Some Pointed QuestionsIt’s pop quiz time at 20 Second Timeout. Before reading the rest of this post, look at the charts shown below and try to figure out what each one represents.
The first chart displays the average overall field goal percentage in the NBA and the WNBA year by year since the WNBA was founded in 1997 (the first pair of numbers represents the 1997 WNBA season and the 1996-97 NBA season; the WNBA is a summer league, while the NBA season extends from late fall into the following year’s spring). NBA critics sometimes suggest that the WNBA game is purer or more fundamentally sound than the NBA game. Surely the most fundamental skill in basketball is, as the very name of the sport implies, putting the ball in the basket. So, which column in the first chart represents the NBA and which one depicts the WNBA? Look at the chart again and then read the next paragraph.
The NBA numbers are on the left. NBA field goal percentages have been higher than WNBA field goal percentages every single year. The NBA’s low water mark during that period, .437, occurred during the lockout abbreviated 1999 season, a 50 game campaign which, because of its late start, featured many out of shape players and more than the usual amount of back to back games—and even the NBA’s shooting that year is better than the best single season in WNBA history.
Of course, NBA players are taller and dunk the ball more frequently, so it could be argued that comparing field goal percentages alone does not really tell us which league’s players shoot the ball better. So let’s look at free throws—in each league a free throw is an unguarded shot taken 15 feet from the basket. The numbers show a small, but consistent edge for the NBA; the WNBA has shot better than the NBA from the charity stripe only once—the anomalous 1999 season.
I suspect that these numbers would surprise a lot of people who just take it for granted that NBA players lack fundamentals—including the ability to shoot—and that the WNBA is full of fundamentally sound players who shoot much better than NBA players. After the U.S. men settled for bronze in the Athens Olympics some observers felt that they could benefit from watching the U.S. women’s Olympic team—ignoring the fact that there are very few countries that can put together a women’s team talented enough to offer any resistance to the U.S. team; in contrast, men’s basketball has taken a quantum leap forward in many countries in the years following the success of the 1992 “Dream Team.” Our current U.S. team is not as good as the “Dream Team”—we may never see a team that good in any sport—but more than a regression in U.S. skills we are witnessing the development of highly skilled basketball players in other countries who learned how to play by watching NBA games and attending clinics conducted by NBA players and coaches. Just like the world eventually caught up with and starting beating U.S. college players in international play, now the world has caught up with NBA players—at least in the Olympic format which pits teams that have played together against a U.S. team that is hastily assembled.
Some people who are aware of these numbers point to the low shooting percentages that existed in the NBA’s early days and say that the WNBA is a new league and that it is not fair to compare its shooting to that of the established NBA. In effect this is an admission that the WNBA is not indeed more fundamentally sound—at least from a shooting standpoint—than the NBA, but the idea that the WNBA is in a similar situation to that of the young NBA does not survive even cursory scrutiny. The early NBA played its games in poorly lit arenas and dealt with travel and lodging accommodations that NBA and WNBA players of today could not even imagine. Also, forget “no blood, no foul”—it was more like, “no first degree assault, no foul.” Players did not dunk in games because leaving your feet was an invitation to a maiming—and yes, players back then could dunk the ball, as shown on old Minneapolis Lakers films displaying the team dunking during practice and pre-game lay-up lines. Even as late as 1959-60, Wilt Chamberlain’s rookie season, there was a “Wild West” quality to the game. Sports Illustrated had a big story around that time about how Chamberlain planned to retire because of the cheap shots and rough play that he endured on a nightly basis. So there are some mitigating factors that apply to early NBA shooting percentages.
You may be wondering about three point shooting. NBA percentages have declined slightly in recent years (.354 in 2000-01, followed by .354, .349 and .347 in the next three seasons), while WNBA percentages have been improving (from a low of .313 in 1997, the league’s first season, to .336 in ’01, .340 in ’02, .336 in ’03 and .350 in ’04). Does this show that WNBA players are better perimeter shooters than NBA players? Not really. The WNBA three point line is 20 feet 6.25 inches from the basket, compared to 23 feet 9 inches in the NBA. If that doesn’t seem like much, go to your local high school or YMCA gym. The three point line there is 19 feet, 9 inches. Take ten shots and then back up four feet and take ten more shots. The NBA shot is much more difficult to shoot accurately and much more difficult to release quickly (most shooters have to bend their knees more to make up for the greater distance), giving the defense a better chance to recover and contest the shot. I don’t see a meaningful way to compare the NBA and WNBA three point shooting percentages.
This post is not meant as a shot at women’s basketball in general or the WNBA in particular. Nor do I think that the NBA game is perfect; I would like to see “east-west” dribbling (Steve Francis, Stephon Marbury) replaced by either a hard drive to the basket or a pass followed by a hard cut—but the next time someone lauds the “fundamentals” of the WNBA in comparison to the NBA, ask some pointed questions and see if that person has any statistics to back up that assertion or if he/she is just repeating something from a talk show or newspaper column. A lot of ideas become “conventional wisdom” without being true.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 AM