Here's a frightening thought for anyone who would enjoy their team raising a 2010 WNBA championship banner at some point in the future: the Storm looked as good in the first half last night as they have all season.
Which means they might be getting better as a team.
The Storm were so fluid offensively and strategically disruptive on defense, that it's tempting to claim that their second quarter last night was their best quarter of the season. That would actually be untrue -- setting aside presentism, their best quarter of the season is still by far and away the 37-13 third quarter at home against the Phoenix Mercury on June 6th in what ended up being a three quarter rout. In fact, the fourth quarter that capped an improbable comeback against the Mercury on Tuesday night was arguably better than their second quarter last night.
But that leads to a fun fact for Storm fans to revel in when putting the Storm's most recent home stand in perspective -- the combined performance of their second half against the Mercury on Tuesday and last night's first half against the Sky was by far the best four consecutive quarters of basketball the Storm have put together all season. Although that goes beyond scoring output, they outscored their opponents 108 - 60 during that stretch. Neither 18 point deficits nor improved second halves matter when they're beating down opponents like that.
Each one of those quarters had their own unique character, with the fourth quarter against the Mercury and first half against the Sky being most interesting because the opponents actually fought back (the problem being that they were just average or below average while the Storm were in another dimension of basketball excellence). Yet what made the second quarter last night particularly notable is that out of all those quarters in which the Storm have trampled opponents this season -- the most recent four consecutive quarters as well as a string of four consecutive quarters against the Mercury on June 6 and the Sparks on June 11 -- none featured quite the ball movement that the Storm demonstrated last night.
Key stat: effective field goal percentage and synergy
As fulfilling as it was to watch the Storm avenge their first loss of the season in Chicago, it was even sweeter as a fan of the game to watch a quarter in which a team executed an offense so well.
After the game, Storm coach Brian Agler commented on the team's ball movement, noting that they finished the game with 24 assists, partially a result of the Sky's defensive strategy.
"We had 24 assists tonight. That was good," said Agler. "I thought we played both sides of the floor, we reversed it. Chicago's the type of team defensively that they really congest - they don't let a lot of things go to the rim. They make you hit shots. We were hitting shots. If you're hitting perimeter shots, you usually get assists with them. That's basically what happened."
And while it is indeed a simple observation, it's also worthy of attention because as he noted, moving the ball is great, but moving the ball to put people in position to score is even more impressive.
The Storm assisted on 19 of their 22 made field goals during the first half for a assisted field goal percentage of 86.4%, which is good by any standard. More importantly, they had an effective field goal percentage -- a field goal percentage weighted to take three point shots into account -- of 68.42% in the first half on the strength of their scorching hot 8-14 three point shooting that came as a result of slow rotations for the Sky defensively and rapid recognition on the part of the Storm.
It was even better during the Storm's second quarter, they shot 61.1% percent from the field, which is impressive on its own. But what was particularly beautiful about that quarter was the ball movement -- the Storm assisted 10 of their 11 made field goals (90.91%), which is extremely impressive even if it's something not entirely unfamiliar for the Storm. But the effect of good ball movement was never more evident than last night.
"They really like to clog the lane," said point guard Sue Bird. "At times, when we would run our pick and rolls they would switch, putting a guard on Lauren (Jackson) causing them to collapse. The minute the ball went inside or somebody drove, they had to collapse because of that mismatch. We were able to find people. I think our team has proven we're good at that. We're good at finding the open man, we're good at looking for each other. That's what you saw."
When a team is assisting 90.91% of their made field goals, it means that they are finding shots by sharing the ball extremely effectively -- consider that the league average was 59.74 through Sunday with the Storm third in the league at 62.67%. When you combine that with an effective field goal percentage in that quarter of 72.2%, it means that not only are they doing an outstanding job of finding shooters for open shots, but they are also a) putting shooters that have put themselves in spots they can score from and b) those shooters have three point range, meaning leaving them open from beyond the arc is dangerous.
All of this is captured in a metric I've used called synergy, which is relatively simple to calculate:
Synergy = assisted field goal percentage + effective field goal percentage.
(Effective field goal percentage = (FGM + .5*3PM)/FGA). For more on that, please see Kevin Pelton's Storm Statistical Analysis Primer)
Synergy is a proxy for exactly the type of dynamic Storm fans witnessed in KeyArena last night -- that the Storm are a) moving the ball extremely well, b) have players adept at finding open shooters, and c) have scorers capable of scoring efficiently. Quarter by quarter, when you look at a team's synergy it pretty much approximates what you see in terms of how well a team moved the ball and worked together to score.
The Storm had a synergy rating of 1.63 during the second quarter last night and 1.29 for the game. To put that in perspective, league average through Sunday was 1.078 and -- consistent with what Bird said about the team typically being good about moving the ball -- the Storm led the league with a synergy rating of 1.13.
That said, it's worth noting that synergy is a descriptive, not an explanatory metric -- looking at the league synergy ratings, it's certainly not directly associated with winning.
There are a lot of observations to be made there, but the reason that it doesn't directly correlate to winning is simple -- if you have a lot of really good one on one players, you could win without moving the ball. Also -- and the championship-level Sacramento Monarchs are an example of this -- if you're able to do other things, such as get offensive rebounds, get to the free throw line, or limit turnovers, then you can quite easily overcome lacking ball movement.
Nevertheless, as a descriptive metric it does tell you two things: 1) how well a team moves the ball to create scoring opportunities relative to the rest of the league and with that 2) perhaps a hint at how dependent a team is on ball movement to create scoring opportunities compared to one on one play when considering synergy relative to the other things they do (e.g. a team that is not doing other things well and doesn't have a strong one-on-one scorer would be expected to need a high synergy rating to win games). What that means -- as the Mystics might tell you -- is that a low synergy score isn't bad. It just tells you a little bit more about a team's style of play.
Sky coach Steven Key probably perfectly articulated what looking at synergy relative to average means for a team.
"They were there rotating not just to the ball and denying Sylvia opportunities, but to the second and the third option and that made it very difficult for us," Key pointed out when asked about the Sky's performance last night. "And that was none more evident than us only having 9 assists and 5 of them coming from Sylvia (Fowles). So that's a tough thing to do -- that means are spacing was bad, we're getting tipped passes out there. And the next part about that is 57 possessions? So you only have 9 assists on 57 possessions. So that's telling me we're playing selfish basketball and I don't mean from a standpoint of I'm going to put up 20 points or whatever it's going to be. But we're not in the right spot in the right time to try to help out a double team to take advantage of what we can take advantage of."
The Sky are just above average in the league for synergy rating at 1.10 and had a very low synergy rating of .85 last night, which pretty much captures everything Key described.
Again, there are times when a player choosing to shoot the ball instead of making that next pass is in fact the right decision. And there are certainly ways to overcome the lack of synergy that Key described. But the bottom line is that the assisted field goal, field goal attempts (the 57 possessions he referred to were actually the Sky's field goal attempts), and effective field goal percentage can tell you a lot about how fluidly a team player offensively or how much one on one basketball a team is playing.
The same thing can be said for defense, as also described by Key -- a team's defensive synergy can tell you a little bit about how well they rotated to stop another team's attempt at ball movement.
"And on defense, the same way -- like, 'oh I'm on the far side they're posting up inside, oh Sylvia's got her'," Key continued. "Meanwhile, they're attacking with five people and we're trying to defend with one. We're leaving our teammates out on an island one on one, not rotating, not anticipating, not reacting to the second and the third pass in rotation. So tonight I thought we played some selfish basketball and it was evident in those two numbers: 9 assists in 57 possessions."
So here's another interesting tidbit -- the Storm lead the league in opponents' synergy through Sunday, holding opponents well below average at .9707 while the Sky are third from last giving up an above average synergy rating of 1.09. So while the Storm exploiting the Sky's slow defensive rotations more than usual, the Storm's defensive rotations were arguably more effective than usual in terms of shutting down ball movement.
Often times, I leave synergy out when describing games because it's best taking in context with other stats. However, the Storm's second quarter -- and really the game as a whole -- made their synergy noteworthy because it's a large part of what made that first half so beautiful to watch.
And as the team with the highest synergy in the league right now, last night's game might be an indication that the Storm are still coming together and peaking as the playoffs approach.
Brief individual statistical notes:
Storm statistical MVP: Sue Bird
If the team with the best synergy rating in the league had the best synergy of the season and Bird is their point guard, there's an obvious candidate for MVP. Bird posted an outstanding assist rate of 50% and a turnover percentage of 6.25% which resulted in a pure point rating of 14.94. Nevermind the effective field goal percentage of 79% to go along with her outstanding job facilitating the offense of the league's best team.
Sky statistical MVP: Sylvia Fowles
She was dominant with an effective field goal percentage of 80%, but the assist rate of 29.48 is outstanding for any center.
Key player: Camille Little
After their outstanding shooting, the Storm also beat the Sky in the offensive rebounding category and Little was a large part of that posting an outstanding offensive rebounding percentage of 21.11% and a defensive rebounding percentage of 22.27%.