Yo! The Los Angeles Sparks are hella dope!
I've been rooting for them this year, simply because Candace Parker was left off of the Olympic roster; I've said this before, but that was just nuts. Candace Parker is a future Hall of Famer, and one only had to look at how different that Sparks team was when she returned after hiatus last year to see how great she is.
I expected Los Angeles to be good, but you know who I didn't expect to be good? The Atlanta Dream. They've so wildly exceeded my expectations that I'm starting to wonder if I have reverse-predictive powers.
The advanced numbers don't have quite the same punch as perhaps the Sparks or the Minnesota Lynx, but that's only because the teams above them in things like defensive and offensive rating are playing like the MonStars from SpaceJam.
#1 - Los Angeles Sparks (LW: 2)
Welcome to the top of the list, Los Angeles! I know Y'all anxious to be on top of these rankings, and you've finally made it! Congratulations!!!!!
Let's start out with an early MVP favorite, Candace Parker. Through five games, she's averaging 20.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, and four assists; she's doing all of this while playing less than thirty minutes a game.
If traditional stats don't do it for you, then take a look at her advanced numbers: she has an effective field goal percentage (EFG%) of 51%, a true shooting percentage (TS%) of 56.3%, and is managing to keep those numbers where they are despite having a usage rate of 32.8%. She's amazing.
The team as a whole has been killer, too. They have a defensive rating (DRG) of 85 flat, the highest in the league by over four points; they also, just to be cruel, have the top offensive rating (ORG) as well, tied for first at 105.7 with the Minnesota Lynx. They give up the second-fewest free throws attempts per game, force opponents into shooting 22.6% from the three-point range (best in the league), and generally just devour teams alive.
Oh, yeah: they're also undefeated so far. Best of luck to the rest of the league!
#2 - Minnesota Lynx (LW: 1)
Coming in second on this list is the only other undefeated team, the Minnesota Lynx. I'm not as hyped about them as I am the Sparks (only because I expected the Lynx to stomp people and didn't see this Sparks early super team-ness coming), but that does nothing to detract that they are having a strong opener to their championship defense.
Maya Moore is playing at an MVP-level, as always. She's averaging 21.8 points, four rebounds, and 5.8 assists, and has an EFG% at 60%, a TS% at 65.8%, and a personal defensive rating of 85, third in the league to players who have played at least 20 minutes per game. She is a superhero, and even the adulation she gets doesn't properly value her impact.
The Lynx as a team are dropping the hammer on both offense and defense; their ORG at 105.7 is tied for tops in the league, and their DRG of 91.7 is third in the league. They give up the fewest free throw attempts in the league, and force 17 turnovers per game, good for fourth in the league.
If there is a slight weakness in the Minnesota armor, in comes from beyond the perimeter; they are tied for fourth in three-point attempts per game, but are allowing teams to make only 26.8%, second best in the league. That many attempts are still a cause for concern, and if they are to defend their title, they'll have to police the perimeter a little bit better than they have so far.
#3 - Atlanta Dream (LW: 6)
Um, I don't know if Y'all noticed, but the Atlanta Dream are 5-1; the even better news is that the peripheral numbers look legit, and could really spell an awesome season for this Dream team. I've been cautious about moving them up, but they're two games ahead in the Eastern Conference, and deserve to be this high.
Angel McCoughtry is back at it again with her outstanding work on the free throw line. She averages more free throw attempts than any other player in the league, and is second in makes, to go along with 19 points and 5.5 boards per game.
One note for concern, however, is that her EFG% is kind of low, at 43.3%, and an overall field goal percentage of 42.7%. Her game is predicated on her ability to get to the line, so this is isn't surprising, but it does lower the ceiling to her contributions a bit.
The Dream are giving up the fifth-fewest points per game, the second-most points per game, and are playing at the second-fastest pace in the entire league. People cannot shoot threes, nor make threes, against this Dream team; they also force the third-most turnovers in the league, at 17.2.
The causes for concern mirror the ones mentioned for McCoughtry; low EFG%, low overall FG%, but they have shown an ability to win games despite that, and considering that their capacity to draw and shoot fouls is at the top of the league, they'll be able to find offense despite mediocre or poor shooting.
#4 - New York Liberty (LW: 3)
The New York Liberty haven't quite got off to the start I anticipated; 2-2 isn't a bad record, especially this early, but if you had asked me what kind of start I was expecting, I would said something more along the lines of Atlanta.
Tina Charles has done an excellent job of leading this team. Arguably the MVP favorite at this early point in the schedule; she's averaging 23.5 points per game, 12 rebounds, and four assists. She doesn't shoot many free throws, and virtually zero three-pointers, which limits her game a bit, but her ability to score in and around the paint is near-unparalleled.
She's playing a lot of minutes; the third-highest in the league, at 35.6 per game. That could cause her to wear down as the season goes, as her defense and offense are the anchor points for this team on either side of the floor.
New York has been a dominant defensive team for a long time, and they have continued that trend so far. They're giving up the fourth-fewest points per game, have the second best defensive rating in the league just behind Los Angeles, and block 9.8% of their opponents shots, fourth-best in the league.
Oddly, they're third-worst in the league at forcing turnovers, and give up the most three-point attempts in the league. The good news about both of those statistics is that the low turnover numbers show that the Liberty don't rely on big plays to stop opponents and that they allow three-point makes at a 29% clip. They're doing just fine.
#5 - Dallas Wings (LW: 4)
The Dallas Wings have had a dominant offense so far this year, scoring the fourth-most points in the league. The reason they're #5 in these rankings is because they've been pretty poor defensively. They're giving up 84.3 points per game, fifth-worst in the league.
Odyssey Sims has been the undisputed leader of this team. She's averaging 18 points per game, four rebounds, and three assists. She's the focal point of one of the best scoring offenses in the league.
The problem is that she's scoring these points in volume; her field goal percentage is a staggeringly bad 32.6%, and her three-point percentage is worse at 28.6%. She's doing most of her work at the line, shooting 8.3 per game and making 7.3.
The Wings are going to need ton shape up defensively if they want to contend for a championship. Skylar Diggins still hasn't fully returned from her torn ACL, having played only one game so far in this young season, and this team needs her to really take a leap forward. That's a weird thing to say about a team scoring 85 points per game, but when your lead scorer is shooting sub 33%, any sort of help is welcome.
#6 - Indiana Fever (LW: 5)
The Indiana Fever are playing at the fastest pace in the league, with an 83.4 rating, grabbing exactly as many possessions as that stat indicates. However, that's not leading to a heady scoring average; they're fifth-worst in the league, scoring 83.4 points per game. They're also a bad defensive team, giving up 85.4 points per game.
One of their biggest problems is that they don't really have anyone who can go off on offense, night after night. None of their players are averaging over 14 points per game, with Tiffany Mitchell (14 ppg), Erica Wheeler (12.4), Shenise Johnson (11.7), and Tamika Catchings (11.6) the only ones in double figures.
One could spin this as them being a team that doesn't necessarily rely on one player to lead them to victory, which is true, but their low scoring output speaks volumes to how well that is working.
The defense is more of a problem than the offense, as you can get by scoring over eighty points a game if you have just a decent one. But the traditional numbers aren't kind to this team, and neither are the advanced ones: they have a defensive rating of 102.4, sixth in the league, they give up the second-most free throw attempts, all while allowing opponents to shoot 45.5% from the field, fourth-worst overall. If they've reached their presumed level of offense, they're going to have a tough time going forward.
#7 - Seattle Storm (LW: 12)
This is probably a few spots too high, but I'm rating this Seattle Storm team on potential, and man, do they have it in spades. They have a future star in Breanna Stewart, a current star in Jewell Loyd, and several other players who are going to make this Storm team a title favorite in the years to come. They haven't quite been able to match potential with production, but I'm betting on them getting there sooner than people think.
I talked about Jewell Loyd and her badass-ness in my column, so I'll spend this time talking about Breanna Stewart instead. The rookie is wavering 17.4 points per game, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists, and is playing 36.2 minutes per game, tops in the league. It's going to take some time before she actually finds her sea legs-there are some defensive things she could tighten up on, for example-but she's already showing the skill that she used to drown everyone while she was at UConn.
Right now, the stats put this team towards the lower end. They give up 83.8 points per game, and score 78.6; these are not good numbers, and the offensive rating is downright bad, but I expect it to improve going forward.
They're also playing super duper slow, with the second-fewest possessions in the league, and turn the ball over at the highest rate, with 22.5% of their possessions ending in giveaways. However, as I said, I'm ranking this team based on potential alone, and also because I really, really like watching Jewell Loyd play basketball.
#8 - Chicago Sky (LW: 7)
The Sky have had a disappointing start to this 2016 WNBA season. They're giving up a ton a points on defense, and despite the presence of star player Elena Delle Donne, just haven't been able to put it all together.
Delle Donne's numbers are down; she's scoring nearly five points less than last year, and is grabbing 1.6 fewer rebounds as well. She's shooting better from beyond the arc, but that is more a function of shooting slightly less threes and making a little more; she's not Steph Curry all of the sudden, is what I'm saying. It's still, of course, very early in the season, and she'll probably end up closer to her 2015 numbers, but it's concerning.
The Sky didn't have a great defense last year, at least in terms of points scored, but they had a dominant offense to back it up. Now that they've fallen off of those lofty scoring heights, and are merely good instead of great, that bad defense has come back to bite them. They're giving up 85.5 points per game, third-worst in the league.
The advanced numbers are no kinder; they have the third-worst defensive rating in the league, at 105.6, and give up the most makes and the second-highest three-point make percentage. They haven't found a way to combine the dynamism on offense into stout defense, and unless they rediscover the offensive firepower they had last year, it's going to be tough sledding.
#9 - San Antonio Stars (LW: 11)
This is another team that I thought was going to be terrible; I'm pretty sure I called them a dumpster fire, or something of the sort. But that just proves that I am an idiot; another bit of evidence in a never-ending chain. This Stars team may have trouble scoring the basketball, but so does every other team that comes up against them.
I've talked up Kayla McBride before, but I want to reiterate: she is freaking awesome. She's scoring 19 points per game, tied for sixth in the league, and is shooting the seventh-most free throws per game, with a make percentage of 85.7%. She's averaging six more points than she did last year, and has improved her numbers across the board, save for three point shooting.
The San Antonio Stars have the third-best scoring defense in the entire league, behind the possessed demonic twins of the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx. The advanced numbers put them a little lower, with a defensive rating of 95.6 that drops them two spots, but they hold opponents to the fourth-worst TS% and EFG%, speaking to the stellar defense all over the court.
Their biggest problem is their offense; it's currently the lowest scoring, and has the lowest offensive rating, in the entire WNBA. They also play at the slowest pace, and have the fewest possessions, of any team.
#10 - Washington Mystics (LW: 9)
The Washington Mystics, a year after having the second-best scoring defense in the entire WNBA, are now tied for the worst. It's been a surprising fall, one that I did not foresee. Their offense wasn't great last year, and is hovering near what it was in 2015, but without an other-worldly defense to prop it up.
Emma Meeseman is the best player on this Mystics team. Her numbers are up similar to last year, and even up in some cases; but her offensive rating and defensive rating are worse than last year, and just doesn't seem to be the same player she was the year before. I don't think this is a permanent change, and I think it has more to do with the general swoon of the team than any sort of a decline on her part, but does give you pause.
I was high on this Mystics team coming into the season. I thought they'd be able to beat the hell out of people on the defensive end, and potentially drag themselves all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals; that's how good I thought they would be. However, early on, the signs are not good. I hope that changes.
#11 - Connecticut Sun (LW: 10)
The Connecticut Sun are in the midst of rebuilding, but there are some positive signs to take from this. They have a league-average scoring defense, giving up around 83 points per game, and have three rookies who have shown flashes of being really, really good players. They haven't been able to figure it all out on offense, but they look to be on their way to doing so.
Jasmine Thomas has been a player to watch for this Sun team. She's leading the team with 13 points per game, a 4.8 increase over last year, and is third in rebounds and first in assists. The advanced numbers paint an uglier picture, with an offensive rating below 90, and an average defensive rating. She's doing her best with a team that is still trying to find it's way.
I suspect the Sun will finish higher than the eleventh spot on this list, if only because they drafted three players in the first round and those players are bound to improve as they get more experience and playing time. But this is a team that's built for two years from now, and not necessarily now.
#12 - Phoenix Mercury (LW: 12)
The Phoenix Mercury have been the most disappointing team in the league this season, and I can't figure out what the hell is wrong with them. They're giving up 87 (!!!!!!) points per game this year; with Brittney Griner on the team, they should be able to lock down any team from any position on the floor. Diana Taurasi, a future Hall of Famer, has also returned, and yet the combined force of those two and a solid roster has done near nothing. It's so weird.
One positive note: not only is Diana Taurasi back -- she's back! She's averaging 22 points per game, is shooting 11 (!!!!!!!!!!!) threes per game, and, to top all of that off, she has a usage rate of 31.9, which explains the slight drop off in her field goal and three point percentages.
She's been so important for this team. She has one of the best offensive ratings in the league, and is the leading scorer on her team by a country mile. With a TS% of 52.9% and an EFG% of 57.4%, she's been the focal point of the fifth-best scoring offense in the WNBA.
I don't know if Griner isn't healthy, or just in a slump, but she has not been the hurricane of arms and legs that I expected her to be. Without her swallowing up would-be scorers around the rim, this team is vulnerable.
The Mercury have a defensive rating of 106.1, just above the Washington Mystics; this sudden defensive vulnerability is stunning, and I don't really know what to make of it. I assume it'll get better-because, my god, how could it not-but for the time being, the Mercury sit at the bottom of this list.