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.

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.

WNBA Championship runs through Breanna Stewart

The Seattle Storm are heavy favorites to win the championship this year and Breanna Stewart returning is the main reason. Stewart is the best player in the WNBA, assuming good health. She can play anywhere from the small forward to center, but fundamentally she is a big wing.  

A big wing is a player who is 6’+, who can shoot 3s, dribble and pass. They are the most valuable player type in modern basketball and drive winning more than any other position. Big wing to me is more accurate than power forward because the separator for these players is the ability to handle the ball and play make for their teammates from both the perimeter and in the post.

Look at who won MVP and finals MVP the last two years. Breanna Stewart is 6’4” with a wingspan that lets her play even bigger. Elena Delle Donne is 6’5”. Emma Meesseman is 6’4”. Meesseman’s lack of length and strength makes her the least impactful defensive player of the three, but she is the best passer of the bunch. EDD is the best shooter, Stewart the best defender. Candace Parker is of course the prototype in the WNBA for this type of player, and the Sparks will go as far as she can take them.

What made Maya Moore great was at only 6’0” she had the athleticism and wingspan to be able to play bigger than her size. To me, she was the key member of those Lynx teams, even more than 1st ballot Hall of Famer Sylvia Fowles, as Moore was their lone 3 point shooter and was the team’s best defender on opposing big wings like Candace Parker. 

The Washington Mystics were able to dominate in 2019 because they had both Elene Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman. In the finals, the Sun could have handled one of EDD or Meesseman, but having to guard both at once proved too much. Alyssa Thomas could slow whichever she was guarding, but that then left the other to be guarded by someone too slow or too small. Hence Meesseman winning finals MVP, as the big wing who was healthy and not being guarded by AT she did a ton of damage.

The value of big wings showed up for the Mystics this past Sunday, when the presence of Emma Meesseman and Myisha Hines-Allen caused Indiana Fever coach Marianne Stanley to bring 6’7” Teaira McCowan off the bench. It didn’t work. Both Meesseman and Hines-Allen hit 3s, posted up anytime a smaller player guarded them, and simply dominated whichever players the Fever threw at them. If Hines-Allen can continue to be a credible 3 point shooter, this Mystics team is going to be feisty and may justify my season prediction of them finishing 4th.

As  good as Hines-Allen and Meesseman looked, there is a reason I and many others have picked the Seattle Storm to win the championship. This team in 2020 might be even better than the 2018 team that won the championship. Breanna Stewart should still be improving, as she is entering her prime this year as she is only 26. She showed few signs of rust in her first game back with the Storm against the New York Liberty, an encouraging sign.

The big difference for this team though is Natasha Howard. Howard had to do her best big wing impersonation last year with Stewart injured and was fairly effective at it, shooting 31% on 3 attempts per game from 3 and posting by far her highest assist percentage of her career at 14%. While neither number is what one wants from an elite big wing, as the second big who is also the reigning defensive player of the year, her improved skill is a luxury any other team in the WNBA would love to have. 

No other team in the league has two players who can credibly guard both Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard both 25 feet from the basket and in the post. Add in the fact that the Storm have good contributors everywhere else and the best backup point guard in Jordin Canada in the WNBA, and they are heavy favorites for a reason.

Some other big wings to watch as the season goes forward are Diamond DeShields, Napheesa Collier, and Satou Sabally. DeShields did not look herself physically, which is concerning for the Chicago Sky’s chances of making the finals. Hopefully she is able to recover. And start hitting 3s. She is good at everything else, but shooting is still her swing skill between being a good player and a great player.

Collier for the Minnesota Lynx had a good fourth quarter, but I was a bit disappointed to not see more improvement in her ball handling. She is still a player who needs to be assisted on nearly every basket, it seems. The team really took off when Crystal Dangerfield, the team’s only point guard at the moment, started playing well. However, Collier was still able to use her size and quickness to make an impact against the Sun, and her shooting continues to be impressive for someone who shot so little in college.

Sabally looked the part for the Dallas Wings. There is a reason some draft experts like Ben Dull put her over Sabrina Ionescue in their draft rankings. At 6’4”, she was able to use her quickness and size to score against the Dream. The most promising part of her game for me was her passing, as she had a couple of plays where she made fairly advanced kickout passes to waiting shooters and hit them on target and on time.