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WNBA Power Rankings: Atlanta Dream, Seattle Storm Peaking With Playoffs Approaching

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During the broadcast of a recent WNBA game, a commentator mentioned that making the playoffs is as much or more important than seeding because the parity in the league this season is actually quite remarkable, but also near-impossible to make sense of with the playoffs coming up on September 15.

It's almost as if we'd have to isolate performance from just last week to assess where teams stand, but that's obviously way too small a period of time to tell much of anything.

The Seattle Storm are playing significantly better basketball with Lauren Jackson back in the lineup. 2010 WNBA Finals counterpart Atlanta Dream are healthier than they were in the early season and are one of the hottest teams in the league. The Los Angeles Sparks are better despite a loss that still has Jessica Lantz on cloud 9 (or higher). And that Tulsa Shock team that launched Lantz is suddenly playing playoff-caliber ball over two games and rain on a few people's parades. The San Antonio Silver Stars have struggled since the All-Star break, but just got rookie forward Danielle Adams back, which could help them get back to the elite basketball they were playing early season.

And your guess about what the Chicago Sky will do game to game is as good as mine.

These are all great developments for fans - there will be drama leading up to and throughout the playoffs. But it's also nearly impossible to sort out any sort of hierarchy right now: with Adams, Jackson, and Parker back the Western Conference has changed dramatically and the Dream are well out-playing their spot in the standings and the teams at the bottom of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference are also improving.

Yet at the risk of being totally wrong, I'm going to take a shot using a set of statistics.

Click here for more on how teams were ranked, by - to use a cliche - separating activity and achievement.

Ultimately, the goal is to get closer to numbers that reflect both what we see and what we should look for.

So with that, a stab at power rankings as of right now:

Power rankings

1. Minnesota Lynx (23-6)

Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.87 21.96
ASG - 8/21/11 0.80 20.66
Last week 1.05 22.98


Strengths: + offensive rebounding | Weaknesses: - free throw rate

The Lynx have not quite been as dominant as the 2010 Seattle Storm, but they're actually not far off despite not steamrolling the league in the same way. What's most interesting about the Lynx compared to the Storm is that they can play a totally different style of basketball from game to game based on matchups to win. So there isn't going to be a player or a team strength that stands out as quite as dominant as say Lauren Jackson was last year.

But I said this from the day they got Whalen last year, which was ravaged by injuries - how exactly do you game plan for a team like this? If you focus on taking away any one strength, they'll just find another way to get the job done. If you try not to focus in on one thing, they'll be beating you so badly that you won't be able to adjust before 40 minutes is up.

No team (even the 2010 Storm) is invincible, but the Lynx are just an amazingly constructed basketball team.

2. Atlanta Dream (15-13)

Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.20 2.54
ASG - 8/21/11 0.53 13.67
Last week 0.47 10.42


Strengths: + turnover differential | Weaknesses: - shooting efficiency differential


Is it really fair to say the Dream are better than the first place Indiana Fever? Well, it's hard to say otherwise given how well they've been playing since the All-Star and after they beat the Fever in Indianapolis.

They're still peaking and most importantly, they have the fourth highest shooting efficiency since the All-Star break (48.15%), essentially negating their biggest weakness while also starting to improve their defense in terms of forcing turnovers and preventing opponents from getting offensive boards. Whether they're playing better than they were during last year's playoff run is hard to say because they're still peaking and were a more dominant rebouning team. But they're a very good team.

3. Indiana Fever (19-9)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.44 13.79
ASG - 8/21/11 0.85 22.27
Last week -0.55
-1.58


Strengths: + turnover differential | Weaknesses: - offensive rebounding

The Fever are a tough team to figure because they've actually been playing the best basketball of anyone since the All-Star break and it's worth noting (again) that they're doing it without injured point guard Briann January because they have a number of other players capable of distributing the ball efficiently. What makes this team so tough to beat is simply MVP candidate Tamika Catchings who just does a bit of everything.

But their rebounding weakness hurts them against a teams like the Dream or Lynx. They allow the second-most offensive rebounds in the league although they manage to deny a large portion of those chances to score second chance points (which is very impressive).

4. Seattle Storm
(17-12)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.01 0.65
ASG - 8/21/11 -0.34 -5.81
Last week 0.98
23.57

 

Strengths: + shooting efficiency | Weaknesses: - turnover percentage differential

Next week, with more than four games with Jackson under their belt, the Storm will be ahead of the Fever if they keep up this pace.

To cut to the chase, the big difference with Jackson in the lineup is that their turnover rate has gone way down and their free throw rate way up (league-high 35.63% last week) making this a team with entirely different strengths and weaknesses.

Can they challenge the Lynx for the Western Conference title? Not if they don't rebound better, but really, how many consecutive games can Lauren Jackson play without an offensive rebound?

5. New York Liberty (16-13)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.18 6.22
ASG - 8/21/11 0.07 4.90
Last week 0.41
13.98


Strengths: + turnover differential | Weaknesses: - free throw rate

It's almost a coin flip between New York and Connecticut right now, but New York's ability to generate offense from their defense is what separates them a bit and that's helping them overcome a declining shooting efficiency.

New York's shooting efficiency dropped from 50% prior to the All-Star break to 46.47% entering last week. But they were forcing the second-highest rate of turnovers in that time as well, which makes them a potent transition team with Cappie Pondexter leading the way.

Where their aggressive defense occasionally hurts them is that they've allow the second-highest free throw rate in the league since the All-Star break. That and inconsistent rebounding tend to hurt them.

6. Connecticut Sun (16-11)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.17 1.49
ASG - 8/21/11 0.31 5.30
Last week -0.02
-3.73


Strengths: + turnover differential | Weaknesses: - shooting efficiency differential

You don't want the Sun's road loss to the Shock to weigh too heavily on a season's worth of performance, but it did reflect a long-standing weakness.

The Sun's shooting efficiency is about average but they've been outshot by opponents, as was on full display in allowing the Shock to shoot 73.1% in the second half. The thing is, it's been a consistent weakness throughout the season whereas the other top teams tend to improve upon weaknesses over the course of a season.

While they're not quite as dependent on Tina Charles as, say, the Sky are on Sylvia Fowles, their reliance their post threat can makes them vulnerable to teams who are able to contain her (with Abi Olajuwon and Karima Christmas).

7. Phoenix Mercury (16-12)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.11 4.82
ASG - 8/21/11 -0.17 -1.19
Last week -0.35
-5.69


Strengths: + shooting efficiency | Weaknesses: - turnover percentage

This is obviously low for a team playing currently playing for second place behind the Lynx in the Western Conference - they've won five of their last eight as well, which isn't bad. But the fact is they're not playing well in the second half of the season at all.

The biggest culprit, as might be expected, is their defense. Until last week, they'd been outshot (48.88% to a league-high 51.18% eFG%) and forcing the least turnovers in the league (16.53%). In simple terms, they're not putting up much resistance on the defensive end.

Last week was better on the shooting efficiency front, but they only forced opponents into turnovers on a league-low 12.54%. With their complement of MVP-caliber players, they can obviously win any game and we have to give them a bit of a pass for their performance lately because Taurasi has been in and out of the lineup. But they also need more consistency on the defensive end, regardless of whether their star scorer is on the floor.

8. Chicago Sky (14-15)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.03 0.45
ASG - 8/21/11 -4.09 -0.03
Last week 0.24
0.10


Strengths: + shooting efficiency | Weaknesses: -turnover differential

The Sky's problem is simple: Sylvia Fowles is arguably the most purely dominant post player over the last two years when taking both defense and offense into account. But if they turn the ball over at an Eastern Conference-high 22.53% rate, they're not even getting the ball to Fowles often enough to fully utilize her. That's not their only problem as they also had the lowest effective field goal percentage in the Eastern Conference since the All-Star break entering last week.

But the Sky have won four of their last five and things got better last week as they shot 50% from the three point line and got their effective field goal percentage up to 52.35%, which obviously spreads the defense a bit and gives Fowles more room to work. Turning the ball over on nearly 1 in 4 possessions (24.7%) still didn't exactly help them, but there's little doubt that improved shooting can help them hang around in this playoff race even as Atlanta continues to surge.

9. San Antonio Silver Stars (13-15)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season 0.04 1.13
ASG - 8/21/11 -0.01 0.77
Last week -0.95
-23.40


Strengths: + turnover differential | Weaknesses: - offensive rebounding

If the Silver Stars don't make the playoffs, it would be one of the most tragic stories of the season. They've played relatively good basketball even without Adams in the lineup. It's just that their inability to rebound or score in the paint is killing them without her.

When they lose, it's often because they're forced to become a very perimeter-oriented team that lives and dies by jumpshots. Few basketball teams are able to win consistently like that and the Silver Stars haven't. But the main issue is that they've just had a brutal schedule in the second half so playing well isn't translating into wins.

With Adams back to give them back some scoring punch, an interior presence, and some rebounding help, they could be a threat in the playoffs. The problem is that if they get in as a fourth seed, they'll have to solve the Lynx conundrum and recent games suggest they don't have it figured out yet.

10. Los Angeles Sparks (12-17)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season -0.34 -6.25
ASG - 8/21/11 -0.61 -15.88
Last week 0.09
10.97


Strengths: + shooting efficiency | Weaknesses: - turnover differential

The Sparks still have a shot at making the playoffs, but it's not necessarily because they're playing any better than the teams immediately in front of them.

That said, they played much better last week - Tulsa loss notwithstanding - primarily due to decreasing their turnover percentage and holding opponents to a lower shooting efficiency.

But figuring this team out is still difficult - better execution in the final minute would have helped them beat the Storm, better defense in the final minute might have helped them beat the Shock, and better rebounding would have avoided overtime with Washington. They're not only struggling to close out games, but they're not playing well enough before the final minute to build a big enough lead to avoid having to do that repeatedly.

They could well end up making the playoffs simply because they have a home stand coming up and the Silver Stars are still not playing their best with Adams back. But something needs to change to have any shot of making it out of the first round if they did make it and it's hard to pinpoint why such a veteran team is having so many late-game lapses.


11. Tulsa Shock (3-25)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season -1.28 -29.34
ASG - 8/21/11 -1.18 -28.29
Last week -0.38
-11.46

Strengths: - offensive rebounding differential| Weaknesses: - turnover percentage differential

The Tulsa Shock turned a serious corner in their last two games finally overcoming their second half struggles to win a couple of games.

Most important is that they've also started to build an identity on rebounding and hustle, mostly outworking both the Sparks and Sun. Prior to the All-Star break, their offensive rebounding percentage was at 25.96%, third-worst in the league. Last week, it was 32.14%, which is in the elite range.

That rebounding change plus much better ball movement and Sheryl Swoopes boosting her scoring average 10 points as she's finally gotten comfortable makes them a much better team. If nothing else, teams can't look at the Shock as an easy win on the way to the playoffs.

12. Washington Mystics (5-23)


Team facs differential: MEV Differential
Season -0.51 -18.32
ASG - 8/21/11 -0.48 -17.69
Last week -0.77
-26.51

Strengths: + offensive rebounding differential | Weaknesses: - shooting efficiency differential

This might seem reactionary, but while the Shock are improving, the Mystics are pretty much where they've been all season and last week the Shock were a much better team.

The reason the Mystics stay in games though is because they're so dominant on the boards. The problem is that rebounding is their only significant strength and they're offensive rebounding percentage has dropped from 36.40% before the All-Star break to 30.92% entering last week. Even last week when they were back to dominant rebounding (37.39%) they allowed opponents a shooting efficiency of 53.43%.

It seems unlikely that the Shock will catch up to them in the win column, even if they continue to lose and the Shock continue to play as well as they did in the last two games.