Storm vs. Sky preview: A battle of the boards on NBA TV

Despite the hype about trading for forward Crystal Langhorne, the Seattle Storm have struggled to rebound this season. - Photo by Ray Floriani.

You can actually look at this as part two of today's earlier midseason statistics post with a focus on the teams with the two poorest offensive rebounding differentials in the league: the Chicago Sky and Seattle Storm, who just happen to be facing each other tonight (NBA TV, 10 p.m. EDT).

As already discussed elsewhere, the Chicago Sky have been hit with a vicious injury bug this season.

Already having opened the season without 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles and All-Star Epiphanny Prince, the Sky will face the Seattle Storm tonight (NBA TV, 10 p.m. EDT) without the help of 2013 Rookie of the Year Elena Delle Donne as well as starting point guard Courtney Vandersloot.

Missing all of that in the first half of the season, it's probably not surprising that they're entering tonight's contest a game below .500 (8-9); what's impressive, if not entirely surprising, is that they're 7-4 against the Eastern Conference.

That's especially impressive given not only the players they're missing but also the gaping hole that has left them with statistically.

The Sky's rebounding struggles

The Chicago Sky's decline in both offensive and defensive efficiency can pretty much be explained by injuries: they've spent various parts of the season without some combination of Delle Donne, Fowles and Jessica Breland. In fact, in their last meeting with the Storm - an 80-76 loss on June 10 - the Sky were missing all three frontcourt players. That's not to dismiss the importance of the perimeter players - Prince and Vandersloot - but to say that the absence of those post players quite clearly explains their biggest statistical weakness.

Last year, Delle Donne and Fowles helped the Sky become the top offensive rebounding team in the league while allowing the least offensive rebounds to establish the best offensive rebounding percentage differential in the league. This season: they're a mediocre offensive rebounding team and allow the most the offensive rebounds in the league. That's what makes the fact that they've managed to enter the second half of the season at second place in their conference despite a multitude of injuries quite remarkable.

Team

eFG% diff

TOV% diff

OReb% diff

FT Rate diff

Atlanta Dream

0.03

0.15

0.27

0.03

Tulsa Shock

-0.21

-0.03

0.24

-0.14

Connecticut Sun

-0.30

0.12

0.12

-0.07

Washington Mystics

0.09

-0.37

0.09

-0.08

Los Angeles Sparks

-0.13

0.22

0.02

-0.06

Indiana Fever

-0.18

0.06

0.00

0.00

Minnesota Lynx

0.11

0.20

-0.05

0.08

New York Liberty

0.12

-0.17

-0.05

-0.04

Phoenix Mercury

0.83

-0.08

-0.11

0.23

San Antonio Silver Stars

-0.34

0.25

-0.14

0.03

Chicago Sky

0.09

-0.07

-0.20

-0.05

Seattle Storm

0.04

-0.30

-0.25

0.07

Weighted Four Factors differentials for the WNBA as of 7/3/14 ordered by "OReb%" (via National Sports Rankings)

The statistics don't tell the full story for the Sky, of course: they've had enough different combinations of healthy players available game to game that determining anything from a sample of 17 games is difficult. But we can say that at full strength, this would still probably be a dominant rebounding team.

But even with the players they do have available for today's game - which should include both Breland and Fowles - they should be able to impose their will on the boards on the road.

That's because the Storm have been an especially poor rebounding team this season.

The Storm's rebounding and defense

There has been quite a bit of discussion among Storm fans and commentators about the difficulty of their schedule and that's valid : a league-high 12 of their first 19 games have been on the road against some of the league's top teams.

The schedule will get easier for the Storm. The question is whether they can overcome a pair of major statistical weaknesses: rebounding and turnovers.

The table above shows the weighted Four Factors differentials for the league right now, which gives us a sense of a team's specific strengths and weakness in terms of their significance (described in more depth here).

Starting with the teams we've discussed earlier today, we see that offensive rebounding is Minnesota's only real statistical weakness right now and even that is just below average - it's not really a stretch to believe that a healthy Rebekkah Brunson would give them that same balanced dominance that we've become accustomed to. The Sky have been in a bit more dire situation on the rebounding front, but that's perfectly justifiable when playing without an entire frontcourt rotation for much of the season.

The Storm, unfortunately, don't necessarily have those injury excuses - they're just an undersized team in the post that has been absolutely killed on the boards for most of the first half of the season. And that's just part of a chain of problems that are hurting them right now.

We have to begin with the Storm's heavy reliance on the three point shot: the Storm take 30% of their shots from three point range, which makes sense given their personnel (they have a number of players who have been good career three point shooters). The problem is what happens on offense when they're not knocking down threes, as evidenced by their loss to the Sparks on Thursday.

The Storm have shot just below average from inside the arc (45.9%) thus far this season. So if they're cold from three, they're not going to be particularly efficient otherwise. And that's compounded by a league-low 22% offensive rebounding percentage, which isn't surprising given that they don't have a dominant offensive rebounder in their rotation.

In other words, the Storm are a team that lives and dies by the three and isn't adept at getting second chance opportunities on off nights. And all of that is compounded by their league-high turnover rate (20.8%), which means they're both giving away possessions and failing to extend those they do have.

On the other end of the ball, things aren't a whole lot better. Commentators have often pointed to their opponents' low points per game (74.6 PPG) as evidence of staunch defense. However, context does matter: the Storm also play at the lowest pace in the league, which obviously impacts points per game. If you look at points per possession (or 100 possessions, as DRtg is defined as at Basketball-Reference), you see that the Storm have the third lowest defensive rating.

Part of the problem for the Storm is that they turn the ball over so often that they're giving up the most points of turnovers in the Western Conference (17.16 per game). That's bad enough as it is, but then you have to add that they play at the slowest pace in the league - 17 points off turnovers of the 74 they allow is significant, especially given their own offensive problems.

So going back to the original question: can the Storm's problems be explained by a difficult strength of schedule? Partially, but they have a set of major problems that will remain damaging even if the schedule gets easier.

Tonight against a Sky team that recently put the star-laden L.A. Sparks on lockdown for an extended period of time, the Storm will have to keep those turnovers at a minimum and find a way to compete with 2/3 of a frontcourt that was absent in their first meeting. Yet the fact that the Storm only managed to win by 4 in that first game, albeit on the road, has to be encouraging for the Sky who should hold a significant advantage in the post.

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