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Sue Bird: How a point guard can influence games during a shooting slump

The Seattle Storm are not quite meeting expectations and it’s tempting to place the blame one glaring statistic: Sue Bird’s field goal percentage.

Which brings up a long-standing dilemma – what is the value of a point guard that can’t shoot?

"That's how good of a player she is," said Diana Taurasi, after Bird shot 1 for 12 in a loss to the Mercury. "She's one of the few players in this league that can go the whole game without taking a shot and affect the game more than anyone else. That's why she's the best point guard in the league, hands down."

My initial impulse leads me to agree with Taurasi on this one – if I had to build a balanced team with the best players in the league, I’m going with Sue Bird as my point guard…hands down. The only other point guard I would consider is Lindsay Whalen. The only reason I wouldn’t pick Ticha Penicheiro is because she’s nearing the end of her career.

So how is it possible for a point guard like Bird to affect the game without making shots?

Fortunately, the Connecticut Sun and Seattle Storm faced each other last night which was a great opportunity to see Bird and Whalen go head-to-head.

Although the Sun escaped Seattle with a 74-67 victory – the first home loss for the Storm this year -- Bird probably came out with the stronger point guard statistics (13 pts, 5 asts, 6-10 FGA, 1-2 3P). But as Taurasi alludes to, being a point guard involves more than putting up numbers in the box score and this game was an excellent example of that.

Game Summary

It was a tight game that had four lead changes and four ties in the fourth quarter. For those that believe a point guard determines the personality of the team, this game certainly embodied that – while Seattle was steady and pretty consistent, the Sun were able to keep fighting and make big plays when it counted.

The Sun – and particularly Whalen – found a way to keep fighting and get better near the end of the game whereas Bird seemed to defer to her teammates as the Storm searched for options near the end. In other words, this was a perfect example of different styles of point guard play.

Whalen – the primary option point guard

The Sun depend a lot on Whalen – in addition to a patient offense – to win games. Whalen got off to a rough start and it definitely shows up in the final numbers (13 pts, 7 rebs, 4-11 FGA, 0-2 3PA). Four of those points were on free throws in the final seconds of the game. She was taken out of the game after the Storm went on a 10-0 run halfway through the first quarter. She came back in the second quarter and seemed much more active, especially after drawing a charge (ahem, flopping) against Bird.

But what characterizes Whalen is her ability to turn it on in pressure situations when the team needs her. Aside from the fact that she got all three of her assists in the second half and two in the last two minutes of a close game, she took it upon herself to win the game when it counted.

She did a number of things great point guards do. Most of it comes from trusting her team’s defense. She’s able to drive and drawing the defense one way to set up a play for someone else. Finding the open player to put them in position to score. And grabbing a huge offensive rebound near the end.

The perfect example of how Whalen influences the game as a point guard came with a minute left in the 4th quarter. She got a defensive rebound, brought the ball up the court, got the team into the offense, moved well without the ball, found a seam to drive baseline under the basket within the rhythm of the offense, froze four Storm players with a hard stop and found Barbara Turner wide open in the corner for a three.

Whalen is aggressive, gutsy, and plays with a lot of passion. Her strong build and balance allows her to do things other points cannot (rebound and withstand contact on a drive). She’s a player who can will a team to victory (I still think her Final Four run at the University of Minnesota is one of the greatest tournament performances of all time).

Bird – the facilitator or "pass first" point guard

In contrast, Bird is more of a finesse player who plays the role of facilitator, especially on a talent-laden team like the Storm. She’s not necessarily a "pass-first" point guard as she takes some questionable shots and has been a good scorer throughout her career. In fact, she took a number of contested shots and at least two shots before even passing the ball. But what strikes me about Bird – and what probably gets her the label of "pure point guard" -- is that she makes the right decision to set up her teammates and racks up the assists.

What we don’t see in either player’s numbers is the number of times they set someone up to score but the shooter missed. And not all were long jumpers, some were lay-ups and shots in the paint. Rather than exerting her will over the defense, Bird is very good at taking what the defense gives her and quickly making a good decision. She does an outstanding job of establishing the rhythm for the Storm and maintaining it.

She had four turnovers, which is not stellar but all of them came within the rhythm of the game and none of them were that costly. Turnovers come when good players take risks. There was a 45 second stretch in the third quarter that nicely captures how Bird influences the game as a point guard.

With six minutes to go in the third Bird found Lauren Jackson for a wide open three on a quick cross court pass after an out of bounds play. After a Whalen miss 30 seconds later, she made a long pass on a fast break that was intercepted. After Whalen gave the ball right back on a bad pass, Bird came down the court and nicely set up Jackson for another three that was missed.

Although she only came out with one assist and a turnover, she is constantly focused on getting the ball to others. She takes advantage of the opportunities – even the risky ones – for people to score.

Defense Counts Too…

Defensively, neither player is outstanding -- they both had their share of defensive lapses. However, they are smart defenders who are good at being in position to make stops, help, or rebound (in Whalen’s case). Bird wasn’t guarding Whalen the whole game, but neither player went off for a huge game.

No "I" in "team" (But there is in "win")…

The Storm are an oddly constructed team. Though they had some good stretches in the second half (they were up one point when Turner hit the three described above) there were also times when they looked completely disoriented. And I don’t think that’s Bird’s fault.

They were built around a set of perennial all-stars, but their post player (Jackson) is their best long-range shooter…or best shooter from anywhere for that matter. They have a very thin bench that has been inconsistent this season. So when they stagnate on offense, it’s not necessarily because of any one player doing poorly. It’s because there’s no balance to spread the court and no dependable reserves with which to do so.

Bird essentially disappeared in the 4th quarter having little impact on the game outside of initiating the offense – she didn’t shoot, get an assist, or really set up someone else. Why? It looked like they were just waiting for one of their stars to light up on each play. Unfortunately, Cash and Swoopes shot a combined 5-22, including a questionable three point attempt by Swoopes with :20 seconds left.

The Sun are the polar opposite. Of course that starts with the fact that they aren’t loaded with all-stars. But they are a very balanced team, they move the ball well, remain patient under pressure and most of all, they trust their offense and each other. They have a deep bench that outscored the Storm’s bench 29-5.

Whalen is perfect as the "go to" player on this team because she’s able to balance scoring and distributing well and make the right decision for the team within the flow of that system.

Bird might be the perfect point guard for a team of all-stars…when they’re all making their shots.

Withholding judgment…for now…

Some might argue that since Bird focuses on setting players up, she’s the better point guard. Others might argue that since Whalen is winning more this season, she’s the better point guard. But I think in describing this game we see that there are different ways for a point guard to influence a game. Teams can win with either type of guard, it just depends on what kind of system they’re playing in.

But for now, I am sticking with my original opinion that Bird is the best "pure point guard" in the WNBA... but I’m working on a way to complement my observations with some numbers…

Transition Points:
  • A statistic that jumped out at me – the Storm Defense blog posted the most and least effective lineups for the storm after eight games (about a week and a half ago). The least effective group: "Bird-Swoopes-Cash-Jackson-Griffith: -4 (That is our starters folks.)" Not only the starters, but about 80% of their scoring. Ouch.
  • For the record, although Bird shook her shooting slump, her plus/minus came out at -4, while Whalen was +3. Prior to this game, Bird was leading all starting point guards in plus/minus ratio.
  • Sun coach Mike Thibault made a nice comment on the depth of his team’s bench after the game:
    It's good that we have the depth to be able to do that some nights. Sometimes you look down there and say, 'I wish I could do that, but I can't.' Our bench has been playing great and I thought they played really well. We got a spark from almost everybody in one form or another. We play so hard that we just try to wear people down. We're not the most talented team but we play together pretty well.