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The Pace Of Play Has Never Been Faster In The WNBA

The Connecticut Sun, last season’s WNBA Finals runners-up, were a fairly fast team in 2019. They played at a pace of 78.7 possessions per 40 minutes, good for fourth in the league. This year, they’re even faster. They entered Tuesday night’s game playing at a pace of 83.2 possessions per 40 minutes.

That rate would have been good enough to lead the WNBA last year. But this season, it was only the seventh best.

The Sun are part of a leaguewide trend toward playing ever faster, which has reached new heights in 2020. Strategy is playing a part in this speedier pace, but it may also be a result of the unique calendar provided by this delayed season.

The trend isn’t completely new: The fastest teams in the league have increased their pace steadily in recent years. But what’s changed in 2020 is that now virtually every team is playing faster, using possessions on par with how the outliers were playing in past years.

In 2017, three teams — the Connecticut Sun, the Chicago Sky and the Dallas Wings — all topped 80 possessions per 40 minutes, the first time since 2011 that any WNBA team managed that feat. In 2018, only the Aces did, while in 2019, the Aces and Sky topped 80.

So far in 2020? There were nine teams north of 80 entering Wednesday night’s games.

Some of this is a simple matter of evolution. There are more and more teams with elite rebounders who can turn around after grabbing a board and run the offense in transition. The Sun’s Alyssa Thomas, for instance, serves as both their best rebounder and a primary facilitator, which coach Curt Miller thinks helps the Sun get more transition opportunities. With teams as a rule scoring more efficiently in transition than in the halfcourt, this is a natural outgrowth of getting players capable of that pairing of skills.

“We feel we can be successful getting out and running, especially with AT facilitating,” Miller said. “And we have some people who can thrive up-tempo.”

Thomas, playing a more traditional four under Anne Donovan in 2015, had 48 total possessions used in transition, per Synergy. By 2019, she was up to 115, or 3.38 per game. So far in 2020? She’s at 24, or 4.8 possessions per game.

But while Thomas’s combination of size and secondary facilitating was once relatively unique among the bigger WNBA wings, it has become the norm. The Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker led the way, followed by the Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart and Washington Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne, but now we see that pairing throughout the league. Whether it’s Satou Sabally and Bella Alarie of the Dallas Wings, Myisha Hines-Allen of the Washington Mystics or Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx, a sea change in the position of power forward has altered the overall play in the league.

There are other reasons for the tempo change as well, and not just strategic ones. Because of the onset of COVID-19, the league’s players who spend time abroad ended their overseas campaigns in March, while the WNBA training camp in Bradenton, Florida, didn’t begin until July. The bounce in everybody’s step was apparent from the moment the group of players gathered.

“It’s probably a combination of new coaches and new players in this league and youthful legs, and just having that time off,” Dream coach Nicki Collen said. Her Dream are playing at a rate of 83 possessions per 40 minutes in 2020, up from 77.4 in 2019. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an elite playmaker in the fold like rookie sensation Chennedy Carter, with the overall efficiency for the Dream jumping from an offensive rating of 91.6 in 2019 to 98.8 in 2020.

And as Collen pointed out, that’s the key indicator — not whether the team can maximize speed, but how it manages to score points in the process. She’s more concerned with tracking, for instance, how many possessions the Dream can get Carter into the paint, as opposed to times down the floor when she’s limited to the perimeter. The speed itself, well, it can be a barrier to better offensive play at times, rather than a cause of it.

“Is there a point where I think diminishing returns happen?” Collen asked rhetorically. “If you’re playing too fast and you get sloppy, that is a problem.”

That point was echoed by Mystics coach Mike Thibault, whose Mystics posted the best offensive season in WNBA history in 2019, with an offensive rating of 115.9, despite finishing eighth in pace, at 76.7 possessions per 40 minutes. So far this season, the Mystics are fifth in the league in pace, with an 83.2 mark that would have led the league in 2019, while their offensive rating is down to 111.2 (which is still tops in the league).

“We never talk about pace numbers,” Thibault said. “I think it’s one of the most overrated stats. … We only have some rules about getting the ball across halfcourt. But then, if you have to use the whole shot clock to get a good shot, great.”

Then again, Thibault probably doesn’t mind when Hines-Allen does this.

The elevated pace has not sacrificed offensive efficiency so far. The league’s pace overall was 77.7 in 2019 and is 81.7 in 2020. But the league’s offensive rating has also risen, from 100.9 in 2019 to 102.4 in 2020.

The accelerated game does favor teams with, for instance, point guards capable of maximizing the outcomes in transition. The Sky, with Courtney Vandersloot running the show, have emphasized pace since current coach James Wade arrived on the scene. Then again, his theory for why it’s become a leaguewide trend is a more cynical one.

“I think it goes to nobody sitting in a defensive stance,” Wade said. “I think everybody’s running and conditioning, but you know, as far as defense is concerned, it’s not so as existent as it was last season.” There are exceptions, of course, and Wade cited the Minnesota Lynx as a team that “really gets up in your grill.” The numbers bear him out on that front: The Lynx are at the very bottom of the league in pace so far, at 77.6 possessions per 40 minutes.

The league’s pace also affects the overall ability of individual players to thrive. Take Layshia Clarendon, the New York Liberty’s point guard, as an example. In 2017, she made an All-Star team with the Atlanta Dream, but she struggled to score on the run — per Synergy, among players with at least 50 transition possessions in 2017, Clarendon ranked 33rd of 33 in points per possession, just 0.686. So she began working with a performance coach on getting better at finishing at the rim, through contact, especially in transition.

Fast forward to 2020, and that performance coach, Walt Hopkins, is now her head coach in New York. She’s third in the league in points per possession1 in transition, at 1.25. And after averaging 2.53 such possessions per game in 2017, she’s at 4 per game so far in 2020, part of a Liberty team that runs early and often. Clarendon, thus far, is scoring 14.8 points per game, a number likely to rise as the Liberty manage the loss of Sabrina Ionescu to an ankle injury.

“I’ve just gotten more comfortable,” Clarendon said. “I’ve gotten stronger. I’m getting a lot better at the slow steps in transition — so, the ability to be running full speed and then slow down and finish and focus on the rim.”

Despite the success of players like Clarendon, there are coaches who don’t want to keep the league on a perpetual increase in tempo. For all their running, Miller’s Sun are down from an offensive rating of 102.4 last season, third in the league, to just 92.7 so far in 2020, 11th overall.

“We may not have the ability to run over a 40-minute period like we have been the last couple years,” Miller said. “So while we have to pick and choose our opportunities, to see if we can manufacture some easy points in transition … we also at times may need to take the air out of it.”

Although, even when the Sun slow things down, they’re still moving pretty fast in this new running league.

Footnotes

  1. Minimum 15 possessions.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.

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