Who's best in the WNBA: It's tough to argue with this surprising statistic

September 20, 2012 - 12:40pm
Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx has the best plus/minus rating in the WNBA (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE)

Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx has the best plus/minus rating in the WNBA (Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE)

With the last days of the 2012 WNBA season as fascinating as sorting laundry, it’s a good time to take a look at one of the more interesting modern statistics: plus/minus.

The concept is simple. When a player is on the floor, how many points does her team score and give up, and when she’s off the floor, how many points does her team score and give up. That generates a net plus/minus, telling coaches and dedicated statheads who’s really helping her team win.

It’s not a perfect stat, of course, as sometimes benchwarmers can do very well because they don’t get matched up against stars in garbage time, but over the course of a season – and a career – net plus/minus can be very revealing.

So let’s take a team-by-team tour -- and be prepared for some surprises.

Atlanta: It’s not a surprise that Angel McCoughtry tops this team at +9.3 (Maya Moore leads the league at 17.2), but who would have thought Cathrine Kraayeveld would be fourth? Her +4.9 is considerably better than Aneika Henry’s -3.1 and much, much better than Ketia Swanier’s -8.3.

Chicago: Epiphanny Prince is +14.4 and that number shows just how important the former Rutgers’ star is to the Sky. Sylvia Fowles? A pedestrian +1.6, trailing Carolyn Swords at +2.4. Then again, Fowles has been battling injuries, and it has clearly hurt her effectiveness. But the real villain for Chicago is Tamera Young, at -11.9, the worst number for anyone who’s played more than 240 minutes.

Connecticut: There’s no way I thought Allison Hightower would top the Sun chart, but she checks in slightly ahead of Kara Lawson (+11.4 to +10.9). And does Connecticut miss Asjha Jones? Clearly yes, since when she’s on the floor the Sun plays better than even when Tina Charles is on the court (+8.0 to +6.0). Renee Montgomery, at -9.6 for a winning team, certainly counts as a disappointment.

Indiana: Just very consistent, top to bottom, but those who think Katie Douglas can still (or ever did) defend, cannot be pleased with her performance. When she’s on the bench, the Fever are eight points better per 40 minutes defensively, and only .6 points better offensively. Erin Phillips, on the other hand, brings it defensively, as Indiana gives up 69.0 points per 40 when she’s playing and 74.7 when she’s not.

Los Angeles: Far and away the best Sparks’ player by plus/minus is Nneka Ogwumike at +14.1, nearly 10 points better than second-place Alana Beard. Candace Parker? Minus 7.1, thanks in great part to a questionable contribution on defense, and though Kristi Toliver is no great shakes at the defensive end, the offense is much more effective when she’s in the game.

Minnesota: Young Maya Moore (+17.2), as mentioned, leads the way, but those who feel age is just a number can point to Taj McWilliams-Franklin who's +16.9 is second best in the league. Lindsay Whalen checks in at -2.2, which is not what most expect, but Amber Harris, though, is exceptionally bad at -16.4, the worst number for anyone who’s played more than 42 minutes.

New York: A very balanced team, with the best (Essence Carson) at +6.7 and the worst with more than 83 minutes at Kia Vaughn (-9.7). Cappie Pondexter is just about even at +0.1, with all the issues on defense. When she’s on the floor, the Liberty give up 12 more points per 40 minutes than when she’s watching from the bench.

Phoenix: When Alexis Hornbuckle is sitting down, the Mercury give up an amazing 89.9 points for every 40 minutes, and Nakia Sanford is just as valuable defensively. Diana Taurasi is the best player, “bad hip” and all, at +6.1, with Dymond Simon (-13.2) and Lynetta Kizer (-14.3) at the bottom.

San Antonio: So no one ever accused Becky Hammon of being a great defender, and the Silver Stars are 3.2 points better per 40 minutes when she’s not playing – but who would have thought they’d be 6.2 points worse defensively when Danielle Robinson’s on the floor?  On the flip side, San Antonio is +7.2 defensively with Jayne Appel out there, though the offense drops off by 3.2.

Tulsa: Many wonder why Amber Holt starts for the Shock, but her plus/minus is 4.9 as she’s a positive on both ends of the floor. Glory Johnson leads the way at +9.0, and despite her counting stats, Temeka Johnson is the least effective starter at -3.9.

Washington: Even the empty seats counted as fans know Crystal Langhorne is the best Mystic (+8.7) but who would have expected Natalie Novosel to be +2.0, and that her biggest contribution would be defensively? Noelle Quinn is at the bottom at -4.8, a full point worse than starting point guard Jasmine Thomas.

So even though there are some odd results on the plus-minus list, it still wouldn’t be wise to dismiss it completely. After all, the object of the game is to score more points than the other team, and any player who, by whatever means, gives her team a better chance to do that should be given some respect.

So here’s to Kara Braxton (+6.6), Lindsey Harding (+6.6) and Sancho Lyttle (+6.2), three more players not mentioned above who have played more than 165 minutes and clearly improved their teams. At the other end? Ruth Riley (-9.5), Mistie Mims (-9.0), Katie Smith (-8.4) and Kelsey Griffin (-8.4). 

Sure, it's easy to disagree, but there's nothing subjective about plus/minus. It just tells it like it is.