U.S. Women’s Basketball Outlook: Why The Favorites Can Expect Challenges

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U.S. Women’s Basketball Outlook: Why The Favorites Can Expect Challenges

The U.S. women's basketball team is aiming for their fourth straight gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which would set a record for most consecutive golds by a women's basketball team. 

Entering their first preliminary round game on Saturday night, it should be clear why this team is #1 in FIBA's world rankings. In addition to having a number of WNBA stars with Olympic experience on the roster, they will also feature Candace Parker, who will be making her first appearance on the global stage as a professional.

However, if there is one thing that U.S. basketball fans should have learned by now, it’s that expectations and talent alone are not enough to win international competitions.

So perhaps due to past disappointments on the men's side as much as present circumstances, there has been plenty of attention paid to the on-court chemistry of the U.S. women’s basketball team. Of course this problem should be expected considering that the 12 players on the roster have never played together as a full unit. From head coach Anne Donovan (via WNBA.com):

"These players know our system. Every one of them has played at different times with different players, but these 12 have never played together before. If anything, it’s just getting chemistry, working together at both ends of the floor and getting the kinks out. There’s going to be mistakes early as they learn to play with each other and get familiar with who’s good at what, and how we can parlay strengths and cover up weaknesses. Overall, I’m really pleased so far."

Their widely-acknowledged struggle with on-court chemistry – in addition to their 25-game Olympic winning streak and a loss to Russia in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World championships – make this team one of the more intriguing story lines of the U.S. contingent to Beijing. How quickly can this talented team come together and will it be enough to beat teams like the Australia who have spent more time practicing?

Although they won the FIBA Diamond Ball exhibition tournament this past Tuesday, their chemistry problems did creep up at certain points, as described by AP writer Doug Feinberg:

"At times the U.S. players looked to be in total harmony, scoring at will and containing Latvia. At other times, the Americans struggled, turning the ball over and missing defensive assignments that led to
easy baskets."

So what can we learn about this team from their exhibition games? Although I acknowledge that looking at the statistics from such a small sample of games is “dangerous at best and foolish at worst” as phrased by Kevin Pelton of the Seattle Storm, there were some general trends that are worth watching for in their upcoming quest for the gold medal. From those, I believe it’s possible to create some keys to winning a gold in Beijing.

How can we account for chemistry?

The simplest way to get an idea of a team’s on-court chemistry is to look at who they have on their roster and see how the associated styles of play fit together. Using a unique tool from the Arbitrarian blog called the SPI player styles spectrum, we can get a better idea of the styles of play of each player and how they fit together.

“SPI” stands for scorer-perimeter-interior—and as you can probably guess, what it does is show us the extent to which a player is a scorer, perimeter, or interior player. A player’s scoring is determined by field goal and free throw attempts, perimeter play by assists and steals, and interior play by rebounds and blocks. Players with a mix of all three are in the center of the graphic as “mixed”. I like to consider the non-scorers “utility players”.

What’s great about it is that it gives us a sense of how players compare to one another, how productive they are (the size of their name) and the degree to which players fit a particular style (click here for more about the methodology).

Here’s a rough approximation of the rotation they have used thus far:

Starters:
G: Sue Bird (combo point guard)
G: Katie Smith (perimeter scorer)
F: Diana Taurasi (perimeter scorer)
F: Tina Thompson (interior/scorer)
C: Lisa Leslie (pure interior)

Second team:
G: Kara Lawson (perimeter scorer)
G: Cappie Pondexter (perimeter scorer)
F: Seimone Augustus (perimeter scorer)
F: Candace Parker (interior utility player)
C: Sylvia Fowles (pure interior)

Reserves:
F: Tamika Catchings (perimeter forward)
F: DeLisha Milton Jones (interior/scorer)

It’s worth noting that defense is not taken into account with this spectrum. However, this team has a number of outstanding defenders at each position: Augustus, Catchings, and DeLisha Milton-Jones are all among the best position defenders the WNBA has to offer and Fowles, Leslie, and Parker are some of the best help defenders. 

How well do the players complement each other?

First, the most noticeable thing is that this team lacks any of the play-makers that fall in the "pure perimeter" category that we would normally consider point guards. Sue Bird is one of the best point guards the WNBA has to offer and Taurasi is also among the best ball handlers, but they’re both starting – there’s not a true lead guard available on the bench.

Second, this team is scorer-heavy, drawing very few players from the opposite side of the spectrum, which would be what I call "utility players". Those non-scorers at the other end of the spectrum tend to be the players we sometimes consider “glue players” or the players that support the primary scoring options.

Third – and this is something not really captured with the graphic – this team does not have a lot of players who can drive to the basket and score effectively. Pondexter is one of the best in the WNBA and Bird is among the best at picking apart defenses, but aside from those two most of these players will make their living either inside or outside.

So just from looking at the roster, we see that a lack of balance, a lack of distributors, and a lack of players who can attack the basket could affect their on-court chemistry. They have a number of outstanding three point shooters (Augustus, Catchings, Lawson, Smith and Taurasi), but if for some reason they have an off shooting night from the outside they could be easy to shut down because they lack players who drive to the basket and score.

This is part of the reason why Connecticut Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen would have been a great addition to this roster – she’s more of a player who can have a huge influence on the game by distributing and rebounding instead of just scoring. There was legitimate reason to pass on her (she was not able to attend all of the training sessions), but her skill set will be missed.

Glue players are the players who will make the extra pass, go for offensive rebounds, or hustle for loose balls and they could use more of those vital players as well. Another interesting choice for the roster in that regard would have been center Janel McCarville, a player that would likely excel in the international game.

Unfortunately, they may have put together more of an all-star team than a harmonious unit. A look at their stats from the Diamond Ball Tournament shows how some of these problems manifest themselves.

How well do they play together?

It would be foolish indeed to assume that we could account for chemistry with one or two statistics because ultimately chemistry is immeasurable and at least partially based on the interpersonal dynamics of the team in addition to complementary skill sets. In fact, good chemitry is not always visible even if we watch the games live. However, bad chemistry is generally evident in breakdowns and miscues, some of which can be captured statistically if we look at the core elements of the game.

There are a few core elements of good team basketball that most observers would probably agree upon as the most important: ball movement, shooting, offensive rebounding, turnovers, and fouling (the latter two being negative, of course). Defensively, a team’s ability to prevent the other team from establishing an offensive rhythm is based in these core elements as well.

Even though we only have exhibition statistics right now, in looking at Team USA’s statistics, a few things stand out as points of concern: their opponents have outscored them from the free throw line in 2 of 3 games and they are turning the ball over almost 19 times per game. Despite having the WNBA’s top two rebounders in Leslie and Parker, Australia beat them on the offensive rebounds 14-11.

Consistent with Feinberg’s observations about harmony, these numbers indicate that the team is struggling with the little things in the game – fouling too much, not taking care of the ball, and not boxing out (in the case of the Australia game). A talented team can overcome shooting slumps, but these problems get to the core of what team basketball is all about – team defense and offensive rhythm. To this point it's clear that Donovan's concerns about chemistry are still valid.

In fact, it would be reasonable to argue that had Australia not turned the ball over 19 times themselves in the final game, they could have beaten the U.S. Pelton reports that teams like Russia “treat pool play as an opportunity for scouting and experimentation before raising their level of play in the medal rounds”. If that is so then the 22 turnovers by the U.S. against Russia are also cause for concern if Russia wasn't even taking the game seriously.
 
Keys to victory: The path to gold will not be without challenges

If the exhibition games so far are any indication, the U.S. team will likely have to cut down on turnovers and fouls in order to win gold. We have to keep in mind that they only beat Australia by four so the concerns are real and Australia will be hungry for victory if they meet each other again with more on the line.

I remember eight years ago sitting around with friends speculating when someone would finally beat a team of NBA players in international play. We were tossing out wild numbers like 2030 or 2050 – in other words, it barely seemed like a possibility. So it's not that our women's team is for some reason on the decline as much as the fact that we are learning as a nation that our professionals are just not invincible, even in the middle of a 25-game winning streak.

It’s very possible that if this team cannot find its chemistry before the medal rounds, they will end up returning home without a gold medal. It may be tempting to assume that this team is so talented that they would just steamroll the competition. But very recent history tells us that is not the case.

A version of this article was originally posted at the Rethinking Basketball blog (http://rethinkbball.blogspot.com).

Relevant Links:

Women's basketball showing how physical it can be
http://womenshoops.blogspot.com/2008/08/some-and-i-emphasize-some-of.html

USA Wins Thriller, Diamond Ball
http://seattlestorm.blogspot.com/2008/08/usa-wins-thriller-diamond-ball.html

Nice video on how the men's basketball team put together their team
http://attblueroom.com/sports/teamusa/mediaplayer.php?cid=182563&tab=&artist=

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