Late last May, the New York Times website posted a video conversation between Wynton Marsalis and William C. Rhoden discussing the similarities between jazz and basketball.
The video prompted a lengthy email discussion between a group of friends and I over Rhoden’s statement that “basketball is jazz”, a claim that both Marsalis and Rhoden had made in the past. As Marsalis and Rhoden point out, both basketball and jazz have a particular form with rules but also involve substantial improvisation. However, there was some division among my group of friends about some of the finer points of the analogy -- it seemed at times that they had to strain to make the analogy work.
Regardless of one’s position on the issue –– one statement from Marsalis does resonate with my basketball sensibilities and perhaps with the way in which the San Antonio Silver Stars play basketball.
In jazz, the group improvises…but that’s why the most successful improvisation happens like the most successful ball: when every person really knows the functions of those plays from their perspective.
Perhaps strengthening the analogy, Marsalis has also equated jazz to democracy in the past, which is not only a more intriguing comparison, but might reveal a more nuanced description of “the most successful ball”. Although this might leave us with a somewhat awkward logic (basketball = jazz = democracy), political scientist Danielle Allen has articulated a similarity between jazz (a quintet) and democracy in her book “Talking to Strangers” that actually works quite well when applied to basketball.
Each musician’s body is subtly attuned to the presence of the others, as all of them, preparing to sing, listen for the piano and cast the whole of their attention toward something invisible: the song…As the musicians hold tight to each other in anticipation of the song, so too, once they have begun to sing, the musicians will hold to the harmonies and melodies of the piece they are singing. If they are good musicians, they will adapt to each other while also making accommodations for individual interpretations of the music.
As Marsalis said about successful improvisation, Allen’s description of the quintet seems to articulate what people mean when they observe that a team has “good chemistry” on the court – a team whose players not only seem in tune with each other, but also have a steady holding to a cause higher than individual success: winning.
Over the past few years, the San Antonio Silver Stars have offered us a case study that might actually epitomize this basketball-as-jazz-as-democracy phenomenon.
It’s not just the outstanding ball movement that is immediately evident when watching them play; as I described after one of my first times watching them, they have “a well balanced rotation, outstanding execution, and faith in their system" that allows them "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.”
Put simply, if you appreciate “team basketball”, it’s very difficult not to appreciate what the Silver Stars have to offer, even though they were less successful last season.
“That’s just part of our culture here, to be honest with you,” said San Antonio coach Dan Hughes about their basketball philosophy in a phone interview with Swish Appeal last week. “It’s the enjoyment factor of how we like to play. When we’re playing well that’s part of what we do and players that end up here often times experience the same thing. We know the game is fun when played that way. It’s a work of art that we will continue to work at.”
However, with only 7 players under contract after center Ruth Riley’s re-signing last week (and including center Ann Wauters who was offered a core contract), the Silver Stars stand to experience significant turnover in 2010. Most pertinent to the way they play, is the retirement of guard Vickie Johnson, a leader both on and off the court.
“What’s interesting is that I don’t know if you replace the mentality that Vickie brought,” said . “She kind of brought her own mentality and I think that we’ll all have to make up for to some degree in regard to it. We will try to do it collectively with some of the other players we have and also what we find to kind of complement.”
With that collective ethos -- the ethic of “adapting to one another” and “making accommodations – that allows Hughes to see the team's turnover is an opportunity for growth.
“We will have some turnover on this team,” said San Antonio coach Dan Hughes. “The only thing I would say is that probably the last time we had this kind of turnover it probably was our biggest growth, to be honest with you. So turnover doesn’t necessarily mean a negative thing. I don’t think it will be quite as big as 6 and 5 new.”
So rather than wondering whether the Silver Stars will be able to maintain their chemistry despite the expected turnover, perhaps the question is which pieces can this team add to best aid their growth?
Over the past two seasons, the Silver Stars’ chemistry has been most readily observable by their ball movement and solid decision making. Their team statistics seem to indicate strong team basketball as well.
The Silver Stars have consistently had one of the top offensive ratings in the league on the strength of one of the top assist differentials, assisted field goal percentage, and synergy ratings. Last season, they were third in assists and assist differential and, perhaps more importantly, had the second lowest turnovers per game in the league.
With a roster that included two of the league’s top 5 scorers in 2009 (guard Becky Hammon and forward Sophia Young) as well as the player with the third highest field goal percentage (center Ann Wauters) finding someone to score was certainly not a problem.
However, despite playing a style of team basketball that would please most basketball purists, they weren’t exactly perfect last season. The Silver Stars finished last in rebounding differential last season (-4.0), last in defensive rebounding percentage (67.8%), and third from last in offensive rebounding percentage (25.4%). In other words, it could be said that rebounding was by far the team’s biggest weakness.
“It is an area of concern and we will try to address it through free agency,” said Hughes. “I do think it’s something we would like to address.”
Looking at the Silver Stars’ personnel provides in terms of SPI playing styles provides a little more insight into why the team is struggling the way they are – most of their players, even their post players, tend not to be interior oriented players.
The majority of the Silver Stars’ minutes go to scorers – nearly 40% if you consider only pure scorers and just under 55% if you add Hammon, one of the top scorers in the league. WNBA fans should know better than anyone that relying heavily on scorers is not a problem – the Mercury similarly had 56% of their total production coming from scorers, if we include 2009 MVP Diana Taurasi.
But there are two major differences between the Silver Stars and Mercury – the Mercury significantly outshot their opponents at a high pace and outrebounded their opponents. While the Silver Stars did shoot slightly better than their opponents, they were so badly outrebounded that they had a difficult time winning games.
The rebounding problem is part of what makes the signing of Riley so significant – although her offensive rebounding percentage of 11.69% was only fourth on the team, she’s was one of the most interior oriented players in the league which is a pleasant counter-balance to all the scorers. That is also in turn what made rookie forward Megan Frazee so significant to the team.
“I made the decision down the stretch to limit her and play a few more of the veterans,” said Hughes about Frazee, who he expects to improve in 2010. “She had some pretty good moments there her rookie year. It will be interesting – she had a very successful year in Turkey, from the standpoint of playing professionally. I think this has really been a year of her playing basketball where there’s been a lot of growth from the standpoint of her game. So I’m anxious to see that.”
Frazee showed the ability to both score and rebound, leading the team with an offensive rebounding percentage of 18.18% and a total rebounding percentage of 16.31%. The problem is that the two players – the team’s most interior-oriented players -- combined for just under 15% of the team’s total minutes. So for a large majority of the time, there was nobody on the court who tended toward interior activity.
However, rebounding is not the only glaring need.
It isn’t necessarily revealed by looking at SPI styles, but the Silver Stars are also thin on players who can play the three. All of their perimeter players are guards – which is normal – and their most significant pure scorers (Wauters and Young) were post players. The two players who would play the small forward spot – Perperoglou and Snell – only accounted for 15.66% of the team’s overall minutes.
Further compounding this need is that Perperoglou retired in September and Snell, the more productive player of their two wings, is now a free agent who the team is not necessarily certain about keeping.
“We like Snelly, but we’ll kinda see what options play out to be and what the cost would be and how that plays out,” said Hughes. “We certainly have Snelly on our screen, but we’ll just have to see how it plays out.”
Obviously, if they don’t sign Snell that leaves them without any returning players on the wing.
So the Silver Stars off-season needs are pretty clear – between the draft and free agency, they need rebounding and wing support.
Free Agent Outlook: Need rebounders, wing players, Have Cap Room
Fortunately for San Antonio, the Silver Stars have a little bit more cap flexibility than most.
“I think because of the retirement of Erin and Vickie – it’s difficult for all of us – but we actually have more room than most, to be honest with you.”
They Silver Stars have already re-signed Ruth Riley and added center Laura Harper through the dispersal draft, who just happened to have the 6th highest offensive rebounding percentage in the league last year.
“I think we got a big jump on [the rebounding] in the dispersal draft with Laura Harper,” said Hughes. “What we really love is Harper is really different – she brings great athleticism, runs the floor really well, rebounds from a natural standpoint really good. So it’s gonna be fun to see her blend in. And we are very anxious to watch her in our system. But it will kinda play out in training camp – I think there’s room for all of ‘em.”
So although they need rebounding, their post rotation is really quite full, unless Wauters surprises them and decides not to sign her core contract.
Although Hughes claimed that Johnson is irreplaceable to some extent, he also acknowledges the need for a backcourt addition that brings some of Johnson’s floor skills.
“The thing that I enjoyed the most about Vickie Johnson was her passing ability, I’ll be honest with you,” said Hughes, who says they would like a distributor and defender in their backcourt. “That to me is something that is very attractive to us. The ability to defend has always been a huge part of what we do here in San Antonio.”
Although the free agents that best fit the Silver Stars are generally role players, some of whom have only been marginally productive, they do have options with which to fill their needs.
Maiga-Ba is a veteran presence who could possibly be an upgrade from Snell should they choose not to re-sign her. She tends to be more of a scorer, but is also more efficient and offers more on the defensive end. As they look to fill the void at small forward, Maiga-Ba might be a good start. But there are other options as well.
What makes Currie potentially valuable to a team like the Silver Stars is her defense and rebounding ability -- she averaged 4.3 rebounds per game and had an offensive rebounding percentage of 10.11%, which is solid for a player her size. She is not much of a scorer, but can hit the three with some consistency having shot 38.5% last season can use her athleticism to get to the free throw line.
Another strong rebounding player at the small forward spot is Montanana who had an offensive rebounding percentage of 19.26% in 16 games for the Minnesota Lynx last season. Although she was a much less productive player overall than Currie or Maiga-Ba, she might also be attractive to the Silver Stars as a reserve for her passing -- she had an assist rate of 29.28% and a pure point rating .40, which are passing numbers better than many point guards.
Lacy might also be an option as more of a 3/4 option who can rebound, as she put up an offensive rebounding percentage of 16.64% last year. Although she tends to look for her shot more than Currie or Montanana, she's also much less efficient, shooting a career-low 32.7% last season. However, as a reserve, she could fill minutes at the small forward with rebounding and athleticism.
As for the point guard options, it's hard to say that any of those available to the Silver Stars are better than Helen Darling. Edwige Lawson-Wade has tendencies similar to Johnson -- though more of a passer and less of a rebounder -- but is also a smaller player. Teasley had a higher assist rate (39.78%) than Darling (37.99%) or Johnson (26.56%) last year, but is also much less of a scorer, albeit a solid three point shooter. As a low usage veteran, she might be appealing as well. Blue is the only other distributor available and has an assist percentage of 25.31, but struggled to score and was not very productive.
With only 7 players currently under contract and the expectation of a rookie contract, the Silver Stars would have cap space for three contracts at a little more than the veteran minimum . They could certainly use that to fill out their small forward rotation, signing Maiga-Ba or Currie and then Montanana as a reserve. Currie would offer much needed rebounding from the small forward spot, but Maiga-Ba's offensive rebounding percentage 9.62% isn't too bad either. The third contract could go to one of the point guards on the market, possibly Lawson-Wade given that she is already familiar with the system and the other options aren't necessarily major upgrades.
If there was some way to sign both Currie and Maiga-Ba adding two rookies, that might be interesting as well. It would give them a much stronger complement of wing players who allow them to do slightly different things. But most importantly, it would substantially boost the rebounding production from the small forward spot and make them a much better defensive team. For all that Snell gives them, Currie and Maiga-Ba might better fit needs.
As Hughes alluded to, the Silver Stars may indeed have an opportunity for growth this off-season by balancing their scorers with a set of players who are able to defend and rebound. Of course, none of these players will be superstar game changers, which is perhaps the point – the Silver Stars don’t need players who are looking to consume the spotlight but instead players who know their function on the court and are willing to adapt to their teammates for the sake of the team effort.
If they were to add rebounding from the small forward position and have Wauters for a full season, a lot of their rebounding problem would be solved. It would be a collective rebounding effort rather than rebounding from the traditional post players alone, which is perhaps fitting for this team.
“One of the things about our team, if you’ve noticed, we’re not real good at slotting you in at 1, 2, 3, 4 and all the different types,” said Hughes. “But we are real attracted to players. Period…And that’s really been our philosophy: we take a lot of people who can play. We don’t always have the clearly defined 1, 2, 3, 4 with our team.”
It could be surprisingly successful ball.
- Hughes on Johnson: “I think Vickie is a player that did probably as much for us from a leadership standpoint on the court, we’ll replace that stuff on the court, but that leadership stuff in the locker room, that will come from people who are already here and some of the people we’re bringing in.”