On women's basketball message boards, there's been some complaining about this season. The complaints are that with Seattle's dominance of the Western Conference - they're miles ahead of their nearest competitor and their 20-2 record is the best in WNBA history after 22 games - that the season has lacked excitement.
There were similar voices of complaint last season as well, but if you look at the WNBA final results in 2009, they're much different than the prospective 2010 results. One can measure how competitive any season is through standard deviation of winning percentage - in short, given a normal distribution, how far does a team have to get away from a .500 record before the team is considered atypical of other teams? In 2009, the standard deviation of winning percentage was the smallest in the WNBA's 14-year history. Most teams were clustered around the middle and the season was very competitive indeed, with Eastern and Western Conference playoff positions not decided until the very last games of the season.
Looking at the current standard deviation of winning percentage for the 2010 season (after equalizing all teams to 24 games played), this would make the current season much like the seasons of 2000 and 2006, which were post-expansion seasons and therefore lopsided - but not as nearly lopsided as the 1998 season where the Comets ran away with everything. Even though the Western Conference hasn't been competitive, the same can't be said about the Eastern Conference, where just a handful of games separate the top and bottom finishers.
But let's get back to the Western Conference. Surely, with their 20-2 record, the 2010 Seattle Storm must be the greatest team of all time? Right?
Remember all that stuff up there about standard deviation of wins? Where this term tells how far away you have to go away from a .500 record to be considered atypical? In this case, we can look and see how far away from "normal" both good teams and bad teams are for any given year, and measure which teams truly break the mold. Being a great team, in this case, doesn't depend merely on oneself but on the quality of the competition about you.
Greatest Teams in WNBA History by Standard Deviation of Wins
2001 Los Angeles Sparks 2.185
1999 Houston Comets 2.1775
2004 Los Angeles Sparks 2.1773
2000 Los Angeles Sparks 2.034
2002 Los Angeles Sparks 1.942
2009 Phoenix Mercury 1.875
2000 Houston Comets 1.864
2002 Houston Comets 1.727
1998 Houston Comets 1.682
2003 Detroit Shock 1.66
That's some pretty impressive company. So where would the 2010 Seattle Storm be if the season ended today? They'd be at 2.050 standard deviations above .500, putting them as the 4th greatest WNBA team of all time. And the season has 12 games to go in Seattle! If Seattle sweeps the table, this will undoubtedly nudge the Storm even further up the ladder. The Storm aren't the greatest team of all time - now - but have a shot at it if they keep the engine finely tuned throught the season.
And now, let's look at Tulsa, the losers of 16 of its last 17 games. Wow, that sounds a lot like the 2008 Atlanta Dream, right? As a matter of fact the current incarnation of the Shock has both Ivory Latta and Jennifer Lacy, two players that know something about long losing streaks. But how bad is this Tulsa team? Is it the worst of all time?
Worst Teams in WNBA History by Standard Deviation of Wins
2008 Atlanta Dream -2.424
2004 San Antonio Silver Stars -2.177
1999 Cleveland Rockers -1.96
2006 Chicago Sky -1.939
1997 Utah Starzz -1.89
2005 Charlotte Sting -1.886
2003 Phoenix Mercury -1.867
2005 San Antonio Silver Stars -1.715
2000 Seattle Storm -1.695
1998 Washington Mystics -1.682
Okay, that's a big load of suck to look at. If you were a fan of those teams during any of those years, you have my sympathies.
Tulsa is currently sitting at -1.708 standard deviations above the norm. This would put the Tulsa Shock as only the 9th worst team of all time if the season ended today. They would have to go a lonnnnng way to plumb the nadir represented by the 2004 Silver Stars or the 2008 Dream. Of course, the Shock could lose all of its remaining 11 games and we might be holding a different discussion next month.
So Tulsa fans, buck up. Nolan Richardson isn't the worst coach ever...at least, not yet. And for Seattle fans, sorry, it's too soon to bedeck the Storm in glory. You're just going to have to keep on winning to make a stab at being the Greatest Team Ever.