On NBA Sidelines, We See the WNBA’s True Value

As a business entity, the WNBA is just about a complete non-factor, a small blip on the NBA’s balance sheet, a league that makes barely more money in a year than one NBA player on a four-year supermax will in Year 4 of that contract.

But in terms of its contributions not just to women’s sports but to sports irrespective of gender, the WNBA punches far above its weight—like on a Little Mac in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out level of punching above its weight.

Kara Lawson, WNBA and Olympic champion and Washington Wizards broadcaster, was hired by the Boston Celtics to join Brad Stevens’ staff Thursday. She becomes the eighth woman currently on an NBA sideline in a coaching capacity.

And consider also Kelly Krauskopf, assistant GM of the Pacers, the first woman in a front office role in the men’s league.

Lawson had a 13-year career in the WNBA. Becky Hammon, the heiress apparent to Gregg Popovich’s kingdom in San Antonio, had 16 years playing the game professionally in America. And Krauskopf was director of operations for the WNBA at the administrative level.

And here’s the thing about basketball—the difference between men’s basketball and women’s basketball is purely rooted in the physical differences between the sexes. If anything, the women must make up in tactical decision-making and fundamentally sound play what they can’t paper over with pure athleticism.

Put it this way. If a woman comes into the WNBA with the basketball IQ of some of the men who can dunk but who fall asleep on defense and can’t make a reliable backdoor cut or move off a screen, they wouldn’t last five minutes.

So naturally the women with a high basketball IQ make excellent teachers of the game to the men.

And we’re starting to see that now. Men, finally (seriously guys, what’s wrong with us), are getting less weird about being led by women, which means they won’t dismiss smart coaching just because of what’s between the legs of the person giving the instructions.

Look at the Spurs. That roster should have crashed and burned. Their two best offensive players can’t hit threes to save their lives, so the team had to run an offense right out of the Dark Ages.

They still managed to hang with the 2-seed Nuggets, and I’m going to come right out and say that the influence of Becky Hammon—one of the best free throw shooters, man or woman, the world has ever seen, as she hit 89.7 percent of them in her career, by the way—had something to do with it.

It’s only a matter of time before someone—anyone on Buckner’s list in that tweet or a WNBA player we’ve yet to see enter the coaching ranks in the men’s game—ends up as the first woman to coach an NBA team.

And the reason for that is simple; the WNBA provides women a place to learn the craft of basketball from a player’s perspective, and it may actually be better for the women in that sense than it is for the men.

Look at guys like Byron Scott and Nate McMillan, who make poor coaches on an Xs and Os level—they do tend to run cohesive locker rooms, to their credit, but the actual strategy of modern basketball eludes them—because their decisions are colored too heavily by the experience they had as players in a different, less efficient era of NBA basketball.

You will never see a woman who played WNBA ball put a WNBA offense into a men’s NBA game because—closeted transgender people aside—men are not women.

Women can come into the coaching ranks knowing the sport of basketball and the universal fundamentals of the sport. The men they coach can then become more fundamentally sound basketball players while retaining their athleticism.

And women, with the bias of their playing days not a factor, can design and build offenses around principles other than “this is how we did it when I played” and in that, the roots of modern, efficient teams with great advanced stats are planted deep.

The WNBA may be a non-factor as a business. It exists largely at the sufferance of the NBA’s willingness to subsidize it, because it is not and may never be a profit center in and of itself—there’s a reason players only take home 20 percent of basketball-related income in the WNBA, and it’s not because of sexism but because of pure dollars-and-cents business reality.

But as a pipeline for women to serve in a lucrative role as head coaches in the men’s league? That’s a value that, after over 20 years of play, we’re seeing emerge big-time.