Replacing Renee Montgomery: UConn's offense this season

There has been a lot of discussion about UConn losing Renee Montgomery and what that means for this season. 

A debate about replacing Renee's intangibles could go on forever, but I thought I'd focus on the nuts and bolts of replacing Renee in the offense. 

No one of this season's roster can pick the pocket of an opposing guard at halfcourt like Renee, but I haven't seen anyone worried about replacing Renee on defense.  This also isn't about the individual merits of Tiffany Hayes, Lorin Dixon, or Caroline Doty starting at point guard.  Replacing a star player that was responsible for 25% of the team's possessions when she was on the floor is never a simple 1 for 1 substitution and it's a two guard system that doesn't put a lot pressure on the point guard's ball handling ability, this is the broader view of how the team as a whole replaces Renee.

To begin with, the Possession Distribution chart below is roughly how possessions were divided by UConn's starting lineup.  (I used stats from the 10 games after Caroline Doty's ACL injury where Geno used a rotation of 8 or less players to simplify things).

Possessions in basketball statistics are defined by acts that lead to the other team getting the ball, turnovers and the the FTAs and FGAs that result in a change of possession. 

Tiffany Hayes and Kalana Greene's 15% slice of the pie is indicative of the size of the offensive role for every player outside the big three of Renee, Maya, and Tina.  Caroline Doty, Lorin Dixon, and Kaili McLaren were all in that 15% area.  Meghan Gardler -- who played limited minutes in the 8 player rotation after Doty was injured -- was at 10% in her minutes and didn't generate the necessary shot attempts to get to 15%. 

Going into next season it's probably unfair to expect anyone except Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Kalana Greene, and Tiffany Hayes to increase the size of their pie slice from last season.  The size of a player's offensive role, or their slice of pie, usually doesn't change very much season to season, rarely more than +/-2%.  How efficient a player is with the possessions they use may change as the player improves, but their share of the pie doesn't. 

The exception to this are players that are highly skilled at creating their own shot.  They have the ability to expand their size of the pie when there is a gap left by a departing star, but even shot creators don't fluctuate as much season to season as you would think because usually the shot creators are taking the first bite of the pie before the role players get to the pie, in addition to the leftovers when the shot clock is running down. 

In Renee's case she was definitely familiar with the first bite, taking a very significant chunk of her shots very early in the shot clock before the ball got to her teammates.  So it's not that hard to imagine that the ball would have found similarly capable hands a little further into many of Renee's possessions.

The players that play the majority of Renee's minutes this season are likely going to be limited to around that 15% sized slice of pie.  That means 10% of the team's possessions, which amounts to 6 or 7 possessions per game, are going to end up in the hands of the four previous mentioned players.  That's a significant chuck, but not a particularly large one. 

Maya Moore and Tina Charles are capable of simply taking on that 10% by themselves without much of a drop off in efficiency, but I suspect a slightly more modest rise in their share of the pie.  Still they should combine to make up at least 50% of the pie next season, which puts half of that 10% in very good hands.

The key player here may actually be Kalana Greene.  Kalana had a small slice of the pie last season, but as a sophomore in 06/07 before Maya's arrival and Kalana's ACL injury dramatically altered the food chain, Kalana had a 21% slice of the pie, while maintaining the same level of offensive efficiency as Renee had last season. 

There have been a  lot of predictions made that Tiffany Hayes will greatly expand her offensive role next season and that may very well happen to some degree, but it doesn't have to have happen in order for the team to fill in for Renee.


To this point I have been discussing quantity and not quality, and it's the quality of the UConn offense without Renee that most people are really interested. 

UConn is going to average around 70 possessions per game this season, and someone is going to end each of those possessions.  However, it is important to understand that 40% of what Renee was responsible for offensively will end up going to Maya, Tina, Kalana, or Tiffany and the other 60% will rest with the players directly playing her minutes.  Where those possessions ultimately end up plays a huge role in determining the quality of the offense

The chart above covers the 17 games last season where UConn used an eight player rotation or less.  I'm using that filter so that we're only looking at what players did in the competitive games.  The chart shows each player's poss% (Usage%) which the estimate of each player's slice of pie when they're on the court.  Pts/100 possessions is a measure of each player's total offensive efficiency (All shooting areas, turnovers, and offensive rebounding).  This stat describes the quality of a player's offense.  To give you an idea of where a player's pts/100 poss came from I provided each player true shooting% (This is a player's overall shooting efficiency combining 2P FGA, 3P FGA, and FTA) and their TO% (The % of a player's possessions that end in a turnover instead of a shot attempt).

Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Kalana Greene, Tiffany Hayes, and Caroline Doty were all at least as efficient as Renee last season.  That Renee acheived the same efficiency as Doty, Hayes, and Greene with a significantly larger share of the pie is impressive, but UConn is in a good position to absorb that loss. 

When Diana Taurasi graduated, for example, she not only was responsible for the biggest share of the pie, she was also the team's most efficient player.  And unlike this year's team the established rotation players didn't have the shot creation abilities to increase their offensive roles and compensate for the loss of Taurasi. So the freshmen, especially Charde Houston ended up filling that hole. 

Charde had the shot creation abilities to eat up a huge chuck of the pie (30% of the pie when she was on the floor as a freshman), but couldn't produce anything close to Taurasi's offensive effiiciency (Only 99 pts/100 poss).  As we've discussed, this year's UConn team has four players with the shot creation ability to absorb that 10% difference between a role player and a star player without a loss of offensive efficiency.  So the team is likely to do as well as or better with that 40% of Renee's possessions.

  What's happens with the other 60% is conjecture at this point.  The key here is how Caroline Doty returns from her ACL injury.  Doty isn't capable of taking on 25% of the offense like Renee, but she is capable of doing just as well with her 15% of the offense as Renee would with the same size slice of pie.  If Caroline can at least play 20 to 25 minutes in competitive games and Tiffany Hayes can pick up another 5 minutes or so then the team will be able to replace about 85% of what Renee did with similar levels of production and more if Doty proves capable of more than 25 minutes per game by the time postseason play rolls around. 

Last season, UConn was able to replace Caroline Doty's production after her injury without an offensive drop off by simply increasing the minutes of both Kalana Greene and Tiffany Hayes who were capable of same level of quality offense.  That's what can happen following Renee's departure, a redistribution of resources that effectively substitutes for the loss.  But, Renee Montgomery's graduation does mean the team couldn't absorb an injury to the five players discussed so far without a significant offensive drop off.

Lorin Dixon is the player whose minutes will fill in the cracks unless incoming freshman Kelly Faris plays well enough to pass the junior Dixon in the rotation.  The magnitude of the offensive dropoff without Renee will unfortunately be defined by the number of minutes that Dixon plays above the 12 minutes she averaged in competitive games last season. 

As you can see from her red line on the chart, Dixon is significantly behind every other player in offensive efficiency. The difference between Montgomery and Dixon even if Montgomery used Dixon's small slice of the pie is 3 points over 40 minutes (0.8*10 poss vs. 1.1*10 poss).   It may not seem huge, but over only 10 possessions that's a huge difference. 

I know many fans are hopeful for big improvement from DIxon this season, but a giant improvement would at best cut down those 3 points to 1.5 points.  That's still a large drop off over 10 possessions.  When you have the front court that UConn has, that's preferable to a marginally better offensive point guard that's taking shots before the ball has a chance to find the front court players. 

One of the interesting things about basketball is that there are players that bad teams can't afford to have on the court, but these same players can be very effective for really good teams that have the offensive stars to carry them.  And the players that can carry the scoring load for a bad team, can also hold a good team back offensively. 

Still, if DIxon is playing starters minutes that's probably a total four or five point loss per game because a non-scoring threat also negatively impacts the other players on the court in addition to the 1.5 to 3 points that comes directly from the individual difference between Montgomery and Dixon.

UConn obviously doesn't have the same margin for error without Renee Montgomery, but if things break right they realistically have a chance to be just as good.  Considering they were as good as any WCBB team has ever been on that side of the ball last season, that would be quite an achievement. 

If things don't break quite right this is still likely to be the best offensive team in college basketball, largely because no team can match the combination of ofensive quantity and defensive quality of TIna Charles and Maya Moore.  The only team that has a chance to challenge that offensive title is Stanford if Nneka Ogwumike breaks out in a big way to give Stanford two 1st team All-Americans.