Net Rating Historically Critical to WNBA Title Hopes

By Erik Beck    

Just past the midway point of the WNBA season, the race to the top of the standings remains relatively wide open.  Unlike the past two seasons, which were dominated by the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks, the 2018 WNBA season has seen much more competitive parity.  The Seattle Storm and the Phoenix Mercury have achieved some marginal separation in the standings, but the teams in the third through eighth spots are not far behind.  This season there is no near certainty as to who will end up with the coveted top-two seeds, which allow those teams to bypass the potentially fluky gauntlet of the two single-elimination rounds of the playoffs and advance into the five-game series semifinals.

Even before the WNBA changed its playoff structure to the current format, earning a top-two seed had important ramifications for a team’s WNBA title hopes.  Teams have won the championship 14 times with the No. 1 overall seed while only seven teams in WNBA history have won without the top overall seed (Houston Comets in 2000, Storm in 2004, Detroit Shock in 2006, Mercury in 2007, Indiana Fever in 2012, Lynx in 2015, and the Sparks in 2016). Of these championship teams, only two had a record outside of the top two overall: Detroit in 2006 (third-best record) and Indiana in 2012 (fourth-best record).

A top-two seeding in the playoffs is of course especially lucrative and beneficial for one’s title hopes now given its guarantee of series play.  However, historically, a different top-two ranking has been even more predictive of who will win the championship -- season-long net rating. Net rating is a statistic that represents the number of points per 100 possessions that a team outscores its opponents by, so it makes sense that teams that outscore their opponents by the widest margin over a whole season would likely have the best shot at winning a title.

In WNBA history, no team finishing the season outside of the top-two in overall net rating has ever gone on to win the championship.  In fact, the team that has gone on to win the championship has only had the second-highest net rating four times: Detroit in 2006, Phoenix in 2007, Indiana in 2012, and Los Angeles in 2016. The other 17 times the team with the highest net rating for the season went on to win the title.

Characterizing WNBA title-contending teams by top-two net rating seems at least somewhat more important than by overall record, as both the 2006 Shock and 2012 Fever championship teams still had the second-highest net ratings in their respective years despite having the third and fourth best records overall.  This is a somewhat remarkable trend, as even in just the last decade in the NBA this ranking has not been seemingly necessary for a title, as teams have won with the fourth-highest (Los Angeles Lakers 2009, Cleveland Cavaliers 2016), sixth-highest (Lakers 2010), and seventh-highest (Dallas Mavericks 2011) net ratings.  However, for the WNBA thus far, the need for a top-two net rating to win a title has been absolute.

As of July 9th, 2018 the Net Ratings for each WNBA team were as follows:

               Net Rtg    Off Rtg        Def Rtg

1)    Seattle Storm        9.5        108.9 (1st)    99.4 (5th)
2)    Dallas Wings        5.3        104.8 (4th)    99.5 (6th)
3)    Phoenix Mercury    5.1        104.0 (5th)    98.9 (4th)
4)    Connecticut Sun    4.7        106.3 (2nd)    101.6 (7th)
5)    Washington Mystics    4.2        106.2 (3rd)    101.9 (8th)
6)    Minnesota Lynx    2.3        99.3 (8th)    97.0 (2nd)
7)    Los Angeles Sparks    2.0        100.3 (6th)    98.3 (3rd)
8)    Las Vegas Aces    -4.1        98.1 (9th)    102.3 (9th)
9)    Atlanta Dream        -4.9        91.2 (12th)    96.2 (1st)
10)    Chicago Sky        -7.5        99.8 (7th)    107.3 (12th)
11)    New York Liberty    -7.9        97.2 (10th)    105.1 (11th)
12)    Indiana Fever        -9.0        94.6 (11th)    103.6 (10th)

For comparison, the 2018 WNBA standings as of July 9th stood:

1)    Seattle Storm        15-5
2)    Phoenix Mercury    14-6
3)    Washington Mystics    12-7
4)    Los Angeles Sparks    12-8
5)    Minnesota Lynx    11-8
6)    Dallas Wings        10-8
7)    Connecticut Sun    10-9
8)    Atlanta Dream          9-9
9)    Las Vegas Aces    8-12
10)    Chicago Sky        7-12
11)    New York Liberty    5-14
12)    Indiana Fever        2-17

Based solely on these historical trends, if the season ended today the Storm would be the overwhelming favorite to win the championship with the Phoenix Mercury having a decent shot at the title and, interestingly enough, the Dallas Wings remaining a dark-horse candidate. However, there is still a solid 40 percent of the season remaining, and a lot can change in that period of time.  The Connecticut Sun, who started the season dominating the top of the standings and advanced statistics, have cratered with the absences of Alyssa Thomas and Courtney Williams, but could make a run back to the top with their return.  The Lynx and the Sparks, mired in the middle of the playoff race, could each return to form and make a push for the top. Perhaps the Wings, with their currently impressive advanced statistics, will also rise in the standings. Nothing is settled yet.

It is also important to note that the trend of a top-two net rating team always winning the title doesn’t have to remain true.  The league is as talented as ever and it is not hard to imagine that in a season with so many high-quality teams, we could see a break from this major historical trend. Still, if you’re placing bets on a title-winner, make sure to check the net rating rankings on August 19.