2023 WNBA Four Factor Playoff Preview Part 1


The WNBA Playoffs begin Wednesday with the No. 3 Connecticut Sun hosting the No. 6 Minnesota Lynx and the defending-champion No. 1 Las Vegas Aces taking on the No. 8 Chicago Sky.

To get a true sense of where teams are at, it’s important to look at statistics from a particular angle. By isolating the team stats to games against other playoff teams, a clearer picture emerges.

Teams are drastically different (for better or worse) than they were at the beginning of the season. Therefore, games from before the All-Star Game (July 15) were also eliminated from the analysis.

The resulting standings are a good indication of who’s hot and who’s not. Only four teams (Las Vegas, New York, Minnesota and Connecticut) have records of .500 or better against playoff teams after the All-Star break. Only three teams (New York, Las Vegas and Dallas) have positive net ratings (points per 100 possessions).

Of the four factors, effective field-goal percentage (i.e., shooting) has the highest correlation to success on both ends of the floor. In the second half of the season, New York has dominated the league, finishing with the best eFG% on offense and defense against playoff teams.

WNBA Playoffs

With the regular season going from 36 to 40 games this season, coaches have had more time than ever to figure out rotations and ways to balance their teams’ strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. While New York and Las Vegas are overwhelming favorites to meet in the championship, it’s the extreme styles of some of the other playoff teams that could spoil the seasons of these super teams.

Dallas has pushed the limits of offensive rebounding by going all in with their size, despite what it’s doing to them defensively. Similarly, Atlanta’s physicality on both ends has forced teams into foul trouble and adjust their gameplans.

Connecticut had to transform their style after the season-ending injury to Brionna Jones. They’ve done so behind a historic season from triple-double machine Alyssa Thomas and a defensive system that thrives on turnovers.

With the first round being a best-of-three series, the underdogs have a better chance of pulling the upset. If the lower seed can win one of the first two games, they will force a pivotal Game 3 at home.

Playoff teams are 51-51 at home against other playoff teams this season.

Do the Lynx and the Sky have what it takes to pull the upset and advance into the second round?

No. 3 Connecticut vs. No. 6 Minnesota

  • Game 1: Minnesota at Connecticut, September 13 – 7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
  • Game 2: Minnesota at Connecticut, September 17 – 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
  • Game 3 (if necessary): Connecticut at Minnesota, September 20 – TBD (ESPN)

Four Factors: Connecticut

Connecticut’s early season championship hopes were momentarily deflated on June 20th after Brionna Jones tore her Achilles and was out for the rest of the season.

Two days later, the Sun regrouped with a smaller lineup and won handily 89-68.

The opponent that night? The Lynx.

Alyssa Thomas has been on a tear all season and is in the running for MVP. Her stats are mind-boggling and have never been seen before in the WNBA. She is the first player in league history to lead the league in rebounding and assists. She recorded six triple-doubles and 28 double-doubles.

She was also the first player in history with a 20-20-10 game.

Guess who that was against.

The Lynx.

The game before that she had a triple-double, making her the first player to have triple-doubles in consecutive games.

The opponent that night? The Lynx.

Connecticut’s wide-open offense is spearheaded by Thomas at the point of the attack. Because of her ballhandling and passing abilities, the Sun have a very low turnover rate.

Outside of Thomas’s success, things get very difficult for the Sun offensively.

They have the sixth-best offense amongst playoff teams with an offensive rating of 102.3 against other playoff teams after the All-Star break.

Defensively, they are stout. They force turnovers at the highest rate in the playoff field, and combine that with forcing teams into tough shots.

Unfortunately, their lack of size and rim protection make them the weakest defensive rebounding team in the playoffs as well as sending their opponents to the free-throw line at the highest rate.

Four Factors: Minnesota

Minnesota is 7-7 against playoff teams after the All-Star break, tied with Connecticut for third in the league (behind Las Vegas and New York) over that span.

Head coach Cheryl Reeve has done a masterful job turning around this team. The Lynx became just the second team in WNBA history to make the playoffs after starting 0-6 (Los Angeles, 2015).

Napheesa Collier has put together an All-WNBA season, averaging 21.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. The Lynx rely on her consistency, especially on the offensive end.

Minnesota’s season has been anything but consistent.

Two of their best wins this season, however, were with Collier on the sideline with an ankle injury. The Lynx traveled to New York on July 28th and won 88-83. Two days later they visited Connecticut and came away with an 87-83 victory.

After back-to-back wins over Dallas at the end of August, the Lynx dropped four of their last six, including back-to-back losses to Chicago and Indiana to end the season.

Against playoff teams after the All-Star game, the Lynx have had a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense in almost every major category. Their ability to rebound and get to the free-throw line has kept them in games where they have struggled shooting from the perimeter.

Defensively, Minnesota is one of the best teams in the playoffs at not fouling.

The one thing they have going for them is that they are able to play multiple styles.

Coach Reeve has championship experience, and her team is going to need to use it to move on.

Keys to the Series

These two teams haven’t seen each other since back-to-back over a month ago. It will be the first time that Minnesota’s Collier and rookie sensation Diamond Miller will both be healthy playing against the Sun. That dynamic alone should make for an interesting series.

Connecticut’s ability to turn over teams combined with Minnesota being turnover-prone is one aspect worth watching. Minnesota has had trouble with turnovers in three of the four games against Connecticut this season.

If Minnesota can take care of the ball, however, they will need to exploit the Sun’s lack of size inside. They need to dominate on the offensive glass and get to the free-throw line.

Defensively, Minnesota must find an answer to limit Thomas’s production. She has had record-setting performances against the Lynx all season. If Minnesota can keep Thomas’s numbers somewhat reasonable, they can pull off the upset and win the series.

Easier said than done.

No. 1 Las Vegas vs. No. 8 Chicago Sky

  • Game 1: Chicago at Las Vegas, September 13 – 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
  • Game 2: Chicago at Las Vegas, September 17 – 3 p.m. ET (ABC)
  • Game 3 (if necessary): Las Vegas at Chicago, September 20 – TBD (ESPN)

Four Factors: Las Vegas

The Aces had one of the most historic seasons in league history. They finished the regular season with the top offensive rating AND the top defensive rating!

Offensively, head coach Becky Hammon has taken what she’s learned in her eight seasons as an assistant coach in the NBA and implemented a system based on popular NBA concepts of spacing and elite shot-making. The roster is loaded with All-Star talent including reigning MVP A’ja Wilson.

It’s resulted in the Aces shooting a league-high 55.3% eFG% (league average is 49.7%) this season. They magnify this hot shooting by limiting turnovers. They have the best TO% against playoff teams after the All-Star break.

Additionally, they are able to get physical by getting the ball to Wilson inside, putting even more pressure on opponents. Wilson shot a league-high 287 free-throw attempts this season.

Coaches know there is a give and take with all decisions, and Hammon leans on her team’s ability to make baskets. By design, the Aces are one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league. Their 18.9% offensive rebounding percentage this season is much lower than the league average of 23.3%.

Instead of crashing the boards, they get back in transition allowing their defense to get set.

And it’s hard to argue with the results.

The Aces finished the regular season as the only team under 100 points per 100 possessions.

They do it with fundamentally sound basketball anchored by Wilson, the 2022 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

They are solid all around and don’t foul, using their positioning to rebound effectively which starts their transition game.

It all flows together seamlessly even after future Hall of Famer Candace Parker suffered a foot injury that has kept her on the sideline since July 7th.

Four Factors: Chicago

Chicago has had a season filled with challenges. The most shocking event was when head coach and general manager James Wade left on July 1st to take an assistant coaching job with the Toronto Raptors. They were 7-9 at the time and finished 11-13 the rest of the way, clinching the final playoff spot in the 39th game of the season.

Their reward is a date with the reigning champs.

The Sky are very streaky offensively. They are 13-3 when shooting over 50.0% eFG%. They’ve made eight or more threes in 23 games.

But when the shooting goes cold, the Sky don’t have enough firepower in the rest of their roster to compete.

Throughout the season, they have struggled to defend teams who qualified in the playoffs. After the All-Star break, they are near the bottom in every major defensive category.

Their only hope is forcing turnovers, which they have been able to do fairly well.

Keys to the Series

Las Vegas is 3-0 against Chicago this season. Chicago has had trouble turning the Aces over resulting in more shots for Las Vegas. Unfortunately for the Sky, the Aces are shooting an incredible 56.8% eFG% (league average is 49.7%).

In order for the Sky to have a chance, they’re going to have to lean into the underdog formula of slowing the game down, attempting 30 or more threes (which they’ve only done once this season in a 96-67 win at Indiana), and crash the boards offensively.

They’re also going to have to keep the Aces from collecting offensive rebounds. For one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the league, Las Vegas has rebounded very well against the Sky this season.

All of that has to happen for the Sky to beat the Aces one time.

To do it twice may take a miracle.

About Kenyon Wingenbach

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

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