WNBA

Mercury Solved Their Big Problem, Sun Still Have Theirs

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The WNBA is built around spacing and shooting.

Having a dominant traditional back-to-the basket post can be beneficial but is not necessary. There were 16 players in the WNBA last season who played over 400 minutes and shot less than 10% of their field-goal attempts from three-point range.

Los Angeles and New York were the only teams without a player who met the criteria. Minnesota (Jessica Shepard) and Washington (Shakira Austin) each had one player on the list, but each played less than 600 minutes.

Indiana (Aliyah Boston), Las Vegas (A’ja Wilson), and Chicago (Elizabeth Williams) had traditional posts that each played over 1,000 minutes, but otherwise played with small lineups or with backup posts that could stretch the floor.

There were three teams that each had two non-shooters combine for 1,000 minutes. Seattle’s Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu and Mercedes Russell were rarely on the floor at the same time. Atlanta’s Monique Billings and Naz Hillmon played sparingly together (5.6 minutes per game). The same is true for Dallas’s Teaira McCowan and Kalani Brown, who combined for over 1,300 minutes but played together for a total of 33 minutes.

That leaves two outliers – Phoenix and Connecticut.

Mercury’s Modification

The league average for offensive rating last season was 104.2, meaning teams would score 104.2 points for every 100 possessions. Phoenix had the second-worst offensive rating in the league at 99.1 over the course of the season. They had the worst record in the league and fired their head coach after 12 games, found some brief success, but ultimately lost their last 11 games of the season and finished 9-31.

Brittney Griner and Brianna Turner spent a lot of time on the floor together. Their 565 total minutes together were the fifth most of any two-player lineup for the Mercury. Turner didn’t attempt a three-pointer all season, and Griner was only 1-for-9.

Due to the frequency of playing two non-shooters at the same time, spacing and scoring was especially difficult. Defenders were allowed to sag off of Turner on the perimeter to easily deter Griner from doing any damage in the post while still staying home on the Mercury’s shooters on the perimeter. Phoenix’s offensive rating was a dismal 97.3 when Griner and Turner played together; their defensive rating of 106.9 was even worse.

Phoenix went in a different direction this offseason, hiring Nate Tibbetts as their new head coach. They traded Turner to Chicago in exchange for star guard Kahleah Copper and 6’4” forward Morgan Bertsch, who went 16-36 (44.4%) from three last year in a limited role. Griner is still a free agent but is hoping to re-sign with the Mercury. Either way, Phoenix has modernized their roster and will play with more effective lineups built on spacing and shooting, tenets of Tibbetts’s NBA background.

Sun’s Shift

Connecticut curiously doubled down on their predicament. They were the only team last season with three players who played more than 400 minutes each and shot less than 10% of their shots from three – Brionna Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

Connecticut began the season with Jones and Thomas in the starting lineup. Nelson-Ododa filled in off the bench. On June 20th, two-time All-Star forward Jones tore her Achilles. At the time of Jones’s injury, the three players had combined to attempt four three-pointers in 13 games – all of which came from Jones.

Instead of replacing Jones, a 6’3” center, with center Nelson-Ododa in the starting lineup, first year head coach Stephanie White inserted 6’2” shooting guard Rebecca Allen. Allen was able to space the floor and shot 34.8% from three on 115 attempts.

The Sun’s offensive rating spiked from 103.8 before Jones’s injury to 107.0 after her injury. This was largely due to the change in scheme that White implemented after the injury. Moving Thomas to center and surrounding her with shooters created more room for her teammates to operate and unlocked Thomas’s potential.

Thomas enjoyed one of the best statistical seasons in WNBA history, averaging 15.5 points, 7.9 assists and a league-leading 9.9 rebounds per game. She set new WNBA records for total assists and double-doubles.

For her efforts, Thomas earned first team All-WNBA and was the runner-up for WNBA MVP (despite receiving the most first-place votes). And just for good measure, she was the Defensive Player of the Year runner-up as well.

White was named WNBA Coach of the Year for her masterful transformation.

Connecticut’s Conundrum

With Thomas and Nelson-Ododa under contract, the Sun could’ve let Jones sign elsewhere in free agency. Instead, they re-signed her to a one-year deal. To make matters even more complicated, they lost three of their top four three-point shooters – Natisha Hiedeman was traded to Minnesota, Allen was traded to Phoenix, and Tiffany Hayes retired from the WNBA.

With Las Vegas and New York reloading after their domination last season, Connecticut needed to find ways to close the gap. After falling short in the semifinals against New York last season, Connecticut added Moriah Jefferson and Shey Peddy from Phoenix, Tiffany Mitchell and Rachel Banham from Minnesota, and Jocelyn Willoughby from New York.

Those additions could be enough to make a difference, but solving the issues in the rotation with three non-shooters will be a big challenge for White and the Sun that may need time to figure out. With an aging core, the Sun don’t have time on their side. White will have to work her magic again for the Sun to compete for a championship.

About Kenyon Wingenbach

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

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