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The WNBA Eastern Conference picture is now much clearer

With the Indiana Fever defeating the New York Liberty, 76-63, this helped punch a ticket for Indy to make a 10th straight playoff appearance, and also allowed the Chicago Sky to earn consecutive playoff berths for the first time in franchise history.

Photo courtesy of Stewart Small

The Eastern Conference in the WNBA has been inconsistent all year long, and there is a chance that only one team, the Atlanta Dream, will finish with a winning regular season record this season.

On Thursday, the Indiana Fever defeated the New York Liberty, 76-63, to punch themselves a playoff ticket for the tenth straight season and a 15-17 record. The win also gave the 15-17 Chicago Sky a playoff ticket as well.

Now, in the Eastern Conference, two teams, the 15-17 Washington Mystics and the 13-19 New York Liberty are battling for the final playoff spot, or for a chance to get the #1 pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft. There is a chance that we may not know who ends up going to the postseason until this Sunday, when the Libs host the Fever in their regular season finale.

So now here are some quick questions on the Eastern Conference Playoffs at this point.

The Mystics have a 15-17 record, just like the Fever and the Sky. Why didn't they clinch the playoffs?

It's all about the tiebreakers.

Let's take a look at the Fever and the Sky and how they did against the Libs. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head matches. The Fever are 2-1 (with a game left to go), and the Sky is 4-0. So if Chicago loses each of its next two games and New York wins each of its next two games, the Sky will still finish ahead because of the tiebreaker. And if New York wins out while Indy and D.C. lose out, then the Fever and Libs would have identical 15-19 records with a 2-2 head to head record. But the Fever has a better record in-conference than the Libs, which gives them the edge that way.

The Mystics are behind the Sky and Fever because they have a worse record against Eastern Conference teams than Chicago and Indy. Ironically, that means that D.C. has a better record against the West, but those are the rules. This is despite the fact that they have 2-2 records against the Sky and Fever. They also have a 2-2 record against the Liberty, with one game left to go. Should D.C. lose to Connecticut Friday, and lose to New York Saturday, that gives the Libs to have the tiebreaker over D.C. as 15-19 teams, should they win on Sunday at home against the Fever, who may be resting players, if their seeding is established at this point.

Is it better for New York to go for wins or the lottery?

In New York's case, their 2015 first round pick has been dealt to the Connecticut Sun in the Tina Charles acquisition. Therefore, there is no incentive for the Libs to lose. In fact, it is in their interest to win out and hope that the Washington Mystics continue to slump and lose in their head-to-head matchup at Verizon Center.

And because the Sun has New York's first round pick in the 2015 Draft, they could tank Friday and hope that the Mystics beat them badly for their own selfish interest. A Mystics win will guarantee Connecticut two Top-4 picks in the 2015 Draft, to add to the nice young core that's being built there.

So sure, the Sun may lose the game. But Connecticut wins a second lottery pick. If the Sun's 2015 first rounders do play there and help make this a team at least as good as it was during the Mike Thibault Era, this team is the real winner during Friday's contest.

Either way, New York will do everything in their power to make sure that Connecticut won't get a second Top-4 pick.

What about D.C.?

In Washington's case, it's pretty clear at this point that these recent losses are confirming what we have said about them all season long. They are a very well-coached team, and are overachieving. But because other teams in the Eastern Conference are in adverse situations while they really aren't, the Mystics' record can be what Nate calls an illusion, and what I call "fool's gold."

Consider these points that Nate laid out nicely, and I also have added some others:

  • The Sky now has its entire roster back with Elena Delle Donne and Courtney Vandersloot back from injury or illness. And Sylvia Fowles missed a lot of time early. The injury woes have definitely played a factor why Chicago is 15-17 instead of being at least a 20 win team at this point of the season.
  • The Atlanta Dream saw head coach Michael Cooper leave midseason due to tongue cancer treatment. Sure, Karleen Thompson is an assistant, but a team seeing a head coach leave due to illness like cancer can be a used as a legitimate excuse for non-optimal performance. Before the All-Star Break, this team was clearly on pace to win 25 games this season.
  • The Indiana Fever missed do-it-all forward Tamika Catchings for much of the first half of the season. Since she returned, Indy has gone 8-7, which is better than the 7-10 record without her. I know this team lost three in a row before the two-game win streak against New York, including one game to the Mystics. But two of those losses were against Minnesota and Phoenix. I'll even add that the Minny loss was only by two points too.
  • And the Liberty has more talented stars than the Mystics do with Cappie Pondexter and Tina Charles. I do believe that New York should be a playoff team with those two on the roster, especially given how weak the East is. It's just because Bill Laimbeer can't coach like Mike Thibault can.

There's a good reason why we pegged the Mystics to be last in the East in 2014, even with a coaching guru like Mike Thibault who makes the most out of what he has, year in and year out. It's talent.

However, other teams suffered major injuries, or chemistry issues that can be attributed to coaches who are clearly underperforming, and should be terminated after the season is over. And when that happens, while the Mystics are really well-coached while remaining relatively healthy, that helps increase their win total, more than it otherwise could have been if the rest of the conference was performing as expected.

I'm not saying that Thibault is doing them a disservice this season by winning games, in particular with a weaker than normal 2015 Draft. But at the same time, when you're coaching a team where you don't know who will REALLY emerge from the young core just yet, picking in the Top-4 with a chance to be better than that is more desirable than being pegged at #5.

Therefore, my position is that it's better for the Mystics to tank the rest of the season and hope that the New York Liberty can win out this weekend. It also prevents the Connecticut Sun from having two Top-4 picks in two straight WNBA Drafts, which will also give them a huge leg up on the Mystics long term. They already have a leg up on the Mystics anyway because of the Tina Charles trade and the lottery pick that they're guaranteed.

Albert, you're such a loser. You're ALWAYS TALKING about the Mystics needing to NOT EVEN TRY to be competitive until they get the superstar who is NEVER coming anyway. But after the Mystics make you eat crow, can they still be the number two seed?

I never said that the Mystics should never be competitive like they were during the Trudi Lacey Era. However, if a young team is in a position where they can go for a one-and-done playoff appearance against a clearly better team, or having more options in the draft, I'm going with the latter, at least given how young the team is right now.

As for the second point, the Mystics could very easily turn the tables in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

So since they have an identical 15-17 record as the Fever and the Sky, the answer is yes! They could still be the number two seed in the East. Here's how it happens:

  • The Mystics win both of their remaining games (at Connecticut Friday and vs. New York Saturday), AND
  • The winner of the Fever vs. Sky game on Saturday loses Sunday. That means that if the Sky wins Saturday, they must lose to the Stars. And if the Fever wins Saturday, they must lose to the Liberty Sunday.
I will admit that the Mystics could still be the number two seed and it will be remarkable. But I'm still extremely disappointed in the fact that they blew multiple chances at closing the deal, which should have been done Sunday against the Connecticut Sun. And after the Chicago loss, that was the turning point for me.

I'm not afraid of being wrong about this team. I love being proven wrong. But those losses really, REALLY disappointed me.