Saturday, August 29, 2015

Hey, WNBA, Time to Back Off the Back-to-Backs?

The WNBA’s schedule of games – indeed its overall annual calendar – invites debate on a variety of fronts, from summer play to post-season structure. (How would you feel about a straight-but seeded double elimination format to crown conference queens, followed by a best-of-seven final?)

This year’s 204 WNBA regular-season games are spread across 101 calendar days – 14 weeks plus a busy concluding weekend that will offer one more Parker-Griner clash and a Fever-Liberty wrangle likely to be meaningful. Typical of a non-Olympic year, the pre-All-Star month-and-a-half or so progressed at a rather leisurely pace, several teams enjoying/employing/enduring gaps of a week or more betwixt and between games. Including the five-day All-Star Break, WNBA 2015 comes to us with a whopping 29 open dates, one more than the 16-week 2013 season and eight more than last summer’s 13-week campaign.

Given in excess of three months in which to conduct 34 games per team, Commissioner Richie’s consortium do seem to compromise its most marketable commodity – the exceptional skill and athleticism of the players – by requiring them so frequently to compete on consecutive dates. In 2014, on 30 separate occasions, a team played the back end of a 2-fer against a team fresh off an open date. Six other tip-offs featured two weary-legged teams. (36 games – that’s one of every six!!)

The more sprawling 2013 season had offered just 14 “rest-advantage” games and four “null sets,” as I label games between two “second-nighters.” This season’s play contains 15 of the former (five yet-to-come entering this weekend’s action), but eight (only one remaining) of the latter.

Quality of Play, Competitive Balance, Wellness of Players?

Let’s take a look at some data from these games. In 2013’s four “null set” games, the average team performance “boasted” .380 shooting, a .427 rate of converting possessions and 67 points – vis-à-vis league averages of .423, .469 and 80 respectively. The rested team defeated its tired-legged opponent 12 of 14 times by an average of 11.7 points, outshot them by .465 - .392 and out-converted them by .531 - .444.

In 2014’s somewhat condensed circumstances, 21 of 30 rested squads cashed in on opportunity by an average of 13 points, with comparable advantages in shooting (.471 - .401) and efficiency (.532 - .449). Last summer’s six “null set” games were played to within a point of the league average, a bit less productively (.478 - .453) conversion-wise.

An anomaly or two seem to have arisen this time around, however. An over-taxed squad has upended a rested unit four times in the first ten tries this season by an average of seven points. That’s a point better than the average winning margin in the six victories for the invigorated.

Even more confounding – for this set of ten games, the tired players have shot better than the rested ones … from the field (.417 - .409), from the foul line (.821 - .810) as well as from the three-point stripe (.361 - .331). The weary have even committed two fewer turnovers per game.

Oh, and then there was the pleasant July evening when the convolutions of modern air travel prevented the Indiana Fever from being over-nighted along the Eastern seaboard, causing a postponement.