2022 WNBA Season Preview Part 2: Indiana, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Minnesota.

Part 2 of 3 of my WNBA previews. Click here for part 1. Here is Indiana, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Minnesota. As before, this will cover a key question for each team and the top 7 most interesting rotation players.

Indiana Fever

Key Question:

What does this team look like in 2025? More than Atlanta, Indiana has a realistic sense, finally, of where their roster is at. Indiana has to nail and be lucky with their draft picks since free agents are not signing in Indiana. And while the Fever know more than I do, there was some very confusing picks made by them in the most recent draft. If one of Lexie Hull or Queen Egbo turn into borderline starter quality players, then the picks worked. The main concern I have with both drafting both is the lack of upside. It is possible to see how either could be decent W players, but the odds of either becoming even above average starters seems low. NaLyssa Smith was a good pick, but whether she is a star or merely a good W player will be fun to watch as well.

The decision to trade Teaira McCowan showed the Fever are not going to try for the 8th seed at all costs. A step back this season for a chance at Aliyah Boston and better days in the future is smart. This year will be one of evaluating the draft picks they have as well as hiring a new general manager, who will then have to decide whether Marianne Stanley is the right coach to move forward with. Stanley is a Hall of Famer, but unlikely she is coaching this team for much longer.

Starters:

Danielle Robinson: The contract was too much and for too long, but Robinson is a fine player and the fact that this team in theory has more shooting than last year’s should be to her benefit. Too soon probably to cut her salary and not the worst idea to have a solid veteran point guard to help the rookies become acclimated to the league. If she ever could shoot it from 3 it would be nice, but probably not at this point going to happen.

Kelsey Mitchell: One of the better scorers in the W, now that she is on a max contract, should be looking to up her playmaking and defense. She’s unlikely going to be as good as Jewell Loyd in those areas, but the gap does not have to be as big as it is now. Her 3 point rate has also gone down every year of her career, which for such a good shooter is not ideal.

Lexie Hull: Hull may not start right away, but she in theory provides the shooting and defense this team has been lacking from the 3 position the last few years. She will not be as good as a rookie as Tiffany Mitchell, but teams might actually guard Hull at the 3 point line, which would benefit the rest of the starting lineup. Does Hull have the foot speed to defend quicker 3s and 2s? Something to watch.

NaLyssa Smith: Should walk into the W as one of the best athletes in the league. How will that translate? Will they show up in block and steals and how is her finishing going to be at the W level? Stretching her game out will be important long term, but not something to worry about as a rookie.

Queen Egbo: This team has no good centers with W experience. I don’t know if this team could be worse defensively than the last few, but if they end up with 2 rookies in the front court, it could get ugly. Long term my questions about Egbo are on the offensive end far more than the defensive, but she may take her lumps as a rookie on both ends. 

Reserves

Tiffany Mitchell: As unusual as it is, once again Mitchell shot nearly 90% from 3 and under 30% from 3. Usually those go hand in hand, but not with her. She is best with the ball in her hands given her lack of shooting, but is not a great finisher in the paint even given her athleticism, nor much of a playmaker with an even assist to turnover ratio. Big year as an unrestricted free agent to see what her next contract will be.

Emily Engstler: Does her high level feel allow her to defend multiple positions? How does her elite help defense translate? The offensive concerns are there, but she will have the time to figure those out if she can defend at the W level. Showing she can play some 3 and not only the 4 would be helpful as well.

Las Vegas

Key Question

What is A’ja Wilson’s best position in the playoff, at the highest levels? And if the answer is at center, does this team have enough quality perimeter play to be able to play her there? And if it is at power forward, who is that center that can help the team defend and not get in the way of Wilson on offense? 

My suspicion is the answer is center. If you have a Liz Cambage level center, you make do, but this iteration of the Aces does not. Here is where the selection of Mya Hollingshed made sense and her subsequent waiving so surprising. This team needs a few of the 3/4 types who can shoot 3s. They don’t need offensive creation from those spots, which makes it slightly easier to find, but that archetype is still hard to find. If Hollingshed simply was not good enough ok, but she should have been kept if there was any chance of her growing into a contributing player.

In a playoff series, Dearica Hamby should be starting and if she is ready Kierstan Bell behind her. The centers on the roster can take the minutes when A’ja has to rest, as few as possible. Given Kiah Stokes and Theresa Plaisance are the only centers on the roster after cuts, signs are looking good.

Starters:

Kelsey Plum: Speaking of players who should be starting. Kelsey should also be encouraged to fire away from 3 off the dribble whenever she feels comfortable. Outside of Diana Taurasi, no one in the W can bend defenses the way Plum can beyond the arc. Her improvement finishing in the paint has made her ability to shoot from 3 even more deadly, since she can better drive a hard close out.

Riquna Williams: Quietly had the best season of her career in 2021. Even in the Aces system under Laimbeer, she got up nearly 5 3PA attempts per game. That can and should go up under Hammon, to the 6 she shot in LA, or even 7. Even if her 3 point percentage dips a bit with harder attempts, teams will guard her more closely if she firing away out there.

Chelsea Gray: Gray at this point is best used as a wing who can pass like a point guard. She can guard other teams wings using her strength, and not forced to guard speedy point guards. On offense, something the Aces could try are small-small pick and rolls with Gray and Plum. If the opposing point guard switches onto Gray, let her get to work in the post. If they don’t switch, let Plum attack the advantage.

Dearica Hamby: Hamby can often take the more difficult front court matchup, even if she is giving up quite a bit of size, and she offers just enough stretch to help out Wilson. More willingness to shoot would be nice, but not necessary. Assuming health, if she still comes off the bench she should still be getting closer to 32 minutes per game, not 24 she got in 2021.

A’ja Wilson: My pick for MVP this year, because she should be continuing to improve and her raw numbers will be back up as she will be the focal point of this team. W MVP voters tend to prefer players on a top 2 team, but might as well start pushing for a player who drags a somewhat lesser roster to 3 or 4, where It hink the Aces will finish. 3 point shooting is the obvious thing Wilson could add, but passing is more important and should continue to improve. Last year was Wilson’s best passing season and this one  could be even better. 

Key Reserves:

Jackie Young: A 36 game player, not an 8 game player so far in her career. Jackie Young and the Aces need to try to figure out what to do with her when playoff defenses sag off of her and she stops having such a dramatic advantage in size and strength. Either play her at point in bench units with shooting around her or she needs to shoot 3s herself. Otherwise we may be on year 4 of her minutes being cut in the playoffs. Would also help see what her next contract will be, as she enters restricted free agency. 

Theresa Plaisance: I subscribe to the idea that gravity is what the defense gives to an offensive player. This is a product of the actual effectiveness of a player and their willingness to shoot. More attempts at  mediocre percentage will lead to more spacing than a 40% shooter who only shoots once in a blue moon. Plaisance may not be the most effective 3 point shooting big at 30%, but her willingness to fire is worth something, at nearly 8 attempts per 40 minutes. If Wilson is going to play the 4, she may an answer at the 5, though defensively that would not be ideal.

Los Angeles

Key Question:

Just how good are Liz Cambage and Chennedy Carter? Both players for different reasons are hard to place in proper tiers. Carter due to lack of playing time for ~reasons and Cambage because of playing on deep Aces teams and a possibly underperforming Wings team. I have questions about how a team with Skyler Diggins-Smith and Cambage barely made the playoffs in 2018. If Cambage is closer to top 5 than I think, this Sparks team may be able to make it far in the playoffs. If Carter would have challenged for the All-Star team, maybe this team even makes noise in the semifinals and challenged for the finals if both players play up to their considerable potential.

If Cambage is closer to 15, Tina Charles like, and Carter is more solid starter, this Sparks team could be closer to another lottery trip. Assuming health of the veterans, something that did not occur in 2021, I think this team will be closer to 4th than 9th, but the downside risk is real, given the Sparks gave up their 2023 pick to Atlanta in the Carter trade. There is a reason my first W game of the year will be Sparks at Fever. This is my most interesting team of 2022. 

Starters:

Chennedy Carter: Devastating first step and the ability to finish around and through contact. Inconsistent shooter and defender, but has the tools to be good at both. Hopefully the Sparks put the ball in her hand let her get to work, since this is a team that could not score in 2022. This is a team that does not need to get cute on offense. Post ups for Cambage and high pick and rolls for Carter until other teams show they can stop it.

Kristi Toliver: Hopefully with a better roster and better health, Toliver can have a bounce back year. A back court of Carter and Toliver may not offer much defense, but Toliver is such a good fit on offense next to Carter I want to see it. Toliver can provide second side ball handling once Carter has kicked out a pass and Toliver could feast on open 3s from both Cambage and Carter.

Brittney Sykes: Teams won’t guard Sykes outside of the paint, but someone needs to play perimeter defense. While DPOY level defense is unlikely, Sykes is a good defender. Hopefully she can effectively cut when off ball and use that athleticism to finish, something that she has not been as good as one might hope.

Nneka Ogwumike: I would like to see Fisher stagger Cambage and Nneka so that both can play the vast majority of available minutes at the 5. The Sparks should try to limit as much as possible how much they play with neither Nneka nor Cambage on the floor. Nneka is such a crafty cutter and just enough of a shooter to make the pairing work, but she is clearly also this team’s second best center.

Liz Cambage: Can she be put in position to play 30+ minutes in the playoffs? And what kind of roster needs to be constructed to help her defend well enough to win a championship? Two questions to watch for this year. Keeping her minutes down in the regular season is good, but for a Cambage lead team to win in the playoffs, she needs to play more. The offense in time with Cambage can be elite, but the question is how does LA build a good enough defense moving forward. Cambage is a fine defender, but at the highest levels can be forced to guard in space in ways that is just hard for any 6’8” center.

Key Reserves:

Jasmine Walker: Is Walker, drafted in 2o21 but hurt last season, ready to be the backup stretch 4 this team could use with Nia Coffey gone? She would be able to play 4 out around either star front court player, allowing Carter to also play in even more space. Walker seemed in college to be a decent, not great athlete, and will have to have good technique to hold her own on defense. 

Katie Lou Samuelson: There is a world where Samuelson has improved her defense and is able to shoot the lights out, where she ends up the starting 3 over Sykes. I don’t know that she has the strength to play the 4, but I would like to see her and Sykes together. A lineup of Carter-Toliver-Samuelson-Walker-Cambage would be fun. Might score 110 in 40 minutes and give up 100. 

Minnesota Lynx

Key Questions:

Other than whether Napheesa Collier will play this season and how much, the other question is did Cheryl Reeve fail to anticipate the new salary cap system and overpay, relative to the cap, Natalia Achonwa and Aerial Powers? Achonwa was the more notable miss in free agency, but Powers has the bigger contract to live up to. The Achonwa contract likely cost them both Crystal Dangerfield and their 2021 first round pick Rennia Davis. Reeve is a great coach, but as a GM the last few years has not done as well.

Powers was the more defensible contract, but still may be overpaid relative to the cap. A back court of Powers and Kayla McBride did not have enough passing or ball handling, hence the scramble for Laysha Clarendon last year and the last minute signing of Odyssey Sims this year. But it is still a question if Powers have the size and strength to play the 3. She may, but will be interesting to watch. Reeve may have paid top dollar to two players who play the same position in McBride and Powers, who are both signed through next season also. 

Starters:

Odyssey Sims: Sims, the surprise signing on 5/3 by the Lynx to presumably start at point guard, can be a decent player, though 2021 with the Dream was rough. She only sort of does the things necessary to be a point guard. She generates low efficiency shots for herself and can make the basic passes. One outlier season in 2019 with the Lynx she had an above average passing season. But coming off a year with a sub 43% TS is tough. By comparison, Jasmine Thomas has had a TS ever year since 2016 right around 50%. And Sims is not nearly the defender Thomas is.

Kayla McBride: A wonderful catch and shoot player, McBride is also a fine defender, particularly using her strength against bigger players. A tick below star level because she isn’t generally going to create shots for herself or others, she is still very effective. 

Aerial Powers: A somewhat tough season in 2021, but could bounce back. Her 3 point shooting was below the 33% where it really needs to be to be a positive and her turnover rate spiked. Starting year 2 with a new point guard signed 3 days before the season and a converted 2 guard as backup and both true point guards waived from the roster is not ideal, but here is hoping.

Natalie Achonwa: Achonwa is not who I would start, I would prefer to see if Angel was ok to try out playing the 4 in a smaller lineup with Achonwa backing her up to limit Angel’s minutes. But I bet Cheryl Reeve will go with the big she signed to a large contract. Achonwa does not provide any stretch as  4, nor is she particularly adept at chasing the faster 4s in the league. But then again, she also gets overwhelmed by the bigger centers. She is a W level player, but will be curious how Reeve uses her this year with better options in Napheesa and Damiris Dantas out to start the season.

Sylvia Fowles: Enjoy her final year. The best defensive center in W history, someone who thrived both in the more interior oriented game during her early days but has been able to stay just as effective in the pace and space era by impeccable defensive positioning and understanding. Watching her stymie guards who are 15 years younger and more athletic is a joy. 

Key Reserves:

Bridget Carleton: Though some of the other cuts by the Lynx were ones I do not agree with, Carleton being on the team is good. If not Angel, Carleton could also start at the 4 instead of Achonwa. Thanks to Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast for pointing out that would be worth trying.

Rachel Banham: I would not have kept Banham. While a good shooter, I don’t think she offers sufficient playmaking to be a point guard, even a backup one, nor does she offer enough on defense. I look forward to being wrong though and if she has a career year, I will enjoy every moment of it if she performs well, even if i I would have kept Crystal Dangerfield.

2021 Season Preview: Los Angeles, Minnesota, and New York

Here is my third of four preview pieces in preparation for the WNBA season. the Los Angeles Sparks, a team trying to hold onto relevance but might just be delaying the inevitable need to rebuild, the Minnesota Lynx, a team that may be a year or two away from contention, but is going for it, and the New York Liberty, an interesting mishmash of veterans and young players. 

Los Angeles Sparks

Projected Starters

Erica Wheeler: Wheeler was good, not great, in 2019 for the Fever in her age 28 season. The Sparks paid her as if she will continue to shoot so well from both 3 and 2. Possible, but real downside risk with this contract. And even if she does shoot well, she is still an interesting choice next to another 5’7″ guard in Kristi Toliver.

Kristi Toliver: The most dangerous guard with the ball in her hands behind the three point line not named Diana Taurasi, with the best step back 3 in the league, the main question is how long can she play at a high level going into her age 34 season. Hopefully she can be like Taurasi and stay effective into her late 30s, but no guarantees, given even in the Mystics’ championship winning season in 2019, she missed time with injuries. 

Brittney Sykes: The 33% she shot from 3 in 2020 is acceptable, especially if she gets the attempts back up to what they were earlier in her career, 7 or so per 36 minutes. A slasher who does not finish at the rim nor make plays for others at the rate one might hope, however there were signs of growth in her first year in LA of growth. Even only small improvements in her various skills could have big benefits, as Sykes could better harness her athleticism.

Nneka Ogwumike: A star in every way except for her usage rate, this team might need her to try to step up and provide scoring and create for herself. Her excellent efficiency will likely fall if she is taking on more of an offensive burden without Candace Parker. If she proves unable, this team outside of Toliver might struggle to score.

Amanda Zahui B: Sort of a 3 and D center, hopefully her woeful scoring inside of the arc with the Liberty was due to a weird situation with a mostly young team. A career 32% shooter from 3, her willingness to fire away does provide benefits but it would nice if a few more went in. Defensively she is more competent than stellar, but Nneka Ogwumike is a good fit next to her on that end. 

Key Reserves

Sidney Wiese: If the Sparks do struggle to score, she is the option in place of Sykes to juice the offense. A career 40% 3 point shooter who will shoot off the dribble, she can provide some shot creation next to Toliver. Next step for her is improving her passing, as she went from  2 to 1 assist to turnover ratio in 2019 to an even one in 2020. Not a turnstile on defense, either, if not the athlete Sykes is. 

Chiney Ogwumike: Rumors of her shooting some 3s which would be welcome, as it would ease the fit with her older sister. Her career has been mostly stalled by injury, but she is somewhat caught between being a 4 or a 5. A good backup big.

Te’a Cooper: Earned minutes with her defense, but did shoot 34% from 3. Shot relatively few attempts though, so upping that would be good. Something to watch for is if she can guard shooting guards because that would help earn her playing time next to either Wheeler or Toliver. 

2 Key Questions

  1. The Sparks traded their 2022 first round pick for the 7th pick in the 2021 draft and a 2022 second rounder from the Wings. This was not a trade I liked for the Sparks as the odds are too high that this Sparks team ends up in the lottery. The 2022 draft is deeper than the 2021 draft, so a top 4 pick in next year’s draft is even more valuable than a top 4 pick in the most recent draft, never mind the 7 pick. Jasmine Walker should be a decent player, but the downside risk is that she is out of the league in a couple of years and the Sparks 2022 pick is a top 2 pick and turns into Rhyne Howard or NaLyssa Smith. Odds of that are not high, but still too likely, especially given the best case scenario with Walker is that she is a starter level player. The odds seem remote of her becoming a star. 
  1. Building off the draft talk above, it would be really helpful for this team if one of their just drafted wings pops and pushes for a starting role. The Sparks drafted Jasmine Walker with the 7th pick, Stephanie Watts with the 10th, and Arella Guirantes with the 22nd. Sykes might be the answer, but in the current W, one can never have too many good wings.

Minnesota Lynx

Projected Starters:

Crystal Dangerfield: A player I thought last year was a first round talent who fell all the way to 16th, she showed in the first game in 2020 that she was the team’s best option at the point. I was high on her because of her shooting from 3, an area she was merely adequate in 2020. Now on a team with more shot creation around her, hopefully she can show her ability to shoot off movement and space the floor as well as being an effective on ball option.

Kayla McBride: 3.3 threes per game is too few for such a talented shooter. Even in a down year still she shot 34% from 3 and is a career 37% shooter. An underrated defender, she did an impressive job guarding the much taller DeWanna Bonner in the playoffs in 2020.

Napheesa Collier: Collier has the potential to be one of the top 2 or 3 players in the W at some point. The next step in her growth is seeing what she can do with the ball in her hands more. Would especially like to see the Lynx use their guards to screen for Collier. Teams will  be loath to switch, but not switching risks Collier having an open lane to the rim or McBride or Dangerfield popping for open threes. A switch leaves a small guard on Collier, and she can use her post up skills. She is good at basically everything else already needed for a prototypical big wing.

Damiris Dantas: An excellent complimentary player, she should be the backup 5 on this team as well as the starting 4. Staggering her with Fowles so they keep one on the floor at all times makes sense as the Dantas + Collier front court was very effective last year.

Sylvia Fowles: The best defensive center in the W, question is whether she can make it through the season healthy. Likely to have her minutes limited, but while playing should remain effective on both ends.  

Key Reserves:

Aerial Powers: Tied with McBride for the highest paid player on the team, the Lynx are betting a lot on a 6 game sample in 2020. But Powers is an excellent player to have off the bench. While she does not create much for others, an even assist to turnover ratio, she can score both on and off ball and should pair well with any of the Lynx other back court options.

Natalie Achonwa: If only Achonwa would turn her long 2s into 3s, this contract would make more sense. Achonwa is a fine player, but it is odd that she is earning more than either Dantas or Fowles. Fine as a third big, but the Lynx defense will suffer if she is pressed into more minutes because of injuries. 

Rachel Banham: While she will probably not shoot nearly 50% from 3 this season, she should be a fine backup point guard. Point guards tend to take longer to develop than other positions and she should be a fine option. Can also play off ball, depending on the match up.

2 Key Questions:

  1. Who is their go to player to score in a tight playoff game? I would argue it should be Napheesa Collier, but she did not really play that role last year against the Storm. Was that because Cheryl Reeve preferred to involve other players, was it because Collier does not quite have the handle yet be an on ball creator, or some of both? Collier with the ball in her hands should be the goal and it would be nice to see that leaned on at least some this year.
  2. Continuing with the Collier theme, what is her best position in the playoffs in key moments? The decision on whether to play her at the 3 or the 4 matters for how the team should build as she enters her prime and especially how the team will build for a post Sylvia Fowles world. If Rennia Davis can return healthy and show growth in her 3 point shooting, she might be a perfect fit next to Collier in that then you have two players who are interchangeable between the 3 and the 4.

New York Liberty

Projected Starters:

Sabrina Ionescu: The W has not had the same trend towards super high usage players as the NBA has with players like Luka Doncic and Trae Young having usage rates of 35%+. But if any player in the W were to approach that, it might be Ionescu. I am not recommending that, as Ionescu can and should be used off ball, but young stars who have been successful at every level often prefer to have the ball in their hands. Ionescu was third in her limited minutes in usage in 2020 to Arike Ogunbowale and Chennedy Carter, two other young star guards.

Betnijah Laney: The shooting improvement Laney showed last year seemed real. New York paid her as if it was and will continue. In a lower usage role, she should be able to cut down on the turnovers and still make plays in the pick and roll occasionally. Solid defender across multiple positions as well.

Rebecca Allen: Hopefully even given all the talk of defense from the Liberty, they still play some small ball. A front line of Allen and Howard  should be good enough defensively and very good offensively, with Allen a threat to shoot from anywhere and Howard able to make plays with the ball in her hands against slower centers.

Natasha Howard: Howard played well in 2019, her one year where she was a go to offensive player, but she was not especially efficient. How well she gels with Ionescu will decide whether this team can make it to the playoffs, as they are the best bet at a pick and roll tandem that can really give teams fits. Also will be interesting to see how and how much this team runs their offense through Howard. Do they try her in the post, faving up when facing a slower big, or use her as a ball handler and really let her stretch her game.

Kiah Stokes: Keep shooting, Kiah! While the 3s did not go in in her first season attempting 3s, her stroke did not look broken and the experiment should continue. Especially since it is unclear what her other role on offense would be if she tries to hang around by the basket, her defender will gum things up for the Liberty. She was a big reason this team was not a disaster on defense even given the youth up an down the roster, that should continue.

Key Reserves:

Layshia Clarendon: Played admirably in 2020 as a starter, but third guard off the bench is a much more natural fit for them. She is capable at either back court spot and should be good at filling wherever the Liberty need. High turnover rate will come down too in this scenario, their main flaw in 2020. 

Jazmine Jones: Miscast as a lead guard in 2020 because of injuries and opt outs, Jones played hard and impressively her shooting percentages were not terrible with a TS% over 50. But a negative assist to turnover ratio was not good and should improve in 2021 as she moves to a more natural off ball role and has another year of experience under her belt. 

Sami Whitcomb: Whitcomb could start for this team, with Laney at the 3 and Allen off the bench. But either way, she is going to help this offense as much as any player as someone who can actually make threes. A good example of how valuable shooting is, relative to other skills, as she was undrafted out of college but has carved a very good career for herself. 

2 Key Questions:

  1. In 2020 the Liberty defended ok, if not great, finishing 9th in defense, while struggling to score from anywhere on the floor, finishing last in offense by a mile. They put up one of the worst offensive performances in league history. Yet the talk in 2021 so far has been all about improving the defense. The team did add players who can actually shoot and make plays, but then drafted defense first players. Will be very interesting to see whether this team ends the season better on the defensive or offensive end.
  1. Natasha Howard made sense for this team, but trading the #1 overall pick was a risk. While overall this was not a deep draft, I remain high on Awak Kuier. Kuier will not be as good as Howard in the next couple of years, and possibly ever, but would be able to grow with Ionescu. I am curious how/if this team can get a second star to pair with Ionescu who is closer in age to her. This team clearly does not want to tank again, but another trip to the lottery in 2022 would not be the worst thing.  If Ionescu lives up to her potential, the Liberty have to hope to avoid a situation where they finish somewhere between 5th and 8th each season and struggle to add another star to play next to Ionescu.

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.

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.

Reassessing Predictions: or Where I was Wrong.

Halfway through the WNBA season is a great time for me to look at some of my predictions and feelings at the beginning of the season to see where I was wrong and need to update my analysis.

  1. Bria Hartley looks like a fine signing for the Phoenix Mercury.

I was down on the Bria Hartley signing because I was not sure she was worth the money, but more importantly, I thought this team had a much greater need at the 3 and the 4. Hartley has been better than I anticipated as a scoring combo guard off the bench. This may be an outlier season for Hartley from 3, at 39% for a career 32% shooter, however she is also taking more than she has before. If she can settle into the mid-30s and keep up her ability to attack off the dribble, she will remain an effective player for the Mercury.

However, the area I think I was most wrong on was in thinking there was another player out there who the Mercury could have signed and could have been an upgrade at the 3 or 4. My concern about those positions has borne out, but it does not mean a better player was available for the Mercury to sign.

Since from reporting it does not seem like either Angel McCoughtry or Shekinna Stricklen were available, there likely was not a 3 available for the Mercury to sign. While the Mercury could use an upgrade on Sophie Cunningham, the 3 is the thinnest positions in the WNBA, and there may simply not have been a better player available.

  1. The Aces’ offense was going to be middle of the pack if not below average.

The Aces have the 2nd best offense in the WNBA, though they are only a smidgen ahead of the Mercury. Some combination of Angel McCoughtry and Dearica Hamby canning just enough 3s to keep defenses somewhat honest, A’ja Wilson dominating when she plays the 5 on offense, and better than expected production from Daniel Robinson + Jackie Young seem to have the Aces clicking.

I still have my doubts about how this roster will perform in the playoffs. Teams may focus on abandoning the Hamby and McCoughtry’s of the team in favor of swarming Wilson even more than they do now, when they have time to scout the specific team. But the Aces are a better team than I expected.

I’m not sure my analysis failed in the sense that it was always an open question how effective Angel McCoughtry would be off a knee injury. But she has been great, and that matters for future evaluation of the Aces.

  1. Tyasha Harris’s shooting and ability to get to the rim

In my draft board, I am glad to say I was high on Crystal Dangerfield, who only 3 days after my article on awards favorites so far, has vaulted herself to the head of the Rookie of the Year award race. However, I appear to have been off about Tyasha Harris. While I only had Harris 2 behind where the Wings took her, my specific critiques were still off.

While it is early to be coming to conclusions on any rookie, so far her shooting is more for real than I thought it might be. She really only shot well from 3 in her senior year so I was unsure if it would translate to the W. So far so good. She is also able to get to the rim and finish well for a rookie. I knew she was a heady, smart player, but I thought she might be the kind of care taker point guard who lacks the bust to beat opponents off the dribble. So far, she has been better than that.

She is shooting 39% from 3, after shooting 38% from 3 her senior year and closer to 30% the prior 3 years, so her shooting may come down. But I will be reassessing how I judge a point guards ability to attack off the dribble. Maybe taking into account the added spacing at the WNBA level, though South Carolina played a pretty modern 4 out system.

  1. Derek Fisher has been a fine coach.

To be fair to myself, Fisher looked like a fine coach last year during the regular season and then made some questionable choices in the playoffs, namely benching Candace Parker. So we shall see if I go back to thinking he makes weird choices in this year’s playoffs. .

But after some weird lineups in the first game, Fisher really has the Sparks playing well. He’s making Sydney Wiese look like she should have held off on signing her contract extension, as she may be one of the most underpaid players in the W. Te’a Cooper has been put in suggestions to succeed. 

While I want people to stop saying that Marie Gulich is a stretch 5, just cause she’s tall and white doesn’t make her a stretch 5, Gulich has been giving them solid minutes off the bench. While Gulich has yet to hit a 3 this year, she has been finishing much better at the rim this year (though on not many attempts, to be fair).

I’m still not sold on the process by which the Sparks hired Fisher, without interviewing any of the women putting in work in the league, particularly black women. Fisher has at least been putting the Sparks in the position to play well this year.

2020 Season Preview: LA Sparks

We are days away from the WNBA season kicking off at IMG in Florida. Let us hope the process works, because while the news out of the WNBA campus has not been bad, the broader context in Florida is still among the worst outbreaks in the world. The drawbacks to a governor with no interest in actually governing is in this case having a direct impact on sports and the community.

The LA Sparks underperformed expectations a bit last year in losing so decisively to the Connecticut Sun. Losing in the semifinals was a fine outcome, but how poor they looked was a surprise. After a competitive game 1, the Sun were too athletic and too connected on defense and overwhelmed the Sparks.

Three big questions arose out of the series. Chelsea Gray played ok in the series, but not up to the standard she is capable of. She is 27 and square in her prime, so will likely bounce back, but something to watch. 

More seriously, Candace Parker at 34 has begun slipping a bit at age 34. How much can Parker hold on, and how should Fisher use her as she ages, is something to keep an eye on. Parker is tall, a good passer, and ok shooter, so she has so far aged well, but she did struggle against the Sun. She did deal with injuries, so hopefully she can have a healthy season in 2020.

However, the biggest question with the Sparks is their coach. Derek Fisher was not an effective NBA coach in his time with the Knicks. While in the regular season he seemed to do ok with the Sparks, some questionable decision making in the playoffs brought home the questions about his fit as coach.

For all that Parker is no longer a top 3 player in the league, Fisher’s decision to  bench her for such an extended stretch in a pivotal playoff game has not been adequately explained. The Sparks could not score and yet Fisher benched the Sparks second best passer and key fulcrum of their offense. Citing a lack of energy makes little sense, when you replace a more effective player with a less effective one. Energy only matters to the extent it is coming from a player who is actually good.

Two key members of the 2020 Sparks have opted out of the season, Kristi Toliver and Chiney Ogwumike. Toliver in particular is a loss for the Sparks, as her shooting and shot creation next to Gray was going to really help the team. Losing Chiney Ogwumike chips at the Sparks depth, but is more replaceable.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable Additions: Seimone Augustus

Notable Losses: Kristi Toliver (opt out), Chiney Ogwumike (opt out)

Guards: Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams, Te’a Cooper, 

Wings: Sydney Wiese, Seimone Augustus, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Brittney Sykes

Bigs: Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker, Kristine Anigwe, Reshanda Gray, Marie Gülich

The wings and guards on this team are fairly interchangeable, with only a few of the players only able to play at one position. For instance, Wiese and Augustus have often operated as guards on offense, but both are 6’ and can guard wings in theory, though it will be interesting to see how much Augustus has left. Chelsea Gray is the lead ball handler, but is often guarded by the other teams wings and guards them on defense. 

Playing time Breakdown:

Nneka Ogwumike is this team’s best player at this point. She is squarely in her prime, and her ability to shift between the 4 and the 5 is one reason this team is able to carry so many bigs and still have success. I would have gone with a guard or wing in Reshanda Gray’s place, particularly a young one such as Kamiah Smalls, but with the versatility of Ogwumike and Candace Parker, the team should be able to make it work.

Ogwumike was the best player for the Sparks in the series against the Sun. Her ability to guard bigger true posts and move her feet defending in space sets her apart from the other centers she is often compared to. She has even developed her three point shot to the point where she provides some spacing, though she is definitely not a true stretch big.

Candace Parker is still a good player. Hopefully she will be healthy this year. Parker would be helped mightily by her 3 point shot coming back, as for a couple of years in 2017 and 2018 she shot over 4 attempts per game at 35%, but both numbers were down last year.

The three is the main hole on this team, and has been since Alana Beard was no longer a full time starter caliber player. Chelsea Gray would be an interesting option here, if the team were to play Gray with two guards. Brittney Sykes looks the part and is likely why the Sparks traded for her, but she has not yet put it together. She shot 26% from 3 last year and 51% at the rim, and worse on the pull up 2s she loves. 

Riquna Williams had an effective year for the Sparks at the 2. Last year’s shooting might have been an outlier, as it was the highest of her 7 year career, but she has shown the ability to shoot. She is basically only a 3 point shooter, as she struggles to finish at the rim, only shooting 44%. However, her shooting is valuable and she is a decent defender. At 5’7” she is limited to the 2, as she does not have the size to guard bigger wings nor the passing or dribbling to shift on ball.

Chelsea Gray has functioned as the team’s main ball handler, and excelled at it. She can function as the main offensive ball handler, but still guard opposing wings, as she is 5’11”. The loss of Toliver hurts here, as she is one of the best players in the league at generating threes of the dribble, a valuable and difficult skill, while guarding opposing point guards. Playing another guard with Williams and Gray, such as Wiese or the rookie Te’a Cooper, to get more shooting in the floor, would be a good look to go for stretches and see how it works.

With a full squad, this is a team that had the talent to challenge for the finals. But the loss of Kristi Toliver really hurts this team and makes it hard to see how they are going to generate enough offense to reach those heights. Simply making it back to the semifinals would be a strong result for this team in this weird, truncated, 2020 season. This is also a big year to see how Derek Fisher does coaching, to see if he should be kept for the long term.

The value of centers in the WNBA

Only one center was drafted in the first round in the 2020 WNBA draft, Ruthy Hebard to the Chicago Sky at 8. Tina Charles was traded for less than one would think given her resume. These raise a question of what is the value of a center in the WNBA?

Inspiration for this post came from Kevin Pelton from ESPN who wrote about centers in the context of the NBA ahead of the 2018 draft. I was curious if this held up in the WNBA, and it looks like it does.

One can look at how productive centers were using win shares, a stat from Basketball Reference meant to sum up how many wins a player contributed to their team’s total. To get a sense for the value of different positions, I averaged the win shares of the 12 starters at the five positions in the WNBA for the 2019 season. This is an imperfect method, but works as a quick check.

PG: average win share: 2.1

SG: average win share: 2.2

SF: average win share: 2.0

PF: average win share: 2.5

C: average win share: 3.7

Centers are over represented in the most win shares in the league, and this is true up and down the league. What this shows is that production is easier to find at the center position, and thus is more replaceable.

The gap between Jonquel Jones, who led the league in win shares for center with 5.6 and Mercedes Russell, 8th in WS for centers at 3.1 WS, is not large. Compare that with Napheesa Collier at 5.2 and the 8th best small forward, Jackie Young at 1.3 WS. 1.4 is the lowest WS for a center in the WNBA, from Amanda Zahui B, whereas other positions the lowest point ranged from -.1 to .5.

Centers producing high WS across the league extends to backups as well, with Chiney Ogwumike posting a 3 WS, Natalie Achonwa posting a 2.7 WS and Tiana Hawkins a 2.7 WS.

Single stat summations of basketball players do have their limitations. Good defenders who don’t rack up steals and blocks tend to rank lower than their actual value on the court. For instance, I would value Latoya Sanders higher than Mercedes Russell, though their win shares are pretty similar. But for broad purposes, I thought this was illustrative of how teams should be, and in quite a few cases are, looking to build.

This also shows that if anything just looking at a stat like win shares understates Elene Delle Donne’s dominance last year. While her 7.7 WS was the highest by a decent margin in the WNBA regardless of position, when you consider that she was able to play at both small and power forward, both positions that it is hard to find productive players at, her importance really stands out compared to her competition, 3 centers who all performed similarly.

While it matters to have a center, over investing in the position is a mistake, given productive centers can be found outside of the top of the draft and in free agency, where many of the best players at other positions are taken.

Two main changes in the WNBA have caused this. The rise of the 3 point shot has placed a premium on shooting and spacing the floor, while also opening up the floor for a wide variety of centers to post good numbers. Also, changes in rules and strategy for defense has made it much harder for post players to be efficient enough to justify running post ups.

An exception to not paying the max to a center is the very best who can have an offense run through them, like Liz Cambage and Brittney Griner. Even then, it’s no accident both lost to Breanna Stewart and Elene Delle Donne in back to back years in the playoffs.

The replaceability of centers can be seen in the past 3 drafts, in both how teams are drafting and the outcomes of the centers that were drafted in the first round. 

For 2020 only 1 center was picked in the first round, Ruthy Hebard at 8. And Ruthy may end up playing the 4 some of the time for the Sky, at least defensively, next to Stefanie Dolson. Otherwise, teams went elsewhere, drafting wing players in particular that surprised draft observers. 

The 2019 draft featured 3 true centers in the first round, but only Teaira McCown is guaranteed a spot in the 2020 season. Kalani Brown will probably make the Atlanta Dream roster, but Kristin Anigwe is going to have competition in Dallas. Both are also already on their second teams. Players who bounce around can later on thrive, but often it is not a great sign when a player is traded within a year of being drafted.  

The 2018 draft had Azura Stevens drafted 6th. She is also on her second team. She is also not a true center, as she can play power forward, given she is fairly mobile for a 6’6″ player and can shoot the 3. The final two picks of the first round were both centers, Maria Vedeeva and Marie Gulich. Vedeeva in particular was a good pick. Even there one can see that center is replaceable as she was often stuck behind both Ogwumike sisters, or awkwardly playing with one of them in a front court that could not stretch the floor.

Kalani Brown was also on the Sparks, but then traded for Gulich, cause apparently the Sparks can not have enough centers. Chiney does play a lot of power forward, but how effective I think that is will have to wait for my Sparks preview. Put me down as skeptical for now.

In contrast to the Sparks, the New York Liberty appear to be taking this logic and running with it. They invested first round picks in guards and wings, and are only carrying two centers, one a second round pick from the 2020 draft. The Liberty are the most interesting team for the next few seasons for me for this reason, even beyond Sabrina Ionescue, who of course I am dying to actually see play WNBA basketball. Look for my preview of them coming this Tuesday.