2021 Season Preview: Dallas, Indiana, and Las Vegas

Kelsey Mitchell shoots a basketball

Here are three more team previews in preparation for the upcoming season. The team that for the past few years has been the most confusingly run, the Dallas Wings, the current team that is the most confusingly run, the Indiana Fever, and my tentative pick to win the title this year, the Las Vegas Aces.

Dallas Wings

Arike Ogunbowale: An all-WNBA player a year ago, now comes seeing just how high her ceiling is. I’ll be looking for more consistent defense, improving her 3 point shooting, particularly off ball, and continuing to improve her true shooting %, which accounts for the value of 3s and free throws. Her TS% was 10 points lower than Diana Taurasi, 53% to 63%, in 2020. Ogunbowale can close that gap, but by how much will be the test.

Marina Mabrey: Showing that she can shoot from 3 and pass is a good first step. Now, can she earn free throws after hardly earning any trips to the line? Put pressure on the rim off of the pick and roll? Shot a fine percentage in the paint, but did not get there much. Not a bad defender, but is she the best fit on that end next to Ogunbowale, someone who may never be better than average?

Kayla Thornton: Should benefit from being slotted into a lower usage role. Needs to shoot 3s even if they do not go in. Good multi-position defender whose versatility works well with the various young pieces Dallas has. 

Satou Sabally: Extremely promising rookie year. Hopefully her 3 point shooting from Turkey comes with her to the W, as that was one part of her college game that abandoned her in 2020, shooting only 20% from 3. The sky is the limit for her.

Bella Alarie: Defensively had a strong rookie year. And on a team that could use more defense and does not need offense as much, could earn a starting nod. But her offense will hopefully come, as someone who can likely shoot 3s and make some plays off the dribble. 

Key Reserves

Isabelle Harrison: Over matched as a starting center, but she might end up in that role again if none of the young bigs are quite ready. But she is a good backup center, so long as she focuses on defending and only scoring off of passes from teammates. No more Harrison post ups when either Ogunbowale or Sabally are on the court, please. 

Allisha Gray: Signed a good contract for the Wings this off season. A good sign that she was willing to stay. Not a bad contract for Gray, but thought she could have gotten more if she had tested restricted free agency. On the court she is solid at everything but does not really stand out in any area. If Dallas goes small more, she can definitely play the 3, as she has good size. Last two seasons her 3 point shooting has improved, a key for her to play next to Ogunbowale and Sabally.

Tyasha Harris: Same question as her rookie year. How is her off ball shooting from 3? Can she be the ideal pairing with Ogunbowale, or is she more likely a backup point guard who needs the ball in her hand to be effective. Played well in limited minutes as a rookie. Her good size for her position and thus ability to guard either guard position does pair well with Ogunbowale.

2 Key Questions

  1. This year and next the Wings do not have to worry that much about the cap given the number of rookie contracts they have. But 2022 is coming and decisions will need to be made eventually. Arike is a max player, as is Sabally if she lives up to her potential, but the clock is ticking on the rest of the roster. The hardest part of a rebuild is done, with two players who could be the best players on a semifinal team, but the next step of who to put around them is tricky. Which young players can be kept? Will any free agents choose to come to Dallas who are worth it? Especially important for the Wings to be careful handing out protected contracts to veterans, as the Astou Ndour and Moriah Jefferson contracts have not been successes.
  1. In a high leverage playoff game, Satou Sabally and Awak Kuier’s best positions seem likely to be the 4 and the 5. Both eventually will have the size and length to play there, while providing elite shooting and skill at those positions. The question becomes where does that leave the team’s more traditional bigs in Bella Alarie and Charli Collier. Having one as a nominal starter who plays lots of minutes, but is benched in high impact moments, may make sense, but ought to be reflected in their eventual second contracts.  

Indiana Fever

Danielle Robinson: Surprised me with how good she was for the Aces in 2020, so it’s possible she does it again, but who were the Fever outbidding when they offered her a 3 year guaranteed contract at $155,000? How many other teams needed a starting point guard at all, much less one who does not shoot 3s, relies on athleticism, and is heading into her age 32 season?

Kelsey Mitchell: The best player on the Fever. The one player who could definitely be a good player on a team that makes some noise  in the playoffs. The 3 point shot is the foundation of her game and she should be trying to get to 10 attempts per game, but it was the jump in her 2 point percentage in 2020 that was really promising. After 2 season below 40% she hit 50% in 2020. Continuing that is key to maximizing her offense. Some defense would be nice, but she is at the bottom of the reasons the Fever struggled there.

Tiffany Mitchell: Among the more confounding offensive players in the W. Generally good 3 point shooting and good free throw shooting go hand in hand, but not here. A player who shot 23% from 3 and 95% from the free throw line in 2020, she is a shooting guard who is better with the ball in her hand miscast as a 3 and D wing. But the team traded Kennedy Burke, who is actually the right size and shoots 3s, for a rookie. So T. Mitchell it likely is at this spot.

Lauren Cox: What is her best position long term? The Fever want to play her at the 4 and it is plausible that she will have enough passing and shooting to make it work on offense. However, I still suspect long term she is a center. Will the Fever play her there? Can she chase around quicker 4s?

Jantel Lavender: Lavender is a consummate professional, but easily the most confusing contract of free agency. A 3 year guaranteed contract for $175,000 for a 32 year old player at a position that contributors can be found later in the draft or after training camp cuts, if the ones the team has drafted in back to back drafts are not the answers. 

Key Reserves:

Teaira McCowan: McCowan has so far to go to be a starting center defensively in the W, but some progress is a hope this year. Offensively she is impactful, but the Fever were one of the worst defenses in WNBA history in 2020, and got worse with McCowan. 

Kysre Gondrezick: The most surprising draft pick in 2021, she has as good a chance to earn minutes as any player in this draft. She does play the same position as Kelsey Mitchell, but the Fever should be trying to see if they can play together. 

Kathleen Doyle: Unclear if she is a W player but there will be opportunities to be had to show that she is. With Julie Allemand in Europe with Belgium responsibilities, now is the time for Doyle to show what she can do. Even in limited minutes as a rookie, hard to have as limited an impact as she did, but this year should be a more true test of her abilities. A TS% of 32 is hard to do.

2 Key Questions:

  1. Other than Kelsey Mitchell, who on this team is good enough to start in the WNBA semifinals? The 2020 Aces or Sun could have really used Kelsey Mitchell’s shooting and shot creation, but who else would have been playing in either series? Danielle Robinson started for the Aces, but is not getting younger and has a game built on speed, which tends to age poorly. 

Julie Allemand is turning 25 this year and is at a position that players tend to peak later, so she has a chance. But I’m hard pressed to see anyone else on this team reaching that standard. Championship or bust is an unrealistic standard in sports, but being one of the best 4 teams, in my view, should be the goal. Instead, the Fever seem to be scrambling to be the worst team in the playoffs.

  1. Rhyne Howard time? The lottery has not been kind to the Fever recently, but this is not the year to be giving up on the draft. If once again the Fever do not get the #1 pick, there are other players who would have gone #1 in the 2021 draft. NaLyssa Smith’s position in the W is less clear than Howard, but she would immediately be the best athlete and the only true 3/4 on the roster.  

Las Vegas Aces

Projected Starters:

Kelsey Plum: Coming off of a devastating injury, how Plum plays may be the driving factor in whether the Aces are a good playoff team or a championship team. In 2019 she showed against the Mystics that she could get her own shot even against a locked in, experienced defense, something the Aces sorely lacked in 2020. Might be a year away from full recovery, but here’s hoping she can regain enough to make an impact this year.

Chelsea Gray: For a player who has been considered in the conversation for best point guard in the W, her last 3 playoffs have been underwhelming. Gray is good at using her size and savvy in the regular season, but appears to be overtaxed as the primary shot creator against the best defenders in the playoffs. If the Aces use her as an off ball threat, and she can hit enough open 3s, she should be a good fit. But she may be better as an of ball guard now than point guard.

Angel McCoughtry: How real was her shooting improvements? Career splits of 46/29/80 shooter, she shot 52/47/88 in 2020. Assuming she stays healthy and her minutes limit continues, she will hopefully maintain her impact as a smart, big wing with good athleticism, but the shooting in 2020 might be an outlier. Even if her 3 point shooting percentage falls, the team could benefit from her taking more attempts.

A’ja Wilson: A deserving MVP candidate, can she change her game to play next to Cambage? Her best position is likely center, especially if she continues to not shoot 3s. In the regular season the fit between her and Liz Cambage should not be an issue, but this is a team with championship aspirations. Continuing to improve her passing in the post and when facing up would be helpful.

Liz Cambage: A dominant post player, she still has room to subtly improve basically everywhere. A good passer, but could improve there. A good defender, but someone who playoff offenses can sometimes take advantage of in space.

Key Reserves

Dearica Hamby: A super sub, who is she better next to, Wilson or Cambage? And does Laimbeer ever go small in the playoffs in key moments. And if he does, who plays next to Hamby? Wilson, for more mobility on defense? Or Cambage, as the player more adept at passing out of doubles and keeping a 4 out offense humming?

Riquna Williams: We have seen the limitations of the back court of Chelsea Gray and Williams, but for all the talent of the Sparks front court of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, they did not have the post up skills off Wilson and Cambage. Williams should be able to feast on open 3s. And even playing for Laimbeer it is hard to see her not getting her shots up.

Jackie Young: A solid regular season player in 2020, she really struggled in the playoffs. In the playoffs, when starters play more and teams are better, she no longer had the same size and athleticism advantage, and her lack of shooting was even more glaring. An issue for the Aces team wide, but Young went from 26 minutes in the regular season to 20 minutes in the playoffs, with a low of 9 in games 4 and 5 against the Sun.

2 Key Questions:

  1. This version of the Aces has to try to win the championship this year. If Kelsey Plum is not back in shape, does this team have any moves to bolster their back court? What could the Aces get for Jackie Young and a couple of picks? With Angel McCoughtry, Liz Cambage, and A’ja Wilson entering free agency, the Aces will not be able to keep all 3, without McCoughtry taking a steep discount. Now or never for this group.
  1. Why did the Aces offense fall off so badly in the playoffs last season? In the regular season in 2020, the Aces were second in the league with an offensive rating of 107.3. That tumbled all the way to 93.4 in the playoffs. Dearica Hamby being hurt certainly played a role, but the Aces should be asking themselves if all the clever sets they run to mask their lack of shooting in the regular season, as well as relying on transition offense, are simply less valuable in the playoffs. When teams could scout and lock in, they did not have any counters to teams loading up on their best player.

    While the returning players will help, as the team did not face this same drop off in 2019, notably Plum who won the starting spot in the 2019 playoffs, this team is still not exactly overflowing with shooting relative to their competition. Depth has been a strength, but that matters less in the playoffs, as starters play more minutes. While my pick tentatively for the championship, definite the whole is less than the sum of its parts potential here.