Bethlehem Shoals from Sporting New's Baseline recently described the WNBA style of play as "old school" and expressed a new found appreciation for the "W". Shoals conversion comes on the heals of our own resident skeptic Wil Cantrell, who was excited after attending his first Mercury game. Exciting and old school together again. It must be time to dig a little deeper into just what the WNBA has over the NBA and where this league might be going.
Long time fans and regular watchers of the WNBA might dismiss these two "conversion stories" given the common thread that runs through both, the Phoenix Mercury. If you are going to see a WNBA game for the first time (or at least the first time in a long time) there's no doubt that the league's most potent offense lead by two of the game's biggest stars is a good place to start. The Mercury are dynamic and efficient with the ball and play a very fan friendly up-tempo style. Add to that a couple of big personalities and a lot of depth and this team is flat out fun.
And while the Mercury might be the common thread between the two stories, the shared theme is the attraction the game holds (or has the potential to hold) over men who are not just fans of their favorite NBA team but are fans of basketball and sports in general. The moral of their story is if you can get past the low flying action and the different uniforms and longer hair (mostly) then there is real entertainment potential just waiting to be enjoyed by what is currently not your typical WNBA fan.
The professional women's game features a fantastic combination of team play and individual brilliance. Ball movement and cutting are punctuated by wing isolation and individual post moves. On the defensive end we are treated to classic chess games with coaches constantly adjusting their schemes and players using their timing and determination to lock down opposing teams.
Even Phoenix who is ranked last in Kevin Pelton's Defensive Rating category giving up 106 points per 100 possessions has improved this year and can turn it up for key stretches. For the record, the Mercury are right in the middle of the pack in opponent's field goal percentage (42%) and lead the league in blocks per game (5.5bpg). But I digress.
As I come to the end of covering my first WNBA season, I think it is time to finally share some thoughts on the league in general and why the W might be ready to reach a new brand of fan as it did in the case of Wil and Shoals. The hard corp basketball fan.
Ever since my first interview with Phoenix GM and Hall of Famer Ann Meyers-Drysdale back in April I have been struck by the often strange tension between the two pro leagues. On one hand, the WNBA doesn't seem to want to be compared to the men's game. Ann put it this way, "Is it the talent level of the NBA. No...But we're not comparing the WNBA to the NBA." In that same interview Ann went on to favorably compare the free throw shooting percentages between the NBA (.771) and WNBA (.771).
Comparisons are a natural thing and yet at the same time there's an understandable desire for the women's game to stand on its own.
For the most part this season I've avoided comparisons except for the obvious similarities between Diana Taurasi and Grant Hill smoothly slashing to the rim only to finish with an underhand scoop layup. It really is spooky to see how much they look alike...long gliding strides with a late take off and funky finish that fools you into thinking they are going to miss. They don't miss.
Giving up all pretense of separate but equal, lets jump right in and see just how these two games differ.
The Athletes are GIRLS!
A prerequisite for appreciating the WNBA is the basic acceptance of women as athletes. To restate the obvious, men and women are different. People much smarter than me on such matters have written forest loads of books on that very topic. I won't try and recreate their work here other than to say, once again that men and women are different.
We should not expect Shelden Williams to breast feed and we should not except Lindsay Whalen to play above the rim. If you can not get past this most basic fact and accept that athletes, talent and basketballers come in different sizes and physical abilities then you should stop reading now and go enjoy You Tubes of Leandro Barbosa throwing down wicked jams.
Slower and Lower ===> Passing and Movement
So if the game is played below the rim and the players are smaller and slower how does that impact the entertainment value of the product?
Most WNBA skeptics assume that the answer to that question is that it makes the game boring and less interesting. There's a truth to that assumption but only if you define excitement in the limited terms of high flying dunks and super speed action.
The main and most marketed attraction of the NBA is seeing amazing feats of super human prowess. The NBA features its human highlight reels and promotes their acts to a mass audience that is instinctively attracted to the speed, power and flight. But who's to complain? Those masses flood the coffers with money and have allowed Stephon Marbury to make upwards of $130m in his distinguished career.
And before you toss your rotten tomatoes at me for being a spoil sport, I'll gladly admit that was in total shock and awe last month in Vegas when I saw Blake Griffin fly in from the 3 point line and leap past, around and over various mortals to throw down a left handed put back jam. Amazing. I love this part of the NBA which appeals to our a primal instincts for competitive exploit. Instead of man vs. lion in a Roman coliseum it is man vs gravity on a 94' x 50' court. I love it but there's even more to basketball once you get past the surface attraction.
The NBA isn't all dunks and blazing speed as anyone who holds a grudging appreciation for Jerry Sloan's old school motion sets or appreciates the beauty of the San Antonio Spurs defensive team work and discipline can tell you. The Phoenix Suns were so popular in their best years because they combined athletic ability and skill with team work and fun. The Lakers ball movement and the Celtics defensive fluidity were notable for going beyond individual brilliance. The popularity (and success) of those teams demonstrate the attraction of the game beyond the glam.
When you can't rely on the ability to leap 10 feat in the air or dribble baseline to baseline in 4 seconds then you turn to what you do best. Understanding the game so well that being the right place at the right time isn't a unique talent but a required skill. Passing and shooting become primary weapons and effort and motor aren't unique assets for bench players.
That's not to say that the women's game is all finesse. If it was all about crisp execution, fundamentals and hard work then in the end it probably would be boring. The appeal might be limited only to those fans that support women's sports and appreciate the finest points of X's and O's.
On a basketball court speed, power and athletic ability is all relative. I would no sooner want to see Cappie Pondexter on the same court as Dwayne Wade as I would want to see Michael Phelps in the same pool as Dara Torres. But when you watch Becky Hammon and Nikki Anosike on a regular basis you can't help but be impressed with their superior abilities. Sporting competition is compelling when athletes excel against their peers.
I would challenge anyone, basketball aficionado or not, to watch Deanna Nolan, Sofia Young or Katie Douglas for five games and not walk away impressed and there's not a team in the league that doesn't have several exceptional players.
The top talent in the game has the ability to consistently amaze on a nightly basis. Sure, the Mercury's stars Tuarasi and Pondexter benefit from from the style of play but you can't watch Cappie break ankles with a hard cross over followed by a spin move and finish without being impressed. You can't watch Diana Taurasi lead the team's defense on one end and then dazzle with her ability to hit step back J's on the other without tipping your hat.
Play it forward
Playing for salaries comparable to college professors and accountants, the women of the WNBA compete with passion and love of the sport. With so much of NBA conversation dominated by money and the head shaking numbers that even marginal players bank, it is refreshing to take this aspect of basketball entertainment off the table. The WNBA's stars are stars for what they do on the court which isn't to say that off the court the league isn't filled with great personalities who are much more relatable as people.
The WNBA isn't accessible to everyone. With only 13 teams and a lack of adequate TV coverage it is difficult to follow and learn enough about the game to fully appreciate. The league seems to be caught in a catch 22 of not having enough fan support to increase broadcast coverage and yet needing that coverage to increase support. It is a classic business problem of balancing investment ahead of demand. Fortunately, when the combined salaries of 11 players on a WNBA team are less than that of one NBA veterans minimum player you have to believe that there's enough money floating around professional basketball to ensure the viability and (slow) growth of the league.
The NBA game is 70% individual brilliance and 30% team chemistry and execution. The WNBA flips that back the other way with the brilliance coming from five players working together capped off by incredible displays of skill and prowess. I'm thoroughly hooked and will never spend another summer sleeping through baseball games waiting for October to come.