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2010 WNBA Preview (Pt. 3): What is the outlook for teams involved in major off-season trades?

Prior to looking at the strengths of WNBA player styles and point guard playing styles in particular, I said that the entire purpose was to better understand some of the major trades of the WNBA off-season.

Drawing upon those "insights" and 2009 statistics, here is a belated preview of what we might be expected to expect from the teams involved in some of the bigger trades of the off-season.

Yeah, I know it's Day Two of the WNBA already but it's all based on 2009 statistics (and 90% written before the first game yesterday - promise) so there wasn't really any peeking in the cookie jar early.

Brief explanation of what informed my thinking:

  • Drawing upon the player styles framework, I looked at each player's strengths and weaknesses relative to players with similar statistical tendencies. So for example, rather than comparing a point guard's offensive rebounding rate to the entire league, I looked at it in comparison to other distributors. So not only do we see if a player is rebounding their position well, but also putting that in the context of the strengths and weaknesses their style of play offers their team.
  • The primary goal of a sports team is obviously to score, so I looked at scoring not only in terms of tendencies, but also in terms of usage rates. For players with above average usage rates for their tendencies, I looked at how efficient they were in terms of points per empty possessions (determining that they not only created scoring opportunities for themselves, but also how well they made scoring decisions). For players with below average usage rates, I looked at their "floor percentage", which is the percentage of individual possessions that a player scores on. In other words, you can determine whether the players creating scoring opportunities are doing so without costing the team too much and how well the players who don't create scoring opportunities as often are able to score when they do get the ball.
  • After looking at styles and scoring distribution, you can determine to some extent how important a high synergy score -- a proxy for ball movement -- might be.

Without further ado...

Chicago Sky

Up-to-the-Minute WNBA Season Preview ::
Chicago Sky

Significant additions: Shameka Christon, Cathrine Kraayeveld, Epiphanny Prince

Significant losses: Candice Dupree, Shyra Ely

Probable starting lineup:

PG: Dominique Canty
SG: Jia Perkins
SF: Shameka Christon
PF: Cathrine Kraayeveld
C: Sylvia Fowles

Bench: Epiphanny Prince, Erin Thorn, Tamera Young, Abi Olajuwon, Mistie Bass, Sandora Irvin

Wows: Chicago's free throw rate of 32.44% was their biggest four factors strength last season and it stands to only remain a strength by re-signing Dominique Canty (distributor) and adding All-Star Shameka Christon (pure scorer). While Canty had one of the highest free throw rates in the league at 42.26%, Christon had among the most attempts in the league at 4.62/gm. While free throw rate is not the most important of the four factors, it does demonstrate two things -- the ability to get easy points and generally a sign of aggression going to the basket. That strength would appear to only get stronger with the addition of Epiphanny Prince as well who is known for her ability to get to the basket.

In addition to getting to the free throw line, the Sky led the league in three point percentage and despite having All-Star Sylvia Fowles, this was a very perimeter oriented team -- they ranked 8th in points in the paint with an All-Star frontcourt of Dupree and Fowles. So one would expect this team to become even more perimeter oriented with after adding Christon and Prince. Christon in particular adds another very efficient scorer to go with Perkins (perimeter scorer). Even moreso than last year, they are a team that will be able to spread the floor to give Fowles more room to operate inside and have players that can drive and kick to perimeter shooters as well. They could be a very, very lethal offense.

Wonders: How will their style of play change after trading All-Star Candice Dupree and bringing in Christon? Their part of the big off-season trade make this a very different roster, but might simply reinforce some of their strengths from last season. But if Fowles can remain healthy, will they rely on her more heavily in the paint? Or will adding to their perimeter so much compel them to move further away from her? With Christon and Perkins as their only two players with above average usage rates, is the point guard situation solid enough to help set up others for scoring opportunities?

Turnovers were one of this team's biggest weaknesses last season -- especially those leading to fast break points -- and Perkins remains as the strongest ball handler in terms of minimizing turnovers. If Prince is slotted to play point guard, how well will she be able to take care of the ball at the WNBA level?

Worries: The Sky were tenth in rebounding percentage last year and offensive rebounding was arguably their biggest weakness. Trading Dupree for Christon and Cathrine Kraayeveld (one of the least rebounding power forwards in the league) will not help that situation. They really don't have a particularly strong offensive rebounder (Fowles is a below average offensive rebounder among "interior utility" players) and they were tenth in 2009 with Dupree. Conditioning issues aside, Courtney Paris -- one of the league's best rebounders last season -- could have really helped address this weakness. As the roster stands on opening day, this team took a step backwards in the rebounding department and it could hurt them despite their perimeter talent.

In addition, defense has to be a concern -- they were third from last in opponents points per possession giving up 102.67, second to last in opponents 2nd chance points, and 9th in opponents points in the paint. It should come as no surprise then that they were last in scoring differential last year at -3.5. It's not clear how exchanging Dupree for Kraayeveld might help that situation.

Outlook: Playoff contender

One could argue that the Sky took a strange gamble in bolstering strengths while almost exacerbating weaknesses. They should be a good three point shooting team again, however that is obviously not the most efficient or consistent way to score points. Sylvia Fowles will have to take a bigger role as an offensive player for this team to be successful. To make that happen, this team will have to get the ball moving very well and it will be interesting to see how their point guard situation influences that. Nevertheless, they do have a legitimate shot at the playoffs if they can shoot and defend consistently because there is so much uncertainty in the East.

Connecticut Sun

Up-to-the-Minute WNBA Season Preview ::
Significant additions: Tina Charles, Kara Lawson, Renee Montgomery, DeMya Walker, Kelsey Griffin, a whole season of Anete Jekabsone-Zogota

Significant losses: Lindsay Whalen, Erin Phillips, Tamika Whitmore, Amber Holt, Sandrine Gruda until she deigns to show up

Probable starting lineup:

PG: Renee Montgomery
SG: Kara Lawson
SF: Anete Jekabsone-Zogota
PF: Asjha Jones (DeMya Walker until Jones is healthy)
C: Sandrine Gruda (Tina Charles until Gruda arrives)

Bench: Tina Charles, DeMya Walker, Tan White, Kelsey Griffin, Allison Hightower, Kerri Gardin

Wows: In terms of collegiate talent, this team is stacked. With one of the best coaches in the league at maximizing talent to lead the team, the optimism about this team is justified. One critique of this team last season was that they occasionally seemed to stagnate on offense and that should no longer be a problem after adding two scoring perimeter players to their backcourt in Lawson and Montgomery. If Jekabsone-Zogota can continue her end of season success from last season -- which I would expect -- and Tina Charles can step in and provide an interior scoring presence, this team will have plenty of scoring options.

Wonders: How will all these young players perform? Montgomery is an exciting player, but the jury is still out on whether she can run a team as a full-time point guard. Having Lawson next to her -- a more efficient ball handler who makes excellent decisions -- will certainly help this team run. But Montgomery is just the beginning of the unknowns. How well will Charles be as a rookie and how quickly will she get acclimated to rigors of the professional game? What will they get out of rookies Kelsey Griffin and Allison Hightower? Will Sandrine Gruda show the type of improvement that as an interior scorer that will help this team move up from 12th in points in the paint?

Worries: As many scorers as this team added, they don't have a lot of proven efficient scorers. Asjha Jones - a "pure scorer" - is the only player on the roster that stands as an efficient player relative to others with her tendencies in 2009. With the number of young players coming in, it's reasonable to expect growth. But this was a team that was 12th in field goal percentage, 11th in three point percentage, and 11th in points per possession last year. Charles and growth from Gruda and Jekabsone-Zogota could change that, but they will have to rely heavily on ball movement in order boost those scoring numbers.

Outlook: Playoff contender

Expectations are high for Connecticut and for good reason with all of the young talent they have. However, people expecting a championship -- or even assuming that this team is a playoff lock -- may be disappointed. Even if Charles does step in and produce right away, they still have a lot of question marks around them but will definitely be a more exciting team to watch and improved in some areas.

Los Angeles Sparks

Up-to-the-Minute WNBA Season Preview ::
Significant additions: Ticha Penicheiro, Kristi Toliver (told you this was up-to-date), Andrea Riley
Significant losses: Lisa Leslie, Vanessa Hayden's albatross of a contract (loss can sometimes be a good thing)

Probable starting lineup:
PG: Ticha Penicheiro
SG: Betty Lennox
SF/PF/C: DeLisha Milton-Jones
SF/PF/C: Tina Thompson
SF/PF/C: Candace Parker

Bench: Noelle Quinn, Kristi Toliver, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, Andrea Riley, Marie Ferdinand-Harris, Tiffany Stansbury

Wows: Despite Lisa Leslie's departure, this is a very well balanced team. They have two players on their team who rated as pure scorers, added a scoring perimeter in Kristi Toliver, have two versatile contributors in the frontcourt with Milton-Jones and Tina Thompson, added one of the best facilitators in the game in Ticha Penicheiro, and they still have Candace Parker. After years of people blaming the point guard situation for their struggles, Penicheiro still deserves respect and Noelle Quinn deserves more respect as a versatile point guard who really doesn't hurt her team in any objective way.

As Penicheiro and Quinn are both utility distributors, Toliver was the most efficient scoring perimeter player in the league last season and second in the league in three point percentage, making her an excellent addition to a team that was last in three point percentage last season. No, they're not the most balanced team in the WNBA, but similar to what's happened in Phoenix, they've lost a star but suddenly become a more well-rounded team.

Wonders: What will new head coach Jennifer Gillom do with all of this talent? It's not immediately obvious, but this team will have to be very different than last season. The biggest thing this team loses in Leslie is her rebounding and offensive rebounding in particular. They will not be the dominant interior oriented team that they were last season and even with increased balance and a historically good point guard, their returning core will have to adjust to a new way of playing with each other. How long that takes after a short pre-season together and how they approach maximizing this talent remains to be seen.

Obviously, the biggest off-season "move" for the Sparks was Leslie retiring, but the more recent trade of a 2011 second round draft pick for Kristi Toliver was significant in that they managed to acquire a 2009 lottery pick for a 2011 second rounder. The real issue is how Toliver will respond to this situation. The following is what Sky coach Steven Key told Swish Appeal about a week before the draft when asked about the common critique that Toliver didn't perform well because she received inconsistent minutes last season.

"What goes into that is that everybody who sees me do that, they're only watching the games," said Key. "As the coach, I’m not just coaching one player – everybody’s looking at her going, ‘Oh, why doesn’t she get to play all of the time?’ Well, some of the things she was doing in practice weren’t giving me the confidence that she would be able carry that over into games. And we weren’t a first-year franchise where I have to play her 35 minutes a game just to be in the game – we had very capable people around who were running the system and doing what we were asking them to do on a more consistent basis. So the games that she played well for us, she played well because she was probably a little bit less impatient than she was in games when she was not.

"It’s not fair to only coach one player when you’re trying to win as many games as possible and bring along everybody in the process. So that’s part of the trick: this isn’t a situation where I was just going to play her 35 minutes and win or lose based on that situation because if I turn around and do that and then maybe we only win 10 games. And then everyone is going to say, ‘Oh, well, why didn’t you win more games?’ Well, I’m not going to blame it on her – that’s on me. So I thought I was doing the best thing possible at the time in trying to get the most from her in trying to win the most games as possible."

There is a lot that can be read into that, but here's what is quite clear: what Toliver was doing in practice was not enough to give Key confidence in her ability to perform in games and she was not running the system in games. Key did not believe Toliver could consistently help the Sky win games last season.

Regardless of whether Key's judgment is correct -- sometimes the situation just isn't right rather than something actually being wrong with the player -- it will be interesting to see the interaction between her, Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom and the Sparks' veteran stars over the course of the season.

Worries: Toliver will definitely help spread the floor, but otherwise they came in last in three point shooting last season for a reason -- they don't have that many strong perimeter shooters. Adding Penicheiro and losing Leslie means that opponents could potentially sag off the perimeter players to pressure the post at no consequence. They were fourth in points in the paint last season which will decline not only because of Leslie's loss but the increased interior attention that Parker will get. This will have to transition to a team predicated on penetration and ball movement in order to be successful. And if Parker is stifled, will the rest of the offense stagnate?

Outlook: Playoff contender

There's no reason to imagine that this team won't make the playoffs but the top of the Western Conference is stacked and it will be interesting to see just how far this team could go in the playoffs. Despite their balance, they have obvious weaknesses and it will be interesting to see how Gillom maximizes their particular strengths while minimizing weaknesses.

Minnesota Lynx

Up-to-the-Minute WNBA Season Preview ::
Significant additions: Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson, Monica Wright, Hamchétou Maïga-Ba, and potentially most important of all: a healthy Seimone Augustus (eventually)
Significant losses: Kelly Miller, Renee Montgomery, Roneeka Hodges, Tasha Humphrey

Probable starting lineup:

PG: Lindsay Whalen
SG: Candice Wiggins (Monica Wright until she's healthy)
SF: Seimone Augustus (Hamchétou Maïga-Ba until she's healthy)
PF: Rebekkah Brunson (Charde Houston until she shows up)
C: Nicky Anosike

Bench: Charde Houston, Monica Wright, Hamchétou Maïga-Ba, Rashanda McCants, Quanitra Hollingsworth, Núria Martínez

Wows: Hard to say much more than this: Minnesota Lynx Free Agency Breakdown: Why the Lynx Are the Ideal Intro to the WNBA. It is difficult to imagine a more complete basketball team in basketball than this one. Adding Monica Wright in the draft is just icing on the cake.They have all of the four factors covered: they have a number of versatile, efficient scorers, they get to the line well, they rebound well, and they have players who can take care of the ball.

Back to that icing on the cake that Wright will add -- her biggest immediate contribution might be defense. By adding Brunson and Maiga-Ba to the roster that already has Defensive Player of the Year candidate Nicky Anosike as well actually makes this potentially one of the best defensive teams in the league. If Lindsay Whalen's defensive ability doesn't wow you, I would suggest you watch how well she reads defensive plays off the ball with these kind of defenders around her -- she's not the quickest lateral defender, but as a physical guard that can rebound and see the game extremely well, she should be fine in the team concept.

Wonders: All of that looks great on paper but the question is how it will all come together on the actual court. With Brunson still abroad and Augustus and Wiggins out to start the season, they're going to suffer a few losses and given the talent in the Western Conference, it might cost them a regular season conference title. It will also shorten the time with which this team can gel. It's sort of ironic to say given the number of players they have who thrive on intangibles, but the biggest question mark about this team right now is the intangible quality of how quickly all of this talent can come together.

Worries: If you really want to search for flaws with this team, then the obvious one would be frontcourt depth, especially with Brunson out. They were 9th in the league in rebounding differential last season and although Lindsay Whalen (distributor) is a strong offensive rebounder for her position, the post will be their obvious weakness. Mitigating this worry would be not only be Brunson, but also continued development from young posts Anosike (utility) and Quanitra Hollingsworth (interior presence). In addition, with Brunson now able to take on the starter's role in the post, Houston will likely play less minutes at the four spot.

Outlook: Championship contender

On paper, this might seriously be one the most well rounded basketball teams ever assembled. At full strength, they'll have the ability to adjust to just about anything the defense throws at them and with Anosike anchoring the defense, they could be a strong defensive team as well . The only weakness they have right now is they haven't played together yet.

New York Liberty

Up-to-the-Minute WNBA Season Preview ::
Significant additions: Cappie Pondexter, Nicole Powell, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Kalana Greene
Significant losses: Shameka Christon, Cathrine Kraayeveld, Loree Moore, Ashley Battle

Probable starting lineup:

PG: Leilani Mitchell
SG: Cappie Pondexter
SF: Nicole Powell
PF: Janel McCarville
C: Taj McWilliams-Franklin

Bench: Tiffany Jackson, Essence Carson, Kia Vaughn, Kalana Greene, Sidney Spencer, Nikki Blue

Wows: By adding Pondexter (scoring perimeter), Powell (pure scorer), and McWilliams-Franklin (interior utility) this team is remarkably more talented than they were last year. Pondexter does a little bit of everything, able to create scoring opportunities for herself and others while rebounding quite well given her tendencies. Kalana Greene was a good draft pick up who has also shown the ability to score in the pre-season. Most coaches and general managers around the league have talked about the need for versatility this season with smaller rosters and the Liberty have two of the most versatile players in the league in Pondexter and center Janel McCarville (utility). Between those two players, an efficient scorers in Powell and McWilliams-Franklin, the Liberty should be in good shape to make a playoff run.

Another thing that the Liberty can expect despite obvious questions about the point guard position is much better passing. McCarville, McWilliams-Franklin, and Pondexter are among the best passers among players with their tendencies and if Mitchell has improved in the off-season as

Wonders: How good will this frontcourt be? Offensive rebounding was a major weakness for this team last year with the team finishing last in offensive rebounding percentage last season and, as a result, second to last in second chance points. Even with the addition of McWilliams-Franklin -- who is a significant rebounding upgrade over Cathrine Kraayeveld -- they will still need the much anticipated development of Kia Vaughn to have a successful post rotation.

Another obvious question is how well Pondexter can run -- and defend -- the point for a full season. That's not at all to say she can't, it's just that it's something we have not seen her do full-time in the WNBA before. Last season, she put up numbers that made her arguably the best lead ball handler in the league for long stretches of the season. However in a different offense, with a different coaching philosophy, and different personnel around her, it will be interesting to see how she does.

Last, you have to wonder how good this team is going to be defensively. There have been upgrades -- McWilliams-Franklin is an upgrade defensively and, again, if Vaughn develops into a reliable post player she could be a strong defensive presence. While there might be concerns about Pondexter and Mitchell being able to guard quicker and bigger guards respectively, the recent trade for Nikki Blue is a huge asset that will help round out this team defensively. Although Blue was not been the most efficient playmaker last season, she could be extremely effective in minutes next to Pondexter as a defender and person to get the team into the offense.

Worries: Perhaps there is a concern about how this team will come together, address all these question marks, and respond to adversity for a coach who they know is leaving after year one. If things break their way and they can remain consistent for the entire season, this team might be talented enough to take the Eastern Conference. But what happens if things don't get off to a fast start?

Outlook: Playoff contender

The Liberty have an outside chance of surprising some people and taking it. Ultimately, compared to opponents like the Atlanta Dream and Indiana Fever who will enter the season with their cores mostly in tact (even without Chamique Holdsclaw, Angel McCoughtry is expected to improve) contending with their size in the post could be a challenge. Then again, now everybody in the East has to deal with something nobody in the West could handle last season: Cappie Pondexter.

Phoenix Mercury

Up-to-the-Minute WNBA Season Preview ::
Significant additions: Candice Dupree, a full season of Penny Taylor
Significant losses: Cappie Pondexter, Le'coe Willingham, Kelly Mazzante's hideous contract (addition via subtraction redefined)

Probable starting lineup:

PG: Temeka Johnson
SG: Diana Taurasi
SF: Penny Taylor
PF: Candice Dupree
C: Tangela Smith

Bench: DeWanna Bonner, Nicole Ohlde, Ketia Swanier, Sequoia Holmes, Brooke Smith, Taylor Lilley

Wows: They managed to grant Pondexter's trade demand to New York and still get an All-Star in return. So in terms of the big picture, although Pondexter is definitely irreplaceable, the Mercury might be more balanced this year than either of the last two championship teams were. Projecting their success this season is especially difficult because both the team's tendencies and individual tendencies could change significantly as they adjust to life after Pondexter. But the bottom line is that they could very well end up being a better team than they were last year if everything comes together for them.

Gaines has said that his system actually requires a strong four and Dupree is one of the more effective power forwards on the fast break (top 20 in fast break points in 2009), much to the surprise of some observers. So they don't necessarily have to change too much for Dupree to slide right in.

Wonders: By losing Pondexter and Willingham, the Mercury's core rotation is essentially one player shorter than last year (after Taylor returned) despite being more balanced. How might that affect them over the course of the season? Might someone on the bench step up this year and increase their productivity over last year? Might their pace slow down in the long-run in order to preserve a shorter rotation?

Obviously, they made it through a significant portion of the regular season last year with a shorter rotation until Taylor returned to the team so it's not inconceivable that a more balanced version of the team could be equally successful, but in terms of making another deep playoff run one could certainly make a strong argument that having that additional contributor in the rotation helped immensely.

Worries: Their bench is relatively thin compared to some other teams in the West. Obviously this will be a different team without Pondexter. They will have one less contributor in the rotation than last year. But different is not necessarily worse at all. But in losing Willingham and Pondexter, they lost two people who rebound very well for their style of play and added Dupree (interior presence) who was an above average rebounder overall given her tendencies, but below average offensive rebounder among that group of players at 7.9%. To the surprise of many, offensive rebounding was a strength for this team last year but with two of the biggest contributors to that leaving it's very possible that may change.

Outlook: Championship contender

We shouldn't get overzealous here -- the top of the Western Conference is stronger than some people give it credit for because every team is deeper and more balanced than last year (not only the Lynx, but the Seattle Storm's bench is much stronger). But to count this team out after winning it all last year would be silly -- with Pondexter they overwhelmed people with perimeter talent; this season they'll force defenses to defend All-Stars all over the court and that might just be a more difficult task in the eyes of opponents.