30.5977. Weatherspoon
Kara Lawson1.30.47912. Grubin
Nicole Powell1.00.45712. Pettis
Rebekkah Brunson3.00.59010. Snow
Laura Harper1.40.5066. Christensen
Hamchétou Maïga-Ba0.50.4455. Sam
Crystal Kelly1.40.5247. Thomas
Scholanda Robinson-0.50.3565. Aldridge
Courtney Paris1.90.6105.15.30.6( R )
Chelsea Newton-0.10.3934. Ford
DeMya Walker0.80.5205. Williams-Strong

Count the Monarchs offense coming out as the league's best as one of the projection's biggest surprises. Sacramento was ninth in Offensive Rating a year ago, and brings back essentially the same core. So why the projected improvement? First, Kara Lawson taking the minutes of A'Quonesia Franklin as the backup to Ticha Penicheiro. Second, Courtney Paris' translated college stats indicate stud performance, even in limited minutes. Lastly, a healthy DeMya Walker could also provide a boost to the offense. At the same time, those players don't help the defense, which is projected to slip all the way to 11th in a 13-team league, undermining the overall improvement.

4. Minnesota Lynx

Projected Record: 18-16
Point Differential: +0.7
Offensive Rating: 104.9 (2nd)
Defensive Rating: 104.1 (10th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Kelly Miller-0.10.3966. Dixon
Candice Wiggins4.10.61116. Dixon
Seimone Augustus3.20.55216. Pondexter
Charde Houston2.20.53411. Thomas
Nicky Anosike5.10.6898. Young
Renee Montgomery-0.20.3896.91.12.6( R )
Quanitra Hollingsworth-1.00.3225.64.90.3( R )
LaToya Pringle2.70.7363. Snow
Roneeka Hodges0.10.4263. Robinson
Christi Thomas-0.20.3721. Farris
Rashanda McCants-0.60.2982.61.60.5( R )

From a statistical perspective, the Lynx and the Monarchs are nearly twins, with Minnesota projecting as slightly less imbalanced in favor of offense. In this case, the projected Offensive Rating looks a little pessimistic a week and a half into that season, with Charde Houston outperforming even a very positive projection in a starting role. If either of the point guards plays better than projected, the Lynx could have one of the best offenses we've ever seen in the WNBA.

5. Phoenix Mercury

Projected Record: 16-18
Point Differential: -1.2
Offensive Rating: 104.4 (4th)
Defensive Rating: 106.0 (12th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Temeka Johnson-0.90.3555. Darling
Cappie Pondexter2.40.51918. Beard
Diana Taurasi6.70.71721. Mabika
DeWanna Bonner1.60.50010.55.80.9( R )
Tangela Smith2.20.52410. Melvin
Nicole Ohlde0.90.4947. Schumacher
Le'coe Willingham0.60.4477. Burras
Kelly Mazzante-0.90.3295. Nygaard
Ketia Swanier-0.20.3732. Jones
Brooke Smith0.20.4751. Herrig

Continuing our all-offense/no-defense theme, the team that practically invented the concept. The Mercury's offense is projected to dip slightly this season because of the play of point guards Temeka Johnson and Ketia Swanier, which helps explain why Phoenix's offense is "just" fourth in the league - albeit only a hair behind second-place Minnesota. Phoenix should get a nice boost from rookie DeWanna Bonner, who projects as the league's third most valuable rookie, trailing only Paris and Angel McCoughtry.

6. San Antonio Silver Stars

Projected Record: 14-20
Point Differential: -2.6
Offensive Rating: 97.1 (12th)
Defensive Rating: 99.0 (5th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Becky Hammon3.30.56515. Toler
Vickie Johnson0.00.4066. Goodson
Erin Perperoglou0.10.4126. Smith
Sophia Young4.20.59916. Cash
Ann Wauters2.20.59713. Ndiaye-Diatta
Ruth Riley0.40.4315. Schumacher
Helen Darling-1.60.2844. Bevilaqua
Belinda Snell0.60.4783. Miller
Shanna Crossley-0.50.3245. Miller
Katie Matera0.80.5673. Desouza
Edwige Lawson-Wade-0.20.3551. Holland-Corn
Megan Frazee-0.10.3322.01.30.3( R )

If you've been reading along, you've probably wondered about the defending Western Conference champions. Without question, the biggest shocker offered by the projection system (even more than the top team in the East) is San Antonio in the West cellar and with the second-worst projection of any WNBA team. There are a few reasons why the system dislikes the Silver Stars so. First, San Antonio is highly dependent on position defense as opposed to steals or blocked shots, the things more easily captured within this system. (There is an adjustment for opponent shooting percentage, but in general it tends to fluctuate year to year. Elite teams like the Silver Stars are an exception to the rules.) Second, the system harshly penalizes the veteran San Antonio guards, particularly Becky Hammon. Are these reasons to suspect the Silver Stars will be able to repeat last year's performance? Perhaps. Are they reasons to anticipate a trip to the lottery? Nope.

1. Atlanta Dream

Projected Record: 20-14
Point Differential: +3.0
Offensive Rating: 102.5 (7th)
Defensive Rating: 97.7 (2nd)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Nikki Teasley-1.10.3396. Powell
Angel McCoughtry2.20.53413.15.61.2( R )
Chamique Holdsclaw1.70.49713. Mapp
Erika Desouza4.80.7119. Sutton-Brown
Michelle Snow3.20.59610. Edwards
Sancho Lyttle6.90.83711. Brown
Iziane Castro Marques-0.10.3948. Miller
Coco Miller-1.00.3004. Jones
Shalee Lehning0.20.4372.41.72.2( R )
Jennifer Lacy-0.60.2992. Carter
Tamera Young-0.10.3862. Pride

The second Atlanta Dream squad bears little resemblance to the team that went 4-30 a year ago. The Dream got a massive infusion of talent by signing Michelle Snow, trading for Chamique Holdsclaw and drafting Sancho Lyttle in the Expansion Draft and McCoughtry with the top pick of the WNBA Draft. The system sees Atlanta getting a huge boost from those newcomers as well as a healthy Erika Desouza. Desouza, Lyttle and Snow all offer great rebounding and shot-blocking up front, while McCoughtry is a major ballhawk, which is why the Dream is projected to improve from one of the worst defenses in league history all the way to second in the league in D. That's more than a bit optimistic and plays to what the projection system likes, but Atlanta should be far more competitive in year two.

2. Detroit Shock

Projected Record: 19-15
Point Differential: +2.4
Offensive Rating: 103.2 (5th)
Defensive Rating: 99.1 (5th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Katie Smith0.50.42712. Johnson
Deanna Nolan2.30.50413. Johnson
Shavonte Zellous-0.70.3336.72.01.0( R )
Cheryl Ford2.80.6249. Melvin
Taj McWilliams2.90.5788. Griffith
Plenette Pierson4.90.72111. Leslie
Alexis Hornbuckle1.70.5185. Sales
Kara Braxton1.50.5538. Ndiaye-Diatta
Olayinka Sanni0.00.4053. Whitmore
Kristin Haynie0.00.3972. Darling
Barbara Farris-0.40.3261. Wicks

This projection may seem a bit pessimistic for a team that has won two of the last three WNBA championships, but keep in mind that Detroit was hardly dominant in the regular season last year, tying Seattle for the league's second-best record. The Shock is projected to continue to be good but not elite at either end of the floor, a balanced formula that has translated in the postseason. What could undermine that plan is injuries, including the loss of Plenette Pierson for an extended period with a shoulder injury. Pierson was projected to be Detroit's most valuable player coming off the bench.

3. New York Liberty

Projected Record: 18-16
Point Differential: +0.9
Offensive Rating: 102.7 (6th)
Defensive Rating: 101.0 (8th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Loree Moore-0.50.3774. Darling
Essence Carson0.30.4257. Canty
Shameka Christon2.90.55015. Mabika
Cathrine Kraayeveld1.80.5058. Nemcova
Janel McCarville4.40.65812. Milton-Jones
Tiffany Jackson2.70.5909. Brunson
Leilani Mitchell0.80.4734. Harrower
Sidney Spencer0.50.4575. Jackson
Erlana Larkins0.50.4803. Whitmore
Ashley Battle0.20.4323. Abrosimova
Kia Vaughn-0.50.3242.42.20.2( R )

The young Liberty hopes to take the next step after testing the Shock in the postseason each of the last two years, but the projection system does not see the gap closing significantly. New York could help itself by giving plenty of playing time to Tiffany Jackson, whose strong sophomore campaign was most similar to a young Rebekkah Brunson.

4. Connecticut Sun

Projected Record: 18-16
Point Differential: +0.8
Offensive Rating: 104.6 (4th)
Defensive Rating: 103.0 (9th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Lindsay Whalen4.10.62512. Johnson
Kerri Gardin0.60.4465. Battle
Asjha Jones3.40.57915. Mapp
Tamika Whitmore-0.50.37911. Smith
Sandrine Gruda1.20.5077. Smith
Erin Phillips3.20.5988. White
Barbara Turner1.50.4969. Douglas
Amber Holt0.00.4097. Jackson
Kiesha Brown-0.30.3764. Dixon
Chante Black-0.30.3673.62.80.4( R )
Kristi Cirone0.00.4391.90.40.6( R )

Connecticut's projection suffers because the Sun has the more prominent of the two foreign players who lack projections, Latvian Anete Jekabsone-Zogota. I wouldn't be surprised to see Jekabsone-Zogota emerge as Connecticut's starter at the two when she arrives following Euro '09. This is tempered slightly by the fact that the projection for Aussie guard Erin Phillips is so positive, but Jekabsone-Zogota could siphon some minutes from less productive Kerri Gardin and (currently injured) Amber Holt.

5. Chicago Sky

Projected Record: 18-16
Point Differential: +0.6
Offensive Rating: 99.8 (10th)
Defensive Rating: 98.3 (3rd)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Dominique Canty0.60.4387. Edwards
Jia Perkins4.50.61416. Nolan
Brooke Wyckoff-0.80.3442. Rasmussen
Candice Dupree6.00.68516. Cash
Sylvia Fowles4.80.67710. Smith
Armintie Price0.60.4436. Canty
Shyra Ely-0.40.3725. Tuvic
Kristi Tolliver-0.70.3355.31.01.6( R )
Erin Thorn-1.00.2842. Dales
K.B. Sharp-0.50.3131. Harrower

Chicago's trio of Candice Dupree, Sylvia Fowles and Jia Perkins rates better than any other threesome in the league. The issue is the Sky's depth; no one else on the roster rates as worth a full win, and the end of the bench will struggle to reach replacement level. I do expect Chicago to be more balanced than the projection would indicate. Because of the Sky's shot-blocking, led by Fowles, the team comes out third in the league in blocks. Unlike other top shot-blockers, Chicago doesn't project to put opponents on the free throw line particularly frequently.

6. Indiana Fever

Projected Record: 15-19
Point Differential: -1.6
Offensive Rating: 99.5 (11th)
Defensive Rating: 100.9 (7th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Briann January0.10.4137.92.03.5( R )
Katie Douglas1.30.46214. Witherspoon
Tamika Catchings4.30.63413. Sales
Ebony Hoffman3.30.56810. Milton-Jones
Tammy Sutton-Brown2.80.55411. Vodichkova
Tully Bevilaqua-1.20.3224. Bolton
Yolanda Griffith1.50.5374. Woodard
Tamecka Dixon-0.60.3445. Edwards
Khadijah Whittington0.20.4641. Martin
Christina Wirth-0.20.3351.80.80.3( R )
Erica White-0.10.3791. Darling

That Indiana would finish 11th in Offensive Rating I can believe. That the Fever will be barely above average at the other end is more difficult to accept. Indiana has consistently been amongst the league's top defenses, and added two talented defenders in Yolanda Griffith (part of this projection, though she will miss the remainder of the season after tearing her Achilles) and rookie Briann January. Griffith's loss hurts a bench that wasn't especially deep in the first place.

7. Washington Mystics

Projected Record: 9-25
Point Differential: -7.6
Offensive Rating: 97.1 (12th)
Defensive Rating: 106.9 (13th)

PlayerWARPWin %PPGRPGAPGImpBreakDecBest Comp
Lindsey Harding-0.50.3798. Wright
Alana Beard1.70.48614. Nolan
Marisa Coleman1.00.4669.14.62.0( R )
Nakia Sanford-1.30.3105. Wicks
Chasity Melvin1.50.4977. Vodichkova
Crystal Langhorne0.30.4207. Lyttle
Monique Currie0.40.4328. Christon
Tasha Humphrey1.00.5096. Jones
Matee Ajavon0.40.4416. Canty
Nikki Blue-0.30.3130. Haynie

Here's a projection that has a chance to be proven wrong in short order. At 3-0, the Mystics are the WNBA's last remaining undefeated team and have already won a third as many games as projected. Nakia Sanford is one reason for optimism in Washington; 2008 was probably something of a fluke season for her, yet Sanford is projected to continue to go backwards instead of recovering. Also, if Lindsey Harding plays as she has early in the season, the Mystics' offense has a chance to dramatically outpace the projection.

Projected League Leaders

Lauren Jacksonsea7.0
Sancho Lyttleatl6.9
Diana Taurasipho6.7
Candice Dupreechi6.0
Lisa Leslielas5.3
Diana Taurasipho21.5
Cappie Pondexterpho18.9
Lauren Jacksonsea18.5
Jia Perkinschi16.8
Seimone Augustusmin16.7

Sancho Lyttleatl8.0
Cheryl Forddet8.0
Sylvia Fowleschi7.9
Candace Parkerlas7.6
Lauren Jacksonsea7.5
Ticha Penicheirosac5.6
Lindsay Whalencon5.2
Temeka Johnsonpho5.0
Sue Birdsea5.0
Becky Hammonsas4.6