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2010 WNBA Preview (Pt. 1): Strengths and Weaknesses of WNBA Playing Styles

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Fear not Phoenix: Penny Taylor represents one of the best player styles in the league.
Fear not Phoenix: Penny Taylor represents one of the best player styles in the league.

About a month ago, someone suggested to me that this past WNBA off-season might have involved the largest movement of star players in the history of the league.

In addition to the dispersal of Sacramento Monarchs players across the league, All-Stars Shameka Christon, Candice Dupree, Cappie Pondexter, Katie Smith, and Lindsay Whalen changed teams either by trade or free agency. The Tulsa Shock relocated and in addition to losing Smith, Taj McWilliams-Franklin left via free agency and neither Cheryl Ford nor Deanna Nolan will be playing for the team this season. The Washington Mystics lost Alana Beard for the season with an injury and the Los Angeles Sparks lost women's basketball legend Lisa Leslie to retirement. That's not to mention the Minnesota Lynx starting the season without Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins.

In other words, there are so many question marks around so many teams that it's hard to make any strong predictions one way or the other. In the case of some of the bigger trades, it's not even a matter of winners but a shift in chemistry and playing styles. As petrel has said previously, predicting a new sports season is actually an act of "predicting the past". In this case, the past is so radically different than the present that even that is difficult.

So before jumping to predictions, I'm first going to outline a way for thinking about evaluating player combinations and team chemistry more effectively. The question we have to answer for this season is how well does player x "fit" with their new teammates? And how might a coach maximize the strengths of those combinations?

As a way to start taking stock of what teams have gained and lost, I first return to David Sparks SPI playing styles framework, this time breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of each style of play and determining the relative value of each playing style to team success.

What are "SPI playing styles"?

When the WNBA free agent signing period opened, I explained the SPI framework, but one could summarize them as follows: a player's scoring, perimeter, and interior tendencies relative to other players in the league. Player tendencies are determined proportionally by calculating the percentage of a player's actions that include scoring, perimeter, and interior actions. An index of style is determined by a "triplet" that measures each element of a player's tendencies relative to the rest of the league. So in the end, you have a set of various styles.

Seven player styles were initially determined by a color wheel that Sparks created based on this statistical framework. However, after spending some time with the numbers over the course of the off-season and speaking with general managers and coaches about things they looked for in players, I found that the set of seven styles wasn't quite specific enough.

So I broke it out into 11 styles (including some subsets for the "distributor" category), which helped to better define who went where. I tend to use these styles in my thinking and reference them in my writing so I started to just lay out a team-by-team list of every player in the league. However, as I started looking at them and trying to figure out how various player combinations worked, I started to see clear sets of general strengths and weaknesses for each player style.

So next I wondered which style is "the best" -- is there one player style that tends to be more valuable to a team's success than another?

The answer is yes: there tend to be some (perhaps minor) distinctions on the whole.

In fact, one style clearly emerged as "elite". But at the same time, I don't anticipate anyone leaping to trade Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings (the best player of the least productive style) for Los Angeles Sparks guard Shannon Bobbitt (the least productive player in 2009 of the second most productive style). It's more interesting as an exercise to more clearly define the skill sets included under the umbrella of a given player style such that we can move forward in thinking about how a given set of players "fits" together. It will ultimately end up being more valuable as a conceptual tool rather than a rigid analytical framework.

So there are at least four important caveats:

  1. The player styles are not necessarily about "quality": Indiana Fever wing Katie Douglas and Washington Mystics guard Matee Ajavon are both "pure scorers" meaning that in terms of their statistical profile they tend to shoot more often than they do pure perimeter (assists & steals) or pure interior (rebounds and blocks) actions. The difference is in quality - in 2009, Douglas was simply more efficient as a pure scorer than Ajavon even though their relative tendencies were equivalent.

    At the same time, being a pure scorer is a "tendency" not a measure of "output". So for example, both Ajavon, Douglas, and New York Liberty guard Sidney Spencer are all "pure scorers" in that when they are on the court they shoot the ball more than they do other things. For a variety of reasons, that does not say much about how many points per game they might average, even if we looked at points per 36/40 minutes.

    So being part of a certain type says little about the quality of a given player. Nevertheless, when considering how a team will function, knowing that over 60% of a "pure scorer's" actions will involve shooting the ball is helpful when trying to determine how a team might end up playing together.
  2. Defensive ability is not necessarily reflected in these player styles: For example, both Alana Beard or Scholanda Robinson are "scorers" although obviously they add quite a bit to their teams defensively. In other words, the categories are not necessarily a commentary on defensive ability but a description of quantifiable tendencies. Trying to measure "defensive tendencies" would be a rather difficult task.
  3. Returning to David Sparks' original color wheel, there are various shades within each type of category. For example, both Ebony Hoffman and Diana Taurasi fall within the "mixed" category (meaning their tendencies are balanced relative to the rest of the league). Nobody would say they are the exact same player in terms of skill. Instead what it means is that Hoffman and Taurasi are both relatively well-rounded players. Hoffman is the much better interior player and Taurasi is the much better scorer. Nevertheless, their combined scoring, perimeter, and interior tendencies sit in a range of players that would be considered "mixed tendencies" relative to the rest of the league.
  4. Some categories have 30+ players, others have 4. So it's difficult to say with universal certainty that one style of play will always be good or one will always be bad. This is entirely based on the 2009 sample, with some cross-referencing with 2008 (since that's when this "project" began).

These caveats are why the question of quality becomes interesting: if there is such wide variation within and between categories, how can we determine which styles might be more valuable to a team's success in general?

Uh oh - what does value mean?

For the sake of this exercise, value has four prongs:

  1. Productivity -- how much does a player contribute to a team's wins? (Boxscores)
  2. Impact on the court -- how well does the team perform when this player is on the floor? (+/-)
  3. Starters vs. Non-Starters -- returning to the Catchings/Bobbitt comparison above, a style is not necessarily deterministic of value. Almost every style has at least one starter caliber player and most include All-Stars. The whole reason for doing this is that it seems that some sets of tendencies tend to produce better players than others on the whole. So it's also interesting to ask how many starters does a style produce? (Starter%)
  4. Scarcity -- borrowing from Economics 101, the demand and thus "market value" of a resource increases when the supply decreases. So for example, there happen to be a number of starter caliber "pure scorers" but less starter caliber "utility players". So if you were building a team from the ground up and had the choice between a "pure scorer" and "utility player", you might go for the All-Star "utility player" first simply because the "market" would yield an All-Star caliber "pure scorer" later. What it comes down to is trying to imagine what it would take to build a complementary roster. So how easy is it to obtain a given type of player?

So given all of these caveats, what is the point of going through all this?

Player styles alone help us to think through how a given set of players might function as a unit given their unique individual tendencies with the 11 categories as "shorthand", so to speak -- knowing that a player is a "wing" says much less than knowing a player is a "pure scorer" or "utility player". Looking specifically at skill sets, model players, and the relative value of each player style helps to think about how one might go about building a team. But ultimately, knowing relative strengths and weaknesses of the playing styles help to determine how well players will fit together and what's missing from a given group.

Ultimately, what you find from this is exactly what coaches have been saying all off-season: versatile players are the most valuable.

Extended descriptions are below, but here is the rank order:

(For combo terms like "interior utility", the first term is the more dominant tendency. All numbers from 2009)

Rank Type Number Starters Starter% Boxscores Plus/Minus
1 PS 4 2 50% 2.48 3.55
2 D 25 14 57% 1.42 2.58
3 M 12 7 58% 1.7 -1.17
4 U 7 2 29% 1.21 4.15
5 SP 8 1 13% 1.48 -0.51
6 IU 30 10 33% 1.29 -0.99
7 S 38 18 47% 1.29 -1.03
8 IS 5 2 40% 1.35 -1.46
9 IP 19 6 32% 1.22 -4.93
10 P 9 1 11% 0.93 12.52
11 PU 6 1 17% 0.71 -4.92

Perimeter Utility:

Best case in 2009: Alexis Hornbuckle, guard, Tulsa Shock

Top reserve in 2009: Shannon Johnson, guard, Seattle Storm (2009)

Least productive in 2009: Nikki Blue, guard, Washington Mystics

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • Utility (as I will describe more below) is my label for what David Sparks called a "scorer's opposite" and what I sometimes describe more crudely as a "non-scorer". So this group has scoring tendencies in the lower third of the league and strong perimeter tendencies.
  • What undoubtedly defines this group is that although they don't score much, they do rack up the assists -- Hornbuckle has the lowest assist rate in this group at 23.7%.
  • The problem is that this set of players also has a high turnover rate -- Hornbuckle also has the lowest turnover rate at 17.7%. So although every player in this group is a lead ball handler, they aren't necessarily the most effective distributors. In addition, Phoenix Mercury guard Ketia Swanier had the highest 2 point percentage of this group at 40%, which gives this group the lowest 2 point percentage of any.

Pure Perimeter:

Best case in 2009: Tamika Catchings, forward, Indiana Fever

Top reserve in 2009: Erin Phillips, guard, Connecticut Sun

Least productive in 2009: Kristin Haynie, guard, Detroit Shock/Sacramento Monarchs (2009)

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • This group has relatively strong perimeter tendencies and fits in the middle third of the league in terms of scoring tendencies.
  • So the strong plus/minus rating for this group is a little misleading -- 5 players in this group played 7 games or less. So you're left with four: Catchings, Phillips, Haynie, and Ashley Battle. What's interesting about these players relative to other perimeter players is that they reasonably well for their size, with percentages in the 8-9% range. What makes them "pure perimeter" and not a "perimeter utility" player is that they are in the middle third percentile relative to the league when it comes to scoring tendencies. Nobody in this group would be considered an "exceptional shooter", but as generally low usage players (with the exception of Catchings), their shooting might not hurt you much either.
  • Catchings could very easily have fit in the perimeter utility category, but what places her in this group is that the highest assist rate of any player in that group of four who played more than 7 games was Kristin Haynie's 18.92%. So essentially in comparison to the perimeter utility group, this group trades passing for scoring.
  • Catchings just probably needs her own category.

Interior Presence:

Best case in 2009: Sancho Lyttle, center, Atlanta Dream

Notable from 2009: Lisa Leslie, center, Los Angeles Sparks (2009)

Top reserve in 2009: DeWannna Bonner, forward, Phoenix Mercury

Least productive in 2009: Suzy Batkovic-Brown, center, Seattle Storm (2009)

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • What "interior presence" means is a player with interior tendencies in the top third percentile of the league with average scoring tendencies.
  • A lot of the players in this group are interior players who will occasionally hang out on the wing or high post - the Mercury have talked since last season about Bonner moving more to the wing, and Mercury teammates Candice Dupree and Tangela Smith also fit in this category. Megan Frazee, Catherine Kraayeveld, and Ashley Walker also fall under this umbrella. Perhaps what defines this group is that the starters and Bonner in this group are definitely the most efficient scorers of any interior style. The starters and Bonner in this group are also reasonably good rebounders, with Kraayeveld and Smith standing out as anomalies. The starters and Bonner turn the ball over the least of any interior group and the starters have reasonable assist rates for interior players. Leslie had the highest usage rate at 26% but for the most part, this group has an average usage rate.
  • However, it's a group of 19 players and as good as the high end of this group is, the lower end was not so productive. When considering that Walker's tendencies stand to change this year, which would likely move her out of this group, on the whole, there aren't many productive players with these tendencies. That Phoenix has nabbed three of the best of this group probably says a lot about the style of play these tendencies work best for.

Interior Scorer:

Best case in 2009: Lauren Jackson, forward, Seattle Storm

Top reserve in 2009: Chen Nan, center, Chicago Sky (2009)

Least productive in 2009: Kia Vaughn, forward, New York Liberty

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • This group of players is on the edge of the top third of the league in both interior and scoring tendencies.
  • In fact, Jackson and Sandrine Gruda could legitimately fit in the "pure scorer" category rather than this one. As for what makes them interior players, it's interesting to note that while both Gruda and Jackson are only average rebounders by percentage among interior players, their shot blocking ability is what brings them closer to the interior player category than some of the frontcourt players (e.g. Ann Wauters and Sophia Young) in the "pure scorer" category.
  • This small group has the lowest perimeter tendencies of any group, which translates into the lowest assist rate. As scorers, they do have higher usage rates on average than other interior players with Jackson at the highest with a usage rate of 26%.

Pure Scorer:

Best case in 2009: Katie Douglas, wing, Indiana Fever

Top reserve in 2009: Shavonte Zellous, guard, Tulsa Shock

Least productive in 2009: Shanna Crossley, guard, San Antonio Silver Stars (2009)

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • This group has strong scoring tendencies (in the 85th percentile of the league on average), generally average perimeter tendencies, and are generally wings (the only post players in this group of 38 are Sophia Young, Le'coe Willingham, Ashja Jones, Ann Wauters and Tasha Humphrey).
  • As one might expect, the players in this group have the second highest usage rates of any group. Although it's a wing-dominated group, the group rebounds better on the whole than other perimeter styles.
  • Perhaps unsurprisingly, and what brings this group down a bit, is that shooting a lot does not necessarily mean one will shoot particularly "well". They tend to shoot more, but less efficiently than the other types of scorers. With all that shooting, there's less time for passing and as a whole, this collection of players has lower assist rates than the perimeter styles.

Interior Utility:

Best case in 2009: Erika de Souza, center, Atlanta Dream

Notable in 2009: Candace Parker, forward, Los Angeles Sparks

Top reserve in 2009: Taj McWilliams-Franklin, forward, Detroit Shock (2009)

Least productive in 2009: Ashley Robinson, center, Seattle Storm

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • This is actually the "purest" of any style with average interior tendencies at about the 88th percentile in the league and below average scoring and perimeter tendencies.
  • So if you want a rebounder -- and particularly an offensive rebounder -- this is where you look. As a whole it's not the most efficient scoring bunch of the league, but the starters shoot among the highest percentage (53.5%) of any starting group in the league. We could probably chalk that up to the players in this group also shooting the highest two point percentage in the league. As "utility" players, none of them have a particularly high usage rate despite being quite effective scorers. With McWilliams-Franklin leading the way with a 22.07% assist rate and Parker with a 16.6% assist rate, this group also has the best passing interior players in the league.
  • However, even the starters in this group struggle with turnovers and as a whole, they average a turnover rate of 18.61%.

Scoring Perimeter:

Best case in 2009: Cappie Pondexter, guard, Phoenix Mercury (2009)

Top reserve in 2009: Renee Montgomery, guard, Minnesota Lynx (2009)

Least productive in 2009: Ivory Latta, guard, Atlanta Dream (2009)

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • Players in this group have high scoring tendencies and perimeter tendencies in the top third of the league with generally low interior tendencies.
  • What actually defines this group is that on the whole, they have very good true shooting percentages top to bottom and with the exception of Pondexter and Kristi Toliver, they are also not high usage playersm meaning they don't dominate the ball.
  • However, they are players that tend to look for their shots a lot and although they have the skills to play point guard - Pondexter, Toliver, Latta, Montgomery, and Kara Lawson - they are not quite the traditional bring the ball up the court and "pass first" point guard. In the right situation, these players can thrive because they generally score very well. It's just a matter of setting the right expectations and figuring out what to do with these undersized scorers.

Utility:

Best case in 2009: Nicky Anosike, center, Minnesota Lynx

Top reserve in 2009: Erin Perperoglou, forward, San Antonio Silver Stars (2009)

Least productive in 2009: Barbara Farris, post, Detroit Shock

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • Unlike the other "utility" oriented styles that have dominant interior or perimeter tendencies, this group is defined by having below average scoring tendencies, but above average interior and perimeter tendencies.
  • The reason Sparks describes this as the "scorer's opposite" group and I occasionally describe this type of player as a "non-scorer" is that they have by far the lowest scoring tendencies in the league. That does not mean they cannot score or never score. In fact, the two best in this group Anosike and Janel McCarville shoot better than most interior players. What separates them and makes this such a valuable type is that they do everything else well. In other words, not scoring is not a bad thing.

    Sparks also has a "value added" metric, which is his productivity metric minus the scoring as a means to capture the value a player brings to the court beyond scoring. As you might expect, this small group has by far the highest on average and Anosike has by far the highest rating in the league at 5.34 (as you might expect, the next highest is "interior utility" player de Souza).

    These are the players that do the little things to help team win games beyond scoring. They are probably the ideal complement for almost any lineup, assuming the team is put together well. And there's essentially only two of them.
  • It's hard to talk about this group in terms of strengths and weakness because they do a little bit of everything. If we just take the two players in this style who played significant minutes last season (Anosike and McCarville), they each had offensive rebound rates at just under 17%, higher assist rates than most interior utility players, and both had true shooting percentages between 56-57%. Anosike even had a 50% free throw rate. If you really wanted to find a way that these players actively hurt you, perhaps McCarville's 16.47% turnover rate last year would work, but an argument could be made that she still brought value to the team in many other ways.
  • It's also worth noting that in 2008, McCarville was more of a "mixed" player and in 2009 her scoring tendencies dropped which put her in this category.

Mixed:

Best case in 2009: Diana Taurasi, wing, Phoenix Mercury

Top reserve in 2009: Amber Holt, guard, Connecticut Sun (2009)

Least productive in 2009: Tamera Young, forward, Atlanta Dream/Chicago Sky (2009)

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • There are two ways to look at like these who have average scoring, perimeter, and interior tendencies: a) they do a little bit of everything well or b) they are of the "Jill of all trades, master of none" variety. Perhaps Taurasi illustrates the former and some of the reserves on this list illustrate the latter.
  • This group is arguably the most versatile in the game. So it's hard to say what versatile players have in common because while the top three (Taurasi, Eboni Hoffman, and Swin Cash) are all very versatile they each have unique strengths and weaknesses which make them very different. They all rebound relatively well given their size and position with rebound rates about 10% for the most part.
  • Usage rates and scoring percentages are all over the map and many of these players don't have the highest assist rates, but definitely have higher assist rates than most of the league's forwards.


Distributors:

Best case in 2009: Sue BIrd, guard, Seattle Storm

Top reserve in 2009: Noelle Quinn, guard, Los Angeles Sparks

Least productive in 2009: Christina Wirth, forward, indiana Fever

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • Most of the league's starting point guards fit in this group. They have above average perimeter tendencies, but also above average assist rates and pure point ratings. So although they may have other strengths, they help their teams most by functioning as lead ball handlers.
  • Within this group are "distributors" (high perimeter tendencies, average scoring tendencies), "distributing scorers" (high perimeter tendencies and high scoring tendencies), and distributor utility players (high perimeter tendencies and low scoring tendencies).
  • Defining what a point guard does is enough for a future post. However, for now, what clearly makes this a valuable playing style is the fact that every team needs a good ball handler to run the offense. Theoretically, the intangibles that this player would bring to the floor of leadership and decisiveness would also figure into their value to the team.

Perimeter Scorers

Best case in 2009: Becky Hammon, guard, San Antonio Silver Stars

Top reserve in 2009: Angel McCoughtry, forward, Atlanta Dream

Least productive in 2009: Penny Taylor, forward, Phoenix Mercury

Strengths and weaknesses:

  • That was not a typo: the least productive player of this group of four (the fourth being Jia Perkins) was Taylor. That's what makes it arguably the most effective style of play. These are an elite group of go-to players.
  • This group has high perimeter tendencies and almost as high scoring tendencies (in the case of Hammon and McCoughtry, almost even) and low interior tendencies.
  • They are the best shooters by percentage of any group, they pass the ball reasonably well for their positions -- both Perkins and Hammon are arguably two of the best lead ballhandlers in the league -- and although they are high usage players, they are efficient at doing it. Most of all these are the players who you can give the ball and expect to create something either for themselves or teammates.
  • McCoughtry might seem like the outlier here, but towards the end of the season she was playing extremely well and exhibited some of the abilities mentioned as necessary for being a go-to players.

Related Links:

WNBA Free Agent Playing Styles: The Beginning of Figuring Out Who Fits Where

Transition Points:

  • This is actually even more helpful for projecting draft prospects -- though I haven't entirely done the translation of college tendencies to pro tendencies, an analysis player potential based on tendency similarity could be quite fruitful.
  • Interestingly, two members of the 2009 Chicago Sky seem very out of place -- Kraayeveld is an "interior presence" and Brooke Wyckoff an "interior utility player". They, along with Catchings and Jackson, almost deserve their own category.
  • Note, the numbers don't add up to the exact final total in the league last year because every player that played was included in these numbers.