On the surface, it appeared to be any other WNBA practice. Before stretching, Stefanie Dolson was singing “Maria, Maria” by Santana and dancing under the hoop. A throng of media were present including a guy who flew in from Alaska to see what all the hubbub was about. He, in fact, beat the Minnesota Lynx to the court. Wizards Coach Randy Wittman and General Manager Ernie Grunfeld were in the crowd for what was billed as an “analytics scrimmage,” which the Mystics won, 48-41, at Verizon Center Tuesday.
The rules were a tad complicated. For the first of two 10-minute halves, players could only shoot from outside of the three-point arc, inside the key or in the extended low block, an area marked by tape on the court. For the second half, the shot-clock was lowered to 20 seconds, with it resetting to 14 seconds after an offensive rebound. Also, teams were granted automatic points in all free-throw situations, a modification designed to prevent the “hack-a-player” strategy, yet the shot location constraints were lifted. According to a release, the goal of the controlled half was to “analyze various analytical aspects of the game such as pace, shot distribution, acceleration and event timing.”
Veteran point guard Kara Lawson found it to have more of an impact on one side of the ball.
“It affected more on the offensive end than the defensive end,” she said. “Because on the defensive end when we were playing those zones, what we’re trying to do as a defense is take away the three and take away the paint. Since those were the only places they could score, you could be kind of over-aggressive, to chase them off the line because you knew that they couldn’t shoot there. You knew you had time to recover because they wouldn’t just one dribble pull up. Defense was a little bit easier. Offensively, you had to be spaced well in order to attack.”
It’s something that the team has been focused on in the preseason.
“I think that the scrimmages were fun in the sense that the first one we did full-court like that was, for me, not so much the threes versus twos but just to work on spacing. You know?” Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said. “Understanding that if you use the three-point line to your advantage then maybe you get better post-up position. You get better driving position. All the things that people have speculated about is that it opens up the court a little more if you have that threat from the perimeter. I think we found some of that out that way.”
This isn’t the first modified practice they’ve held this preseason. At a tournament in Louisville last week, they played Atlanta with a 20-second shot clock. Most of these changes are considered with the purposes of pace of play in mind, something that Lawson, who is also a studio analyst for college basketball, admits can be problematic.
“Just have the game keep moving, you know? One of the things that I know I think about when I’m watching games is, it’s slowing down, it’s stopping,” Lawson said. “I think a lot of people have said that this year both in college and the pros. This game didn’t do that, and it was a lot of points scored, too.”
“You know, hopefully over the course of the next year our league, studying what they do in Europe with it and what we did this past week, will maybe have an impact on it,” Thibault said.
Overall, though, until the data is out, Thibault isn’t taking too much from the scrimmage. The two teams play again tomorrow in an actual preseason matinee game at 11:30 a.m. He plans to use the comparison of the two as a way to better analyze tendencies.
“Everybody can use it different ways. For us, we use analytics all the time. But it has a wide variety of meanings,” he said. “At some times, when we talk about it, it’s like groups that you play together: What groups are effective, which ones have plus minuses? Like, does Kara Lawson play better with so and so than she does with somebody else? What areas of the floor are you more effective on than others? We chart all that stuff all the time anyway. I think that today was just fun to see what it would do, when you play with the 20-second clock, how many more possessions are there in a quarter than there normally are? I’ll use tomorrow’s regular preseason game with the normal rules, kind of as a control for that.”
Of course, this was all Monumental Sports owner Ted Leonsis’ idea. As an early adopter of analytics in sports, he’s eager to welcome a new avenue to the game as a whole.
“It’s another way that we’re showing great respect for the WNBA. This is such a basketball mecca, not only Washington, D.C., but the Verizon Center,” he said before the scrimmage. “I just thought it was appropriate for us to really leverage and cross-pollinate learnings from across all of our touchpoints regarding basketball.”