Saturday, June 23, 2007

Slow Starters No More

On Thursday,'s Mechelle Voepel - the best there is when it comes to covering the WNBA from a league-wide perspective - celebrated the 10th anniversary of the very first WNBA game by pointing out that, 10 years later, we're a good third of the way into the season by late June, which has created some serious complications in terms of players arriving late from their overseas responsibilities.

Voepel ties this to worse play at the start of the season:

As a result, the WNBA preseason became more a "weeding out" process to get down to the required roster size than real preparation for the season. It really isn't until about now, a month into the season, when teams have taken their true form as a unit.

Meaning that in some ways, spectators might feel in the early part of the season they are seeing more like a dress rehearsal than the actual play itself. As with a good Broadway production, a good team in any sport prepares, debuts, works out kinks that come up, improves and eventually hits a consistent stride through its run.
For five of the six years I've followed the WNBA, this has been true almost unequivocally. In particular, it has often seemed like nationally-televised games early in the season have been especially sloppy (I'm thinking here of the Storm's opener on ABC against L.A. in 2005, for example, much as I prefer not to think about that game).

For whatever reason, however, that doesn't seem to have been the case this year, either subjectively or objectively. The games I watched early in the season, including the Storm's home wins over Houston and Phoenix and nationally-televised games like Detroit-Sacramento and Connecticut-Los Angeles were generally crisply played.

The numbers confirm this suspicion. I observed a week and a half into the season "how strong offense has been in the early going." Since that time, in fact, the league-wide Offensive Rating has in fact fallen from 99.4 to 98.6.

For the fantasy league I run in the office, I've saved player totals week by week since the start of the season, which offers another perspective. Here are some key league-wide stats:
Wk   FG%   3P%   TS%   TO%
1 .413 - .512 .173
2 .418 .363 .515 .178
3 .417 .352 .513 .173
4 .421 .344 .514 .176
5 .421 .336 .514 .179
To make sure it's clear, these are the league numbers through the conclusion of each week, which means they also include all weeks before the week in question.

These numbers are pretty interesting. Three-point percentage has been falling since week two (I don't have complete numbers from the first week), offsetting an improvement on shooting inside the arc reflected by field-goal percentage going up. True Shooting Percentage, an overall measure of shooting efficiency, has stayed about the same all year.

Most surprising is the progression in TO%, the percentage of players' possessions that have ended in turnovers. While this does not include team turnovers (shot clock violations and the occasional eight-second backcourt violation, mostly), it is very surprising that players have actually gotten slightly sloppier with the basketball as the season has gone on.

I don't know that one year of a fast-starting WNBA means the league has kicked its early-season issues, but it's worth noting this phenomenon is hardly unique to the W. An analysis of the NBA's Offensive Rating over the course of the season shows a similar trend. This is despite the fact that, in the NBA, (virtually) everyone reports to training camps on time and there are eight preseason games to the three played by the WNBA.

Why isn't the slow start a story in the NBA? In part because, during a long season, a slow start won't stick out as much. One month is a sixth of the season in the NBA, a third of it in the WNBA. I'd also point out that, to be totally frank, the NBA has more room for sloppiness because the game features more scoring overall.

While everyone certainly agrees that getting players in camp on time would be preferable, I'm not sure it would ultimately make a noticeable difference in the play on the floor early in the season.

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