Above the Break: Why the New York Liberty are struggling

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This week on Above the Break, we’re looking at the struggling New York Liberty, the Sun playing big, how the Lynx turned it around and more.

Welcome back to Above The Break, FanSided’s weekly look around the WNBA.

With two weeks of data now, things are starting to make sense in the W…or, uhh, are they? The Dream are 4-1. The Storm are under .500. The Fever look shockingly okay.

So, what are some things we learned in the W this week?

The New York Liberty are struggling

New York is 1-4. A big reason why is turnovers, as the team’s 18.4 per game is worst in the league.

Those turnovers help explain why the Liberty are averaging just 70.6 points per game, the worst mark in the league. The offense has shot the ball better than a few teams — four have a worse true shooting percentage — but that doesn’t really matter when it seems like every play ends with the Liberty giving the ball away.

So, why is New York turning it over so much?

Part of it is that the team doesn’t have enough ball-handlers. Sabrina Ionescu is the team’s starting point guard. She’s also the only point guard on the roster.

Players like Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb can operate as secondary ball-handlers. DiDi Richards played point in her last season at Baylor out of necessity, but she’s been injured most of this year.

This past offseason, the Liberty signed Stefanie Dolson. It was a move that made sense, because the team needed a center. Under Walt Hopkins, New York ran small, with Natasha Howard spending a lot of time at the 5 and with a stretchy 4. But Sandy Brondello wants to have a center on the floor. Dolson has been disappointing so far, as she’s struggled to make an offensive impact.

But even if Dolson was delivering strong results for the team, I think this season has shown that a backup point guard — or even a starting point guard who could have pushed Ionescu to the 2, where she could have been freed up to shoot more and likely would make better use of her playmaking skills in a smaller ball-handling role — probably should have been higher on the team’s list of offseason priorities.

Unless New York can find a way to fix its ball-handling issues, this is going to be a long season.

Did the Minnesota Lynx really just need a point guard?

From the moment Rachel Banham mentioned in training camp that she’d be playing a lot of point guard this season for Minnesota, there were concerns about that position. And once the team moved on from Crystal Dangerfield and Layshia Clarendon, there were more concerns. And once they then released Odyssey Sims…yep, even more concerns.

But Minnesota lucked into something. The Wings bought out Moriah Jefferson, who had struggled with injuries in Dallas. Minnesota scooped her up, made her the starting point guard, and things have gone better since.

Sure, the team is only 1-2 with Jefferson, but she’s provided a steady presence at the one and has helped the Lynx play some much more competitive basketball. In three games with the Lynx, she’s averaging 34.7 minutes per game, with 16.7 points and 6.0 assists per night.

It’s great that the Lynx now have someone who is this comfortable bringing the ball up the floor and shooting. It sounds simple, but you need someone on the floor who knows what to do with the basketball and at the beginning of the season, the Lynx didn’t have that. Playing non-point guards at point guard isn’t a viable strategy — especially when the non-point guard you had running things wasn’t much of a scoring threat.

In terms of passing, there’s something really fun about the way Mo Jeff throws the basketball:

It’s a very direct, very powerful kind of pass, like it’s been beamed directly across the floor to someone else. Her ability to dribble, find a space to make the pass and then to deliver the ball right where it needs to be is a nice help for this offense. Jefferson has a confidence with her passing that really shows.

Connecticut is playing big, and it’s working

The Sun sit at 2-1 on the season and have won two in a row after a season-opening loss to the Liberty.

The Sun might be the league’s most interesting team because of how their roster is built. While it seems much of the league is heading toward this hyper-modern space where spacing is more important than anything — see the Becky Hammon Aces for a good example of this — the Sun have apparently decided to just emphasize the fact that they’re big and they can bully you.

Per Add More Funds, Connecticut was played Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas together for 74 minutes this season. That’s 61.7 percent of the team’s overall minutes.

Why is that notable? Because it means Connecticut is essentially playing a 5, a stretch-5 and a 4 at the same time. The team only played those three with DeWanna Bonner at the 2 for three minutes in Bonner’s first game back from overseas, but even the willingness to play Bonner — technically a small forward but someone who’d likely be used at the four by most of the W — at the 2 is proof that Curt Miller is willing to go extremely against the grain.

Per Positive Residual, the “three bigs” lineup (as I’m calling it, though Thomas was a three before the league started to move in the direction it’s moving) currently has a net rating of plus-7.6.

In terms of what the Sun offense looks like, Synergy logs the team as running post-ups on 15.2 percent of plays, which is the highest rate in the league by a good bit — Chicago is second at 9.6 percent. The general thought on post-ups is that they’re one of the least efficient plays there is, but Connecticut is running those plays and making it work.

And what’s interesting is that the reason you’d think this would work is Jonquel Jones, but she’s struggled this year. She’s posted up 26 percent of the time, but the 0.615 points per possession she’s scored on those plays ranks in the eighth percentile.

Instead, the engine that makes this work has been Alyssa Thomas. Her post-up numbers aren’t much better than Jones’, but she’s been a monster in transition. You usually think of a lineup like this as being slow and methodical, but Thomas has been pushing the pace. The team is scoring 1.462 PPP on her transition possessions, which ranks in the 96th percentile. She’s also been efficient on non-post-up looks at the basket.

So, will this keep up? Maybe…but that’ll require Jonquel Jones getting back to her MVP form from last season. Her ability to score from everywhere helps create some spacing, which is important when you’re playing multiple non-shooters — you need that room for Thomas to drive, or for Brionna Jones to post up without the defense being able to collapse on her.

Other notes from the past week

  • Charli Collier appears to be out of the Wings rotation. She hasn’t played more than three minutes in a game yet. And Teaira McCowan, who the Wings traded for this offseason, is still playing under 10 minutes per game. The Wings seem content to play Isabelle Harrison at the five for most of the game and it’s working fine, even if it means last year’s No. 1 pick is glued to the bench and the McCowan acquisition isn’t looking like the clear win that it appeared to be when the trade was made.
  • Aren’t the Aces fun? Becky Hammon has done such a good job utilizing the talent on this team. Jackie Young finally looks like a No. 1 pick. The team is attempting 3s. A’ja Wilson is putting up great results on both ends of the floor.
  • Queen Egbo has arguably been Indiana’s best rookie. At some point we’ll break down this rookie class for the Fever, but need a little more data before that. Egbo has looked comfortable at the 5 for the Fever though, and the aggressiveness that hurt her in college is helping her in the W.

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