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Will the Olympic Women's Basketball Team Suffer for Replacing Candace Parker?

By David Berri on August 05, 2016 in

Athletics

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The Ladies LeagueThe U.S. Men's Olympic basketball committee had a difficult time constructing a team in 2016.  A collection of NBA stars – including LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul -- all decided to not spend part of their summer in Rio.  As a result, only two players – Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant – are returning from the 2012 team that won the gold medal in London.

Such was not the story for the U.S. Women's team. Of the 25 finalists competing for the 12 player roster in January, 10 were veterans of the 2012 gold medal winning team.  If all ten returned, the women's team would only have two new faces. 

Unfortunately there were three new faces that would seem hard to leave off the 2016 roster: Elena Delle Donne, Britney Griner, and Breanna Stewart.   This trio includes the 2015 WNBA MVP (Delle Donne), a first-team All WNBA player in 2013-14 (Griner), and a player who led the University of Connecticut to four consecutive NCAA titles (Stewart).  The value of these players, though, goes beyond awards and titles.  

As noted at The Ladies League, player's contribution to wins in basketball can be measured.  And when we look at the contribution of each of these players – as reported at theladiesleague.org -- we see why it was so hard for the committee to keep these three new faces off the 2016 roster.  In 2015, Delle Donne produced 8.3 wins for the Chicago Sky, a mark that lead the WNBA.  Brittney Griner – who at 6ft. 8in in height is literally the biggest star in the WNBA -- missed ten games last year.  But per 40 minutes her production of wins ranked 4th in the WNBA in 2015, and was nearly three times higher than an average WNBA player.  Breanna Stewart produced 12.2 wins for the University of Connecticut last year, a mark that not only led the NCAA champs but every other player in Division I women's basketball.  And although the committee could not know this last spring, Stewart ranks second in the WNBA in the production of wins in 2016.

Given these three players, at least one veteran from the 2012 team couldn't be included.  Although the number of roster slots makes this obvious, the final choice was not.  Clearly this was going to be a difficult choice.  However, many were surprised that when the final roster was named in April, Candace Parker was the veteran player the committee omitted. 

Parker is a two-time WNBA MVP.  She did miss the first half of the 2015 WNBA season.  But when she finally joined the Los Angeles Sparks she was amazing. When the season ended, Parker led all WNBA players by producing 0.429 wins per 40 minutes.  An average player will produce 0.100 wins per 40 minutes. So Parker was more than four times better than an average WNBA player.   This production was reflected in the Sparks record.  Without Parker the Sparks were 3-14.   With her, though, they went 11-6 and -- despite being the worst WNBA team after 17 games -- made the playoffs.

SUU Women's Basketball TeamCarol Callen – the national team director – issued this statement when it was announced Parker would not be part of the 2016 Olympic team.

“We don’t get into specifics speaking about each player publicly. Needless to say there are a lot of deliberations. We have a committee for a reason. … What it does speak to is that we have incredible depth on this team. … We’re looking at depth and talent at each position, and there are just a lot of numbers games that are played at that three-four position that is the strength of our team. We appreciate Candace. It’s not an easy call to make.”

As Callen notes, part of the reason Parker is not going to Rio is that the Olympic team already had a number of players who played Parker's position.  Parker is 6ft. 4in. tall and generally plays in the frontcourt.  The aforementioned newcomers are all at least this tall and can also play in the frontcourt.  So it made sense that the Olympic committee would remove a 2012 frontcourt veteran.

Of course, should Parker have been the choice?  One could certainly argue that the committee could have left off Sylvia Fowles, Tina Charles, or Tamika Catchings.  At least, Parker was more productive than all three last year. 

In the end, though, it probably doesn't make much difference.  Unlike the NBA players in the Olympics (who did not win a gold medal in 2004) WNBA players have never failed to deliver a gold medal for the United States.  It also hasn't been close.  The average margin of victory in Olympic games for Team USA since 2000 (the first year with WNBA players) has been 29.4 points. 

In addition, this year's team -- even without Parker -- may be the best team ever.   The following table reports how productive each player was – per 40 minutes played – in the WNBA in 2015..  Again, an average player posts a mark of 0.100.

Player

WNBA Team  2015

Wins Produced per 40 minutes

Elena Delle Donne

Chicago Sky

0.322

Breanna Stewart*

Seattle Storm

0.272

Brittney Griner

Phoenix Mercury

0.271

Diana Taurasi*

Phoenix Mercury

0.255

Tamika Catchings

Indiana Fever

0.233

Maya Moore

Minnesota Lynx

0.192

Sylvia Fowles

Minnesota Lynx

0.188

Lindsay Whalen

Minnesota Lynx

0.140

Tina Charles

New York Liberty

0.102

Angel McCoughtry

Atlanta Dream

0.090

Sue Bird

Seattle Storm

0.078

Seimone Augustus

Minnesota Lynx

0.030

 

AVERAGE

0.181

* - Stewart is a 2016 rookie, so this is what she has done this year.  Taurasi did not play in 2015, so this is what she did in 2014.

A few of these players were below average last year.  However, per 40 minutes the average player named to the 2016 team produced 0.181 wins.  And this is the best mark in Team USA history.  The prior best mark was in 2012, where the average production of wins per 40 minutes in the WNBA was 0.176.

So yes, not having Parker on this team is probably a mistake.  Parker is clearly one of the 12 best players in the WNBA and she deserves a chance to win another gold medal.   But it is certain that will not happen in 2016.  It is also almost certain -- despite Parkers absence -- that her teammates will take home another gold medal in 2016.