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Around the WNBA - June 15, 2005

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Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | June 15, 2005
A lot of people, myself included, throw out the term "Around the WNBA." This is literally it - a comment about every WNBA team in the early part of the season. Some comments are short, others long, but there should be something for everyone.

Charlotte - 2004 field-goal percentages of Sting's 2005 additions (not counting the rookies) and losses:

Sheri Sam        41.2%
Tangela Smith    41.1%
Helen Darling    33.1%
----------------------
C. Smith-Taylor  48.1%
Andrea Stinson   41.9%
Nicole Powell    41.3%
Scott-Richardson 40.3%
----------------------
Charlotte 2004   42.7%
League Average   42.0%


Dydek is fitting in with the Sun.
Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty
Connecticut - Margo Dydek's career field-goal percentage entering 2005: 45.6%.
Margo Dydek's 2005 field-goal percentage: 59.0%.

Sun's Offensive Efficiency: 104.1
#2 WNBA Team in Offensive Efficiency: 96.6 (Minnesota)

Be afraid, WNBA. Be very afraid.

Detroit - "Our post players make the same moves over and over again," said Shock Coach Bill Laimbeer after last Wednesday's loss to the Storm. "We teach them new moves in practice every day, but they refuse to implement what we teach them."

I've never thought of post moves as making a huge difference for players like Cheryl Ford and Ruth Riley, who aren't really the kind of players you dump the ball to in the post, but Laimbeer may have a point. Ford's shooting percentage has gone from 47.4% as a rookie to 41.1% last year and 40.0% thus far this year. Riley has gone from 49.8% her first year in Detroit to 44.6% this year and a dismal 34.5% in 2005.

Houston - The Comets are threatening a somewhat dubious WNBA record. Houston has only 15 3-pointers in eight games, an average of 1.88 per game. The WNBA record for fewest 3s per game in a season by a team was set by the Shock last year, 1.82. Sheryl Swoopes is the only Houston player with more than three triples.

Indiana - When the Fever was in town, I asked Coach Brian Winters about Kelly Miller and the point guard position. Miller mostly played point last season, but Indiana signed Tully Bevilaqua this winter to give them a true point guard. The Fever also drafted Tan White, who everyone knew would eventually play a lot of minutes and force Miller back to the point.

"In an ideal world, I think that's (shooting guard) probably her best position, but there are times where it makes sense to play her on the ball," Winters said. "It depends who she's playing with, the matchups you have and the combinations you have on the floor."

Winters also made the point that Tamika Catchings' ability to initiate the offense (which she in fact does most possessions) and the number of guards on the roster gives him more options even with Bevilaqua sidelined with a bone bruise in her right knee.

"If they're in there with Tamika, I can have Tamika handle the ball," he said. "We can have an alternate ballhandler, so that will happen. Kelly Miller might not always be in there with Tan White. She might be in there with Coretta Brown or Yolanda Paige, so I plan on using her off the ball too. She's not strictly going to be a point guard."

Los Angeles - So the big story is that Lisa Leslie's numbers are way down this season, with the explanation being she can't co-exist with newcomer Chamique Holdsclaw. I don't think I agree. So far this season, Leslie is attempting 17.3 shots per 40 minutes. That's actually up from last year, when she shot 15.7 times per 40 minutes. It's not like Leslie's been edged out of shots by Holdsclaw; she's just missing them.

Now here's where there is something interesting. Leslie is averaging 0.35 free-throw attempts for each field-goal attempt this season, the lowest mark of her career and way down from last year (0.45). This seems to indicate that Leslie is playing more on the perimeter than last year, which would naturally drop her shooting percentage - maybe not as much as it's fallen this year, a career-low 40.2%, but it should go down. Leslie averaged about as many free throws per field goal two years ago, when she shot just 44.2% from the field. This might be a Holdsclaw effect itself - Holdsclaw taking away some of Leslie's post looks - but I haven't seen enough of the Sparks to say for certain.


Leslie is struggling in the early going.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty
What is more likely a Holdsclaw effect is Leslie's rebounding, a career-low 6.1 rebounds per game. That's 7.6 rebounds per 40 minutes; Leslie has never before been below 10.7. But the Sparks have essentially replaced the injured Mwadi Mabika (5.1 rebounds per 40 minutes last season) with Holdsclaw (10.2, double Mabika's mark). Some of those rebounds are naturally going to come from Leslie.

Minnesota - Point differential - how much a team outscores by or is outscored by opponents on a per-game basis - is usually a good indication of the team's quality. Over the 34-game basis of the WNBA season, however, luck often doesn't even out and teams can finish with substantially better or worse records than their point differential would imply.

In 2004, the Lynx were the biggest overachievers (or arguably the most lucky). Minnesota went 18-16 but was outscored by 0.7 points per game. Also 18-16 in 2003, Minnesota was +0.3. So despite back-to-back playoff appearances, the Lynx were actually outscored the last two years. But that's changed so far this year, with Minnesota posting a solid +1.9 differential. We'll see if that translates into a better record at year's end.

New York - What's up with Elena Baranova? That's not a rhetorical question; I'm genuinely curious. The WNBA's 3-point percentage leader a year ago, Baranova has started this season 2-for-16 (12.5%), is shooting just 39.6% and averaging only 6.9 points per game after a breakout 2004 campaign. I'm assuming there's something here more substantial than her not being on my fantasy-league team this year, but I haven't picked up on it or seen anyone else provide a good answer.

Of course, as with most players who have started slow ( Tamika Catchings' 31.0% shooting being another good answer), the real issue might just be "sample size". We may be a quarter of the way through the WNBA season, but that's still only eight games, and a lot of funny things can happen in eight games (34 as well, for that matter). It's probably important to keep that in mind early in the season before drawing too broad conclusions (which isn't stopping me).

Phoenix - Former Dallas Mavericks Coach Don Nelson has in the past used a simple formula to account for the disparity in home and road games for teams early in any season: Road wins - home losses. This compares the team's performance to what they'd do if the home team won every game. Here's what the 2005 WNBA standings look like by this plus-minus formula:

East        +/-
---------------
Connecticut  +3
Indiana      +1
Detroit       0
New York     -1
Washington   -2
Charlotte    -3

West        +/-
---------------
Sacramento   +3
Seattle      +2
Los Angeles  +1
Minnesota     0
Phoenix       0
Houston      -1
San Antonio  -3

The two big surprises in my opinion are Detroit and Phoenix. Both have merely held serve, but the Shock boasts the WNBA's third-best record while the Mercury has largely been written off after a 2-6 start. With Kamila Vodichkova back in the lineup and four- and five-game homestands left on the schedule, Phoenix could make up ground in a hurry.

Sacramento - Be afraid, be very afraid: Part II. Through nine games last year, the Monarchs were 3-6. Through nine games in 2003, they were also 3-6. They ended both seasons in the Western Conference Finals. This year, they've started 7-2.


Thomas' injury is another blow to the Silver Stars.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty
San Antonio - Has any team had worse injury luck than the Silver Stars? After losing Marie Ferdinand for half of the 2004 season, they've now lost Kendra Wecker (torn ACL) and LaToya Thomas (torn labrum) for the balance of 2005. I'm jumping the gun a little on Thomas; there's still some chance she might not be done for the year, but it doesn’t look good.

Obviously, the Silver Stars weren't going anywhere this season, but the injuries are devastating nonetheless because Thomas and Wecker are robbed of the opportunity to improve and San Antonio Coach Dan Hughes loses the opportunity to see how Thomas and Wecker fit together and with the rest of the Silver Stars core players. Not only is San Antonio going to be a weak team, it's going to be the worst kind of weak team - one playing old players. Katie Feenstra and Chantelle Anderson are still young in the middle, but the Silver Stars are expected to start Wendy Palmer-Daniel and Nikki McCray at the forwards - not exactly the combination that will be there when San Antonio returns to the playoffs.

The best news from the 2005 season is that Feenstra looks like the real deal, shooting 54% from the field and scoring 7.2 points in limited minutes. She has great touch around the basket and getting her shot off is not a problem.

Washington - Mystics rookie Laurie Koehn's WNBA career isn't yet 10 games old, but if I'm to be asked, she's already become the truest 3-point specialist in league history. Remarkably, 31 of Koehn's 34 shot attempts this season have been triples (91.2%).

Minimum 50 field-goal attempts, here's the highest percentage of field-goal attempts that were 3s in a single season in WNBA history:

Player Team Year FGA 3A Pct
Rhonda Blades NYL 1997 70 54 77.1
Helen Luz WAS 2003 53 40 75.5
Jennifer Rizzotti CLE 2002 135 99 73.3
Niele Ivey IND 2003 116 84 72.4
Stacy Clinesmith SAC 2000 57 41 71.9

If you reduce the standards, the player most comparable to Koehn is Stacy Frese, who spent 2000 with Utah and took 26 of her 30 shots from downtown. But that was it for Frese's WNBA career, while Koehn looks to have some time in front of her. While none of the other specialists cracked 40% accuracy on 3s, Koehn has hit 48.4% thus far, producing a sparkling Effective Field Goal Percentage of 69.1%. That means a player who only shot twos would have to hit almost 70% of them to match Koehn's efficiency.

Watching Koehn in the NCAA First and Second Rounds at Hec Ed this spring, I thought she had a WNBA future because of her shooting, but I didn't realize the pro game would actually help her by allowing her to just wait on the perimeter for open 3 looks.