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The Alex Bentley trade: Any gains for Atlanta?

It looks like the Dream got short-changed in the three-way trade between WNBA teams that ended with Alex Bentley going to Connecticut and Matee Ajavon in a Dream uniform. Were there any plusses for Atlanta?

Kevin C. Cox

When I heard that Alex Bentley had been traded to the Connecticut Sun in a three-way trade that sent Matee Ajavon to Atlanta, my head spun. I never thought much of Matee Ajavon as a player. But before I write more about this, let's review the terms of the trade.


Acquires Matee Ajavon from Washington
Acquires Washington's second round draft pick in the 2014 Draft (#18 pick)


Acquires Alex Bentley from Atlanta


Acquires Kara Lawson from Connecticut
Acquires Atlanta's third round draft pick in the 2014 Draft (#32 pick)

So who really won this trade?

First, let's ignore the draft picks as much as we can. Unless you can get a draft pick in the Top Ten of players, the chances of that pick making an impact right away is virtually zero. Granted, there are case-by-case exceptions. I'm not saying that players with long WNBA careers have never been found in the second and third rounds of the draft. However, I believe that those players who did have long careers were cases where:

a) the player's skill was a surprise to everyone, including the drafting team
b) cases where the player showed talent in college, but was considered a risk due to injuries or off-the-court issues and fell below the first round, or
c) those rare "true steals" where the GM/coach noticed something that the rest of the league didn't.

Unless Angela Taylor and Michael Cooper are privy to information not shared by the other 11 teams on a real jewel in the rough, that extra second round pick isn't going to mean much for Atlanta. So we'll just look at the three players in question - Ajavon, Bentley, and Lawson.

The real loser in this trade is...Connecticut. One could argue that Lawson was going to leave Connecticut come what may. Bentley might be better at some level than Ajavon, but she's nowhere close to the level of Kara Lawson, and if you look at the team that's biggest in the hole when all is said and done, it's Connecticut. Connecticut might be able to dig itself out with a #1 Draft Pick, but Lawson is a big loss and Bentley just doesn't make up for it.

One way to look at the value of basketball players is by Win Score. The metric for Win Score is

Win Score Formula=(Points)+(Rebounds)+(Steals)+(½Assists)+(½Blocked Shots)-(Field Goal Attempts)-(Turnovers)-½(Free Throw Attempts)-½Personal Fouls

The two great advantages of Win Score are

a) Win Score has an excellent correlation with wins on the court. Teams that have high win scores invariably win a lot of games.
b) It gives you a great way to compare the progress of a player from season to season.

Below are the WS/40 scores for Ajavon, Bentley, and Lawson. WS/40 is just the Win Score per 40 minutes played. The column on the left is seasons played.

Season Ajavon Bentley Lawson
1 -4.01 0.40 2.63
2 -2.62 2.47
3 -1.81 3.31
4 -0.73 1.95
5 -2.61 1.24
6 -0.88 2.61
7 2.05
8 2.81
9 5.26
10 7.45
11 3.84

As you can see, Lawson has very, very good Win Score values. (Look at her 2012 season.) Bentley? Meh. And Ajavon? They're all negative! Yes, there are players who can have a negative Win Score and yes, Ajavon's negatives are usually pretty high because she plays a lot more than 40 minutes per season.

But does Win Score really tell the whole story? We have other metrics to look at. We'll use Similarity Scores first. Under the Similarity Scores method, the most similar player in WNBA history to Alex Bentley at her age is guess who? Matee Ajavon!

Alex Bentley 34 10 753 113 284 0.398 28 85 0.329 27 38 0.71 11 37 48 95 34 3 39 77 281 67
Matee Ajavon 34 2 604 94 284 0.331 13 68 0.191 72 91 0.79 33 27 60 59 31 6 55 85 273 68

Note Ajavon's line is from her rookie season. Yes, they both took the same amount of FGA and are about an inch apart in height, and have similar numbers of steals and personal fouls. However, Ajavon was a much worse shooter during her rookie season. She had fewer assists and more turnovers than Bentley, and Win Score penalizes all of those things.

Furthermore, Wins Score penalizes for free throw attempts and a greater percentage of Ajavon's points were made on free throw attempts in her rookie year. In her career, Ajavon has made 26.6 percent of her total career points at the free throw line. (McCoughtry, who depends on fouls on drives to the basket, has made 27.3 percent of her total career points hitting free throws.) This high number suggests that Ajavon is a drive-to-the-basket kind of player, as Bentley only has 9.6 percent of her total points coming from free throws.

The next step is to take a look at where the points of Bentley and Ajavon come from. The NBA Stats website (proprietary information) breaks down the location of where shots were taken for WNBA players on a game per game basis. It would have been swell if these numbers were totaled up over an entire season, but sadly, that wasn't the case. I had to look at all 34 regular-season shot charts for both Bentley and Ajavon and total them up into a season.

The NBA shot chart appears to divide the court into 14 zones (plus an unlisted 15th zone).

at the basket
left and near the basket
center and near the basket
right and near the basket
left but inside the arc
center-left and inside the arc
center and inside the arc
center-right and inside the arc
right and inside the arc
left corner behind the arc
right corner behind the arc
left behind the arc
center behind the arc
right behind the arc
halfcourt heave

So where are Bentley and Ajavon making their shots? First, Bentley.

1 at the basket 36 76
2 left and near the basket 10 35
3 center and near the basket 8 16
4 right and near the basket 3 11
5 left but inside the arc 7 11
6 center-left and inside the arc 6 21
7 center and inside the arc 12 24
8 center-right and inside the arc 6 17
9 right and inside the arc 6 13
10 left corner behind the arc 4 7
11 right corner behind the arc 0 2
12 left behind the arc 8 19
13 center behind the arc 3 15
14 right behind the arc 4 16
15 halfcourt heave 0 1
113 284

point blank 36 76 0.474
left 35 93 0.376
center 23 55 0.418
right 19 59 0.322
heave 0 1 0.000
113 284 0.398

It looks like her favorite place for shooting is the left side of the court. She's pretty weak on the right side, so you'd think that that would be the reason that the Dream traded her - you want players to be able to hit shots from all areas of the court.

So let's look at Matee Ajavon and where she makes her shots:

1 at the basket 50 103
2 left and near the basket 3 13
3 center and near the basket 1 10
4 right and near the basket 6 19
5 left but inside the arc 4 10
6 center-left and inside the arc 6 30
7 center and inside the arc 2 6
8 center-right and inside the arc 5 18
9 right and inside the arc 7 17
10 left corner behind the arc 1 5
11 right corner behind the arc 2 2
12 left behind the arc 3 10
13 center behind the arc 3 8
14 right behind the arc 2 10
15 halfcourt heave 0 0
95 261

point blank 50 103 0.485
left 17 68 0.250
center 6 24 0.250
right 22 66 0.333
heave 0 0 0.000
95 261 0.364

As you can see from Ajavon's shooting chart, she's only really effective from one area of the court, and that's the point-blank area. Everywhere else, she shot 33 percent or less last year, and her apparent left-side weakness matches Bentley's right-side. This lends credence to the theory that Ajavon is a drive-to-the-basket kind of player. Bentley is actually a more varied shooter than Ajavon is.

Another theory that's been advanced is that Bentley's faded in the second half of the season - in the ecosystem of WNBA players, the vets finally caught up with the weaknesses of the rookie. Let's split Bentley's season into a first half and a second half.

Games Start Min Sec FGM FGA 3PM 3PA FTM FTA OffR DefR TotR Ast PF Stl TO BS BA Pts Tech
first half 17 5 357 53 56 141 18 48 10 15 8 18 26 36 42 20 18 3 4 140 0
second half 17 5 394 58 57 143 10 37 17 23 3 19 22 59 35 14 21 0 7 141 1

...and a generalized summary.

first half 39.7% 37.5% 66.7% 8.2 1.5 2.1 1.2 1.1
second half 39.9% 27.0% 73.9% 8.3 1.3 3.5 0.8 1.2

Bentley's shooting percentage was remarkably consistent between both halves of the season. The only differences are that she took about 25 percent fewer 3-pointers in the second half of the season, and her ability to hit the three dropped. Her average points per game was more or less that same. Even though her 3-point percentage dipped, her assists per game jumped. It looks like she was shooting the long range shot less and passing the ball more. The numbers claim that late season Bentley was weaker than early season Bentley in one area only, hitting the three. It could have been that with the loss of Sancho Lyttle for the season, her role somehow changed.

Let's split Bentley's season up into quarters:

Alex Bentley
G1-G9 40.0% 45.5% 50.0% 6.7 1.0 1.8 0.8 0.6
G10-G17 39.5% 30.8% 72.7% 10.0 2.1 2.5 1.6 1.6
G18-G26 35.6% 18.2% 75.0% 7.6 1.0 3.1 1.4 1.2
G27-G34 44.3% 40.0% 71.4% 9.1 1.6 3.9 0.1 1.3

Not much difference. A little drop in production in the third quarter of the season, but Bentley came on strong near the end of the year. Good work for Bentley.

But if you look at Ajavon's season quarter by quarter:

Matee Ajavon
G1-G9 41.1% 41.2% 70.0% 10.6 0.8 2.9 1.0 2.4
G10-G17 43.9% 25.0% 95.5% 9.3 2.3 2.4 0.6 2.5
G18-G26 35.2% 26.9% 76.9% 11.0 2.6 3.9 1.4 1.8
G27-G34 20.9% 28.6% 83.3% 4.4 1.4 2.4 0.6 2.1

WOW. Ajavon had a pretty good first half of the season, but in the third quarter of the season her shooting faded away. She still had 11 ppg during this quarter, but that was obtained at the cost of attempting a lot more shots - 57 shots attempted versus 88 shots attempted.

And then in the fourth quarter, it all falls apart. Ajavon only took 43 FGA and her numbers were pretty miserable. Her minutes were halved. I suspect that Mike Thibault pretty much stopped playing her. If you want to make a case for a player in this trade falling apart during the second half, the hypothesis is better satisfied with Ajavon's numbers.

(* * *)

So given all of the above, why did the Dream trade for Ajavon? One could advance a lot of theories.

* They got rooked. This is a theory I'd rather not believe.
* They needed that extra second round draft pick. Unless they have the best kept secret in the WNBA, that one might be hard to swallow.
* There is a belief that Ajavon will play better in Atlanta than she has in Washington. Does Ajavon have a local connection in Georgia?
* She fits better in Michael Cooper's system than Bentley does. It could be that Cooper plans on attacking the basket with gusto, and a McCoughtry/Ajavon duo would be perfect for rushing the basket.
* Something behind the scenes that required the Dream to get rid of Bentley, in which case they got the best value they were able to get with Ajavon.

You can choose any of these theories, but the numbers lean against Atlanta getting value for Bentley. Then again, the Dream have won three of the last four WNBA Eastern Conference championships, so bleak prognostications might be unwarranted. The Dream have a tendency to surprise people that count them out, and there might be some surprises in store this season for doubters.