Sunday, August 23, 2015

Despite Upheaval, Griner & Mercury Intent on Defending WNBA Title

The WNBA’s defending champions were omitted from much of this year’s pre- and early-sesason title prognostications. Both halves of their towering, HOF-bound backcourt had opted for a summer sabbatical. Their Cornerstone of Contention in the post was facing both league-imposed discipline and certain distraction from an all-too-public personal life gone tumultuous.

The Mercury were slogging through an inconsistent, up (Home win over the Lynx) and down (road loss to the then-winless Stars) phase in the matter of team chemistry when the Big Girl returned from her exile – in a decisive, pay-back loss at Minnesota.

A stretch of less-than stout opposition along with a Glad-to-be-Back Griner has Phoenix shining  brightly again. They are continuing to have mixed results with the league’s elite, splitting a pair with last season’s Finals foe and again defending home turf against the West’s Best, while falling at home to both New York and surging Indiana.

But the Merc still too often seem to lose their rhythm. Three times, twice with BG in the line-up, have they not even broken the 60-point barrier. On five occasions have they not even registered 24 successful field goals, losing all but one of these games.

Yet, they own the third best record in the league.

One is inclined to assume that the very presence of the sport’s most prolific shot-blocker would most impact the defensive side of the ledger. Not so, however, in this instance – for the most part anyway.

With Griner on board, the opposition was making just one fewer field goal and converting but two fewer possessions per game. On top of that, the other guys were committing five fewer turnovers per game while cashing in twice as many long balls. (The Merc had topped the heap in three-point defense after four weeks of play, but now rest in the middle of the pack.)

A bigger difference reveals itself at the other end of the floor. Per game, Phoenix was converting two more field goals on six fewer attempts. Their points per 100 possessions  rose from 90 to 100 – points per field goal attempt leaped by nearly 25 percent (1.085 to 1.230).

Now, young Brittney burst upon the scene as a You Tube, high school dunking sensation, then stormed college hoops as a shot-blocking post presence, ala Patrick Ewing in his Georgetown days.

Throughout her career, however, the Big Girl’s rebounding numbers have been decidedly underwhelming. For instance, when she plays, the Mercury are averaging two fewer offensive rebounds per game (their OR% dips from a paltry .199 to an even paltrier .188).

While her long, lanky frame may account for the origins of this “flaw,” physical maturity and an obvious commitment to her craft has infused all that length with a fair bit of sturdiness and durability. In addition, Griner would seem to have discovered a basketball mentor in Coach Brondello, for whom she has been playing year-round for a couple of years.

And there is evidence to suggest growth and development in this phenomenal basketball specimen. Take the matter of defensive rebounding, for example. As a WNBA rookie, Brittney got about five a game; she pushed that number over six during last summer’s championship run; and she’s been flirting with seven this season.

Those numbers may seem trivial, but let’s look at this little component of the game from the other end – the opposition’s offensive rebounding (or lack thereof). In Griner’s first 17 games, opponents averaged nine offensive rebounds per game, down three from the squad’s BG-less stint. More strikingly, a league-worst opponent-OR% of .304 plummets to .216, a rate that would rank No. 4.

Here’s the key data of the average Mercury game – first without Griner, then with her.

Points; FG – FGA, Pct.; (3FG – 3FGA, Pct.; FT – FTA; OR [OR%] – TR; Conv – Poss, Rate

PHOENIX [3-4] :
74.4 points; 26–68.6,.379; (5.4–16.4,.330); 17–21.3; 8.3[.195]–32.6; 36.1–82,.441
74.3 points; 28.6–69,.414; (2.9–12.7,.225); 14.3–18; 12.3[.304]–41.4; 37.1–81,.459

PHOENIX [12-5] :
77.1 points; 28.3–62.7,.451; (4.6–13.6,.341); 15.9–18.9; 6.5[.188]–34; 37.2–76.5,.487
72.7 points; 27.1–69.4,.391; (5.9–16.5,.361); 12.5–15.5; 9.1[.216]–34.2; 34.5–78.4,.440

A precocious talent and free spirit have kept BG in the public eye – indeed the target of far too much vicious vitriol. That’s inevitable in our 21st Century world. Even a simple married co-existence would have involved adjustment and distraction for both Brittney and Glory Johnson. About a century ago HOF baseball manager John “Muggsy” McGraw of the New York Giants espoused the notion that a ballplayer’s on-field performance was never as good the year he got married as it was the years  before and after.

Griner’s season is serving to validate this idea. Initially, her return to the court and competition seemed a sanctuary. In her first nine games the team shot a blistering .475 from the field. Brittney had a spring in her step, if not always a good rhythm to her game.

More recently, though, focus seems to come and go. In four of their next nine games, the Merc misfired their way to sub-40 percent shooting, losing all but one.

With a couple of face-offs remaining with the Minnesota Wrecking Crew, the West’s top playoff see is not beyond the Merc’s reach. Nor is a successful defense of their title. All the contenders – except perhaps for the Liberty – have shown some vulnerability.

That door is wide open …

… but have you seen Candace Parker play yet? (And she seems to have that home and family thing down pat!)