2011 WNBA Pre-Preview: A framework for evaluating team chemistry

David made an excellent point about putting together teams after the 2011 WNBA Draft: with 11-player rosters, figuring out the process of perfectly fitting the pieces together is arguably a challenge of greater magnitude in the WNBA than other professional sports leagues.

Looking across the league, it's clear that a number of players with ample "upside" for future performance will miss out on a roster spot purely due to teams trying to fill basic needs in the present. As more than one team can attest to based on last year, with 11-player losing even two players to injury means you can't even run full 5-on-5 drills. So perhaps the defining problem is not identifying talent in training camp or even filling the roster with talent, but figuring out how well players fit the coach's philosophy, the team's system, and each other.

That is all part of what I might consider a team's "chemistry".

Last season, I previewed WNBA teams by looking at chemistry both in terms of statistics and conversations with coaches in hopes of estimating how well a team might perform. Those analyses centered around this fundamental question (and caveat):

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.

I will repeat the caveat by restating it: you'd be a fool to think that you can quantify a basketball team's potential statistically, if for no other reason because it doesn't account for the interpersonal chemistry that many might argue is more important in women's basketball than men's basketball.

So with all of the disclaimers in mind and a year's worth of evidence to adjust a few things, I'm refining my thinking around a few key questions:

1. How balanced is a team's roster?

There are a few ways to think about this notion of "balance" - one is certainly in terms of depth by position and another might be what's best described as diversity in terms of player styles.

However, what turns out to be most important with rosters of 11 players is player versatility. The Seattle Storm epitomized that, perhaps to an extreme. The Storm were one of three teams without a pure scorer on the roster (the fact that the others two were Phoenix and Washington means three of the league's top three teams were without what might be described as pure scorer). Without many pure player styles by position, the Storm had a number of players who were capable of doing more than one thing on the court - point guard Sue Bird could distribute and score, Tanisha Wright was the most efficient distributor at the shooting guard spot, Swin Cash is one of the more versatile wings in the league, Camille Little was among the league's leaders in steals from the four spot, and Lauren Jackson was...Lauren Jackson.

In other words, having a whole lot of different playing styles (the Indiana Fever had the most to start last season) is less important than having players who are multi-dimensional and adjust to the different things teams throw at them. But that doesn't mean player styles are useless either.

What player styles do give us is describe player tendencies in terms of how often players do things like shoot, rebound, get steals, etc. In doing so, they serve as a rough approximation of what roles players fill functionally and/or spatially as well, though not necessarily telling us how good they are at it.

So at the very basic level, you know that most traditionally successful basketball teams generally will have a distributor, two perimeter players, and two interior players. If we were to take it one level further, we can say that successful teams have personnel that help them gain advantages across the Four Factors: shooting efficiency, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding, and free throw rate. While having efficient distributors might help with a team's turnover percentage, strong interior players might help with rebounding.  Anyone could help with shooting and free throw rates but if you have players who tend to look for their own scoring a lot with one might hope that they do so efficiently or else they're burning possessions.

Last year, I broke player styles down into a number of sub-types, but the four major categories will do for the following reason: good teams manage possessions well by having a unit with a combination of players that can accomplish all four of the Four Factors.

2. How well do the players complement one another?

However, even if a team is balanced on paper, there's also the matter of how well players complement one another, particularly offensively. Of course that means having a mix of players who are willing passers (high assist ratio) and able to create scoring opportunities for themselves (high usage rate) but what also matters is that each does so efficiently.

Players with high usage rates - meaning, they shoot a lot - will hopefully have good true shooting percentages for their style of play (meaning they create points efficiently). Players with below average usage rates should hopefully do other things on the court that as role players that give them a high floor percentage, if not scoring efficiently then creating assists and getting offensive rebounds to help generate scoring possessions.

A team that has both efficient scorers and efficient role "players" can really put a lot of pressure on a defense because more people on the court are "threats" to help the team create scoring possessions. A team without both isn't exactly lost, but might face bigger challenges. A team with a bunch of efficient high usage players could obviously be dangerous but there's only one ball on the court meaning they could stagnate if somebody isn't on the court to pass the ball. A team with a bunch of players who struggle to create their own shot but can score efficiently would have to have strong ball movement to be successful.

But an ideal team will have some sort of complementary mix of scorers and role players that maximize the potential of the whole.

3. Which players might produce more than they did last year?

Something else I consider when previewing a team is how much room for growth players have - as players develop, their styles might change, but they might also become more efficient or productive which would strengthen the unit. A player's development is obviously most heavily dependent on some mix of attitude, opportunity, and work ethic, but statistics can help us figure out how much a player contributed. One way to do this is by using a player's Valuable Contributions Ratio (VCR), as described earlier this off-season.

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To help put VCR in perspective, the average VCR in the league last year was .76. So perhaps the best way to think about VCR is as a way to understand how many "quality minutes" a player might give you: a player with an average VCR probably gave you about as many quality minutes as they're capable of, a player with an above average VCR could probably give you more quality minutes, and a player with a below average VCR should probably have played less minutes. In other words, VCR gives us a way to project players as starters, rotation players, and bench warmers, which further helps us define their value on the market in terms of how many quality minutes they might provide you.

Combining this with the above discussion of player styles, it's also worth noting that each type of player (distributor, interior, perimeter, scorer) has a different average VCR (interior players have the highest average at .95, perimeter players have the lowest at .68). But VCR can give a statistical indicator of a player's potential to produce if given a similar role in more minutes.

4. How might new players reinforce strengths and bolster weaknesses?

One instance in which VCR is particularly useful is projecting quality minutes for players switching teams - knowing how many quality minutes they put in before given their style can help figure out how productive they'll be in a new situation, given a similar opportunity. If we take that with their strengths and weaknesses, we can figure out how big a contributor they might become in their new situation and perhaps what (if any) void departing players are leaving behind.

But figuring what rookies might contribute is far more difficult - offensive rebounding percentage tends to translate well and the rate of success of highly efficient college point guards is rather high. But otherwise, the college-to-pro transition is difficult to project.

Nevertheless, creating a team profile of tendencies, strengths and weaknesses with team and player statistics can be helpful in figuring out what kind of opportunity a rookie might get to contribute and whether they might have the goods to seize it.

5. How well do the personnel fit the team's presumed style of play?

I totally understand those who say that all of these numbers and...stuff...are just complicating an otherwise simple game that really only comes down to scoring on more possessions than the other team does.

I mean, duh - just put the ball in the basket more than the other team, right?!

But the fact is it takes a lot to get the ball in the basket and what statistics do very well is help us to get a sense for the landscape and give us a baseline from which to understand where teams seem to stand relative to each other.

Anyway, if your interest really is in simplicity, a more simple issue that certainly isn't quantifiable but quite concrete is what a coach does with the talent at their disposal.

A veteran high school coach once told me a basic principle a long time ago that I would consider obvious if I hadn't seen (youth, college, and professional) coaches violating it: a coach needs to craft a system that fits the personnel rather than cramming the personnel into a system. That's no less true in a league with 11-player rosters.