In the WNBA's 20th anniversary season, two teams are making history.
Last Tuesday, the Minnesota Lynx became the first WNBA team to start a season 11-0. On Friday, the Los Angeles Sparks matched that feat, only to see the Lynx again move ahead at 12-0 by beating the Seattle Storm on Sunday.
Now something will have to give with the Lynx visiting the Sparks in a showdown matinee Tuesday. Who's had the more impressive undefeated start? And which team has the better chance of extending its streak? Let's take a look at the numbers.
Sparks better on offense, Lynx better on defense
Befitting their domination of the WNBA this year, Los Angeles and Minnesota rank 1-2 in both offensive and defensive rating, the points they score and allow per 100 possessions. (A typical WNBA game has about 80 possessions.)
The Sparks have been better offensively, averaging 108.5 points per 100 possessions, which would surpass Phoenix's 107.0 offensive rating in 2014 for the best in WNBA history. L.A. has done it with hot shooting: The team's 54.5 percent effective field goal percentage (eFG), which counts each 3-pointer as 1.5 field goals to account for their additional value, is on track to beat out the 2010 and 2014 Mercury (52.5 percent) for the best ever.
While Candace Parker has been L.A.'s leading scorer, teammate Nneka Ogwumike has been even more efficient. After setting a WNBA record by making 23 consecutive shots, the Stanford product is shooting better than 70 percent on 2-point attempts, far and away the league's best mark among regular players.
The Lynx's winning formula has been more about stout defense. Though Minnesota ranks No. 2 in offensive rating (106.1), the Lynx are scoring just 6.4 more points per 100 possessions than league average (99.5). At the same time, Minnesota is allowing 10.9 fewer points per 100 possessions than league average on defense, which would be the best relative mark ever. (The 2000 Houston Comets had a defensive rating 9.5 points better than average.)
In past years, the Lynx won more with offense than defense. Their best relative defensive rating under Cheryl Reeve was 3.6 points per 100 possessions better than league average in 2011, when the team won its first of three WNBA championships. But this year Minnesota has been great in all facets of defense. The Lynx rank No. 1 in the league in each of the four factors of defense (shooting defense, as measured by eFG, defensive rebounding, forcing turnovers and preventing free throw attempts).
Picking the better unbeaten
Since we can't separate the Lynx and the Sparks using wins and losses, there's no choice but to turn to advanced metrics. Fortunately, they tend to be better predictors of how teams are going to do in the future anyway.
The first cut is point differential, which does a better job of telling us which teams are truly crushing their competition and which are squeaking by with close wins. In this case, both L.A. (plus-15.5) and Minnesota (plus-13.6) fall into the former category.
No team in WNBA history has finished with such a large margin of victory, and just two (the 1998 Comets at plus-12.6 and the 2000 Comets at plus-12.8) have outscored opponents by double digits on average. So even with expected regression to the mean when they lose a game or two, the Sparks and Lynx have a chance to be historically dominant.
This early in the season, it's also important to account for the schedule both teams have faced. Both the Lynx and Sparks have faced relatively easy slates for a simple reason -- they can't play themselves, and their success has left just three other teams with positive point differentials. Still, L.A.'s opposition has been slightly easier. Adjusting for home-court advantage, I estimate the Sparks' typical opponent at 1.4 points worse than league average, compared to 1.1 for Minnesota.
Applying the same adjustment for all teams yields the following 2016 WNBA power rankings.
Even after accounting for schedule, L.A. looks like the slightly better team so far.
How long might Lynx, Sparks stay unbeaten?
Based on those schedule-adjusted ratings, we can project the likelihood of the Sparks and Lynx continuing their streaks. Naturally, both teams can't stay unbeaten, but if one of them can sweep their pair of matchups this week -- the teams square off again Friday in Minnesota -- there's a good chance of going streaking for a while longer.
First up, let's take a look at L.A.'s schedule:
Because the Sparks are rated as a stronger team, they've got the better chance of sweeping both head-to-head meetings. (They're even favored on the road because home-court advantage has been weak in the WNBA this season; road teams have actually won a higher percentage of games.) After that, L.A.'s schedule is favorable. The Sparks' next six games are all at home, and only one of them (July 3 vs. the Liberty) is against an opponent with a winning record.
Minnesota's schedule also looks favorable after this week.
The Lynx also host the Liberty, and their only road games between here and game 20 are against the struggling Connecticut Sun and San Antonio Stars. Because the defending champs also have the benefit of one extra win in the bag, Minnesota's chances of getting to 20-0 aren't much worse than L.A.'s odds.
The two upcoming games will be fun opportunities to see the Sparks and Lynx face someone competing on a level playing field. And for the first time, they might serve to preview the WNBA Finals. With the league eliminating conferences for playoff seeding, L.A. and Minnesota are on track to claim the top two seeds, which would set them up for a potential Finals matchup and make these two games key to determining home-court advantage. If that series materializes, it looks like a historic clash of titans.