The traditional box score has served as the foundation of numerical analysis in professional sports for years. Stats such as points, rebounds, and assists have been benchmarks for what coaches, front office personnel, and analysts have used to evaluate players and teams.
But over the last decade, traditional stats have given way to more advanced stats being used as an evaluation tool across professional sports. After transforming both Major League Baseball (MLB) and the NBA, advanced analytics are now revolutionizing the WNBA.
Last year, the league began providing advanced stats from every game, as well as of every player and team. But for many coaches, front office executives, and analysts, the use of analytics in the WNBA goes back further than 2016.
[More from Excelle Sports: WNBA.com dramatically expands stat, historical video offerings]
Mark Silver, who serves as an executive vice president at Synergy Sports Tech, marks 2010 as when advanced analytics began to grow in the WNBA. Started in 2004, Synergy Sports Tech is a company that provides professional sports leagues and teams with standard data and advanced analytics. According to Silver, Synergy began working with the WNBA seven years ago.
“We provide teams with play-type coaching data,” Silver told Excelle Sports. “Player tendency statistics is what we see most widely-used by teams. Each team is different, but we work usually with the front office, coaching, or the video coordinator.”
While advanced analytics are more readily available to teams than ever before, Silver sees it as something that is still growing.
“There are some teams that are a lot more focused and engaged, while others are still catching up and primarily using traditional data sets,” Silver said. “But it’s following a path of growth similar to the NBA. It can do a lot for teams in game planning and free agency.”
One team leading the advanced stats revolution in the WNBA is the Minnesota Lynx, according to WNBA television commentator/analyst Debbie Antonelli. The Lynx were contacted to comment for the story, but did not respond to the request.
“I feel like Minnesota and [head coach] Cheryl Reeve are at the forefront of it,” Antonelli told Excelle Sports. “They use it a lot as a part of their gameplan. It’s partly why they’ve been so good. Analytics has helped and it’s going to help as that team gets older.”
Winners of three of the last six WNBA Finals, the Lynx hold the best record in the league this season at 22-6.
“I will definitely use advanced stats in the broadcast,” Antonelli said. “But I won’t just throw a stat out there. I’ll always discuss it in context on the broadcast.”
For Antonelli, one advanced stat that she values most are after timeouts (ATOs). Antonelli will often reference ATOs in her broadcasts. While advanced stats have become more accessible now, Antonelli says that analytics have always played a role in team and player evaluation.
“I think there have always been a lot of analytics,” Antonelli said. “It’s become more prevalent over the last five years with coaches. I think it’s a domino effect from the NBA to men’s college basketball to the WNBA and women’s college basketball.”
One coach who has been using advanced analytics for longer than five years is Eric Thibault, who serves as an assistant coach for the Washington Mystics. Having coached at the college and professional level, Thibault started measuring advanced stats almost 10 years ago.
“I started using analytics when I was working in Connecticut,” Thibault, who also worked as an assistant with the Sun, told Excelle Sports. “Coaches have always used it in some form or another, but it’s way more accessible now. The league office has taken the initiative too.”
According to Thibault, shooting trajectory and effective field goal percentage are two advanced stats that he places a high value on when it comes to putting together a gameplan.
“The advanced analytics help us make good decisions,” Thibault said. “We try to take a wide approach when analyzing them. You use them to try and find out what you’re good at and where you have holes.”
But Thibault also believes that players and fans are benefitting from the widespread availability.
“Our players have grown up more stat-conscious and more educated on advanced stats now,” Thibault said. “Fans are becoming more savvy with it too. I think it will be interesting to see what we can do with our players with the new technology available going forward.”
[More from Excelle Sports: Minnesota Lynx go on 37-0 run to set WNBA record]
A mechanical engineering major in college, Connecticut Sun assistant coach Nicki Collen considers herself to be very numbers-oriented.
“I’ve always used advanced analytics,” Collen told Excelle Sports. “I’ve always worked for a statistically-driven coach. There was never a time that it wasn’t a part of my gameplan.”
Like Thibault, Collen coached at the collegiate level before becoming an assistant under head coach Curt Miller in Connecticut. While the college game allows more preparation time with regards to analytics, Collen believes that players at the pro level understand advanced stats better.
According to Collen, some of the advanced analytics that Connecticut focuses on when putting together a game plan include number of possessions, pace, how a team scores, and the percentages of where its points come from. Figuring out how fast a team plays is an important use of these advanced stats, Collen says.
But advanced analytics is not the only evaluation tool that she and her fellow coaches use.
“We talk about analytics a lot,” Collen said. “But you also have to look past the numbers. When we start our preparation, we first look at stats. But then we go to the eye test.”
Along with preparation, Collen believes that games can be won and lost based on analytics.
“Close games and wins come down to advanced stats,” Collen said. “Some of the analytics we’re looking at come down to last minute possessions.”
Going forward, Collen believes that the use of advanced stats will only continue to grow.
“We can continue to utilize it in new and different ways,” Collen said. “Our players are really buying into what we’re trying to do.
Along with coaches, front office personnel across the league are utilizing advanced analytics when it comes to evaluating their players and team. One executive who has been deeply involved with advanced stats for several years is Greg Bibb, who serves as both team president and CEO for the Dallas Wings.
Before coming to Dallas, Bibb used advanced analytics in his work with the Washington Wizards and Mystics.
“Numbers have always been a big part of my evaluation process,” Bibb told Excelle Sports. “I really began seeing the advancement of analytics during my last year in Washington. Now, the allocation of resources to these advanced analytics is significant. We’re taking a deeper dive on statistics.”
While Bibb seeks to cast a wide net when evaluating advanced stats, individual player efficiency is one that he takes a particularly close look at. But he doesn’t believe someone can just all of a sudden jump into analyzing advanced stats.
“It’s a process,” Bibb said. “You don’t just starting using advanced stats. You have to find the right people to understand these stats and you have to get coaches to use the data provided to us in a useful way.”
Bibb believes the advanced analytics revolution in the WNBA is just beginning to take off.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” Bibb said. “There’s still a tremendous amount of growth to be had.”