The top two seeds in the WNBA playoffs — the New York Liberty and the Minnesota Lynx — each face a win-or-go-home scenario Tuesday night in the third game of their best-of-three first-round series. Both teams won better than 60 percent of their games in the regular season with a fairly similar style. Most notably, neither team seemed particularly concerned with the 3-pointer on offense or defense. That’s radically different from the popular formula for success in the NBA, where analytics suggest that 3-pointers are the most efficient shot in the game. But things are different in the WNBA, and by not emphasizing the 3-pointer, the Liberty and Lynx have found their own way.
In the 12-team league, the Liberty and Lynx tied for 10th in the percentage of their shots that came from behind the 3-point line. Instead, they favor offensive strategies that mostly work inside the arc — post-ups and side pick-and-rolls that end around the elbows. Defensively, the Liberty allowed the league’s highest percentage of opponents’ shots to come from behind the 3-point line; the Lynx allowed the fourth-highest.
Playing this style would likely be more difficult in the NBA, where outside shooting and the spacing provided have become the easiest way to stretch a defense to its breaking point. Advocates of analytics were not the first to notice this, or even implement it. They have just emphasized it the loudest. Teams like the Houston Rockets have pushed things to extremes, eschewing long 2-pointers like no team in history, in favor of 3-pointers and shots at the rim.
Three-pointers have become synonymous with analytics because they represent one of its basic principles: maximizing efficiency. Despite the dearth of threes, the Liberty and the Lynx are highly invested in that principle. As the WNBA has changed its rules, it’s made 3-pointers less attractive to teams. The Liberty and the Lynx don’t mind — they have rosters primed for the WNBA’s current era.
Just before the playoffs began, Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Jim Petersen explained to me that his team’s shot selection is guided by personnel. “We want to shoot the three — it’s just that we don’t have the personnel to shoot the three,” Petersen said “[We] have Sylvia Fowles, who’s one of the most dominant bigs in the history of the league, and [the Liberty] have Tina Charles, who is not only great inside but can stretch the floor with non-paint 2-pointers. When that’s the shot you can make on a consistent level, that’s the shot you have to design your playset for.”
Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets and a leading voice in basketball analytics, has expressed similar thinking. Speaking with ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh two seasons ago, he acknowledged that his team’s extreme shot selection patterns would change if they had a deadly mid-range shooter like LaMarcus Aldridge. “If we had a player like Aldridge, we would play to his strengths as well,” Morey told Haberstroh. “The key in this league isn’t to be dogmatic to a certain idea, but to play to the strengths of your players and to put them in a system that’s most effective for them.”
That the WNBA recently moved its 3-point line back also changes the equation. Here’s a chart that shows the last 18 years of 3-point attempts in the NBA and WNBA. Keep an eye out for what happens in 2013.
That dip is when the WNBA moved their 3-point line back to align with standard FIBA distances. When that happened, accuracy dipped as well. The WNBA league average for made 3-pointers fell to 32.6 percent in 2013 from 35.3 percent in 2012. That may seem like a minute difference, but stretched out over many shots, it becomes an important one. If you use the expected value of each shot — the average 3-point percentage multiplied by 3 points — it works out to an average of about eight fewer points per 100 3-point attempts.
Although accuracy crept upward this season, 3-pointers were still worth less, relative to 2-pointers, than at any other point since 2000, when the WNBA was still in its infancy. That’s why the Lynx and Liberty, two teams finding success with a laissez-faire attitude towards 3-pointers, aren’t necessarily turning their back on analytics.
The way Petersen sees it, building an efficient offense for the Lynx means balancing outside shooting with the power of low-post players like Fowles and the slashing of players like Maya Moore. And Katie Smith, an assistant coach for the Liberty and the WNBA’s all-time career 3-point leader, told me that strategy doesn’t happen in the abstract: Personnel matters. “I think you come in with ideas, but you make it work with the pieces that you have,” Smith said. “Especially on the offensive end, that will highlight the pieces that you have and take advantage of the way teams guard you.”
Having a great defense helps, and the Liberty and Lynx were best and second-best in the league despite the high number of 3-pointers they allowed. Smith said that for her team, the focus is not so much on controlling where teams shoot from but on making sure those shots are challenged: “Our defensive scheme is almost shell-oriented — trying to keep people in front, trying to close out on people, but also guard them. Take away the shot and the drive. I think we hang our hat on making people shoot with someone in front of them.”
There are no absolutes in basketball, no matter who’s playing. For some teams in the NBA, long jumpers fit better with their personnel. For some teams in the WNBA, bombs away. But for the Lynx and Liberty, efficiency comes from playing to their strengths and playing inside the arc.