Part III: A data-driven look at “hero ball” and celebrating the WNBA’s style of play.
This is a three-part essay that uses statistics and proprietary data to explore how the NBA and WNBA’s biggest stars align, why (despite their similarities) they’re paid differently, and why their differences in style and strategy is something to celebrate. Ultimately, my hope is that readers will come away with a better understanding of the inequalities and gendered differences that underpin professional basketball.
- Outlier Status: A glance at superstardom.
- Superstar Similarities: Which NBA and WNBA players are (nearly) statistically identical?
- Systemic Biases: Economies of scale, participation gaps, and more red flags as seen through chess, the MLS, and eSports.
Part III (Below):
- Stylistic Disparities: how the WNBA’s strategy is better for fans and a data-driven look at “hero ball.”
- In Conclusion: Thoughts on the latest WNBA collective bargaining agreement, a plea to engage with the sport, and a Kobe quote.
Stylistic Disparities: how the WNBA’s strategy is better for fans and a data-driven look at “hero ball.”
In Part I, we explored NBA and WNBA outliers and how they’re alike using a stat matcher of my own design. In Part II we dove into the gender wage gap through the lens of economics and systemic bias. My aim was to reveal a contrast: despite individual athletes playing basketball in near-identical ways, female players are paid disproportionately.
There’s another layer to this. Notice I said individual athletes. As a team, the WNBA takes a very different approach to the game. As I will argue in Part III, their strategy is one worth celebrating. Rather than push the WNBA to be more like the NBA, we should celebrate their distinctive style of play. Namely because it increases parity.
First, what is “parity?”
In sports, parity is when participating teams have roughly equivalent levels of talent. In such a league, the “best” team is not significantly better than the “worst” team. The opposite condition, which could be considered “disparity” between teams, is a condition where the elite teams are so much more talented that the lesser teams are hopelessly outmatched.
In the last 30 years, 12 out of 30 (
40%) NBA teams haven’t won a championship, while 3 out of 12 (
25%) WNBA teams haven’t won a championship.
Why is there so little parity in the NBA? One Quora user sums it up nicely:
Every decade is essentially dominated by a couple of players in terms of championships. In the 2010s — every Finals has featured either Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Steph Curry. LeBron alone has been in 8 straight finals. In the 2000s, every Finals featured either Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal. In the 1990s, Michael Jordan won 6 championships, with Hakeem Olajuwon winning 2 in between the Chicago Bulls three-peats.
In short, high parity makes for a more exciting game, assuming you’re rooting for a team. If Lebron James is on my team’s roster, I feel good about my team’s chances this year. But for non-Laker fans, keep dreaming.
While there are some players in the WNBA that dominate like Lebron and Steph, the spread of championship teams is much larger than in the NBA. Is there a statistical basis for this? As I’ll explain, the playing style of the WNBA — one of equity and distribution — is better for fans. Without an M.J. or a Shaq, and with even distribution of the ball, fans of (almost) every WNBA team feel as though their team has a chance.
Differences in style of play, as seen through data.
Let’s start with PPG, or points per game. The average NBA player scores 11.7 PPG; the average WNBA hits around 10.3 PPG. Not too different.
Plotting the distribution tells a different story. The median PPG for both leagues is about the same (~10.32). In other words, the player at the very middle of both packs scores about 10 points per game. The average WNBA player, which takes into account outliers that score significantly more or less than the pack, is about the same (10.3 PPG). In the NBA, however, the average is about a point and a half higher.
That may sound nominal, but the difference becomes more apparent in the graphic below. Note that the WNBA features one central peak around 11 PPG, where about a third of players sit. The NBA has one peak just below that marker (8 PPG) and a plateau way up in the 24–25 PPG range indicating that there are more NBA outliers on each end of the PPG spectrum than in the WNBA.
In brief, there exists in the WNBA a greater distribution of who scores points. More players are hovering around the average, which suggests the ball is touched by more players.
Let’s take a broader look at every stat. Below you’ll see how many players fall above the average for each statistical category.
If an arrow faces right, the WNBA has more players above the league average in that category, which indicates more players touch the ball and fewer outliers. Take the very first arrow: as noted above,
12% more WNBA players fall above the points per game average (
52% of all players) than the NBA (
This is further supported by looking at USG%, or the percentage of team plays that utilize a specific player while they were on the floor. The higher this number, the more that individual touches the ball on offense. Taking a look at the top 15 players in terms of USG%, the first WNBA player you encounter comes at 14th with Arike Ogunbowale. This suggests that there aren’t WNBA teams that adopt an offensive scheme around a James Harden or Joel Embiid type of player; it’s more about finding the open teammate.
A different way of looking at a different approach.
This begs the question — should the WNBA focus more on its superstars and reorient their strategies to favor a Harden/Curry/Lebron-style of play? Should they shift their strategy toward one that reflects what the NBA does — create unequal distribution, thus padding the stats of a smaller sample of players?
Or should we focus less on making the WNBA like the NBA? I believe the NBA — who owns the WNBA — should pay more attention to the growing interest in the sport, and the thing that makes it great: their unique approach to the game.
Don’t get me wrong. The NBA is incredible. Watching highlights is a pasttime. I’m a Wizards fan, and there’s almost nothing better to me than seeing Bradley Beal drop 25 points in a half. I’m not trying to say they’re the same sport, or that one is inherently better than the other, I’m saying they are fundamentally different approaches to the same sport with inherently different qualities.
Our metrics for what constitutes good entertainment — dunks, 50-point performances, “hero ball” — have been crafted over time by mostly male fans, coaches, commentators and players. It’s incredible to watch, but we should try changing our perspective. Perhaps there are alternative ways to watch and appreciate the game. It’s cool to be nerdy now. Cigarettes used to be good for you. No one knew or appreciated Samuel L. Jackson until he performed in Pulp Fiction at the ripe age of 46. Perspectives change.
In my opinion, we should be celebrating and advertising the WNBA’s style of basketball. While they win as a collective, the NBA feels like a cast of supporting characters and a couple heroic protagonists. The Storm play like the Avengers. The Lakers play like two Batmans and a dozen Alfreds.
In Conclusion: Thoughts on the latest WNBA collective bargaining agreement, a plea to engage with the sport, and a Kobe quote.
There are signs of improvement, but massive disparities persist.
As of January 2020, the WNBA is making some very significant changes. Most notably, the average compensation nearly doubled. This from a statement made by the WNBA:
Foremost among the deal terms is a 53 percent increase in total cash compensation, consisting of base salary, additional performance bonuses, prize pools for newly created in-season competitions, and league and team marketing deals. Under the new CBA, the league’s top players will be able to earn cash compensation in excess of $500,000, representing a more than tripling of the maximum compensation under the prior deal. …and for the first time in WNBA history, the average cash compensation for players will exceed six figures, averaging nearly $130,000, resulting in an increase for all players from rookies to veterans.
The latest WNBA collective bargaining agreement also states that the league said it would share revenue with the players on a 50–50 basis once it hit targets for broadcasting, licensing and sponsorships. Unfortunately, the league did not disclose what those targets were.
This new CBA will be in place through 2027. While this shows a dramatic improvement, and it does lock players into these figures for years to come; there are still considerable disparities compared to male leagues beyond the NBA.
If you found this essay interesting, don’t just share it. Engage with the sport.
Ultimately, the growth of any sport comes down to viewership and interest. And while there is disproportionate growth between female and male leagues, and there are numerous systemic factors at play, popularity is growing. Agreements are being made. Things are trending upward.
As for you, add that team to your ESPN notification list. Buy the merch. Mark your calendars for the end of May when the season starts. Check out the master spreadsheet, find your favorite NBA player, find their stat match equivalent, and learn about her. Hell, ask me to find your favorite player’s stat match comparator for you. It’d be an honor.
I’m not suggesting you do this as a form of activism or to virtue signal (I understand that might seem hypocritical considering what you just read, but stay with me); do it to expose yourself to the game. Notice the nuances in style. See the differences. It’s like watching your favorite game in a parallel universe.
In a New York Times opinion piece titled, “Why the W.N.B.A. Loved Kobe Bryant,” the author highlights something he once said:
“There’s no better way to learn than to watch the pros do it,” Kobe said after he took his daughter’s club basketball team to watch the Los Angeles Sparks play the Las Vegas Aces in May. “The W.N.B.A. is a beautiful game to watch.”
The WNBA is a beautiful game to watch. You should try it out. Because there’s more at stake here than entertainment.
This essay would not be possible without the generous and fearless feedback provided by:
- Emily Linton — Brilliant educator and editor; my sister who I admire entirely too much; it’s eclectic, not electric, stupid… also, it’s latter, not ladder, stupid.
- Edward Linton — Ophthalmologist; math/science/data generalist; best brother in law ever; future owner and proprietor of big marge’s party barge.
- Eliot Goldfarb — Chicago Bulls analyst; self-diagnosed sports addict; best friend since day one; put a towel down, will ya?
- Scott Donaldson — Founder of Open Set; digital wizard and mentor; aka Scottly!
- Colin Kelly — Director at Bully Pulpit; dynamite friend; I’ll hang up and listen.
- Max Hedgepeth — marketing at Capital One; a friendship forged at a terrible conference; flossy Wiz floors seats only.
- Maggie Gaudaen & Zach Goodwin — dear friends; creative mentors; DC-based CDs at January Third; creators of the brand pizza.