Paul Ball Has Proven Its Worth

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Kevin Pelton, | Aug. 21, 2007
A year and a half ago, it was the question around the WNBA: Was the league ready for "Paul Ball?" That's Paul Westhead's self-coined nickname for the �ber-aggressive fast-breaking system he brought to the Phoenix Mercury when he was hired as head coach prior to the 2006 system. The WNBA had never seen anything like it, meaning curiosity ran high prior to Westhead's first season.

The early returns were not good. Westhead's WNBA debut was the nationally-televised 2006 season opener at Sacramento. After receiving their championship rings, the Monarchs blew Phoenix out of the building in their highest scoring game in six years, winning 105-78. Days later, Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson scored what was then a career-high 35 points as the Storm handed the Mercury another lopsided defeat, scoring 79 points through three quarters.

"He's proven he's successful in the NBA, so he came in very well respected. I was curious to see him get the personnel to make it work."
Norm Hall/NBAE/Getty
When the Storm scored a franchise-record 97 points to beat Phoenix again and drop the Mercury to 0-4 under Westhead, there were plenty of question marks about Paul Ball, but Storm Head Coach Anne Donovan says she never was skeptical of Westhead's chances.

"He's proven he's successful in the NBA, so he came in very well respected," says Donovan. "I was curious to see him get the personnel to make it work, because early on it didn't look very good. He's had to adjust. Early on it was run and press and the press end of things kind of fell by the wayside because they realized they couldn't play that style, but offensively he's adjusted to the WNBA and they've got great personnel to fit his system."

It took Westhead only a couple of games to ditch the press in favor of a 3-2 zone defense that has become the Mercury's staple. That was enough to make Phoenix competitive, but it took mastering Westhead's offense for the Mercury to really get going. That happened late in 2006, and the team finished the season on a seven-game winning streak only to fall short of the postseason on a tie-breaker.

The momentum Phoenix gained by closing 2006 strong carried over this season. The tie-breaker paid off when the Mercury won the lottery, earning the first overall pick in the WNBA Draft. The rights to that pick, Duke guard Lindsey Harding, went to Minnesota in exchange for veteran center Tangela Smith, who has provided Phoenix the athletic shooter in the post Paul Ball requires.

With four of the five starters Paul Ball veterans, the Mercury got off to a much better start to 2007. The finish, however, has been just as hot. After an upset home loss to Los Angeles, Phoenix finished the year with 10 wins in the last 11 games - the lone loss coming Aug. 4 in Seattle. The Mercury blew by San Antonio to post the Western Conference's best regular-season record at 23-11 and go into the playoffs as the league's hottest team. No one else in the WNBA was better than 6-4 over their last 10 games; Phoenix was 9-1.

Donovan credits the surge to the emergence of All-Star forward Penny Taylor as a third high scorer for the Mercury, complementing guards Cappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi. Taylor carried Phoenix in the middle of the season when Pondexter and Taurasi slumped and now gives the Mercury three dangerous scorers.

"I think the emergence of more than Cappie and Diana was the key, because you really had to focus on their perimeter and then just maintain inside," explained Donovan. "Now with Penny emerging as big offense for them, it puts pressure everywhere. You can't be so concerned with shooters coming off screens you leave the post. In my mind, it's a different team entirely from (the start of the season), primarily from Penny Taylor's emergence. She's put pressure on you defensively to guard not just outside shooting, three-point line, but what she does in the post."

Year two of Paul Ball saw Phoenix break its own WNBA record for scoring by going from 87.1 to 89.0 points per game. The Mercury was less efficient on a per-possession basis but pushed the tempo even more. Phoenix's 84.0 possessions per game were more than six per game more than league average; no other WNBA team averaged even 80 possessions.

In the wrong hands, that extreme pace could mean sloppy, ragged play marked by turnovers and forced shots. Westhead and the elite offensive talent on the Mercury make it work.

"They've got the perfect personnel, so you have to really credit (GM) Annie (Myers) and (former GM) Seth (Sulka), before Annie, getting the right personnel for the style," said Donovan. "There's not a more fun team to watch in the league in terms of their offense."

While the Mercury's defense has been good enough to win since moving away from full-court pressure, defense has never been a Westhead staple, and that is reflected in the statistics. The 85.4 points Phoenix allowed per game were far and away the most in the league, though that is partially an issue of the Mercury's fast pace. In terms of per-possession Defensive Rating, Phoenix ranked 11th in the WNBA and last amongst playoff teams.

The StormTracker blog has complete coverage as the Storm prepares to take on Phoenix. On Tuesday the Storm worked against the Mercury's box-and-one defense.
Westhead's mantra has been clear and consistent throughout his time in Phoenix: Focus on point differential, not points allowed. Lo and behold, the Mercury outscored opponents by 3.6 points per game this season, tops in the Western Conference and second to only Detroit (+4.6) in the WNBA.

Now Paul Ball in the WNBA faces a new challenge: The WNBA Playoffs. Like their NBA counterparts, the Suns, Phoenix faces not only its opponent on the floor but also the stereotype that fast-paced teams struggle in the postseason because the game has a tendency to slow down.

"Throughout basketball there is always the concern about running teams in playoffs," Westhead told reporters in Phoenix after the Mercury's final regular-season game. "Our philosophy is to go faster. We�re sure not going to play the conservative card, and we don�t mind announcing that."

For better or worse, Phoenix is going to play Paul Ball. Over the last two years, that has proven a successful strategy.