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2014 WNBA point guard rankings: Diana Taurasi's historic balance of passing and scoring efficiency

With the season winding down, we take a look at the top point guards in the WNBA during the 2014 season and one player who is putting together a historic season (again).

Photo by Getty Images.

As great as it is to see the mainstream sports media giving Becky Hammon the praise she deserves as she desires, the unfortunate thing is that she'll still probably be remembered most by mainstream sports fans for two things:

  • Accepting Russian citizenship and agreeing to represent her second home in the Olympics.
  • Becoming the first full-time female coach in the NBA.

For the most part, the fact that she was an almost indisputable choice for the WNBA's list of top 15 players of all-time has been sort of casually passed over as one part of a list of accomplishments (listing All-Star appearances doesn't quite do WNBA players justice given that the game hasn't been an annual thing); the fact that her style of play in a 5-foot-6 package is probably unlike any we've ever seen in U.S. pro basketball has been almost completely ignored, mostly using San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's words as a stand-in for familiarity with her game.

In a N.Y. Times article published yesterday, Jere Longman summarized Hammon's game by writing, "...Popovich gained an appreciation for the way she developed a sophisticated inside-out game as an undersized point guard. Hammon ranks fourth in the W.N.B.A. in career assists and seventh in points scored. In 2011, she was named one of the league's 15 best players ever." And as remarkable as that is, the thing that has always stood to me is the efficiency with which she oscillates between being a scorer and distributor.

After a 2008 season in which Hammon's scoring ability was her primary contribution to the San Antonio (Silver) Stars' WNBA Finals run, her 2009 season might best encapsulate what makes Hammon's game unique. According to Basketball-Reference, Hammon was in the top five in the league in true shooting percentage (59.3%), assist percentage (30.8%), and usage percentage (27.6%). In more concrete terms, that means she was among the league's most efficient scorers while also having the ball in her hands to make plays more than anyone in the league and creating nearly a third of her team's assists - that's a remarkable combination of skills and extraordinary ability to create plays. But it might be easier to understand how extraordinary a feat that is in historical terms.

Hammon's historically strong balance of scoring and distributing

Looking back through league history, Hammon and Cynthia Cooper (1997, 1999) are the only players in league history to pull of that triad be being top five in usage, efficiency, and assist percentage. If we expand things a bit to give a broader range of guards a chance, only four players have managed to end up top five in scoring efficiency and assist percentage: Cooper (1997, 1999), Hammon (2009, 2012), Sue Bird (2004), and Diana Taurasi (2013). In other words, it takes a great player to accomplish that balance of distributing and scoring but the vast majority of great players never come close to accomplishing that feat (it is, however, noteworthy that both Ticha Penicheiro in 2011 and Teresa Weatherspoon in 1999 did come relatively close but did so at considerably lower usage rates, meaning they weren't among their team's primary scorers).

Hammon's career completely blows apart rigid notions of point guards solely consisting of pass-first players whose scoring is secondary - as I wrote back in 2009, "If being a point guard comes down to a matter of decision making (and) she is the best scorer on the floor in almost any game she plays, then creating scoring opportunities for herself is actually a good decision." For most teams in most situations, putting the ball in Hammon's hands and letting her create for herslf and others is the best way to maximize a team's possessions - and that's a point guard's primary task.

While all of that is relevant to current events as people continue to discuss the significance of Hammon being hired by the Spurs, it's also interesting in light of the league's current group of point guards overall: more and more, we see teams putting the ball in the hands of high-usage guards (usage rates of 20%+) who are both dominant scorers and their team's top distributor. You can feel free to continue to subscribe to antiquated notions about the position, but WNBA coaches are increasingly moving away from that.

2014 WNBA Point guard rankings

As the trend to move away from the pass-first point guard has been going on for years now, I set up the framework for these point guard rankings such that we're looking at exactly that ability to balance a) distributing, b) scoring, and c) efficiency that a player like Hammon personifies. As usual, we can put that in graph form.

Screen_shot_2014-08-12_at_12.05.11_pm_medium
Graphing the scoring and distributing efficiency of 2014 WNBA point guards.

  • The axes cross at a pure point ratio of about 1.7 and a "Chaiken efficiency" of 1.5, right around where they've been in the past.
  • An "ideal" point guard - the perfect mix of distributing and scoring efficiency - would be up in the top right corner of this graph (or off into the infinite beyond the graph in that direction).
  • The legend on the right is ordered by plus/minus - that you can find full numbers for at the Lynx's Net Plus/Minus & Miscellaneous Statistics site - which dictates the size of the bubbles you see on the graph and will also help demonstrate the comparative impact a few of these players have on their teams.
  • I included most players in the league with an assist ratio of above 20% and added some who were just below that as I began gathering numbers. Click here to see that list of statistics (including a few post players who happen to be outstanding passers).

Interestingly, the top three remains the same as it was last year with the top player maybe being even more impressive than she was previously.

The Top 10 WNBA Point Guards of 2014

1. Diana Tauarsi, PG, Phoenix Mercury

There shouldn't be all that much debate about who the best point guard is this season: statistically, Taurasi's combination of being among the league's top five most efficient distributors and scorers (by true shooting percentage) is almost unheard of. And that's also the foundation of her argument for 2014 WNBA MVP.

Going back to the points about Hammon's place in history, Taurasi is currently on pace to become just the third player in league history to finish in the top five in both true shooting percentage and assist percentage - it would be the first time a player has ever done that two seasons in a row. More impressive: none of the players who have done this previously have done so with a pure point rating as good as Taurasi's.

Taurasi isn't making the most easily quantifiable history this season, but you could easily make the argument that it's the best statistical season of any lead ball handler in league history even though reasonable people could definitely disagree.

Returning to this season in particular - and specifically the MVP debate - some of what Taurasi has done as the Mercury's point guard this season would almost certainly be lost for people looking solely at the traditional assists and points per game stats. What really can't be measured is what a player who's that dangerous as both a scorer and a passer does to the defense: she can beat you as a scorer if you try to guard her one-on-one, from beyond the arc if she's left open, off the dribble as a scorer or passer in the pick and roll, and gets to the free throw line at an extremely high rate of 40%. She's an absolute force offensively but hasn't let being an elite scorer hamper her efficiency in other areas.

Unfortunately, Maya Moore also just so happens to be having a historic season that can't just be ignored (somewhat surprisingly, no player has led the league in PER and usage percentage since Cynthia Cooper in 1997). There are justifiable arguments for either, really - we have to acknowledge that they're both having historically great seasons in distinct ways even while we debate who deserves the MVP.

2. Lindsay Whalen, Minnesota Lynx

For all of that I said about Taurasi this season, if you had a team with Maya Moore and a couple of other All-Stars on the roster, you'd be well within the realm of reason for saying Lindsay Whalen is the best option at point guard.

Whereas Phoenix's offense sort of revolves around the play of Taurasi, Whalen has the responsibility of initiating an offense that's designed to set up others - neither is really an inherently better task than the other and Whalen has done what she does better than anyone in the league during Minnesota's title era.

She's the most efficient distributor in the league while maintaining the third-highest usage on one the league's all-time great offensive teams (although the Mercury and Tulsa Shock - !!! - are ahead of them this season, the Lynx's 107.2 rating would make them one of the 10 best offenses of all-time if the season were to end today). Although she doesn't get near the press of other players in the league, Whalen is by far one of the best point guards the league has ever seen and in terms of thinking about the best true distributors in the world right now there's none better.

Most of all, wherever Whalen goes teams seem to win. You can't just dismiss her starting in five WNBA Finals series in her previous 10 seasons because that's unheard of - the WNBA doesn't even have a Derek Fisher/Robert Horry equivalent who made a NBA Finals series that often as a role player. The only reason she's #2 on this list is that Taurasi is having such an outstanding season, but Whalen's case for best point guard in the world more generally is clear.

3. Danielle Robinson, San Antonio Stars

With the veterans at their position on a collision course for the Western Conference title and a few youngsters really starting to make a name for themselves, it would be easy to lose Danielle Robinson in the shuffle - especially as someone playing next to one of the hottest names in women's basketball right now in Becky Hammon.

Yet Robinson's speed in transition and steady efficiency as a distributor make her the Stars' Most Valuable Player in a way that other point guards in the league right now aren't - even with Hammon there, Robinson gets the majority of the touches and needs to play well for the Stars to win. Other point guards have better numbers in one area or another, but to be the best player on a potential playoff team and the engine that makes it go easily makes her one of the top three at the position.

4. Odyssey Sims, Tulsa Shock

Although Sims just won Rookie of the Month for July as she became a more efficient scorer and averaging 18.3 points per game, in June she posted a pure point rating of 4.17. In her nine games since the All-Star break, she's averaging 23 points per game on 51% shooting and 45.2% 3-point shooting, according to Lynx Data.

Already she's proving that she can be an elite scorer and elite distributor - she just hasn't been able to put both together at the same time yet and had such a rough start to the season that her season numbers don't really do her potential justice. But she's one of those players who you can watch and see that she has all the right instincts even if they're not always rewarded statistically.

When she does, her combination of nearly unguardable quickness off the dribble, strong build, and pure tenacity will make her a perennial All-Star candidate at the point guard position for years to come. But another thing that has stood out as particularly impressive about her as a rookie - and really in college as well - is her ability to lead as both a scorer and distributor with such poise. In addition to what shows up statistically, Sims' physical gifts give her a chance to become an elite defender as well as she continues to adjust to the speed of the league.

You could argue for a number of players being ahead of Sims based on this season alone, but her potential at the position is undeniable and we're starting to see glimpses of that now. And you can't really argue with the numbers, despite an uneven rookie campaign: she's one of only a few guards in the league whose pure point rating and pts/empty possession ratio are well above average.

5. Skylar Diggins, Tulsa Shock

Skylar Diggins is her team's leader and has become unstoppable off the dribble in her second year. She has already set single-season records for the Shock and has a good chance to break her own records if she becomes a more efficient scorer in the future. She's easily her team's MVP this season and will probably get strong All-WNBA consideration (and I suppose I've telegraphed what I think about that based on the ordering here, but she's a strong candidate). Even with Sims playing next to her, Diggins gets more touches per game than most players in the league which has to be taken account when considering her efficiency numbers.

What's holding Diggins back from being higher on this list - and a potential area for improvement - is that she's neither a dangerous perimeter shooter nor an efficient distributor. That means most of her role as a distributor is set up by her scoring - nothing wrong with that, as explained above about Hammon - but that if she doesn't have the ball in her hands to score she's considerably less valuable to her team; when she gets frustrated, there are times when her youth can show and lead to her forcing shots. When the Shock put her off the ball, she's not a good enough three point shooter for teams to consider her a huge threat (it's not uncommon for teams to leave her open or make half-hearted close outs when she's beyond the arc).

When you start to add defense to the mix, it becomes clearer why Robinson and Sims might be the better point guard right now: though Robinson is not an effective perimeter shooter either, her efficiency as a distributor and ability to hold her own with her quickness on defense gives her a bit of an edge. But that's also a case of comparing apples and oranges a bit: although they're both high-usage players, Robinson is far more of a pure distributor whereas Diggins is a scorer playing point guard right now.

6. Ivory Latta, Washington Mystics

Set aside all the numbers for a moment: you can't possibly watch the Mystics play and miss Latta's value to the team. On a relatively young team, Latta might not be a "calming" force (simply because "calm" just seems like a poor descriptor for her), but the energy she plays with sets the tone for the team and her ability to make plays when her team needs them makes her an invaluable veteran presence.

Like Diggins and Sims, Latta fits in that sub-20% assist ratio category of scoring guards, but she brings almost all the leadership intangibles you'd want a point guard to possess to the floor and there's no question that her presence is a major reason why the Mystics are currently challenging for the second place in the Eastern Conference. And given what she has done for the Mystics franchise, you could easily argue for her to be in the top three or four in the league right now despite the numbers and I probably wouldn't argue too much with you.

The only reason why Latta is this low really comes down to her role on her team: the Mystics divide touches surprisingly evenly with Latta, Bria Hartley, Kara Lawson, and even Emma Meesseman sharing around 60% of the touches. That's not a knock on Latta, but the other point guards above her are just responsible for doing more statistically - you could easily make a case for her to be higher up on this list given team performance.

7. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm

To say Sue Bird is having a down year is being generous to the point of misleading - across the board, this is the worst year of her career. And yet, Bird just has that special ability to single-handedly will her team to wins that multiple players both above and below her simply don't have.

There was no better example of that than what she did to Diggins, Sims and the Shock on Sunday: with her team's season on the line, Bird helped the Storm overcome a 13-point second half deficit by scoring 10 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter including some big threes. She's not as quick as she once was and that automatic mid-range jumper is errant more often lately, but there are still few players who can make clutch plays the way she does. And despite having a down year, she's still just under league average in efficiency.

The thing that really sets her apart is probably the way the Storm play: there aren't many point guards in the league who would even be as effective as Bird is this season running the methodical read-and-react style offense that the Storm run, which is a testament to just how great a player she is (in addition to the many accolades she has accumulated).

8. Alex Bentley, Connecticut Sun

Alex Bentley is quietly having a strong point guard season by the numbers. Beyond the numbers, she sets the tone for the Sun in a way that might be clearest when she's off the floor - hence the strong plus/minus. She plays with a swagger that can sometimes look like overconfidence, but also gives her an edge that a number of WNBA players lack.

The problem for Bentley - something that was probably predictable about her as a draft prospect - is that she's still an inconsistent, yet relatively high volume (for a point guard) shooter, which can lead to costly decisions. But the energy she plays with on both ends made her a significant contributor to the Atlanta Dream as a rookie during their playoff run and should help her find a solid niche in the league at a position that is starting to undergo its youth movement in earnest.

9. Kristi Toliver, L.A. Sparks

Toliver might have been the biggest beneficiary of the Sparks' mid-season coaching change. For most of the season, everything ran through superstar teammate Candace Parker. Since Penny Toler moved into the head coaching role, Toliver has become more of a featured part of the offense and, while that has come with mixed results, her three point shooting is a major asset for a team that doesn't otherwise shoot well from the perimeter - the Sparks need her to shoot the ball well to win consistently, whether that means percentages throughout the game or bailing the team at the end of games when everyone knows she's going to get the ball with the intention to shoot.

Most importantly, and perhaps easily overlooked, is that Toliver is having a career year as a distributor with a pure point rating well above average.

10. Becky Hammon, San Antonio Stars

As it turns out, when you compare the efficiency statistics, Toliver and Hammon are almost the same player. Hammon's true shooting percentage is about 4% better than Toliver's. Her 40.7% three point percentage is third in the entire league and (currently) third-highest of her illustrious career.

The big difference that separates her from Hammon for our purposes here is that Robinson is running the team for the majority of Stars possessions, which leaves Hammon to be more of a spot-up shooter who can pass than a true distributor - it should come as no surprise in those circumstances that she's averaging a career-low 2.5 turnovers per 36 minutes.

But caveats about her role on the team aside, what Hammon is doing in her final year in the league is remarkable: most players would love to play this well in their prime while Hammon is doing it as a parting shot. Regardless of whether you consider her a point guard given her role this season - or ever did - her performance still begs the question, how many players would you really want running your team instead of her? Within the confines of this season, there are certainly arguments for others but it's hard to go too far with that based on the way she plays the game.