It’s Raining Buckets
How contraction in the WNBA expands scoring—and excitement.
by Clay Kallam
In basketball, the difference between two and three is a lot more than one – and it’s already showing in the WNBA this season.
It’s about strategy: If a basketball team at any level has two scorers, a defense can adjust. (By “scorer,” I mean a player who can either create her own shot, or must be guarded even on the weak side.)
For example, If Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson are on the floor with three non-scorers, the defense can assign one defender each to Bird and Jackson, and the other three defenders are always conscious of the two Seattle stars. That essentially means Bird and Jackson are always guarded by one-and-a-half defenders, and sometimes two.
But now let’s add a Swin Cash who’s shooting well, and demands a defender. Now, there are only two unoccupied defenders and three scorers, so the opposing coach can only assign one-and-a-half defenders to two of the three Seattle scorers.
Or, to put it another way, the addition of the third scorer means that one of the three scorers will be able to work on a defender and not worry about help. It also means the offense can pick the best matchup – it will take the weakest of the three one-on-one defenders and go right at her.
With only two scorers, that option is not available because there will always be help – and only two top defenders are required (and most WNBA teams have two strong defensive players).
Throughout the history of the WNBA, there have been few teams with three legitimate scoring threats – and the primary reason has been that there have been too many teams and not enough scorers. Even most good teams had only two players who counted as scorers, so those two scorers always one-and-a-half defenders to beat.
With contraction, however, the game has changed. Now more teams than ever have three scoring options, and all of a sudden, point totals are exploding. In regulation Saturday, the lowest point total for any of the six teams was 78, and when you add the overtimes, the lowest number was 81.
This is just what the WNBA needs, as points are a lot more fan-friendly than defense – and despite the deserved emphasis coaches place on defense when it comes to winning games, the league most of all needs to win fans. And games like last year’s 59-56 Sparks-Monarchs’ extravaganza aren’t going to win anything but an acknowledgement that stifling defense is like really horseradish: A little goes a long way.
Let’s take San Antonio as another example. Before the arrival of Chamique Holdsclaw, the Silver Stars had two weapons, Sophia Young and Becky Hammon. Michelle Snow? Never a real scoring threat, especially if kept off the offensive boards. Ruth Riley? Sooner have a root canal than accept contact in the lane. Helen Darling? Shot below 30 percent the last two seasons. And so on …
Which meant that defending San Antonio was pretty easy, at least in theory. Three players always had half of their attention on Young and Hammon, and should one of those be out of the game, there was only one scorer to worry about. (Of course, Hammon and Young are so good that they can often beat the help, but if both didn’t play well, it was a struggle for the Silver Stars to score.)
But now, with Holdsclaw playing as aggressively as she did Saturday, two things happen: Things open up for Hammon and Young; and the pressure on Hammon and Young is much less. Again, looking at Saturday’s 88-81 win over L.A., Hammon only took nine shots, and the combination of Hammon shooting fewer than 10 times and San Antonio winning the game was highly unlikely in 2009. Now, with scorer number three on the floor, even not knowing the offense, the Silver Stars are either a) going to have one of their big three going one-on-one, or b) another player on the floor left pretty much wide open (hence Edwige Lawson-Wade and Snow combining for 28 points).
That same scenario is being played out around the league, as contraction has finally put the WNBA in a position to show off the offensive skills of its best players. Defenses can no longer focus on the one or two scorers on an opposing roster, and have help always at hand. With more scorers getting one-on-one opportunities, there are going to be more points, and there’s going to be a lot more excitement game in and game out.
And in the second summer of our economic discontent, the league needs excitement more than ever.