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2013 WNBA Finals X-Factor: Alex Bentley's defense at the point guard spot key to Atlanta Dream success

While the Minnesota Lynx return to the WNBA Finals with one of the most consistently successful point guards in league history, the Atlanta Dream return with an entirely different rotation. And while Tiffany Hayes has gotten much-deserved attention as a candidate for Sixth Woman of the Year, it might be Alex Bentley's defense that plays a role in the Dream's success.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

When Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen starts Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, she will become the first point guard in league history to:

  • ...start in five WNBA Finals.
  • ...start in two Finals as a member of the All-WNBA first team (with apologies to Sue Bird, who was robbed in 2010).

Whalen was already the first point guard to start consecutive Finals rounds with two different teams and to start two Finals as the league's assist leader. And if longevity matters, the fact that there have been 9 years between her first (2004) and most recent Finals appearance is impressive. On top of all of that, Whalen has now been the starting point guard for the team with the league's best record in 5 of her 10 seasons in the league.

We can debate the significance of any of that trivia as measures of team success masquerading as individual milestones - or merely useless tidbits of information - but at the very least Whalen has clearly been consistent consistent and at best she probably does actually have that much of an impact on team success as one of the league's best point guards in history.

In contrast, the Atlanta Dream will be embarking upon a point guard first of their own when they begin the Finals: the first team to advance to three Finals with three entirely different point guard rotations (bearing in mind that Coco Miller hardly played in the 2011 WNBA Finals).

Season Starter Reserve 1 Reserve 2
2013 (projected) Jasmine Thomas Alex Bentley
2011 Lindsey Harding Coco Miller
2010 Coco Miller Shalee Lehning Kelly Miller

Atlanta Dream point guard rotations for the 2010, '11, & '13 WNBA Finals.

Again, this isn't necessarily significant at all but it is interesting: most successful professional teams, male or female, don't cycle through point guards (or really any position) at that rate. And when they do make a change, it's usually for an upgrade to a player who can help them take the next step (whatever that may be).

For the Dream, the ability to even get back to the Finals with an entirely different point guard rotation in part reflects the quality of the rest of their personnel over the past few years: their frontcourt has helped them remain among the best rebounding teams in the league and of course there's All-Star Angel McCoughtry on the wing along with defensive standout Armintie Herrington.

Yet the main reason the Dream have almost made the point guard position look irrelevant is their style of play: they're a team that has always liked to push the pace to score in transition and they have wings who handle the ball efficiently enough to minimize their reliance on point guard play. Herrington has consistently been among the efficient ball handlers in the league on the wing, with her relatively low 2013 pure point rating (-0.9) still being well-above average for her position. People have already given McCoughtry attention for her improvement as a distributor this year with a career-high assist average. Tiffany Hayes, though not an elite ball handler, has proven more than capable of doing what the Dream need in open court: getting to the rim to score.

With that, the common theme linking the Dream's revolving door at point guard is clearly a need for speed.

Replacing Lindsey Harding

Prior to this season, James wondered how the Dream would go about replacing star point guard Lindsey Harding, who seemed to be the long-term solution at point guard when she first signed there.

Although neither Alex Bentley nor Jasmine Thomas can single-handedly match what Harding brings to the table, they do help to accomplish James' option C: replacement by aggregate.

Player MPG PPR FT Rate TS%
Lindsey Harding (2012) 30.6 3.07 29.81% 50.1
Alex Bentley 22.1 3.2 13.4% 46.7
Jasmine Thomas 27.5 0 13.8% 40.7

Comparison of Lindsey Harding in 2012 to Alex Bentley & Jasmine Thomas in 2013.
Click here to see Harding's 2013 numbers.

What makes Harding better than either Bentley and Thomas is not necessarily that she's a better shooter but that she gets to the free throw line more than twice as often. However, there's also a bit of a tradeoff there: what Bentley and Thomas lack in their ability to penetrate and get to the line, they've more than made up for with 3-point shooting which has been a major need for the Dream in each of their visits to the Finals (and, incidentally, the reason why Harding looked like such an attractive option).

Harding is a career 25.1% 3-point shooter who has shot under that for two years straight now with her 18.2% 3-point shooting in 2013. Meanwhile, Bentley and Thomas shot 32.9% and 21.6% from beyond the arc. None of these players can be mistaken for great 3-point shooters - Bentley's percentage is inflated by ridiculously hot early-season shooting - but all things considered the Dream's 2013 combination arguably more than replaced the production of a seemingly declining Harding.

Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn even said before the Eastern Conference Finals that Thomas alone adequately replaced Harding because of her physical attributes.

"First of all, I think losing Harding is a tough loss for Atlanta - she's an elite point guard," Dunn said during a media teleconference prior to the conference finals. "But I think they did a great job of replacing her with Jasmine Thomas. I think Jazz this year has played as well as I've ever seen her play. She's bigger, and she's taller than Harding, and she's just as quick or maybe quicker. So that's kind of a wash."

Yet reality is that this probably doesn't work at all without Alex Bentley and that may become especially true in the 2013 WNBA Finals.

Dream X-Factor: Alex Bentley's defense

There were two major critiques of Bentley-the-draft-prospect, which I summarized just prior to the beginning of the 2013 season: "...the big problem for Bentley is that she has also been knocked for having an inconsistent jumper, which makes for a bad combination: her low assist ratio makes her very questionable as a distributor and if she can't knock down jumpers consistently, she could struggle to make an impact."

Although she pretty much maintained a somewhat low assist ratio and her college shooting numbers were a harbinger for below average efficiency to come, Bentley has become a much more efficient ball handler as a pro because she simply does not turn the ball over much (an 11.5% turnover ratio is solid for a ball handler). Her improved efficiency as a pro also reflects something else that was evident from watching her in college: she was an above average decision-maker in transition, making the fit with Atlanta mutually beneficial.

But surprising efficiency aside, the biggest strength that carried over from college to pro for Bentley were her defensive instincts: she had the highest steal percentage of any player drafted in 2013 (6.29%). Steal percentages aren't always an indicator of defensive ability but at that high a rate they are often an indicator of athletic ability. For Bentley it has been a little bit of both.

What Bentley lacks in height, she makes up for in having a strong frame and a tenacity to bother opposing point guards as they bring the ball across half court. And she generally plays to the scout: she'll force players left, crowd poorer ball handlers, and give proper respect to the league's quicker guards. But the intensity rarely wanes, even against the likes of Whalen.

One of the things that really stood out in the Dream's August 20th win over the Lynx was that Whalen had a much easier time getting to her spots against Thomas than against Bentley. And that is in part because Bentley simply doesn't back down from anyone. That sometimes gets her in trouble - she picks up some ill-advised fouls and occasionally gets beat on a gamble - but she also played a significant role in holding Whalen to 2-for-9 shooting in late August: the two made buckets came on drives against Thomas.

Bentley's ability to guard bigger players is also what allows the Dream to "go small" with the lineup of Thomas-Bentley-Herrington/Hayes-McCoughtry-Erika de Souza that they used to rout the Lynx in the fourth quarter of that August game. Bigger players like Augustus and Moore are going to score against Bentley or Thomas, but their speed makes the team defense tough. The combination of Bentley and Hayes off the bench gives the Dream options in trying to guard the Minnesota perimeter and that could become huge, especially if Bentley can even come close to helping contain the likes of Whalen again.

A good point guard fits the team's style of play

Prior to the Dream's first visit to the Finals in 2010 there were a lot of questions about how their point guard combination of Coco Miller and Shalee Lehning would match Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird, who was in the midst of an outstanding campaign. Ultimately what it came down to was that although neither Miller(s) nor Lehning was as good as Bird, Miller's aggression as a scorer during that playoff run was beneficial to the team because it gave them a change of pace. Ditto for Harding in 2011: although she had one of the best point guard performances as a distributor in the Finals that we've witnessed in recent years, it was her ability to alternate between scoring and passing that helped keep the Lynx defense off balance (to whatever extent the Dream were able to do so in a three-game sweep).

And that sort of defines the value of a point guard: they set the pace by making the decisions that make the team go. For the Dream, that might start on the defensive end.

Regardless of the outcome of this series, chances are that Whalen will win the point guard battle: she was by far the best distributor in the playoffs and better all-around than the Dream's combination. But it's also worth noting that if you're going to contain Whalen, it begins with speed but ends with having somebody who won't go into matador mode when she puts her head down to drive. Bentley could be that for the Dream in this series, giving the team a defensive change of pace when she enters the ball game.