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2014 Tulsa Shock season review: Outlook is still bright despite injury to Australian center Liz Cambage

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Just when things were starting to look up for the Tulsa Shock, they got the bad news this past weekend that Australian center Liz Cambage ruptured her Achilles tendon during an exhibition game against Team USA. So what is the outlook for a franchise that hasn't made the playoffs since relocating from Detroit?

Photo by Getty Images.

One of the means of improvement for the Tulsa Shock that almost everyone has discussed is trading Australian center Liz Cambage, who hasn't played a full season in the WNBA since 2011.

Unfortunately, that option was essentially taken away for good over the weekend.

If Cambage misses a year of action due to her ruptured Achilles tendon, a possibility that Chris Dutton of the Canberra Times has reported as possible, she would miss yet another WNBA season with the Rio Olympics in 2016 possibly keeping her out of the league until 2017.

In other words, Cambage's trade value is likely at rock bottom and, even if there is some possibility of her returning to the WNBA within the next three years, she can't really be considered a part of the Shock's plans any longer -- her situation went from uncertain asset to fairly certain non-factor for the Shock in the blink of an eye. Due to a combination of bad luck and competing interests, it's hard to avoid the fact that the Shock wasted the number two pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft.

Yet that doesn't mean the Shock have to take any (more) steps backward -- they have a lot to be hopeful about moving forward despite Cambage's injury.

When Cambage suffered the injury against Team USA, the Shock were one of just three WNBA teams to have multiple players still competing for a roster spot with the USA Basketball Women's National Team -- 2014 WNBA Most Improved Player Skylar Diggins and 2014 All-Rookie selection Odyssey Sims. The other two teams were the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury, the best two teams in the WNBA in 2014 by any reasonable account.

As much as Diggins improved between her first and second years and Sims from month-to-month in her first year, there are few better opportunities to grow than working together surrounded by an assortment of the best women's basketball players in the world under the tutelage of Geno Auriemma. Although Diggins was recently cut, just having two of their players in the mix represents a brighter future ahead after a dismal five years since relocating from Detroit.

And even that short period of seasoning among the league's best could help the Shock with one of their biggest problems.

2014 season overview: A young team that struggled to finish

The Shock's loss on August 10 in Seattle was a microcosm of what plagued the team this season.

Throughout most of the first three quarters, the Shock dominated the glass, outscored the Storm in points in the paint, and supplemented those with free throw attempts. Up 15 points in the third quarter, it looked like the Shock would help themselves inch closer to a playoff berth while eliminating the Storm.

All of that was undermined in the fourth quarter when an exhausted Shock core stopped rebounding, couldn't defend, and struggled to even get shots (much less make them). Most of all, they just didn't seem to have anyone on the court who could bring the team together and keep them from coming undone.

When Shock managing partner Sam Combs said in his Swish Appeal interview immediately after the WNBA draft lottery that the team needed a three who could score, depth in the post, and mentioned needing a veteran multiple times, that's the game that immediately came to mind: this is not a team desperately lacking for talent, but a team that lacks sufficient glue to bring that talent together or, rather, keep it together in crunch time.

And that's not just a positive spin on a last place team.

The Shock opened the season by losing four of their first five games by less than two possessions with the fifth being a 100-78 loss to the Phoenix Mercury, which is even more excusable in retrospect than it was at the time. After starting the season 0-5, the Shock went 12-17 the rest of the way -- winning one or two of those first five games wouldn't have catapulted the team into the playoffs, but it would've brought them closer to a first postseason berth in Tulsa and out of the cellar.

Despite finishing last in the Western Conference again, this is no longer a terrible team with no hope -- they showed a number of considerable strengths that should serve them well moving forward.

Strengths: Offensive rebounding, scoring off the dribble

The Shock's core in 2014 consisted of two All-Stars (Skylar Diggins and Glory Johnson), a Rookie of the Year candidate (Odyssey Sims), and the league's leading offensive rebounder (Courtney Paris). Just the names alone probably make the team's strengths pretty clear for most women's basketball fans.

Offensive rebounding: The Shock were the best offensive rebounding team in the Western Conference, retrieving nearly a third of their missed shots (32.3%). Naturally, then, they were tops in the West in second chance points (12.29 per game) as well.

That strong effort on the glass was spearheaded by the play of Courtney Paris, who led the league in rebounds per game this season (10.2) and has been getting a good amount of attention as a potential Most Improved Player candidate. The sticking point for Paris' MIP candidacy comes down to rebounding rates and minutes.

Paris has always been a great rebounder - it went largely ignored in her rookie year, but she led the league in offensive rebounding percentage then as well (15.9%). She had a career-high offensive rebounding percentage of 16.8% last season with Tulsa. The reason she averaged more than twice as many rebounds this year is that she also played almost three times as many minutes - her per minute rebounding rate was only slightly better this season than what it has been in the past. Paris deserves credit for the improved conditioning that it took to stay on the court as well as what that rebounding contribution meant to the team, but the ability has always been there.

eFg%

Tov%

Oreb%

Fta/Fga

Tulsa

46.67%

13.74%

32.22%

32.05%

Opp

50.14%

14.59%

28.78%

33.90%

Weighted Differentials

eFg%

Tov%

Oreb%

fta/fga

Tulsa

-0.35

0.07

0.14

-0.04

Four Factors differentials for the Tulsa Shock during the 2014 WNBA season.

Paint scoring: Naturally, with a dominant offensive rebounding presence and so many second chance points, the Shock were first in paint scoring as well (39.94 per game). In addition to the fraction that came from second chance points, a good portion likely came from layups on fast breaks- they ranked second in the league in fast break points (12.41 per game) - and the sometimes-unguardable ability of Diggins and Sims to get to the rim.

Dribble penetration: Anybody who watches Tulsa play can see how devastating Diggins and Sims can be in terms of their ability to drive and get to the rim. The statistics just help to put that in perspective. The Shock had the most free throw attempts in the league in 2014 with Diggins (221), Johnson (183), and Sims (143) finishing first, second, and 10th in the league individually. So although none of their big three was particularly efficient scorers overall, they were able to punish opposing defenses around the rim from every position.

However, the point about the efficiency of their perimeter players can't exactly be overlooked either.

Weaknesses: Three point shooting, Defense, depth

Despite their considerable strengths, it's actually somewhat amazing that the Shock managed to finish with such an elite offensive rating in 2014 (106.1).

They shot just 30.5% from beyond the arc, which was the lowest 3-point percentage in the talented Western Conference and just .2% above the last place Atlanta Dream overall. As the Dream - and, to a lesser extent, the L.A. Sparks - demonstrate, you don't need 3-point shooting to be a playoff team; the problem for the Shock was that they shot so many. Although they weren't very proficient at shooting threes, the Shock hoisted up 600 attempts - the second-most in the league behind the San Antonio Stars, who boasted the league's top 3-point percentage. That type of volume-efficiency balance would be troubling for any team, but consider the Shock's strengths: every 3-point attempt was essentially bailing the defense out of having to defend them in the paint.

Given who the Shock play, it's reasonable to begin with the shot selection of Diggins and Sims as the two biggest culprits. Sims actually finished the season with a solid 34.6% 3-point percentage after shooting just 10-for-43 in June. But as a 28.4% 3-point shooter, Diggins could probably stand to just take less threes. Yet it was rookie Jordan Hooper, a value pick in the second round of the 2014 WNBA Draft, who led the team in attempts (140) while shooting just 32.9%. And veterans Roneeka Hodges and Jennifer Lacy - whose primary value to the team was 3-point shooting - both shot below their career averages, 25.9% and 32.2%, respectively.

As Combs mentioned, finding a productive small forward - preferably one who can shoot threes - is a dire need for an offensive team that has so much else going for it. But there might have been another more subtle cost to all of those long-range bricks.

Transition defense: The Shock gave up the most fast break points per game (12.68) despite being a fairly good rebounding team and not really being a turnover prone team. There are a number of potential explanations for that.

First, there has been an ongoing debate in NBA circles about whether a commitment to offensive rebounding necessitates sacrificing transition defense. It turns out that there's not really a universal right answer to that, but the Shock routinely send two players to the offensive boards sometimes with a player spotting up in the corner, which immediately puts them behind the play in transition.

But second, shooting the second-most threes at the second-lowest percentage in the league resulted in 417 misses. It's pretty well-established at this point that threes create long rebounds and it wasn't uncommon to see Shock opponents grabbing those long rebounds and immediately pushing the ball in transition with an advantage.

Whether their problem is one, the other, or both of those - compounded by simply poor communication and organization -- the Shock's struggle in transition just compounded poor defense elsewhere.

Poor interior defense: The number of transition scoring opportunities they allowed probably had something to do with the Shock giving the most points in the paint and second chance points in the league despite being among the best of the league on both fronts offensively. And Shock opponents got 41% of their shots within five feet (920) - they simply weren't putting up much resistance to teams that liked to get the ball inside.

Poor perimeter defense: But it's not just transition: the Shock gave up the most free throw attempts in the league, usually the result of some combination of reaching and giving up shots in situations where help defense is still rotating. In addition, the Shock gave up the highest three point percentage in the league (36.3%), definitely as much a sign of poor rotations as much as anything.

Depth: The Shock's biggest problem, and the glaring problem in that loss to the Storm on August 10, was depth. The Shock had a fairly strong top four players, despite the aforementioned problems. But after that things got really shaky on the bench (and even from the start at the small forward spot).

The Shock's starters accounted for nearly 80% of the team's overall statistical production, an unusually high number even on teams with very talented starting units - it's not a commentary on the talent of their starters as much as a sad commentary on their reserves. It made figuring out rotations for that team extremely difficult because whenever one of those top four players came up they were making a major sacrifice.

X-Factor: What is Riquna Williams' role with this team?

Along those lines of depth, Riquna Williams playing just 11 games this season was a huge blow to the Shock. She doesn't exactly complement their backcourt stars well, but she can hit threes, is a disruptive defender, and is a very good rebounder for her size, for whatever that's worth.

One thing to resolve though, as the team looks forward, is that Williams is a third high-usage guard and the least efficient distributor of their talented set of guards. Both Diggins and Sims are high usage guards that could really benefit from playing next to a bigger ball handling guard who would allow them to play off the ball a bit. It just seems that at least one of those three high-usage guards have to be moved in order to balance their rotation, maximize that roster spot and create a more complementary unit.

If the Shock are going to commit to a Diggins and Sims backcourt combination long-term -- which they are going to, by all indications -- then Williams would seem to be the most obvious trade asset. There isn't really a team with an obvious need for a 5-foot-7 volume shooter who really isn't a point guard, but it's an immediately obvious redundancy for a team with a number of glaring needs.

Outlook: Cambage would've helped, but so would a veteran

Given the Shock's interior defensive problems, it's not unreasonable to assume that a 6-foot-8 center would've been a major piece to the puzzle of improving next season and into the future. Cambage would've been another productive rotation player and, if nothing else, her size might have kept opponents from getting into the paint so easily.

But if they can continue to build around their talented core and add a veteran presence -- anybody who can defend would be welcome -- they'll be in a good position to make some noise in the future.