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The Future is NOW: How Lisa Leslie Passed the Torch and Sylvia Fowles Grabbed It

I assume that a large portion of this morning’s proverbial water cooler chatter will center on the Olympics and someone might eventually try to make the argument that "The Redeem Team" is the most dominant basketball team in U.S. history.

Hopefully someone else will rescue your discussion from that historical vacuum by at the very least bringing up the obvious fact that the 1992 "Dream Team" was objectively more dominant. But if you’re feeling a little argumentative and willing to challenge people’s gender biases, you might want to make the point that J. Douglas Foster at made on Saturday: the U.S. women’s basketball team that has won four consecutive gold medal is objectively among the most dominant Olympic teams ever…in any sport.

Of course, once the discussion turns to the subject of women’s basketball, someone should bring up the fact that they heard something about Lisa Leslie’s fourth consecutive gold medal in her final Olympic appearance. And that could turn into a discussion of how Candace Parker is the future and how exciting it might have been if she had dunked in the Olympics.

This hypothetical discussion is a rough reflection of the hierarchy of media headlines as the Olympics closed yesterday: men’s basketball first, then historical men’s basketball, women’s basketball, Lisa Leslie, and a smattering of Candace Parker (a sad commentary on media bias, but check Google News for yourself if you don’t believe me).

But lost in the media hype is the outstanding performance of WNBA rookie Sylvia Fowles.

Before the Olympics, it seemed like the passing of the torch from Leslie to Parker was nothing more than a formality. But somewhere between the pre-Olympic hype and the actual games, Fowles has turned heads and made a strong case to fill Leslie’s enormous shoes – both in future international competition and the WNBA.

**Picture above courtesy of SPMSportspage.

An overview of Fowles' performance

Fowles did get a few mentions here and there for leading Team USA in scoring with 13.4 points per game. But that’s only the beginning of a very impressive international portfolio for Fowles.

Fowles also led Team USA in rebounding and was first among all women’s basketball players in field goal percentage. She recorded 26 points, 14 rebounds, and 2 blocks in the medal quarterfinals against South Korea.

And oh yeah, she’s a WNBA rookie with eight games of professional experience.

Without digging too deeply, we see that Fowles had an outstanding freshman Olympic campaign. But digging a little deeper, we can also see that Fowles was indisputably one of the top contributors to Team USA

Assigning credit to Team USA players

After the first two preliminary round games, I made a post about Fowles being Team USA’s biggest contributor using the David Sparks’ technique of assigning game-by-game credit for wins. The metric is called "Marginal Victories Produced" (MVP) and a detailed description of this metric is available at Hardwood Paroxysm, but here’s an excerpt:
…here I will develop a value estimator that works at the game level, to give us an even more accurate picture of just how much each player contributes…in each game, there is a total of 1.00 MVP to be allocated. Each individual's contribution to the total production in the game is considered their Marginal Victory Production. This way, players on losing teams can be seen as producing valuable contributions--they might be valuable enough to get their team right to the cusp of victory--and this value shows up in MVP (but not in BoxScores).
I’m using an older version of this metric because that’s what I was working with when the Olympics started, but the concept and spirit is the same despite the change in formula.

Anyway, here are the final MVP values for Team USA, along with Sparks’ metric of Model Estimated Value per game (MEV/g), which measures productivity:
Team USA 2008 Final Olympic Stats
Diana Taurasi 11.95 1.08
Sylvia Fowles 14.21 1.04
Tamika Catchings 12.22 0.94
Candace Parker 10.35 0.79
Tina Thompson 10.09 0.78
Kara Lawson 10.31 0.71
Lisa Leslie 10.01 0.66
Cappie Pondexter 8.44 0.53
Seimone Augustus 7.18 0.50
Sue Bird 5.53 0.40
Katie Smith 5.19 0.37
Milton-Jones 2.21 0.14
**Correction: As I re-examined the formula, I miscalculated MVP and these numbers are actually numbers for a different metric, which was simply called, "credit". The results are rather similar but the distinction is important to make.

So one of the first things you might notice is that Fowles has a higher MEV/g than Taurasi, but a lower MVP. This illuminates the point that MVP is looking at the productivity in specific games relative to the production of both teams.

So for example, in Fowles' most productive game, her MEV was 34.45 but her MVP was 0.28. In Taurasi’s most productive game, her MEV was 23.43, but her MVP was 0.45. In other words, though Taurasi produced "less" statistically that production made a larger contribution to the team’s winning effort than Fowles’ "more" productive game.

But anyway, what we see is that Fowles was the most productive player by a significant margin and the second biggest contributor, behind Taurasi by only .04 MVP credits. Again, that’s from a player who hasn’t yet finished their rookie year.

The future of WNBA post play

After the game against the Sparks in which Fowles suffered her knee injury, I wrote that Fowles is the next generation of WNBA post play. It seems that her Olympic performance has only confirmed that. And as described by Leslie and the Team USA coaching staff on multiple occasions, Fowles is still learning…and doing so quickly.

Leslie and Parker definitely deserved the attention they got prior to the Olympics. And Leslie’s four medals is a great story for women’s basketball in its own right – she leaves an amazing legacy and some huge shoes to fill for the future.

But Fowles has proven that she’s a star among stars even on the sports world’s biggest stage. She will never get the media attention of Parker for a number of reasons, but it’s clear that she could easily rival Parker and Diana Taurasi as a perennial MVP candidate in the not-too-distant future.

By no means is any of this meant to suggest that Fowles is better than Parker – as of right now, I think Parker is the better player. However, Fowles might have more potential than most people give her credit for and her Olympic performance is evidence of that.

Transition Points:

A note on Taurasi: Even if she doesn’t win the MVP award this year, I think Taurasi has made a strong case for herself as the best player right now in the WNBA. Lauren Jackson is a legitimate candidate and Fowles and Parker may have something to say about that in a few years, but right now, I would pose this question regarding Taurasi: if you were starting a team today, how many players would you take over Taurasi?

But very few players in sports have the ability to singlehandedly win a game the way Taurasi can. Need evidence? A team needs at least .50 credits to have a chance at winning a game (meaning they have to be at least as productive as their opponent). Against Becky Hammon and Russia – Team USA’s closest game – Taurasi had .45 credits. In other words, she almost won the game by herself (at least statistically).

And from all reports, it’s Taurasi’s leadership abilities
as well as her basketball talent that make Taurasi so good. From Team USA coach Ann Donovan after the Russia game:
"The bigger the game, the bigger Diana is and her energy, players feed off that… Her confidence just kind of oozes from her and gets passed on to everybody else. She has done a tremendous job for this team."

An interesting little statistical tidbit -- every one of the starters has a negative plus/minus for the tournament overall. This is probably a case where their plus/minus reflects the fact that they were the ones in the games while they were actually close...the bench players normally came in with a lead in hand.

It sounds as though Sky coach Steven Key
is looking forward to resuming the WNBA season with a more experienced Fowles on the roster:
"She's gaining a lot of confidence, and she's learning a lot, too. She's being exposed to a great coaching staff. And just the players she's getting to play with on her own team, she's seeing how the game is supposed to be played. I expect her to bring all of that knowledge and intensity to her teammates here. We're so happy to see her coming back."
It will be interesting to see how Fowles’ Olympic performance translates into post-Olympic marketability. The track record for female Olympic athletes’ marketing deals after the games end is dismal. What role could the WNBA play in building her up a little as the Sky make a long-shot playoff push? Will she get consideration for the All-Rookie team despite missing a large chunk of the season?

Related Links:

The Chicago Sky: My Choice for Team of the Future

Sky's Fowles coming up big in Olympics

U.S. Women Pass the Torch, Win Gold