Sunday, May 3, 2009

The WNBA: Most Interesting and Least Interesting Teams

The Wages of Wins has an entry on what they call "The Least Interesting Team in the NBA". The post was written in 2007 and at the time, the Milwaukee Bucks were considered the NBA's Least Interest Team, at least according to the authors.

This begs the question of how you mathematically quantify the term "interesting". This is the definition that the Wages of Wins uses:

interesting (adj.) - A team in the NBA which either

a) contends for a title every year, or
b) contends for a high draft pick every year.

The author claims that in any year following a league, there are only two sets of interesting stories. The first set of stories deal with teams that have a chance to win the league championship. The second set of stories deal with horrible teams and their horribleness, and what they might be able to do with a high draft pick the following season.

Therefore, to be "uninteresting" is to not be in column A and not in column B. Not bad enough to contend for a good draft pick; not good enough to be a title contender. The least interesting team would be one that was a bland average.

Let's therefore look at a mathematical way to define "average". A team is "average" is if is within one standard deviation of the average number of wins for the year. A team is "interesting" if it is beyond one standard deviation of wins in either direction.

Example: In 2003, the average number of the wins for a team in the WNBA was 17. The standard deviation of wins for all teams that year was 4.819. Therefore, any team that wins more than 17 + 4.819 times in a year or wins less than 17 - 4.819 times is considered "interesting". In which case the interesting teams that year were:

Detroit - 25 wins
Los Angeles - 24 wins
Washington - 9 wins
Phoenix - 8 wins.

Each of those teams in 2003 earns one point; the other teams in that year earn zero points each. We add up the total points scored over the 12 years of the WNBA's existence, and here's what we get:

0 points: New York, Miami, Portland
1 point: Atlanta, Chicago
2 points: Charlotte, Minnesota, Orlando/Connecticut, Sacramento
3 points: Cleveland, Indiana, Phoenix
4 points: Detroit, Utah/San Antonio, Washington
6 points: Houston
7 points: Los Angeles

(teams in bold face are teams active since 1997)

The results were definitely not what I expected. According to the rules above, the New York Liberty is tied for the least interesting team in the WNBA's existence. The only teams tied with it are Miami and Portland, two defunct teams that never had the time to build a reputation one way or another. New York's existence, if you look at wins and standard deviations of wins, has been 12 years of mediocrity.

Looking at New York's wins per year, they generally tend to be a team that manages to finish just slightly (one or two games) above average every year. And yet this "uninteresting" team has challenged for the WNBA title not once, but four times. They've never won, but they've tied with Detroit for most WNBA finals appearances. If that isn't interesting, then I don't know what is.

It looks like the authors of the Wages of Wins Journal has a system which might not apply to the WNBA. And even if it does apply, I'm sure that we could all agree that even if a WNBA isn't "interesting", it's always interesting to hypothesize how such a team might become interesting. New York, with its four finals appearance, might have solved that problem.


Q McCall said...

In that article, Berri writes the following:

"Okay, now that I have offended everyone in Milwaukee, let me point out that we tend to find the teams we follow “interesting.” For example, I am a Detroit Lions fan and after a lifetime of investing emotionally in this sorry team I find even their consistent failures “interesting.” Still, I don’t expect non-Detroit fans to find the Lions to be “interesting.” In much the same way, I don’t think fans of the Bucks should be surprised if people not in their group - i.e. fans of the Bucks - don’t find their team “interesting.” "

If that is true, then does it really matter whether people who don't follow a team find it interesting? I guess I want to know what the consequence of this analysis is.

In any case, I agree - as someone who hasn't followed the Bucks since Ray Allen left, I think they're uninteresting (and strangely I think the same about the Brewers).

Obviously, the Liberty are interesting to me... :)

pt said...

Q, the baseball analogue is San Diego, a team that I've always found inherently uninteresting. Don't know why, I just have.

The Libs are definitely "a team of interest".

Rebecca said...

It occurs to me that a metric based on number of wins/ games above .500 doesn't work that well with a league that plays only 34 games. And that's the max number. The original season was 28 games. Pretty much everyone ends up clustering around the middle unless their fail is truly epic or they're just too overpowering for anyone to handle (1998 comes to mind for both ends of the spectrum).

I would also argue that it is inherently impossible for a team in a major market to count as one of the least interesting teams in the league. Of course, this may be my bias showing. :D