Lynx

Defense Leading the Way in the WNBA

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The two most impressive teams so far in the 2024 WNBA season have been the Connecticut Sun and Minnesota Lynx.

Connecticut is the only remaining undefeated team in the league at 8-0. Minnesota is a half a game back of second place with a 6-2 record. One of their two losses came at Connecticut on May 23 in an epic 83-82 overtime battle.

Connecticut (92.0 defensive rating) and Minnesota (93.9 defensive rating) happen to be the two best defenses in the league. Both teams are anchored by forwards who can guard multiple positions and cover up team defensive breakdowns. Schematically, however, they differ on how they thrive on the defensive end.

Connecticut Defensive Four Factors

  • eFG%: 46.8% (6th)
  • TO%: 19.6% (1st)
  • OREB%: 24.5% (5th)
  • FTF: 0.192 (3rd)

1. Length, Strength, and Quickness

The Sun have had a top-two defense in the WNBA in each of the past three seasons, and they are on their way to a fourth-straight season in 2024. This year’s squad is anchored by a familiar frontcourt of 6-foot-2 Alyssa Thomas, 6-foot-4 DeWanna Bonner and 6-foot-3 Brionna Jones.

Because of their size, Sun’s head coach Stephanie White is able to implement solid defensive principles while contesting shots and getting in the passing lanes. This is a very difficult combination to effectively pull off, but the Sun’s personnel make it possible.

Thomas and Jones provide strength inside to battle opposing forwards and centers, and they do so without fouling or requiring help. This allows the other defenders to stay out on the perimeter to contest outside shots. The Sun are leading the league in defensive three-point percentage at 28.3% (league average is 33.4%) while only giving up 5.6 threes per game— the least in the WNBA.

On May 28, the Sun held the hot-shooting Phoenix Mercury to 1-of-27 from three and 47 points for the entire game. Five days later, they held the Atlanta Dream to 50 points and 3-of-16 from three.

One area where the Sun are lacking is rim protection. Although Thomas, Jones and backup center Olivia Nelson-Ododa defend well inside, the Sun have a block percentage of 6.7%— the worst in the league.

To combat this deficiency, the Sun ramp up their pressure to put stress on opposing guards. They use their pressure and quickness to force a league-high 19.6% in opponents’ turnover percentage by using their length to deflect passes. Jones (1.9), Bonner (1.5) and Thomas (1.5) are all in the top 20 in the league in steals per game.

2. Blitz Coverage

Because they lack a shot blocker, the Sun bring the heat when defending ball screens. On ball screens, the two defenders involved in the action will blitz (or trap) the ballhandler while the other three defenders rotate to the ball to take away easy passes.

Opponents who put Thomas in ball screens risk having their guards trying to make plays against her unique combination of strength and quickness. Putting Jones or Bonner in the ball screen is not a great option either.

Not only do Jones and Bonner have length and quickness, but Thomas is able to come over from the weakside to read eyes and cause chaos. The Sun lead the league defensively in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.04), mostly due to Thomas’s dynamic role within their ball screen defense.

3. Alyssa Thomas

The defensive scheme revolves around Thomas’s gifts. She gets a lot of attention for her offensive prowess, but her defense is just as good.

Thomas has finished in the top five in steals per game five times in her career, leading the league in 2020 (2.0). She has made the WNBA All-Defensive Team five times – all since 2017. She has also finished second in Defensive Player of the Year in each of the past two seasons.

Unsurprisingly, the Sun have a WNBA-best net rating of +13.2. Thomas is clearly the catalyst on offense, but it’s her defense that has the Sun alone at the top.

Minnesota Defensive Four Factors

  • eFG%: 45.6% (1st)
  • TO%: 18.3% (3rd)
  • OREB%: 25.6% (8th)
  • FTF: 0.197 (4th)

1. Early Help, Rotation, and Rim Protection

Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve loves defense. In the four WNBA Championship seasons of 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017, the Lynx’s defensive rating ranking in the league was second, third, second and first, respectively.

After finishing eighth in defensive rating in 2022 and tenth in 2023, Reeve decided to change things up during training camp.

“We started with defense, which is a huge change for us,” forward Napheesa Collier said before the season. “Good defense is our expectation going into the regular season. And the offense will follow that.”

So far, so good.

The new-look Lynx have sprinted out of the gates to start the season, and it’s their defense that has excelled. They are currently second behind Connecticut with a defensive rating of 93.9.

Newly acquired guards Courtney Williams and Natisha Heideman have extended the pick-up point towards halfcourt, making it more difficult for teams to get into their early actions. The Lynx have also been great at identifying help early and rotating on the weakside.

What’s been especially beneficial on the back end of the rotation has been the rim protection of Collier and 6-foot-5 forward Alanna Smith. After a breakout season last year in Chicago where she finished third in the voting for WNBA Most Improved Player, Smith signed with the Lynx in the offseason. She is currently tied for fourth in the league with 2.0 blocks per game. Collier is right behind with 1.8 blocks per game. As a team, the Lynx rank second with 6.0 blocks per game.

With Collier and Smith protecting the rim, opponents are shooting 59.5% from 0-3 feet— the third lowest in the league. Perimeter defenders have been flying out at three-point shooters forcing contested threes or pull-up twos. The Lynx are holding opponents to 19.6 three-point attempts per game— the second fewest in the WNBA. Opponents are making only 29.9% from three, second lowest.

The frenetic style of defense is also forcing opponents into poor decisions with the ball. The Lynx lead the league with 11.0 steals per game led by Collier (2.5 – 3rd in WNBA), Kayla McBride (1.9 – 10th), Alanna Smith (1.5 – 18th) and Courtney Williams (1.5 – 18th).

One downfall of playing this style of defense is being out of position to rebound. Despite having size and athleticism inside, the Lynx are eighth with a 74.4% defensive rebounding percentage. The Lynx do, however, have a solid protection plan when defending ball screens with their drop-coverage scheme.

2. Drop Coverage

Unlike Connecticut, the Lynx have rim protectors. Their ball-screen coverage reflects that. On ball screens, the defender of the screener (especially Smith and Collier) will back up into the lane to protect the basket. The on-ball defender will chase the ballhandler around the screen to prevent an easy pull-up three. This is known as drop coverage, and it allows the Lynx to defend the ball screen with two players while allowing the other three to stay home on the perimeter.

Because of this, the Lynx have forced their opponents into shooting pull-up mid-range shots – one of the toughest shots to consistently make. Of all of their opponents’ field-goal attempts, 14.0% of them come between 10-16 feet. This is the highest in the league at that distance. Drop coverage is a major reason for that. From that distance, opponents are shooting a paltry 26.9%.

Additionally, the Lynx are limiting opponents to assisting on only 64.9% of their made field goals, the third fewest in the league.

3. Napheesa Collier

Like Thomas for Connecticut, Collier is the driving force for Minnesota on both ends of the floor. In her sixth season in Minnesota, Collier is among the league leaders in points, rebounds, steals and blocks. She’s been named to the All-Defensive Team twice in her career. She’s also been named to the All-WNBA Team twice.

Reeve believes she’s on her way to a third this season…and more.

“Everybody knows, including players in the league know that Phee, her MVP season is coming,” Reeve said. “We know that’s what’s next, and what’s it mean for our franchise? It means we can reach great heights.”

About Kenyon Wingenbach

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

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