An Evolving Game
15 years in, the WNBA has more points, and more fun.
by Clay Kallam
OK, OK, maybe the math is a little screwy – even though it’s the 15th anniversary, it’s only the 14th season. As the old saying goes, whatever … because what’s really important is that the WNBA is still here, and that the game may have taken another quantum leap.
For evidence, look at Tuesday’s ESPN2 doubleheader, featuring San Antonio and Phoenix in the opener and Los Angeles and New York in the nightcap, and what jumps out is this: The winning teams averaged 100 points a game, and the losing teams 95.
So what, you say? Remember, the WNBA plays 40-minute games, not 48-minute games, so a comparable NBA score would have been 120-114. And the women’s college game, which some prefer, almost never delivers games with that many points.
First, let’s concede that we had a lot of indifferent defense going on, though the score of the first game is as indicative of the pace Phoenix plays at as it is of any particular defensive intensity. At the same time, though, it’s hard to go down the rosters of either the Mercury or the Silver Stars and find an elite defender, especially with Sophia Young sitting out for San Antonio.
Game two, however, was simply a contest between two bad defensive teams. Even though Candace Parker has been anointed as the game’s best player, not only couldn’t she guard a parked car, she had no interest in doing so. (But for a 6-5 woman, she can seriously handle – that little behind-the-back move under pressure to seal the deal Tuesday was pretty impressive.) And even though John Whisenant won a WNBA title with a defensive emphasis, he doesn’t have a single player who can lock anyone down on his roster.
That said, though, here’s what impressed me most about the two games, and about where the WNBA is right now: These women can score.
For newcomers to the league, or the many skeptics, this is a so-what comment, but for those of us who were around on day one, the difference is night and day. Sure, Cynthia Cooper and Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes could put the ball in the basket from day one, but the second-line players had about as much chance of hitting an open 15-footer as your grandmother. And contested layups? Just start screening out as soon as the ball leaves the hand, because it’s coming off the rim.
Now, however, there are shooters and scorers (there is a difference) up and down every roster. No longer can teams solely focus on stopping the first and second options. Instead, that kid off the bench (we’re looking at you, Danielle Adams) can kill you if you don’t pay attention.
This depth of scoring ability certainly wasn’t there in 1997, and in truth, it wasn’t nearly as apparent in 2007 either. Though the improvement in women’s basketball has looked slow and steady, it really comes in quantum bursts, from one level to the next – and it looks like another big step has just been taken.
One reason is simply that girls’ and women’s basketball has gotten better at all levels since the inception of the WNBA, and the league’s existence is part of the reason. Young, elite female athletes have been able to look around and see a team sport on national television for 15 years, and watch that same team sport get lots of attention in Olympic years – and that sport is basketball. So some percentage (maybe small, maybe large, but significant) of elite female athletes are choosing basketball instead of volleyball, soccer or softball, and that percentage makes a difference.
At the same time, the overall level of skill and basketball IQ has risen substantially. This isn’t to say there are more great players, because talents like Cooper, Leslie and Swoopes are as much a product of the genetic lottery as anything else, but the second (and third) tier of players are much better than ever before.
And that’s what we saw Tuesday night. Back in the day, a bad WNBA defensive team wouldn’t necessarily be punished for that lack because only a few players could take advantage of a weak defender – but not anymore. If you doubt that, just dial up Tuesday’s games on WNBA.com and see for yourself.
It’s a different game than it was in 1997, and a much better one. And who knows how much better it will be 15 years from now?