Will the Sparks be better without Liz Cambage?

With Liz Cambage’s sudden departure from the Los Angeles Sparks comes an examination of her play versus what Chiney Ogwumike brings to the court.

Welcome back to Above The Break, FanSided’s weekly look around the WNBA.

Usually, this column highlights three things happening in the W, but this was a weird
week. We had the Commissioner’s Cup on Tuesday, which was preceded and
followed by game-less days, so we just haven’t had a ton of basketball to watch yet.

So, quick shoutout to the Aces for winning the Cup and for A’ja Wilson for putting
up a 17/17 game, which somehow wasn’t good enough for the MVP award, which
went to Chelsea Gray. But oh well…A’ja will just go out there and win the real MVP
award, right?

Anyway, this week we’re going deep on a single topic: Liz Cambage’s exit from the
Sparks. But not on the exit itself, which Chris Haynes detailed pretty well over at
Yahoo! Instead, I want to turn to the basketball ramifications of the move. With Cambage gone, the Sparks will rely on Chiney Ogwumike more. And that might be a good thing.

The eye test suggests that Chiney works better with this team than Cambage does. So, in this week’s column, I’m going to be diving into the numbers to see if my eyes are telling me the right thing or not.

So, join me on this journey as we attempt to discover what the Cambage-less Sparks will look like and if the team might possibly be better now.

What Cambage brought to the Sparks?

Let’s start by looking back at what Cambage provided to LA: size.

The 6’9″ Cambage can be an imposing figure on the interior:

Defensively, her size offers a huge deterrent at the rim. Want to drive inside against the Sparks with Cambage on the floor? Well, you’re taking a risk. Cambage averaged 1.6 blocks per game this season, the third-best mark in the WNBA.

And on offense, she’s tough to defend when she gets the ball inside. Per Synergy, 39.6 percent of Cambage’s possessions this year were tagged as post ups, with those possessions generating 1.053 points per possession, which ranks in the 69th percentile. Efficiency tends to suffer a little when volume goes up, so it stands to reason that Cambage might have a little higher PPP on those attempts if she was diversifying her game more. Still, “throw the ball into Liz and see what she can do” is a viable offensive strategy.

But then there are the things that limit Cambage. Her transition possessions generated just 0.967 PPP, which is in the 38th percentile. Defensively, she offers you something really nice in the paint, but she also limits some of the other things you can do with your defense. Cambage is an old-school big. If the other team can get her in space, good things can happen.

Synergy’s defensive numbers are always a little iffy, but in the 116 possessions that it
has Cambage logged as the primary defender, the other team has scored 0.897 PPP,
which ranks in the 51st percentile. Not bad. Not great. But it does show that Cambage isn’t some unstoppable force defensively. You can score when she defends you. You just have to not get blocked.

Chiney vs. Cambage

On/off court numbers can be fluky. But the Sparks net rating is 11.4 points better
with Chiney Ogwumike on the floor vs. off the floor. The Sparks have a positive net
rating when Chiney is on the floor; she’s the only Los Angeles player whose on-court
minutes have produced a positive net rating.

The Sparks outscore opponents by 0.9 points per 100 possession with Chiney on the floor. They get outscored by 3.7 points per 100 possessions with Cambage on the floor.

Now, that alone isn’t enough for us to say, “well, Chiney’s better,” but it is a nice first step.

The Sparks are 2-3 when Chiney starts and 10-14 when Cambage starts. Not a ringing endorsement for Chiney, but it’s also a smaller sample size.

In terms of playing style, what Chiney brings is pretty simple: versatility, which makes a front court of her and sister Nneka Ogwumike look a lot more fluid than the Nneka/Cambage front court.

There were a lot of questions before the season about how Nneka and Liz would work together. Because Cambage is fairly paint-bound on both ends, there were concerns that playing her with Nneka, who should ideally be at the five, wouldn’t work.

And those concerns came from a valid place, because we went through this in Vegas.

Per Positive Residual, the first year of the Aces pairing Cambage with A’ja Wilson
produced a team that had a net rating of 2.8 when the duo played together, vs 7.1 with only Wilson on the floor and 8.2 with only Cambage on the floor. Fitting together two players who are best in the paint just didn’t work as well as you would have liked, at least initially. (The numbers got better last year.)

Nneka shoots a little more, so the spacing with her and Cambage should theoretically have been better than the pairing with Wilson. But, well…ehh.

The Sparks have a -1.0 net rating when the two share the floor. That is better than the -7.9 net rating when Nneka plays without Liz, and of the also -7.9 net rating when Liz plays without Nneka.

So, the pairing worked better than expected. And in a vacuum, the team was better when the two played together than when they didn’t play together.

And the two played together better than when Nneka and Chiney have shared the floor so far, with a -10.6 net rating in those minutes.

So…actually, the numbers suggest the opposite of what I was expecting them to
suggest. I really thought we’d see that Nneka/Liz lineup struggling, but it was actually a good bit bigger than other frontcourt combinations. Chiney might be the only Sparks player with a positive net rating, but when she’s shared the floor with her sister, things have gone notably worse than when Nneka shared the floor with Cambage.

So…maybe the Sparks won’t be better without Cambage?

I went into this article expecting to find some kind of addition by subtraction thing. We can see the issues with Liz Cambage. In theory, she bogs down the paint. She hurts the spacing.

But in practice, her gravity has mattered. Lineups with her and Nneka have struggled just as much defensively as you might expect since Cambage’s presence makes it tough to switch, but the offense had a 106.3 offensive rating in those minutes.

(Note: these numbers all come from Positive Residual, who has a great on/off tool, but whose numbers do slightly differ from the WNBA’s official numbers.)

Chiney and Nneka can both shoot, which opens up the floor. But the WNBA is still a big-driven league, and losing Cambage’s imposing presence in the paint is tough.

There is a bright side, though. In July, with Chiney playing noticeably better per my eyes, the Nneka/Chiney pairing does have a positive net rating. The lineup has gotten better on the defensive end since then, and in the 115 minutes they’ve played together in July, the team has a 100.9 offensive rating.

So, to answer our initial question: are the Sparks better without Liz?

No. Not really. They can be just as good, but Cambage wasn’t killing this team as much as people tend to think she was. The ceiling of the Nneka/Chiney front court feels higher because it’s a more modern approach to lineup building, but you also lose the ability to generate easy points off of Cambage post ups.

(And while I ran out of time to touch on it, there’s also this important fact: Chiney replaces Cambage in the starting five, so who replaces Chiney off the bench? Looks like the answer is Olivia Nelson-Ododa, which could be fine. We probably need a larger sample size to really make many statements about ONO though, as she’s only averaged 11.1 minutes per game. We’ll also see Jasmine Walker at the four more to try to stretch things out, but we also don’t have a huge sample size with her. I think we can say that as of now, there are concerns about the minutes with Chiney off the floor, whereas before, there was less concern about the minutes with Cambage off the floor.)

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