This week, Above the Break is taking a look at the Dallas Wings’ losing streak, AD finding their stride for the Dream and the best lineups in the WNBA.
It’s time for another edition of Above The Break, FanSided’s weekly glance around the WNBA.
Things are starting to solidify in the W standings. Five teams are over .500 right now and they’re the five teams you would expect: Vegas, Connecticut, Chicago, Seattle and Washington. The Fever and Lynx are locked in a battle for the league’s worst record, and the other teams are fighting it out for the final playoff spots.
This week, we’re looking at the Wings losing four in a row, the resurgence of AD in Atlanta and exploring some lineup data from around the league.
The Wings have lost four in a row
It wasn’t long ago that the Wings were 6-4 and looked like a playoff lock. Things were coming together.
But Dallas has now lost four in a row and is a paltry 1-5 at home this season. The team has sunk back into the mess of teams that are battling for the final playoff spots in the W.
So, what’s going on? How did this team lose four games in a row?
The answer is pretty simple: those games were all against the Aces and Storm.
The thing about the WNBA is that how your schedule shakes out really matters. Get too many of the top teams in a row and you’re crashing. Dallas had five consecutive games against these two teams, and while it began with a road win over the Storm, that was also a Storm team that was missing Ezi Magbegor and Sue Bird.
Dallas has also been without Marina Mabrey for some of these games. While she was back for Wednesday’s 92-84 win over the Aces, she missed the two previous games. And now Satou Sabally is dealing with a knee injury, the severity of which we don’t really have a good idea of yet.
So, what’s this all mean? Is it a sign that Dallas was playing over its head to start the year?
The Wings have lost four in a row, but they were competitive in all of those games and were facing two of the most talented teams in the league. The Wings are still who we thought they were: a team that’s not in the top tier of the league, but also is a step ahead of the teams at the bottom of the W. They’re fourth in offensive rating and eighth in defensive rating, and those things really showed in the Aces and Storm games: Dallas can usually score against everyone, but the defense has too many holes to stop the best teams.
The Wings schedule is also about to get easier in a hurry. Their next seven games are against teams that are currently at or below .500. The Sabally injury situation is concerning, but there’s a lot of talent on this team and a lot of chances for victories in the near future. I’m still penciling them in for a playoff spot.
AD’s tenure in Atlanta is off to a good start
In 2019, the New York Liberty drafted AD with the No. 2 pick in the WNBA Draft. While their rookie season didn’t set the world on fire, there was plenty of reason for hope. AD was going to be a big piece of this Liberty team going forward.
And then the pandemic came. AD was one of many people who caught COVID and had to deal with the effects of long COVID, which kept them from playing in 2020 and 2021. It was a long, difficult journey back, but AD returned to the Liberty in 2022.
Statistically, the results were not great. In 10 games, AD shot 17.6 percent from the floor, averaging 1.4 points, 0.1 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.4 steals and 0.2 blocks per game. Things were clearly not working. AD was barely in the rotation and when they were on the floor, defenses didn’t really need to worry about accounting for them.
Earlier this month, AD was traded to Atlanta in a deal that essentially just opened up a roster spot for New York to sign Marine Johannès. I don’t really think anyone expected that Atlanta would play AD heavy minutes — or, at least, not this soon.
But through two games, AD looks like a different player with the Dream. They’re averaging 13.5 points per game, plus 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per contest on 38.5 percent shooting.
The thing with AD is that for now, at least, defenses are going to sag off of them and give them space. Their struggles in 2022 have made it so that defenses aren’t zeroing in on them.
In New York, those open looks weren’t connecting. So far in Atlanta, they are.
What’s the difference? Maybe it’s just that Atlanta doesn’t have the same glut of players at AD’s position so the team can afford to play them more. After such a long layoff, just playing basketball is going to make AD better at playing basketball. Getting out there on the floor and getting shots up against WNBA competition: New York wasn’t really built to let AD do that, but Atlanta is. They’re knocking off the rust and hitting the kinds of looks that they should be hitting.
Looking at the tape of the Dream game against the Sun though, we see that half of AD’s made 3s were pretty well contested, including one pull-up 3. So while the “defenses are sagging off” theory explains some of the numbers, it’s not like AD is wide open on every single play.
On plays like this one, we see the defender in AD’s face. But they’re still able to make the shot. One reason is that they’re a good shooter when healthy. Looking back at college numbers, AD shot over 40 percent from 3 twice, and both times were on a high volume. Then you combine that with the confidence that they’ve shown since coming to Atlanta. This production has been a surprise based on everything we know about AD, but I think a lot of people forget how much potential they had before COVID. A lot of that potential is still there.
Data exploration: the league’s best and worst lineups
Sometimes, you just want to nerd out and look at some lineup data, so that’s what we’re going to do today.
Eight lineups have played at least 100 minutes. Let’s sort those heavy usage lineups by net rating and try to see if any trends emerge. Data is from WNBA.com and doesn’t account for Thursday’s Mystics/Liberty game, though neither team has a lineup that qualifies for this section. New York’s most-used lineup has played 69 minutes, while Washington’s has played 60 minutes.
One obvious takeaway: teams usually know when a lineup works. Of these eight lineups, six have a positive net rating. The two that don’t are the Atlanta lineup, which features Kristi Wallace and Rhyne Howard, who are having to learn to play with this Dream team, and the Mercury starting lineup, which is struggling in part because Brittney Griner isn’t with the team. The lack of depth in Phoenix means that even with that lineup struggling, they have to keep running it out.
Another similarity among the top lineups here is that there’s a fairly stretchy frontcourt player in each of them. Stewart at the four in the Storm’s plus-22.7 lineup. Hamby for Vegas. Meesseman. Jonquel Jones. Those top four lineups all have the ability to play four-out, which helps with spacing. The Wings lineup does too, while the Fever one isn’t quite as stretchy, but does have NaLyssa Smith at the four, who is expanding her range over where it was in college.
Another thing about these lineups: four WNBA teams have defensive ratings lower than 97. Five of these lineups have a defensive rating that low. The worst defensive rating out of these lineups belongs to the Dallas group at 101.9. Five WNBA teams are defensive ratings worse than that. Familiarity is important on the defensive end. And the two worse defensive lineups of these have some obvious issues: Phoenix is relying on older players and Dallas is running a fairly small lineup with a poor defensive backcourt. The lineup would probably look even worse without Allisha Gray in it.