WNBA Power Rankings: What beating the Liberty tonight might mean for the Lynx

Forward Lauren Jackson has previously said that it's too early to say that the Storm are the best team in the league because other teams will get better. One team that might close the gap is the Lynx. Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com

For the majority of the season now, coaches and players that have come to Key Arena have told the media that the Seattle Storm are the best team in the league.

"This is the best team in the league," said San Antonio Silver Stars coach Sandy Brondello after their 82-61 loss to the Storm on Sunday. "We knew this and knew it was hard coming into their home court, but it’s just so difficult."

From some coaches just chuckling when asked what it takes to beat the Storm to Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi suggesting that they would not lose another game again this season, the consensus is that the Storm are the team to beat.

Of course, for their part, the Storm have maintained that their focus is still on their own improvement rather than their record or what people think. Over and over again they've insisted that it's too early to anoint them as the best, although their 11-2 record seems to reinforce the hype.

Storm vs. Mercury: Statistical Summary...of Three Quarters - Swish Appeal
"I still think it's too early in the season," said Storm forward Lauren Jackson. "I really think every team is going to get better. I really want to be excited, but it's too early. It really is."

Jackson's point that everybody else will simply get better may prove to hold more weight at the end of the season than assertions that we can pencil in the Storm for a title or even finishing perfect at home. Over the last few weeks, multiple teams have shown signs of improvement.

The Sky have shown that they are capable of winning if they move the ball and find a way to feed Sylvia Fowles. The Dream have cooled off since the beginning of the season, but have a home stand coming up that could help them get back on track. The Fever beat the Storm convincingly in Indiana.

However, the most interesting team to watch right now might be the Minnesota Lynx who are coming off back to back home and home wins against the Tulsa Shock and face the New York Liberty tonight. After all the off-season movement, the Lynx entered the season with high expectations -- championship expectations. Yet the losses seemed to pile up even with the majority of their team in place. And it wasn't just that they were losing, it was how they were losing, epitomized by a 38 point home loss to the Fever on June 6th.

But things seemed to turn around this past weekend against Tulsa, beating the Shock 92-78 in Tulsa. Shock coach Nolan Richardson, who has faced the Lynx 5 times already and gone 2-3, took note of the team's improvement.

"They got Wiggins back, they got major players back, they've got Seimone, major players," said Richardson on Saturday. "I mean big time players. They were out when we played them and the people that were playing a lot for them are now sitting on the bench. That just goes to show you that they were good without them, but now they're real good with them."

There's little doubt in watching the Lynx that the vision we may have had for them at the beginning of the season finally seemed to materialize on Saturday: a versatile mix of players that seem to complement each other so well that if opponents focus on any one point of attack, adjustments can be made to find another. Getting Augustus back seemed to have a major impact, but more impressive was that the unit seemed to finally look comfortable with one another.

That's what makes tonight's game in New York quite significance for the landscape of the league this season: if the Lynx lose, there probably isn't reason for panic given that they're on the road. However, if the Lynx were to win tonight on the road, it might represent that they're on their way to posing the Storm another Western Conference threat. Obviously, just as the Storm say it's too soon to say that they're the best, it would be too soon after three games to say the Lynx are finally meeting their assumed pre-season potential as contenders. Nevertheless, although they've dug themselves a statistical hole to start the season, they could end up moving up the power rankings in the coming weeks.

The power rankings "formula":

In the past, I've described two ways of evaluating the quality of teams statistically:

For every game I attend -- college or pro -- I monitor the numbers by quarter and for the game as a whole and two things have become pretty clear:

1. Although, Sparks rightly states that MEV does not predict winning, the MEV differential for a quarter or a game is a very good indicator of how well a team is performing.

2. Although the weight team factors formula doesn't necessarily predict winning, the relative weights of strengths and weaknesses do explain winning and losing very well.

So while their are plenty of other stronger means of evaluating the strength of a team in terms of wins and losses, MEV tells us a little bit more about how well a team has played beyond points scored (e.g. it's possible to score the same number of points and have the same differential against one tema and have a different MEV or MEV differential), a team's style of play, and players' specific contributions to team success in those terms. It creates a much more coherent way of looking at the game in its entirety.

Furthermore, on the game level even in many close games (going back to 2009 data), I have yet to see an instance where a winning team has a lower MEV or Team Factors rating than their opponent. It becomes trickier on the season level, but the results align quite well -- or have understandable discrepancies -- with both John Hollinger's power rankings and Expected Wins standings. The primary difference is that the numbers are descriptive from the quarterly level all the way up to the season level which becomes helpful while watching games.

So without further ado, here are the results with MEV/g differentials and relative team factors biggest strengths and weakness, as well as whether they have a negative or positive differential:

WNBA Power Rankings as of 6/21/10

1. Seattle Storm (MEV diff: 22.92, strength: + oreb %, weakness: - FT rate)

2. Indiana Fever (MEV diff: 18.71, strength: + eFG%, weakness: -FT rate)

3. Connecticut Sun (MEV diff: 8.57, strength: + eFG%, weakness: - oreb%)

4. Atlanta Dream (MEV diff: 4.13, strength: + oreb%, weakness: +tov %)

5. Washington Mystics (MEV diff: 2.50, strength: + eFG%, weakness: +tov%)

6. Chicago Sky (MEV diff: -.26, strength: + FT rate, weakness: -oreb%)

7. Phoenix Mercury (MEV diff: -1.02, strength: +eFG%, weakness: -oreb%)

8. New York Liberty (MEV diff: -5.50, strength: +eFG%, weakness: -oreb%)

9. Los Angeles Sparks (MEV diff: -7.42, strength: +tov%, weakness: -oreb%)

10. San Antonio Silver Stars (MEV diff: -10.22, strength: + FT rate, weakness: -oreb%)

11. Minnesota Lynx (MEV diff: -16.41, strength: +oreb%, weakness: -eFG%)

12. Tulsa Shock (MEV diff: -19.93, strength: -FT rate, weakness: -oreb%)

(Key: eFG% = effective field goal percentage, FT rate = free throw rate, oreb% = offensive rebounding percentage, tov% = turnover percentage)

Notes:

  • There is a clear elite emerging: the Storm and the Fever. Considering that the Fever have steadily improved with more floor time together, they could continue to close the gap in all the rankings.
  • It is no coincidence that the weakness of the elite is free throw rate: that is arguably the least important of the Four Factors, meaning that they're beating teams in all of the most important ways.
  • The Atlanta Dream are poised to make a move. They have played 9 of their 13 games on the road and have put up outstanding numbers in that time. They have both the highest MEV/g in the league (76.23) and the highest Team Factors rating (5.70). They have a six game home stand coming up, five of which are against teams in the bottom half of the rankings. Their performance in that string of games should tell us a lot about this team.
  • The Chicago Sky are an extremely hard team to peg -- right now their numbers still reflect the 4-0 win streak. In the 0-4 bookends, they're ranked much lower. One interesting problem: their only positive Four Factors differential is free throw rate. It's difficult to win consistently like that. Nevertheless, center Sylvia Fowles is still having an outstanding MVP caliber season. 
  • People may laugh at the notion of the Sparks picking up Courtney Paris, but clearly she would fill a need -- she had one of the highest offensive rebounding percentages in the league last season and that's a huge weakness for the Sparks. Plugging up that hole, even for a few minutes a game, would help immensely. 
  • The Western Conference is clearly the weaker conference this season. That seems to bode well for two teams -- the Mercury who are still struggling a little but steadily improving statistically and the Lynx who have essentially been given a mulligan for their 2-9 start by the rest of the league.
  • Yes, the Shock are last. Yes, they just traded Plenette Pierson. However, all reports are that the trade has improved locker room atmosphere and Tiffany Jackson is the better offensive rebounder, which is a huge weakness for them. Unfortunately, turnover differential was supposed to be the means by which they'd win games this season and that has yet to pan out as they have a small, but significant turnover differential as well.

Related Links:

Putting Games in Perspective with Model-Estimated Value: UConn Sets a Standard for Excellence

Team Factors and Possessions: Describing a Team’s Strengths and Weaknesses

2010 WNBA Hollinger Power Rankings

Weekly Stats at the 1/3 Mark (StormBasketball.com)

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