If you're wiling to excuse their home loss to the Phoenix Mercury, the San Antonio Silver Stars at full strength are undefeated.
Nevertheless, that 105-98 loss to the Mercury without forward Sophia Young actually remains a good starting to understand why they're off to a 7-1 start - they didn't necessarily lose that game because Young is one of the team's top two players along with guard Becky Hammon this year, as we've come to expect.
Young is actually having her least efficient scoring season (49.3%) since her rookie season (47.4%). Statistically, she's only narrowly ahead of rookie forward Danielle Adams (14.19%) as the player accounting for the third highest percentage of the team's overall statistical production (14.44%). Yet what they lost with Young out was twofold.
First, they lost Young's scoring in the paint. Although Young can step outside of the paint to score, she has been getting about half of her shots within five feet of the basket at a 58.1% clip. They aren't a team that rebounds particularly well no matter who's in the game - they entered this week dead last on the boards - but that inside scoring balances an offense that is otherwise heavily perimeter-oriented. Of the five players with the highest usage rates on their team, Young is their most consistent interior scoring presence - in shooting 4.5 threes per game, Adams is all around the court.
Young's absence was most noticeable in the second quarter when the Silver Stars shot only 33%, settling for quick mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper and were outscored 29-20; that quarter was essentially the difference in the game as they played well enough in the other three quarters to win the game.
Yet something else happened in the second quarter of that Mercury game that speaks even more directly to both what's made the Silver Stars so good this season and why Young's absence was so significant.
In addition for rushing their offense and settling for mid-range jumpers - if not contested closer shots - the Silver Stars were scoring on 1-on-1 plays far more often. Their rate of assisted field goals fell to 37.5% for a team that normally assists on their made field goals 64.41% of the time, tied for third in the league. More impressive though is their synergy rating, a proxy for not only how well they move the ball but how well they take advantage of it by converting on scoring opportunities - they lead the league with a synergy rating of 1.17.
And Sophia Young is no small part of that.
Young is one of six Silver Stars players to have a pure point rating - a player's ability to balance the risk of making turnovers in the process of creating assists - of over 2. The league average among point guards is 0.31. And their most efficient distributor happens to be rookie Danielle Robinson.
|Name||Assist Ratio||Turnover Ratio||PPR||Usage%|
Ball handling numbers for the San Antonio Silver Stars as of 6/29/11.
That's not at all to suggest that Young should be responsible for bringing the ball up court against pressure defense and barking out the play that she'll initiate. Point guards usually have assist ratios of at least 21% - meaning they create an assist on about a fifth of their plays they make - making it pretty obvious who the point guards are on this team. But what it does show is that half of their team handles the ball extremely efficiently.
Yet perhaps more significant is the turnover ratios - the key players on the Silver Stars that don't create assists as often as the primary ball handlers don't turn the ball over often either. That includes rookie Danielle Adams, who has the highest usage percentage on the team (26.63%) but a rather low turnover ratio of 6.27%. When the players with the ball in their hands looking to score most often are as efficient with the ball as the Silver Stars' entire rotation is, the team's offense becomes extremely dangerous.
Put in plain terms, this team is by far the best ball handling and passing team in the league and - even accounting for sample size - possibly the best passing basketball team we've seen in some time in the WNBA.
Nevertheless, when Young was replaced in the rotation by rookie forward Porsha Phillips for the Mercury game, the Silver Stars not only lost her interior scoring, but also a primary scorer and one of the team's more efficient ball handlers. Although Phillips is the team's best rebounder by percentage (17.36%, though center Jayne Appel could prove better with more minutes), the absence of Young's unique presence created significant problems on offense when they suddenly started settling for jumpers in the second quarter.
That's not at all a knock on the Silver Stars' bench though - much has been made of the bench's 46.6 points per game, approximately 50% of the team's scoring production this season. But it goes well beyond just scoring - in addition to Adams being the team's go-to player when she comes in the game, Phillips is an outstanding rebounder, and Robinson is an extremely efficient ball handler. Jia Perkins is an outstanding ball handler and strong defender this year. Once healthy, Appel could provide more rebounding help that this team could certainly use as a team that has not rebounded well this season.
Based on minutes and production, Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes is utilizing a 10-player rotation, with Appel slowly getting integrated into the system as a player coming off injury. It's a team that's incredibly balanced and yet in being so, they're also a team that relies on each one of those players to fill a specific role in order for the unit to succeed. That's what we saw in their win against the Atlanta Dream on Sunday - during their comeback down the stretch, they used a lineup of Hammon-Robinson-Perkins-Young-Adams.
While Hammon and Robinson shared ball handling duties, Perkins both defended and scored, Adams rebounded, and Young defended dynamic forward Angel McCoughtry admirably. It was an odd, yet effective, lineup against an Atlanta team that seemed more worn as much as anything else.
But the scenario of bouncing back at full strength after struggling with one player missing speaks volumes about the Silver Stars.
Almost any time you ask returning San Antonio Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes about what makes his team tick, he essentially comes back to exactly the same thing.
"We better have a certain chemistry, that you had that we can play to as a team," Hughes said when asked about what he was looking for from his players in training camp during the preseason media teleconference. "I just feel that's going to be very important coming out of it. So we need talents that blend well with each other, and we rarely focus defensively as a unit, and we need to have a personality that is, I think, consistent at areas."
Obviously, every team wants chemistry. However, moreso than any other team in the WNBA, the Silver Stars have defined themselves as something of a "chemistry team" - a team whose success is heavily dependent on sharing the ball with highly complementary players playing within well-defined roles.
Last season, the Silver Stars assisted on the least number of field goals (61.63%) since Becky Hammon's first season with the team (2007). So it's not terribly surprising that their 14-20 record was also the worst regular season finish in the Hammon era.
The Silver Stars were missing two pieces last season whose significance might have been felt more strongly in their absence: first, now-assistant coach Vickie Johnson - who brought another player with a distributor-level assist ratio to the backcourt. Second, Ann Wauters' passing from the high post was invaluable in helping to keep the offense running smoothly. That's not to mention Belinda Snell or Ruth Riley, both also more than capable passers for their position. In 2008 when they made their WNBA Finals run, those pieces were working in seemingly perfect harmony at times.
In 2010, Johnson was retired, Wauters chose not to play, Snell was released in favor of Chamique Holdsclaw - much more of a pure scorer - and Ruth Riley missed more than a third of the season. Jayne Appel, one of the best passing college centers to ever enter the WNBA and presumably someone who fit the mold, missed training camp due to injury and took some time to find any sort of rhythm in her rookie season.
Hammon still scored last season, but the Silver Stars didn't have the distributors around her to complement that scoring. This season, two things have happened: Hammon is functioning as both an aggressive scorer and efficient distributor while both distributing and scoring responsibilities have been redistributed across the roster instead of concentrated in 2-3 primary players.
No team more evenly shares the responsibility for the team's success than the Silver Stars this year. Every player has a role that fits each player comfortably, in both function and magnitude. Each player also fills a unique role that is vital for the Silver Stars' functioning as a strong unit. But that also gives Hughes a level of flexibility to play with lineups and adjust to what other teams are doing in ways that most teams could never hope to achieve.
On paper, nobody thought this collection of players would be as dominant as its current 7-1 record. But thus far, Hughes has utilized the roster he's put together masterfully and maximized his the potential of this team.
Tthe Silver Stars are starting to get back to playing the type of ball they played in 2008. The difference is that in being even deeper and more balanced, the Silver Stars probably embody the notion of a whole being even stronger than the sum of its parts more strongly than most basketball teams.