WNBA power rankings: Sorting out the playoff contenders

In this week's look at league-wide statistics, we start to take a harder look at the playoff picture based on recent performance and upcoming schedules.

Whether looking at the WNBA standings or team statistics, it's fair to say that the top of the league's hierarchy has pretty much been decided regardless of how generous you want to be about putting teams in the "elite" category.

Where things have gotten interesting in recent weeks is at the bottom of the playoff race, where nothing is truly settled.

In the Eastern Conference, 1.5 games separates third and fifth place with the three teams - and the barely alive Connecticut Sun - doing a round robin of sorts to finish the season. In the West, only one game separates the third place Phoenix Mercury and the fourth place Seattle Storm, but the bigger story might be the battle between fourth and fifth: if the Storm lose in San Antonio tonight, the fifth-place Silver Stars will earn the tiebreaker and sit just two games out of fourth. More significant is how the Storm finish the season: three consecutive games against the Minnesota Lynx followed by a pair of games against the Tulsa Shock, neither of which the Storm have recorded a win against this season. Even without All-Star point guard Danielle Robinson, the Silver Stars are very much alive if they can win tonight.

So things could quite literally come down to the last day, which could be an exciting lead-in to a postseason that could include a measure of uncertainty depending on the health of a few participants.

So which teams have the edge as of right now?

Let's start by looking at a different ranking system this week: ESPN's Hollinger Rankings, which I ignored earlier in the season because the page wasn't quite working right.

Hollinger Power Rankings

The great thing about the Hollinger rankings is that it weights a team's recent performance more heavily to determine which teams are currently playing the best ball. The problem with that - especially this season - is that it doesn't adjust for poor numbers due to injuries (or coaching changes). So it's a relatively fair, but still quite cold, evaluation of the numbers.

And one thing to pay attention to is the scoring margin over the last 10, which I'm posting along with the rankings and ratings.

Rank Team Rating Margin (Last 10)
1 Minnesota 107.226 +7.40
2 Chicago 105.965 +5.20
3 Los Angeles 105.854 +4.20
4 Atlanta 101.935 +2.20
5 Indiana 100.436 -1.10
6 Seattle 99.017 +0.70
7 Tulsa 98.937 +0.20
8 Washington 98.865 -3.00
9 Phoenix 98.529 0.00
10 San Antonio 95.702 -1.50
11 Connecticut 94.332 -6.30
12 New York 93.158 -8.10

Hollinger Power Rankings as of 8/27/13.

Two things really leap out here: Phoenix and, as usual, Tulsa.

Phoenix is still getting killed in the Hollinger rankings by their poor early season performances and the reality is that their recent performances - as captured by their scoring margin - just haven't done much to ameliorate that. These rankings don't care about meeting expectations, but the reality is that these numbers depict a team playing .500 ball for the season with merely breaking even in the scoring margin being considered improvement. Even if San Antonio have an uphill battle just to secure a spot in the playoffs in their own ways, Phoenix is not exactly playing so well that they can be considered a lock for the third spot. And they don't exactly finish the season with a cake walk: four of their final six games will be on the road and the other two will come against a San Antonio Silver Stars team that has already beaten them twice in a row.

Tulsa's numbers look as good in this framework as any other and it might still stand out as puzzling that they don't have more wins. But their double overtime loss to the Los Angeles Sparks is an example of why just about all their statistics are out of line with their record: they've proven that they can play with anyone in the league at this point, but they're just 3-7 in games decided by two possessions or less according to Lynx Data which is tied for the third-most such games in the league at the fourth-worst success rate. Whether it be due to coaching, inexperience, or just poor execution when it counts, the Shock just continue to throw away opportunities to move up.

But their Four Factors do a good job of telling us why they've been struggling.

Four Factors since the All-Star break

The Shock's problem all season has been that they've had a significant weakness to overcome. Prior to the All-Star break - and reflected in their full season stats - the problem was shooting efficiency. Since the All-Star break, it has been a combination of very poor rebounding and turning the ball over more often than opponents.

eFg%

FTA/FGA

OReb%

Tov%

Tul

47.62%

35.64%

0.23

17.74%

Opp

46.98%

25.59%

0.28

16.70%

Weighted Differentials

eFg%

FTA/FGA

OReb%

Tov%

Tul

0.06

0.21

-0.21

-0.09

Tulsa Shock Four Factors statistics since the WNBA All-Star break.

The turnover rate increase coincides with their ongoing struggles with ball handling duties, with their rookie point guards struggling to play consistently efficient ball and their backcourt mates not able to pick up the slack. The decline in offensive rebounding can be traced almost directly to two players playing less since the All-Star break: All-Star Glory Johnson was out for a few games and has just three offensive rebounds in her last three; Courtney Paris has the best offensive rebounding rate on the team (12.96%) and hasn't played 30 minutes in August. That leaves a roster of very poor rebounders behind. And when they resort to playing a lot of inefficient one-on-one basketball, it means they struggle to recover those possessions.

But the team that continues to impress when looking at Four Factors numbers is Seattle.

Team

eFG%

Tov%

OReb%

FT Rate

Team

EFG% opp

Tov% opp

Oreb% opp

FT Rate opp

Atlanta

44.24 16.73 27.38 33.39

Atlanta

44.98 18.84 30.86 28.09

Chicago

44.16 15.44 32.02 33.15

Chicago

43.94 17.88 26.86 25.76

Connecticut

44.57 15.70 25.07 21.88

Connecticut

48.78 16.34 30.03 27.85

Indiana

45.11 14.99 31.45 30.93

Indiana

50.09 18.79 28.15 29.78

Los Angeles

50.17 16.91 26.50 23.09

Los Angeles

44.49 16.52 27.49 27.80

Minnesota

52.83 13.99 26.71 21.14

Minnesota

48 17.65 27.08 27.23

Team

eFG%

Tov%

OReb%

FT Rate

Team

EFG% opp

Tov% opp

Oreb% opp

FT Rate opp

New York

45.82 17.56 28.90 25.77

New York

47.03 11.76 29.06 23.28

Phoenix *

49.10 18.11 23.10 32.26

Phoenix

44.20 14.96 22.99 33.08

San Antonio

46.01 16.38 24.75 24.48

San Antonio

49.19 17.35 24.17 27.29

Seattle

47.91 18.60 27.79 32.27

Seattle

46.28 14.53 25.57 31.83

Tulsa

47.62 17.74 23.48 35.64

Tulsa

46.98 16.70 28.40 25.59

Washington *

42.80 16.30 31.34 25.73

Washington

46.80 15.54 28.93 31.03

WNBA Four Factors statistics as of 8/27/13.
* Team has not updated stats since 8/23/13

Seattle is undeniably playing better basketball since the All-Star break overall, but it might be clear from the numbers above why they struggle with San Antonio: the Storm's major weakness is that they're the most turnover-prone in the league right now and the Stars' biggest strength is arguably forcing turnovers. In Sunday's loss in San Antonio, not only did the Storm lose the turnover battle but they also got crushed on the offensive boards; that rebounding differential was arguably more significant because Seattle has normally been the better offensive rebounding team.

It's games like Sunday's that have killed Seattle this season: they've had a number of games where they have a major lapse on one front or another and they don't have a big enough strength to overcome a lapse in one area. On the scoring efficiency front, they don't have a dominant scorer they can rely on when things aren't clicking - Shekinna Stricklen has the highest usage rate on the team (23.60%) but isn't terribly efficient (49.54% TS%) - which leads to long droughts. The Storm need to play together to win games, perhaps moreso than any team in the league - and to their credit they have - because they just don't have a large margin of error.

So where does that leave them in the league's hierarchy?

Overall production since the All-Star break

Team

MEV post diff

Minnesota

24.51

Los Angeles

16.73

Chicago

10.74

Phoenix *

9.9

Atlanta

7.45

Indiana

-0.35

Tulsa

-5.88

San Antonio

-6.52

Seattle

-12.44

Washington *

-13.42

New York

-15.75

Connecticut

-19.54

MEV differentials since the All-Star break.
* Team has not updated stats since 8/23/13

Here Seattle's deficiencies as a low scoring team with a major turnover problem - and interestingly given their defensive ability, a team that doesn't force turnovers much - really stand out: although these numbers clearly don't correlate directly to winning, they do tell a story of a team that is managing to win despite some major inefficiencies. They're a team without a major strength and it all adds up to being outperformed statistically on average.

San Antonio and Tulsa are essentially the opposite: teams that do enough to keep games close statistically, but struggle to finish the deal. Phoenix is an efficient scoring team that puts up a lot of points - and is playing much better defense to improve their differential - but has developed a turnover weakness that does them no favors when trying to win games.

Who knows what to make of New York or Washington: the former still has a major turnover problem, the latter has been the least efficient shooting team by a significant margin since the break.

So after all that let's try to put together a hierarchy.

Swish Appeal power rankings

1. Minnesota Lynx: Despite the preseason hype, the Minnesota Lynx have emerged as the clear class of the league, not because they're flawless but because they have the least glaring problems and the balance to overcome those problems over the long haul.

2. Los Angeles Sparks: You could argue that Chicago belongs here, but the Four Factors tell an important story: the Sparks have a dominant strength in scoring efficiency (50.17% eFG% is second to only Minnesota and they have a better differential). That and their ability to turn up the intensity and be a smothering team with efficient threats inside and out give them a bit of an edge. But Minnesota has separated themselves from the pack a bit to the point where it almost makes sense to say that the WNBA features a one-team elite right now: the numbers end up showing how much a poor performance like the one against the Tulsa Shock hurt the Sparks - they're now playing well below the level they were in the first half of the season. If they can snag home court advantage in the playoffs - and it's a big "if" - they could find themselves in the Finals.

3. Chicago Sky: Chicago's erratic play since the All-Star break can be traced directly to Elena Delle Donne's absence. With her, they've made a bit of a surge to win five straight. Their flaw is that they rely heavily on two players to generate offense - Delle Donne and Epiphanny Prince - and Prince has not been extremely efficient (50.24% TS%). When one or both is off the floor, their offense stalls and that's reflected in the drop in their narrow scoring efficiency margin since the break.

4. Atlanta Dream: Similar to the Sparks, the Dream's numbers took a bit of nosedive in the past week after a loss to Washington on the road and Chicago at home. But how much does the absence of key players in Sancho Lyttle and Tiffany Hayes figure into that?

5. Indiana Fever: The Fever have lost four of their last five now, but all four of those losses were on the road against Western Conference teams. They still haven't lost to an Eastern Conference opponent with Tamika Catchings on the floor since July 23, when Cappie Pondexter turned in a heroic fourth quarter effort to upend them. And they could still move up in the standings as they finish the season against Connecticut (twice), New York and Washington. Their numbers make it hard to put them ahead of the two teams above them right now, but these top three Eastern Conference teams are probably closer than their numbers or records make them appear: if Indiana can force a team like Chicago into turnovers and hold onto the ball against a team like Atlanta, they're as good as anyone in the conference.

6. Phoenix Mercury: The Mercury's numbers are up since the All-Star break (and the coaching change), but marginal performances against the bottom half of the Western Conference this past week don't do much to inspire confidence in them. But with the Storm's end-of-season schedule as it is and the Silver Stars significantly behind, it seems unlikely that Phoenix will lose the third seed.

7. Seattle Storm: Sweeping the Phoenix Mercury this regular season is quite an accomplishment for this Storm team that began the season with low expectations. While they continue to outperform their numbers with pure effort, they're starting to trend upward statistically.

8. Tulsa Shock: Tulsa actually had a pretty good week despite going 1-2: they lost by a combined four points to Phoenix and L.A. while taking care of San Antonio. And that is pretty much the story of their season: they have enough talent to be competitive against any opponent in the league, but finishing games has proven to be a problem.

9. Washington Mystics: Washington just can't seem to establish any momentum in the second half of the season - they'll look solid one quarter and then like the "old Mystics" the next, as Mike Thibault might say. They've been struggling to score - in large part because they've fallen in love with the 3-pointer while only shooting 29% since the All-Star break - since the All-Star break that it makes it hard to rank them higher.

10. San Antonio Silver Stars: Similar to Seattle, the Silver Stars are even this high due to pure effort. Losing Danielle Robinson hurt, but they turned right around and beat Seattle at home to set up a big regular season tiebreaker at home tonight.

11. New York Liberty: The Liberty will have some big decisions to make this offseason. They've been trending mediocre for a few years now and they're simply not playing well. But they're also trending upwards while the Mystics - just half a game ahead of them in fourth place in the East - are trending downward, which could help the Liberty find themselves in the playoffs again.

12. Connecticut Sun: This season has been a major disappointment for the Sun no matter how you slice it. With their major bright spot (Allison Hightower) out for the season, it's all about pride for them at this point.

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