Like a good chunk of the viewing audience, I tuned in to last night’s L.A.-Phoenix matchup on NBA TV to see Candace Parker’s 2009 debut. Alas, the league’s reigning MVP was overshadowed in the second half by the Mercury’s 13-0 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters and turned a close game into a rout. Q from Rethinking Basketball was also watching and blogged about the game, though I think he understated how overwhelmed the Sparks looked in that stretch. They seemed to mentally fatigue from the pressure of having to get back all game long, committing inexplicable turnovers that turned into Phoenix layups at the other end.
Add in a win over the Storm early in the week and the Mercury now stands alone atop the Western Conference, a position confirmed by Phoenix’s point differential. Let’s take a look at the advanced stats for the Mercury and the rest of the league.
Team ORtg Team DRtg ------------------- ------------------- Phoenix 108.9 Indiana 89.8 Minnesota 104.8 Connecticut 93.3 Seattle 103.3 New York 94.6 Chicago 99.8 Washington 96.9 AVERAGE 99.1 Los Angeles 98.1 Indiana 98.8 San Antonio 98.1 Atlanta 98.2 Atlanta 99.1 Washington 97.2 AVERAGE 99.1 Connecticut 97.1 Seattle 99.4 Sacramento 96.3 Detroit 100.3 San Antonio 96.0 Minnesota 101.2 Los Angeles 94.8 Sacramento 102.4 Detroit 94.3 Phoenix 105.8 New York 93.3 Chicago 105.9
The Mercury remains in a familiar position atop the league in Offensive Rating, and no one else is close. In fact, in terms of pure points per 100 possessions, this year’s Mercury ranks behind only the 2000 Houston Comets (110.2 Offensive Rating) in the history of the WNBA. Even relative to league average, this has been the best offense of the Phoenix up-tempo era thanks to contributions from Temeka Johnson and DeWanna Bonner and Cappie Pondexter’s improved playmaking. You might be surprised to learn that the previous leader of that group was Paul Westhead’s first Mercury team, the 2006 squad that failed to make the playoffs, not the championship squad. Thus the importance of defense, and there the Mercury is closer to last year and 2006 than 2007. However, the offense might be good enough to carry Phoenix this year.
Balance remains hard to come by in the league. The only team in the top 10 in both offense and defense is the Indiana Fever, winners of eight straight. We also see teams flip-flopped from last year, with Connecticut and New York both winning with defense and the Storm reliant on its offense. While the schedule is a factor – six of the team’s 10 games have come against other top-five offenses – the Storm’s defense has to be something of a concern right now.
Team Exp. W Team Exp. W ------------------- ------------------- Phoenix 20.2 Indiana 22.4 Seattle 19.6 Connecticut 21.4 Minnesota 19.5 Washington 17.6 Los Angeles 15.6 New York 17.4 San Antonio 15.3 Atlanta 15.5 Sacramento 10.8 Detroit 12.5 Connecticut 10.8
Last week, the Fever was still well behind the leaders in expected wins based on point differential, but with the other top teams faltering, Indiana is now the league’s best team by this measure. The interesting note is how different things look with the inclusion of strength of schedule, per Petrel’s version of the WNBA Hollinger Power Rankings. There, the Storm shoots to the top, with Connecticut in second and Phoenix – which has feasted on a home-heavy schedule – all the way down in sixth. We’ll see how things even up as the Storm plays a long homestand and the Mercury gets more road games.
Player Tm Win% WARP ------------------------------------- Diana Taurasi PHO .759 3.2 Lauren Jackson SEA .808 3.2 Nicky Anosike MIN .783 3.0 Tamika Catchings IND .768 2.9 Sancho Lyttle ATL .734 2.4 Cappie Pondexter PHO .653 2.4 Jia Perkins CHI .716 2.4 Shameka Christon NYL .735 2.0 Charde Houston MIN .675 1.7 Alana Beard WAS .641 1.7
On the strength of the Mercury’s 12 games to the Storm’s 10, Diana Taurasi has a narrow advantage over Lauren Jackson as the league’s most valuable player by WARP. (Incidentally, did anyone else catch Taurasi being called a former MVP during the broadcast? A little premature on that one.)
This week’s big mover is the Liberty’s Shameka Christon, who had 25 points on 6-0f-8 shooting (plus 11-of-11 from the free-throw line) in a win over Detroit. Never a favorite of the advanced stats. Christon is shooting an even 50 percent both from the field and downtown. While the latter seems more fluky, Christon actually shot better on threes than twos a year ago. It will be interesting to see if she can sustain that efficiency. Christon has also gotten shockingly more sure-handed, halving her turnover rate from 12.1 percent of her possessions a year ago to 6.1 percent this year, second in the league to L.A.’s Kristi Harrower amongst regulars.