Watching WNBA games this past season, it felt like we were constantly being gifted with close games, OTs and buzzer beaters. Did the league really deliver a higher than usual proportion of close games and insane finishes for its 25th season? Using ESPN play-by-play data starting with the 2002 season and all the way to the 2021 season, I look at the numbers of buzzer beaters, over time and close games over the years. I will try to work on an overall excitement index soon, but in the meantime, here is a look at buzzer beaters, OTs and close games.
I look at shots made in the last 2 seconds of a last period (second half before 2006, fourth quarter after, or any OT) when the score differential between the two teams was at most 3. I then look at two categories of buzzer beaters: those that win a game (100 shots since 2002) and those that tie the game (43 shots since 2002). I plot below the proportion of games that either end on a game-winning buzzer beater, or gets sent to OT by a game-tying buzzer beater. In 2021, 8 games, a little under 4% of all games played, ended on a buzzer beater. 2021 is the 4th best season in WNBA history under this metric, the all time record having been set in the 2011 season with 11 buzzer beaters (over 234 games).
The story is different for buzzer beaters that tie the game: only 2 were recorded in 2021.
What about the individual players? I only show players with at least 2 buzzer beaters in one of the categories. Cappie Pondexter is leader since 2002 with 4 game-winning buzzer beaters. But Elena Delle Donne, Nneka Ogwumike and Jewell Loyd are all active players one buzzer beater away from being tied for first, and given Loyd's recent streak (her last two coming in the last 2 seasons), it would be surprising if it doesn't happen soon. On the game-tying side, DeWanna Bonner and Skylar Digging-Smith are in position to take the record.
2. Overtimes (OTs)
Because two OTs is twice the fun, I don't look at the proportion of games with at least one OT. Rather, I count each OT and look at the ratio on OTs over games played in the season. With 17 OTs in 208 games played in 2021, the 2021 season was the 5th best season in WNBA history. The record since 2002 happened in the 2009 season (33 OTs in 257 games).
3. Score differentials
I will work on a fancier metric when and if I ever work on an excitement index for the WNBA, but right now, I only look at the proportion of games ending with a score differential equal to or less than 3 points (a one possession game) as well as the average score differential at the end of games. The smaller average score differential, the better: it means less blow-outs and more close games. For this one, I only look at score differentials for regular season games, because playoff games tend to be closer on average and would distort the comparison with 2021.
With an average score differential at the end of games of 0.5 points, the 2021 season saw the smallest average margin at the end of game. While 2020 initially appreared to have been a crazy outlier with a 0.9 average point differential, 2021 confirmed what could be a new trend in the WNBA. It is a well known fact that the talent in women's basketball is exploding, with the college game being as open and as competitive as ever. Making WNBA rosters have never been harder. More and more fans and observers are calling for an expansion of the league to make room for more players. The trend observed in 2020 and 2021 will need to be confirmed, but this concentration of talent in the current 12 teams can explain why WNBA games appear to be closer on average than ever before. No team can dominate the other and most teams can beat any team in the league on any other night.