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Early season analysis: How are WNBA teams approaching the process of "forming chemistry"?

Normally at this time of the week I would write about rookie rankings or do an analysis of which teams are hot and not.

However, with no team having played more than 5 games, it's difficult to do that with any level of accuracy. It wouldn't be entirely pointless, but with the exchange of so many stars in the off-season, teams trying to adjust to the loss of absent or injured players, and a short pre-season, it's hard to find many teams that have reached a point where they can be fairly evaluated.

"Our focus right now is just to keep improving," said Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler after a 95-89 win over the Phoenix Mercury when asked if he had any sense of where his team stands relative to the league. "I don't think anybody in this league is as good as they're going to be at this moment, so that's been our focus."

With most teams still coming together in very significant ways- and the 3-0 Storm arguably the team that is furthest along in that regard - any assertions about a league pecking order right now after 2 to 4 games would be almost entirely arbitrary. Perhaps the perfect example of Agler's point was the Tulsa Shock's 94-82 win over the Minnesota Lynx this Sunday.

"Look at Minnesota," said Agler yesterday at practice describing why it's dangerous to get too giddy about a 3-0 start. "They came in here - coming off a loss - and played really well, could've very easily won that game. And they probably felt pretty good about themselves when they left and thought they missed an opportunity. And then they go home and Tulsa comes and gets ‘em."

Watching the Minnesota - Tulsa game it was indeed quite surprising. Not to take anything away from the Shock convincingly earning their first win, but it's hard to imagine that anybody would have picked the Shock to be up by 17 to begin the fourth quarter. The problem is that with a new backcourt playing in the absence of forward Rebekkah Brunson and injured wings Seimone Augustus and Candice Wiggins the team is struggling to coming together and apparently the Storm game didn't aid them as much as one might have thought.

"Well, we haven't come together yet," said first-year Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve when asked prior to the Storm game how well the team has come together. "We're at that point in the season right now we want to establish who we are, who we want to be, and then when Wiggins and Seimone get here we plug ‘em in to what we're doing. But you want to establish that foundation."

On the one hand, perhaps some people are tempted to dismiss Reeve's words as "coach speak". On the other hand, let's suspend our cynicism for a moment: as out of sync as people might have thought the Lynx looked against the Shock, it's reasonable to assume that they will look much different once they a) establish who they are and b) integrate Wiggins and Augustus. It's hard to come together into the coherent whole you imagined in the off-season when two major pieces are absent.

For the Shock, although they managed to earn their first win on the road in impressive fashion, their process of coming together is even more difficult. They're missing four impact players from last year- Cheryl Ford out for the season due to injury, Deanna Nolan sitting out the season, Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Katie Smith leaving as free agents - without the expectation of three starter caliber players meaning there's not really a target date for when this team will come together.

"The problem in the WNBA is they just come in and play and I'm at a total disadvantage because every team knows their players," said first year Shock coach Nolan Richardson after their loss to San Antonio. "So they can go overseas and knowing that when they bring them back to training camp who they're going to cut, who's gonna stay. In my case I have to still wonder if I've still got the best kind of players to fit this team. I don't know anybody. I have not coached not one single person on the floor ever before so when you've got that - you've got a new coach, you've got a new team, you've got a new system, everything's new and it takes time to put new things together."

Although the persistent question - and critique -- all season for the Shock will be whether Richardson's new system will actually work, ultimately we may not be able to answer that simply on wins or losses given the context. From watching the Shock, the players they have are in fact a very good supporting cast - arguably, still a playoff-level supporting cast that ranks first in the league in points off turnovers, points in the paint, bench scoring while holding opponents to a league-low 4.67 fast break points a game for what it's worth-they still lack a go-to player.

"The sad part about the NBA or the WNBA is that most expansion teams don't win basketball games and if you look at our team it may be less than an expansion team because the key players off of the team that I have right now - there's not really any star or even a starter," said Richardson after the San Antonio game. "It didn't start out that way with the Shock of the players like the Deanna Nolans who can score and Katie Smith who can - you don't have those anymore. And so we gotta work on things like team basketball a lot more.

"I wish that I could say five games, six games, seven games - I really can't tell you that but I know we are getting better in a lot of areas that we were so bad in."

Another team having perhaps the inverse struggle of the Shock is the New York Liberty who are trying to blend All-Star newcomers with a relatively young returning supporting cast. As much of a boon as it was for 2009's last place team to add All-Stars Cappie Pondexter and Nicole Powell via trade and the dispersal draft, the dilemma is finding a way to make all the pieces come together to create a whole. As head coach Anne Donovan put it previously, the key to success for the Liberty - and really all three of these teams - is forming their unique chemistry.

LIBERTY: Chemistry Key for Donovan's Liberty
The Liberty are now filled with All-Star veterans with championship experience, including Cappie Pondexter, Nicole Powell and Taj McWilliams-Franklin.

"I think our chemistry is most up in the air," the head coach said. "I’m not concerned about it because I know it’s going to come along. I also know that until we form our Liberty chemistry these players move without the ball very well and play off each other very well. If we can continue to develop our on-court Liberty chemistry, I think our new players really have a feel for the game that will help make that transition easier."

What is chemistry?

Chemistry is of course a weird thing to describe - it's one of those things that might be easier for the average fan to recognize more easily in its absence than its presence. And since whatever "chemistry" is will lead to different outcomes for different team styles - transition, half court, or defensive -- it's almost impossible to measure. It's the type of thing that would drive someone like Lord Kelvin mad:

When you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind."

However, in watching games and listening to coaches over the course of the first week of play, it seems like the concern with chemistry seems to explain a lot of the early season play. So rather than trying to figure out "how much" chemistry a team has, I think we can actually describe the character of a team's chemistry or what they might consider necessary to the process of "forming chemistry".

One way to think about all those elements and bonds a little more clearly is with Danielle Allen's description of a jazz quintet:

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.

So in basketball terms, how can a team get to a point where they're creating some sense of "harmony" as every player turns their attention to creating something between them that has to be imagined before enacted?

Although all these dynamics that coaches face are difficult, if not impossible, to quantify fully, we might be able to approximate why a team is or isn't working well together.

Similar to what I described in a previous post looking at teams who made major off-season moves, we can probably analyze chemistry in statistical terms in three broad ways:

  1. Roster versatility (individual playing styles)

First, individual playing styles - what are each player's actual tendencies on the court beyond their "positional" classification? Given those tendencies, what are their strengths and weaknesses? How productive are they relative to players with similar tendencies?

As I mentioned in that preview of teams that made significant changes - and countless other times - that's what makes the Lynx so impressive on paper once they get all their players back. However, the other team that is quietly an excellent example of complementary player styles is the Indiana Fever. Depending on how you want to break down the player styles, there are approximately 13 fairly distinct ones in the WNBA (including a range of point guard styles and excluding a few superstar outliers). The Fever has a league-high 7 of them, not including Jene Morris who as a rookie obviously didn't play in 2009 but figures to add an 8th style if she continues on the path to becoming a scoring perimeter player.

More importantly is that as much as people talk about the Fever's scoring struggles, part of what makes this team dangerous is that they have 7 players who are very efficient given their playing styles. In terms of individual contributions to the key four factors stats - effective field goal percentage, free throw rate, offensive rebounding percentage, and turnover percentage - they had four players in 2009 who were above average contributors in at least 3 of 4 of those categories relative to their playing style. What all of this means is that the Fever are not necessarily a team that's going to blow people's socks off offensively but they have a pretty good balance up and down the roster, which gives head coach Lin Dunn a number of different combinations to play with while not necessarily having a huge drop off in performance (this is what the Chicago Sky discovered this past weekend).

  1. Balance

Having balance and diversity is important, but so is having players that complement each other in another way: scoring.

Basketball is ultimately a game about scoring (and stopping opponents from doing so) and more specifically, about managing possessions to outscore opponents as efficiently as possible. So that means two things: as Richardson alluded to, a team needs go-to players who a team can depend upon to score (a high usage rate) and hopefully do so without costing the team too many possessions in the process (scoring while minimizing empty possessions). However, Tulsa also illustrates the flip side of that: there's only one ball on the court. So if everyone on the court wants the ball in their hands to score, team chemistry falls apart - it would stand to reason then that good basketball teams have someone willing to defer. Yet there's another wrinkle to that: great basketball teams can also get efficient "scoring contributions" from the players willing to defer when the opportunities arise. In other words, having the ball in their hands doesn't cost the team a scoring possession, they just don't necessarily create a lot of scoring opportunities for themselves.

The perfect example of that based on 2009 numbers was the Washington Mystics and we sort of have a natural experiment of the point with their 2010 performance thus far. As I noted when they announced All-Star guard Alana Beard's season-ending injury, Beard was one of two high usage players on the team last year (the other being Matee Ajavon). However, what I did not mention is that five of their players who didn't put up high usage numbers, did have a high floor percentage or the ratio of individual possessions on which a player scored (on a field goal attempt or free throw), created a scoring possession for the team (on an assist), and indirectly helping a team's ability to preserve possessions through offensive rebounding.

Floor percentage differs from a usage rate (which is a proxy for a player's ability to create scoring opportunities for themselves) or the points per zero point possession (which looks at how well a player balances scoring possessions with creating non-scoring possessions). What a low usage player's floor percentage tells us is how well a player contributes to that ultimate goal of scoring even if they aren't a scorer.

So for example, nobody would consider Crystal Langhorne a "scorer" - she rated as an interior utility player last season. However, she had among the league's highest floor percentages (69.49%) due to high shooting percentages and a free throw rate of 28.8%, which is exactly average for players with her tendencies. In other words, Langhorne was not a team's go-to player who the team can rely upon to create a whole lot of scoring opportunities - so far this season, that would appear to be Monique Currie, who has boosted her scoring average 10 points. However, she is able to contribute to the team's effort to maximize possessions for the sake of scoring.

In 2009, Currie, Langhorne, Melvin, and Katie Smith all had below average usage rates for their tendencies, but above average floor percentages. Point guard Lindsey Harding had a usage rate of below 20% -- below league average, but above average for a distributor - and hence I paired her usage rate with her points per empty possession ratio as a player who looks to score frequently for her style of play. Compared to the league's other point guards with above average usage rates, she balanced getting scoring possessions with the risk of empty possessions very well. That means that while the Mystics may have struggled in the half court occasionally and seemed to need a high usage player (Beard) to "bail them out", in fact the entire supporting cast was also quite efficient in creating scoring possessions for the team. Currie has essentially stepped into Beard's "function" this season as a scorer (helped by Harding's increased scoring as well) and led to the team to a 3-1 start despite losing their leading scorer.

The question for the Mystics is whether a player like Currie -- who has not typically been a go-to player during her career -- can continue at this pace. If so, the Mystics will almost certainly return to the post-season this year and can look forward to bigger things next season.

  1. Complementarity/Synergy

So after knowing how balanced a roster is (both in terms of complementarity and versatility), the next thing is to think about the team's style of play in terms of ball movement, which is an important factor in the WNBA, though hardly deterministic. For example, while a team like Washington that has a number of relatively low usage players may depend heavily on ball movement, a team like the Atlanta Dream might depend less on ball movement, even with the loss of Chamique Holdsclaw. The team has four efficient scorers relative to their playing tendencies. Three of those four are also among the team's players who have above average usage rates relative to their playing styles (Erika de Souza, Sancho Lyttle, and Angel McCoughtry). In other words, they have a number of players - adding Iziane Castro-Marquz - who can and will create their own scoring opportunities and do so efficiently.

This is what makes point guard Shalee Lehning - who has an above average floor percentage despite one of the lower usage rates in the league - effective in her role on this team. They don't necessarily need a point guard who will score a lot or even look to aggressively create those scoring opportunities for low usage players; they need exactly what Lehning gives them: a player who can bring the ball up court and put the ball in the hands of scorers. It means that Atlanta can win games without necessarily having high ball movement because they have players who are able to create scoring opportunities in 1 on 1 situations.

So "synergy" -- how well the team works together - for Atlanta, might look very different than that of Washington.

With that framework, a note on the three remaining teams I have yet to look at this season:

Depth & Integration

The Storm have one of the most versatile, balanced, and cohesive starting lineups in the league. The struggle for them has been to get productivity out of their bench.

This year's bench is almost indisputably better than last year's from top to bottom. The issue for Agler is maximizing that talent by figuring out how to integrate bench players into the system. Alison Lacey has been the perfect example.

"Alison Lacey only played two minutes, but got two steals," said Agler after Saturday's win against Phoenix. "So she's somebody that we're eventually going to get in there we just gotta figure the right people to put on the floor with her when she goes in for Sue. And we gotta figure that out."

If there is already some sort of chemistry among the starters, depth does not just mean having talent on the bench, but having players who can step in and maintain momentum. While Agler appears more willing to look to his bench this year compared to last, it's a challenge that could end up determining how far the Storm go this season.

"We're trying to get a couple of other people into that rotation," said Agler at yesterday's practice, referring to the fact that Svetlana Abrosimova and Le'coe Willingham have cracked the rotation. "It's not as easy as you might think -- not only do you want to get people playing time, but you have to have the right combinations out there to have success and we have to manage that still. And we have to go through a process."

Individual play

Going back to Tulsa, they have elements of balance, cohesion, and versatility but their lack of a go-to player is really hurting them. What they need to find is someone who - perhaps similar to Monique Currie - can evolve into that kind of efficient high usage go-to player. Kara Braxton fits the bill in terms of usage and efficiency, however she's also an interior utility player, meaning she has much higher rebounding tendencies than she does scoring tendencies. Furthermore, in Tulsa's uptempo system, she's not the ideal candidate to look to for scoring.

Point guard Shanna Crossley is an average usage and efficient shooter relative to the league's other pure scorers, however she has not been a go-to scorer for significant minutes before. Shavonte Zellous seems like a strong candidate as a pure scorer who can not only create her own shot but get to the free throw line. However, she's also a player that seemed to thrive more in half court sets where she could square up against opponents one-on-one. While it was nice for Tulsa to get that first win out of the way, their fate will be determined by both coming together as a unit and finding someone who can stand apart from the unit.

"You're working Shanna so hard trying to - because she's probably our best shooter," said Richardson after the home loss to San Antonio. "Then you've got to use Holt. Holt is probably right now one of the better players defensively and offensively. You're hoping that people like Zellous would begin to start coming along and Hornbuckle come along. They were team players last year who in a lot of games did some good things. So when you talk about a go-to person, we don't have a real go-to person at this point."


All of this brings us finally to San Antonio and why their signing of Chamique Holdslaw appears to work so well.

Holdsclaw is a high usage player who's not particularly efficient compared to other players with her tendencies so it might seem odd to say that she's a perfect fit for this team. However, what we might have missed about San Antonio is that they already had a combination of efficient scorers given their tendencies (6) and among the most efficient teams at getting to the free throw line. While you could look at their depth chart and say they need a point guard, they are also had a combination of some of the least turnover prone players by playing style in the league (6 were above average given their playing style).

What Holdsclaw adds compared to Snell is this: they both had strong scoring tendencies in 2009. Holdsclaw was just more productive and was able to get her shot more easily. Most everything else that separates the two could be attributed to Holdsclaw's ability to play better at a higher usage rate in bigger minutes, but that in and of itself means that the Silver Stars have a legitimate third option as a scorer. To put that in perspective: Snell's career-high in four years as a professional player was 21 last season against the Mercury. Holdsclaw scored 19 on 9-15 shooting in her first game with the Silver Stars.

Scoring certainly isn't everything, but as long as you have a scorer on your roster, they might as well be able to score for you. Holdsclaw vaults the Silver Stars from fringe playoff team - possibly even on the outside looking in - to legitimate playoff contender. If they can re-establish the chemistry that they're known for without Ann Wauters, the whole could even end up better than the sum of the parts we see now.