2023 WNBA Four Factor Playoff Preview: Part 2


Read Part 1 here

On Friday, the WNBA Playoffs resume with the No. 2 Connecticut Sun hosting the No. 7 Washington Mystics and the No. 5 Atlanta Dream visiting No. 4 Dallas.

Interestingly, these are both rematches from the final game of the regular season on September 10th. Washington was able to pull off the upset at New York with a game-winner from Brittney Sykes. Dallas beat Atlanta for the third time in three games, a dominating 94-77 victory.

The Liberty have a tough first-round matchup with a talented Mystics team who has given them trouble all season. Furthermore, Washington is finally healthy and just beat New York on Sunday.

Dallas can play with any team on any given night. They also have 18 losses this season. Atlanta hasn’t beaten the Wings yet, but can they catch Dallas on an off-night or two?

No. 2 New York vs. No. 7 Washington Mystics

  • Game 1: Washington at New York, September 15th – 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
  • Game 2: Washington at New York, September 19th – 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
  • Game 3 (if necessary): New York at Washington, September 22nd – TBD (ESPN2)

Four Factors: New York

New York has dominated the WNBA in the second half of the season. They have the best offense and the best defense against playoff teams after the All-Star break.

It took some time for their new pieces to jell, but their success since July came from the following:

  • Much needed time together to adjust to new roles and playing styles
  • 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones’s dominant inside presence, especially on the boards
  • Breanna Stewart’s reliability and versatility on both ends while earning the 2023 MVP from the Associated Press

It comes as no surprise that the best team in the second half of the season is leading the league in shooting on both ends.

Their +5.8% effective field goal percentage difference during that stretch against playoff teams outpaces Las Vegas (+3.5%) and Minnesota (+0.8%). The rest of the playoff field is in the negatives.

Sabrina Ionescu had arguably the best shooting season in history. She made a record 128 three-pointers at an incredible 44.8% clip. Her 56.2% effective field goal percentage ranked ninth in the league this season, while Jones (57.5%) and defensive ace Betnijah Laney (57.4%) finished third and fourth, respectively.

The efficiency of Ionescu, Jones, and Laney stems from the spectacular play of Stewart. She averaged a career-high 23.0 points per game while playing the most minutes per game in her career since her rookie year in 2016.

While Jones was getting acclimated, head coach Sandy Brondello capitalized on Stewart’s versatility by playing her at the post at times. She was able to open the floor for her teammates with better spacing, yet she was still able to effectively defend opposing posts.

Using her 7’1” wingspan, Stewart finished the season as one of the top defenders in the league. She led the Liberty in blocks, steals, and defensive rebounds.

New York’s jump in rebounding has been the biggest revelation as the season progressed. Before the break, New York was seventh in the WNBA in offensive rebounding percentage (22.1%) and fifth in the league in defensive rebounding percentage (78.0%).

After the break, New York jumped to second in OREB% (28.7%) and second in DREB% (78.9%).

One area that could ultimately ruin the Liberty’s chances of winning the first championship in franchise history could be turnovers.

They have the worst turnover percentage difference in the entire playoff field after the All-Star break (+2.4%). New York has improved throughout the season offensively, but their inability to turn over the top teams in the league creates extra scoring opportunities for their opponents.

Fortunately for the Liberty, the Mystics are near the bottom of the league in shooting.

But the Mystics do present their own set of problems for the Liberty.

Four Factors: Washington

The Washington Mystics are not an ordinary 7-seed, and they are not who the Liberty wanted to see in the first round of the playoffs.

They are supremely talented with size and quickness and are led by a 2-time MVP. They’ve beaten New York twice and Las Vegas once, and they began the season winning eight of the first 12 games.

How does a team like that go sub-.500 for the season? Injuries.

Future Hall of Famer Elena Delle Donne missed 17 games. All-Star Ariel Atkins missed 13 games. Three-time All-Star and two-time WNBA Champion Kristi Toliver only played in a total of 11 games before an ACL injury ended her season. Shakira Austin, a first-team All-Rookie last season, missed 21 games and will be out for at least the first two games of the first round.

Their most effective lineup this season is Delle Donne, Atkins, Austin, Sykes, and Natasha Cloud. Unfortunately, those five have only played in 14 games together, but have outscored opponents by 94 points.

With 5-time All-Defensive Team member Atkins back in the lineup, the Mystics look to stifle the hot-shooting New York Liberty. With Defensive Player of the Year candidate Sykes, who was second in the league in steals at 2.1 per game, and supreme perimeter defender Cloud, a healthy Mystics team has the pieces to make a run.

Their defense has feasted on turnovers all season. Their 17.8% turnover percentage is second in the league against playoff teams in the second half of the season. They do so while limiting fouls and maintaining rebounding position, a very difficult trifecta.

Washington has struggled on the offensive end with consistency. They rank low in shooting percentage, rebounding percentage, and getting to the free throw line.

Having Delle Donne back in the lineup adds much-needed firepower.

Keys to the Series

The Liberty are 11-4 against playoff teams after the All-Star break. One of those losses was to Washington on the last day of the regular season.

While the Mystics have been a defensive team all season, they have struggled offensively.

Interestingly, the Mystics have been able to score on the Liberty no matter who was in their lineup. In the 36 games against non-Liberty opponents, the Mystics are averaging 79.9 PPG; in the four games against the Liberty, one of the top defensive teams in the league, the Mystics are averaging 86.3 PPG.

Washington has shot better in three of the four matchups with New York, and they’ve won the turnover battle in every game. Teams are 100-10 (0.909) when shooting better (eFG%) and forcing a higher turnover percentage!

The playoffs are a different animal, but that formula will carry over into the postseason. Can the Mystics ride the wave and knock off the heavily favored Liberty?

No. 4 Dallas vs. No. 5 Atlanta

  • Game 1: Atlanta at Dallas, September 15th – 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
  • Game 2: Atlanta at Dallas, September 19th – 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
  • Game 3 (if necessary): Dallas at Atlanta, September 22nd – TBD (ESPN2)

Four Factors: Dallas

Dallas has had the most interesting season in the league this year. They boasted two wins over No. 3 Connecticut, beat No. 2 New York by double-digits, and knocked off No. 1 Las Vegas who had won 16 of its previous 17 games.

The Wings also have 18 losses.

They live in the extremes, which is why they have had a roller-coaster of a year.

Their strength is their size, and they are able to bully teams on the offensive end. First-year head coach Latricia Trammell has given her posts the freedom to crash the boards all season, and their 32.8% offensive rebounding percentage was first in the league by 6.4 percentage points.

6’7” Teaira McCowan averaged 11.0 PPG and 9.1 RPG. They replace her in the lineup with 6’7” Kalani Brown. 6’4” Awak Kuier, the 2021 second overall draft pick by the Wings, and 6’4” Satou Sabally, the AP’s Most Improved Player, combine to form a mountainous challenge for opposing defenses.

Unsurprisingly, they’ve also lived at the free throw line, shooting 20.3 attempts per game and cashing in on 80.6% of those attempts. The only team to shoot more is Atlanta (22.0 FTA/gm), their first-round opponent.

To make matters worse for defenses, they have to deal with Arike Ogunbowale. The dynamic guard was recently named to the AP All-WNBA Second Team after averaging 21.2 PPG and 4.5 APG.

The dominance on the offensive end due to their size advantage quickly transitions to their biggest weakness on the defensive end.

In the second half of the season, Dallas has the worst defense amongst playoff teams. They don’t have the quickness to force turnovers, and they don’t have the athleticism to effectively defend ball screens.

Rotations on defense get them out of position, and the most dominant offensive rebounding team in the league struggles to rebound defensively.

Playing the most anemic offensive team left should help.

Four Factors: Atlanta

While the Wings dominate on the offensive end with their size, the Dream have been able to use their length to disrupt opposing offenses. Despite their 4-8 record post-All-Star break against playoff teams, they have had one of the top defenses.

They play seven in their rotation that are 6’0” or taller. Instead of forcing turnovers, the Dream play solid, position defense and force teams to consistently score over them. They held opponents to 48.2% effective field goal percentage, third in the league behind New York and Las Vegas.

Playing this style allows the Dream to keep their positioning to rebound defensively and protect the rim. They finished the regular season as the second-best team in the league in defensive rebounding percentage (78.2%) and blocks per game (4.6). Cheyenne Parker (59), Nia Coffey (37), and Rhyne Howard (25) all finished in the top 20 in total blocks.

Head coach Tanisha Wright’s tough, defensive-minded brand of basketball does not translate as well to the offensive end. Although they lead the league in getting to the free throw line (0.320 free throw rate), this specific statistic does not correlate to winning basketball.

What does is shooting, and Atlanta enters the playoffs as the worst shooting team in the field. What doesn’t help is their emphasis on getting back on the shot to set their elite defense. Their 19.9% OREB% against playoff teams after the All-Star break ranks seventh out of the eight remaining teams.

Not shooting well and not getting many offensive rebounds does not result in many made baskets.

To make matters worse, defensive ace Coffey is out for the remainder of the season with a left-hand injury. She last played on July 13th.

Keys to the Series

This is an interesting first-round series due to the contrasting styles. Unfortunately for Atlanta, their defensive gameplan hasn’t been able to solve Dallas’s incredible size.

In three games, all Dallas wins, the Wings have scored above league average, while the Dream have yet to crack 80 points.

Although they are the 5-seed, Atlanta has struggled mightily with consistency on the offensive end throughout the second half of the season.

Defense can win games, but offense will be needed to win in the playoffs.

About Kenyon Wingenbach

High school girls' basketball head coach and educator at West Fargo Public Schools (North Dakota).

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