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2013 WNBA playoffs preview: How far can the top-seeded Chicago Sky go?

The top-seeded Chicago Sky will be looking to exact some revenge on the fourth-seeded Indiana Fever in the first round of the 2013 WNBA playoffs led by star rookie Elena Delle Donne and star center Sylvia Fowles.

Chicago Sky coach Pokey Chatman will need to figure out how to beat an Indiana Fever team that won the season series 3-1.
Chicago Sky coach Pokey Chatman will need to figure out how to beat an Indiana Fever team that won the season series 3-1.
USA TODAY Sports

There was an interesting discussion recently about whether Elena Delle Donne or Sylvia Fowles should be considered the Chicago Sky's 2013 team MVP.

You can go back and read that conversation here, but here's the quick summary of the two sides:

  • Delle Donne was the piece that "the missing piece" whose addition put them over the top, taking a team that had never been to the playoffs not only to their first playoff appearance but all the way to first place.
  • Fowles, by just about any statistical measure, is having the better season and as the best player should be considered the MVP.

There's merit to both of these positions, which might have been reflected in the actual MVP voting in which Delle Donne ended up third and Fowles ended up fourth.

First, there's a lot to be said for the fact that the top three usage rates on the team belong to (in order) Allie Quigley (25.22%)*, Delle Donne (24.51%), and Epiphanny Prince (23.48%). Should the shots be distributed that way, with Fowles fourth in usage (a moderate 21.54%)? That's debatable. But that ordering - combined with the fact that the Sky were only fifth in points in the paint this season - does point to something else about the Sky: they are prone to become a very perimeter oriented, one-on-one team at times. And when they do start playing hero ball on the perimeter, there's little question about who bails them out in those situations: Elena Delle Donne.

Their numbers don't end up so skewed that it jumps off the page: according to the shot distribution statistics provided by the Minnesota Lynx, the Sky's shot distribution is relatively normal. But where it often shows up is in touches: Fowles can still go for long stretches of time without touching the ball or getting it in position to score. Yes, it's a normal shot distribution, but with Delle Donne's ability to drive and Fowles on the blocks, it probably shouldn't be normal - it probably should be skewed toward the interior; watch their games closely and you'll see more than one occasion where Fowles is wide open in the post and nobody even looks at her.

So in one sense, yes: Delle Donne could be considered the Sky's MVP because it gives them an option when they decide to ignore Fowles in the post.

But for now, we'll stay close to the numbers.

The Chicago Sky

MVP: Sylvia Fowles, C (MVP rating: 13.32)

Fowles had the highest MVP rating in the league this year, primarily on the strength of her league-high 14.7 rebounds per game. But it didn't hurt that she also led the team in scoring efficiency (62.2% true shooting percentage), free throw rate (53.55%) and, of course, blocks among players with 250 minutes or more.

Yet more importantly, Fowles had the highest offensive rebounding rate of any (qualified) player in the Eastern Conference (13.5%), which makes her a huge presence in the paint when taken together with her free throw rate. And really it's within that offensive rebounding ability that Fowles' value to the Sky becomes most clear.

Strengths: offensive rebounding, second chance points, ball control

The Sky lead the WNBA in second chance points (12.76) and Fowles is no doubt a major part of that effort as the team's only consistent offensive rebounder in the rotation.

But their rebounding is a group thing as well: players like Epiphanny Prince, Shay Murphy and Tamera Young rebound well for their size (offensive rebounding percentages of 5.16%, 8.83% and 8.33%) to help them to a league-high 30.5% offensive rebounding rate as a team. That ability to extend possessions goes nicely with their ability to control the ball: they had the best turnover rate in the Eastern Conference (14.2%), which is probably why they also led the conference in defending points off turnovers.

Yet the value of that strength on the boards as a team - and of Fowles individually - is really highlighted by the team's weaknesses.

Weaknesses: Inconsistent shooting, scoring depth, allowing second chance points

The Sky's shooting efficiency for the season (45.5% eFG%) is actually just below league average it was lower than that in the second half of the season: they were basically even with opponents in shooting efficiency. Part of that could be explained by shot selection, which can occasionally lead to missed shots. But the fact remains that the Sky are a very average shooting team overall with three primary scorers (Delle Donne, Fowles, Prince) - if any of those players is off their games or not getting shots, the Sky will struggle. So the second chance point opportunities that Fowles creates are huge for this particular team.

The same goes for the other end of the floor: the Sky gave up the fourth-most second chance points in the league (11.74) despite allowing only the least offensive rebounds 25.4%. Without going into a deep analysis of why teams are converting second chance points so well against the Sky, it's fair to say that they're lucky that they have a center who dominates the defensive glass too (28.39%).

Team Pre-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

Chi

46.19%

30.97%

30.08%

14.32%

0.36

Opp

42.86%

26.36%

23.76%

13.36%

0.36

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff:

Chi

0.33

0.10

0.27

-0.08

15.05

Team Post-All-Star

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

Adj Synergy

Chi

44.86%

34.22%

30.83%

14.10%

0.36

Opp

44.90%

24.69%

27.10%

16.26%

0.32

Weighted

eFg%

FTA/FGA

Oreb%

Tov%

MEV diff:

Chi

0.00

0.20

0.16

0.18

12.13

2013 regular season Four Factors statistics for the Chicago Sky.

X-factor: Courtney Vandersloot, PG (MVP: 7.68)

Really, this should just be "backcourt play": the Sky's starting backcourt of Prince and Courtney Vandersloot has performed significantly better in wins than in losses. But Vandersloot's performances speak more directly to some of the points above.

Vandersloot FG% PPR FT Rate
Games won 40.9% 5.32 34.1%
Games lost 36% 0.53 8%

Courtney Vandersloot's 2013 regular season statistics in wins and losses.

Vandersloot's role as a scorer hasn't terribly important to this team because they have so two other ball-dominant scorers on the perimeter. But that free throw rate discrepancy really stands out nonetheless: 8% would be fourth-lowest of any player in the entire league; 34.1% is elite for a point guard.

Free throw rate is usually a pretty good proxy for how often a player - and especially a point guard - is attacking the paint where they're more likely to draw fouls instead of settling for jumpers or simply remaining passive. And for a player who shoots as poorly as Vandersloot has from the field, getting those free points is huge (she's an 83.3% free throw shooter).

Yet more importantly - for both Vandersloot and Prince, as it turns out - is that pure point rating: that's the difference between elite and mediocre efficiency for a point guard. For a team that has offensive weapons, including Fowles, that's big and makes their offense function much more smoothly due to a point guard who's playing aggressively and making smart decisions.

In short, Vandersloot has been an elite point guard when the Sky win; in their losses, she's not even a starter-caliber player. We should probably assume that this is not lost on Lin Dunn and the Indiana Fever coaching staff.

Why to root for the Sky: This team can be lethal when things are clicking

There has been quite a bit of debate around here about the Sky's coaching and some of the points made above could be considered fodder for that. But when things are clicking, they can be a dominant team that few teams in the league would be able to stop. After years of losing, it's great to see a player as dominant as Syliva Fowles finally get her shot at a title on a team with a dominant rising star in Delle Donne. Take your pick on which is MVP, but all that dominance can be fun to watch when playing together.

Key to victory: Shooting efficiency

As described previously though, the Sky are a very average shooting team overall. In the second half of the season, they've been slightly below average. In contrast, the Fever have improved in the second half of the season almost match the Sky's second half shooting (44.21% eFG%). With Katie Douglas back in action, the Fever will potentially have another long-range threat that could boost their efficiency a bit.

The last thing the Sky want to do in this series is find themselves being outshot by a Fever team that's bombing away from the 3-point line.

For more on this series from a Fever perspective, check out the other half of the preview.

Notes:

* In fairness, Quigley only plays 9.4 minutes per game.