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Atlanta Dream: Harding vs. Lehning: "Which one is better?"

In Atlanta, we now have Lindsey Harding to lead the Dream at point guard and theoretically to its first WNBA Championship in the 2011 season. 

Harding, if you don't know, was the #1 Draft Pick in the 2007 WNBA Draft.  If she becomes the Dream's starter - and as the Magic Eight-Ball says, "All signs point to YES" - she would supplant Shalee Lehning, the starting point guard over the regular season for most of 2009 and 2010.

But is Harding really a better choice than Lehning to run the point? 

We could simply look at the two play and convince ourselves that Harding is simply "better" than Lehning.  There are enough women's basketball fans out there who see as many WNBA games as possible, who have probably watched both Harding and Lehning play for their teams over the course of fifty or more games.  They probably followed Harding's career at Duke and Lehning's career at Kansas State, and many are excellent judges at evaluating talent.  But if you're the kind of person who hasn't seen that much basketball, either by choice or by the interference of that thing called life, how can you tell that Harding is really better than Lehning?

Here's an idea: We'll look at several different metrics and see how well Lehning and Harding stack up in each of them.

Player Efficiency Rating (PER)

PER was a metric created by John Hollinger that is so complicated that describing it beggars reason.  The point of PER was that a value of 15.00 would always indicate an average player.  If you have a PER of 30.00 or higher, that's an MVP season.

We now compare Lifetime PER, which is Season PER weighted over each season in a player's career, weighted by minutes played per team.

Harding:  12.92
Lehning:  9.07

Both of these PER values are below average, but two things have to be kept in mind.  First, Hollinger created his metric for NBA players and not WNBA players so PER is less accurate.  Second, PER tends to undervalue the contribution of point guards.  Even so, using Hollinger's reference guide, Harding deserves to be in the rotation somewhere whereas Lehning's low PER suggests that if she ever purchased property in Atlanta it was probably a mistake.

Adjusted Wins Score

Adjusted Wins Score is a slightly less complex metric in that anyone who has a high school algebra background can calculate it.  Furthermore, AWS has a high correlation to teams winning ball games.  We'll look at each player's lifetime AWS.

Lehning:  84.2
Harding:  34.8

Hmm.  Well, one difference between PER and AWS is that PER isn't a cumulative metric - if you're an average player, you get a PER of 15.00 regardless of if you play 50 minutes in your career or 500.  Whereas AWS is a cumulative metric and is influenced by how much a given player is on the court, and Harding had two mediocre seasons with Minnesota in 2007 and 2008 where she scored in the negative numbers in AWS.

If you compare directly - for 2009 and 2010 only - Lehning registers 84.2 and Harding registers 75.3.  However, Lehning's Assists/Turnover ratio is a lot better than Harding's over that period of time, which probably penalizes Harding in AWS.  However, Harding has been expected to do a lot more than Lehning has in the offensive game, which gives Harding more opportunities to do something bad and to incur negative points in AWS.  I'll call this one a draw.

Similarity by Age

Here are the ten players most statistically similar to Shalee Lehning, by age - in other words, after looking at all WNBA players which players posted similar stats to Lehning at her age?

Noelle Quinn
Kristen Veal
Kristin Haynie
Amber Jacobs
Loree Moore
Jamila Wideman
Doneeka Lewis
Shyra Ely
Sheila Lambert
Marla Brumfield

Most of these players have unusually similar stat lines to Lehning - a bad sign because the hallmark of greatness is that there's no one that can be compared directly to you.  (In Quinn's case - the closest match - Lehning is a better shooter but Quinn has fewer personal fouls.)  What do most of these players have in common?  Well, they're generally no longer playing in the WNBA and none of them had a career greater than five years, suggesting that the red light in Lehning's palm is starting to blink.

Now we'll do the same for Harding:

Korie Hlede
Eva Nemcova
Charde Houston
Sandy Brondello
Penny Toler
Crystal Langhorne
LaToya Thomas
Tonya Edwards
Michelle Edwards
Camille Little

The similarity scores by age are still close, but less close than in Lehning's case - it's harder to find someone in WNBA history who is "exactly like Lindsey Harding".  We're also seeing players like Houston and Langhorne and Little, players who are still active in the WNBA.  The lists suggest that Harding is a better player because it's harder to find players that match her.

"But Harding has the advantage of four years of WNBA experience!" 

Okay, we'll take two of those years away and see who matched her after just two years of play.  Harding's new list of matching players will be a bunch of washouts just like in Lehning's case.  But even so, Harding has two things going for her - her years at Minnesota weren't her best years so Similarity by Age will match her with a worse set of opponents, and even the washouts (Nikki Blue!  Georgia Schweitzer!) on her list are more difficult fits for Harding after two years as compared to Lehning.

Hall of Fame Projection

This metric looks at the usual crap sportswriters look at - the big three stats (points, rebounds, and assists) as well as rings and MVP awards.  Neither of these players have bedecked themselves in glory with regard to the important things sportswriters look for.  With regard to Hall of Fame Projection, given their current body of work the only way these two would make a Women's Professional Basketball Hall of Fame is to buy a ticket. 

Neither player has received as much as even a partial MVP vote.  Neither player has a ring. 

However, Lindsey Harding was an All-Star in 2010.  Lehning has never been an All-Star in either year.  Furthermore, Harding has 11.0 points per game lifetime compared to Shalee Lehning's 3.4 points per game.  Advantage goes to Harding.

Direct Comparison

Because Shalee Lehning's career is so short, it allows us the luxury of a direct comparison.  The only team Harding ever played for while Lehning has been in the WNBA is the Washington Mystics.  Since both are point guards, they've faced each other maybe a dozen times.  So how did it go in any of those cases:

June 7, 2009Washington 77, Atlanta 71.  Lehning didn't start and scored zero points - this is when Nikki Teasley was the Dream's point guard - and Harding played 36 minutes as a starter with zero points. Lehning's plus/minus was -2, Harding's was +16.  Give this one to Harding.

June 19, 2009Atlanta 93, Washington 81.  Lehning still isn't starting.  Harding had six points, Lehning had five.  Lehning's plus/minus was +2 compared to -8 for Harding.  Lehning gets the advantage.

July 3, 2009Atlanta 72, Washington 65.  Harding played 34 minutes as a starter and scored 11 points; Lehning only got 12 minutes - Coco Miller was at point - and scored 5 points.  Lehning's plus/minus is better but given the discrepancy in minutes, we'll call this one a draw.

September 12, 2009 - Washington 82, Atlanta 64.  Atlanta fans remember this game, because Lehning suffered her shoulder separation in it.  It was a meaningless game - Atlanta couldn't move up or down in playoff position - but Lehning started and only got nine minutes of play before she was out.  This one is a non-contest due to injury. 

June 5, 2010 - Atlanta 86, Washington 79 (OT).  Lehning had only three points and it looks like time was split at the point between Atlanta and Cryin' Kelly Miller.  Harding played 40-plus minutes and scored 14 points.  Advantage Harding.

July 21, 2010 - Washington 82, Atlanta 72.  The decision was made to start Kelly Miller, and Lehning didn't play.  Non-contest due to non-appearance.

August 3, 2010 - Washington 86, Atlanta 78.  Finally, Lehning and Harding are starting again.  Lehning had 23 minutes without scoring a point.  Harding had 28 minutes...and 16 points.  Advantage Harding.

August 22, 2010 - Washington 90, Atlanta 81.  With this victory, Washington clinched its first regular-season Eastern Conference title in the final regular season game for both teams.  Harding had seven points and eight assists (but shot 3 for 13) ; Lehning played half the game with only three points to show for it.  A tough call, but I'll give Harding the advantage.

August 25, 2010 - Atlanta 95, Washington 90.  Atlanta's first playoff victory in their history.  Atlanta Dream head coach Marynell Meadors made the decision to remove Lehning as a starter; Lehning would start none of Atlanta's playoff games.  She played four minutes.  Harding played the entire game with 14 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.  Advantage to Harding.

August 27, 2010 - Atlanta 101, Washington 77.  This game was over at halftime as Washington was swept in the opening round of the playoffs.  Even though Lehning didn't start, both players had similar minutes.  Lehning had 7 points and 9 assists, Harding had 7 points but only one assist.  Furthermore, Lehning had a +22 plus/minus since three players on the Dream scored 20 points or more.  Harding has to take her share of blame for the Mystics first-round fold-o, so advantage goes to Lehning.

(* * *)

Sum total:  10 games played

Harding:  better 5 times
Lehning:  better 2 times
Draws:  1 time
Inconclusive:  2 times

The advantage, once again, belongs to Lindsey Harding.  So if you're an Atlanta fan and wondering if Lindsey Harding is "all that", well she probably isn't but she's better than Lehning - Harding can put points on the board but Lehning can't. 

It doesn't mean that Lehning doesn't deserve a spot on a WNBA roster somewhere.  Lehning is good at not turning over the ball, a skill that seems to elude many WNBA point guards.  But something tells me this year that you'll be seeing Lehning primarily when either Harding needs a rest or if she ends up in the Meadors doghouse.