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The power of three-point shooting for the WNBA’s championship contenders

Three-point shooting contributed to the Seattle Storm’s run to the championship last season. How might the Connecticut Sun, Washington Mystics, Las Vegas Aces and Los Angeles Sparks use the three-point shot to find similar postseason success?

Seattle Storm v Las Vegas Aces
Can more threes from Kayla McBride help the Aces capture the championship?
Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

The Seattle Storm seemed to usher in a new era of WNBA basketball last season. The Storm unexpectedly established themselves as the league’s best team in large part by unleashing the power of the three-point shot.

When the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks ruled the league for much of the 2010s, they used their talent to produce efficient offense from the midrange and paint. The Storm, in contrast, applied the principles of efficiency differently, scoring 31.1% of their points from three, 40.7% from the paint and 12.3% in the midrange. Last season’s runners-up, the Washington Mystics, scored 29.8% of their baskets from three, while the Phoenix Mercury, who pushed Seattle to five games in the semifinal round, were third, at 29.6%.

The willingness to shoot from distance appeared to emerge as a clear indicator of success.

Yet, this offseason, teams that restocked or refreshed did not necessarily follow this blueprint. The Los Angeles Sparks, whose offense stalled last season, did not prioritize outside shooting with the offseason additions. After openly coveting Liz Cambage, they traded for Chiney Ogwumike and drafted Kalani Brown. The Las Vegas Aces acquired the aforementioned Cambage, creating an inside tandem with A’ja Wilson, but did little to address their lack of outside shooting threats, adding no one to complement Kayla McBride.

Nevertheless, the Aces and Sparks sit third and fourth in the standings, suggesting the three is not necessarily the key to success in the WNBA. Yet, a closer look at the Aces and Sparks — as well as at the league’s other top contenders in the Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics — demonstrates that an ability to space the floor and shoot from distance may determine the ultimate success for the four teams most likely to seriously vie for the title.

Connecticut Sun

The three has been key for the league-leading Sun. However, firing away even more freely from deep could help them reach the success they seek. Connecticut currently is in the top three in three-point percentage and top five in three-point makes. Yet, they are sixth in three-point attempts, shooting about 21 per game. As expected, the Sun have shot better from three in wins compared to losses. More critically, they also have taken more threes in their victories. While it may be difficult for Shekinna Stricklen to shoot more threes, as she already is in the top five in attempts and the leader in percentage of points from three, other members of the Sun could shoot from distance more frequently.

In particular, Courtney Williams, although a midrange assassin, has flashed impressive accuracy from deep this season. Taking one three-point attempt per game, Williams is shooting 47.6%. While such percentage probably is unsustainable if she increases her attempt rate, doing so could have positive secondary effects. By making defenders more consistently contest her from beyond the three-point line, she can find more space in the midrange. Similarly, Jasmine Thomas, who is shooting just over 40% from three, could increase her attempt rate in order to make her pull-up jumpers more dangerous.

But the most important shooter and spacer for the Sun is Jonquel Jones. She is an MVP candidate, despite the fact that her three-pointer has not fallen this season. After draining almost 47% of her threes in 2018, Jones barely is exceeding 30% this season. Importantly, Jones still is taking more than four-and-a-half three-point attempts per game, up from about three per game last season. She should maintain this aggressiveness, as her conversion rate should eventually approach the 40%-plus mark she registered the past two seasons. Furthermore, her ability to stretch the defense more than anyone on her team can create open shots for others.

The deadline addition of Theresa Plaisance indicates that Connecticut is all-in on their championship chase. But it also demonstrates their recognition that additional floor spacing from the big position is needed. Plaisance, having shot over 34% on three-point attempts per game this season, will be integral to the Sun’s title effort.

Washington Mystics

The Mystics rely heavily on the three, by far leading the league in three-point attempts and makes. Yet, a greater percentage of Washington’s points in wins comes from the midrange. Strong shooting from distance opens up midrange shots for the Mystics, resulting in a balanced, and often dominant, offensive output. More specifically, Kristi Toliver draining from downtown helps Natasha Cloud find friendlier driving lanes and allows Elena Delle Donne go to work from any spot on the floor.

This complementarity results in the Washington offense humming. However, when things go awry, with Cloud jacking too many threes and Toliver settling for contested twos, the Mystics struggle to score. Somewhat surprisingly, Toliver and Cloud are shooting about the same number of threes per game, at just over four each. While Cloud improved her three-point shooting performance last season, converting 38.6%, that effort is appearing to be an outlier, as she is shooting 30.4% this season (in line with her career averages). Since Cloud has not proven herself to be a reliable spacer, her willingness to shoot from distance does not have positive effects for the offense overall. In contrast, Toliver possesses a reputation and a resume as a long-distance markswoman. Redistributing some of Cloud’s attempts to Toliver or to Ariel Atkins could ensure that the Mystics offense operates optimally.

Or, let’s face it — do the effects of floor spacing and shooting efficiency really matter when you can just throw it to Delle Donne, or, even more, to Masked Delle Donne, and get out of the way? Well, the Mystics register lower assist percentages in their victories, suggesting that their superstar’s willingness to be aggressive in isolation is their best offensive option.

Las Vegas Aces

Last in three-point attempt rate but first in three-point percentage, the Aces’ selectively results in their accuracy. But should they sacrifice some of their shot quality for a greater quantity of shots, raising their overall offensive efficiency in the process? With the combined talents of Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson, it makes sense that many of Vegas’s points come in the paint. However, with WNBA referees seeming to swallow their whistles this season, such post scoring is not as sure a source of efficient offense. In the absence of frequent foul calls, Vegas could use the three-point shot to draw defenders out, creating more space for Cambage and Wilson to operate.

As head coach Bill Laimbeer has reiterated, the Aces lack the requisite amount of reliable outside shooting, even as they employ one of the league’s most elite shooters in Kayla McBride. Owner of the league’s best three-point percentage, she could stand to increase her attempt rate. McBride is shooting only four threes a game. Her highest number of attempts in a game this season is only seven, a shockingly low number considering it is conceivable that McBride could make seven (or more!) threes in a single game. Because McBride is shooting a rather average 40% from the midrange, trading long twos for threes could make her and, in turn, the Aces’ offense more dangerous. McBride certainly should be taking significantly more threes than Kelsey Plum, who, showing no sinking confidence as she launches almost four threes per game, still has struggled to find the scoring prowess she demonstrated as a collegian.

Vegas’s offensive decisions suggest a desire to cultivate more threats from deep. Sugar Rodgers has served almost solely as a floor spacer this season. Dearica Hamby recently has been encouraged to fire from behind the arc, although she has yet to find much success. While she certainly is best under the basket, it would be interesting to see Liz Cambage stretch out her game in the way that she wishes.

The ability of Hamby and Cambage to somewhat legitimately be threats from three could open the way for lineups featuring those two alongside A’ja Wilson. So far this season, the five-woman lineup of of Cambage-Wilson-Hamby-McBride-Plum is plus 28 in 15 minutes of action. Although an absurdly small sample size, these numbers do point to the potential of this lineup.

In signing Jamie Nared, who was cut before the start of the season after playing for the Aces last season, the organization appears to be looking for an outside shooting threat from the 4 position. Although she shot only 28% on one attempt per game last season, Nared’s profile, including her strong percentage from the free throw line, suggests she could develop into an off-the-bench spacer if she remains with the team through their playoff run.

Los Angeles Sparks

Despite the focus on their front court this offseason, the Sparks also have enhanced their three-point shooting profile. Last season, Los Angeles took 17.3 threes per game, which ranked 10th in the league, converting at a rate of 34.7%. So far in 2019, the Sparks are third overall in threes per game, launching more than 21. This increase in attempts has not negatively impacted their accuracy, as the Sparks are shooting over 35%.

Possibly, such shooting is unsustainable. Before her suspension for a domestic assault incident, Riquana Williams was shooting a career-best 40% on a career-high 5.7 attempts per game. Even as she has almost tripled her three-point attempt rate, shooting just under three threes per game, Nneka Ogwumike also is shooting almost 40% from deep. New addition Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who Washington let walk in free agency because of her lack of a consistent three-point shot, likewise is approaching 40% on two and a half attempts a game. Assuming a significant offensive responsibility for the first time in her career, Sydney Wiese has improved her reliability from three, shooting approximately 38% on just over three shots a game. It appears that many, unlucky early season injuries forced coach Derek Fisher and the Sparks to more willingly fire from deep, resulting in a squad that entered the season seemingly short on shooting developing a relatively deep roster of reliable three-point shooters.

Even if the percentages they thus far have posted prove unsustainable, these players likely have done enough to establish themselves as three-point threats, providing the space needed for LA to take advantage of their inside scoring prowess. All the more, the returns of Candace Parker and Maria Vadeeva only should enhance the Sparks’ offense, as both players can score inside and outside. Additionally, while three-point shooting was predicted to be Marina Mabrey’s most impactful skill at the professional level, the rookie has shot just below 28%, although her quick trigger and collegiate reputation make her three attempts per game valuable shots. Alexis Jones, who also recently made her Sparks debut due to extended injury troubles, also possesses three-point shooting potential, evidenced by the 40% she shot her rookie year in Minnesota in 2017, as well as by her solid free throw percentage.

And, of course, the Sparks are well-equipped to optimize all these scoring options with Chelsea Gray at the controls. Herself a 36.5% three-point shooter on three and a half attempts a game, Gray is the consummate game manager, using her playmaking panache to position her teammates (or herself) for open, efficient (and often nasty) shots.

Taking advantage of the three can allow the W’s contenders to fulfill their title dreams

Each contender, of course, sports a solid offense that, at times, can be spectacular. Connecticut’s attack is beautiful when it is balanced. Washington often seems unstoppable when they are bombing from three. Outside shooting enhances Vegas’s already intimidating inside game. When the ball buzzes around the floor, LA lives up to the city’s famous “showtime” moniker.

But, the ability to troubleshoot when the offense sticks and stalls may well determine playoff success. Effectively leveraging the threat of three can raise the offense floors of the WNBA’s top four contenders, situating them to take the trophy at season’s end.