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Los Angeles-San Antonio Scouting Report: Offensive Rebounding is the Key

Based on their record, San Antonio has to be considered a favorite to win the WNBA championship right now.

They’ve arguably been the most consistent team in the league, not losing more than two in a row and they’ve only lost two games at home.

But they have one glaring, consistent weakness – defensive rebounding, reflected in their opponents’ offensive rebounding percentage in losses. And if their last meeting is any indication, the Sparks will look to exploit that weakness when they meet the Silver Stars tonight in Los Angeles.

In their last meeting, the Sparks dominated the paint getting 18 offensive rebounds to the Silver Stars 1. That’s right – one offensive rebound the entire game. The height and length of the Sparks’ frontcourt was just far too much for the Silver Stars, not only dominating the glass, but also shutting down Sophia Young, holding her to 1-5 shooting from the field.

The Sparks would do well to repeat the strategy when they face the Silver Stars tonight, but was that just a fluke? And with a battle-tested strategy going in, do the Silver Stars even have a shot to win? The team dynamics numbers provide some cogent insight

The Sparks rely upon offensive rebounding to win

The Sparks aren’t leading the league in offensive rebounding and that’s because the teams ahead of them – Detroit, Houston, and Sacramento – are much deeper in the frontcourt. But having 2 of the top 10 offensive rebounders in the WNBA (Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker) puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses.

Parker and Leslie are in the low post grabbing offensive rebounds, they’re also talented enough to score second chance points and those are what really hurt the Silver Stars. It gives the Sparks a bunch of high percentage baskets from their most highly skilled players.

It’s doubtful that the Silver Stars will shut down the Sparks on the offensive glass, so they might just have to bite the bullet and accept that a) the Sparks will get offensive rebounds and b) they will get a number of second chance point. But the key is to try to hold the Sparks to a more reasonable number of rebounds, like somewhere around 10 instead of the 15 or 18 they had in the first two meetings.

And the Sparks can also win with defense

The Silver Stars rely upon offensive synergy, moving the ball well and finding open scorers from good passing and cutting rather than one-on-one play. But in their last game against the Sparks, they were shut down. Why?

Two of San Antonio’s top scorers are in the post and obviously, the Sparks strength is the post defense of Leslie, Parker, and DeLisha Milton-Jones. In the last game against the Silver Stars, the Sparks chose to key in on Sophia Young in particular.

Young is arguably the most valuable player in the league and certainly the most valuable player on the Silver Stars – she’s efficient, versatile, and has one of the top plus/minus and efficiency ratings in the league. Young is typically a player scores by moving from the outside in, using her quickness to score on cuts to the basket or facing up her opponent.

But the key stat in understanding how dependent the Silver Stars are on Young is that in games won, she is shooting 52.6% and in games lost she’s shooting 42.7%. That’s a huge difference and neither Becky Hammon nor Ann Wauters has such a huge effect on wins and losses.

So the Sparks' strategy of shutting down Young is definitely sound. And with bigger players like Leslie, Milton-Jones, and Parker who are able to stay with Young on the ball and help off the ball, Young becomes a non-factor. If they bring the same defensive intensity they showed against the Monarchs on Thursday night, they should be able to win.

But the Sparks also commit turnovers more often than any team in the Western Conference

So far this season the only teams who commit turnovers more often than the Sparks are the Fever and Mystics, not exactly shining examples of ball control. And in addition, the Sparks have the highest turnover differential in the league, committing almost three turnovers a game more than their opponents. And when they lose, you can be almost certain that they turned the ball over a lot, even when they do well on the offensive boards.

When the Sparks are at their best, they’re moving the ball well and allowing Leslie and Parker to play off each other in the high-low post game. But if a team can pressure their guards, force them into turnovers, and force them to revert to one-on-one basketball, the Sparks become a very beatable team.

However, it’s always worth noting that the Sparks' turnovers are not limited to their guards – it’s Leslie, Milton-Jones, and Parker who lead the team in turnovers. Part of that is because they are often forced to become playmakers when the team’s guards falter.

We should also look at the type of turnovers they’re making. On Thursday against the Monarchs, they had a characteristically high turnover game, but also managed to have a high synergy score. They did an extremely good job of looking for Parker in the post with lob passes and a lot of those passes caused turnovers. So it was one of those cases where they were making turnovers in the process of taking measured risks…not just tossing the ball away or making ball-handling errors.

Nevertheless, given that they are a turnover prone team, the way to beat them seems to be by forcing them out of their offense and into turnovers.

Edge: Sparks

I’m giving the edge in this game to the Sparks not only because of the offensive rebounding problem the Silver Stars have, but also because I expect the Sparks to come out with the same renewed sense of purpose and urgency that they showed against the Monarchs. And if they bring the same defensive intensity, the Silver Stars will be in trouble.

If the Silver Stars could turn the game into a shootout and get the Sparks caught up in trying to play a perimeter game, things could turn out differently than the last game. But I see no reason to believe the Sparks won’t try to use the same high-low strategy we saw against the Monarchs last night that worked against the Silver Stars.

Transition Points:

The Sparks started Shannon Bobbitt and Keisha Brown last night in the backcourt which I thought was an interesting choice. But it makes sense – if you can’t depend on one ball-handler, why not divide the ball-handling responsibilities between two players and allow different points of attack?