Above the Break: Aces start strong, Phoenix Mercury are struggling

This week, Above the Break dives into the biggest WNBA stories, including the struggling Phoenix Mercury, the surging Aces and more.

The Aces are off to a hot start, while a few teams—New York, Indiana, Minnesota and Phoenix—look like the league’s worst teams so far.

One of the surprises of the year are the Dallas Wings, who are 5-3 and had been on a three-game winning streak before Thursday’s 99-68 loss to Connecticut.

In this week’s Above The Break, we’re looking at the Aces being 7-1, the Mercury’s struggles and the impressive play of Nneka Ogwumike.

The Las Vegas Aces are off to a 7-1 start

We knew the Aces were going to be good. The team’s been one of the WNBA’s best teams over the last few seasons and while they’d moved on from Liz Cambage, there was still enough talent for the Aces to be one of the three or four best teams in the W.

But, uhh…it looks like we underestimated how much moving from Bill Laimbeer to Becky Hammon at head coach was going to matter.

The Aces are now 7-1 and have the best offense in league history:

Sure, we could have the “is this sustainable” conversation. We could talk about how the depth in Vegas worries me and how they’re relying just a bit too heavily on their core. We could have that conversation and there probably will be time farther down the line for it, but for now, let’s just focus on how the offense is doing this.

As expected, it starts with the increased reliance on the 3. Laimbeer spent his whole Aces tenure shying away from them and playing A’ja Wilson at the 4 with a traditional center. Now, Hammon is surrounding A’ja with shooters and it’s unlocked so much of the potential with this team.

Let’s focus on one key player whose improvement is notable: Jackie Young.

The former No. 1 overall pick is averaging 19.3 points per game on 56.4 percent shooting and is hitting 50 percent of her 3s, which is especially notable since Young shot 25 percent from deep last year. She won’t remain this efficient, but it does look like the Hammon offense is working for Young.

Young has shown such confidence in the early going this season:

Her court vision has been outstanding and she’s navigating space so well. On this play, for instance, the hesitation move to get to the basket is just…wow. It’s taken a few years, but the Aces are getting the Jackie Young they expected: someone who can score and can make plays with the ball in her hands. Being able to play Young beside Chelsea Gray is great for this team, as it allows them to have multiple strong ballhandlers on the floor at once, opening up passing opportunities.

Can the Phoenix Mercury get back on track?

Before Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia, the Mercury were favorites, as they’d taken a good team and added Tina Charles and Diamond DeShields to it.

Now, they look like a team that’ll be lucky to make the playoffs.

The obvious answer to “what happened” is that this is a shallow team that was going to rely heavily on Griner. Now that they don’t have her in the middle, things have fallen apart.

But it’s got to be more than that, right? A team with Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Tina Charles, Diamond DeShields and Brianna Turner is still a good team, in theory. So why is Phoenix 2-5 and on a four-game losing streak?

A few reasons. One is that Diggins-Smith missed a couple of games. I’m not a conspiracy theorist about her absence — I know some people think it’s suspicious she missed time for a non-COVID illness right after she got in an argument with Taurasi on the sidelines. But her absence was definitely felt in those two games. Without her, the team lost by 10 points to the Wings and by 20 to the Aces.

Digging deeper into SDS’s importance, PBP Stats shows a sharp contrast between how the team has played with and without her on the floor. In the 171 minutes she’s played, the team has a -1.48 net rating. Not good, but uhh…better than the net rating of -14.94 in the 109 minutes without her. And in the 36 minutes SDS has played without Taurasi, the net rating is 13.79, while the team’s net rating with Taurasi on and SDS off is -20.70.

Obviously, the context of “Diggins-Smith missed one of the Aces games and probably wouldn’t have changed things too much because the Aces are so good” is needed, but the numbers still paint a stark portrait: without Diggins-Smith on the floor, the Mercury are struggling.

Taurasi is shooting 36.5 percent from the floor and 32.3 percent from three this year. She’s still scoring her points, but the efficiency concerns are becoming…well, more concerning. Taurasi has also had to play 31.8 minutes per game, her highest number since 2013. Overplaying a 39-year-old guard isn’t a recipe for success.

So, can Phoenix turn it around? Maybe. The talent is here. If SDS stays healthy, she provides a steadying presence for the team, and if Diamond DeShields can keep up the efficient shooting she’s had over the last three games, that’ll force the defense to equate for her more, potentially making things easier for Taurasi. That would hopefully also open up space for Tina Charles.

(One last note on Phoenix: Brianna Turner’s defensive impact is so apparent when you dig into the numbers. The team has a 104.86 defensive rating with Turner on the floor…and a 126.32 defensive rating when she isn’t. Yikes.)

Nneka Ogwumike is back

The Sparks’ star big played in just 18 games last season. She also played in 18 games in 2020, though that season consisted of just 22 total games. In the league since 2012, it was fair to wonder if the best days were behind the 2016 WNBA MVP.

But early in this 2022 season, Nneka looks better than she has in years. She’s averaging her most points since 2017 and most rebounds since 2019. She’s shooting 55.8 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from three. She’s also adding 1.9 steals per game.

The frontcourt pairing with Liz Cambage isn’t really working out so far — per PBP Stats, the team has a net rating of -5.63 when the two share the floor, in large part because the defense plummets to a 109.71 defensive rating — but the team is playing well in the minutes where Nneka isn’t on the floor with Cambage (2.41 net rating in 101 minutes) and has struggled in the minutes with only Liz (-8.11 net rating), so I think it’s fair to say that the issues with the pairing are more on Cambage’s end than Nneka’s.

Per Synergy, the Sparks score 1.107 points per possession on Ogwumike’s possessions, which ranks in the 87th percentile. The team, as a whole, scores 0.92 points per possession.

The Sparks have a lot of question marks. There’s the whole Chennedy Carter thing — they traded for her and then have used her sparingly instead of giving her the heavy minutes that the WNBA world expected. There are questions about who is best to play at the 3.

But one thing that isn’t being questioned: Nneka Ogwumike’s importance.

Some other things from this week

  • Remember when I mentioned the Wings in the intro? Well…that 99-68 loss to Connecticut really throws a wrench into the idea that this team is a contender, doesn’t it? The rotation in Dallas remains odd. Satou Sabally has returned and is coming off the bench. The team’s best center, Isabelle Harrison, has seen a reduction in her minutes. What’s going on, Wings?
  • Seattle is moving in the right direction, winning two in a row to get back to .500. Now, the Storm are set to play the Liberty twice.
  • After a rough start, the Lynx have two wins now and are keeping things more competitive. Being closer to full strength has really helped this team.

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