Blockbuster Trade Can Benefit Both Teams

Kevin Pelton, | July 31, 2005
To understand yesterday's blockbuster pre-deadline trade that sent Katie Smith and a second-round pick to Detroit and Chandi Jones, Stacey Thomas and a first-round pick to Minnesota, one must understand the success cycle.

While it seems strange given their respective records, the 9-12 Detroit Shock is playing to win now - a championship two years ago will do that - while the 11-12 Minnesota Lynx's prime is still a few years away. It only makes sense, then, that the Lynx would swap a 31-year-old experiencing the worst slump of her professional career for a 23-year-old second-year player who has displayed great promise.

"It only makes sense, that the Lynx would swap a 31-year-old for a 23-year-old second-year player who has displayed great promise."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
Consecutive playoff appearances and an 11-9 start to this season made the Lynx appear to be contenders in the Western Conference, but behind the record lurked a more disheartening statistic, Minnesota's point differential. Outscored by 25 points in 2004, the Lynx were 12 points worse than their opponents through Sunday. As John Maxwell pointed out in last week's Orange and Oatmeal, that point differential would have been tough for the Lynx to overcome down the stretch.

Outside observers have never been that impressed with the Lynx. Minnesota was widely picked to finish last in the Western Conference in 2004, and the Lynx still weren't expected to make the playoffs in most corners this year. That might be partially attributable to the fact that the Lynx isn't particularly talented offensively, while most predictions tend to be biased towards offense, but it still suggests Minnesota's current .500 record is about where the team should be.

There's a school of thought that thinking like that is needlessly pessimistic, but I think the Lynx's recent slump illustrates why it's important. Instead of viewing their team as unable to continue overachieving, many Minnesota fans criticized players and coaches, criticism I'm not certain was justified.

Regardless of her struggles of late, Smith was from an entirely different generation than her youthful teammates. Even with Smith, Minnesota boasted the youngest roster in the WNBA, and it's no secret that the Lynx's second-year post duo of Vanessa Hayden and Nicole Ohlde is the team's future. Smith would have been dropping off just as Hayden and Ohlde reached their prime. Now, the Lynx have a third second-year starter and two first-round picks next April to try to secure their point guard of the future, addressing the team's biggest weakness.

"If we'd been meeting our expectations this year, this would not have happened," Lynx COO Roger Griffith explained to the Star-Tribune. "It was more the realization that where we thought we'd make a big step forward this year, we'd be struggling to get back to where we were."

How good of a prospect is Jones for the Lynx? A good measure for a player playing limited minutes like Jones is the Diamond Rating, invented by's Kevin Broom, which compares a player's per-minute performance to their minutes per game and league average to determine their breakout potential with more minutes. Using John Hollinger's PER rating, Jones ranks ninth in the WNBA in Diamond Rating so far this season, but second amongst guards behind Charlotte's Jia Perkins.

From Detroit's end, this trade is something of a gamble that Smith's extended slump is just that, and not a new level of performance. With an exception of a near-MVP performance in the All-Star Game, Smith has not been herself during the month of July. Smith is averaging 8.1points on 27.9% shooting, but nothing illustrates that she's off more than the fact that Smith has been passing up open shots and attempted only five field goals in what proved to be her final game with the Lynx, Friday's loss to the Phoenix Mercury.

There isn't yet a good explanation for why Smith is shooting so poorly. Smith herself has refused to blame an apparent foot injury that has been mentioned by Lynx Coach Suzie McConnell Serio, amongst others. I'm wondering if there's any connection to Smith's off-season ACL surgery. Many players, including the Storm's Lauren Jackson this year, seem to struggle to get their perimeter shooting back where it was before missing so much time rehabilitating from injury. But Smith was outstanding the first month of the season before showing the first signs something might be wrong during a mid-June road trip, so that explanation may be flawed.

Whatever the explanation, I'm not quite ready to write off Smith as one of the WNBA's top scorers. Recent NBA research has suggested that field-goal and 3-point percentages are highly variable for players from year to year, and with the WNBA's dramatically shorter schedule, there should be even more volatility. The bottom line of what this research has found is this: Players who see their shooting percentages dramatically increase or decrease usually come back significantly towards where they were in the past, which in Smith's case means dead-eye shooter.

However, a quick little WNBA study I did is less optimistic about Smith's chances of a comeback in 2006. The players with the most comparable True Shooting Percentage's to Smith's this year (50.9%) and last year's (59.0%) did not as a whole bounce back in year three, as the chart below shows:

Player                    Yr1  TS%1  TS%2  TS%3
Margo Dydek              1999  .590  .523  .515
Allison Feaster          2002  .575  .512  .521
Tammy Sutton-Brown       2002  .598  .492  .550
Ruth Riley               2003  .570  .496  .428
Tamika Catchings         2003  .566  .520  .479
Taj McWilliams-Franklin  2000  .571  .527  .575
Tina Thompson            2000  .586  .483  .530
DeLisha Milton-Jones     2002  .571  .532  .494
Ema Nemcova              1998  .570  .531  .530
Natalie Williams         2000  .583  .539  .512
Average                        .578  .516  .513

"Smith will not only score points but make it easier for her teammates to score."
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty
If Smith can regain her All-Star form, she gives the Detroit offense an entirely new dimension. It's no secret that the Shock has lacked outside shooting since trading Kedra Holland-Corn to Houston after the championship season. Detroit's 45 3s are 12th in the WNBA this season. (Smith alone has made 35.) What that does is shrink the floor for the Shock's powerful front line of Ruth Riley, Cheryl Ford and Swin Cash, allowing teams to give help on Cash with impunity and without leaving Ford and Riley alone under the basket for offensive rebounds or layups.

Detroit's fast-paced style may have, to some extent or another, hidden the team's offensive shortcomings this season. The Shock ranks better than only the Charlotte Sting in Offensive Rating, which is hard to believe for a team that boasts four Eastern Conference All-Stars (and now will throw out an entire All-Star starting five if Smith replaces Elaine Powell in the lineup). If Smith is right, that will change, and in a hurry. She'll not only score points but make it easier for her teammates to score. Even with her slump, Smith still boasts a better True Shooting Percentage than any Shock player save Powell.

Playing without a true point guard could cause some problems for the already turnover-prone Shock, but the groundwork was laid for that move with Deanna Nolan initiating most of Detroit's offense when Powell was out of the lineup because of a five-game league suspension, even playing alongside point guard Sheila Lambert. While Smith is a downgrade as a ballhandler against pressure from Lambert or Jones, not to mention Powell, Cash can give some ballhandling help.

The other option for the Shock is to use Smith at small forward alongside Nolan and Powell. That's an entirely different look for Detroit than lineups with Cash or 6-2 Plenette Pierson at small forward, which 4have been the Shock's primary options over the last month. When Pierson is having an off night or against smaller, quicker perimeter trios, the ability to play Smith at the three will add to Detroit's versatility.

While the Shock is still a game and a half out of the playoffs, neither New York or Washington has been consistent enough to make catching them impossible. Indiana's point differential seems to indicate a certain vulnerability if the Shock can reach the third spot in the East. Even if Detroit can only climb into the fourth seed, the Shock still has the ability to make things very interesting after taking three of four from the East-leading Connecticut Sun in the regular season, including Saturday's nationally-televised win at the Mohegan Sun.