WNBA Tiers: Tier 1

Tier 1 is the two best players on the teams that have won the past 2 championships. Just as Maya Moore and Candace Parker traded championships in the middle of the 2010s, so Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart have been the best players on teams that won the past 3 championships. 

I value versatility in players on both offense and defense, maybe to a degree that is unwarranted. But part of the reason Stewart and Delle Donne are tier 1 is they can both function as the fulcrums of their offense, while also being dangerous off ball, against set playoff defenses, when scoring is toughest. Stewart could defer to Jewell Loyd if her matchup was more favorable, as could Stewart with Emma Meesseman or Kristi Toliver. 

In the next couple of years, I imagine we will have more than just the 2 players I list here as solo tier 1 players. A’ja Wilson is already close to making it me have a tier 1a with these two and her at tier 1b. Another year and definitely another 2 years of similarly high level play will put Wilson there. Of course, maybe she simply joins tier 1 with no qualifiers, as she is certainly capable of doing.

Breanna Stewart

The interesting thing about Breanna Stewart is that she is not truly exceptional at any one part of the game. You can point to someone in the league who is better at any isolated part of the game, whether it be passing, shooting, defending the rim, defending on the perimeter, scoring in the post against smaller players, or whatever discrete skill you want to point to.

What makes Stewart special is that she is very good at any discrete skill you want to point to as important in modern basketball. The flip side of their being nothing she is exceptional at is there are no holes in her game. She can be paired with almost any lineup configuration and fill in the holes in the lineup. There are far fewer fit concerns with the kinds of players that can be put next to her than with almost any other player.

Of course more shooting is good, and Seattle has done a great job spreading the floor, but she can work in tighter spaces, and has taken more 3s herself every year she is in the league. She can provide spacing next to a more dominant post player, something she does for her super team in Russia, where she plays with Jonquel Jones and Maria Vadeeva. 

Maybe the most impressive thing is she has not even really entered her prime yet. Really, this next season, her age 27 year, is her entering her prime. Stewart is on pace for entering her name in the GOAT conversations, alongside the likes of Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Tamika Catchings, and Dianna Taurasi. I am not that interested in finely deciding between various contenders, but I do like noting who has an resume to be included, and am excited to watch Breanna Stewart continue to play at a high level. 

Elena Delle Donne

Unlike Stewart, Delle Donne has one exceptional talent, shooting, and has diligently worked to round out the rest of her game. Her prime has come a bit later in her career, but is no less impressive for all of that. Her Mystics team in 2019 had one of the most dominant offenses of all time and I can not wait to see how the team looks in 2021, given the turnover of the roster.

Elena Delle Donne is on pace to be the greatest shooter in WNBA history, and she has done that while also being 6’5”. The only WNBA player so far to shoot 50/40/90, she is able to warp defenses by herself, as she can bury an opponent in threes both in the half court and as a transition shooter if they lose track of her.

Elena Delle Donne is not the defender, especially on the perimeter, that Stewart, or even A’ja Wilson, is. But she is a good defender. This was most notable in the finals against the Connecticut Sun in 2019. Game 2, the one that EDD missed after injuring her back, was not coincidentally, Jonquel Jones’ best game. 

Elene Delle Donne is not going to rack up highlight blocks, but she is adept at using her size to force tougher shots at the rim[1] , is strong enough to hold up in the post against big centers, and is a good rebounder. [2] She moves her feet fairly well on the perimeter, teams do not try to target her in the pick and roll.

The main factor that could lead to Elena Delle Donne falling down this list his health. Her two best attributes, shooting and being tall, won’t diminish with age. But she is someone who has a now well documented struggle with complications of lyme disease, as well as a history of nagging injuries. Otherwise, she should be able to remain effective well into her 30s.

The next step in her evolution as an offensive player may be to truly take advantage of shooting deep 3s, similar to how Diana Taurasi has used the that shot to extend her career. That might be wishful thinking on my part, as watching EDD shoot 3s from 30 feet sounds awesome, and like something she should be capable of doing.  Whatever she does, I do hope we get a playoff series at some point between Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart when both are healthy.

[1] I am going to become a broken record on that, but the biggest lack right now in data for the WNBA is tracking data. This would tell us, among other things, the percentage of shots which various rim protectors allow at the rim. I suspect EDD might be harder to score at the rim against than Brittney Griner, though Griner blocks a lot more shots, but I have no way to prove it, as I could with NBA defenders. 

[2] Initially I wrote that she improved her rebounding, because her rebounding jumped after her second year in the league. But in looking more at that Sky team, the real change seems to be going from playing with one of the best rebounders in WNBA history in Sylva Fowles in her first 2 years, to not playing with Fowles. Good reminder to make sure to look for alternate explanations, not just the obvious one.

WNBA Tiers: Tier 2

Tier 2 players are all good enough to lead a team to a championship. The reason these players are tier 2 and not tier 1 is that the necessary parts around them need to be a bit better to win a championship, and need to be tailor made to fit them a bit more. The differences at this level are the smallest yet, but those small differences matter when competing for a championship. Within tiers, as before, players are listed in alphabetical order.

Since there’s only four players, I can go through each one individually and walk through why I put them here.

Napheesa Collier

This is a bet on continued growth by one of the most exciting young players in the WNBA. Growth is not always linear for young players, but given the improvements Collier made from year 1 to 2, I am comfortable betting on continued growth into year 3. Collier has shown she can be one of the best players in the WNBA at either the 3 or the 4, going toe to toe with Breanna Stewart in the semifinals and holding her own.

If I had to bet on who would be a tier 1 player in the next 5 years, Collier and her fellow tier 2a player A’ja Wilson would be top of the list. There are other players with a chance, Satou Sabally is someone I am particularly high on. The future of the WNBA is bright.

Collier can simply do it all. A 4 who rarely shot from 3 in college, her ability to shoot the three has probably been the most pleasant surprise of her time in the WNBA so far, as she is currently shooting 38% from 3 and over 40 in her most recent season. Her volume is still relatively low, so there’s room for growth for her to shoot more from 3, but a key skill for a modern wing is there. 

Collier is a premier defender already who can guard perimeter players running off screens while also providing excellent rim protection with her 6’ 6” wingspan. Basketball is a game that rewards length more than height and Collier is a prime example of that, as she plays bigger than her listed 6’2″ height. 

The next step for Collier in reaching new heights is to work on her handle and her ability to create on ball. While a decent passer, her turnover rate is high, which is understandable for a post player moving onto the wing, but something for her to improve.  How much of her relatively low usage rate was coaching or Collier’s limitations is unclear, but she should not be behind Damiris Dantas in usage rate. Part of why I was so high on Crystal Dangerfield in the 2020 draft is she can thrive off ball with her shooting, and Collier should be able to take more responsibility running pick and rolls and being the Lynx’s main driver of offense.

A’ja Wilson

Does A’ja Wilson need a three pointer? No. As 2020 showed, Wilson in her third year was already good enough to win MVP and bring her team to the finals. The Aces could absolutely win a championship if Wilson never shoots 3s.

However, her lack of shooting does put a limit on how versatile she can be on offense, and the type of team that can be built around her. One of the most intriguing questions heading into the 2021 season is whether the Aces resign Liz Cambage and run back the double center lineup that they used in 2019.

While Wilson has the foot speed on defense to guard the 4, 2020 made it clear her best position is at the 5. If Dearica Hamby had not been injured, she would have been playing the key moments in the playoffs next to Wilson, allowing her to thrive inside. At 6’4” Wilson has the size and athleticism to play the five, and it is the position that maximizes her combination of strength and speed on offense, while in theory at least, allowing for more shooting to be played around her.

If she were to add a three point shot, it would make the fit between her and Liz Cambage much cleaner. Wilson is a career 78% free throw shooter who also shot 40% from long 2. She has a smooth stroke and good touch. All evidence we have points to her some day being able to add a 3 point shot.  Both of the players in tier 1 above Wilson would be much cleaner fits with a center like Cambage, while also bringing many of the same positive attributes Wilson brings.

Writing about Wilson’s 3 point shooting might seem nit picking, but it matters at this level. Wilson is already good at basically everything else. She is a dominant post up player, particularly against mismatches. She moves her feet as well as any center on defense, allowing the Aces to play any style of pick and roll defense. Wilson has room to improve as a passer, but then again, the Aces have never surrounded her with pristine spacing or shooting. She is a willing passer, certainly. Her ability to create her own shot is also hampered by her lack of spacing. It is much easier to double and triple team someone who has to catch teh ball closer to the rim to be effective.

Jonquel Jones

The main separator between Jonquel Jones and the players over her relative lack of shot creation for herself and her teammates. In the playoffs for the Sun in the biggest moments, the Connecticut Sun were not running plays for her. Everything else Jonquel Jones can do and do well, and is likely only going to improve on as she enters her age 27 season. 

Jonquel Jones is a 6’6” center who can protect the rim and move her feet reasonably well on defense. She may not be quite as airtight yet on defense as Sylvia Fowles in her prime, but she is not that far off, and bigs often improve into their early 30s, so her best years on defense are likely ahead. 

Jones is a career 38% shooter from 3, allowing her to pair with a variety of front court partners. She is the perfect complement to Alyssa Thomas, as she is able to help space the floor on offense while still providing good rim protection on the other end. While she is not as adept as some of her peers at mashing in the post on a mismatch, she makes up for it by hitting the offensive glass if she is being boxed out by a smaller player. 

To reach the next level, Jones will need to improve on both her ability to score facing up an improve on her passing. A negative assist to turnover ratio in 2019 is not a great sign that she will be able to take on more usage. Thankfully, the Sun are set up with other players who can take on that burden, and Jones can do everything else.

Courtney Vandersloot

Courtney Vandersloot is the best point guard in the WNBA. She combines passing and scoring more effectively that any other player. Her advanced stats are hurt by the Sky’s defensive limitations on their roster, but that is not Vandersloot’s responsibility.

Vandersloot’s assists get attention, and that is clearly necessary for a top guard, but it is her shooting and ability to attack the rim that sets her apart from her peers like Chelsea Gray. If anything, the one quibble with Vandersloot’s game is that she is sometimes too unselfish. While not the shooter that her wife, Allie Quigley, is, she is still a good 3 point shooter. As a comparison to another all time point guard, Sue Bird averaged 7 3PA per 36 minutes in 2020, while Vandersloot averaged 4. Vandersloot could likely stand to shoot a few more times per game.

While shot location stats can be a bit wonky, it is still notable that per stats.wnba.com Vandersloot this past year shot 74% on shot within the restricted area. That might be a bit of an outlier given that she shot 60% in 2019 and 67% in 2018, but those are all strong numbers. Vandersloot can do it all on the offensive end and entering her age 32 season should be able to maintain it for another couple of years. 

Vandersloot is mostly kept from the top tier by the lack of impact a point guard can have on defense. Vandersloot is a fine defender, who at times is asked to guard the better shooting guards in the league, when she shares the court with Allie Quigley, as she has decent size and good athleticism for a point guard. There is simply a ceiling on how impactful she can be as a defender. If she were able and willing to shoot from 3 like Diana Taurasi, maybe one could argue for her inclusion in a higher subtier or even tier 1, but as it is, this is where she is.

WNBA Tiers: Tier 3

Before I get to Tier 3, I need to return to a moment to Tier 4 and Tier 5. Stephen Trinkwald of the Double Down WNBA podcast helpfully pointed out that I had left Ariel Atkins off of my tier list. She should have been on it, so a brief explanation of where she would have gone. 

Ariel Atkins should have been a tier 4b player. Along with Alysha Clark, Atkins is the prototype for a super role player 3 and D player. While I had hoped to see more shot creation from her on a team starved of shot creation, particularly after Aerial Powers went down, Atkins was still an effective player.

Atkins would have knocked Courtney Williams to tier 5. A Courtney Williams who shot 5 3s per game would remain tier 4b, but that is not the player we have seen outside of a few Sun playoff games in 2019. Courtney Williams would have knocked Jordin Canada off of the tiers.

Canada is maybe the best backup pg in the league, and is good enough to start for the Storm. But the bar for a player who is a not a center and can not shoot 3s is very high, and Canada does not quite clear that bar. The Storm were noticeably less effective on offense without the shooting of Sue Bird.

Tier 3.

Now is when the differences in players become even finer. All of the players in this tier and up are capable of being the best player on a semifinal team. The players in this tier, as opposed to in tier 2 and tier 1, have certain weaknesses that make it a challenge for their teams to win said semifinals games without pairing with a similar or better teammate. 

Age related decline

The trickiest group in this section were the players who will be entering their year 35 or higher season. But age is the main reason Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, and Sylvia Fowles are where they are. Each has missed parts of a season the past 2 years due to injury and even when playing, have not quite been their prime.

Candace Parker is the player closest to the tier ahead. A Tier 1 player as recently as 2017, when she lost in the finals to the Lynx and the other Tier 1 player that year in Maya Moore, Parker showed in 2017 she is still very effective. The loss in the playoffs to the Sun was not her fault, as she was the Sparks player who played the best. If that had been a series, as it should be, and Nneka Ogwumike had returned healthy, the Sparks still had a chance to move on.

Still, Parker is not quite able to be the hub of a top offense anymore, as the Sparks were middle of the pack in offense at 6th. Her defense is still good, and the Sparks were smart to play her more at center this year, which is typical, as players age they often move up in positions.

Diana Taurasi, even at age 38, was the most effective shooting guard on offense in the entire WNBA, which is absurd. She combined efficiency and usage at levels no other player managed. Typically usage and efficiency are negatively correlated, but Taurasi has been able to be effective with a heavy burden into her late 30s by harnessing the power of the 3, both shooting deeper than anyone else and drawing more shooting fouls. But heading into her age 39 season, this is as high as one can reasonably put even an all time great.

Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard

Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard are both in a similar situation in that they are very good at everything that one expects of a player at their respective position, but they are not quite at the level of shot creation and impact to make it to 3a. This is as much based on their experience in 2019, when they were the best players on a team that lost in the second round of the playoffs. 

Jewell Loyd is the closest to the next group in this section, as she made major strides in her offense in 2020. While of course some of that was because she was playing with Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart again, her ability to shoot 3s off the dribble, the single most valuable skill for a guard, was a real improvement and not dependant on teammates. 

Natasha Howard is one of the best defenders in the WNBA, but does not quite have the all around offensive game of the players above her. She is an adequate shooter, especially at the 5, but suffers more when played at the 4 as she was in 2019. The real separator from her and the players above her though is passing. A negative assist to turnover ratio in both 2019 and 2020 makes it hard her to even be the second option on a good playoff team on offense.

Alyssa Thomas

As I mentioned in the second on Jordin Canada above, to be on this list and not shoot from 3, one needs to be excellent at everything else. Hello Alyssa Thomas. Alyssa Thomas can guard in a pinch all 5 positions on defense, and she is as devastating in the halfocurt as they come. She is quintessential big in the pick and roll who can make all of the passes out of the short roll, while also being surprisingly effective attacking the basket even though her opponents know she won’t shoot.

She does require certain specific situation to succeed, however, which makes it trickier to build around her than the players above her. The Sun have done a good job of maximizing her by, in a non-pandemic year, pairing her with the only center who is both above her in tiers while also able to shoot the 3, thus allowing Thomas to be the one total non-shooter.

Liz Cambage

On the right night when Cambage’s shot is falling, she can look like a tier 1 player. Her 52 point explosion in 2019 was as exciting a game as they come. However, while Cambage is a willing shooter, she is not the most accurate of shooters. While she is a good post player, and a good passer, she is not necessarily exceptional enough at either to reach the higher bar needed to make it as a center. It is simply harder for one’s best player to be a center, as teams can double or triple team them.

Cambage has also not necessarily been put into position to maximize her talents in the WNBA. While individually productive on the Dallas Wings, she was caught up with the most poorly run team in the WNBA and barely squeaked into the playoffs in 2018. She was then traded to the Aces.

The Aces in 2019 were a much more successful team, but one that effectively was playing two centers. While A’ja Wilson can be a good 4, she is at her best when able to play at the center next to a more mobile 4, like Dearica Hamby. Cambage and Wilson together tend to suppress both their numbers.

The other aspect of Cambage’s game that keeps her from tier 2 is her defense. While she is a smart defender who uses her size well near the basket, she can struggle at the highest levels of playoff basketball having to defend in space. The other centers, including her teammate, who are above her, are all enough better than her to make a difference. 

WNBA Tiers: Tier 4

Last week I covered players 31-50 in the WNBA, in Tier 5. See there for explanation of the project. This week is players 15-30 in Tier 4. Next Monday will be 8 players in Tier 3. And on, until the final tier is released.

Tier 5 definitely involved some tricky choices, but the differences needed to differentiate the tiers only becomes more fine grained the higher one goes. This will become more true when we get to the top tiers, but even with tier 4 there are some choices that I am sure are controversial.

4a is a smidge ahead of 4b, but as with tier 5, within the subtier the players are simply in alphabetical order by last name. A tier 4b player might be tier 5 after next season, but is unlikely to reach tier 3. A tier 4a player will likely not follow out of tier 4, but could reach, or recently was, tier 3.

Super Role Players

Tier 4b is about as high as I am willing to put a super role player who can not create their own shot at all. This is why Alysha Clark is in this tier. A consummate 3 and D player, she is totally dependent on teammates in setting her up for her scoring. Her defense is excellent, but she mostly stays on the perimeter and isn’t going to guard the very best of the big wings. She is generally not going to draw the assignment on Elena Delle Donne, for instance. 

Alysha Clark is also on the wrong side of 30, so it will be interesting to see how long she can stay effective chasing around the smaller guards. Her offensive game should age gracefully, so she will stay effective, even if she begins to struggle a bit more to guard the Arike Ogunbowale’s of the world going forward.

Shot creation in playoff setting

Arike Ogunbowale has the worst advanced stats of this tier, so her inclusion is a bet on her continual growth. It is also a bet that she would be able to create and score against set playoff defenses. A bet that the things that made Kelsey Plum so valuable in the playoffs against the Mystics last year, is something that Ogunbowale will also be able to do. 

Especially encouraging this past year was her work off ball seeking her own shot. Especially as Satou Sabally continues to develop, the ability for Ogunbowale to be equally effective on and off ball will be important for the Dallas Wings. Her overall efficiency is what is keeping her from being in a higher tier. Her true shooting percentage is 53% compared to Diana Taurasi at 62.5% and Jewell Loyd at 58%. 

Another factor to keep in mind is that similar to Kelsey Mitchell in tier 5, Ogunbowale’s advanced numbers are hurt by her defensive metrics. While Ogunbowale is not a top defender, she has also yet to play with an even average starting center who can back her up on defense. Put Elizabeth Williams behind her for instance, and her numbers might improve. 

Reputation vs. results

Chelsea Gray was maybe the trickiest player to rank in this entire exercise. Based on reputation, she is a tier 3a, if not tier 2, player. The second best player on a team that lost in the 2017 finals, she has simply not been the same player the last few years. In particular, having Jasmine Thomas a full tier below Gray, when Thomas roundly outplayed her two years in a row, is an argument for Gray even lower, or Thomas higher. 

Chelsea Gray at this point in her career might benefit from being moved off ball more and basically playing as a wing. She has the size to defend wings, and her passing would still be beneficial there. She has not been able to attack the rim the last couple of years as point guard, especially if the opposing team has a guard who has the size to not be bullied by her, whether it be Jasmine Thomas, Natasha Cloud, or Jewell Loyd. To the Sparks credit, this was the idea behind signing Kristi Toliver, so we shall see how that works.

Thomas has the best argument for inclusion in this tier, likely over Kelsey Plum. Defense is important, but I ranked them as I did because Thomas is basically a 3 and d point guard. She can occasionally get her own offense, but is not a three level scorer, like Kelsey Plum is. Plum’s ability to shoot 3s off the dribble and attack the rim is a skill set that can force playoff defenses to change their entire approach in a way that Jasmine Thomas can not. Plum is also entering her age 26 season, while Thomas is entering her age 31 season. 

Outlier shooting seasons

Two players put up career best shooting years, one in her seventh season and the other in her eleventh season. Diggins-Smith put up excellent individual numbers this season with the Phoenix Mercury, but she shot much better than she ever had from the field, in what might be an outlier in terms of efficiency. If she does it again, then she will definitely move up a subtier. Better defense and an assist to turnover ratio that isn’t nearly even would also help.

Angel McCoughtry only played 20 minutes per game, and was not able to ramp those up in the playoffs, averaging only 5 minutes more per game. Within those minutes she was the most pleasant surprise of the 2020 season, shooting a career high from the field, with a true shooting % nearly 10 percentage points higher than her career average. She will remain effective so long as she can play defense and use her size on offense, but the shooting numbers will likely come down a bit, making it even harder for her as a player who can no longer justify having the entire offense run through her, and her team surround her with shooting. 

Offensive powerhouse at center

Brittney Griner has a reputation as a good defensive center who can also play well on offense. Some combination of Griner aging and the changing style of play within the WNBA, with an emphasis on spacing and three point shooting, has made Griner not nearly as effective on defense as she once was. 

What Griner can still do as well as anyone in the league, certainly better than any other center, is shoot the basketball. Typically over her career this has meant shooting from the low block over a shorter opponent and sometimes two or even three defenders. This is fairly effective, but it’s no accident that the Mercury were able to play well when she left the bubble for personal reasons. Brianna Turner is a better fit as a more mobile center in the current wnba, Turner is miscast as a power forward. 

One thing I would like to see in upcoming seasons is for Griner to truly see if she can expand her range. Someone who shoots as well from 18 feet and from the foul line should be able to shoot 3s. Without that, Griner is still good, but the replacement level of centers is simply much higher than with other positions, as the Mercury showed with sliding Brianna Turner and Kia Vaughn over and barely missing a beat.

Exercises like this are meant to be argued over. And while the number of players I have in each tier is somewhat arbitrary, I think it is useful to place a cutoff somewhere, in an effort to force us to think critically. I always welcome criticism. If you think a player is too low, let me know who you would bump to move them to a higher tier.

WNBA Player Tiers: Tier 5

Player rankings can be fun to argue about and get into discussions over who exactly is the best player in the WNBA. However, when it comes to understanding how teams approach building a championship contender, tiered rankings are more useful. In any given year there is more than one player who is a “championship winning” level player. So much depends on who is put around those superstar players.

Part of what makes the very best players the top is that having one of them makes gives a team more flexibility in who to put around them. Putting the players in tiers helps to give a sense of how various teams may look to build going forward.

Seth Partnow of the Athletic did a excellent series doing this very thing for the Athletic. I wanted to see something similar for the WNBA, so decided to do it myself. The way I went about making my tiers is similar to how Seth did his for the NBA. If you subscribe to the Athletic and are interested in the NBA, team building, or especially both, I recommend it. 

As Seth explains in his section on why tiers:

Player production and value are too contextual to feel really good about ordered rankings. When choosing between two players of similar ability, the preference for which player a team would rather have is usually “it depends.” Each tier and sub-tier is meant to reflect the group among which “it depends.” By comparison, players in higher tiers will almost always be preferred to players in lower, with some obvious positional caveats.”

Mine will be similar to Seth’s in that it is weighted towards winning a championship next year. So this will impact for instance where Arike Ogunbuwale places vs. Kristi Toliver. A tier that looked at value over the next 4 years would be different for each player. This is only looking at next year.  

Seth puts 125 players in the NBA into his tiers, a league in which there are roughly 450 spots for players. The WNBA in contrast has roughly 144 spots. For my tiers, I am going to count down the top 50 players in the WNBA for next season, similar to the percentage of the NBA that Seth puts into tiers. 

As a starting point, I used PIPM, Jacob Goldstein’s metric, and Estimated Contributions, from Positive Residual. PIPM is no longer publicly available because Jacob was hired by Monumental Sports & Entertainment, owners of the Mystics and Wizards, but I will use what I have. I am averaging the past three years worth of PIPM and Estimated Contributions, weighted by minutes played. Quite a few players have missed one season over the past three for a variety of reasons, in which case I use the 2 years we do have.

All in one stats are a better starting point than me somewhat randomly guessing. But all in one stats have their limitations, as both PIPM and estimated contributions tend to overvalue good role players on the best teams. For instance, Ariel Atkins’ PIPM went from 2.8 in 2019 to .6 in 2020, worse than her rookie year in 2018. Atkins did not regress at basketball, but rather, she went from playing with Elena Delle Donne and co. to not playing with Elena Delle Donne and co. Similarly, Alysha Clark had a 4.6 in Estimated Contribution in 2020, good for third in the entire WNBA, behind two of her teammates in Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd.  The year before with no Stewart or Sue Bird, she was at 1.5, tied for 25th in the WNBA. Clark did play better in 2020, but not that much better.

As Seth does in his piece, I try to make it so a team would prefer to have a player in a higher tier than in a lower tier. Positional overlap is the one exception. The Aces being the clear example of this potential issue, as we will get to, with their two best players being centers. Within a tier, players are listed in alphabetical order by last name. 

Playoff success matters here too. Players who have clear weaknesses in their games can be game planned more easily in the playoffs, and players who are versatile, and can get their own shots, are much more valuable in a playoff setting with defenses that are focused and can scout a specific opponent. 

Here is the fifth tier, with players 30-50 in the WNBA. I am not going to go through every player in this tier, but I will highlight a few to show my reasoning. 

Inclusion I changed my mind about:

An early draft did not include Kelsey Mitchell. In terms of players who were not rookies in 2020, her numbers are the lowest of those included. What ultimately swayed me into keeping her is that her advanced stats on offense are quite good. What is killing her advanced stats is her defensive numbers. Defensive stats for perimeter players in particular are not that good, and it is hard to blame her for the defensive woes of the Indiana Fever. Especially at a position, shooting guard, where it can be tough to find good contributors, she deserves to be in the top 50.

Based on stats only, biggest snub:

Chiney Ogwumike and LaToya Sanders both have a case to be in a higher tier based on their stats alone. Both have much higher PIPM than any of the other players here. My view is that the replacement level of production for bigs who can not shoot and generate their own offense from the outside. A’ja Wilson being a key example of that kind of center, is much higher than it is for other positions. (link to center pieces.) 

This upcoming season will be a good test for this proposition, as one of the exciting things about the upcoming season is that there is a decent chance that both Ogwumike and Sanders might be on the move from where they currently play, and we will see how they do in a different situation, with different, likely worse, teammates. 

Biggest name excluded entirely:

Tina Charles did not make my list. Charles was a great player for so many years, but her last couple of years in New York were simply not good enough to justify putting her in this list. Could she be added back in after playing well with the Mystics? Absolutely. But as it stands, I would rather have Sanders, Chiney Ogwumike or Brianna Turner as a small ball 5 than Charles in a playoff series against the very best. Charles seems to have lost a step, so I wonder how she would hold up on defense against the Storm for instance, compared to the other centers on this list.

Which is interesting, given that the Mystics seem to disagree. And needless to say, in a disagreement between Mike Thibault and myself, all of the relevant experience and track record says to listen to Thibault. 2021 WNBA season can’t come soon enough, to help us figure such questions.

For Tina Charles, or any other player as we go forward who I did not include, its more interesting if you think I am wrong for excluding them to include who you would take out instead of them.

The rookies:

One of the reasons I don’t vote for second year players for Most Improve Player is because second year players always improve. I included these 4 rookies, Satou Sabally, Crystal Dangerfield, Sabrina Ionescu, and Chennedy Carter, because all 4 held down starting spots in their rookie season, even Ionescu if only for a few games, and all 4 are highly likely to remain starters in year 2.

Ionescu is the most speculative, as she unfortunately had her season cut so short, but she showed enough to at least be a solid starter next year. And possibly more, given that the game before she went down with injury, she put up a 33 7 7 state line.

I will be releasing these every Monday until all 5 are up, so look back next Monday for Tier 4.

WNBA Finals: Aces-Storm

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

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

Can the Carolyn Swords survive on defense?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can anyone on the Aces shoot well for 3 games?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlocking the Aces Offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WNBA Semifinals Preview

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

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

Predilection: Aces in 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: Seattle in 3

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

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

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

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

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

Second Round Playoff Preview

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

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

Pick: Minnesota Lynx

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick: Los Angeles Sparks

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

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

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

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

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

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

WNBA First Round Playoff Preview

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

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

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

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

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

My pick: Phoenix Mercury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My pick: Connecticut Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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