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Is the WNBA Ready for "Paul Ball"?

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Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | May 17, 2006
Over the last two seasons, the NBA's Phoenix Suns have established themselves as one of the most potent offensive teams in league history, a feat that has left them a game away from their second consecutive Western Conference Finals. Now, the Suns sister team, the Phoenix Mercury, is trying to match that success and that unorthodox style.

In October, the Mercury made one of the most out-of-the-box hires in a league with a history full of them, naming Paul Westhead the sixth coach in franchise history. Westhead brings a unique system to Phoenix, aggressive fast-breaking to the point of relentlessness, known simply as "Paul Ball."


"Westhead brings a unique system to Phoenix, aggressive fast-breaking to the point of relentlessness, known simply as 'Paul Ball.'"
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty
The WNBA has never seen anything like what Westhead looks to bring to the Valley of the Sun. That much is evident before Westhead has coached a single regular-season game. In two preseason games and a third scrimmage, however, Westhead's charges already have pedal firmly to the floor. Take a look at the five fastest preseason games this season in terms of average possessions by the two teams:

Fastest Preseason Games
Pace
Date
Home Away
98.5
5/13
Connecticut Phoenix
91.8
5/7
Minnesota Phoenix
90.8
5/11
Phoenix Detroit
82.3
5/11
Indiana Los Angeles
81.7
5/6
San Antonio Washington
Note: 5/7 Minnesota-Phoenix game/scrimmage adjusted to 40 minutes because of overtime

Not only has the Mercury been involved in the three fastest games of this year's preseason, no game involving two other teams has even come close. Truly, Phoenix has put up ridiculous numbers during the preseason, attempting nearly 90 shots per game and forcing an average - average, mind you - of 31 turnovers per game, including a mind-boggling 36 committed by the Connecticut Sun in a game won by the Sun.

How far away from the rest of the league is what Westhead is doing? Consider what the league-wide preseason statistics look like with and without the three Mercury games/scrimmages. Take out Phoenix, and the league-wide scoring average drops from 75.0 points per game to 72.3 points per game (the Mercury and its opponents are averaging 89.3 points per game). Possessions per game throughout the WNBA drop from 80.3 to 77.1. If Westhead's style had an impact on an NBA that had 27 teams when he was last a head coach, just think how much it will affect the statistics of a league half the size.

Preseason Pace
Team
Pace
Phoenix
97.8
Minnesota
88.2
Connecticut
86.8
Detroit
81.8
Los Angeles
81.1
San Antonio
80.3
Indiana
78.6
Charlotte
78.0
Washington
77.3
Chicago
76.4
Sacramento
75.3
Houston
75.1
Seattle
74.7
New York
74.0
For another reality check on how fast the Mercury has played during the preseason, check out the preseason pace of play for each WNBA team, as listed at right. Phoenix has averaged 21.8% more possessions per game than league average, which is a stunningly high number. The fastest-paced team in WNBA history, the 2002 Los Angeles Sparks, was but 7.3% above league average. Even Westhead's semi-infamous 1990-91 Denver Nuggets, the fastest-paced team in NBA history, played only 16.2% faster than league average. Just what kind of monster is Westhead creating?

Consider that he says his team is still not there in terms of mastering the fast-break offense.

"The actual physical adjustment of playing at that pace takes longer and the mental adjustment, as I have said in the past, can take a week, a month or a lifetime," Westhead said in his preseason conference call with the media this week. "You either get it and start playing that way or you say, 'I don’t think I can get it.' I would say the players that I have for this training camp, they’re in the pursuit of it. They haven’t nailed it down yet, but they’re going in a forward direction rather than with the brakes on."

Consider too that the Mercury has not had the services of five key players for much of the preseason. Newcomers Kelly Miller and Kristen Rasmussen, as well as All-Star Diana Taurasi, have been bothered by minor injuries. Center Kamila Vodichkova just returned from playing in Russia, while forward Penny Taylor's return is still somewhat up in the air.

Add in Cappie Pondexter, the second pick of April's Draft and Phoenix's leading preseason scorer at 16.5 points per game, and the offensive talent - the Mercury was the league's second best offensive team in 2004 before slipping to sixth in Offensive Rating last year, in large part because now-departed Anna DeForge slumped much of the year - should be difficult to contain.

Defense has usually been the question with Westhead, though this may be an area where using possession-based stats is revealing. In terms of Defensive Rating compared to league average, Westhead's early-80s Los Angeles Lakers squads (including the 1979-80 NBA Champions) were just as good defensively if not better as the Pat Riley teams that followed. The 1991-92 Denver Nuggets, anchored by then-rookie Dikembe Mutombo, were about average defensively but just terrible on offense. It was only in 1990-91, when Westhead's fast and furious Nuggets allowed an NBA-record 130.8 points per game, that his team's defense was significantly worse than league average. (And even that squad was not nearly as bad as the scoring average made it appear, because of the high pace.)

The other question is how Westhead's system will translate to the women's game, but that is virtually impossible to discuss because there has never been anything like Paul Ball in the WNBA. However, it is worth noting that the fastest-paced teams in league history have generally been successful ones. Two of the three fastest WNBA teams have won the WNBA Championship (the 2002 Sparks and the 2003 Detroit Shock), while 11 of the 12 fastest teams in league history have made the playoffs.

Based on Westhead's NBA track record, it's fair to apply the same assessment to him as most any other coach: He's won when he's had talent, and has struggled when he hasn't had it. With an unguardable backcourt of Pondexter and Taurasi and a potential breakout season from second-year post Sandora Irvin, the Mercury has talent, if not yet experience. Much will depend on the availability of Taylor, annually one of the league's most efficient scorers and an extremely dangerous player in Westhead's system.

But no matter what, the Mercury should break a bunch of records and be great fun to watch.