WNBA Facts and Figures: Are the Seattle Storm beatable?

The Seattle Storm have been the WNBA's best team in 2020, but they aren't invincible. There's one key department they're lacking in, and it's cost them in recent losses. Does it leave the door open for a potential upset down the road?

There are just two weeks remaining in the 2020 WNBA season (time flies when teams play every other day), yet much remains to be decided. While it was clear who the league's top teams are a while ago, playoff seeding is still very much up for grabs, and anything can happen during this condensed and chaotic season.

In this week's edition of WNBA Facts and Figures, we'll put a couple of championship contenders under the microscope, then marvel at yet another record set by one of the league's top point guards.

67.7%: The Seattle Storm’s defensive rebounding rate

Seattle entered the 2020 season as a championship favorite, and through August, little has changed. The Storm boast both the league’s best offense (106.9 ORtg) and defense (91.0 DRtg) and are able to go deep into their bench on most nights - a tremendous luxury during the 2020’s injury-plagued season.

Even so, the Storm have been unable to pull away in the standings (kudos to the Las Vegas Aces and Los Angeles Sparks here), and while their depth and fearsome defense will likely make them the favorite in any potential playoff matchup, they’re not invincible.

For a team that has so many strengths, Seattle’s weakness on the boards has been pretty glaring. The Storm enter September as the WNBA’s worst defensive rebounding team, per DREB%, and second-worst overall rebounding team (though, to be fair, there’s not much separating teams at the bottom in these metrics). This was a significant problem in two of Seattle’s three losses this season; the Storm were outrebounded 46-30 against Indiana on Aug. 20 and 44-34 by Las Vegas days after.

Is this cause for concern? Probably not, although it will be a point of emphasis if the Storm run into the Aces (who we’ll talk about in a bit) in the postseason. It could just be a matter of getting 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard back at full strength; she was noticeably limited during the first half of the season, but seems to have her wind back now, and is actually rebounding better than she ever has (22.8% DREB%). It's still difficult to see anyone beating the Storm in a playoff series - though there's still time for them to slip to a #2 or #3 seed if they take their foot off the gas.

0.157: The Las Vegas Aces’ free throw rate differential

The Aces have drawn frequent criticism for not having the most modern-looking offense - just 16.4% of their shots have been 3-pointers, by far the lowest rate in the league - but they’ve remained near the top of the standings all season and have put up the WNBA’s second-best net rating (10.7) thus far, so Bill Laimbeer’s squad must be doing something right.

As a matter of fact, the Aces are doing plenty of things right. Most of it is typical Laimbeer basketball: Their defense has been stout and, contrary to fellow contender Seattle, Vegas has been excellent on the glass, grabbing nearly 75% of available defensive rebounds.

Offensively, though, the Aces have been a nice surprise. No, they’re not shooting many threes, but they’ve excelled in many areas, particularly in controlling the free throw game - and that impacts both ends of the floor.

According to WNBA.com’s Four Factors, the Aces lead the league in free throw rate (FTr) at 0.348. Las Vegas finished the 2019 season first in FTr and were second in 2018, though they were ultimately a lottery team that season. The one constant (other than Laimbeer), of course, is A’ja Wilson, who remains an absolute terror to defend both facing up and on the block; per 100 possessions, Wilson is drawing 8.2 fouls and attempting 11.4 free throws, and 28.9% of her points come from the line.

The other side of this coin is that the Aces have done a superb job of keeping their opponents off the free-throw line. Looking back at the Four Factors, Las Vegas’ opponents’ FTr is a miniscule 0.191 - a figure that is not only best in the WNBA, but if the season ended today, would be the best in WNBA history. No team, not even the Lynx or Comets dynasties of years past, has ever allowed an opponents’ FTr below 0.200.

While the Aces’ 3-point shooting deficiency is too massive to ignore, free throws are a big part of the efficiency game, too, and the Aces have been completely dominant there. We’ll see if poor floor spacing will ultimately be their downfall, but it’s been interesting to see a team have so much success going against the grain in a league that has been embracing the 3-point shot more and more over the years.

18: Courtney Vandersloot’s single-game assist record

We knew this was coming eventually, right?

Courtney Vandersloot broke Ticha Penicheiro’s WNBA record for assists in a game on Aug. 31, dishing out 18 of them in a Chicago Sky victory over the Indiana Fever. Penicheiro’s record of 16 assists had stood since 2002, when she accomplished the feat for the second time (the first coming in 1998) as a member of the Sacramento Monarchs.

Vandersloot has been on an absolute tear since 2017, averaging no fewer than 8 assists per game in each season since. She broke the WNBA single-season record for total assists in 2018 and then did it again in 2019, becoming the first player in league history to deal out 300 assists in one season. Vandersloot also has 34 point/assist double-doubles to her name, per Across The Timeline.

It’s seemed inevitable, then, that Vandersloot would also eventually hold the record for assists in a game. Her performance was one not only for the record books, but for the story books as well; it was Vandersloot’s wife Allie Quigley who hit the shot that sealed the deal.

Enjoy this slice of WNBA history.

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