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Comparing Perfection: The Undefeated Lynx and Sparks

Note: This article was originally published on June 8 and will be updated daily during the Lynx and Sparks streaks.

With their undefeated stretches to start the season, the Lynx and Sparks have joined some elite (and familiar) company and made history in the process. In fact, they are the only two franchises to ever win this many games right off the bat: The Lynx surpassed their own record set in 2012 with 11 straight wins and the Sparks raced past their 2001 and ’03 teams that started 9-0.

MOST CONSECUTIVE GAMES WON / START OF SEASON

Wins Team Year Final Record Season Result
11 Minnesota 2016 TBD TBD
11 Los Angeles 2016 TBD TBD
10 Minnesota 2012 27-7 (.794)* Lost WNBA Finals
9 Los Angeles 2001 28-4 (.875)* Won WNBA Title
9 Los Angeles 2003 24-10 (.706)** Lost WNBA Finals

* best record in league
** second best record in league

What does a fast start mean in terms of season-long success?

The 2012 Lynx and the 2001 Sparks both finished with the top regular season record in the league, while the 2003 Sparks finished second to East champion Detroit. And all three teams advance to the WNBA Finals. However, only one of those teams — the 2001 Sparks — went on to win the title.

This is the first time that two teams have started out at least 8-0 in league history. And if this had happened in years past, we would be looking ahead to an incredible Western Conference Finals matchup. However, with the new playoff format this season, it is possible for the Sparks and Lynx to meet in the WNBA Finals even though both hail from the Western Conference.

Which unbeaten start is more impressive?

Now we get to have some fun as we nitpick to see if we can find some separation between these two powerhouses. We’re down to just a few days before the two meet for the first time this season — June 21st on NBA TV; set your DVRs now — so let’s try to get some answers now before they settle the argument on the court.

Margin of Victory

Both teams are winning games by enormous margins on a nightly basis. On the season, the Sparks have the edge, outscoring their opponents by an average of 15.6 points compared to an 13.7 points for the Lynx. To give some perspective on how good that is, the next highest average win margin is 3.1 by the New York Liberty.

But as we have discussed with our introduction to advanced stats, using per game numbers does not account for different playing styles and pace of play. So to put the teams on the same level, we look at point differential per 100 possessions (the net rating statistic). When we compare the teams that way, the Sparks’ margin grows even larger as they have outscored opponents by 20.1 points per 100 possessions compared to 17.6 for Minnesota. Again, these two teams are leaps and bounds above the rest of the league, with New York’s net rating of 4.1 ranked third in the league.

Advantage: Sparks

Strength of Schedule

Of course, comparing teams this early in the season is problematic because they have not faced the same competition to this point. For example, the Lynx have already played the Mercury three times, while the Sparks have now squared off with Diana and Co. once. We can all agree that the Mercury have gotten off to a slower start than we expected. Well, part of the reason why is that they’ve played the defending champs three times in their first eight games of the season.

So let’s look at each team’s schedule to this point and see what it tells us.

Minnesota
May 14: 95-76 W vs. Phoenix (4-6)
May 18: 97-80 W @ Chicago (5-6)
May 22: 78-71 W @ Seattle (4-7)
May 25: 85-78 W @ Phoenix (4-6)
May 27: 74-71 W vs. Indiana (4-7)
May 31: 79-69 W @ New York (6-4)
June 4: 80-63 W vs. Dallas (3-7)
June 7: 89-81 W vs. Phoenix (4-6)
June 10: 110-78 W @ Atlanta (7-3)
June 11: 83-76 W @ Washington (5-7)
June 14: 87-63 W vs. Indiana (4-7)

Using team records through games played on June 14th, the Lynx have faced opponents with a combined 46-60 record, a winning percentage of .434.

Los Angeles
May 15: 96-66 W vs. Seattle (4-7)
May 20: 97-67 W @ Washington (5-7)
May 21: 79-72 W @ New York (6-4)
May 24: 93-80 W @ Chicago (5-6)
May 26: 77-72 W @ Connecticut (2-9)
June 2: 68-61 W vs. San Antonio (2-7)
June 4: 74-61 W @ San Antonio (2-7)
June 7: 100-77 W vs. New York (6-4)
June 11: 97-73 W @ Dallas (3-7)
June 14: 98-85 W vs. Chicago (5-6)
June 17: 77-71 W vs. Phoenix (4-7)

By comparison, the Sparks’ schedule has been easier as their combined opponents’ record is 41-64, a winning percentage of .390.

Advantage: Lynx

Common Opponents

The Lynx and Sparks have faced six of the same teams so far this season — Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Washington, Phoenix, which Minnesota has already faced three times, and New York, which L.A. has already faced twice.

While both teams posted double-digit wins over the Sky — the Lynx’s 17-point win edges the 13-point Sparks win — and Wings (L.A. won by 24, Minnesota by 17). The Sparks have posted more dominant wins against the Storm, Mystics and Liberty. Minnesota beat Seattle and Washington by just seven points each, while the Sparks took them each down by 30 in their first two games of the season. And while the Lynx notched a 10-point win over the Liberty, the Sparks have seven-point and 23-point wins over them, for an average margin of victory of 15 points. Los Angeles’ six-point win over Phoenix is the smallest win margin of the two teams’ four bouts with the Mercury. The Lynx have topped Phoenix by 19, eight, and seven points respectfully.

Advantage: Sparks

Statistical Tale of the Tape

Let’s take a look at the numbers side-by-side and see what separates the two teams statistically.

Traditional (Per Game)

Very little separation in the per game stats, with Minny holding a slight edges in scoring (less than a point per game) and L.A. winning in turnovers (1.2 fewer per game).

Stat Sparks (rank) Lynx (rank)
PTS 86.9 (2nd) 87.0 (1st)
REB 31.3 (11th) 33.2 (7th)
AST 21.1 (1st) 19.8 (3rd)
STL 9.3 (2nd) 9.8 (1st)
BLK 3.6 (6th) 4.4 (T-4th)
TOV 12.6 (1st) 13.8 (4th)

 

Advantage: Even

Shooting

The Sparks lead the league in both overall field goal percentage (50.2%) and three-point percentage (39%). The Lynx are relatively close in overall shooting percentage and have closed the gap three-point accuracy, using a hot stretch to climb to third in the league at 34.7 percent.

But while the Lynx endured early struggles behind the three-point line, they’ve been consistently sharp at the free throw line as they are third at 84.6 percent shooting, compared to the Sparks, who rank eighth at 77.3 percent. Despite shooting such a higher percentage, the Lynx only average 2.1 more free throws made per game compared to L.A. as the two teams are both in the bottom half of the league in the category.

Stat Sparks (rank) Lynx (rank)
FGM 32.9 (2nd) 32.5 (3rd)
FG% 49.8% (1st) 47.9% (2nd)
3PM 6.3 (T-2nd) 4.6 (5th)
3P% 39.7% (1st) 34.7% (3rd)
FTM 14.8 (T-10th) 17.4 (6th)
FT% 77.6% (7th) 84.6% (2nd)

 

Advantage: Sparks

Advanced

Owners of the league’s top net rating, the Sparks have posted the top marks in both offensive and defensive efficiency, although Minnesota’s numbers in both categories are impressive in their own right. Two stats that stand out for Minnesota are their rebounding percentage (51.5%), which ranks third in the league, compared to the Sparks at ninth (tied); as well as their pace, which ranks second in the league compared to ninth for the Sparks.

Stat Sparks (rank) Lynx (rank)
OffRtg 109.9 (1st) 108.3 (2nd)
DefRtg 89.8 (1st) 90.7 (2nd)
NetRtg 20.1 (1st) 17.6 (2nd)
REB% 48.5% (T-9th) 51.5% (3rd)
eFG% 54.5% (1st) 51.3% (2nd)
TS% 58.3% (1st) 56.6% (2nd)
PACE 78.4 (9th) 79.1 (6th)
AST/TO 1.68 (1st) 1.43 (3rd)
BLK% 7.3% (5th) 9.0% (5th)
TOV% 15.9% (1st) 17.2% (6th)

 

Advantage: Sparks

Scoring

Our final statistical comparison does not reveal any advantage or disadvantages, but just gives a clearer view of how each team scores its points: The Sparks rely more heavily on the three-point shot, while the Lynx score nearly two-thirds of their points on two-point shots.

Stat Sparks (rank) Lynx (rank)
%PTS 2PT 61.3% (4th) 63.9% (2nd)
%PTS 3PT 21.7% (5th) 16.0% (10th)
%PTS FT 17.1% (11th) 20.1% (9th)

 

Advantage: Even

Look Ahead: Tuesday’s Showdown

The Lynx made history first only because they had the first crack at it — they played their 11th game of the season on Tuesday, three days earlier than the Sparks. Something will have to give Tuesday, though, when the two teams finally face off — in back-to-back games, no less.

Minnesota
June 19: @ Seattle, 7:00 PM ET, League Pass
June 21: @ Los Angeles, 3:30 PM ET, NBA TV
June 24: vs. Los Angeles, 8:00 PM ET, League Pass

Los Angeles
June 17: 77-71 W vs. Phoenix (11-0)
June 21: vs. Minnesota, 3:30 PM ET, NBA TV
June 24: @ Minnesota, 8:00 PM ET, League Pass

 

So Who’s Been More Impressive?

After examining these two teams and what they have done so far this season, it is still difficult to separate the two and make a determination about which team has been the most impressive.

Of course, the Sparks are the bigger surprise — they were projected as a playoff team, but not as a world-beater entering the season. Meanwhile, the Lynx are the latest WNBA dynasty, having just won their third title in five years, and are looking add the title of back-to-back champion to their list of accolades.

The last team to do that was the L.A. Sparks back in 2001 and 2002. The Sparks’ run to their first WNBA title started with nine straight wins — a record that stood for 11 seasons. They remain the only team to open a season with at least eight straight wins to go on and win the title.

Can this year’s Sparks or Lynx become the second? And will they face each other in the Finals to decide the championship? Will either team lose a game before their back-to-back meetings on June 21st and 24th?

The better question is: Can June 21st just get here already so we can actually settle this debate on the court?