WNBA Finals: Aces-Storm

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

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

Can the Carolyn Swords survive on defense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can anyone on the Aces shoot well for 3 games?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WNBA Semifinals Preview

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

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

Predilection: Aces in 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Seattle in 3

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

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

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

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

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

Rookie Awards and Defensive Awards

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

Rookie of the Year:

Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx:

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

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

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

All-Rookie Team

Julie Allemand, Indiana Fever

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

Chennedy Carter, Minnesota Lynx

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

Crystal Dangerfield, Minnesota Lynx

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

Ezi Magbegor, Seattle Storm 

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

Satou Sabally: 

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

Honorable Mention: Jazmine Jones:

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

Defensive Player of the Year:

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

Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm: 

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

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

All-Defense First Team

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

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

Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm

Alyssa Thomas, Connecticut Sun

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

Alysha Clark, Seattle Storm: 

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

Jasmine Thomas, Connecticut Sun:

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

Coach of the Year:

Cheryl Reeve:

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

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

Executive of the Year: 

Bill Laimbeer and Dan Padover:

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

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

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

MVP:

  1. Breanna Stewart: 

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

  1. A’ja Wilson

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

  1. Candace Parker

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

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

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

All-WNBA First team:

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

First team:

Center: Candace Parker

Forward: A’ja Wilson

Forward: Breanna Stewart

Guard: Diana Taurasi

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

Guard: Courtney Vandersloot

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

2nd team All-WNBA:

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

Forward: Napheesa Collier

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

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

Forward: Angel McCoughtry: 

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

Forward: DeWanna Bonner: 

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

Guard: Alysha Clark

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

Guard: Arike Ogunbowale

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

Most Improved Player

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

  1. Betnijah Laney

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

  1. Myisha Hines-Allen

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

6th Women of the Year

  1. Dearica Hamby

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

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

WNBA Awards So Far: MVP, Rookie of the Year and more

We are at the 40% mark of the 2020 WNBA season, with each team having played 9 games. To get a sense for where we are at in this season, here are my picks for a few of the awards if the season ended today. Here are my picks for MVP, rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, and most improved player

MVP:

1.  Breanna Stewart

Stewart is averaging 19 points, 8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, on 61% true shooting. She is averaging 2 steals and 1.3 blocks. Even with Sue Bird missing a few games this Storm team has not missed a beat. Stewart has been the best player in the league. I would not rely on a single advanced stat to prove Stewart’s case, but when she leads in PIPM, win shares, and is in the top 3 in the WNBA’s player impact estimate, it helps make the case. 

Her versatility is key to the Storm. She can effectively play the point guard on offense when the team is short handed, while still providing above average rim protection on the defensive end. Good luck having your power forward try to run the offense out of the high post. Damiras Dantas had the ball stripped multiple times by Stewart. She is a key part of the Storm’s trapping scheme, with her speed and long arms.

The big wing who can provide some rim protection while also offering shot creation on the other end is the most valuable type of player in modern basketball. With Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore sitting out, Breanna Stewart is the best version of this player in the WNBA.

2. Sylvia Fowles

Fowles does not have the shot creation burden that other top MVP candidates do, and that in some ways can hamstring the Lynx. The flip side, however, is the Lynx can afford to play more limited defensive players around Fowles and still end up with a top defense. Crystal Dangerfield is 5’5”, if that. Dantas, Napheesa Collier, and Lexie Brown know where to be, but none are shut down defenders at this point. It is mostly because of Fowles that the Lynx are top 4, and were top 2 before Fowles missed a couple of games, in defense. In particular, her ability to combine being 6’6” near the basket and effectively defend in space makes her the front runner for DPOY.

While it may no longer be the most efficient play to throw the ball into Fowles when she is guarded by a decent post defender, she is still very effective in the pick and roll as a screener. She also will punish any switches, such that teams have to fight to get through her screens, leaving space for Dangerfield and Brown to excel. The one knock is she does not pass, with a negative assist to turnover ratio. Passing is not a necessary skill for a center like Fowles, but it does limit how she can be used a bit, along with her lack of shooting. Hopefully her calf injury is not too serious and we get to see more of Fowles this season soon.

3. A’ja Wilson

Apologies to Candace Parker, who I had penciled in here before looking closely at both players. Either one would be a fair choice here. Wilson has been a dominant scorer in the face of double and triple teams this year. She is third in the WNBA in usage among starters who have played 7 games, behind two ball dominant guards in Chennedy Carter and Arike Ogunbuwale. She has managed a TS of 55%, even though she has yet to shoot a 3 this season. That is a middling efficiency number,  but given how starved the Aces are of shooting and Wilson’s lack of a 3 point shot herself, it’s frankly amazing she has been even that effective.

Defensively, Wilson is not as airtight as a help defender as one would like from someone with her physical gifts. However, she is a very good on ball defender both in the post and when switched onto smaller players. She has been a key cog in one of the best defensive teams in the league this year. 

The main area in which Candace Parker is leaps and bounds ahead of Wilson is passing. Parker is a great passer, whereas Wilson has an assist to turnover ratio below 1. One day hopefully we will see Wilson play with more than 1 shooter in a modern offense, because that would give us a more accurate read on her passing. As it is, the few times she does pass, she is passing to players close to her who can’t shoot. 

Others Considered:

As mentioned, Candace Parker and A’ja Wilson are basically a coin flip at this point. I went with Wilson because the Aces have been slightly more successful, with a better net rating, but it has been great seeing Parker be so effective. She also provides more spacing than Wilson, allowing for LA to play a wider variety of bigs successfully. 

Angel McCoughtry stands out in advanced stats. I’m not sure the rest of the Aces are so limited to justify 2 MVP candidates, but she has been very good. Still a bruising force slashing to the basket, and she is even canning just enough threes to force teams to at least somewhat guard her out there, which is great for Vegas. 

Rookie of the Year:

This year the rookie of the year race looks like it’s going to be somewhat a battle over how to define best. In particular, how to balance a player who plays a lot of minutes for a bad team, and puts up ok numbers, vs. a player who puts up excellent stats on a good team, but only plays limited minutes. The Chennedy Carter vs. Ezi Magbegor conundrum, if you will. For now, I value contributing in large minutes at an ok level.

1. Chennedy Carter

Carter has been as advertised on offense. Her ability to get to the rim is already among the best in the WNBA. She is shooting it better than expected, 42% from 3 on 2.4 attempts per game and 88% from the free throw line. Her turnover rate is high, but paradoxically that is a good sign for a young point guard, as that generally improves with experience. Guard is the toughest position to play for young players, and she is already excellent.

Chennedy Carter’s defense has been poor, which drags down her rating in advanced stats like pipm that look at defense. However, her team is the worst defensive team in the league and it is hard to pin the blame for their struggles on that end on her. Rookies are generally bad at defense, and point guards have more limited impact than bigs on defense anyways. Here is hoping Carter can come back and play more this year, as she is currently out with an ankle injury.

2. Julie Allemand

Julie Allemand will not continue to shoot 56% from 3, or lead the league in TS% at 70. However, even with some regression to the mean, she will likely still be a plus shooter. She is a good passer, who while she has had some befuddling turnovers, is still sporting an assist to turnover ratio of 2.0, second to Tyasha Harris among the rookie crop of point guards. 

Defensively she struggles against bigger guards, but has held her own against other point guards, and has even turned in some highlight blocks. The Fever struggle on defense, but that is more on their bigs and wings than on Allemand.

3. Crystal Dangerfield

Crystal Dangerfield is a rookie playing nearly 30 minutes per game for a team that is currently tied for third in the standings. Her numbers do not stand out, but rather she has simply been solid across the board. For a rookie point guard on a good team, that is impressive. She even has room to grow, as I bet that her 3 point percentage of 31% will go up as the season goes on. She was an excellent shooter in college. 

Her height is always going to be an issue on defense, but she competes hard on that end and has not been the negative that some expected so far. That will likely change in the playoffs, when teams have the time to focus on exploiting matchups, but for the regular season, she has been very good.

Others considered:

Satou Sabally still looks like she could be the best player from this draft, but her shooting has been so bad that she is not on this list at the moment. 35% from 2 and 15% from 3 just does not cut it. She has moments of defensive brilliance, but as with many rookie wings and bigs, is still learning the nuances of pick and roll defense. 

Ezi Magbegor and Tyasha Harris are putting up the best numbers in smaller minutes. Magbegor is shooting 67% from the field and has earned the first off the bench minutes as a big on the best team in the league. She just does not play that much, and benefits from consistently being surrounded by excellent teammates. 

I have no idea why Harris is not playing more, it’s like Moriah Jefferson is killing it. Harris has a ridiculous assist-turnover ratio of 3.88 and is shooting 43% from 3. She’s bigger than Jefferson and can guard a couple of positions. She definitely could leap into the top 3, if given more playing time. 

DPOY:

Sylvia Fowles. She is simply the player on one of the best defenses in the league who is crucial to that defense. The team falls apart defensively without her. Breanna Stewart also has an argument, but she is surrounded by Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark, who are all first team all-defense caliber players. If Bill Laimbeer started Hamby, which he should, and played her 30+ minutes, she might have a case as well, given her versatility on defense between the 3, 4 and 5. 

Most Improved player:

This is not my favorite category, as even compared to other awards the criteria are ill-defined. For my sake, I don’t vote for 2nd year players for this category, since they almost always improve simply because it is their 2nd year. I also tend to stay away from players whose  improvements are mostly related to playing more minutes. Good to earn minutes, but not always clear if the player is actually better or simply taking advantage of the opportunity.

For these reasons, I am going with Betnijah Laney. She is only playing 5 minutes more per game this year, but she went from being an offensive liability in Indiana, to being at times the entire offense for Atlanta. She has also done this while maintaining her strong defense. It’s not her fault the Dream can not stop anyone.  

Myisha Hines-Allen has been impressive, even after cooling off after her strong start. She likely improved, but the big change has been that she is no longer buried behind 2 of the best players in the WNBA in Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman. Meesseman starts next to her, given the lack of effective true centers on the roster, and EDD is still rehabbing a back injury. 

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.

2020 WNBA Season Preview: Seattle Storm

There are more important things than basketball, and being anti-racist and pushing anti-racist policies is one of them. Defunding the police is a serious conversation worth having. At a minimum we need to push for bad cops to be fired and not allowed to simply be rehired two towns over. We need reparations and fully integrated schools and neighborhoods, to redress centuries of racist policies that stole wealth from Black people to help white people amass wealth. These are issues I will continue to work on in my city, state, and country.

In less important news, but what this site is for me to talk about, it looks like basketball will be starting up at some point. I have mixed feelings on the wisdom of playing, given how rates of coronavirus appear to be going in the wrong direction in some states, particularly Florida, but the momentum is in favor of both WNBA and NBA playing towards the end of July in Florida. July 24th is the date the WNBA has announced they are aiming for.

There is some chatter about players opting to sit out the season. I will update my preview pieces as we find out which players are not going to play this year.

The Seattle Storm are my pick to win the championship, should a season happen. Seattle never got the chance to defend their championship, and but this is the core of a team that has already shown it can win at the highest levels. It is dependent on Breanna Stewart’s health and ability to return to the player she was in 2018, or something close to it. While Seattle was a bit lucky to win their one playoff game last year against the Minnesota Lynx, their success did augur well for them going forward.

Roster Breakdown:

Notable additions:

Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird (back from injuries) Morgan Tuck. Ezi Magbegor, Epiphanny Prince

Notable Losses: Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Shavonte Zellous.

Draft Picks:

1st round: Kitija Laksa (staying overseas)

Guards: Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, Jordin Canada, Sami Whitcomb, Epiphanny Prince, 

Wings: Alysha Clark, Breanna Stewart.

Bigs: Natasha Howard, Morgan Tuck, Ezi Magbegor, Mercedes Lewis, Crystal Langhorne

The brilliance of the pairing of Natasha Howard and Breanna Stewart is that both can function as wings and bigs, depending on team needs and the situation. I listed Howard as a big and Stewart as a wing to show how they often play, but either can play inside or outside.

Laksa is a player I was very high on in the draft, really hope to see her next season and see how she plays. Good size and a quick release makes me think she can have success in the WNBA.

Playing Time Breakdown:

Sue Bird is the point guard, assuming she is healthy. Her shooting and passing are still elite. The team has good defenders at all four other positions, so her lack of foot speed on that end at this point is not as big a deal. However, should she be unable to play up to her lofty standards, the Storm have the best backup point guard in the league in Jordin Canada.

Canada and Seattle are a great match. This team is built to accentuate her strengths and minimize her weaknesses. Her major weakness is a lack of shooting, which on most other teams would hurt. But this is a team that can play four shooters around her, and with Canada’s speed, she should be devastating attacking an empty paint as Howard and Stewart space the floor. Her finishing at the rim and floater should improve with more experience. She will reduce their ceiling on offense compared to Bird, but Canada is also a disruptive defender who can rack up steals without gambling too much.

Jewell Loyd is an excellent defender and a good offensive player, though she has room to go as a consistent offensive player. She has a tendency to disappear at times in games. Her ability to attack the rim comes and goes, but part of gaining experience is becoming more consistent. Going into her 26 year old season, right on the cusp of her prime, she is only going to get better. Especially as she gets to be a second or even third option again, a more natural fit for her.

Alysha Clark is an excellent fit for this team. A prototypical 3 and d wing, she is very good at her role on this team. As long as the Storm never ask her to create her own shot or a shot for someone else, she is a good contributor. She has even improved her passing, so long as she is attacking a closeout and not starting from scratch. Defensively she competes against anyone and is a key part of the Storm’s success.

Breanna Stewart is the best player in the WNBA when fully healthy. Elene Delle Donne is excellent, but I give the slight edge to Stewart. The beauty of Stewart’s game is that she gives you the offensive skillset of a 6’4” small forward with the rim protection of a center. While she is not the shooter that EDD is, she is a good shooter, and she is a better passer and defender. EDD has improved both aspects of her game, but I would still take Stewart. Stewart is also five years younger, and still improving.

Natasha Howard was overmatched as a primary offensive creator on last year’s team at times, but it was impressive that she was as effective as she was. Now she will be able to take a step back from having to create so much of her own offense, while still having that experience to draw on. She will have to defend opposing centers again, rather than Mercedes Lewis, but that will give her a speed edge on the other end. The reigning defensive player of the year, I can’t wait to watch her and Stewart fly around on defense once again.

Howard is a good example of why teams give chances to athletes who need their skill level to catch up. She has improved her shooting and ball handling, and you can’t teach the things Howard can do athletically. Of course, sometimes the shot never comes around, which is why scouting is hard.

If we get top 3 WNBA player Breanna Stewart, Seattle is my choice to win another championship. Other than Bird, their best players are entering or are in their prime, whereas other teams are relying on older players to hang on. This season, should it be able to be played and with most of the best players, should be an exciting one with two teams acting as defending champions. If not this year, here’s hoping we get a healthy Mystics-Storm playoff series at some point.