2022 WNBA Season Preview 3: New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington

Here is part 3 of 3 of my season previews. If you missed them, here are part 1 and part 2.  New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington. Key questions and 7 interesting roster spots. 

Brittney Griner will not be a part of the Phoenix section. Here is the latest news concerning her detention in Russia. And because the WNBA and the people close to Griner are encouraging folks to make more noise about her detention, I wanted to note it here. I am hoping that Griner is able to make it home and focus on her health and well being soon.

New York Liberty

How far in the playoffs does New York need to go to not have put themselves on the proverbial treadmill of mediocrity? A hybrid rebuild without any top 15 players is a tough outcome and doesn’t lead to winning many playoff rounds typically. Other than Sabrina Ionescu if everything goes perfectly in her development, who is likely to be a top 15 player on this roster? Maybe Natasha Howard with a full, healthy season, but certainly no guarantees. 

I am not a championship or bust kind of person, but all of this for the Liberty to once again be fighting for the 8th seed does not seem like sustainable team building. Maybe if Nyara Sabally comes back fully healthy in 2023 her and Sabrina can lead this team into the future, but we shall see. Then again, maybe they sign Breanna Stewart and/or Jewell Loyd in the next couple of years and this is all academic because a New York team that is willing to spend money will attract top free agents. 

Starters:

Sami Whitcomb: Who counts as pg between Whitcomb and Sabrina Ionescu is an interesting question and I lean Whitcomb for now. Whitcomb is a solid starter who can shoot and play make and is not terrible on defense. Too many turnovers and not as good assist rate as one would like, so hopefully she settles in if NY uses her as their main point guard.

Sabrina Ionescu: Needs to be the shooter from 3 off the dribble she looked like to unlock her full star potential, but even without that is a solid player. Likely won’t be as good as her college teammate Satou Sabally, but that is no shame given how good Sabally is. She is still the highest upside player on the team, so will be worth watching. If she can take over lead ball handling duties from Whitcomb this team will go farther.

Betnijah Laney: Can Laney be efficient if it makes sense for her to take a step back if any of the other Liberty players step up? Her shooting numbers in 2021 were still up from her career average, but not nearly as good as in 2020. Her penchant for long 2s also hurt her TS% where she shot 53%. Especially if she plays more off ball, more 3s and fewer long 2s would be good.

Natasha Howard: I would play Howard, especially in the playoffs, at center as much as possible. I suspect Sandy Brondello does not agree with me and so it will be interesting to see how Howard does at the 4. Two main things to watch with Howard is can she stay out of foul trouble and still be a disruptive defender and can she be effective from the perimeter as a 4.

Stefanie Dolson: Also a big who needs to watch for foul trouble. Fouling could be an issue for this Liberty team but especially for the bigs. Should be a serious upgrade on offense when she can play as someone who can pass, shoot and set quality screens.  But there is a ceiling on how effective she can be given defensive concerns, which is why she was the perfect third big for the Sky and might be overmatched starting for the Liberty if they make the playoffs.

Reserves:

Micheala Onyenwere: An enjoyable surprise in 2021, she certainly outperformed my expectations in winning rookie of the year. Though deserved, she was out of the rotation mostly by the end of the year as her hot start from 3 did not continue. Did she add to her perimeter game? Will she be able to convince teams to guard her out there? Or can she play at the 3 for this now pretty big heavy team.

Han Xu: The most unknown of the players I have written about for this series, but the now 6’10” Han Xu is a skilled center. Still may not have the strength to really bang in the W, but I hope we get to see how her skill level at her height translates in the W. A matchup with her national team teammate Li Yueru, who is looking to play for the Sky, would be particularly fun.

Phoenix Mercury

Key Question:

How many players on this team are both good on offense and defense? Skylar Diggins-Smith could be if she improves her focus and effort on the defensive end. Brianna Turner could be if she is played with four shooters on offense and just has to finish. Other than that, it is unclear how this team is going to play both ends consistently at the level they aspire to. 

Trying to maximize the end of Diana Taurasi’s career is good. However, this is also a year where Phoenix repeatedly punting on the draft might come to hurt .0

them. Even with BG, this is a team that has some depth in the front court, but not much less elsewhere.

Starters

Skylar Diggins-Smith: Two straight seasons of good numbers from 3 mean her shooting improvement is looking real. That is huge as she is still fast and strong for a point guard. Now improving her defense would benefit Phoenix, as Diana Tuarasi certainly isn’t taking the tougher back court assignments. 

Diana Taurasi: When healthy showed that she can still get buckets, so this will be a season of hoping she is healthy when it matters most. Hope she feels up for some of her 30 foot shots early in the clock, as those are always a joy.

Diamond DeShields: Still has the outline of a productive and effective wing, but her TS% has gone down since her rookie year and has been under 50% the last two years, which is not good. Health has played a role, so hope for her being fully healthy. It is also missing shots and just not being effective in a half court offense. Phoenix may be better, but I would not have signed her to that contract.

Brianna Turner: Some ability to do something with the ball in her hands more than a foot from the basket would be nice if she is going to be played at the 4 instead of a smaller 5. As a smaller 5, her speed and defensive playmaking would be very useful and her lack of offensive game less of an issue. Maybe with Tina Charles’ ability to space the floor this pairing can work.

Tina Charles: In 2021 she was a very good offensive force and a not good defensive presence. This Phoenix team has more offensive talent than that Washington team did not but fewer good defenders, so this might be an even more extreme case of good offense and bad defense. 

Reserves:

Kia Nurse: If Nurse is healthy and able to play this year, she should be able to challenge for the starting small forward role. DeShields did not come to Phoenix to come off the bench, but Nurse may be a better fit next to the other Phoenix starters with her ability to hit open shots. 36% from 2 shows she has much less upside than DeShields, but 35% from 3 is better than DeShields has ever shot.

Sam Thomas: If Thomas makes the team, it will be a test of the utility of a strictly 3 and D college player transitioning to the pros. This was one of the reasons I did not have Lexie Hull as a first round pick. But Thomas and Hull may show that this archetype can work.

Seattle Storm

Key Question:

Who is the fifth player on this team in crunch time, assuming Mercedes Russell plays at center. Not being able to go 5 out does limit this teams offense to a degree, but they don’t really have a good option next to Stewart to go 5 out, so Russell it is. That other spot though seems far more up for grabs. I’d bet the competition is between Briann January and Gabby Williams. Both are good defenders, but January is the better shooter while Williams offers more versatility with her size and passing.

I’d give the edge to January, if Loyd can handle guarding Kahleah Copper and other taller players without being killed. January can then guard the tougher guard option and allow Sue Bird and easier assignment. January can then hit open 3s and will be guarded in a way that Gabby Williams won’t be. Even if Williams has a good year from 3, teams probably will still dare her to shoot to take away the Storm’s much more dangerous options.

Starters:

Sue Bird: If Bird is healthy for the playoffs, she will be able to use her smarts to be a fine help defender and her shooting and passing to lead the Storm. For a player who never goes into the paint on either side of the ball, she is still at her age very effective.

Jewell Loyd: Made strides in creating her own shot and creating shots for others in 2021. This should continue to grow. While her shooting percentages fell a bit under a heavier load, they were still quite good. A career high in assists with only a small jump in turnovers helped as well. A good, if not great, defender and all told Loyd is the best shooting guard in the W.

Gabby Williams: I anticipate January finishing games, but think Williams starts to allow Jewell Loyd to play her more natural position. Williams excels with the ball in her hands, as a decent passer and finisher but not a shooter. How much will Seattle play her on ball, given they have better options, but those options are also better off ball players than Williams?

Breanna Stewart: The best player in the world. Hopefully she can be healthy all year as Seattle is my choice to win the championship. Their best players, other than Bird, are in their prime and Stewart is key to this. On the court, it is looking like 2018 was an outlier of a season shooting wise. If she can get closer to those shooting numbers that would obviously benefit her and the Storm. But she is amazing at everything even if she isn’t that level of shooter.

Mercedes Russell: Hopefully she is healthy, as the W is as always not forthcoming with any medical information so we have no idea what her injury is or any kind of timeline for when she might be back. Doesn’t space the floor, nor is she a center who can switch, but she is perfectly acceptable at everything else a 6’6” center should be good at.

Reserves:

Briann January: Her fit on Seattle should be great. Her major limitation is reluctance to fire from 3 unless wide open and inability to create her own shot, but neither are thing she will be needed to do in Seattle. She can take her open 3s and defend at an elite level and nothing more on Seattle. 

Ezi Magbegor: Her outside game has not developed, but if anyone on this roster can offer lineup versatility to alternate with Russell, it will be Magbegor. Seattle doesn’t seem to trust her yet, but  she is still only 22 and is still improving. Her 3 point shooting

Washington Mystics:

Key Question?

The key question is the health of Elena Delle Donne and to a lesser but still important degree, Alysha Clark. But that is not something I can know about and we can just hope for good health for both. My question is about the decision to trade down from 1 to 3 and draft Shakira Austin. Unfortunately, the Christyn Williams, the 14th pick who the Mystics also got in the trade with Atlanta, is out for the year with an injury. So even more than most trades this one will be incomplete. Thibault may have also been counting on the swap pick they got next year being good, if the Sparks do not live up to their potential.

Thibault knows basketballl far more than me, but I am all in on Rhyne Howard and especially given Alysha Clark’s health concerns, I think she would have been a better fit on this Mystics team. Austin has to really develop her offensive game, especially given wings who shoot like Howard and can defend are harder to find than centers like Austin. There’s a reason Clark is being paid more than Elizabeth Williams. Thibault is an excellent gm though, so I look forward to seeing if and how I was wrong in my evaluation of both.

Starters:

Natasha Cloud: Cloud is good at either guard spot and thus it will be interesting to see how much of the season she plays at point guard and how often she plays next to Rui Machida or another point guard. Particularly given she is also going to be playing some with non-shooters in Elizabeth Williams and Shakira Austin, if she can have a good season shooting from 3, that would help the Mystics.

Ariel Atkins: Made incremental progress as a shot creator and passer. To be more than an elite role player will need to continue to improve. As is though, she is a very effective player. An excellent on and off ball defender.

Alysha Clark: A 34 almost 35 year old wing who relies on her lateral quickness dealing with a foot injury is tough. If Clark comes back healthy and is still a good defender, great. But if not, one wonders if the Mystics will regret passing on Rhyne Howard.

Elena Delle Donne: The best offensive player in basketball when healthy. One of the greatest shooters in W history and at 6’5” has learned to use her size effectively. Hopefully we get at least a couple more healthy seasons out of her. 

Elizabeth Williams: A common theme with former and even maybe current Dream players, she has not played in this kind of space. Should be able to pressure the rim as a roller in pick and rolls. Will be interesting to see if Washington plays a switching style with her, as she is fairly athletic for a center but has not traditionally been asked to switch out onto guards. 

Reserves

Rui Machida: I don’t tend to root for one player over others, but I do hope Machida’s brilliance translates to the W. A brilliant passer, I think she can hit enough shots and defend just enough to be an effective backup point guard. 

Shakira Austin: To be clear, Austin is a good player and I was high on her before the draft. I may criticize the Mystics front office, but she was not able to control where she was drafted or the circumstances. I hope for nothing but the best for her. Her defense should be good, if not right away as a rookie. She will be a star if she can shoot efficiently and gain advantages against other starting centers with her face up game. 

2021 Season Preview: Phoenix, Seattle, and Washington

The fourth and final season preview is here, just in time for the season starting Friday night. Finishing the previews with the Phoenix Mercury, a team with individual talent who have to answer a few questions to be successful, the defending champion Seattle Storm and the other defending champion because of the pandemic, the Washington Mystics.

Phoenix Mercury

Projected Starters

Skylar Diggins-Smith: Offensively had her best season in the W in 2020. Her shooting from 3 has bounced around from under 30% two 2x near or over 40, so how effective she will depend on that. Though given her past success at times, teams may still guard her like a shooter, even if she goes cold again from 3. Defense not a strong suit, would be nice to see that more locked in.

Diana Taurasi: At 38 was the best shooting guard in the W in 2020 with a propensity for hitting deep 3s off the dribble. Hopefully she can keep it up, as there are few players as exciting as DT when she has it going from deep. But a question given her age how many games she can bring it and for how many minutes per game.

Kia Nurse: Shot horribly during the 2020 season on a bad, weird, Liberty team. Phoenix is hoping that was an aberration, which is a reasonable hope. Another concern is that while she is an ok defender at the 3, she might be a bit over matched against the best 3s. While an upgrade on last season’s  options, is she good enough to hang with Napheesa Collier or the other better, bigger 3s?

Brianna Turner: Best as a small ball 5, will be interesting to see how the Mercury use her this season at the four. Her lack of range and limited play making make her a questionable fit next to Griner, but she is the Mercury’s best option here. 

Brittney Griner: The best offensive center in the W, can the Mercury cover for her on the defensive end? Also, will they ever encourage her to take a three here and there? I don’t expect her to turn into a real stretch 5, of course, but she is too good a shooter not to try a couple a game. 

Key reserves:

Kia Vaughn: Good as a backup, but even with her hitting a surprising number of midrange jumpers she just is not efficient enough on offense to be a starter. Tough to be if you don’t get fouled much, shoot 3s, or get to the rim. Solid positional defender who knows where to be. 

Bria Hartley: Unclear if she will even be able to return in 2021 from her knee injury, but the Mercury certainly hope she can. The guard situation behind Taurasi and SDS gets mighty thin until Hartley can go. 

Megan Walker: I questioned if she had the athleticism to play the 3 or the size to play the 4 in the W before the 2020 draft. Should have chances to prove she can for the Mercury. The shot is real, even if she struggled badly in 2020. It’s the rest of her game that is an open question.

2 Key Questions:

  1. For the second year in a row, questions mostly revolve around who plays the 3 and 4 for this team. Turner had a good year, but mostly after Griner left, and is more of a 5 than a 4. And while Nurse should be an upgrade over last year’s options, the team is still betting she does not repeat her woeful shooting from a year ago. Hard to see this team challenging for the semifinals without answers at the most valuable position. Turner can at least likely guard the best bigs/wings like Elena Delle Donne, A’ja Wilson, and Breanna Stewart, which is something.
  2. Skylar Diggins-Smith is the only player on the roster with a contract for next year. Mercury has a team option for Megan Walker as well. Presumably Griner and Taurasi stay, if both continue playing another year. Hartley and Nurse are the big questions. Hartley is earning 196,000 this year and Nurse 110,000. It will be impossible to pay both of them, so the Mercury may need to pick one. Who to pick will be interesting, assuming both want to stay in Phoenix. Hartley may be better, but Nurse more at a position of need.

Seattle Storm

Projected Starters:

Sue Bird: Bird rarely gets to the rim anymore, but if you can pass and shoot like her, it does not matter. Amazing that she played as well as she did even with missing time with injury. Hopefully she has at least one more run in her in her age 40 season. 

Jewell Loyd: Had her best season in 2020, a key to her season in 2021 and forward will be if she can keep consistently hitting the 3 off the dribble. This current roster may not be able to space the floor like past teams, so Loyd’s ability to generate decent offense for herself will be key. Career best 58 TS% in 2020.

Katie Lou Samuelson: Maybe the least secure starter in the entire W, there are multiple players who could get an opportunity at this spot. Still, Seattle did trade a #1 pick for Samuelson. Hopefully her shot shows up, as a 3 point shooter shooting 30% from 3 is not going to cut it, as she has for her career.

Breanna Stewart: The best player in the W, but really only now entering her prime. Two things to watch are if she can figure out ways to punish teams who switch smaller players onto her and get her shooting numbers back up to their career norms. Even without those, the Storm will be a favorite to make the semifinals so long as she is healthy and playing.

Mercedes Russell: Depending on the Storm’s postseason match ups and development of young players, she may not remain the starter. But as she is a solid center who does everything the Storm ask of her well enough, she likely gets at least some of the starts. Good passer from the high post, good for a few surprising passes.

Key Reserves:

edited 5/13: Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast pointed out that I overlooked Candice Dupree. So 9 Storm players will be mentioned

Candice Dupree: While Dupree is still a solid all around player, I do wonder if she is less effective than she seems. She is not a great one on one defender, but nor does she accumulate many blocks or steals. And on offense, she prefers to shoot long 2s, which are both inefficient and cramp the spacing for her teammates. For the Storm to be a championship team, one of the young bigs will likely need to outplay Dupree.

Ezi Magbegor: Is she ready in her age 22 season to start on a championship level team? She has the highest upside of the non-Stewart front court players, but is still young. Shows hints of an outside game and has the speed and length to defend in the Storm’s high pressure defense. However this year goes, the future is bright for Magbegor as a versatile modern big.

Jordin Canada: Can a starting caliber point guard not shoot 3s at all in 2021? This will be the question both this year but especially going forward as the Storm will have to think about who replaces Sue Bird and if Canada can do it. While she makes plays while on ball, watch what happens when she gives the ball up and how far her defender strays from her.

Kennedy Burke: Burke should let the 3s fly. Volume is as important if not more than percentage for a role player. 2.2 is not enough.  Even if her percentages fall from the 33% range, teams often respond more to how likely a player is to shoot 3s than their percentages anyways. Burke is the best defender of the options at the 3, but needs to at least try to provide the 3 part of the 3 and D role. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. Is Katie Lou Samuelson ready enough to compete right away to justify passing on Awak Kuier? Building around Loyd and Stewart should be the Storm’s plan going forward, but I still have questions over the Storm’s decision to punt on the first round in this latest draft for a player that in theory better matches the Storm’s needs, but without nearly the same upside..
  2. What position does Breanna Stewart play in pivotal playoff games? The Storm have the luxury of playing Stewart anywhere from the 3 to the 5 in the regular season, but how they feel it is best to maximize Stewart in the playoffs will dictate rotations this year and roster decisions down the road. I prefer Stewart at the 5 in key moments, though her and Magbegor could eventually form quite a duo that can do a bit of everything on both ends.

Washington Mystics

Projected Starters:

Leilani Mitchell: Should be able to remain effective in a lower usage role with more talent around her this year. 3 point shooting should rebound after a tough season in 2020. Some concern about her ability to provide enough offense at the highest levels in the playoffs, but the Mystics will likely not have a better option.

Natasha Cloud: Even in the championship year in 2019, in the greatest offense in W history, Cloud was not especially efficient, with a true shooting % of 48, ten points lower than Loyd in 2020 by comparison. Without Kristi Toliver, any improvements in Cloud’s shooting from 3 and overall efficiency would be welcome if the Mystics want to make a championship run. But her play making and size on defense will be welcome.

Ariel Atkins: Was not quite able to take on the shot creation load in 2020 that I had hoped she could. Still, she is among the best 3 and D players in the league and this Mystics team will not need her to create for others so much. She will turn 25 this summer and still has time to improve her handle and passing, even if it was a struggle at times last season.

Elena Delle Donne: Health is the biggest question for EDD. When healthy, she is the second best player in the league, in her own tier with Breanna Stewart. But a second back surgery is a concern and she will not be back for the start of the season. Hope she can return and play most of the season. An amazing shooter who has become a fine defender and rebounder, she warps defenses just standing on the court.

Tina Charles: A lot of focus has understandably been on Tina at the offensive end. I think that can work as she will play in better spacing than she ever did in New York. My questions are on the defensive end. Center is the most important position on defense and I have my doubts if a 32 year old Charles can anchor a top 4 defense in 2021.

Key Reserves

Myisha Hines-Allen: Now we know what she can do on offense after her breakout in 2020. Now the question is how can she overcome not being the longest or biggest front court player to be an effective defender. That will decide if she is a long term starter or more suited to being a third big who brings scoring off the bench.

Kiara Leslie: Given her athleticism and size, surprising that it was her shooting from 2 that she struggled with, not her 3 point shot. 34% from 2 will not cut it. Should be better in year 2 as she gets used to finishing against W size and length.

Stella Johnson: Johnson performed well in her limited games with the Mystics in 2020. This team could use some scoring punch off the bench after losing Aerial Powers. Johnson showed some promise in that role. If she can do that, would be a help to a Mystics team not as deep as recent versions. 

Key Questions:

  1. Does Emma Meesseman show up an if so, when? Meesseman is focusing on Eurobasket and the Olympics first this summer, but if the Mystics are in good position entering the playoffs, Meesseman is one European player in the W with other commitments who could make a big difference come playoffs. Overtaxed in 2020 as a primary option, she is still a great player who pairs wonderfully with EDD.
  2. Who is is this team’s center behind Tina Charles? Mike Thibault has shown a willingness to cut and  pick up players in season. Erica McCall is fine, but there might be better options out there once teams make cuts. If Natasha Mack does not make the Sky roster, she’d be a high upside option, if an inexperienced one. Centers can be found, so something to keep an eye on. 

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.