What is the WNBA GM Survey good for?
It's all happening: WNBA teams have to cut down their rosters today to be ready for opening day, and the regular season starts tomorrow, but without a doubt the most important thing that happened today was the release of the 2021 WNBA GM Survey.
Since 2003 the league has polled its general managers (or whoever they ask to complete this task on their behalf) on a substantial set of questions ranging from who will win the Finals to who the toughest player in the WNBA is. Some of the questions have changed over the years, though a decent core of them have been asked every year. The one blip came last year, when there wasn't a WNBA GM Survey released, likely due to the nature of how the season came together in Bradenton and the health and accommodation concerns that rightfully took priority.
While I have explored the past GM surveys before, I wanted to pull them together in a more structured way and take an updated look at the league's history of GM surveys.
Open WNBA GM Survey data
As always, first priority is assembling the data in an organized and publicly accessible way. I'm proud to announce the addition of a full repository of GM survey data at Across the Timeline, available today, which you can explore in a variety of ways:
View full surveys
You can view any year's full GM survey by selecting the year from the drop-down. For instance, here's the 2003 WNBA GM Survey, and here's the 2017 WNBA GM Survey. From there, you can play around with the VIEW drop-down to find a view in to the data that works best for you:
- Expanded Table: Show the results from 1st (received most GM votes) to last horizontally, such that the response(s) that received the most votes are always in the left-most response column
- Condensed Table: Show the results stacked vertically per question in a manner that may work for smaller displays
- Bar Charts: Display the responses to each question as a mini bar chart, to give an easy relative comparison for each response
View one question over time
If you're viewing any year's survey, you can click/tap on any question to pull up a table of responses to that same question over the years, or you can change the FILTER to Question and manually select a specific question in the drop-down box. For example, here are all the GMs' responses to who they think will win the Finals, and here are their responses for most athletic player.
All the same view options (expanded table, condensed table, and bar charts) are available for the single question view as well.
Before I go any further, I must say: this data isn't perfect. You may notice a gap or two where a particular question is without an answer for a year, and beyond times where the GM survey changed, there was a survey or two that was published with the same question duplicated but the responses differing between them. I chose to just omit the question from the Across the Timeline data for any such year rather than attempting to discern which was the correct set of responses.
Additionally, there are a decent number of questions where the percentages associated with the responses don't add up. Or, rather, they add up to unexpected totals, sometimes over 100% and sometimes far less than 100%. At times there are questions written in a way where you can tell multiple responses were encouraged (like "Which other Eastern Conference teams will make the playoffs?", and other times it seems as if at least one voter abstained or the numbers were just transcribed incorrectly, leading to odd totals. Unless it was very clear the typo in the percentage, I copied over the values as they were published.
With 17 years of surveys corresponding to seasons that have completed, we can take a look back at some interesting aspects of the WNBA GM Surveys over the years.
Are they good predictors?
The top response (or one of the top responses, when tied) predicted the WNBA champion 3 times in 17 years (about 18% of surveys). In 2015, two-thirds of GMs correctly picked the Minnesota Lynx, and in 2017 about 42% picked the Lynx. In 2006, there was no real top response, but the Detroit Shock were tied for the highest percentage of responses (18.2%).
Seven times (2003-2005, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2018) the eventual champion went without even a single vote in the GM Survey, and three of those seven are the first three times the Seattle Storm won it all. It's not that no one ever picks the Storm; they were selected by a majority of GMs in 2011 and got at least a couple votes in each of 2005, 2006, and 2008. The Shock were similarly overlooked, as they went voteless in 2003 and 2008, and even when they were at the "top" in 2006, they were tied with four other teams.
2021 GM Survey prediction: Las Vegas Aces
The 2019 GM Survey (2019) correctly predicted the MVP, with Elena Delle Donne getting 41.7% of the vote. The only other time the top response went on to be MVP was Candace Parker in 2013 (41.7%).
You might be better off looking for who the GMs aren't expecting; in five GM surveys the regular season MVP received no votes as the predicted MVP: 2003 (Lauren Jackson), 2005 (Sheryl Swoopes), 2008 (Candace Parker), 2016 (Nneka Ogwumike), and 2017 (Sylvia Fowles).
2021 GM Survey prediction: Breanna Stewart
Okay, here's your moment to shine, GM Survey. Ten times (out of 16 available) a player who was a top response as a Rookie of the Year prediction went on to win Rookie of the Year. 2003, 2005, 2013, 2014, 2017, and 2019 were misses. Temeka Johnson (2005), Allisha Gray (2017), and Napheesa Collier (2019) received no votes.
Of course, there seems to be a decent strategy here: 11 times since 2003 the No. 1 draft pick has gone on to win Rookie of the Year, and every time the GM Survey was right, it was because they voted for the No. 1 pick.
2021 GM Survey prediction: Aari McDonald
The GM Survey has never asked voters to predict who will win Coach of the Year, but it has frequently asked who the best overall coach is. At least from this data, the trend is that the coach perceived to be the best going in to the season does not go on to win Coach of the Year. Mike Thibault in 2008 and Cheryl Reeve in 2016 (tied with Sandy Brondello in the GM Survey) are the only two coaches to be the top response for best overall coach in the GM Survey and win Coach of the Year.
The prevalence of GMs who are also head coaches calls in to question the objectivity of the question, but it's interesting to note which head coaches have been top responses the most:
- Cheryl Reeve (5)
- Mike Thibault (5)
- Anne Donovan (3)
I won't try to quantify how well GMs have identified the "best" future head coaches from WNBA players, but several players came up as responses to this question many times and have since gone on to be prominent coaches at multiple levels:
- Dawn Staley: Well, perhaps this was an easy vote, since Dawn was already a college head coach at Temple when the GM survey began, but either way the GMs were right! She received the most votes in this category each year from 2003 to 2006 (when she retired from the WNBA), and she has held up her end of the deal by winning a national championship at South Carolina and being chosen as head coach for Team USA.
- Kara Lawson: Kara was among the top vote-getters six times and received some votes five other times. The Boston Celtics certainly agreed with the assessment, she has been a key coach for USA's 3x3 team, and we'll see if she can continue her success now that she is taking over at Duke.
- Lindsay Whalen: It's popular for point guards to receive votes here, and Whalen is among them. In five surveys she received votes in this category, leading the way with 50% of the votes in her final season before leaving to coach at her alma mater (Minnesota).
- Others: Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Katie Smith, Vickie Johnson, Crystal Robinson, Teresa Edwards, Jennifer Gillom, and Tully Bevilaqua all received votes in this category while playing, and all have spent time as assistant and/or head coaches in the WNBA.
Sue Bird topped the list again this year (83.3%), but that's nothing new. She has received votes in this category 15 times, and she has been a top vote-getter nine times.
What are they good for?
Well, a few things, I'd say.
Besides the major categories I already talked about, you can get a sense for the type of player/coach someone was (or at least how GMs saw them) by exploring these surveys. For example:
- Lin Dunn, defensive mastermind: "Which head coach has the best defensive schemes?" was asked five times, with Lin Dunn leading four times (2010-2013) and Brian Agler leading in 2014 (Lin Dunn was just behind with a third of the votes).
- Offensive toolsets: The GMs were asked what they thought was the most effective individual offensive move (and/or who had said move) many times, and Seimone Augustus and Cappie Pondexter dominated with their crossovers and scoring moves, and in 2017 several GMs picked out different parts of Tina Charles' offensive game.
- Speedsters: The answers to "Which player is fastest with the ball?" might give you insight in to players both historically and more recently who combined speed and ball-handling at an elite level: Shannon Johnson and Deanna Nolan for a stretch of years and Danielle Robinson in the mid-2010s.
Fun and weirdness
And those are two of my favorite things! For example:
- Complete agreement: Only twice has a question had just one response from every respondent: in 2005 Lisa Leslie was unanimously the best center, and in 2009, everybody thought the Atlanta Dream were going to be the most improved team.
- Huh?: Maybe the results were mistyped, but in 2012 Becky Hammon received a vote as "best passing post player."
- Sounds poetic: In 2007, one response for the most effective individual offensive move was "Sheryl Swoopes' slash to the hoop," and you have to agree that phrase just sounds cool.
Ultimately, that's what matters here, right? In any year show a group of WNBA fans any answer to any question and you will find some people who disagree and want to talk about it. Some people will want to analyze what the answers mean about how league GMs view a particular player or team -- or are their answers all strategic maneuvering!?
And, ultimately, because of WNBA GM Surveys, I got to talk about them here.
P.S. This should be a fireable offense:
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