Last night, five WNBA players briefly appeared on the ABC show The Bachelorette, after an intense crying scene during dinner on a train with a farmer from Arlington. Los Angeles’ Lindsey Harding and Nneka Ogwumike, Chicago’s Swin Cash (since traded to Atlanta) and Elena Delle Donne, and Indiana’s Tamika Catchings roundly flayed the amateur male suitors in a pick-up game, as professional athletes are wont to do. It was a silly cross-promotion and it got awkward when the pros were relegated to the sideline for the “alpha males” full of “testosterone” to play against each other for a game that meant something.
Since the Shock moved to Tulsa in 2010, they’ve been by far the worst team in the league, winning just 27 games in a four year period. In 2011, the Tulsa Shock chose 6’8″ Australian center Liz Cambage with the second overall pick. They had the fourth pick in 2012 and the third pick in 2013, taking Glory Johnson and Skylar Diggins, respectively. The Shock have some of the most heralded talent in the WNBA, despite being the youngest team in the league. They’ve hired a new coach this season and have two rookies solidly in the rotation. Tulsa hoped all their young talent would finally congeal into wins this season. The Shock currently sit at the bottom of the standings, the only winless team in the league.
This past week Tulsa handed fellow Western Conference cellar-dwellers San Antonio and Seattle a couple early-season wins that came down to the wire. When he was hired as the Shock head coach, Fred Williams spoke about the team losing close games, letting them slip away at the end. Four of their five losses this season were by five points or less, and three of which ended as one-possession games. The lone blowout came in Phoenix, in a game where the Mercury shot 20 first half free throws and saw their offense clicking to near perfection. Despite that game and their unfortunate bagel in the win column, there is an acknowledgement that the Shock will win games, perhaps enough to compete for the last playoff spot. There is, however, a number of reasons why they’ve lost all their games besides statistical variance.
First and foremost, the Shock are young and playing so many players who weren’t even 10 years old when the league started is going to lead to sloppy play. But it isn’t turnovers or opponent steals getting racked up, and they’re right around average for most statistics around the board. Of course, a big mistake would be just looking at team statistics and missing the big empty space in the middle. Tulsa is without their center Cambage, who’s missing the entire season to train for her national team. Her backup last year, Courtney Paris, has been holding it down with over 10 rebounds and nearly 10 points per game. A big complaint from last year’s Shock team was that Diggins – one of the marquee draft class’ “Three to See” – consistently underperformed in relation to her peers. This season, though, she’s stepped up her field goal percentage by 13 points to 46%, improved her three point shooting and cut down on her turnovers.
The biggest thing that jumps out on paper is their three point defense. The Shock are giving up nearly 50% from behind the arc and it has killed them in every game thus far. The guards do a poor job of closing out and their defense is over-eager to crash the paint, leaving weakside shooters on an island with a beach chair. Tulsa may not be the worst team in total turnovers, but they may very well lead the league in transition turnovers. Diggins along with her backcourt mate, rookie Odyssey Sims, continually look for the home-run pass in getting out to any fast-break opportunity. Tulsa has struggled defensively and some of it seems to come from an uncertainty in their identity. They lack athleticism, but their two ball-handlers have shown an ability to pick apart defenses on their heels in transition. Also, even without Cambage – who lead the team in points last year – the Shock have kept throwing the ball in the post. Perhaps if they slow the game down more, they can focus more on the defensive end. If they play faster, they can take advantage of their young legs and a more freewheeling style.
The Shock had a chance to tie their games last week against both San Antonio and Seattle. In Texas, after two concurrent timeouts (necessitated by the referees not having finished looking at a replay after the first timeout ended, which, what?), Tulsa ended up with a poorly-spaced desperation heave. Against the Storm, Diggins looked to drive to the basket and improvise. She got tied up and lost the jump ball,with Tulsa not being able to even foul before time expired. Late game execution is still an obvious flaw of Fred Williams’ team. The team could find themselves in the playoff race without many tweaks to the game plan, and just let the point differential averages fall into place. They could also look to run more pick-and-rolls with Diggins and target jump shooters in a league where players are less lethal at the rim. Or, like the bro that ended up getting kicked off The Bachelorette episode, they could still go too far with a flawed plan, and die in a paragliding accident. Tulsa plays Phoenix on Friday.