August 07, 2006

Raising the Game? A State of the Union on the WNBA

The sign on the subway has a scoreboard-style graphic that reads:

New York Liberty: 10, Those Who Said it Wouldn't Last: 0

Below that, it says: Celebrating 10 years of raising the game of basketball.

Ponder that statement for a moment and you're likely to think of some kind of snide or sarcastic remark. And it will probably be out of habit -- because dismissing the WNBA has become almost ritualistic for the average sports fan. Ever been involved in a game of pick-up hoops when after one particularly sloppy or unathletic sequence someone refers to the play as "WNBA style"? Well, it happens. Hell, considering the terrible stigma attached to women's basketball and the WNBA in general, it's kind of shocking that you've read this far.

But how many of us have ever sat down and actually watched a WNBA game? Aren't most of our opinions based on preconceived notions of what women's basketball is really like? Wouldn't it be a great story if the New York Liberty really was raising the game while the Knicks continued to dig a trench for the game to rot in?

Sunday night, The OCC sat down and watched the Liberty's game against the Detroit Shock in an effort to answer some of these questions. Here's what we now know after 40 minutes of WNBA basketball:

Liberty Stinks
This is not meant to be an overarching comment on freedom in general; it's more of a statement about just how rotten the NY squad is.

And forget the team's 9-21 record coming into the game against Detroit -- there are far bigger issues at play here. Consider these stats:

The Liberty scored eight points in the first 14+ minutes, 13 points in the first 18 minutes, and 19 in the first half (spanning 20 minutes). That's less than a point per minute. Odds are if you laced up a herd of yaks with high tops and taught them how to head the ball in the air with their horns (do yaks have horns?) they could top 19 points in 20 minutes. That's just rotten.

Cumulative first-half stats for New York: 28% shooting, zero free throws attempted, and 10 turnovers.

Too Many J's
If Sunday's game was any indication, the WNBA's biggest problem may be that it suffers from a jump-shooting epidemic. There seems to be a general inability to get to the hole that leads to a rash of outside shots. And the biggest problem with this is that a lot of them are bricks -- no player on the Liberty roster is shooting better than .435, and collectively, the team is shooting .394. Great batting average for Tony Gwynn in 1994, but as a team shooting percentage...not so good.

And for Detroit, one of the WNBA's elite teams, it's hardly better: The Shock collectively shoots .410. For a game that's supposed to be a much purer version of NBA hoops, this is inexcusable. Detroit's Katie Smith is by all accounts one of the great shooters in league history, and her career percentage is .410. By comparison, Reggie Miller shot .471 in his career.

Give It Up
Watching the game on Sunday, you get the sense that where the WNBA could really make its mark is with creative passing -- driving to the hole for lay-ups, behind-the-back passes, etc. Shouldn't WNBA hoops be a deluge of cutting to the basket, quick ball movement, etc? On Sunday at least, it was none of this. Just a worse version of NBA hoops with bad shooting and no dunking. A perfect illustration of the problem: The league leader in assists (Nikki Teasley) is averaging 5.4 per game. Even taking into account the shorter game length from the NBA (40 minutes versus 48), that's unacceptable.

Shock Value
Though Detroit's shooting percentage is too low for elite basketball standards, the team is actually somewhat reasonable to watch. Though maybe Detroit only becomes reasonable in comparison to the Liberty, which should probably be called the Ball and Chain or the Shackles, because realistically that's what it would take to keep most people seated on the couch for one of their games. One thing that's for certain: Cheryl Ford (a.k.a. Karl Malone's daughter) is pretty good. And in a fitting homage to her father, and WNBA hoops at large, she compiles impressive stats without ever doing anything particularly remarkable.

Nice Balls
If there's one thing the WNBA has gotten right, it's the look of the basketball, with each section of the ball alternating between brown and white. Points are definitely awarded here. Not to say that the NBA should adopt this exact color scheme, but it adds a lot to the game to be able to easily see the rotation on the ball when players shoot. Might be time to bring back some incarnation of the ABA ball.

The Verdict
The final score on Sunday: Shock 65, Liberty 53, in a game that was neither close nor gripping.

The current verdict on WNBA hoops: If the Liberty truly has been raising the game for 10 years, it would be horrifying to see where the game started. Because based on what was on display Sunday, this is a sport in need of some elevation.

The most frustrating thing is that a partial fix would be simple. If you can't have jaw-dropping dunks to help mask the game's bigger problems (as the NBA does), then you need something else. In this case, the WNBA needs more (and better) passing, more showmanship, more up-tempo play.

Try to pick the top three plays from Sunday's Liberty-Shock game and you couldn't really do it. The entire night, only one play truly stood out: A driving, fall-away lay-up by New York's Loree Moore at the end of the first half that cut the halftime deficit to 35-19. It's a play that wouldn't make the highlight reel of an NBA game, but you'd be hard-pressed to leave it out of any highlights covering last night's game.

Ultimately, it was a meaningless shot in the midst of a game that was nowhere close to compelling, but it was the only relatively exciting play that happened the entire night. And therein lies the problem: The WNBA attempts to exist without fully embracing the value of entertainment. The best way to raise the game is to make it look better. And until the WNBA grasps that concept, it doesn't have a prayer of earning the average sports fan's respect.


Anonymous Aimee Berg said...

Someday, most women's tennis players will serve harder than most men. Oh wait, the real Aimee Berg used to argue that. Please strike it from this record.

Women's basketball reached its apex at the 2004 European Championships, as demonstrated by the team from the Czech Republic. Lucie Blahuskova was unstoppable!

4:24 PM, August 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You sexist pig. You just feel threatened when you watch women succeed in a 'man's world.'

12:40 AM, August 08, 2006  
Blogger The OCC said...

That's exactly it. Brilliant insight. I am a raging sexist pig.

Now get back to the kitchen and fix my supper!

12:44 AM, August 08, 2006  
Blogger jimmyrad said...

On one hand, the percentages really are telling. A lot of the arguments I read about women's basketball is that it is much more fundamentally sound. In my opinion, shooting is an important fundamental.

On the other hand, the league IS still around. Yes, I know, the NBA will never let it die, but it clearly has a small following that enjoy the games. It's awesome that there's a women's league that females can actually aspire to become a part of professionally, rather than being forced to go overseas to get a decent check.

As a basketball fan, I gave the WNBA a glance purely out of curiousity and had a similar reaction. Not for me.

Instead of calling you a sexist, WNBA fans should thank you, as a sports fan, for giving it a shot.

In closing, "anonymous" is a moron in every sense of the word.

11:44 AM, August 08, 2006  
Blogger abe said...

Yaks do indeed have horns

4:16 PM, August 14, 2006  

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