This week, we're breaking down the Atlanta side of the Atlanta/New York game, in which the Dream beat the Liberty 85-79. The reason I picked this game is because both of these teams have surprised me so far this year; I wasn't shy about how I felt about both of these teams chances going forward, and Atlanta wasn't the team I was bullish on.
One of the most interesting things about Atlanta is how heavily they depend on getting to the line. In this young season, they have a free throw rate of 0.438; in total, this translates out to around 30 free throw attempts per game. That's so many freaking attempts!
It's second in the league, in both free throw rate and free throw attempts per game, and even that doesn't fully capture how much this team relies on foul shots. I'm confident this isn't an aberration, because they've spent the last few years playing this way. However, I don't think that it's the way to a championship on its own.
Atlanta is 5-1, but it's going to be hard to keep that going. Their offensive rating is 93.2, seventh in the league, ninth in true shooting percentage, and ninth in effective field goal percentage; despite the fact that they have a reliable source of offense, they have very little to offer on the offensive side of the ball. They have to work super-hard to make shots, like on this possession:
Teams aren't afraid of their outside shooting, so they just sit back in the paint. They close out on the shooter, but this was a very open shot:
They can get bogged down in the mud, as well. They don't have a dominant interior presence who draws attention, nor any shooting, so they have to drive to the hoop to get their points; the only problem with that is that the paint is so covered up, the people who are defending the Dream go a million miles underneath screens, and drop so far back that there is no room for them there either:
And, yet: they beat the New York Liberty by six points, on their home court. They held them to 77 regulation points, and then to only two in overtime. That 77-point regulation score would be the third-worst average in the league, and the 79 points would be fourth-worst.
They're giving up 79 points per game, which is only seventh in the league, but the advanced stats suggest a much more dominant defense. The Dream are beating teams by bludgeoning them to death on the defensive end, holding opponents to only 41% EFG%, and only 45.9% on TS%. Those marks are second best in the league, behind only the team they just defeated.
The Liberty are nobody's idea of a great offense team; they have a worse offensive rating than even the Dream, at 91.4. They also have a poor TS% and poor EFG%. But I think it's worth noting that the Dream are averaging more possessions than any team in the league; the better team benefits from more possessions, while the poorer team benefits from less, and the Dream still have excellent defensive numbers even when giving teams more possessions to work with overall.
Here's a hot take for you: the Seattle Storm are a bad team. In a few years, when all of those draft picks mature and gel, we'll be having a different conversation; but even with their poor play, there is still a reason to watch them play, and that reason is Jewell Loyd.
She is so, so good, and her opponents have to afford her respect that opens the game for her teammates. This is the first possession of the game:
Alysha Clark's defender slides off of her to double team Loyd, even though Clark has the ball at the high post. It leads to an easy bucket when Clark takes it to the hoop. Loyd is averaging a little over 19 points per game, and is the primary ball handler on offense, and her opponents are treating her like she's going to go off at any moment.
This extra attention happens throughout the game:
That is Breanna freaking Stewart whom they let slip to the rim; you might remember her as one of the greatest college basketball players of all time. Stewart sets a screen on Loyd's defender, and Stewart's defender takes a big jump to the right to defend Loyd, and Stewart gets free.
Loyd makes the easy pass to a cutting Stewart, who makes the short shot at the basket. Stewart is going to be a star, very soon. She's already a viable WNBA starter, scoring over 17 points per game and grabbing eight boards to go along with it, and yet teams are still sliding off her to take on Loyd. It's awesome.
She's also a capable, energetic defender. Take this possession:
The Sun try to set a pick and roll with Jasmine Thomas as the ball handler and Jonquel Jones as the screener. Loyd slips the screen, going over it so quickly that Jones hasn't even rolled far enough for Thomas to lob the ball to her. Thomas, stuck in a bad spot, throws the ball away, leading to a turnover.
The Seattle Storm are going to be a championship contender within two years, if not by next year. Jewell Loyd is going to be a big part of any success that they have, and is already a good enough player to get me to watch Seattle possessions over and over again, just to watch her work.