Without much fanfare, the 20th season of the WNBA has reached mid-season. With that in mind, I thought it would be good to follow up on my first impressions piece (link: WNBA 2016: 1st impressions from opening weekend - Swish Appeal ) from the start of the season.
1. With the 24-second shot clock, 8-second backcourt and reset to 14 seconds on offensive, teams are forced to keep the tempo up and by and large, the results have been for a more entertaining game.
2. The new format is likely going to give the fans a tasty Los Angeles versus Minnesota Final. Every game really matters as teams no longer are competing within a weaker or stronger conference.
3. The Sparks (not expected) and Lynx (expected) appear to be the top of the WNBA pecking order. As expected, Connecticut and San Antonio are the bottom feeders. Everybody else is somewhere in between, although the Liberty is trying to make a case for being a contender (currently #3 post-season seed).
5. Barring injury, Breanna Stewart has just about locked up Rookie of the Year.
6. MVP race is far from over with Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike of the Sparks, Maya Moore of the Lynx and Tina Charles of the Liberty, currently the most viable candidates.
6. Brian Agler likely leads for Coach of the Year, although Bill Laimbeer has to be under consideration.
7. At this point, my favorite for Most Improved would be Sugar Rodgers of the Liberty, although some will push for second-year step ups Jewell Loyd of the Storm or Elizabeth Williams of the Dream. Of course, there is plenty of games left to force a need to change thinking on any awards other than ROY.
8. Perhaps most important, at least for now, WNBA observers need to stop worrying about attendance. This is a niche sport with limited fan face. However, ESPN money going forward, combined with other sponsorship, should with proper management essentially bring currently financially struggling franchises out of red ink. So long as ESPN wants it, the WNBA will be functioning.
On to the team and player impressions starting (in alphabetical order) in the....
I have been critical of Dream player personnel moves over the last few years. However, the addition of Elizabeth Williams has been a slam dunk giving the Dream a functional center, something missing after the departure of declining Erika de Souza to Chicago. Moves at the point guard position (Layshia Clarendon via trade and free agent Carla Cortijo) have given the Dream a spare tire that still needs upgrading to reach a level in the upper half of the league at this critical position. Angel McCoughtry continues to be an all-league level performer. After an excellent 8-3 start, the Dream's lead guard shortcomings plus a road trip have brought the team back into .500 territory. Atlanta has enough to compete for a playoff spot but lacks the ingredients for a serious championship run.
Pokey Chatman continues to stress defense to her Sky charges. Yet some nights the "D" is not there so let's call this a work in progress. Expected by many (including this writer) to be the front runner in the East, that has not come to pass.
Its key players (Delle Donne, Pondexter and Vandersloot) are to varying degrees playing below last year's level. On the plus side, Jamierra Faulkner has threatened to supplant Vandersloot as starting point guard and rookie Imani Boyette shows promise (not seen initially in May) to be a viable starting center in the league now taking time from the Brazilian duo of de Souza and Dos Santos.
The Sky could be a dangerous postseason team if the above veteran players step up in the latter stages of the season.
I could write an article on the Sun's miss-deeds alone. The player personnel moves (too many fours, suspect point guard play, trading unhappy Kelsey Bone for what?) have left Connecticut as one of the worst teams in the league with no first round pick (gone to LA) for next year.
If you believe stats, the Sun is one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Curt Miller was a terrific college coach. If matters don't change soon, his pro head coaching career may not last long. Patience is not a WNBA virtue.
The Fever has several cross-currents to navigate. Stephanie White has one foot out the door (heading to coach at Vanderbilt in the fall) and Tamika Catchings (still good if not great) is retiring post-season. Rookie Tiffany Mitchell started off strongly, but scoring output has been down the last few weeks.
Free agent Erica Wheeler has been a useful addition (now with her third club). Marissa Coleman's production has been off from last year. It is hard to imagine Catchings finishing with no post-season play, but the Fever is no lock to achieve such. My gut says they will get in.
To think it wasn't that long ago that the Liberty brass was going to dump Trader Bill. While not all his moves work out and some are works in progress (Shoni Schimmel, Amanda Zahui B., Adut Bulgak), Bill Laimbeer has built a team threatening to contend based on trades (MVP candidate Tina Charles), free agents (Tanisha Wright and Shavonte Zellous), non-lottery draft picks (Kiah Stokes) and reclamation projects (Sugar Rodgers, one of the WNBA's most improved players now in her fourth year).
Lack of quality point guard play (Tanisha Wright really isn't and Brittany Boyd hasn't shown she has the understanding of the position) may in the end derail what title hopes New York has this year. Still given the hand of cards, Laimbeer was initially dealt with where the team is today, the current state of the team is a lot better than should be expected all things considered.
The Mystics have been a "no luck" team when it comes to acquiring elite players with Chamique Holdsclaw being the only one of that variety to don the Mystics colors and that did not work out well.
Coach Mike Thibault has glued together a competitive team based on non-lottery picks (other than Tayler Hill, having her best year in the league). From Belgium, Emma Meeseman is a player of near all-star caliber who few, but die-hard fans of the league, would recognize by name.
Thibault continues to search for the right fit at point guard (lately Natasha Cloud) and small forward (open to question). There seems to be enough competence on the roster to make the playoffs but sorely lacks the star power ingredient needed to win a league title.
Dallas is edging forward, but the path has been far from linear. Skylar Diggins finally returned to action, but her production has not yet reached the consistency of pre-ACL days.
Glory Johnson is also back from her 7-game suspension, but Plenette Pierson was then lost to concussion-like symptoms. Rookie Aerial Powers shows promise to become the small forward that this franchise has lacked for years. Surprisingly veteran small forward Karima Christmas is having her best year in the league, perhaps pushed by competition from Powers.
The center position is still an issue as Courtney Paris, who has come a long way herself, lacks the mobility to deal defensively with the top posts in the league. For that matter, the Wings opposition has one of the highest field goal percentages in that category indicating the D needs to get better versus the league average.
In summation, the Wings have come a ways but still have a ways to go to threaten for a league title. Final teaser, will Aussie star super tall Liz Cambage ever give this franchise another chance? No bets here!
We have been waiting for years for the Sparks to get it together, and 2016 appears to be the year. To say, the Sparks leadership has had the "Midas touch" this season would be an understatement.
A trade (adding Chelsea Gray and Connecticut's first round pick in 2017 for an unneeded Jonquel Jones) and free agent addition (Essence Carson appears re-born in LA after several down years in New York) have turned out well. This season Alana Beard is playing defense like she was 10 years younger!
Most key players are having productive seasons with the biggest question being who should be the team's MVP poster candidate (Candace or Nneka)! Even the Euros on the bench contribute at times. The WNBA leadership has to be excited at the prospect of an LA-Minnesota final.
The good news is that the Lynx set the all-time win streak to start a season, and Maya Moore is again playing at MVP level with Sylvia Fowles just behind. Recent additions (Natasha Howard, Renee Montgomery and Jia Perkins) have all contributed to one or more victories. T
he bad news is that starters Seimone Augustus (down year) and Rebekkah Brunson (declining before this year) are not up to prior levels of production. Lindsay Whalen is still productive but in significantly fewer minutes (perhaps a smart move) given to Renee Montgomery.
The Olympic break will give no rest for aging Lynx players with Augustus, Fowles, Moore and Whalen all headed to Rio while the key Sparks get to stay home, rest up and practice. Given LA's upturn from the beginning of the season, the Lynx are currently more co-favorite than heavy favorite to take another WNBA title.
Until recently the Mercury, one of the pre-season favorites to take the 2016 title, was the league's most disappointing team. Their legs looked old, and the team just had to rely on high-scoring output to win games. Diana Taurasi, as feared in my early impressions piece in May, was carrying a huge load as lead guard and prime scorer.
The recent addition of functional (ok except not shooting well) point guard Lindsey Harding has taken pressure off Taurasi, and the team has posted several wins of late pushing back toward .500.
On the positive front, Brittney Griner, who coming into the league, was expected to be a superstar, has had a few monster games (most notably a triple-double in beating Atlanta) lately. From a Phoenix viewpoint, more of this is needed.
The team cheaply added some post depth in Kelsey Bone who wanted out of Connecticut giving up early on rookie guard Courtney Williams, who was shipped east. With Griner to police the middle, the Merc needs to add a guard that can make perimeter stops but score enough to need to be defended at the other end.
In speaking with recently injured Penny Taylor, who otherwise is having a productive year, the Aussie told me that this would be her last season of professional basketball and that it was time for her to move on in life.
Yet, nothing has been said officially, so perhaps she will change her mind. Regardless, this aging franchise is probably going to undergo significant variations in the near future. For now, the question is, do they have a late-season title run left in them for 2016?
The Stars continue to compete by trying to execute and playing hard under Dan Hughes in his final season. Give him credit for that! The problem is there just is not much high-level talent on the roster which he sadly, having been GM for most of his tenure, must take responsibility for as well.
Moriah Jefferson has done a creditable job as a rookie point guard. Kayla McBride leads the team in scoring but is shooting well below 40% from the field to do it. It will be interesting to see how new GM Ruth Riley handles the return of Danielle Robinson, who hopefully can be traded for some offense, a category where San Antonio is in the bottom echelon of the WNBA.
The Storm brass succeeded in its 2015 plan to get younger and cast off respectable role players and lose enough games to get the best shot at budding superstar Breanna Stewart.
Mission accomplished! More good fortune occurred when Jewell Loyd left Notre Dame a year early, and the Storm now have a one-two punch, which should be good for the next decade. Add to this after a slow start, Sue Bird, very late in her career, is putting up offensive stats any point guard would be proud of!
The negatives are simple. Ramu Tokashiki and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis have not progressed (retrogressed?) from their rookie seasons, and Alysha Clark (a respectable reserve) has to play starter minutes and struggles to defend and rebound, often not scoring enough for a WNBA small forward.
As one Seattle critic put it, the team's player personnel moves beyond the obvious (drafting Stewart and Loyd) have been as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I will give credit that the recent addition of Noelle Quinn does give Sue Bird a chance to rest her aging legs.
Seattle brass would probably say Kelsey Bone would disrupt team chemistry, but she could have added some punch to the Storm front line and even giving next year's number one pick (no apparent superstars coming out) might have been a productive move (and a better move for the Sun than what they got from Phoenix).
With Bird within a few years of retirement and the Storm having good fortune in recent WNBA lotteries, maybe the best plan for 2017 would be to repeat 2015's strategy and go get Ohio State's super-guard Kelsey Mitchell in the 2018 draft. That not happening, Seattle should look to New York as to how to build a team without high number one picks.