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The Value of Synergy: Connecticut’s Trust in Their System Makes Them a Contender

I honestly did not think the Connecticut Sun could beat the Storm without Lindsay Whalen.

Coach Mike Thibault has called Whalen the "engine" the runs the Sun. She’s an MVP candidate, the best point guard in the league, and the Sun’s second leading rebounder. It just seemed that Sue Bird would control the game even without Lauren Jackson and pull out a key road victory that would give them sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.

So how did the Sun win without Whalen?

The victory against Seattle demonstrates that while Whalen is a valuable player for the Sun, the Sun are not entirely dependent on Whalen to be successful. And it’s not just because they have Asjha Jones to fall back on. It’s clear from the way the team played in Whalen’s absence that their collective faith in their system is what has them at the top of the Eastern Conference right now.

Commentator Doris Burke compared the Sun to the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs – the entire organization has committed to a basketball philosophy and they only bring in players who they know will buy into that philosophy. So when one player is missing – even an MVP candidate – the system doesn’t fall apart. Someone will be there to fill in.

Jamie Carey’s performance yesterday in Whalen’s absence is a perfect example of how the Sun’s success is due to their system rather than individual talent.

Carey Filled in For Whalen Admirably

Carey does deserve a considerable amount of credit for the win – you normally hope that a back-up will just step in and not blow the game, especially when filling in for a player like Whalen. Carey did more than that – she ran the offense well, played excellent defense, and made great decisions with the ball (with the exception of a tough turnover late in the fourth that led to a fast break lay-up by Bird).

Of course Carey didn’t make the plays Whalen can – she had a pure point rating of -2.11 for the game, which is not indicative of an outstanding play maker. But even without Whalen’s play making – she had a pure point rating of 5.40 prior to the Olympic break – Connecticut managed to keep the ball moving and create shots within the offense.

An excellent example of this is their synergy score. From what I’ve tracked this season, a synergy score of below 70 is indicative of a team that is more focused on individual scoring, 70-80 is a fairly balanced effort (where most teams in the league fall), and above 80 is indicative of creating offense from outstanding ball movement.

Connecticut has a synergy score of 72.78 for the season, which is fourth in the league. Against Seattle yesterday, they had a synergy score of 85…without their lead ball handler. Part of that is explained by outstanding shooting – they shot 48.3% from the field for the game and a whopping 66.66% in the fourth quarter. But almost a third of those scoring opportunities came from assisted field goals and plays where players found themselves with good shots as a result of good ball movement.

When the entire team is moving the ball, all Carey has to do is initiate the offense and keep the ball moving. You sometimes notice the same thing with Whalen – she gets the ball moving and steps aside. While it sometimes appears that Whalen is simply being passive, I think we can say after watching the team get a win in her absence that she’s just relying on the system to do most of the work for the team.

Seattle’s "equal opportunity" offense

In contrast, Burke described Seattle's offense as an "equal opportunity" offense that depends on screens and individual play-making. And really, it’s a great offense when you have an all-star cast of players that are able to create scoring opportunities for themselves of screens and dribble drives.

Unfortunately, when one of those players is missing or having an off game, their absence is magnified. And there’s another problem that hurt them at the end of the first game against the Sun when they had Jackson – who takes the big shot at the end of the game?

The Sun went on a long 15-1 run in the 3rd quarter and it wasn’t just because they were hot or the Storm were playing terrible defense. The Storm were just getting good, but not great, scoring opportunities – they were taking a number of outside shots and a number of them were contested shots off the dribble, which are difficult.

Bird did as she needed to do taking on a bulk of the scoring load with 24 points and the team shot 45% overall, including 4 for 9 from the three point line. But when Bird went cold as she did for long stretches in the 2nd half, the entire team seemed to have trouble scoring.

Depth is what makes Connecticut’s system work

This is not to say that Connecticut’s system is better than Seattle’s – a large part of what makes the Sun's system work is their depth. Outside of their two major stars – Whalen and Asjha Jones – they have a number of solid, but not great players coming off the bench. And that includes newcomers Erin Phillips and Svetlana Abrosimova who combined for 10 points and 4 assists off the bench as well as Barbara Turner who contributed 4 rebounds.

Seattle doesn’t have quite the depth Connecticut has, so they have to rely on their stars to make things happen. But as the season has worn on and players are sore or out due to injury, it’s becoming a problem.

It’s not that Seattle has poor chemistry or that they’re a bad team, but I think they do demonstrate that just having a crew of all-stars and an offense predicated on individual performance is not necessarily the most reliable way to win basketball games. And that does seem to be the reason why Connecticut has beat them with and without Lauren Jackson.
"I thought we played a good game," Storm coach Brian Agler said. "I thought we competed hard. We came in and had to rebound. We did that. We had to be efficient. We were. But keep in mind we played against an excellent basketball team."
Connecticut is an excellent basketball team in the truest sense of the term and that ability to play together -- on both ends of the floor -- is what allows them to overcome the loss of one player.

Transition Points:

9/04 Update: I just saw an interesting piece on Eric Musselman's Basketball Notebook about the NBA that makes the comparison to the Spurs even more clear:
But while the Spurs are a somewhat different team with (Tim) Duncan on the bench, they have the same team identity and system. They can plug in a reserve and continue on, albeit at a lower level.

That's not the case when (Steve) Nash is out of the game for PHX. He gives the Suns their identity.
Again, you hate to say one style is better than the other because both teams are very successful...but when you get to the point of counting championship rings, it seems team structure might be generally preferable if the right personnel is available.