WNBA power rankings: Why have the Liberty been so good since the All-Star break?

All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter has been a major reason for the the New York Liberty's second-half success. Photo by Ryan Malone.

If you're looking for reasons for the New York Liberty's franchise-record eight consecutive wins, star guard Cappie Pondexter is a pretty good place to start.

In fact, as others have already noted, if the WNBA Most Valuable Player award was based on second-half performance, Pondexter would have a strong case to win it. 

Everybody knows that Pondexter can score, but what's most amazing about her game is her ability to score so efficiently while relying so heavily on long jumpers, often contested and/or off-balance. Since the Liberty's home win against the Chicago Sky on July 11th (the day after the Stars at the Sun) Pondexter has been even more efficient.

Prior to July 11, Pondexter had a solid true shooting percentage of 57.06% through 17 games; in the 13 games since that point, she has had a true shooting percentage of 64.46%. As the player who takes the bulk of their shots, that's obviously significant. However, more importantly for the team as a whole, Pondexter's usage percentage has gone done slightly in that time while her assist rate has increased to something closer to a distributor while her turnover percentage has gone down resulting in a much better pure point rating.

In plain language, while Pondexter has become a more efficient scorer while using up less possessions, she has also become a more efficient distributor.

That's just the beginning of the Liberty's success.

Period TS% Usg% Assist ratio Turnover% PPR
Pre-July 11 57.06% 28.17% 19.87% 10.41% 1.40
Post-July 11 64.46% 26.76% 21.99% 9.11% 3.38

Pondexter's numbers pre- and post-July 11

Besides Pondexter's improved play, point guard Leilani Mitchell had yet another outstanding July, although quite different that the July she had in her rookie year in which she had 35 assists to 7 turnovers.

Since July 11, Mitchell has had 53 assists to 21 turnovers, for an above average (for distributors) assist ratio of 27.44%, a reasonable turnover percentage of 11.22%, and one of the top pure point ratings in the league at 3.54. Most important in all of that is that her turnover percentage has decreased about 3% in the second half of the season which is what has helped her pure point rating rise.

Yet as described previously, it's not her passing numbers that are most impressive, but her scoring. Mitchell is still not a high usage player with a 15.41 usage percentage since July 11. But like Pondexter, her true shooting percentage has risen to deadly range: she has shot 33 for 63 from the three point line since July 11. That's 52.38% three point percentage which is a very large part of her 64.53% true shooting percentage post July 11 compared to a still strong 56.28% true shooting percentage in the first half of the season. For a player like Mitchell who has a 38.88% 2 point percentage for the season, the development of her three point shooting has been huge to making her a more effective scorer.

As much as she's improved this season compared to last, her improvement just since July 11 has been especially impressive.

Period FG% 3pa 3pm 3p% TS% Ast rat. Tov% PPR
Pre-July 11 40.00% 27 68 39.78% 56.28% 31.08% 14.09% 2.67
Post-July 11 46.60% 33 63 52.38% 64.53 27.44% 11.22% 3.54

Leilani Mitchell's pre- and post-July 11 numbers.

So with two very efficient scorers, both of whom are also strong distributors with one adding the ability to drive and the other the ability to make over half of her three point of attempts, the Liberty are already hard enough to guard. This is not even to mention what happens when Nicole Powell is hitting shots and not turning the ball over.

While people have focused on Powell's improved shooting, how about her improved turnover percentage: 15.09% prior to July 11 compared to 5.88% post July 11. Considering that the decline in the team's turnover percentage from about 20% to about 17% has been significant while holding opponents to a turnover percentage around 20%, Powell's improved ball control might be as important as the shooting.

Perhaps more quietly significant is the play of post Janel McCarville: she has had a team-high 9.39% offensive rebounding percentage during that time which is up about 2% over her first half rebounding.  Even more significant is the increased offensive rebounding of forward Plenette Pierson, who has had an offensive rebounding percentage of 9.01% since the break compared to 5.57% before. The result is that the Liberty have turned what was a negative offensive rebounding differential (-1%) prior to the break into a positive differential (+1%). It's a seemingly tiny shift but for a team that hasn't been particularly strong on the boards, it's a big difference.

Overall, the Liberty have really started clicking in the second half because multiple players across the roster have contributed in different but complementary ways: while their starting backcourt has increased their shooting and distributing efficiency, their interior players have been rebounding better while the entire team has cut their turnover percentages significantly.

All of this makes a team with a creative star perimeter player like Pondexter extremely hard to beat because if opposing defenses focus on her the Liberty have other players able to score, move the ball without turning it over, and extend possessions with offensive rebounds. For 13 games at least, it's what has made them the best team in the league.

Taking things a dangerous step further, if you can put aside past mistakes, it frames the argument for why general manager Carol Blazejowski might just be the GM of the year: adding Pierson, Pondexter, and Powell is clearly paying dividends and she has to be credited for her faith in Mitchell after a down second season. That's not to mention the free agent signing and inspired play of center Taj McWilliams-Franklin. Whether coming together in the second half has been a matter of coach Anne Donovan finally establishing clear roles and goals for the team or players taking it upon themselves to pick it up is another matter that is difficult to determine from afar, but could put Donovan in the running for Coach of the Year.

As we approach the end of the season, looking at who has been playing well since the All-Star break might provide some insight into what we can expect in the playoffs. With teams playing a short pre-season, multiple teams are just rounding into form and peaking as the playoffs approach. New York is chief among them and their game tonight against the Indiana Fever will be huge in gaining a psychological advantage over the rest of the conference heading into the playoffs.

Power Rankings for the period 7/11/10 to 8/15/10
(
click here for an explanation)

Team MEV Opp MEV MEV Diff Strength Weakness
New York 78.68 59.14 19.54 +eFg% -FT rate
Indiana 79.98 63.41 16.57 +eFg% -FT rate
Seattle 78.10 61.84 16.26 +oreb% -tov%
Atlanta 78.32 68.50 9.82 +oreb% -FT rate
Los Angeles 77.16 68.01 9.15 +eFg% -oreb%
Minnesota 70.80 68.04 2.77 +tov% -eFg%
Phoenix 95.83 94.11 1.73 +eFg% -tov%
Washington 61.31 62.74 -1.43 +oreb% -tov%
Chicago 72.38 74.65 -2.27 +oreb% -eFg%
Connecticut 70.57 72.61 -2.34 +oreb% -eFg%
San Antonio 73.64 78.80 -5.16 +oreb% -eFg%
Tulsa 62.86 93.30 -30.44 -FT rate -eFg%

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

Notes:

  • Seattle: Just to get this out of the way, the Storm's third place ranking is not to say that Seattle is no longer a legitimate championship favorite. They've had a combination of letdowns and resting starters in the second half of the season simply because they wrapped up the Western Conference so quickly and that has undoubtedly influenced their performance numbers. However, if there is anything to be taken from this, it is the negative turnover differential. The common denominator in their losses is turnovers and if some playoff opponent can figure out a way to stop them from scoring (2nd highest points/possession in the league), keep them off the boards (best rebounding percentage in the league), stop center Lauren Jackson, and pressure them into turnovers, a playoff upset in KeyArena -- they have already secured home court advantage throughout the playoffs -- is really quite simple. Really. I promise.
  • Washington: The Mystics are penalized here for a relatively tough post-All-Star schedule (tied with Tulsa for a league-high 10 games against the Eastern Conference) and the fact that what they do -- play tough, gritty basketball -- doesn't show up well statistically. They are 9th in the league in points/possession and have the highest turnover percentage and differential in the league since the All-Star break. That said, what will help them in playoff basketball is their defense: they allow the second fewest points/possession and you'll note that their opponents' MEV is also the second lowest. If they aspire to breaking out of the first round for the first time since 2002, it will be their defense that carries them there.
  • Phoenix: MEV is based on performance, which means bad losses can heavily influence a ranking in a small sample size like the WNBA season. So getting blown out in 3 of their 4 recent losses has really hurt them. To put Phoenix in perspective, just last week before incurring three consecutive losses the Mercury were fourth in these rankings. Nevertheless, Phoenix has clinched their conference and it will be interesting to see how well they compete come playoff time.
  • New York: For all the previous talk about the Liberty's offensive improvements, their defense has been particularly strong as well. In the second half, they have forced opponents into the third highest turnover percentage in the league (20.19%) and they allow the second least points off turnovers fitting for the team with the fourth lowest second half turnover percentage in the league (17.97%). They are currently fifth in the league in points/possession allowed and a large part of that shows up in their league best 59.14 opponents' MEV in the second half. In other words, to reiterate, the Liberty are playing outstanding basketball right now -- the best in the league with some separation from the rest -- and they're doing it on both sides of the ball. 

Statistics help:

Swish Appeal Statistics Glossary 

Advanced Metrics Handbook, Vol. 2: True Shooting Percentage

Advanced Metrics Handbook, Vol. 1: Effective Field Goal Percentage

Related Links:

WNBA Power Rankings: Eastern Conference Playoff Race All About Consistency (Aug 4, 2010)

WNBA Most Improved Player rankings with ESPN's Carolyn Peck: Whose improvement has contributed most to team success?

Since the All-Star Break

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