Lessons from 2018’s best WNBA lineups, Part 2

Continuing from part one on some lessons learned from the best lineups in the WNBA in 2018, it’s time to touch on key lineups for the other six teams in the league.

With the use of the WNBA Dashboard, part two will cover three playoff teams that weren’t far from championship contention, two looking up at the rest of the league, and one that sniffed a playoff appearance.

Not far behind

Connecticut Sun

Jasmine Thomas, Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen, Alyssa Thomas, Chiney Ogwumike

219 minutes played, 113.8 offensive rating, 104.3 defensive rating, 9.5 net rating

The Sun made important progress in 2018 by way of seeing a full season of Ogwumike in a prominent role post-Achilles injury out on the floor with their other key players. Their 2017 starting unit (Jonquel Jones in place of Ogwumike) logged just 83 minutes together, posting a 16.5 net rating.

Jones came off the bench 18 times this season after earning All-WNBA honors in 2017. Maybe this is just going to be their team — deep up front with players that won’t be caught up in who starts and who doesn’t, including the much needed shooting of Morgan Tuck.

If Curt Miller plays three of those four together more often than not, there may be enough minutes to go around. Thomas, Jones and Ogwumike posted a net rating of 29.3 in 111 minutes this season. This all would mean that someone in the backcourt would get squeezed. Stricklen was that player in 2018, seeing her minutes go down by 31 percent.

Connecticut’s books are encouraging for now. They can bring their whole team back with relative ease. Reminder: They were 18-6 this season with Alyssa Thomas and 3-7 with her out of the lineup.

Los Angeles Sparks

Chelsea Gray, Odyssey Sims, Alana Beard, Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike

221 MP, 99.8 ORtg, 99.8 DRtg, 0.0 Net

Opponents had an easier time in slowing the lineup the Sparks rode to the 2017 Finals and to start the 2018 season. Opponents were more willing to sag off of Sims, Beard and Ogwumike on the perimeter. Among other things, this limited potential driving lanes for Parker and Gray. Riquna Williams and Essence Carson gave the team a big lift with their spot up shooting. The Sparks were +50 in 80 minutes with Williams in place of Sims and plus-eight in 110 minutes with Carson in that slot.

More time with one additional shooter on the floor may prove to be enough. Gray and Ogwumike could easily get up more threes. (There’s good reason to think both players can and should do just that.) In a perfect world, the Sparks will at least know internally whether Beard intends to return for her 14th season as they plan for free agency and the draft.

Dallas Wings

Skylar Diggins-Smith, Allisha Gray, Kayla Thornton, Glory Johnson, Liz Cambage

173 MP, 119.3 ORtg, 107.5 DRtg, 11.8 Net

It’s tough to say right out what a successful Wings 2018 season should have looked like. They lost their starting small forward less than a month into the season. Thornton had to spend more time guarding out on the perimeter. Second year wing Kaela Davis was asked to run their second units. 

Diggins-Smith, Cambage and Thornton logged 619 minutes together. That trio can take you places. Dallas was plus-11.8 in 173 minutes with Gray and Thornton. They were plus-7.8 in 116 minutes with Gray and Azura Stevens. The ultra-big lineup with Johnson and Stevens played a mere 20 minutes together, but may be worth a more extended look.

Spot up shooting is an area of concern. Thornton connected on 35.5 percent while doubling her attempts. The seven other players to log 200 minutes or more finished below 33 percent from deep. It’s far from a given that Cambage will return to the WNBA for the 2019 season, further complicating the question of whether this supporting cast is an ideal fit around the all-world center and All-WNBA point guard Diggins-Smith.

Las Vegas Aces

Kelsey Plum, Kayla McBride, Tamera Young, A’ja Wilson, Carolyn Swords

146 MP, 116.3 ORtg, 107.5 DRtg, 8.8 Net

It must feel good to be Bill Laimbeer. The fanfare over which sub-.500 team would nab the eight seed was too much for my taste, but there’s only one acceptable reaction to them drawing the No. 1 pick again.

Any jawing from Laimbeer on the sidelines has been conflated with a caricature of his reputation as a player. Sure, it can be fun to do, but too much of it cheapens talk of the important stuff that he nailed. He gave the keys to Plum and set the table for McBride to prove herself as a crunch time downhill scorer. He simplified things for Wilson, emphasizing quick turn-and-go scoring opportunities knowing they could build from there. 

All eyes will be on what he does with those other two spots in the lineup. Swords emerged as their best option at center. They were about even with 19-year-old JiSu Park (123 minutes) and Dearica Hamby (56 minutes) in that spot with those four other starters. The team posted a -17.5 net rating in 119 minutes with Kelsey Bone in that slot.

More shooting from those other two spots would unlock more of Wilson’s face up game. The three guards (Plum, McBride, Moriah Jefferson) and Wilson played just 40 minutes together. Given a bigger role, Hamby or Park may open up the floor enough at center to have Wilson spend more time in pick and roll with any of those three ball handlers, giving Vegas the flexibility to put their opponent’s weakest link in an action as Wilson rampages toward the basket.

Help wanted

Indiana Fever

Kelsey Mitchell, Tiffany Mitchell, Victoria Vivians, Candice Dupree, Natalie Achonwa

203 MP, 91.6 ORtg, 111.6 DRtg, -20.0 Net

The Fever did well to invest in their future, which most certainly will rely heavily on Vivians and Kelsey Mitchell. Vivians is a legit starter on the wing, and Kelsey Mitchell from day one was already one of the best off the dribble 3-point shooters in the league.

Seeing Mitchell’s playing time dwindle some down the stretch was puzzling. Pokey Chatman didn’t put enough shooting on the floor to aid the rookie’s playmaking efforts. And the lineup they closed the season with — Cappie Pondexter and Erica Wheeler in place of Mitchell and Mitchell — didn’t fare much better (-13 in 178 minutes) than the one cited above.

It’s great to have veteran leadership on the roster, but if the fit isn’t great, what are you accomplishing by giving starter minutes to multiple players that won’t be on the next great Fever team?

Even more puzzling: Achonwa and Kayla Alexander, the only true center on the roster, played zero minutes together in 2018. Zero!

If Indiana nabs Kalani Brown or Teaira McCowan with the No. 3 pick, Achonwa will need to spend more time at the four to log big minutes. There’s a simple argument to be made that on a night-to-night basis, power forward is Achonwa’s best position at her size.

New York Liberty

Brittany Boyd, Kia Nurse, Tina Charles (3-player combination)

240 MP, 100.4 ORtg, 110.4 DRtg, -10.0 Net

Oof. The starting lineup that appeared to capture magic in a bottle en route to a 10-game win streak to close last season (Bria Hartley, Epiphanny Prince, Shavonte Zellous, Tina Charles, Kia Vaughn) only got to play 101 minutes together. This team just never got healthy.

The 5-player lineup data is rough all around. Katie Smith never really had her entire roster healthy for any prolonged stretch. Boyd’s return from an Achilles injury was very encouraging — she can defend the point of attack and get into the lane out of the pick and roll at will.

The center position is completely up in the air heading into the offseason. Amanda Zahui B getting more run than ever before will give Smith some key data points moving forward, though those units will likely need to rely on outscoring opponents. Playing time became tougher to come by for Kiah Stokes. (Any team with a defined role for a backup center should hit the phones to try to nab her in a deal.) The Liberty really struggled to score with Kia Vaughn, the incumbent starter at the five, on the floor — 97.0 ORtg in 473 minutes — with Charles. Do they like any centers in this draft class enough to select one at No. 2 regardless of what Vegas does at No. 1?

All lineup data obtained via Positive Residual’s WNBA Dashboard. Salary info obtained via the High Post Hoops WNBA Salary Database.

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