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2011 WNBA Free Agency Playing Styles: Who's Signed And Who's Left?

posted by Swish Appeal
Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 11:20am EST

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Unrestricted free agent Swin Cash is probably the top player on the free agent market after helping the Seattle Storm to the 2010 WNBA title last year. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

During the media conference call with the Minnesota Lynx about their signing of Taj McWilliams-Franklin today, someone asked where she ranked among the available free agents in the league.

"We valued her very highly, as did other teams," said Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. 

And indeed McWilliams-Franklin was among the most valuable players on the market and particularly to the Lynx who had something of a weakness in terms of scoring efficiency from their post players last year (click here for more on how McWilliams-Franklin helps in that regard).

But this also begs a question of how teams might determine the value of a player on the free agent market. Certainly team need is involved and obviously some assessment of how good a player was last season - somehow intermixed with their reputation - has some bearing on "value". But so does some measure of supply and demand: how many similar players are available and what might they contribute to a new team?

So with a rather coveted free agent signed, who else is left and who might be particularly valuable to a team?

Quantifying qualitative playing styles

I've referred to this idea of "playing styles" multiple times and the off-season is when they're most useful as we try to project not only who's good, but who fits where as well as supply and demand for certain types of players.

For more on that, you can refer back to last year's post about free agency which describes all of this at length.

WNBA Free Agent Playing Styles: The Beginning of Figuring Out Who Fits Where - Swish Appeal
It has been proven time and time again in professional sports that simply loading up on all-star talent is not a formula for success, nor can a team win merely by being one-dimensional – building a successful team requires bringing together the right combination of players, not necessarily the best players.

One way to look at player combinations is in terms of a player’s style or function on a team. For example, knowing whether a player tends to be more of a scorer or a player who can influence the game without scoring or more interior than perimeter.

David Sparks’ playing style spectrum can be quite useful for looking at player combinations.

Playing styles of 2011 WNBA free agents

So building off of last year, I'm going to use the same numbers except that I'm going to use a metric called "valuable contributions ratio" instead of "Boxscores" (the difference is described here). David Sparks describes them as follows:

The Arbitrarian: Individual Contributions To Team Success | Hardwood Paroxysm
Another useful measure, especially for comparing players on poor teams, or those who played limited minutes, is what I call the Valuable Contributions Ratio (VCR). This is a pace- and playing time- adjusted metric of productivity assessed at the per-minute level. As above, this calculation is straightforward and intuitive. Merely take each player’s PVC (MEV/team MEV) and divide it by each player’s percent of team minutes played (min/team min). Thus, we are dividing a percentage by another percentage (which is why I call it a ratio–units are somewhat meaningless). This statistic controls for team pace and playing time, and is independent of team quality–it captures productivity relative to the time allowed for production.

This is useful for comparing bench players, players who miss a substantial number of games, and rookies. Bench players get a "fair shake" by this statistic, because they often have less time on the floor in which to accumulate MEV toward a larger cumulative share of team success...VCR is useful for comparing rookies, as well, since they often play relatively few minutes, and since their teams often win very few games. Rookies with high BXS are the most impressive, but more often than not, rookies don’t produce many wins. Rather, they may produce MEV efficiently, and we can see this in VCR.

The reason for the switch should be clear: if we're comparing individual players' potential to contribute to different teams in which their spot in the rotation or role could change, knowing how efficiently they produced in their time on the court is quite helpful.

To help put VCR in perspective, the average VCR in the league last year was .76. So perhaps the best way to think about VCR is as a way to understand how many "quality minutes" a player might give you: a player with an average VCR probably gave you about as many quality minutes as they're capable of, a player with an above average VCR could probably give you more quality minutes, and a player with a below average VCR should probably have played less minutes. In other words, VCR gives us a way to project players as starters, rotation players, and bench warmers, which further helps us define their value on the market in terms of how many quality minutes they might provide you.

For some additional perspective on ValPct, the best in the league in 2010 (and the reason she was a strong contender for MVP throughout the season) was Chicago Sky center Sylvia Fowles at 28.97 with Indiana Fever forward Tamika Catchings not far behind at 27.35. The average was 8.4. So again, that helps us get a sense of how much they contributed to the team's overall statistical production.

The SPI numbers used to define a player's style are the same as last year.

So now we can approximate a player’s style, how valuable that style was to their team, how many quality minutes they're capable of, and get a feel for what's left on the market.

Unrestricted Free Agents
(See full free agent list at WNBA.com)

Player 2010 Team S% P% I% Type MPG ValPct VCR Current status?

Svetlana Abrosimova Seattle 52.17 73.18 37.68 P 20.17 7.97% .80 will not play

Ashley Battle
San Antonio 60.86 2.17 80.43 IP 6.99 00.10% .19

Tully Bevilaqua Indiana 13.04 92.02 44.92 DU 19.36 6.7% .70

Kiesha Brown Tulsa 52.89 84.05 24.63 D 17.81 5.59% .79

Swin Cash Seattle 64.49 26.08 61.59 M 30.75 12.52% .82

Helen Darling San Antonio 5.79 98.55 34.05 D 11.85 2.77% .48

Marie Ferdinand-Harris Los Angeles 90.57 36.95 33.33 S 24.27 8.03% .75

Ebony Hoffman Indiana 55.07 38.4 57.97 M 23.96 9.34% .78 signed by LA

Chamique Holdsclaw San Antonio 69.56 44.92 50.72 S 28.97 15.31% 1.23

Betty Lennox Los Angeles 65.21 68.84 36.95 P 11.61 1.8% .98

Taj McWilliams-Franklin New York 28.98 55.07 66.66 IU 29.22 17.07% 1.18 signed by Minn

Nicole Ohlde Tulsa 46.37 27.53 69.56 IP 16.36 5.07% .66

Ticha Penicheiro Los Angeles 00.72 1 42.75 DU 26.35 14.72% 1.19 re-signed by LA

Ashley Robinson Seattle 3.62 26.81 97.82 IU 8.17 2.14% .60

Nakia Sanford Washington 24.63 28.98 83.33 IU 17.89 7.32% .82

Katie Smith Washington 84.78 72.46 10.86 SP 30.78 10.03 .67 cored

Tangela Smith Phoenix 58.69 13.04 72.46 IP 29.18 8.56% .59 signed by Ind

Christi Thomas Chicago 7.97 2.89 98.55 IU 8.44 0.46% .25

Erin Thorn Chicago 50 81.88 29.71 P 20.85 7.98% .80

Tan White Connecticut 71.01 76.81 20.28 PS 25.19 12.07% .97 re-signed

 

Observations:

  • The best player on the unrestricted free agent market is still Swin Cash: she's among the most versatile players in the league and had an above average VCR in starter's minutes. Ebony Hoffman is the most similar player but might not give you the same number of quality minutes as Cash and, for what it's worth, Hoffman is a bit more perimeter oriented whereas Cash is going to be the more aggressive inside-out scorer. The assumption is that Cash will re-sign, but nothing is set in stone.
  • If you were looking for a starting point guard in free agency, Ticha Penicheiro was it. Washington's Lindsey Harding is a restricted free agent as is Tulsa's Ivory Latta.
  • In terms of playing styles, interior-oriented players were the most plentiful among unrestricted free agents. But if a post player is what you wanted, it's hard to dispute that McWilliams-Franklin was the best. And even given her, er, vast experience she looks to be capable of continuing to provide the Lynx with quality minutes this year, just as Reeve noted during the media session.

    "Taj is somebody that has just done one heck of a job taking care of her body," said Reeve. "She is physically fit and as long as she can stay healthy with other things, there's no reason to believe she's not going to be able to play this game for another four or five years if she wants to. I don't know if she will, but she's someone who really takes care of her body."
  • Former Detroit Shock forward Cheryl Ford is also a free agent and apparently in good shape. Ann Wauters chose not to play last year but is also a free agent. So it's not like there aren't any options available for teams in need of a post player.
  • Deanna Nolan also didn't play last year when the Shock relocated to Tulsa, but she's still technically under contract with Tulsa.

So with McWilliams-Franklin out, which players are the best on the market now?

  • Neither Marie Ferdinand-Harris nor Betty Lennox are expected to return to the Los Angeles Sparks and Lennox stands out as a player who could still contribute after missing two thirds of last season due to injury. Most important to note is that Lennox became much more of a distributor last season after being among the league's most aggressive scorers previously.
  • Nakia Sanford is a solid player who isn't going to do a whole lot of shooting but is an outstanding rebounder and consistently among the league's top defenders.
  • Erin Thorn had an strong three point shooting year in 2010 shooting 42%, but was also above average as a distributor. 
  • I don't think Katie Smith's value to a team is quantified well at this point in her career.
  • Lastly, it's hard not to notice Chamique Holdsclaw - she contributed more to her (playoff) team than anyone else on this list and is one of the few starter-caliber players on this list.

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