Monday, August 17, 2009

The Dream's Resurgence and McCoughtry's Role

Sue over at the They're Playing Basketball blog asked me why Atlanta Dream is in second place after being in seventh place last year.

If I were to ask Bob Corwin, he'd probably roll his eyes and say, "Well, Pet, they have better players than they did in 2008." However, I think Sue F. is asking a more subtle question - "why is this group of players so good"?

Indeed, if you look at the Dream, they don't seem to have the kind of player like a Diana Taurasi or a Lauren Jackson, the kind of player that simply dominates every game. Yes, we have Chamique Holdsclaw, but she's not the player she was 10 years ago. Sancho Lyttle and Erika de Souza are All-Stars, but they don't strike anyone as superstars. How has the Dream been able to come together?

If I were to answer this without looking at a metric, I would say "depth". We have players like Angel McCoughtry, Michelle Snow, Ivory Latta all of whom are capable of having a breakout game - 15 plus points - on any night. Armintie Price was a former Rookie of the Year, and Jennifer Lacy isn't chopped meat. A lot of Dream games this year seem to be predicated on the philosophy, of "Okay, let's take our five starters and see if they're enough to win the game. If they can't, then we'll just find someone on the bench who is "up" tonight and wait until something clicks." It seems to be working, because it's rare the entire bench is cold.

In particular, I would have answered, "because we have Angel McCoughtry". I was thinking about a stat called "usage" which goes like this:

usage = 40 x (field goal attempts + (0.44 x free throw attempts) + (0.33 x assists) + turnovers) x (team pace / league pace) / minutes played

This is the "unadjusted" version of the stat. Technically, you need to know team pace and equalize it with league pace. But even the unadjusted version (as an estimate) can tell you a lot.

What fact did I remember about usage? I remembered that offensive efficiency declines with usage. I therefore jumped to one true conclusion and one false one:

1) That offensive efficiency increases with low usage, and that
2) Angel McCoughtry's low minutes indicated that she had a low usage rate - therefore, high offensive efficiency.

Which of the above is true and which is false? To know that, we have to know what usage really stands for:

usage = how much of a team's possessions a player uses up

Then this means that #1, above, is true. The more possessions any particular player uses up, the less efficient she's going to be. If an opposing team knows that player X is going to end up with the ball most of the time, defenses are going to key on player X and player X's efficiency will fall. Likewise, if player X doesn't have the ball, player X gets the benefit of the enemy not thinking about her.

However, as it turned out, #2 is wrong. (jaye would be chasitising me - "Really, Pet, did you think that McCoughtry wasn't using up Atlanta's possessions?")

Unadjusted Usage Rate for Atlanta Dream Players
Current roster only

McCoughtry 27.62
Holdsclaw 25.68
Castro Marques 24.31
Lyttle 21.65
Latta 18.36
De Souza 18.01
Snow 16.61
Miller 16.34
Lacy 15.62
Lehning 11.30
Price 0.00

As you can see, McCoughtry only plays 17.6 minutes a game but she gobble's up Atlanta's possessions. She's what would be called an "offense creator". McCoughtry loves to make her own shot, and the players behind her are Holdsclaw and Castro Marques...and you know that neither of them are afraid to take shots against all odds.

So McCoughtry's ability has little to do with how often she's played. What you can say is that McCoughtry, in terms of offense, is virtually a "sixth starter" - she can come off the bench and play just as well as a starter plays. She certainly controls the ball as often as a starter does. There aren't too many teams in the WNBA that have players like McCoughtry.

Look at the bottom of the list - next to Price, who has played all of 3 1/2 minutes, we have Lehning with an 11.30 usage rate - possessions don't end with Shalee Lehning for the most part. Q of Rethinking Basketball described five point guard styles: the initiator, the distributor, the facilitator, the scorer and the combo guard. Lehning's usage rate says nothing bad about her - it simply puts her at the Vickie Johnson/Tully Belivaqua end of the point guard spectrum instead of at the Sue Bird/Becky Hammon/Lindsay Whalen end.

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