With All-Stars announced and the All-Star break fast approaching, here’s a rundown of each WNBA squad’s status as the season tips toward the midway point:
New York Liberty (7-10)
Dallas Wings (5-13)
Indiana Fever (6-12)
As the Liberty notched their 17th consecutive loss earlier this season, their lot appeared hopeless, with another lost season guaranteed. Since then, the team has found its footing, exemplified by the four-game winning streak registered over late June and early July. The All-Star emergence of Kia Nurse has helped New York tally wins and lifted the burden on Tina Charles. If Nurse maintains consistent scoring, Amanda Zahui B builds on the improvements she demonstrated before departing for EuroBasket and Asia Durr more frequently flashes her potential, coach Katie Smith and general manager Johnathan Kolb will face a tough question. Should the team no longer build around Tina Charles and instead prioritize complementing the younger core? New York has failed to put a winning team around Charles these past few years, so she possibly would welcome a transition to a supporting veteran role.
Dallas, which likewise struggled early, has established a sense of stability and possibility (due, in part, to some more sensible personnel moves). While they have not found the win column of late, the Wings have succeeded in keeping games close, thus, providing valuable experience for their collection of young players. Arike Ogunbowale has shown the ability to score at the professional level, although lacking the efficiency needed to be elite. Hopefully, the eventual returns of point guards Skylar Diggins-Smith and Moriah Jefferson can help Ogunbowale and other Wings find more efficient and consistent offense. However, coach Brian Agler and general manager Greg Bibb cannot be blamed if they begin to envision how Baylor senior and Texas native Lauren Cox would look in Dallas’ electric green.
Indiana, in contrast, started the season with surprising competitiveness, winning three of their first four games. They since have faltered, especially of late, twice suffering losing streaks of three or more games since late June. Nevertheless, the Fever have remained in games, much due to first-time All-Star Erica Wheeler providing solid point guard play. Indiana needs improvement from other contributors, though. While coach Pokey Chatman rightly relies on Kelsey Mitchell’s offensive potential, the second-year guard often struggles to score efficiently. Redistributing some of Mitchell’s shot attempts, while not necessarily translating to more wins, could better situate the Fever for success in future seasons. Not only is it important to cultivate the offensive confidence of Teaira McCowan, but also to provide opportunities for the likes of Natalie Achonwa and Betnijah Laney to expand their games. When Victoria Vivians returns next season, the Fever could begin to establish a balanced, more efficient attack.
Spoiler or spoiled season?
Atlanta Dream (5-12)
Atlanta is the WNBA’s most disappointing team. After overachieving last season, the Dream have struggled to find their fire and focus in 2019. While no longer title contenders, the playoffs are not yet out of the question. But a late playoff push not only requires Atlanta to play with the defensive intensity they have demonstrated of late; the team must find some consistent scoring. After emerging as a star last season, an early-season ankle injury has stalled Tiffany Hayes’ rise. She has struggled to leverage her one-on-one abilities into the efficient scoring opportunities that the Dream desperately need. The possible return of Angel McCoughtry could determine if the season can be salvaged through a push for the eighth seed. Although expecting McCoughtry to be an impactful player after more than a year away from the court might be a bit much, her ability to serve as a reliable floor spacer could make a significant difference for the league’s poorest shooting team. More importantly, playing meaningful basketball with McCoughtry will allow the Atlanta brass to determine the changes that may need to be made in the offseason.
Seattle Storm (11-8)
Despite the absences of Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird, as well as the loss of Jewell Loyd, the Storm have remained firmly in the playoff race. But the possibility of a suspension for Natasha Howard could further sap Seattle of its star power and weaken its playoff positioning. Second-year speedster Jordin Canada should continue to take advantage of her increased opportunities. Despite almost doubling her minutes per game and playing higher-leverage minutes, Canada has maintained her scoring efficiency while improving her assist-to-turnover ratio. Canada also has established herself as a potential, perennial All-Defense candidate. Mercedes Russell also has shown herself to be more than a marginal rotational piece, providing an efficient inside presence. Adding an improved Canada and emerged Russell to a hungry and healthy Stewart, Bird, Loyd and Howard should make Seattle the title favorites in 2020.
Los Angeles Sparks (10-7)
Phoenix Mercury (8-8)
Both of these teams have the potential to make a run to the Finals ... or flame out in the first round of the playoffs.
In Phoenix, the early season absence of Diana Taurasi presented an opportunity for Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner to shoulder a greater burden and show off their full capabilities. Both received deserved preseason MVP buzz. However, while Griner and Bonner have put up impressive numbers, their individual offensive statistics have not translated to winning basketball. Phoenix, to its credit, has not rushed Taurasi back to the court. Nonetheless, the ability of the Mercury to reach their preseason expectations relies not simply on her return, but on her return to top form. If the GOAT cannot serve as the glue that creates a cohesive offense, coach Sandy Brondello may need to give more consistent minutes to rookies Sophie Cunningham, Alanna Smith and Brianna Turner to cultivate depth that could serve them well in 2020.
Injuries have forced the Sparks to develop such depth this season. For most of the year, L.A.’s frontcourt has not been as crowded as expected, with Candace Parker playing only seven games due to hamstring and ankle issues and Maria Vadeeva missing significant time because of EuroBasket obligations and now because of a knee injury. In turn, Kalani Brown has received relatively significant minutes, permitting her to play through and learn from rookie mistakes. So has Marina Mabrey, as she has served as a quick-trigger floor spacer for a thin Sparks backcourt. The suspension of Riquana Williams further should allow Mabrey and third-year guard Sydney Wiese to gain experience in critical minutes. However, for all the importance of depth, the Sparks’ ultimate success will depend on how well their flashier names play together. First-year coach Derek Fisher needs to determine if Parker can be maximized at the three. If not, Fisher must optimize the Parker-Vadeeva-C. Ogwumike-N. Ogwumike rotation. Of course, he could just let Chelsea Gray cook!
Feel-good team, feel-good story
Minnesota Lynx (10-8)
Chicago Sky (10-8)
An uninspiring 2018 season that concluded with the retirement of Lindsay Whalen appeared to initiate the slow demise of the Lynx dynasty. The sabbatical of Maya Moore, the halting of Rebekkah Brunson’s career due to post-concussion concerns and an early season knee surgery for Seimone Augustus accelerated the Lynx’s denouement. But, surprisingly, these changes have produced an intriguing present and more promising future due in large part to the shrewd retooling of coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve. Most notably, Reeve traded for former nemesis Odyssey Sims, who became a first-time All-Star by putting up career-best numbers in Minnesota’s blue and grey. Of course, the Lynx also benefited from some draft night fortune, snagging Napheesa Collier at seventh and Jessica Sheppard at sixteenth. Collier has been an immediate contributor, providing consistency amidst seemingly continuous injuries to other players, including an ACL tear for Shepard. It is unlikely that the new faces, even with stalwart Sylvia Fowles still doing work, can lead the Lynx to deep playoff run. Nonetheless, they certainly have proven themselves a plucky bunch that no contender should take lightly.
Chicago, likewise, lacks the upper-echelon talent necessary for a title run but, as with the Lynx, its season has provided a preview of a potentially-bright future. Since the departure of Elena Delle Donne, the Sky have lacked identity and direction. New coach James Wade has aimed to establish both. He has implemented an offensive system that takes advantage of the talents of self-made veteran stars Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot and blue-blood burgeoning talent Diamond DeShields. The Sky play fast and trust the pass, producing efficient scoring opportunities. The All-Star trio of Quigley, Vandersloot and DeShields has been bolstered by stolid vet Jantel Lavender, who is having her best season in three years, and solid role players Stefanie Dolson, Cheyenne Parker, Gabby Williams and Kaleah Copper. The ability to get stops, however, will determine if the Sky can maintain their playoff positioning and become a playoff threat in coming seasons.
Connecticut Sun (11-6)
The preseason trade of Chiney Ogwumike was imagined as allowing for addition by subtraction, unclogging the Sun’s frontcourt rotation and situating Jonquel Jones as the center of the Sun’s offensive system. Early-season MVP-like play from Jones, along with Jasmine Thomas, Alyssa Thomas and Shekinna Stricklen expertly fulfilling their roles, resulted in the Sun flashing their upside. But they have trended downward due to lack of depth, with the loss of backup point guard Layshia Clarendon exacerbating the gap between Connecticut’s starters and reserves. This circumstance places more pressure on the starters, which is of concern since the two Thomases, Jones and Courtney Williams all played overseas during the offseason. Before putting up 26 rebounds and 8 rebounds in the Sun’s July 14 win over the Fever, Jones had scored below her season average in six straight games. Her sagging play suggests she, as well as her teammates, could benefit from some load management. However, Connecticut’s lack of reliable depth, in addition to its desire to push for a top-two seed (and, in turn, earn the double-bye that would protect them from Diana Taurasi’s single-game playoff prowess) would seem to make this unlikely. This combination of concerns, while certainly not eliminating the Sun from title contention, does raise questions about their potential for sustainable, high-level success.
JJ was ballin' without a budget yesterday. pic.twitter.com/cetkdqGxEW— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) July 15, 2019
Washington Mystics (9-6)
Las Vegas Aces (11-5)
When Elena Delle Donne plays (or plays more than one minute), the Mystics are 9-2. When she doesn’t play, they are 0-4. So, in short, if Delle Donne is healthy, the title is Washington’s to lose. While overly simple, Delle Donne has proven to be the Mystics’ elixir. When she is active, her teammates seem to play with confidence and consistency, even when she sits. For instance, in June, the Mystics were plus-10.8 when she was on the court and plus-5.8 when she was off court. The absence of Delle Donne could be interpreted positively, though. Even as D.C. has suffered losses, other players have had opportunities to produce in pressure situations. But since the Mystics already were thin due to EuroBasket absences and injuries, overextending players could become a cause for concern. While coach Mike Thibault has done well to keep the older Kristi Toliver and undersized LaToya Sanders around 30 minutes per game, Tianna Hawkins recently put in more than 34 minutes even though she has struggled with a chronic knee injury and Natasha Cloud recently played more than 38 minutes. The return of Emma Meesseman, while possibly requiring some rotational readjustments, should bolster the team and help protect against additional injuries. But, let’s face it: The return of Delle Donne should solve most of the Mystics’ struggles regardless of who else is on the court.
Before the season, the WNBA’s general managers selected the Aces as the squad most likely to win the 2019 title. Although they have played unevenly and inconsistently, the Aces sit in first place. If and when the team totally meshes, the predictions of the league’s general managers may well come true. However, Las Vegas must secure a top-two seed to realize this potential. They struggle to dominate lesser competition in the manner that they should, so a single-elimination early-round game could result in a disappointing postseason exit. To guard against this unpleasant possibility, Vegas should unleash Liz Cambage. The Aces’ accumulation of talent requires sacrifice, with all players unable to maximize their talents in every game. Yet, as she demonstrated last season, Cambage has the ability to carry a team. Let Liz work! Smartly, coach Bill Laimbeer did not overextend her early in the season while she was nursing a sore Achilles. But if she is fully healthy, Cambage deserves more minutes and touches. Cambage at full fire and force can help Vegas defeat the league’s other elite teams when they are at full strength — something the Aces still have not done yet. Their wins over the Mystics, Sparks and Mercury came without Delle Donne, Parker and Taurasi, respectively.