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The WNBA Is Uniquely Suited To Survive Its Many Star Absences

When it was announced this week that Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird would miss the 2019 WNBA season with a knee injury, it was just the latest in a long line of maladies that have struck the league this year. In addition to Bird, the sport has seen absences take out her teammate Breanna Stewart (reigning WNBA MVP), 2014 MVP Maya Moore of Minnesota,1 Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry, Dallas’s Skylar Diggins-Smith,2 Indiana’s Victoria Vivians, Las Vegas’s Lindsay Allen and Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi for either all or most of the 2019 season.

It’s a shocking and unprecedented spate of missing stars that figures to drastically change the championship picture for multiple teams, including — probably first and foremost — the Storm, who won the 2018 WNBA title based on huge contributions from Stewart and Bird. Together, the players listed above generated 30.5 wins last season according to Wins Created — a combination of Basketball-Reference.com’s Win Shares and the Player Efficiency Rating-based Estimated Wins Added metric.3 If all of them do miss the whole year, it would represent the most wins from any single season that were then completely removed from the WNBA ecosystem in the next:

Even if we hedge on Taurasi, who currently plans to come back in the second half of the season after missing 10 to 12 weeks of action, the resulting 24.5-win tally would rank fifth-highest in WNBA history before accounting for any of the additional players who will inevitably join the ranks of the absent as the season goes on. (Diggins also plans to return from her pregnancy leave before season’s end.)

The season structure of women’s pro basketball — including the year-round overseas grind that stars must engage in to make money — probably has contributed to the WNBA’s problems this spring. With so much mileage being put on top players’ bodies, a nightmare offseason like this was bound to happen sooner or later.

But if there is a silver lining for the WNBA (and there isn’t much of one when considering the prospect of a season spent without players of Moore’s or Stewart’s caliber), it’s that the WNBA draws from an exceptionally deep pool of talent. With only 12 teams in the league and an entire world of basketball players to pull from, it might be the most competitive sports league on the planet — at least in terms of the likelihood that any given youth player actually makes the highest level of the sport.

My colleague Ben Morris wrote a few years ago about this depth of talent in women’s basketball. He found that for every player who makes a Division I college roster, there are 87 high school players participating in girl’s basketball across the U.S. The only sport whose rosters were more competitive was men’s basketball, in which 101 high schoolers participate for every player who manages to make a Division I team.

And, again, that was framed in terms of college basketball. Relative to the number of roster slots available in the WNBA, the amount of talent swimming in the pool becomes even more staggering.

In the 2018 season, 157 players suited up for one of the WNBA’s 12 teams. According to an updated version of the same data set Morris used, there were 412,407 girls basketball players in U.S. high schools during the 2017-18 season — meaning there were about 2,627 high school girls playing basketball for every roster slot available in the (American) pros. By comparison, over the same span, there were 540 NBA players and 551,373 participating boys basketball players — or 1,021 for every top-level pro roster slot.

By this accounting, it’s more than two and a half times easier (!) for the typical U.S. boys basketball player to make the NBA than it is for his counterpart in girls basketball to make the WNBA. Even if you grant the presence of extra roster slots available overseas,4 the amount of untapped talent in women’s basketball is mind-boggling.

That depth of talent won’t necessarily be able to easily replace all of the stars who’ll be missing this season’s WNBA action. But it does mean there are more opportunities than ever for players in the next tier to showcase their skills. And that could be a good thing — because as the numbers show, the WNBA (perhaps more so than any other sport) has a group of unheralded players waiting in the wings, ready to take advantage of the chance.

Footnotes

  1. Who is taking a season-long sabbatical from the game for personal reasons.

  2. Who gave birth to a son in April.

  3. Specifically, I converted EWA to the same scale as Win Shares across each league season. Then I averaged the two wins metrics together, with WS (a superior metric) getting triple the weight.

  4. While virtually none of the top American men’s players play in overseas leagues, many of the top women do, complicating the comparison some. However, the seasons are offset from each other, allowing stars to play in both America and abroad, and the WNBA is still widely considered the top women’s league in the world, so the competition for WNBA roster slots is still drawing from the player pool in roughly the same manner as on the men’s side.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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