Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Putting Together a Winning Team: Offense vs. Defense

Marynell Meadors has become the focal point of criticism for many Atlanta Dream fans. This is understandable. The team almost set a record for futility last year with a 4-30 finish and fans are impatient for the team to get to the playoffs after the acquisition of Chamique Holdsclaw and after seeing the solid post play of Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle. However, this begs the question: could the fans honestly have done much better?

The fact is that the team had to be put together from the castoffs of other WNBA franchises. Furthermore, the Dream was not granted an advantageous draft position, denying them the chance of acquiring a Candace Parker-like game-changer. This left us with players who were either never very good to begin with, or those who through physical (or mental) infirmity were found wanting by other teams. (The proof of the postulate: almost the entire team was sent packing in the 2008-09 offseason.)

Putting together a team requires having an answer to the question of how a team should be put together. One can almost think of it as a question on a bar exam:

"Given: You are hired by an owner to be the coach of his expansion league WNBA franchise. Please state, in detail, the principles you would apply to building this team to a championship caliber club within the next five years."

This exam is strictly pass-fail based on one question, because your job depends on it. What is your "franchise philosophy?" so to speak? If you had to explain what the Atlanta Dream was "about" in 20 words or less what would it be? Some examples:

Detroit Shock: "Mental toughness. Veterans." (at least when Bill Laimbeer was coach)
Phoenix Mercury: "Run and gun. Fast players. Good shooters."
Los Angeles Sparks: "Tough post play."
Minnesota Lynx: "Youth development."
San Antonio Silver Stars: "Good character players. No Milos."

A team's philosophy of play - its Bible, if you would - should also answer one of the most common questions asked of any coach: "offense or defense?" Fire, or water?

In football, the pat answer is "defense wins championships", but there's no pat answer to this question in basketball because each club has roughly the same number of possessions. The problem facing any coach is that he or she must play an equal number of possessions as an offensive and as a defensive squad.

Oddly enough, the "offense or defense" dilemma merges with another question, "everything or one thing". Do you want to be the kind of team that does all things well (to a limited degree) or do you want to have a reputation for doing one particular thing well? I'm sure that most fans would jump up and say "my dream team should do everything well". The problem is that in real life, this can't happen - it's hard to find even a single player who does everything well. If I were building a team, I would probably stress doing one thing well, at least in the beginning.

In my opinion, one must lean towards either offense or defense, one or the other. My decision would be to go with offense. Why? My goal would be for my team to win a WNBA championship. I would look at past WNBA champions, and see what made those teams champions: offense, or defense. The stats below come from the offensive and defensive rankings assigned to a team by basketball-reference.com.

Rating of Offensive and Defensive League Rank
WNBA Champions

1997 Houston Comets: 1st/3rd
1998 Houston Comets: 1st/1st
1999 Houston Comets: 1st/1st
2000 Houston Comets: 1st/1st
2001 Los Angeles Sparks: 1st/6th
2002 Los Angeles Sparks: 2nd/2nd
2003 Detroit Shock: 4th/3rd
2004 Seattle Storm: 1st/3rd
2005 Sacramento Monarchs: 6th/1st
2006 Detroit Shock: 7th/2nd
2007 Phoenix Mercury: 1st/12th
2008 Detroit Shock: 3rd/5th

Most of the time, a championship team is ranked higher offensively than defensively. The goal in basketball, like any other sport, is to score more points than one's opponent. Do you want to do something yourself, or hope that you can keep someone else from doing it? The first is easier to control than the second.

There have only been three teams that ranked higher in defense than in offense, and only in 2005 and 2006 was the defense of the eventual WNBA champion significantly better than the offense. In 2007, the Mercury had a porous defense, but won the championship under Paul Westhead, a man dedicated to running up 140-point scores and simply tiring the opposing defense into a coma. More than half of the championship teams had the best offense in the league; only a third had the best defense.

Defensive evaluation in basketball is difficult to measure statistically. Let's look at a situation where Player A on offense faces Player B on defense. Assume that Player B's "true defensive rating" is high - we might not have any metrics that accurately tell us how good B is, but we'll say that B is a very good defender. B might not be able to steal the ball from A or block A's shot, or break up the play with a touch, but B has the potential to do all of those things, and A knows it. A might decide to take a worse shot that she usually might take or decide that the balance between A and B is poor and pass the ball off to a weaker offensive scorer. The weak scorer misses the ball - a shot that might have been made by A if A were matched up against a weaker defender. B gets no defensive credit for the play, or at least nothing that goes in the line of the box score.

We're getting there, however. There was an article about how a particular player in the NBA - I can't remember who - forced Kobe into making shots from parts of the court where Kobe was less accurate. A detailed analysis proved that this was the case. Since basketball is a game of continuous motion, it might be years before we find the right metrics to get those kind of statistics with our daily box score.

My point, however, remains the same. I'd rather have players who can make the shot than have players who can stop it. Due to the difficulty in measuring defense, at least a patzer like myself can see offensive production my own eyes. And I'd rather be the one forcing the door open than the one stuck with the task of keeping it shut.


pilight said...


pt said...