As the WNBA playoffs head into the best-of-five semifinals starting Sunday, we know we'll have two new finalists no matter what transpires. Two days after knocking defending champion Minnesota out of the playoffs in the opening round, Los Angeles -- which faced the Lynx in each of the last two WNBA Finals, winning in 2016 -- found itself on the wrong end of a blowout loss to Washington.
With the championship experience of the Lynx and Sparks out of the picture, just one (Phoenix) of the four teams that reached the semifinals has won a championship in the last eight years. By contrast to the Lynx, whose roster had combined for nearly 12,000 career playoff minutes entering this season -- the most in WNBA history -- this year's other three semifinalists besides the Mercury have less than 8,000 career playoff minutes between them.
The contrast raises the question: Just how important is playoff experience in the WNBA?
At the start of the postseason, there was a wide gap between the playoff experience of the Lynx, Mercury and Sparks -- who have combined to win the last five WNBA championships, three of them by Minnesota -- and everybody else in the WNBA. Now Phoenix is the last experienced team standing among a group of younger aspirants to the throne.
If either Atlanta or Washington wins the championship, they'll be the least experienced team to do so in terms of playoff experience since the 2009 Mercury (2,564 minutes). And the Storm would be the least experienced champ since the 2007 Mercury (1,332 minutes). Is that reason to think Phoenix can keep pulling off upsets like the team's 96-86 win Thursday in Connecticut?
Value of playoff experience
To some extent, it's success that's leading to experience rather than the other way around. Teams with championship aspirations are also more likely to load up on veterans, like the Lynx trading young post Natasha Howard (222 playoff minutes) to the Storm last offseason and signing Erlana Larkins (1,056 playoff minutes) as a replacement. So to really understand the value of playoff experience, we need to see whether veteran teams do better than expected in the postseason.
When we compare how teams play in the playoffs after adjusting for the quality of the opponents they face to their performance during the regular season, there is some indication experienced teams overachieve in the postseason.
Because playoff experience was more limited in the WNBA's early days, I focused in on the last decade. Over that span, teams with more experience have tended to overachieve in the playoffs, while inexperienced teams tend to play worse:
Another way to consider the value of experience is to look at the outcome of series. Over the past decade, when the team with home-court advantage has also been more experienced, they've won the matchup 72 percent of the time. When the higher seed has less experience, their winning percentage drops to 63 percent, meaning inexperienced teams with home-court advantage are more vulnerable to upsets like the Sun suffered.
How experience plays out on -- and off -- the court
When it comes to regular-season experience, nobody has more than Storm guard Sue Bird, who became the WNBA's all-time leader in both games and minutes played this season. Over the course of her standout career, Bird has seen both sides of the equation. In 2004, a young Storm team led by a pair of 23-year-olds (Bird and eventual three-time MVP Lauren Jackson) went from getting the first playoff win in franchise history to celebrating a championship in the same postseason.
Six years later, a Storm team hardened by five consecutive losses in the first round of the playoffs -- and strengthened in terms of experience with the addition of 2003 champion Swin Cash -- swept its way to a second title as a veteran squad. Bird sees a potential positive to being inexperienced.
"I think there are times where too much experience can be detrimental because you overthink things and you worry about the worst because you've maybe seen it or experienced it," she said. "When you don't know, you're allowed to live in this blissful place, and that's why they say ignorance is bliss. That's how I'd describe 2004.
"Then, after experiencing all the playoff losses from that point to 2010, what you then found was a team that had tasted the playoffs, had been in some big games, had won some big games and lost some big games ... we'd kind of experienced it all. So for us, that experience was just enough to have us be extremely focused. We didn't lose in the playoffs, so I think that was an example of where experience helps because we had just the right amount of people who had won, people who were still hungry (Tanisha Wright and Camille Little), and across the board we had tons of experience. It was a good mix."
So where does this year's team fall?
"This is probably closer to 2004," Bird continued. "Hopefully we fall under that ignorance is bliss category and we're just able to play our game and not let the highs and the lows get to us. Because come playoff time, when you have series, there's a lot of highs and lows and you really can't get on that roller coaster."
Storm coach Dan Hughes believes the most important thing is the experience of a team's leaders. In Seattle, that's Bird. When Hughes was in San Antonio, it was future NBA assistant coach Becky Hammon who brought that understanding from making deep playoff runs while with the New York Liberty.
"The fact that she was like who she was," said Hughes, "and the fact that she had experience -- because we (as coaches) were new to that experience too at that point -- having her as a leader, that's what kind of drives my thought that if your leader has that experience, there's a transfer within the team that's pretty powerful."
That leadership element will be particularly interesting for the Dream. Like Seattle, Atlanta has most of its limited playoff experience concentrated in a single veteran star. Unlike Bird, the Dream's Angel McCoughtry will only be able to watch and lead from the sidelines after suffering a knee injury. Take her 33 playoff games and 1,029 minutes out of the equation and Atlanta looks nearly as inexperienced heading into the semifinals as Connecticut was.
Ultimately, playoff experience hasn't proven quite as important as team quality and home-court advantage. After all, the inexperienced teams with home court still have won better than 60 percent of the time over the last decade, including both times a recent champion was knocked out this year (L.A. over Minnesota, then Washington over L.A.). That noted, their long playoff track record could help the Mercury even things up against a Storm team that won six more games during the regular season.