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2008 WNBA Conference Semifinals Preview

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Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | September 18, 2008
As the WNBA ages, its history becomes more useful in predicting what is going to happen in the future. For the first time, this year I'm going to use the past as a guide going into the playoffs. Over the last three NBA seasons, I've used similarity scores to compare playoff teams to their most similar predecessors. These scores are based on Offensive and Defensive Ratings and pace (half-weighted) relative to league average.

I've done the same for this year's eight WNBA playoff squads. In the W, things are a little trickier because the league used several playoff formats during its early days. It's tough to compare the 1997 Houston Comets, who needed play only two games to win a championship, to last year's Detroit Shock, who played a league-record 11 games (going the distance in all three rounds) before falling short. I've tried my best to account fairly for the different formats in scoring each team's playoff run.

Under the current format, making the playoffs is worth two points. Each win is a point, while each loss subtracts one. There's also a two-point bonus for each series won. So last year's Phoenix Mercury earned two points for making the playoffs, six points for their three series wins and five points for going 7-2. That's a total of 13, which puts Phoenix just below the 2000 Houston Comets and 2002 Los Angeles Sparks (who both went 6-0 en route to the title) and the 2005 Sacramento Monarchs (who went 7-1 with the expanded WNBA Finals). All three of those teams earned 14 points.

Obviously, this analysis can't take into account midseason trades or injuries which tend to skew a team's performance when we look at the entire season. Still, I think there's some benefit to seeing which styles have historically been successful in the WNBA Playoffs. For each team, I've reported the average playoff score of their 10 most similar teams, the number of finalists and championships amongst this group and the most comparable team and its playoff outcome.

1. San Antonio Silver Stars

Average score: 3.9
Finals/champs: 3/1
Best comp: 2006 Sacramento Monarchs (lost WNBA Finals)

There's no theme to the teams similar to the Silver Stars, unless you count the year 2006. Four of the top 10 teams came from 2006, including the WNBA champion Detroit Shock, the Los Angeles Sparks and the Houston Comets (who lost to that best-comp Sacramento team in the opening round). The similarity with the Monarchs (99.5) is by far the closest, though that's a comparison you'd never make outside of statistics because Sacramento's style is so unique.

2. Seattle Storm

Average score: 3.8
Finals/champs: 3/0
Best comp: 1999 New York Liberty (lost WNBA Finals)

Worth noting: I initially forgot to include pace when I ran the similarity scores. Using that version, the Storm was virtually identical to the 2006 L.A. Sparks. However, while they achieved the same kind of results on offense and defense, they did so at wildly different speeds; the Sparks were faster than league average, while only one team has played slower relative to the league than the Storm since the institution of the 24-second shot clock. Now, the Storm shows as most similar to the Richie Adubato-coached Liberty teams of the league's early years. The good news is that there's no Houston Comets around to beat the Storm in the WNBA Finals. Other teams that show up include several Houston Comets squads of recent vintage and, somewhat predictably, last year's San Antonio Silver Stars (who featured Brian Agler as an assistant coach).

3. Los Angeles Sparks

Average score: 3.1
Finals/champs: 2/1
Best comp: 2003 Sacramento Monarchs (lost Western Conference Finals)

The combination of fast pace and strong defensive bias isn't a common one in basketball at any level, so the Sparks don't have a lot of highly comparable teams. Even the best match, the 2003 Monarchs, is sketchy because that team played two wildly different styles due to a midseason coaching change from Maura McHugh to John Whisenant, who slowed the team down in subsequent seasons. One championship team - the 2006 Shock - has pulled off the combination successfully, but four of L.A.'s most similar teams were swept out of the playoffs.

4. Sacramento Monarchs

Average score: 2.4
Finals/champs: 1/0
Best comp: 2003 Cleveland Rockers (lost first round)

All things considered, the comps for the Monarchs are a little better than you might expect. After all, Sacramento was the only playoff team to be outscored over the course of the regular season. Still, just two of the 10 most similar teams fell victim to sweeps, and four of them made it out of the first round. The Monarchs might have hoped to capture the same late-season magic as the 2004 Connecticut Sun, who came within a shot of a championship after an 18-16 season (that the Eastern Conference was so weak that year that the Sun had home-court advantage didn't hurt). However, Rebekkah Brunson being sidelined for the postseason with torn knee cartilage figures to make that very difficult.

1. Detroit Shock

Average score: 3.1
Finals/champs: 3/1
Best comp: 1998 Phoenix Mercury (lost WNBA Finals)

Using pace hurt the Shock, who lost a champion amongst their 10 most similar teams. As it is, the only champ amongst Detroit's top 10 is the 2004 Storm, who had a very similar defense but were more potent on offense. I'm surprised, given that Detroit is the most balanced team in this postseason, that the results don't come out better. Last year's Shock squad that lost in the WNBA Finals checks in as the 10th-most similar team.

2. Connecticut Sun

Average score: 2.9
Finals/champs: 2/1
Best comp: 1998 Cleveland Rockers (lost Semifinals)

Despite being a better offensive team and a weaker squad at the defensive end, the Sun's comparable teams overlap considerably with those of Detroit. They share both the 2004 Storm and the 1998 Monarchs as finalists. Overall, the teams similar to Connecticut fared ever so slightly worse in the postseason.

3. New York Liberty

Average score: 3.1
Finals/champs: 2/0
Best comp: 2000 Orlando Miracle (lost first round)

You might figure that, since "defense wins championships," the Liberty would come out poorly as the weakest defensive team in the postseason. And ... you'd be wrong. While no similar team went all the way and just two advanced to the WNBA Finals, the teams similar to New York tended to be surprisingly successful in the early rounds, six of the 10 advancing and only one getting swept.

4. Indiana Fever

Average score: 3.2
Finals/champs: 2/1
Best comp: 1997 New York Liberty (lost WNBA Finals)

On the other hand, defense has worked fairly well indeed for teams similar to the all-defense, no-offense Fever. Surprisingly, Indiana actually has the best average score of any team in the Eastern Conference. For whatever reason, the similarity scores produce a group of teams that was better in the regular season than the Fever, winning an average of 20.2 games while Indiana won just 17. These teams tended to be all or nothing in the first round: Six advanced, and the other four got swept.

Alright, having looked to the past, let's turn to the future and make some picks.

1. San Antonio vs. 4. Sacramento
This is a rematch of last year's first-round series, which saw the teams seeded second and third and went down to the closing moments of Game 3. This year doesn't figure to be as close. While the Monarchs can survive without Brunson, they need her to be at their best. The home-court advantage of ARCO Arena will help Sacramento tremendously tonight, but even with that I don't see the Monarchs pulling out a win.
Verdict: San Antonio in 2

1. Detroit vs. 4. Indiana
Like a lot of people, I expected this rematch - this is the third straight year Detroit and Indiana have met in the postseason - to take place in the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, the Fever limped to the last playoff spot in the East, while the Shock overcame the loss of Cheryl Ford to take the top spot. Indiana's defense is good enough to neutralize Detroit's offense, but the matchup at the other end of the floor is one-sided. The Shock's athletes will make life difficult for Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas and allow Detroit to win some low-scoring games.
Verdict: Detroit in 3

2. Connecticut vs. 3. New York
I like the Liberty's chances in a short series assuming Janel McCarville's back is healthy, but not as much against the Sun. Subjectively speaking, I believe Connecticut is the best team in the East, something not entirely reflected by their stats in part because of the late-season additions of Svetlana Abrosimova and Erin Phillips and Lindsay Whalen missing several games down the stretch. The key matchup is Whalen versus Loree Moore, a fine defender at the point. If Whalen can get past Moore and into a help defense that does not excel at shot blocking, the Liberty is in big trouble.
Verdict: Connecticut in 3