Domino Effect Of Dominant Centers In WNBA

 


By Erik Beck   

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    Egged on by Candace Parker, Liz Cambage drove to the hoop in the waning seconds of the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game and dunked the ball, delighting the Target Center crowd of nearly 16,000 fans.  The All-Star Game is not primarily a showcase for the abilities of the league’s best centers, whose greatness during the rest of the season often involves a great deal of physicality and grimy workmanship in the post, which generally runs counter to the purpose of an all-star game.  Instead, the all-star centers spent the majority of the game gleefully launching threes or trying to run the point, with a few blocked shots and a Brittney Griner dunk attempt sprinkled in.  However, at the culminating moment of the weekend’s festivities in what has become a sort of All-Star tradition, Cambage’s end-of-game dunk provided both an echo of prior iconic All-Star game dunks by centers like Lisa Leslie, Michelle Snow, Sylvia Fowles, Brittney Griner and Jonquel Jones, as well as a symbol of a future that she and players like her are pushing the league toward.

Cambage’s return to the WNBA this season has brought another dominant center to the fore in a league where play is increasingly being dictated by the matchup in the middle.  Following on the heels of Nneka Ogwumike’s and Fowles’ respective post-play-based 2016 and 2017 MVP campaigns, Cambage’s own dominant interior play this season has made her into a top MVP candidate and has turned the Dallas Wings into a potential title contender.

The reasons for Cambage’s dominance are fairly obvious.  She is a highly skilled, nearly unstoppable scoring machine in the paint, currently ranking (according to Synergy) seventh in the league in points per possession (PPP) on post-ups at 1.127 PPP, and second in PPP for offensive rebound putbacks at an absolutely ridiculous 1.685 PPP.  Much like Fowles last season, there are many teams in the league that simply do not have the personnel to guard her.  In addition to her tremendous skill and motor, Cambage is simply bigger and stronger than the vast majority of current WNBA players.  The only teams that have the luxury of even attempting to guard Cambage with single coverage rather than with a double or triple team are the Minnesota Lynx and the Phoenix Mercury, each of whom have dominant centers of their own in Fowles and Griner.

Cambage, Griner and Fowles currently exist in a class of their own.  They are the only three centers that are 6-foot, 6-inches or taller who have regularly started for their teams this year (Carolyn Swords for the Las Vegas Aces and Jones for the Connecticut Sun have been in and out of their respective starting lineups this year).  All three players are dominant scorers in the paint and each of their teams utilize them heavily in their respective offenses to score easy baskets and create wide-open looks for their teammates.

However, while these three players currently enjoy a significant matchup advantage over the rest of the league, big, dominant centers are becoming an increasingly less rare commodity in the WNBA.  In the upcoming 2019 WNBA Draft, it is highly likely that Kalani Brown and Teaira McCowan—both 6’7” centers—will each be drafted in the lottery, and it is also possible that both could be day-one starters.  This represents a truly seismic shift in the WNBA—in the space of the less than two years between the end of the 2017 season and the start of the 2019 season, Fowles may go from being the second-biggest starting center in the league to the fifth-biggest.  Depending on Jones’s status with Connecticut, there could be at least six 6’6” or taller starting centers next season.

It must be noted that dominant low-post centers are not currently a necessity for success in the WNBA.  The standings have been tight all season and it appears that a multitude of offensive strategies are currently capable of being successful. In fact, if the season ended today, the Lynx, the Mercury, and the Wings would be the last three teams to get into the playoffs.  Meanwhile, the Seattle Storm have been the league’s top team this season while starting Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard at the 4 and 5, neither of whom is a true center.  The Los Angeles Sparks also have found major success the last few seasons with a similar combination of forwards in Ogwumike and Parker, who have been thoroughly battle-tested playing against a dominant center in their multiple finals series against Fowles and the Lynx.  However, as the number of teams with big centers increases, some of these teams may be forced to change their approach.  After all, it is one thing to play against big, dominant centers in two or three out of every 11 games during the regular season, and an entirely different situation to have to guard them in the majority of a team’s matchups for a season.

It is not just the size of centers that is increasing in the league—almost every position is getting bigger.  This phenomenon is clearest on the Wings.  Led by the 6’8” Cambage, the Wings have by far the biggest roster in the league.  The average player height on the Wings’ present roster is over 6’1.5” and most of the players on the team are relatively tall for their position.  In fact, before they traded away 6’0” wing Aerial Powers to the Washington Mystics for 5’9” guard Tayler Hill, the Wings only had two players on their roster under 6’0” tall—an impressive characteristic given that most WNBA teams this season have had somewhere between four and six players under 6’0” tall on their rosters.

Dallas’s length has proven invaluable defensively, and specifically allowed them to be a major thorn in the Los Angeles Sparks’s side this season, as the Wings won the season series 2-1.  In their last game of the series, which Dallas won 92-77, Dallas’s size and length obviously bothered the Sparks, who at times were forced to go to a “big” lineup with Candace Parker at the 3 and either Jantel Lavender or rookie center Maria Vadeeva at the 5 to deal with Cambage.  Even after Cambage was ejected from the game due to technical fouls, the Wings were able to deploy various four-player combinations of Kayla Thornton (6’1”), Kaela Davis (6’2”), Glory Johnson (6’3”), Cayla George (6’4”), and Azurá Stevens (6’6”) around Skylar Diggins-Smith to stymie the Sparks with deflections and offensive rebounds.  In order to remain competitive in a league with an increasing number of big, skilled centers, it may be that the Sparks will have to reshuffle their lineup.  Other teams with smaller centers like the Storm and the Mystics could face a similar dilemma.

Lineup adjustments to counter the increasing size of the center position could have major ramifications on the size of other positions as well.  Presently, the average size of a small forward in the WNBA is around 6’1” and DeWanna Bonner (6’4”) is the only player standing 6’3” or taller playing as a small forward.  However, if the Sparks decide to play a larger starting lineup next season to adjust to the “big center” trend by moving Parker to the 3 on a full-time basis, or if the Storm decide to do the same with Stewart, the league could see up to four or five starting small forwards that are 6’3” or taller. After all, if Emma Meeseman returns to the Mystics next season, Elena Delle Donne (6’5”) would likely move back to playing as a small forward again, and 6’3” UConn senior Katie Lou Samuelson will most likely play at the 3 in the WNBA next season as well. These developments could cause even further cascading effects across the league in an ongoing domino effect, and more rosters around the league may eventually end up looking more like the Wings’ roster.

The issue of how to guard the influx of big centers may not be so urgent as to require teams to dramatically restructure their rosters by next season, and it is still unclear exactly how teams around the league will react to these changes. The post play of dominant centers like Cambage, Fowles, and Griner may not determine how good a given team is by itself (lottery teams adding a top center prospect probably won't immediately shoot to the top of the standings), but the increasing number of great low-post centers in the league is certain to bring about significant change in how teams around the WNBA are built going forward.