Significantly improved bench play is something that defined the early-season success of both the Los Angeles Sparks and San Antonio Silver Stars.
Tonight's opponents at the AT&T Center in San Antonio feature the two highest scoring benches in the league.
However, while that bench strength will likely contribute to arguments for Silver Stars coach Dan Hughes' bid for Coach of the Year, it might also have contributed to the Sparks' surprising dismissal of coach Jennifer Gillom on Sunday evening.
Of course, having a strong bench is a good thing, but an otherwise vague press release specifically pointed out that more was expected of Gillom even in star forward Candace Parker's absence, which is simultaneously complimenting their bench and criticizing coaching.
And by some strange coincidence, third-year reserve guard Kristi Toliver has been part of the good, bad, and the ugly of that dynamic.
Her elbow that knocked Phoenix Mercury guard Ketia Swanier out of the game caught the eye of the mainstream media and Richard Cohen of WNBAlien describes Gillom's decision to put her back in the game as part of a pattern of odd substitution patterns. Gillom's surprising decision to start Toliver instead of veteran Ticha Penicheiro against the Seattle Storm looks bad in light of the 99-80 loss they took in KeyArena on Saturday.
Yet conversely, Toliver's contribution has to be at least partially attributed to coaching decisions.
Regardless of whatever else we think about Gillom, she has had faith in Toliver, put her in a position to succeed and helped her to have a career year by doing more than just increasing her minutes (she's only getting 2 minutes more per game this year). Toliver is among the best pure shooting players in the league, the Sparks haven't been the best three point shooting team in the league over the last few years, and even with the ball in her hands as a point guard she's getting ample opportunity to spot up as a shooter off the ball.
As the Sparks move forward without Gillom, Toliver still stands to figure prominently whether the Sparks fail or succeed as losing too many games without Parker could result in missing the playoffs in a competitive Western Conference. They need continued production from Toliver off the bench if they expect to get back to playing as well as they did at the beginning of the season.
But how good is Toliver's improved production relative to the rest of the league? How does her shooting contribution off the bench compare to what the Silver Stars are getting from their bench?
Using the same framework outlined earlier in the season, the following is a look at the top six rookies as we close in on six weeks of the 2011 WNBA season.
And perhaps surprisingly given the success of the L.A. and San Antonio benches, the current statistical leader comes from neither bench.
Top Six 2011 WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year candidates
6. Armintie Price, G, Atlanta Dream
MVP: 5.04 | Strengths: Defense, free throw rate | Bench contribution: free throw production
Armintie Price has never been a terribly efficient scorer, but so far this year she has a career-high 49.58% true shooting percentage in addition to her very strong 3.21% steal percentage.
But it's her improvement on something that's always been a strength that gets her on this list - she's also shooting a career-high 61.7% from the free throw line, which is a significant improvement as someone with a free throw rate of 77.04%. That's big for a Dream team that has not shot the ball particularly well this season and has maintained a league-low 24% three point percentage this season.
5. Kristi Toliver, G, Los Angeles Sparks
MVP: 6.61 | Strengths: Scoring efficiency | Bench contribution: three point shooting, improved ball handling
Ranking third in the league in three point shooting (52.3%), Toliver's major contribution should be obvious. But the improved ball handling has also been big for the Sparks, although starting at point guard didn't necessarily work as well as Sparks coach Jennifer Gillom might have hoped in the team's 99-80 loss to the Seattle Storm.
With the coaching change, minutes or her role on the team could change, but her ascent to the top of the list of players coming off the bench this year is impressive.
4. DeWanna Bonner, F, Phoenix Mercury
MVP: 6.05 | Strengths: Free throw rate, turnover ratio | Bench contribution: Turnover ratio
Bonner is not at all out of this race as there is plenty more season to play, but she just doesn't stand out as the clear favorite as she has in past years. The main culprit is that she's scoring less this season, but I'm sure astute Mercury fans will point out that she's scoring exactly her career average over the last five games. And her versatility of being able to play inside and outside is of great value to any coach.
What she actually most brings to a Mercury team that turns the ball over slightly more often than their opponents is a player that is rather efficient with the ball as she has been throughout her career, turning it over at a team-low rate of 9.44%. At the speed that the Mercury normally like to play, that's significant.
3. Jia Perkins, G, San Antonio Silver Stars
MVP: 7.64 | Strengths: Ball handling efficiency, scoring efficiency | Bench contribution: Ball handling, heart
Jia Perkins singlehandedly won multiple games for the Chicago Sky as a starter who put up All-Star caliber numbers, so it's no surprise that she already has a couple of outstanding fourth quarter performances that led to wins this season. And those performances have probably been her biggest unique contributions to the Stars.
Her true shooting percentage of 57.20% is strong, but sixth on the team. Her pure point rating of 1.31 is in point guard range, but also sixth on the team. The team obviously has other scoring options. But what Perkins allows Hughes to do is play with other combinations and that makes her a strong candidate for the award, particularly if she continues to come up with game-winning performances - with 11-player rosters, that type of roster versatility assumes greater significance.
2. Danielle Adams, F, San Antonio Silver Stars
MVP: 7.59 | Strengths: Scoring efficiency, turnover ratio | Bench contribution: Offensive rebounding
What makes Adams great has changed much since last week when she was also second - and really, I'd say more 1b than "second" - in the rookie rankings.
So just to add to that, what makes her a strong reserve is actually not her scoring, but that one of the things that could be considered a growth area as a power forward: offensive rebounding. That she's not a dominant offensive rebounder by percentage makes a lot of sense - she spends more time than usual for a power forward hanging around the perimeter. However, as she plays for the team with the lowest offensive rebounding percentage in the league (22.87%), Adams' 7.85% offensive rebounding percentage ranks third on the team behind Jayne Appel (13.92%) and Porsha Phillips (9.72%), neither of whom average more than 12 minutes per game.
So in addition to all the scoring that gets noticed most often, Adams is a vital part of this team in helping out with something that is a significant weakness for the Silver Stars, which is what helps give her the edge over Perkins.
1. Essence Carson, G, New York Liberty
MVP: 7.64 | Strengths: Scoring efficiency, defense | Bench contribution: Defense, turnover ratio, free throw rate
The most significant thing to note about Carson individually is that she has improved her shooting efficiency considerably with a career-high true shooting percentage of 55.01% this year compared to 46.3% through the first three years of her career. However, Carson's improved scoring efficiency is not simply due to better shooting from the field - she's settling for threes slightly less often this season and hitting them at a higher percentage.
Carson's improvement is not simply a matter of getting more minutes, but a player whose playing slightly differently this season. But it's actually most impressive that she's gotten more efficient as a scorer as her minutes and usage rate (team-high 26.95% this season) have increased. Her improved turnover ratio (7.85%) is also of note for a team that gets out in transition so often.
What she brings to the Liberty off the bench is an efficient all-around player, but also a player who can get to the free throw line at a reasonable rate (27.5%) on a team that has by far the lowest free throw rate in the league (20.77%), which is generally a sign of a team that relies heavily on jumpers or, in the Liberty's case, a league-high 19.67 points off turnovers. And with a steal percentage of 2.48% (second on the team) Carson is at least as significant to her team as any bench player in the league, among the most versatile on both ends of the floor, and, statistically, the most significant of any.
The whole package that Carson brings is what puts her at the top of this list over Adams or Perkins, who could make a very good case for themselves as well.
|1. Essence Carson
|2. Danielle Adams
|3. Jia Perkins
|4. DeWanna Bonner
|5. Kristi Toliver
|6. Armintie Price
Statistics for Sixth Woman Rankings through July 10, 2011.
*Both Davenport and Hoffman moved into the starting lineup since the last rankings.