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Orange and Oatmeal: Context and Staley

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August 4, 2005
Good morning, afternoon, and evening everybody and welcome to the fourth 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.

Kevin Pelton (11:00 p.m., July 29):
Dear John,

By the time you read this Ö actually I don't have anything else, I just wanted to get that joke out of the way.


"As I write, the two hottest teams in the league are my own Seattle Storm, winners of five straight, and the Phoenix Mercury, winners of seven of eight games."
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty
I'd like to start this edition by telling a story which doesn't sound like it has anything to do with anything, so please bear with me. In Malcom Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, he talks about a psychological experiment involving basketball:

"In one experiment, for instance, a group of people are told to watch two sets of similarly talented basketball players, the first of whom are shooting baskets in a well-lighted gym and the second of whom are shooting baskets in a badly lighted gym (and obviously missing a lot of shots). Then they are asked to judge how good the players were. The players in the well-lighted gym were considered superior."

No, I don't think they need to change the lights in the Charlotte Coliseum, but I do think there's an analogy to be made to home-court advantage. In a sense, playing at home is like shooting with better lighting. It's easier to win at home, we all know, but we might still think that teams winning at home are doing so because of their talent and not home-court advantage.

What does this have to do with the WNBA? As I write, the two hottest teams in the league are my own Seattle Storm, winners of five straight, and the Phoenix Mercury, winners of seven of eight games. These two teams have in common schedules that were heavy on road games early on. As a result, at the start of July, both teams were considered to be in slumps when, with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like they were really just road-weary.

There's another element here, which is confidence. I know it's not a popular position for an APBRmetrician, but I believe in the power of confidence at the team level. Last season, I think the Sonics overachieved in part because they never believed the pessimistic projections about them at the start of the season. This year, Anne Donovan has confirmed the Storm's confidence slumped during a stretch where Seattle lost six of seven, but it's come roaring back during the winning streak.

In addition to getting home games, I think the Mercury and Storm are truly playing better because they're more confident (and, in Phoenix's case, because late-arriving players have been worked into the mix). But I still think their performance of late should serve as a reminder next summer not to write off teams who face tough early schedules.

John Maxwell (11:00 a.m., August 2):
Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, Kevin. As you can probably imagine, things were a little busy in Shock Nation over the weekend what with back-to-back games and the acquisition of Katie Smith.

When it comes to the idea that confidence, or the lack thereof, plays a role in a teamís winning or losing, as a CAGERmetrician (not an acronym for anything, but it sounds better when spoken than APBRmetrician) Iím a practicing atheist. You said in your post that ďThis year, Anne Donovan has confirmed the Storm's confidence slumped during a stretch where Seattle lost six of seven, but it's come roaring back during the winning streak.Ē Obviously a teamís confidence can suffer when losing or rise when winning, but if you and Anne are to be believed, the winning streak began when the team had lost its confidence, and Iím not sure why a team would start winning when it didnít think it was going to. Iím not saying confidence isnít important, but I just think it's way overblown by fans, media, players and coaches alike when it comes to determining the real reasons that a team wins or loses.

What I am more interested in, and what I believe most of your post alludes to, is the problems that arise when we try and draw broad conclusions about teams without taking a good hard look at the facts. Iím reminded of the year we had in Charlotte in 2001. As you may recall, that was the year we began the season with a 1-10 record before finishing the regular season on a 17-4 run and advancing to the WNBA Finals.

When we reached that disastrous 11-game mark, I took a look at some of the numbers to try and figure out what was going wrong with the team, and what our outlook was for a possible playoff berth. It might seem silly to think that I was considering a playoff berth at the time, but when I looked at the numbers, it wasnít such a fanciful notion.

To begin with, our Pythagorean record was better than our actual record Ė we were not really a 1-10 team. As I recall, we were more like a 3-8 team, which might not seem like much of a difference, but it leads to point two which is that even at 1-10, we were only a couple of games out of the fourth spot in the East at the time. We had to leapfrog three teams to get there, but we werenít that far back considering our poor start. At seasonís end, we were 18-14, a full five games ahead of Orlando who finished fifth at 13-19. We could have finished the year 14-18 and still made the playoffs that season.

The Sting had also taken two swings through the West Coast at that point Ė 8 of our first 11 were against the West Ė which meant that we still had 18 games against the East. As long as we beat the teams in the East, it didnít matter what we had done in our first 11 games. Seven of our first 11 games were also on the road, which meant that 12 of our last 21 were at the Charlotte Coliseum where we should enjoy some home cooking.

Given those things, it was not a preposterous idea to suggest that Charlotte could still make the playoffs, which our beat reporter with the Charlotte Observer, Cliff Merhtens, did in an article right after that horrid start. His co-workers chided him for the piece at the time because to them, the Sting were just a 1-10 team. They hadnít looked any deeper.


"This looks like a no-brainer for Houston to me. The Comets were looking for a true point guard, and with the one here in Seattle excluded, you can't do much better than Staley."
Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty
KP (1:15 p.m., August 2):
Interesting stuff, John. As to why the Storm started the streak when the confidence is low Ö well, I hate to knock them, but San Antonio came to town. The Silver Stars are playing some very good basketball right now, but the Storm's 22-point win against them helped bring back the team's swagger.

I find the comeback from 1-10 fascinating and have asked Anne Donovan a few questions about it over the last couple of years. That and what the Mercury is doing (Sunday against your Shock excepted) is a reminder that there's a lot of context that goes beyond wins and losses.

Speaking of the Sting, Charlotte made headlines last night by trading Olympian Dawn Staley to Houston with a second-round pick for Adrienne Goodson, Kristen Rasmussen and a first-round pick. I've got to say, from the Storm's perspective, I'm very afraid. If the season ended today, the Storm and Comets would square off in the first round of the playoffs, and it would be like a replay of the Olympics - Houston now features four 2004 Olympians in its starting lineup, the Storm three (plus Natalia Vodopyanova coming off the bench) and the respective coaches teamed up to lead the U.S. to gold in Athens.

(Yes, before you reproach me, I know there are now a trio of Olympians in the Shock rotation as well. And I hear the Phoenix contingent pointing out the Mercury has four as well. But no coaches, I reply.)

As much as I think Kristen Rasmussen is underrated, this looks like a no-brainer for Houston to me. The Comets still have Sancho Lyttle and Tari Phillips to back up in the frontcourt and Dominique Canty, now that she's no longer out of position at point guard, can back up all three perimeter spots. The Comets were looking for a true point guard, and with the one here in Seattle excluded, you can't do much better than Staley.

What do you see with this deal?

JM (5:00 p.m., August 2)
This could be another trade that ends up helping both teams, but I think I like it more from Charlotteís perspective because they essentially got something for nothing. Not that Staley is nothing. Staley is without a doubt, hands down, my most favorite player in the league. I absolutely love her to death, and sheís twice the person she is a player. But Charlotte is building for the future, and Staley was going to hang up her high-tops this season anyway.

Rasmussen is still young and a good role player, and the Sting now has two first round picks to play with next season. Their track record with their draft picks is suspect at best, and if they donít pick up two starters or key pieces in the 2006 Draft, it is going to be a long couple of years on Tobacco Road. But the potential is there to turn things around

On the flip side, when I look at Houston, I see a team that is short on defense. Iíve got the Comets as the third-best offensive team in the league and the third-worst defensive team. I donít see Staley moving the needle for Houston on the defensive end. Of course, if she improves the teamís offense from very good to great and they stay a poor defensive team, the Comets will still improve.

Then again, Houston may be up to its usual dysfunctional locker room ways, and Staley might have been brought on board to help settle the ship from a leadership standpoint. Weíll see over the next four weeks how things turn out.