The Seattle Storm's Puzzling Three Point Shooting Struggles: A Historical Perspective

Swin Cash is one of multiple Seattle Storm players going through an unprecedented three point shooting slump. Her ability to get to the free throw line might be one way they can overcome it. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.

Anyone could have guessed that the Seattle Storm would be "worse" this year than last year - it's hard to imagine any team improving on what they did in 2010.

Repeating the dominant run they had en route to the WNBA championship would arguably have been more difficult than pulling it off the first time: every team is going to be gunning for them, every team in their conference got better, and, for whatever it's worth, they're a veteran team that just got a year older.

Quite simply, it's rare for any sports team to maintain such dominant play for an extended period of time (which is, in large part, what made the UConn Huskies' 90-game winning streak so impressive).

However, it's probably fair to say that the ways in which the team has declined this season are mildly surprising. First, center Lauren Jackson was having a sub-par season even before suffering a hip injury that will keep her out 8-12 weeks. Second, the Storm have fallen from the second most efficient offensive team in 2010 (105.46 points per 100 possessions) to the 11th this season (92.05/ppp). Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com has previously written about the Storm's offensive struggles, with a particular focus on their three point shooting.

In their 75-70 road loss to the Connecticut Sun, the problem was magnified by the fact that they took so many threes as they were trying to mount a comeback: they shot 1-for-11 in the fourth quarter and just 3-for-21 for the game. The strange thing is that it's not necessarily a matter of them settling for a whole lot more threes than they did last season - they're averaging 17.85 per game right now, less than last season's 19.61 per game.

They're simply not making shots. And you figure that at least one of those five players shooting below their career average will have to eventually find their touch.

But in the meantime, perhaps what's most alarming is that if the Storm were to continue shooting 25.6% from the three point line after shooting 36.9% last season, it would be the largest three point shooting decline of any team that shot 35% or higher in the history of the WNBA.

Key statistic: Storm's shooting efficiency hampered by three point shooting struggles

The 35% threshold is not exactly arbitrary - not only has it been above average in every WNBA season to date except one (2004), but every single champion since 2000 has shot over 35% except one (2006 Detroit Shock). So in plain terms, we can generally consider teams shooting 35% from three point range "above average".

The following is the list of the top five three point shooting declines (and another significant one) by above average three point shooting teams in WNBA history (through 2010):

Team Yr1 3pa Yr1 3p% Yr1 3p rate Yr2 3pa Yr2 3p% Yr2 3p rate 3p% Decline
1. 2002 Sacramento Monarchs *
423 38.5% 21.43% 395 28.4% 20.31 -10.1
2. 1998 Cleveland Rockers *
279 38% 16.23% 309 28.5% 16.68% -9.5
3. 2004 Detroit Shock **
323 38.7% 16.12% 209 29.7% 9.97% -9
4. 2000 Detroit Shock
336 36% 17.04% 273 27.8% 13.79% -8.2
5. 2003 San Antonio Silver Stars 247 36% 12.93% 500 29.5% 13.08% -6.5
2005 Seattle Storm **
439 38% 21.68% 429 33.1% 20.76% -4.9

* = Led league in previous year; ** = Led league and won title in previous year

Two quick notes:

  • "3p rate" is the percentage of a team's total field goal attempts that come from three point land or, similar to free throw rate, a proxy for a team's three point shooting frequency. Three pointers per possession would be more accurate, but for now let's just go with this.
  • The 2011 Seattle Storm's three point rate differential is -1.72%.
  • The Silver Stars were the Utah Starzz in 2002 and losing Natalie Williams did not help them get off to a good start in Texas.
  • The 2010 Chicago Sky were the last team to experience a significant decline going from a league-leading 39.5% in 2009 to 34.1% in 2010 (-5.4). I added the 2005 Storm for what should be obvious reasons although there are a few teams between them and the 2003 Silver Stars.
  • It's also worth noting that three point shooting efficiency has steadily improved from the league's first season to now, even with the advent of the shot clock and moving the line back 9 inches.

A few observations:

  1. Every one of these teams lost both a starter or top three point shooter. In most cases, the team lost both. The Storm, obviously, lost neither: they returned all their starters and Svetlana Abrosimova was only third on the team in attempts and sixth in percentage. They also added Katie Smith, who has been a rather prolific three point shooter over the course of her career and shot well last season, as Pelton noted.
  2. Only two of these teams increased their three point rate as their shooting declined. If you exclude the 2003 Silver Stars as a relocation outlier, all but the 1999 Rockers shot less and even that team didn't shoot a whole lot more.
  3. Most of these teams got worse at the same time as their three point shooting declined. That makes sense if all of these teams lost a starter. The exception, of course, is the 2005 Storm who finished with the exact same record. The 2005 Shock's record was similar.

So why does any of this matter?

The following is the same table above for this season's Storm.

Team Yr1 3pa Yr1 3p% Yr1 3p rate Yr2 3pa Yr2 3p% Yr2 3p rate 3p% Decline
2011 Seattle Storm
667 36.9% 29.94% 125 28.22% 28.22% -11.3%

 

The Storm were not just an above average shooting team, but threes were far more a part of their offense than the teams above in 2010 - the three point shot was a far bigger part of their offense than it was to any of the teams above.  A large part of that is changes in rules and league-wide improvement in three point shooting that doesn't make the Storm's shooting abnormal, but it's still striking when considering their decline.

The type of decline the 2011 Storm are going through simply doesn't happen: no above average three point shooting team that has returned all of its starters and its primary three point shooters and experienced a decline in three point shooting percentage of this character. The fact that they're shooting about the same rate as they were last season speaks to the sort of inane conclusion one might come to from watching them: the shots just aren't falling this year.

The immediate assumption about this would be that the Storm are simply struggling to establish their post game with Jackson playing poorly and teams are daring them to shoot. As Pelton described, there's truth to that.

STORM: Storm Struggling to Score
The interconnected nature of offense means the two problems are surely related. Unable to get as many easy points at the line, the Storm is spending more time on the perimeter. At the same time, as long as the Storm is having a difficult time making outside shots, teams will pack things in defensively as the Sparks did. Poor shooting is also a reason why the Storm has seen so much zone defense. While the Storm's offense was no better against man defense by Los Angeles than zone, the Indiana Fever did have success with a matchup zone in the fourth quarter on Friday.

Watching the Storm play, that's pretty much exactly what you see - a team that is struggling to score inside and thus seemingly settling for low percentage shots. However, not only are the Storm shooting less threes, but they're also not exactly getting that much less scoring from inside: they're averaging about a point less per game.

But there is a system of interconnected problems hurting the Storm - part of it is that in addition to not getting to the line, the Storm are also moving the ball less as teams sit in those zones. Part of that is that point guard Sue Bird has taken on more of the scoring load this season and creating scoring opportunities for others less often and that's not a bad thing - the team has shot so poorly this season that Bird has often "bailed them out" to cut deficits even if they don't win the game.

Storm statistical MVP in Connecticut: Swin Cash's ability to get to the line

Another part of the Storm's struggles is that they are still struggling to get everything clicking on all cylinders. Against the Sun, it was Cash carrying a significant portion of the load, scoring more than a third of the team's points and accounting for 36.40% of the team's overall statistical production. 

But the one good thing about having the ball in Cash's hands so often (31.78% usage rate against the Sun) is that she gets to the free throw line, which gives this struggling shooting team a boost - she had a free throw rate of 75% and went 12-for-12 from the line. If they're going to continue to shoot poorly, Cash might help.

But ultimately, the Storm have to break out of this shooting slump. There's almost no way around it. WNBA teams simply don't go from above average to dead last without losing a significant shooter.

So the answer to the Storm's problems, as aggravating as it might seem, is simply patience.

The shots have to start falling.

Connecticut Sun statistical heroes:

MVP: Tina Charles (20 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists; offensive rebounding percentage of 17.42%, 4.90 pure point rating)

Key player: Kara Lawson (16 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds; pure point rating of 11.28, 91.32% true shooting percentage, 100% 2-point percentage, 57.14 free throw rate)

All historical data from Basketball-Reference.com. Feel free to check up on the numbers.

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