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WNBA Power Rankings: Eastern Conference Playoff Race All About Consistency

Although the Chicago Sky began their current Western Conference road trip against the Seattle Storm in last place, coach Steven Key saw it as an opportunity to move up in the Eastern Conference standings.

"We're right there," said Key prior to the game against the Storm. "We're in a tough spot -- we're on the west coast and everybody is back east playing each other. We've already played four and five Eastern Conference games. Don't have the greatest record. But we have to come out west, try to get some wins while everybody else back in the Eastern Conference beats each other up because we have these next three Western Conference games. If we're successful we could go back home and go from last to third place which says something about the importance of each and every game we play."

Unfortunately, things haven't quite worked out as Key hoped they would. Although the Connecticut Sun have done their part to help the Sky in dropping 5 of their last 6 games, the New York Liberty have gotten hot winning four in a row and moving in the 4th spot in the East. So even if the Sky defeat the Los Angeles Sparks tonight, they'll finish their road trip exactly where they started: last.

But of course, Key is far less concerned about the performance of other teams and more concerned with the consistency of his own team.

"We're going to have to be consistent," said Key. "On the nights that we've come out and been consistent, particularly on our defensive end which turns into better offense for us, we have a better chance of winning. So I think if we're consistent, particularly defensively, we'll have the opportunity to win the games necessary to win the playoffs."

When looking at the Sky's performance by the numbers this season, that's exactly what plays out: this is not a bad team. In fact, defensively the Sky are much improved over last season, improving from allowing 102.67 points/possession in 2009 (11th in the WNBA) to 98.49 points/possession (5th). Given that they've remained just about average in terms of their offensive output (99.22 pts/poss, 6th in the WNBA), they're a better team overall this season primarily because of their defensive effort.

The problem is that as Key alludes to they're just one of the more inconsistent teams in the league this season meaning that their statistics are much better than their record might suggest.

So that puts them in an awkward position in the latest power rankings -- as an inconsistent team that has the toughest strength of schedule to date, the Sky are in the odd situation of appearing to perform quite well relative to the rest of the league yet remaining last in the Eastern Conference, needing to make up 3.5 games on a hot New York Liberty team in 7 games.

The Sky are probably the most extreme representation of what has happened this season: although the Storm seem to remain a one team elite even after consecutive losses, the Eastern Conference has been extremely competitive and now late in the season the Western Conference is demonstrating that maybe they're not quite as far behind as records imply with the Phoenix Mercury going 8-2 over their last 10 and beating both Chicago and New York in the process. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Lynx took out the slumping Sun last night.

In other words, as everybody from Key to Storm coach Brian Agler have maintained all season, every team is relatively competitive this season despite clearly imbalanced conference standings. If nothing else, it will make the race to the playoffs more interesting than people might expect right now.

Power rankings as of Monday, August 2nd
(click here for an explanation)

Team MEV diff. MEV Opp MEV Strength Weakness
1. Seattle Storm 24.90 80.65 55.74 + eFG% - ft rate
2. Indiana Fever 15.90 71.91 56.01 + eFG% - ft rate
3. Atlanta Dream 7.60 80.26 72.65 + oreb% - ft rate
4. New York Liberty 4.87 70.22 65.14 + tov% - ft rate
5. Chicago Sky 4.19 70.10 65.91 + tov% - oreb%
6. Phoenix Mercury 1.58 92.22 90.63 + eFG% - oreb%
7. Washington Mystics .84 63.03 62.19 + oreb% - tov%
8. Connecticut Sun -2.43 71.24 73.68 + oreb% - eFG%
9. Los Angeles Sparks -7.5 66.28 73.87 + eFG% - oreb%
10. San Antonio Silver Stars -9.79 65.60 75.39 + ft rate - oreb %
11. Minnesota Lynx -14.65 63.81 78.46 + oreb% - eFG%
12. Tulsa Shock -25.92 64.70 90.63 - oreb% - eFG%

(Key: eFG% = effective field goal percentage differential, FT rate = free throw rate differential, oreb% = offensive rebounding percentage differential, tov% = turnover percentage differential)

Notes:

  • Wait! Didn't the Mercury beat the Sky?!?!? Yes, they did. But these numbers are for the season, not just this weekend. The Mercury's trade for Braxton might be enough to vault them into 4th because Braxton should help their offensive rebounding differential considerably. They are last in second chance points through Sunday and even if Braxton gets a few more defensive rebounds a game it could make a difference.
  • Are the Sky that much better than the Mystics? It's close, but ultimately probably not...which I might add demonstrates the harm of numbers without some context, though numbers can be a starting point. But the big difference between these two is turnovers. Washington's biggest four factors weakness is their turnover percentage differential and they have the highest turnover percentage in the league at 22.94%. So while Washington allows the second most points off turnovers in the league (17.77), Chicago gives up the least (15.44). But where Washington wins games is on the offensive boards and that's a clue to what makes this team go: they win games by turning defense and hustle into points.

    Although the Mystics turn the ball over quite a bit, they also force the second most turnovers in the league (21.16%, narrowly ahead of Chicago's 21.14%) and manage to turn that into the fifth most points off turnovers in the league (17.08). Comparatively, turnover percentage differential is the Sky's biggest strength and they are 10th in points off turnovers (16.15). Moreover, Washington's biggest strength is offensive rebounding percentage differential and they turn that into the second most 2nd chance points in the league (13.96, tied with Seattle).

    To Key's point about consistency, part of what this illustrates is that Washington's ability to turn hustle and defensive effort into points might allow them to be a little bit more consistent but they are also adept at capitalizing on their biggest strength by turning it into points whereas the Sky are not necessarily doing the same. It's not that it doesn't show up in the numbers, but it is a matter of intangibles making up for statistical weaknesses.
  • What about the Liberty? Last year, the Liberty struggled to put points on the board and this year that problem has been solved (100.10 points/possession, 3rd in the league) partially by one Cappie Pondexter. But what might strike some as remarkable is that they manage to outshoot anyone given their tendency to fall in love with jump shooting, particularly Pondexter's jumpshot -- the Liberty's league-best 39.4% three point shooting gives them an edge when it comes to their effective field goal percentage differential despite shooting about even with their opponents from the field. However, the fact that they have the lowest free throw rate in the league (24.56%) and justifiably fall in love with long shots means that they aren't necessarily making scoring easy. But what they're showing now is that if they ever do decide to aim for easier scoring opportunities, they could be even more dangerous. 
  • What's happened to the Sun? The fact that their strength and weakness have flipped is perhaps one hint. They still sit at fourth in the league in points per possession at 99.76, but have the second worst field goal percentage in the league and third worst effective field goal percentage. Considering effective field percentage was a strength at one point and has now turned into a weakness means that it has declined considerably over the last month and that alone could explain why they're losing so many games. They travel to Seattle tomorrow, which will provide an opportunity to see them on national television and in KeyArena, the last team I have yet to see in person. 

Related Links:

Swish Appeal WNBA Power Rankings as of 6/21/10

Hollinger Power Rankings

Swish Appeal statistics glossary