WNBA Finals: Aces-Storm

The Connecticut Sun did their best to put a scare in the number 1 seed, but after a grueling 5 game series, the Las Vegas Aces will meet the Seattle Storm in the finals. The first two games between these two teams have limited utility for predicting this match up, as Sue Bird missed both games and Breanna Stewart missed the second. Also, Dearica Hamby played in both games, and will miss the finals with a knee injury. 

My prediction for this game is that the Storm win in 4. Here are 2 big questions I have for the series.

Can the Carolyn Swords survive on defense?

Swords is clearly the Aces second best big at this point. Swords is a tough player to evaluate holistically, because she has clear limitations that can overshadow her positive contributions. Swords is a skilled, professional WNBA player. She is opportunistic in her scoring, even  busting out a running hook over a smaller player in the game 5 against the Sun. Defensively, she challenges a lot of shots at the rim, even though she blocks few of them. Trying to score over 6’6” Swords and 6’4” A’ja Wilson is challenging.

She was a +29 in the Aces series with the Sun, including a team best +18 in the final game of the series. This in a series in which the Aces were outscored overall by the Sun. Some of that is an artifact of how much Jackie Young struggled and Hamby before she was ruled out with her injury, but Swords did not hurt the Aces in the series overall.

Unfortunately for the Aces, the Seattle Storm are much better set up to pick at her limitations on defense than the Sun. Jasmine Thomas and Briann January were able to scoot by Swords, and neither are nearly as dynamic offensive players as Jewell Loyd or Sue Bird. Swords really struggles guarding in space.. Especially with Natasha Howard having at least somewhat rediscovered her 3 point shot, the Storm play 4 or 5 out most of the game, which will further stress Swords’ foot speed.

Jewell Loyd may be the key to this series. She has been playing as the best guard in this series, and is the key player in this series who can both shoot 3s off the dribble and get to the rim. If the Aces hedge or trap with Swords, the Storm have too many other players who are comfortable making plays 4 on 3. Look for Loyd to attack Swords in the pick and roll over and over and over again. 

Sue Bird will not penetrate all the way to the rim often, but she can shoot a high enough percentage off the dribble from the elbow that she still demands attention from the opposing team’s center. She is also a patient, expert pick and roll passer who can let Natasha Howard either pop or roll hard to the basket, and use her speed against Swords. This may be a series in which Swords does not have a place.

If that is the case, Bill Laimbeer’s options are challenging. Credit to the Aces making it this far, but they missed on the margins before the season at the back end of the bench. They could have had Beatrice Mompromier instead of Avery Warley-Talbert, and Mompromier would be a better fit in this series. Any positive minutes from Emma Cannon would be huge.

Moving Angel McCoughtry to the four could work. Wilson could guard Breanna Stewart and McCoughtry can handle guarding Howard. That forces Laimbeer to dig deeper into his wings and guards than is ideal. If Jackie Young got going, that would help, but more Sugar Rodgers is not the answer, unless she gets going from 3.

Can anyone on the Aces shoot well for 3 games?

For the Aces to win they will need shooting for 3 games. Ideally 3s, but even long 2s will help. Angel McCoughtry and Kayla McBride did just enough to beat a Sun team that was also starved for offense at times. The Seattle Storm are a team that is not starved for offense. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Sun were 10th in offensive rating at 100.1, while the Storm were the best offense in the league at 108.3. Oh, and the Storm also had the best defense in the league. 

If McCoughtry can play 34 good minutes a game, as she did in the final 2 games in the semifinals, the Aces will have a chance. McCoughtry has had her best season ever shooting the ball, and has not lost much athleticism, if any. She will have to be the second or third best player in this series for the Aces to win.

Unfortunately for the Aces, McBride had her worst shooting season this year, and has only gotten worse in the playoffs. Jewell Loyd may not be the defender Briann January is, but Loyd is a good defender. McBride has shot 14% from 3 so far in the playoffs. She has been too good of a shooter for too long for this to continue indefinitely, but the Aces will need her to start making some in this series. 

If McBride continues to struggle, and Jackie Young gives the Aces nothing, Sugar Rodgers is the only possible adjustment. She has yet to make a 3 in the playoffs, but has the ability to hit them. This is where the Aces miss Kelsey Plum even more than they miss Liz Cambage

In a vacuum, Liz Cambage is a more accomplished WNBA player than Kelsey Plum. But for this current iteration of the Aces, Plum’s presence would be more beneficial. Her combination of shooting and ability to attack the rim is simply something no one else on the roster possesses. Whereas A’ja Wilson has shown that she can carry the load in the paint ,and if anything, has benefited from not having to alternate possessions with Cambage.

That makes for an interesting subplot to watch in these playoffs and going forward. Until Wilson starts shooting 3s, her MVP season and Cambage’s absence will hang over this team, unless they are able to make another run to the finals next year.

But for now, a hopefully competitive series is here. Storm are the favorites, but the Aces have been surprising me all year, and maybe they can do it one last time.

Unlocking the Aces Offense

The Las Vegas Aces are one game away from being sent home as the first number 1 seed to lose in the WNBA semifinals since the league implemented the current playoff design in 2016. The Aces are lucky to even be in this series at all, since they did not win game 2 by much even after the Connecticut Sun’s best player, Alyssa Thomas, went down with an injury.

The biggest culprit in the Aces struggles in this series to date has been the offense. While offensive efficiency tends to go down in the playoffs from the regular season, as teams go against only good defenses and not the Indiana Fever, the Aces offense has fallen off a cliff, from an offensive rating of 107.3 in the regular season to 89.5 in the playoffs.

Not coincidentally, the only team that fell even further was the Los Angeles Sparks, the Sun’s second round playoff opponent. The Sun were a good defensive team in the regular season, but not dominant like this. Being able to shorten the rotation and lock onto a specific opponent, with a mostly veteran rotation, has worked wonders for the Sun. The Aces’ struggles appear to be because of the Sun defending the Aces well, not the Aces missing shots they normally hit or making unforced errors.

Part of the reason the Sun can defend the Aces is because of the Aces on limitations on offense. Offensive success in the playoffs comes down to the ability to play multiple styles. The Aces so far are running into the issue that they are used to having the physical advantage at multiple positions over opponents and they use that to score close to the basket and earn free throws.

This size advantage does not exist against the Sun. The Sun are able to match the Aces at every position, and have been able to help off of the Aces shaky outside shooters, to shrink the advantages even more. Alyssa Thomas is one of the few players in the WNBA with the strength and lateral quickness to hold up one on one with A’ja Wilson. DeWanna Bonner can guard Angel McCoughtry or even Dearica Hamby if the Aces go big.

This even extends to the Aces bench. Jackie Young has been much better in her second year at using her size to bully smaller guards. But in this series the Sun are only playing one guard who is at a notable size deficiency, Natisha Hideman, and she is only playing 4 minutes per game in non-garbage time to spell Jasmine Thomas. Speaking of Jasmine Thomas, outside of Chelsea Gray, Thomas is the strongest point guard in the league, and her ability to hold up, even on switches, has been key for the Sun.

This is where the Aces really miss Kelsey Plum, someone who can shoot pull up 3s off the dribble and introduce more stylistic diversity into the Aces offense. But given that she is out, it is up to Bill Laimbeer and the Aces players to figure out some other approaches to get their offense unstuck.

The first adjustment to consider would be for Laimbeer to actually play his best players. (edit to add: Hamby was in fact injured, and will miss game 4. Aces lose their third best player) Dearica Hamby may be dealing with an injury, per a Holly Rowe report during game 3 but if she is not, it is baffling that she is playing less than 30 minutes per game. Maybe Hamby can not play 37 minutes like Wilson, Bonner, and both Thomas’ have in this series, but Laimbeer should be considering how many she can and hitting that number.

Carolyn Swords should not be starting. As the third big she is a fine choice, especially as she hasn’t been killing the Aces, but Hamby is better. Even struggling in this series, Hamby raises the Aces ceiling. So long as the Aces stop trying to play through Hamby when she is being guarded by Alyssa Thomas, she needs to be playing as many minutes as she feels she can handle. 

If the Sun continue to keep Brionna Jones on Wilson when she is in with Hamby, it should also allow Wilson to have an easier match up to attack on offense from the start of the game. Though the Sun should consider flipping that matchup, and having Jones guard Hamby and keeping Alyssa Thomas on Wilson.

The other change should be how to leverage McBride’s shooting to make life easier for Wilson. Wilson can score on Thomas, but letting the Sun single cover her is part of why Wilson has been the only Ace showing up consistently in this series. For instance, using McBride as the entrance passer to a Wilson double team will make it trickier for the Sun to bring a double, since McBride will be one pass away, rather than a much poorer outside shooter like Danielle Robinson or Jackie Young. Swapping McBride and Robinson on this play, for instance. This pass lead to an Aces turnover, whereas McBride could have stayed at the 3 point line, and not cut into a covered paint like Robinson did.

The Sun have been good at bringing help from different areas including from across the court, but making the passes simpler for Wilson will ideally help. She was able to score some over double and even triple teams, but passing, along with 3 point shooting, is the main part of her game she still struggles with compared to her peers like Candace Parker and Breanna Stewart.

Assist per gameAssist %Assist to turnover ratio
A’ja Wilson2.011.11.25
Breanna Stewart3.620.51.38
Candace Parker4.624.91.59

Wilson had a few bad turnovers in game 3, and while long term she will improve her passing, as players who came into the league accomplished scorers have, like Elena Delle Donne, making the reads easier in this game will help.

The other way the Aces could involve both Wilson and McBride is to run some inverted screens, with Wilson handling the ball and McBride screening for her. Similar to how the Nuggets will use Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Because while Wilson may not be the passer her peers are, she can punish mismatches better. Even a guard as big and strong as Jasmine Thomas is going to struggle to deal with Wilson.

The Aces tried this once in Game 3, but only for an out of bounds play. They also ran it so close to the basket that the Sun had time to send help. Wilson still hit the shot over 3 defenders, because she is that good, but doing something similar further out on the floor would give Wilson more space to attack. Briann January switches onto Wilson, forcing immediate help from other Sun players.

The traditional pick and roll has been tough sledding for the Aces, as the Sun guards are too good at avoiding being screened, especially since they can go under screens with any of the Aces guards who are not McBride. This play from Briann January is a great example of this, as Wilson tries to screen her but January sticks with Jackie Young, and the Aces do not gain any advantage. 

Even as good as Alyssa Thomas is, she is not as adept at avoiding screens, and Wilson is a good enough shooter to hit open long 2s. While in time she should add the 3, she can still do damage if you leave her open inside the arc. Brionna Jones has good hands and uses them to get steals and has competed hard on defense, but is at a speed disadvantage and the Aces should be looking to put her in space.

It also will hopefully unlock McBride, who has been taking far too few 3s in this series. She is the Aces only plus shooter this season, and yet she has been taking far too many shots with feet on the line or just inside the 3 point arc. Screening for Wilson and then popping out for a 3 will hopefully help get her going. She is averaging three 3 pointers per game, after averaging over 4 in 2019 and nearly 6 in prior seasons.

The Aces have the talent to come back from down 2-1 in this series and win the next 2 games. But all year the concern was that the Aces lack of shooting and offensive variety would catch up with them. While the regular season the Aces were able to earn the number 1 seed, so far the playoffs are showing why shooting threes is important.

WNBA Semifinals Preview

The WNBA semifinals are here. Actual playoff series with the best teams. The best time of the season. Certain lineups which work in the regular season are mothballed in the playoffs. Weaknesses are magnified, as we find out who can succeed even when a team has time to scout in depth. The playoffs are different. The Aces and Storm are both favored in this match up. They tied for the best record, with the Aces getting the tiebreaker by beating the Storm twice. The Storm had the better net rating and were #1 in both offense and defense. Any outcome other than Storm-Aces would be an upset, but would also make for a great final.

Las Vegas Aces (net rating: 10.0) vs. Connecticut Sun (net rating: .6)

Predilection: Aces in 4

The biggest advantage the Aces may have in this series is the ability to extend the minutes of Angel McCoughtry. McCoughtry played only 20 minutes per game in the regular season, in an effort to keep her fresh. If the Aces can increase that load to 30 minutes per game, that’s ten more minutes of one of the top 5 most effective players this season on a per minute basis. This combined with extending both A’ja Wilson and Dearica Hamby into the mid 30s in playing time, will make the Aces even more dangerous than in the regular season. A deep bench is useful in the regular season, especially when playing every other day, but now is the time for the top 6 or 7 to play the vast majority of the minutes.

Who loses time in this scenario will be a key question to watch. Ideally, Laimbeer would start Hamby over Carolyn Swords, and limit Swords to the 10 minutes or so that Wilson and Hamby need to rest. Though the Sun with Brionna Jones do not pose a particular match up issue for Swords, so in this series it likely will not matter. Sugar Rodgers may not get to play in this series. A shooter who has not shot that well this year, the Aces have better options. Jackie Young can also play more minutes, and a lineup without a point guard would be one way for Laimbeer to get his best 5 players on the court. 

For the Sun, this game is going to be a real test for Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas. Brionna Jones will be able to hang for as long as Laimbeer insists on playing Swords, but once she leaves, Jones is either going to have to bang with A’ja Wilson or cover Hamby at the 3 point line. Neither will be particularly comfortable positions for her. Curt Miller has to my knowledge never run a zone defense with the Sun, but now is a time to try different, junk defenses when a massive underdog. A box and one, as suggested by Clay Kallam and herhooptats, in particular might be worth a try.

The Sun should be trying to pack the paint as much as possible. Their players have the smarts and speed to close out under control on the Aces shooters, but mostly stay near the paint. This might lead to the Aces winning on Wilson mid range jumpers, and the occasional three from Aces players not named McBride, but if that happens the Sun were losing anyways. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are two of the better help defenders in the WNBA, and need to be ready to roam. Both also need to be locked in on avoiding cheap fouls, as foul trouble will sink the Sun as well. 

Luckily for the Sun, their guards have shown up in the playoffs. In particular, Jasmine Thomas has come to play. She was the best player in the Sun’s surprisingly dominant win over the Sparks. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner have played well, to be clear, but it was Jasmine Thomas’s defense on Chelsea Gray that made scoring such a chore for the Sparks. The Aces do not rely on a single guard to generate quite a bit of their offense, but if Thomas continues to defend like this, and shoot well from 3, the Sun will have a chance. The more aggressive she is shooting and scoring, the better for the Sun.

Seattle Storm (net rating: 15.0) vs. Minnesota Lynx (5.1)

Prediction: Seattle in 3

The Storm’s dominance had been a bit obscured because they were not as dominant at the end of the season as they were in the beginning. Assuming Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart are able to play, the Storm should be treated as overall favorites, and especially in this series. A big win in the first 5 games of the season is as relevant to a team’s quality as is a big win in the final 5 games. Momentum is a myth, and this Storm team has been historically dominant all season. Only the Houston Comets dynasty in the early days of the WNBA posted a better net rating in the regular season.

Especially with a rusty Sylvia Fowles, do the Minnesota Lynx have an advantage more than 1 position in this series? However, Clark will be able to guard and make Collier’s life hard, nearly as hard as Brianna Turner did in the Lynx’s game against the Mercury. Natasha Howard has not had her best year, but still she is likely better than the rusty Sylvia Fowles seen in the Lynx’s playoff game. Jewell Loyd over Odyssey Sims is pretty clear. And as good as Crystal Dangerfield has been, she is not as impactful as Sue Bird. Stewart over Damiris Dantas is the clearest advantage for the Storm.

The Lynx will win if they are able to shoot enough 3s and at a high enough percentage. That is a tall task, but this team does have shooters up and down the roster. Odyssey Sims is a more well rounded player than Rachel Banham, but if Sims struggles to score against the Storm’s defense, Banham may deserve a chance to bomb away from 3, as she has been shooting it well.

Another option that the Lynx have not used that I would like to see them take advantage of is, especially when Fowles is not in the game, and Bird is playing, would be for the Lynx to use Dangerfield as a screener for a Collier pick and roll. The Storm won’t want to switch and leave Bird on Collier. They would likely trap Collier with both Bird and Clark or Stewart. Collier would then have to be able to get a pass to Dangerfield, who would then be able to attack 4 on 3 with all 4 Lynx players capable of shooting from 3.

For the Storm, they should be able to run their offense. Particularly, pick and rolls with Jewell Loyd and any big for the Storm, especially a big not being guarded by Collier. Fowles is coming off a tough injury and long layoff, and even fully healthy she is not as quick as Natasha Howard. Stewart can either pick and pop or roll to the basket. Dantas has had a good year, but guarding Stewart is going to be a challenge. 

Second Round Playoff Preview

While I would like for these second round matchups to be best of five series, hopefully we get another game as exciting as Shey Peddy hitting the game winner for the Phoenix Mercury over the Washington Mystics. Winners of these games go on to play the Seattle Storm and the Las Vegas Aces, when the we will finally get series as playoff basketball is meant to played.

Minnesota Lynx (5.1 net rating) vs. Phoenix Mercury (2.7 net rating)

Pick: Minnesota Lynx

Similar to their first round game, the Mercury will need to rely on their advantage in the back court. Crystal Dangerfield is the front runner for rookie of the year, but she is still a 5’5” point guard going against two to of the better guards in the WNBA. That is a tall task. The Lynx may choose to put Dangerfield on Shatori Walker-Kimbrough. That would leave Odyssey Sims to check Skylar Diggins-Smith and Bridget Carleton to cover Diana Taurasi. 

The Lynx, with Lexie Brown out, do not have a guard who is a plus defender. Sylvia Fowles is listed as questionable. If she were to play, that would be a massive help to this Lynx team, as it would mean they could play good to great defenders at the 3-5 positions, with Napheesa Collier, Damiris Dantas, and Fowles. Similar to my advice for the Mystics, the Lynx should consider trapping the Mercury guards hard. Neither Brianna Turner nor Kia Vaughn are playmakers far from the basket. The Lynx can live with Vaughn hitting the odd midrange 2.

On the other end, this is a big game for Dantas. She should be ready to fire from three whenever the Lynx can get her open, as Kia Vaughn is not going to want to come far out of the paint. Once in a while rolling hard to the rim should also keep the Mercury on their toes. A heavy diet of pick and rolls with Crystal Dangerfield and Odyssey Sims will force the Mercury guards to fight over them, something they are not particularly adept at doing.

Napheesa Collier will struggle to score efficiently against Brianna Turner, especially posting up. If Fowles is able to play, the match ups will slot in much better for the Lynx. The Mercury have one player in Brianna Turner who can credibly guard bigger players like Collier and Dantas. Walker-Kimbrough, Sophie Cunningham, and Alanna Smith can all be overpowered by Collier or Dantas, if they are playing next to Sylvia Fowles.

Even if Fowles is not able to go, it would be worth trying to see if Erica McCall can give the Lynx some good minutes with Dantas and Collier, to force some difficult lineup choices on the Mercury. Ultimately the Lynx have more consistent production. Taurasi and SDS will likely have good games, but the Lynx should be able to score enough to win.  

Los Angeles Sparks (5.5 net rating) vs. Connecticut Sun (.6 net rating)

Pick: Los Angeles Sparks

Always fun to have a rematch of a playoff series from last year. But this time, no Jonquel Jones and no Courtney Williams. DeWanna Bonner has played well, but this is still not as good a team as last year’s Sun. The Sparks have a similar team, but with a healthier and far more effective Candace Parker this year. Now is Derek Fisher’s time to make up for some questionable coaching decisions last year, and not get out coached again by Curt Miller. 

This game will likely come down to shootings vs. not-shooting. The Sparks with Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker, have the size, and mobility to slow down and bother Alyssa Thomas, and much more shooting. If the Sparks get rolling with Riquana Williams, Chelsea Gray, and even Candace Parker knocking down outside shots, the Sun do not have the firepower to keep up. 

The Sparks were the third best defense in the regular season, and this game could be a grind for the Connecticut Sun. Brionna Jones is going to have her hands full with either Parker or Ogwumike. If AT gets the assignment to guard Candace Parker, she can mostly handle it, but Parker is a few inches taller than her and may be able to use that to her advantage.

Chelsea Gray vs. Jasmine Thomas will be a great match up, as Jasmine Thomas is one of the few point guards with the size and strength to hold her own against Gray. It would help the Sparks if Gray limits how often she takes contested long 2 pointers early in the clock. The Sparks should value each possession, and work to get better shots. And on the other end, Gray struggles at times guarding the quicker guards in the WNBA, but the Sun really do not have one of those.  

The Sparks also should be careful to play DeWanna Bonner to drive the ball, and let her shoot. She is a career 28% 3 point shooter who shot worse than that this year. The Sparks do not have anyone with the size and mobility to match up with Bonner, and need Brittney Sykes to lay off. An interesting wrinkle will be if the Sparks try out Gray on DeWanna Bonner. Similar to how against the Lynx Gray was sometimes matched up with Collier. This would let Sykes hound Jasmine Thomas on ball, something Sykes is quite capable of doing. 

The Sparks can afford to play their starters heavier minutes, which is an advantage to them. They managed their starters minutes in the regular season more than the Sun, and still ended up with a better regular season record. None of the Sparks players will play all 40 minutes like Alyssa Thomas, but 35 minutes for Candace Parker is 5 minutes where the Sparks get her, instead of a much less effective big off the bench. The Sun can absolutely win this game, but the Sparks are the better team.

WNBA First Round Playoff Preview

Before I get to my previews for the first round of the WNBA playoffs, I want to note that I dislike the current WNBA playoff set up. Basketball, like hockey and baseball, are better when played in series that actually reward the better team. Single game elimination games are ok for play-in games, maybe for the first round of the WNBA playoffs, given that too many teams make the playoffs in the first place, a full 66% of the league. 

But the second round should be a full 5 round series. I am ok with still offering a bye to the top 2 seeds, and just have the 2nd round be a series. Even a 3 game series would be significantly better than the current set up. The Los Angeles Sparks  and Minnesota Lynx played really hard to earn the 3rd seed and 4th seed respectively. They should get to play series against a lower seeded opponent to show that they are the better team, if they in fact are. 

Basketball is too much of a make or miss sport over the course of a single game for it to be a fair representation of quality. All it takes is one player who normally shoots below 30% from 3 to get hot to mess things up. We saw the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers win their first games in the NBA playoffs. But of course, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks were not eliminated, because that would be ridiculous. 

But back to this year’s playoffs. Sub optimal playoff set up or not, these games will hopefully still be exciting and I am looking forward to watching them. An interesting subplot in both of these games is how many minutes the best players can play. All 4 teams are thin on the bench, between injuries and opt outs. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner have a history of effectively playing heavy minutes. Can Myisha Hines-Allen, Skylar Diggins-Smith, or Courtney Vandersloot also play in the upper 30s in minutes? A big topic of conversation in the NBA in regards to Giannis Antetokounmpo, it will be interesting to watch in the WNBA playoffs as well. 

Phoenix Mercury (net rating: 2.7 ) vs. Washington Mystics (net rating: -2.4)

My pick: Phoenix Mercury

Just based on net rating, the Mercury are heavy favorites to win this game. And net rating actually undersells the difference, since the Mystics won some games big with Aerial Powers as their leading scorer. The Mystics major weakness is lacking a guard who can consistently drive to the paint. Leilani Mitchell does her best, but that is not her game.

Phoenix is missing Brittney Griner, but they have been better able to make up for her absence, in particular with moving Brianna Turner to center at times, her more natural position. This is a matchup Griner would have been especially useful in, but Phoenix has played fairly well without her, getting stomped by the Storm aside.

This game is a battle of the Phoenix back court vs. the Mystics front court. Can whichever of Emma Meesseman or Myisha Hines-Allen who is not being guarded by Turner score enough for the Mystics to win? While Kia Vaughn might struggle to guard Meesseman away from the basket, Meesseman has shot poorly this year, down to 29% from 3, compared to 42% in 2019. If Meesseman can hit some 3s, this may be a more competitive game.

The other avenue is for the Mystics to run pick and rolls with their bigs as ball handlers and their guards as the screener. Whoever is being guarded by Taurasi, probably Kiara Leslie, should be screening for the bigs. They should be doing everything they can to get Diana Taurasi switched onto either Hines-Allen or Meesseman. If the Mercury trap either big, both Hines-Allen and Meesseman having the passing ability to hit open Mystics shooters. 

On the other end, Leslie and Ariel Atkins are going to be big in this series. Leilani Mitchell will likely be covering Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, with Atkins and Leslie getting the more difficult assignments of covering Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. This is a lot to ask of a rookie guard in Leslie, but Leslie has the athleticism to at least make Diggins-Smith or Taurasi work.

The Mystics in their second matchup had some success sending two to the ball and trapping high on the court. This is worth the gamble especially if it’s Taurasi, as limiting the chances she heats up from distance is good. Neither of the Mercury starting bigs, Brianna Turner nor Kia Vaughn, are particularly adept at playmaking from near the three point line, and Mystics are a well coached, smart team that should be able to handle scrambling on rotations.

Ultimately, the offensive firepower of the Mercury guards is likely to be too much for the Mystics to overcome. Brianna Turner is a good enough  defender to ensure that Hines-Allen does not dominate, and it is hard to see where else the Mystics will get enough scoring. 

Connecticut Sun (net rating: .6) vs. Chicago Sky (net rating 3.0)

My pick: Connecticut Sun

By net rating it appears that the Sky should be favored, as net rating is a better indicator of future success than win-loss records. However, the Sky rating overstates their current team, because of the loss of Azurá Stevens and Diamond DeShields. The Sun have also benefited greatly Briann January joining the team part way into the season. Momentum does not extend from the end of the regular season into the playoffs, but the Sky are scuffling because of injuries, not just the vagaries of even a 22 game season. 

This game will likely come down to the Sun transition offense vs. the Sky transition defense. The Sky were inexplicably bad at transition defense this year. Per Synergy, the Sky were 4th in half court defense, but 10th in transition defense. But when watching the Sky, the reasons do not jump out. They do not end up with poor floor balance, for instance four players below the three point line when it is time to run back on defense. Hard to believe the Sky are unaware of this, so it may not be fixable for the playoff game. Maybe if they lock in just for the one game they can improve.

Transition matters for the Sun because if the Sun do not advance, it will likely be because their half court offense grinds to a halt. When their defense is being disruptive and the Sun can get out in transition, this team can score. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are two of the more effective players at grabbing a defensive rebound or causing a turnover and leading the break themselves. But their half court offense has been a struggle all year. The Sun do not have a single plus shooter from 3, and it shows in the half court.

The Sky on the other hand, do have plus shooters and a good offense, that ranked 4th in the WNBA. The Sun ranked 4th in defense, so that should be a fun battle. I slightly give the edge to the Sun, as Jasmine Thomas was my choice of first team all-defense guard for a reason, and she should be able to make Courtney Vandersloot’s life harder. Even still, Vandersloot should consider adjusting her approach. Her normal pass first mode makes sense with a full Sky roster, but this Sky team might need her to shoot every time she is even slightly open.

The Sky’s best option on offense is likely to force Brionna Jones to guard Kahleah Copper and Courtney Vandersloot in pick and rolls, with Stefanie Dolson and Cheyenne Parker as screener. They should avoid any and all screens with Alyssa Thomas defending, as Alyssa Thomas can switch those and stay even with Vandersloot. Jones has worked hard to improve her playing, but she is still the Sun’s weakest defender. Ruthie Hebard could also screen for the Sky guards, as she has shown her experience running pick and rolls with Sabrina Ionescu has carried over to the WNBA.

This is likely to be a close game, but I chose the Sun because if they can get a few threes to drop from their guards, be it Thomas, January, or Kaila Charles, they should be able to generate enough offense to win.

Rookie Awards and Defensive Awards

While injuries hit a few of the rookies this year, it was still a good year for rookies performing well. This looks like it will be one of the better drafts, with top end talent and good players stretching into the second round.

Rookie of the Year:

Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx:

Dangerfield combines minutes played and production better than any other rookie. It is very close, and if Chennedy Carter had played the full season she very well might have been my choice for Rookie of the Year.

Both Carter and Dangerfield had impressive rookie campaigns at the hardest position for a young player to learn, as did Julie Allemand. Good year for rookie point guards. Dangerfield was a bit more efficient with 58% TS compared to 55% for Carter. Dangerfield was at times the second best player on a playoff team after Sylvia Fowles went down with an injury. Carter shot a better percentage from 3, but Dangerfield took more than twice as many 3s and hit them at an acceptable rate.

Surprisingly, Dangerfield’s main advantage was she had a much better percentage inside the arc. She did play with better spacing than, Carter, to be fair to Carter. But still, Dangerfield being more than just a 3 point shooter and caretaker point guard really helped a Lynx team that had a somewhat shaky guard rotation.

All-Rookie Team

Julie Allemand, Indiana Fever

While Allemand will probably not continue to shoot nearly 50% from 3 on 4 attempts per game, her ability to shoot lights out from 3 helped a thin Indiana Fever team. She struggled a bit to finish in the paint and had a higher turnover percentage than assist percentage.

Chennedy Carter, Minnesota Lynx

Carter is a wonderful example of how some players will thrive in the WNBA even more than in college because of the expanded spacing. Particularly once the Dream were able to play Glory Johnson more minutes, Carter was often able to take advantage of a relatively open paint, especially compared to what she was seeing at Texas A&M. While it was only on 2 attempts per game, shooting 40% from 3 is also a great sign. Carter can be effective without shooting 3s, but she will become nearly impossible to guard if teams have to worry about her 3 point shooting. 

Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx

Dangerfield will always be somewhat of a liability on defense. Making the playoffs will be a good test of whether the Lynx can cover for her, and whether her offense is valuable enough to make up for her lack of size. But as I expected before the draft, her offense in the regular season is good enough to make up for the limitations brought on by her 5’5” height. 5’5” on a good day as well, as she seems noticeably shorter than even other players listed at the same height like Leilani Mitchell. 

Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm 

On a per minute basis, Magbegor was the most effective rookie this year. She was in a small role surrounded by the best team in the WNBA, but it is a good sign for her future that she was able to carve out a role. She has the potential to be a special defender, with good anticipation, lateral quickness, and long arms. Offensively she was an effective pick and roll finisher. She showed flashes of an outside shot and the ability drive against a closeout, hinting at more than just a rim running big. She was also the youngest player in the league this year, she turned 21 during the season, which makes her performance even more impressive.

Satou Sabally: 

Sabally, like Carter, may have won the Rookie of the Year award had she played the whole season. She was also hurt by a tough year shooting. Based on her college numbers, these should improve, but it’s tough to overcome shooting 37% from the field and 19% from 3. 87% from the free throw line is a good sign that she is actually a decent shooter, so let’s hope. Because she can do everything else. She played anywhere from the 3-5 this year. Her defense for a rookie big was quite good. She can handle like a guard, though she is 6’4”, and her passing is quite good.

Honorable Mention: Jazmine Jones:

Jones played hard and put up decent basic box score numbers. But she was inefficient in the minutes she got. Not her fault she was playing out of position as a point guard, but it was a stretch and she struggled, ending up with a negative assist to turnover ratio. Will be a good defender, but was not quite as effective as her activity might suggest. 

Defensive Player of the Year:

The lack of tracking data in the WNBA means that even the few worthwhile defensive stats that one can use in the NBA do not exist in the WNBA. No second spectrum in the WNBA. So while I am did my best with my choices, I recognize that these awards are more subjective and mostly eye test based. On/off stats can be useful, but over a 22 game season I am skeptical of them as well.

Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm: 

The choices came down to Breanna Stewart, Alysha Clark, Alyssa Thomas, or A’ja Wilson. All had great years on defense. All were surrounded by defensive talent, though Alyssa Thomas’ team had a bit less, which makes sense given that the Sun ended up 4th, with Seattle 1st and the Aces 2nd in defense.

But ultimately, the gap between the Storm and even the 2nd place Aces is enough, along with Stewart’s ability to both protect the rim and generate steals in the Storm’s aggressive defense, edges the contributions of the others. The Storm improved on defense, going from 4th place with a 96.4 defensive rating in 2019 to 1st this year with 92.7 rating. This even when offense was up across the WNBA this year. 

All-Defense First Team

This article is long enough as it is, so only doing first team. 

A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces: Candace Parker was good, but Wilson was more consistent. Her on ball defense is better, it is impressive how she can move her feet guarding even quicker guards.

Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun

Does not quite offer the rim protection of Stewart or Wilson, but she can do anything and everything else on the defensive end of the court. Always funny when teams use her defender in the pick and roll. It just does not work very well most of the time. She either switches and shuts down whichever guard it is, or steals the ball on the pass back to her player. And this year was extra funny, because the center she played with struggled against the pick and roll, Brionna Jones.

Alysha Clark, Seattle Storm: 

Once again, like the All-WNBA, sneaking her in as a guard. Sure, she will guard Napheesa Collier. But she also gets the assignment on Arike Ogunbowale, even though the Storm’s shooting guard is also a really good defender in Jewell Loyd. Clark nearly got my vote for this award, and if a non-big was going to win it, Alysha Clark would be my choice.

Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut Sun:

Offensively, Thomas had an up and down year. But she did not seem to let that bother her defense. Watching the very good rookie point guards go against her was a joy all year, as going from college defenders to Jasmine Thomas is quite a jump. She has enough size to guard shooting guards and has been good regardless of which guard she was paired next to Curt Miller cycled through options before Briann January was healthy.

Coach of the Year:

Cheryl Reeve:

There are a number of quality candidates for this award. Derek Fisher still has to answer questions about his playoff coaching decision, but he did a fine job in the regular season this year. Gary Kloppenburg did well stepping in for Dan Hughes. Bill Laimbeer’s insistence on starting Carolyn Swords aside, he knows his team well and was able to maximize them. 

But Cheryl Reeve showed why she is considered one of the best coaches in the game. It was clear from the first game that Crystal Dangerfield was the team’s best option at the point guard. But not as many would make the change in game 1, playing Dangerfield with the starters most of the second half. By game 3 Dangerfield was starting, and Reeve has trusted her to run the team. Reeve has had success shifting the Lynx from a more defensive team with Sylvia Fowles to one that plays 5 out and relies on its offense to win after Fowles got hut.

Executive of the Year: 

Bill Laimbeer and Dan Padover:

I’m not sure how the league would reward the Aces, as Laimbeer has final decision making power but Padover does much of the day to day work of an executive while Laimbeer coaches. But either way, the decision to sign Angel McCoughtry alone has earned them this award, but Danielel Robinson has been a good signing as well.

MVP, All-WNBA first and second team, MIP Player, and 6th Women of the Year.

The level of play in the bubble was everything WNBA fans could have hoped for. Here are my awards, if I had a vote, which of course I do not. This post will cover ALL-WNBA, Most Improved Player, and 6th Women of the Year. Defensive Player of the Year, All-Defense teams and Rookie awards to come Sunday. Only Dearica Hamby has clearly run away with an award, so it will be especially interesting this year who the actual voters end up awarding.

MVP:

  1. Breanna Stewart: 

A’ja Wilson had a wonderful season, but Stewart was just a bit more impactful on the court this year. She was the best defensive player on the leading defense in the league. To be fair, she did get a lot of help from good defenders up and down the Storm roster, but with Natasha Howard scuffling compared to her normal standards to start the season, Stewart has been great all season. Her passing and shooting provided needed variety to a Storm team that has dealt with injuries. Stewart led or was very near the top in whichever all in one stat one looked at, from pipm, to WARP, to win shares, to player impact estimate. These all in one stats are imperfect, but I do think they are capturing something about how good Stewart has been when they all point in the same direction.

  1. A’ja Wilson

A’ja Wilson was great this year. She very well might win MVP, and that would be a reasonable choice. It will be interesting to see what happens next year when Liz Cambage comes back, because until Wilson is willing or able to shoot 3s, she is at her best as a center. Cambage and Wilson can play together, but it may not be optimal usage of them. Defensively, Wilson has been a good on ball defender since she came into the WNBA, even switched onto guards and wings, but this year she really improved her help defense. She anchored the second best defense in the WNBA, and while her teammates are all good defenders, none are on the level of Alysha Clark or Natasha Howard, except possibly Angel McCoughtry, but she played far fewer minutes than either Clark or Howard.  

  1. Candace Parker

This is the toughest choice when it comes to MVP. Napheesa Collier has played extremely well, and at 2 positions where it is tough to find contributions, at 3 or 4. But she is just a bit behind Parker and for whatever reason the Lynx do not run their offense through her the way the Sparks can with Parker. 

Courtney Vandersloot was excellent as usual. But a guard to compete for MVP needs to do it on the offensive end because they just do not impact defense to the same degree as the forwards who tend to dominate MVP voting. Vandersloot of course led the leagues in assists, and nearly shot 50/40/90, but her attempts from 3 were not as high as one might want from such a good shooter, she took the same amount of 3s per game as Jasmine Thomas. Diana Taurasi is the weakest defender of the potential MVP candidates, but her offensive explosion helped the Mercury to fourth place without Brittney Griner. 

But Candace Parker has been the most impactful. Parker has been able to shift between the 4 and the 5 as needed. Chelsea Gray has been good, but not her best self, as she has struggled shooting a bit. Nneka Ogwumike has been effective when she has played, but has missed time. Parker’s 3 point shooting and passing has been key. Kristine Anigwe and Marie Gulich have improved as 2nd year players tend to, but both were among the least effective players in the WNBA last year and both have been helped immensely by playing next to Parker. While talk of defensive player of the year is a bit much, Parker is tall, still mobile, and knows where to be.

All-WNBA First team:

My understanding is the WNBA asks voters to keep to traditional positions. While I would prefer to simply make a list with the 5 best players regardless of position, I slot players in positions they at least spent some of the year playing. 

First team:

Center: Candace Parker

Forward: A’ja Wilson

Forward: Breanna Stewart

Guard: Diana Taurasi

I briefly mentioned Taurasi, but it’s worth emphasizing that she has been the single most effective offensive force in the WNBA this year, at age 38. That is incredible. She is taking 9.2 3s per game, with the next closest player who played more than 10 games being Kelsey Mitchell at 6.5. Taurasi shoots from deeper than anyone else in the WNBA, off the dribble, in a way that warps defenses like no other player. I limit my WNBA – NBA comparisons, but there’s a reason Taurasi has said that “Steph Curry highlights are just WNBA highlights.” No one else does it like Taurasi or Curry, though I am excited for Kelsey Mitchell, Sabrina Ionescu and other up and coming guards who clearly take inspiration from the shooters before them. What a gift to get yet another great year from Diana Taurasi. 

Guard: Courtney Vandersloot

The most underrated aspect of Vandersloot’s game might be her defense. There are limits to how much the Sky can crossmatch her, as she can get overwhelmed physically by bigger guards and wings like Chelsea Gray, but there’s a reason James Wade will at key moments have Vandersloot switch assignments with Allie Quigley and take the more dangerous guard. She’s not quite on the level of Jasmine Thomas or Jordin Canada, but she is a good athlete, and competes hard.

2nd team All-WNBA:

I’m staying away from anyone who played significant minutes at center for my second team, as it is challenging to find someone more deserving than the plethora of forwards this year. Swapping Collier for Parker and sliding Wilson to 1st team center is tempting just to make my lineups work, but probably not worth it.

Forward: Napheesa Collier

Sometimes it is hard to remember that Collier is only in her second year. She plays like a seasoned vet, one who handled a huge load for the Lynx, especially after Fowles went down. She led the WNBA in minutes, and maintained her energy throughout. Her versatility is key to the Lynx success. Her three point shooting seems real which allows her to play the 3, and her off ball defense when she is at the 4 and even occasionally a small ball 5 is impressive for any level of experience, but especially for a second year player. She has struggled a bit lately guarding the bigger forwards, namely A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.

The next step in her development is for the offense to run through her more, particularly in key moments. When will Cheryl Reeve have her take more direct responsibility for the offense, as wings with her skill set tend to? They have the shooting to run plays through her, have her run pick and rolls as both ball handler and screener, and it would raise Collier’s ceiling if it could be incorporated. Whether Reeve is simply reluctant to move towards a less democratic system, or Collier needs to improve her handle and passing, or both, that seems like an area the Lynx could look to work on.

Forward: Angel McCoughtry: 

On a per minute basis, McCoughtry had a good argument for first team over Candace Parker (and moving Wilson to center) or being slotted in as a guard over Taurasi. Getting to watch McCoughtry play so well has been wonderful. She did only play 411 minutes, compared to 521 for Taurasi and 600+ for her other competition. Still, she was so impactful in those minutes I am fine putting her on 2nd team. The low minutes for Mccoughtry is a good sign for the Aces playoff hopes, as reporting has indicated the Aces will try to increase her workload closer to 30 minutes per game than 20, which will only make the Aces better, assuming she is able to handle the increased load for the playoffs.

Forward: DeWanna Bonner: 

I stand by my piece on the Sun and the awkward fit offensively between Bonner and Alyssa Thomas. But even at the time I wrote the piece, when the Sun were 0-5, it was clear they were a better team than that. Briann January returning and Jasmine Thomas shooting more have helped. And for all that Bonner and Thomas cause spacing issues on offense, they are so hard to score against. They can both guard multiple positions, switch any pick and rolls, and are good at generating turnovers without unnecessary gambling. Bonner cooled off from 3 after a hot start, but she had her usual impact with her passing, ability to draw fouls, and rebound well for her position.

Guard: Alysha Clark

This is a bit of a cheat, as Clark mostly plays small forward. But she is often tasked with guarding the other team’s best player, including guards, whether that be Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Mitchell, or Arike Ogunbowale. They also will sometimes guard her, and she is good at using her post skills to score down low a couple of times a game. She is also an unusual choice for the all-wnba team, because of how low usage she is, she either passes or shoots immediately when she gets the ball. She can do basically everything one wants from a modern guard/ wing, except for dribble. Which admittedly is a big part of basketball. But she is so good as the perfect role player, and her ability to be impactful off-ball helps her more ball dominant co-stars thrive, that she has earned this spot. 

Guard: Arike Ogunbowale

Advanced stats are really down on her defense, and that hurts her when if one relies on those. But the Wings as a whole are a poor defensive team, and it’s hard to pin that solely on Ogunbowale. Sure, she could stand to improve her defense, but she’s not a complete mess there. Offensively though, Ogunbowale took a step forward. Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jewell Loyd also have good arguments for this spot. Ogunbowale is not as efficient as SDS or Loyd, but she is the main focus of opposing defenses night after night, unlike those other two. She is second in the league in usage and still manages to be reasonably efficient. Loyd is the best defender of the group, but even though the Storm were the best team in the regular season, they were not three players on All-WNBA team good. 

Most Improved Player

I’m not a huge fan of this award, as it is the award with the least clear standards. More clarity on the criteria would be nice. But for me, I don’t consider second year players, as they all tend to improve, as they should. I also prioritize players who are playing similar amounts in a similar role, but simply doing it much better. So Kaleah Copper had a good year, but she was pretty good last year. The big improvement she made was that Diamond DeShields was hurt this year, so Copper played more.

  1. Betnijah Laney

Laney went from playing 26 minutes per game for the Fever, who cut her, to playing 33 minutes for the Dream, and improving offensively in basically every category one can improve in. Massive improvements like hers can be flukey, but the fact that her shooting splits went up in basically every category gives me some hope that this is repeatable. Going from 36/30/68 in 2019 to 48/40/85 in 2020 on significantly more attempts in the fifth year of a player’s career simply does not happen. What a great year for her. 

  1. Myisha Hines-Allen

Hines-Allen’s improvement was somewhat just that she went from being buried on the Mystics bench behind two of the best players in the world to starting, but she still took her opportunity and ran with it. Her shooting numbers went up and she showed off a more versatile game than she had before, at least in the WNBA. She is going to among the most interesting players to watch over the next couple of seasons, as 25 year old players with her skillset simply do not become available very often in the WNBA, the Mystics are unable to resign her.

6th Women of the Year

  1. Dearica Hamby

Hamby winning this seems like violating the spirit of the award, as Hamby was a starter for all intents and purposes. She played the 25th most minutes in the league. She was second on her own team. Not to take anything away from Hamby, but on most teams she’s a starter. Still, she is clearly the best player who came off the bench in the bubble. She is a key reason the Aces were so successful this year as she is effective next to Wilson or Carolyn Swords. While she did not shoot very many 3s, her diligent work to expand her range helped the Aces manufacture just enough spacing. She can guard the toughest matchups from 3-5 and hold her own switched onto quicker guards, if forced to.

Honorable mention: Riquana Williams, Jackie Young, and Sami Whitcomb.

Looking Forward: Who is the Indiana Fever’s Future Star?

The major question about the Indiana Fever as we come up on the end of the regular season is the same as the one before the season started. Who on this team can be projected as a top 10 player in the WNBA? Who is the high upside player the Fever should be building around? There is less clarity on these questions than for any other team in the WNBA. 

There is little movement of top players in the WNBA and what little there is unlikely to benefit the Indiana Fever. Indiana is not a destination top players sign with as a free agent or force trades to. That leaves the draft as the best chance to find top players, the kind that can return the Fever to playoff contention.

The Fever have been rebuilding since Tamika Catchings retired after the 2016 season. They have had top picks in the 2018-2020 drafts Over those three years the Fever took Kelsey Mitchell with the 2nd pick in 2018, Teaira McCowan with the third pick in 2019 and Lauren Cox with the third pick in 2020.

Draft misses occur. The Fever are far from the only team who likely regret passing on Napheesa Collier. The concern with the drafting record of the Fever is it is unclear what the process behind the drafting was. Drafting the clear best player but often there is not a clear best player at a given draft slot. Within tiers of players with relatively similar outlooks, teams should take into account the kinds of stars it takes to win in the WNBA. The Fever do not appear to have done this.

The 2020 season has shown that the WNBA is only accelerating into the trend that the most important type of player is the big wing. Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson, and Candace Parker are all in the hunt for MVP for a reason.

After those players, the next most important type of player is a guard who can shoot threes off the dribble at a decent rate. Courtney Vandersloot, Arike Ogunbowale, and Diana Taurasi have different playing styles, but all are able to hit threes off the dribble if defenses give them too much space. As is no coincidence, they are the guards contending for first team all-WNBA.

Kelsey Mitchell can shoot threes of the dribble and make them at a high rate, and no big wings of note were taken after her. It is the next two drafts that raise questions. The Fever took McCowan over Napheesa Collier and Ogunbowale in 2019 and Lauren Cox over Chennedy Carter this past draft. Collier is going to miss first team all-WNBA only because of how stacked her position is. Ogunbowale may miss, but only because Taurasi is still killing it at 38. Carter would be rookie of the year had she stayed healthy.

Kelsey Mitchell has the shooting and athleticism to at least play like Diana Taurasi. While it is unfair to expect anyone to reach Taurasi’s level, Taurasi can still be an example to show where Kelsey Mitchell can take her game. Here we can compare Taurasi’s 2018 season, when at age 36 she led the Mercury to within minutes of the WNBA finals, to Kelsey Mitchell.

PlayerTS%3PA/ gameFTA/ GameAssists
Diana Taurasi (201863%8.85.95.3
Kelsey Mitchell(2020)57%6.73.22.8

Kelsey Mitchell may not need to go to quite the foul seeking limits that Taurasi does, she can still increase how many she tkaes per game. She also has the ability to sometimes take a step or two back and shoot deeper threes, while also limiting how often she takes a step or two in to take a long 2, instead of just shooting the 3.

Unlike Mitchell, who has a path to stardom, even if Lauren Cox and Teaira McCowan reach their potential, and become the best versions of themselves, it is hard to see either being as good as Napheesa Collier or Chennedy Carter. Collier is giving the Lynx great minutes at either the 3 or the 4 and shooting 36% from 3. Chennedy Carter even without a reliable three point shot can break down opposing defenses and if she continues to improve her shooting off the dribble, her upside is as high as any guard to enter the league the last few years.

Teaira McCowan has started only half the Fever’s games, and has been quite likely the least effective center on defense in the WNBA. She is not solely to blame for the Fever having the worst defense in the WNBA, but she has certainly not helped.

For a league that is trending smaller and emphasizing shooting, drafting two likely centers back to back is a bold decision that leaves questions about where the Fever are headed. Cox, in admittedly few minutes, did look able to move her feet and play defense, and even hit a few threes, but most of her best defensive minutes were at center. Hopefully we see more of her next year, as the combination of covid-19 and a knee injury limited Cox to 13 minutes per game in only 14 games.

The Fever will for the fourth year in a row have a high draft pick in the 2021 draft. Rennia Davis of Tennessee has the look of a big wing of the future. If she is not available when the Fever draft, taking a chance on a wing who has not quite figured out the shooting would make sense.

Tamika Catchings, the Fever great, is running the Fever now. It is quite the coincidence that the player the Fever most need is a player like Catchings. Whether the Fever can find such a player will go a long way towards whether the Fever can make it out of the doldrums of a rebuilding team.

Looking Forward: The New York Liberty’s Coming Roster Crunch

Quite a few teams are going to have difficult roster decisions to make next year as players who opted out of this season return to teams. But no team will have such interesting decisions as the The New York Liberty. Relative lack of proven veterans combined with a good collection of high upside young players will make for some tough decisions. As the team plays out their final 5 games, here is a look at the roster decisions that head coach Walt Hopkins and CEO Keia Clarke will have to weigh in preparation for the 2021 season.

First a side note on player development. I have long bought into the idea that young players should be played to give them experience and help develop them. The idea that certain coaches’ habit of playing veterans in a losing season over young players holds the team back. However, the recent history of player development does not really bear this out.

From the NBA side, this article by John Hollinger ($) looks at how the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers have had some of the best player success in the NBA, and they are the only two NBA teams without G League teams. Concerted effort in practice, in 3 on 3s and 4 on 4s, seems to matter in skill development more than game time. A cross sports comparison can be seen in baseball, as this piece from fivethirtyeight dug into.

For the WNBA, the success of young players developing under Mike Thibault and Cheryl Reeve also gives some evidence that playing time is not necessarily a key component of player development. Both have been coaching successful teams and thus have not been able to give lots of playing time to young prospects who are not ready. Yet, Myisha Hines-Allen has been excellent now that she has her opportunity in year 3, after barely playing before this year. Natasha Howard played relatively few minutes for the Lynx, but was ready to step into a much larger role on the Storm with an improved skill set when minutes were there for her.  

While it would be nice for those of us who analyze the WNBA based on watching games if the Liberty rookies would be given more playing time over the veterans, Walt Hopkins playing veterans may not be holding the young players back. The Liberty have plans for developing their young players, and those plans will happen regardless of how many minutes those players get in the final games of the 2020 season.

The New York Liberty will have 12 players on their roster next season. Here’s a look now at where the Liberty players, both those in Bradenton and those who opted out, stand. Who is likely to be on the roster next year and who may be grinding for another spot in the league with another team.

In descending order from most likely to still likely but less so. A real cutoff happens after Johannes. I would be surprised if Walker was not on the team next year, but not shocked, like I would be if Asia Durr for instance was not brought back. The 2021 draft pick won’t be cut, but could be traded.

Sabrina Ionescu

Asia Durr

Kia Nurse

Layshia Clarendon

Marine Johannes

2021 1st round draft pick

Megan Walker

Rebecca Allen

Kylee Shook

Leaonna Odom

Jocelyn Willoughby

Jazmine Jones

Kylee Shook has impressed with her rapid improvement on defense as the season as gone on. Her shooting has not translated yet, but her shot does not look broken and I expect it to improve. Odom has the highest variance of players. If she does not improve her shooting, nor improve her handle, she may struggle offer much on defense. But she is so athletic and offers upside at the toughest position, big wing, to find contributors.

Willoughby and Jones have had typical up and down rookie years, but Willoughby has shot fairly well from 3. Her 2 point shooting numbers are ugly, and so that is an area to keep an eye on. Jones has done fairly well for someone forced to play out of position., playing the point guard when she is much more of a shooting guard. Jones is lowest on the list because she plays the same position as Durr and Johannes, where both Ionescue and Clarendon can play as well, and may be a victim of a numbers game.

That is twelve players right there. This list does not include either of the Liberty’s veteran free agents, Kiah Stokes or Amanda Zahui B. Stokes on an affordable contract, say in the $100,000 range, would be a decent fit if an international player does not come over. She is a reasonable starting center who can soak up minutes. 

Zahui B is the better player, but may be out of the Liberty’s price range. She is more solid starter than top 2 player on a good team, but bigs who can shoot and defend like she can are hard to come by (Dream article), and she may be in line for more money than it makes sense for the Liberty to pay her. 

Han Xu was on the Liberty in 2019. The 6’9” 20 year old from China is so young and has time to develop into a good player, but the Liberty should see if she is willing to stay abroad to continue to develop her game and wait to come over until she’s a bit older and stronger. 

The Liberty have 5 games remaining this year. This is the time to be watching how Paris Kea and Joyner Holmes look, as 2 young players on the outside looking in. At the moment, Paris Kea is making a case for a place in the WNBA with decent shooting, particularly off the dribble, and helping stabilize the point guard position for the Liberty. Joyner Holmes has work to do. She is currently sporting a brutal 28% eFG, which does not inspire confidence in her place on the Liberty next year, or frankly in the league. 

The Liberty have shown they are willing to make trades, and so it will be interesting to see with a high draft pick in this upcoming draft, possibly #1, whether the team holds onto the pick or looks to make a move to get a youngish star who can grow with Ionescu.

Edited because I forgot about Stephanie Talbot. The Liberty got her in a draft day trade. I am leaning against her being on the team, but the Liberty might keep her as they do need players who can actually shoot in their 5 out offense. If she even comes over from Australia.

Looking Forward: The Atlanta Dream’s Forwards

The Atlanta Dream have had as tough a 2020 season as any team not named the Washington Mystics when it comes to opt outs, injuries, and players coming back after testing positive for covid-19. Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery opted out, Glory Johnson, Courtney Williams, and Kalani Brown all joined the team late and have needed time to get back into shape and in tune with their teammates, and Chennedy Carter has missed time with an ankle injury.

This has left Nicki Collen having to play some lineups she probably was not planning on playing coming into the year. Notably, Monique Billings at the power forward spot. Billings does bring some positives to the Dream. She is a good offensive rebounder, she is able to outrun opposing bigs in transition, and can sometimes beat opposing bigs off the dribble using her speed.

However, Monique Billings’ lack of any kind of shooting also highlights some of the ways the WNBA is changing to emphasize shooting. Simply put, it is very hard to craft a top 6, so top half of the WNBA, league offense while playing two front court players who can not shoot 3s. Billings spends much of the game playing next to the Dream’s center, Elizabeth Williams, who also does not shoot 3s. 

The obvious counter to the need for spacing is the Las Vegas Aces. A team that shoots far fewer threes than any other team, but as of 8/31 is 2nd in offensive rating, per wnba.com. However, the Aces actually manage to have better spacing than one might think, by where they station their players. 

In the Aces best lineups, Dearica Hamby plays the 4 on offense. While Hamby is only attempting 1.5 3s per game this year, she will stand behind the 3 point line and teams will at least somewhat guard her. This allows the Aces to give just enough spacing to A’ja Wilson and whoever else to attack inside. McCoughtry will similarly stand at the three, and take them sometimes. Both are also excellent cutters and better post up threats than Billings, which helps. 

Something to watch for in the playoffs is how teams guard the Jackie Young, Angel McCoughtry, Dearica Hamby trio, as teams will often be more extreme in ignoring non-threatening shooters in the playoffs when they have time to focus on a single opponent. The benefit the Aces have is all 3 of those players can attack and make plays off the dribble, which makes up for some of those spacing issues.

Back to the Dream. Even when Monique Billings puts up decent numbers herself, when she is playing next to Elizabeth Williams, she tends to make it harder for her teammates to succeed. A big question the Dream should answer going forward is who is going to be their power forward of the future.

 Of course playing Billings next to a stretch 5 who can shoot 3s might work, but there are 2 of those currently in the WNBA, Stefanie Dolson and Jonquel Jones. I guess 3 if you include Natasha Howard, who occasionally hits her 3s. While that would be great, figuring out a better solution for who plays 4 seems more likely.. 

This play against the Minnesota Lynx is a good example of the drawbacks of two non-shooters in the front court. On the box score, this play is recorded as a turnover by Betnijah Laney. However, the play breaks down largely because of how Napheesa Collier is able to completely ignore Monique Billings. Watch where Collier goes and where Billings goes.

Atlanta Dream pick and roll. Leads to steal for Minnesota Lynx.

The play is a pick and roll with Elizabeth Williams screening for Betnijah Laney. Right off the bat, Damiris Dantas, who is guarding Williams, knows she can double team Laney hard, because Collier is right behind her to pick up the rolling Williams. 

Then, when Laney stops to look for someone to pass to out of the double team, all she sees is Billings running right at her. That might be the best pass, but it’s understandable why Laney tries for something riskier. Billings isn’t likely to make a shot from long 2, and if she tries to drive, Dantas and Collier are there to cover her, since Elizabeth Williams is still under the basket. 

This is why willingness to shoot 3s can matter, even when the outcome is not particularly good. If Glory Johnson had been with the Dream from the beginning, she might have gotten the starting nod at the 4. And while Johnson is by no means a knock down 3 point shooter, a career 31% 3 point shooter, she is at least willing to stand behind the three point line and let it fly when open. 

Especially in the regular season, opposing teams tend to guard players who let it fly, even when the percentages say they could back off. DeWanna Bonner has benefited from this tendency for years. Letting Bonner shoot a 3 is about as good an outcome as one could hope against the Sun, but teams still guard her out on the perimeter, even though she is below 30% from 3 for her career. 

Monique Billings has flirted with shooting 3s a couple of times this season. One avenue to improvement would be for her to add that to her game. But the Dream should be making plans as if Billings is best off as a smaller 5 off the bench, who can use her quickness to outrun opposing bigs. Can Betnijah Laney give them minutes at the 4? All questions to keep an eye out for over the final 7 games of the 2020 season and into the offseason. 

The Dream have found some good pieces this year, even in a frustrating season in terms of wins and losses. Betnijah Laney is most likely going to win Most Improved Player of the year and Chennedy Carter has looked at times like a future superstar. Courtney Williams is rounding into shape and looks like the player the Dream signed. Shekinna Stricklen is still an excellent role player. Reinforcements from Tiffany Hayes and Renee Montgomery will hopefully be coming. How this team handles the forward position is going to be key to the next few years for the Atlanta Dream.