October 16, 2021

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The Stat That Defines Each WNBA Playoff Team


The WNBA is a collection of the finest basketball talent in the world. Who wins and loses is determined by an almost endless collection of factors, a movable chessboard around a basketball court, skill and intellect and physicality in new and unpredictable permutations.

Accordingly, I am here to boil down each of the league’s eight playoff teams down to a single stat.

First, a refresher on the WNBA playoff format, which I love, frankly. Eight of the 12 teams are playoff-bound, according to record and regardless of conference, and seeded 1-8. The top two seeds have a double bye, and Nos. 3 and 4 each have a single bye. In the first round, which is single-elimination, No. 5 plays No. 8, and No. 6 plays No. 7. The worst remaining seed out of those two games plays No. 3, with the higher seed playing No. 4.

Got it? Perfect — except for a single-game elimination game for the third and fourth seeds in the second round. (We would prefer a three-game series.)

Let’s start from the bottom seed, shall we?

No. 8 New York Liberty: defensive 3-point field-goal percentage

For the Liberty, it’s been a season of highs and lows. An impressive start was followed by a late-season swoon that swept New York from a position of hosting this game to only reaching it thanks to the generous work of the Lynx and Wings, who beat the Mystics and Sparks, respectively, on the season’s final day.

It is easy to focus on New York’s shooting as a primary driver of the team’s success, but that’s not really it. As a matter of fact, the Liberty shot 35.2 percent from three during its eight-game losing streak late in the season, not dramatically different from its season mark of 36.2. Instead, it’s how many easy looks from beyond the arc the Liberty give up that matters most.

There’s a mathematical logic to this. The Liberty have made a massive bet on taking threes, the idea being that they can combine pace with higher-percentage shots — at the rim, sure, but plenty of open threes — to outrun bigger, often stronger opponents.

But during the losing streak, opponents actually outperformed New York from beyond the arc — at 36.2 percent — while taking over 23 threes per game, tied for the most in the league over that span. If you’re getting outrebounded and giving up easy threes in droves, well, you’re going to end up needing help to make the playoffs. In the two losses to Phoenix among that streak, the Mercury shot nearly 40 percent from three. In New York’s lone win against them back in June? 20.8 percent.

No. 5 Phoenix Mercury: minutes played, Diana Taurasi

I don’t mean to oversimplify this, but the Mercury are 12-4 when Taurasi plays, and they’re 7-9 when she doesn’t. There’s a reason she’s in the GOAT conversations, and she was essentially that same player in rate stats and minutes per game before really struggling her last two games, after which a left ankle injury pushed her to the sidelines for the team’s final four games. Phoenix won just one of the four. 

This is not a one-woman team, to be clear: Brittney Griner had another All-Star season in a surefire Hall-of-Fame career full of them, Skylar Diggins-Smith is a dynamic playmaker who can win you some games by herself, and Brianna Turner might be the most underrated post player in the league. But for the Mercury to make the championship run it looked like might be coming during their 10-game winning streak, Taurasi needs to play. 

No. 6 Dallas Wings: Arike Ogunbowale’s offensive efficiency

There’s no doubt that the Dallas Wings are powered by Ogunbowale, one of the most exciting players to watch in the game. But while she’s made it a point of emphasis to get better shots— she’s shooting the highest percentage of her attempts around the rim and beyond the arc of her entire career this season — she can still fall into her old habits of trying to shoot her way out of trouble. 

That’s why she’s taken 102 fewer shots in wins than in losses, even though Dallas was close to sea level on the season at 14-18. Moreover, her efficiency dropped in losses, from an effective field-goal percentage of 49 to 43.9. 

This is a deep, talented Dallas roster. Ogunbowale doesn’t have to win it by herself. Marina Mabrey is finally getting a chance to show everyone she’s a solid pro. Bella Alarie has made tremendous strides this year. Moriah Jefferson is, wonderfully, back and healthy again. And Isabelle Harrison just keeps on posting strong, versatile seasons.

The Wings need all of them, not just Ogunbowale, to make noise this postseason.

No. 7 Chicago Sky: team assist percentage

Sure, you knew Courtney Vandersloot was making history as a passer. But what about the rest of her team?

The Chicago Sky finished the regular season with an assist percentage as a group of 70.7 percent. That not only led the WNBA this year, but it’s the third-highest percentage in league history, behind the 71.6 percent each recorded by the 1999 Charlotte Sting and the 1998 Cleveland Rockers. Chicago is the first team to cross the 70 percent assist percentage threshold since the 2004 Indiana Fever.

It certainly helps when your star big, Candace Parker, posts an assist percentage of 26 herself. It’s not just Vandersloot. 

So what should the winners of these games expect?

No. 4 Seattle Storm: effective field-goal percentage

This is cheating a bit — it’s effective field-goal percentage by way of offensive rebounding percentage. Let me explain.

The Storm lead the league in effective field-goal percentage this season at 51.3. This is a natural consequence of having Sue Bird as your point guard, Jewell Loyd at shooting guard and Breanna Stewart doing her usual everything.

But as Seattle limped to a 5-6 finish, the team’s effective field-goal percentage dropped to 49.4, seventh in the league over that stretch. And the reason that relatively small drop was so significant is that the Storm simply don’t hit the offensive boards very effectively. For the year, only the Liberty, who have a system explicitly built around sacrificing offensive rebounds, and the Sparks, who reached historic levels of futility on the glass this season, sit below them.

The offseason loss of Natasha Howard really hurt them in this area. It created less margin for error whenever the offense struggled, just as losing Alysha Clark did this on the defensive side of the ball. The Storm won’t look beatable when Bird, Loyd and Stewart are playing their typical offensive games. But anything short of that makes Seattle vulnerable in ways they simply weren’t in 2018 and 2020.

No. 3 Minnesota Lynx: Layshia Clarendon’s presence

When the Lynx began the season 0-4, I was pretty sure they would figure it out; Cheryl Reeve has won a game or two in this league. But the signing of Clarendon (who uses he/she/they pronouns) in mid-May after they were waived by New York sure made a massive difference. Reeve can’t be her own point guard, after all — not at this point, anyway.

 The Lynx are 16-5 in Clarendon’s 21 games, 6-5 without her on the season, and he has solidified the Minnesota attack on both ends. Clarendon’s net rating of 10.4 is best on the team among regular contributors, bringing a physicality to the point guard spot and a change of pace from smaller, faster Crystal Dangerfield. The most valuable player on the Lynx is Sylvia Fowles. The most important player after Fowles might just be Clarendon. 

And for the survivors of that round? Here’s what awaits in the WNBA semifinals!

No. 2 Las Vegas Aces: pace

This is what Bill Laimbeer’s Aces teams do: They run you off the court. That’s counterintuitive, given the size of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson, even the way we think of Laimbeer teams in places like New York and Detroit — seldom plodding but never atop the league leaders. But he’s turned Las Vegas into the fastest-paced team four years running. It’s hard for other teams to keep up — and that’s before the punishment of fighting against the physicality of Cambage and Wilson takes its toll.

The only team that figured out a way to do it, consistently, was…

No. 1 Connecticut Sun: rebounding

Here’s the way to think about how the Sun rebound: Their total rebound percentage this season was 56.9 percent. No team in league history had ever before topped 55 percent. And everybody does it, not just league leader Jonquel Jones. Nine of the top 12 Sun players in minutes played have double-digit rebounding percentages. And the 12th, Alyssa Thomas, has logged just 37 minutes all season, just back from an Achilles injury. There’s a reason the Sun are everybody’s title favorites. So much for #DisRespect on Twitter.

Check out our latest WNBA predictions.



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