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How the Silver Stars Have Taken Control of the West: "All About Chemistry"

As a die-hard basketball fan, it’s hard not to appreciate the San Antonio Silver Star’s style of play.

At the beginning of this season, I knew next to nothing about the Silver Stars. And I certainly didn’t expect them to emerge as the class of the Western Conference by mid-season.

They don’t have the star-studded lineup of the Storm, a superstar rookie like the Sparks, or the excitement of the Mercury and yet they have crept up the standings into first place while the others are still trying to find their stride.

Commentator Dave Pasch mentioned during the broadcast that Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes says that his team is, "All about chemistry".

AThe Silver Stars embody what people mean when they say that WNBA basketball is "basketball the way it should be played" or any number of variations on that statement. It’s not flashy, it can seem dull at times, but when they get into a rhythm it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

There’s no better example of that than their performance in their back-to-back road games against the aforementioned Sparks and Mercury. Winning the second game of a back-to-back after such a brutal loss in the first game is not easy and a testament to the character of this team.

So what attributes of this team allowed them to leave Phoenix with a win after such a brutal loss to the Sparks?

A well balanced rotation, outstanding execution, and faith in their system allow the Silver Stars to remain effective despite bad matchups, off nights, or fatigue. Most importantly, their players complement each other extremely well, which allows them to find a rhythm and stick with their strategy even when they’re struggling.

Watching them over the past two nights only encouraged me to dig deeper into the notions of team dynamics. Ultimately, I think the Silver Stars represent an excellent model for building a successful basketball team...but I’ll get to that later.

Team Dynamics Rating

Even though looking at the stats from the Sparks’ game is frightening (1 offensive rebound), you have to remember that the Silver Stars were still within six late in the game. That is because their underlying team dynamics remained strong even when they were struggling.

The Mercury game actually followed a very similar pattern. It just looked better because the match-up was more favorable – as you can guess, the Mercury do not quite pose the rebounding or defensive challenge that the Sparks present. Here are the team dynamics statistics for the game:

.nobrtable br { display: none }




Team
A/FG
TS
OReb%
Tov%
Synergy
Syn. Diff.
Team Dynamics Rating


SASS
36.23%
60.29%


32.43%


16.17%
97
28


43.65




PHO
20.00%
49.14%
24.39%
11.34%


69
-28
-14.33





The Silver Stars struggled in the first quarter, again giving up 5 offensive rebounds and Tangela Smith killing them from all over the court. The Mercury also took care of the ball really well in the opening period only turning it over once, which helped them to end the quarter down 29-21. After that, the Silver Stars found their rhythm in the final three quarters and never let up.

Just like in the game against the Sparks, the Silver Stars’ offensive synergy and shooting increased over the last three quarters. Their true shooting percentage over the last three quarters was 62.30%. They had an offensive synergy rating of 104, which indicates that they were not only making shots efficiently, but also moving the ball more to find those scoring opportunities.

Part of the increased efficiency over the last three quarters was due to their offense – Ann Wauters was able to beat her defender cutting to the basket and flashing to the middle of their zone. With Phoenix unable to find an answer for Wauters inside, she was able to put up 15 points in the last three quarters after being shut out in the first.

Add to that a much-improved offensive rebounding percentage of 32.43 for the game and you see the Silver Stars were playing very good team basketball: moving the ball, shooting well, and taking care of the ball well enough to get a win on the road.

Conversely, Phoenix relies heavily on their rover defense and high scoring stars to get them wins. When Phoenix’s opponents move the ball well enough to pick apart their zone and score more efficiently than they do, they struggle to keep up even at their breakneck pace. This is where good team chemistry comes in.

Chemistry 101: Trusting the offense and each other

At a very basic level, chemistry is built on experience playing with each other, which leads to understanding each other’s tendencies and being able to anticipate each other’s thoughts. As described in an article from the She’s A Baller blog:
"We have pretty good chemistry out there," Hammon said. "She knows a lot of times what I’m thinking with just eye contact. It’s nice to have that."
Just knowing each other is not quite sufficient to create chemistry. What impresses me most about the Silver Stars is that they are extremely balanced. Each of their stars – Hammon, Wauters, and Sophia Young – complement each other well. Hammon provides perimeter scoring from both backcourt positions. Wauters provides an inside presence to take advantage of porous defenses like Phoenix’s. Young provides an inside-out game that makes her extremely difficult to guard.

Their offensive strategy involves movement without the ball, high pick and rolls, and Hammon attacking the basket with drives, is extremely effective at keeping the defense off balance. That offense also does an excellent job of maximizing the complementary nature of the stars’ talents.

So their "chemistry" is created mostly because of the balance between their three stars. They are able to maintain a rhythm by trusting that someone else will be able to score when things aren’t going well. And that trust allows them to stay calm and not panic when they get down early in games.

And that trust extends to role players like Erin Buescher, Ruth Riley, and Vickie Johnson as well – they all bring an additional element to the game that allows them to maintain a rhythm no matter what the defense throws at them. Their system allows them to limit the uncertainty that can come during runs or off nights.

Phoenix relying too much on their big scorers

The Mercury provide a helpful contrast to the Silver Stars in trying to understand chemistry. They rely very heavily on their two scorers and particularly Diana Taurasi who is also leaned on to make the rover work.

Instead of ball movement, they rely on pushing the tempo and letting Taurasi and Pondexter create their own offense. And as coach Corey Gaines says, they rely on that offensive energy to feed into their defense. If they’re not hot offensively, they generally fall apart defensively as well.

Teams like Houston might struggle to keep up with Phoenix. But a team like San Antonio that can disrupt their energy by methodically picking apart the rover defense, gives Phoenix fits.

So while the Silver Stars tend to fall back on underlying chemistry of their system when they get into trouble – from slumps, fatigue, matchups – Phoenix tends to start looking for Taurasi or Pondexter to step up and carry the load by themselves. That’s why Penny Taylor is so important to their team – she gives them extra firepower to keep the rhythm going when others are off.

Individual play can work, but it’s less reliable

Good synergy is not the only way to win. When you have impact players as dominant as Taurasi and Pondexter, it makes sense to rely on them to some extent. The problem is that relying on individuals is a less reliable approach than relying on synergy and chemistry.

When you face a situation like the Silver Stars were in – the second game of a back-to-back on the road – being able to trust that the system will yield scoring opportunities even when things aren’t going well is extremely valuable. Having a balanced rotation, leaders who can step up when needed, and veterans can make opponents’ lives very difficult.

Transition points:

A post game comment from coach Dan Hughes regarding the Silver Stars’ balance:
"You have five players in double figures,'' Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes said, "so we had good balance between our interior play and our perimeter play. We got good play off the bench too and I thought (that) was key. Defensively, we could rely on them a little bit to keep pressure on them.''


Relevant Links:

Q's Theory of Team Dynamics (similar to Dean Oliver's Four Factors)
http://rethinkbball.blogspot.com/2008/07/ball-movement-part-2-synergy-and.html