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Swish Appeal Roundtable: Highs and lows of the 2019 WNBA season

Injury-depleted rosters, a brawl, a changing of the guard. Swish Appeal dives into the “noisy” and “inconsistent,” yet “satisfying” and “refreshing” season. But it wouldn’t be a roundtable without playoff predictions.

Seattle Storm v Chicago Sky
James Wade as head coach of the Chicago Sky has taken a team with the same players and transformed it from a bottom-dweller of the WNBA standings to a title contender. It’s one of our favorite things about the 2019 season.
Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2018 WNBA season was one of the most exciting in recent memory. Diana Taurasi became the league’s all-time leading scorer, Sue Bird became the league’s all-time assists leader and Courtney Vandersloot set a record for the highest per-game assists average in league history. At age 27, Brittney Griner reached 500 career blocks, becoming the fastest player to hit that milestone in either the WNBA or NBA. Liz Cambage made history with a 53-point game and followed it up two days later with a 35-point game — making that 88 points in back-to-back games — for another record.

The 2019 WNBA season, thus far, has been ... different.

Even before it started, Victoria Vivians (ACL) and Breanna Stewart (Achilles) suffered injuries abroad that ruled them out for the season. The injury bug continued to bite, causing veteran players like Bird, Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry, Candace Parker, Essence Carson and Seimone Augustus to miss significant playing time or not be able to suit up at all. Even the rookies did not escape the injury bug’s bite, with Kiara Leslie never making it out of training camp, Katie Lou Samuelson missing much of the season with a hand injury and Jessica Shepard seeing her solid rookie campaign thwarted by a season-ending ACL injury.

Adding to the discombobulated feel of the season were off-court issues: the arrest of Odyssey Sims (DUI), the arrest and suspension of Riquna Williams (domestic violations) and allegations of domestic violence against Natasha Howard.

In addition, the WNBA and WNBPA are in CBA negotiations and Cathy Engelbert started in her role as first-ever commissioner just before the tipoff of WNBA All-Star weekend.

On the court, the Seattle Storm have played surprisingly well without their stars and show zero doubt in their ability to repeat as champions, while the Washington Mystics are No. 1 in the standings and wrecking the league like superstars. Despite glimmers of hope and some Tina Charles milestones, the New York Liberty find themselves out of playoff contention for the second year in a row and the Fever, despite a strong start, slide down the standings with fans wondering if the coaching tenures of Katie Smith (Liberty) and Pokie Chatman (Fever) will be coming to an end. The Dream finished with the league’s best record in 2018 but a season later have a 5-21 record — the WNBA’s worst.

And then there was the brawl between the Phoenix Mercury and Dallas Wings that generated mainstream media coverage and resulted in several players being suspended and/or fined and Griner, whose three-game suspension was the biggest, airing disaffection with the league that appears to be boiling over.

The Swish Appeal crew convened this weekend to discuss this season’s highs and lows and offer some predictions. Here’s what Cat Ariail, Christine M. Hopkins, Albert Lee, Eric Nemchock and Jim Savell are thinking as the 2019 WNBA season edges towards the playoffs.

-Tamryn Spruill, Editor-in-Chief

How the 2019 WNBA season compares to seasons past

Eric Nemchock: I think we’ve seen a changing of the guard concerning the league’s top teams. Las Vegas has become a powerhouse and Chicago is on the rise. But “usual suspects” like Minnesota and Phoenix have fallen off considerably. The amount of talent missing from the latter teams has something to do with that, but such a shift has always been inevitable. Next year will be crucial for franchises that must decide if they will reload or rebuild.

Jim Savell: This season has been about who can stay healthy and consistent. For Phoenix, this has been a disaster of a season simply because of lack of health and consistency. A team like Connecticut, meanwhile, has been able to cover up its mediocre road performances with outstanding home wins. The steadiest team all year has been Washington and I see no reason that trend should not continue.

Christine M. Hopkins: The way that veterans and rookies have emerged as stars in the face of injuries and other absences is so satisfying. Two big examples: Jordin Canada has been stellar for the Storm this season (stepping in for Sue Bird) and Napheesa Collier has given the Lynx the star power they sorely needed after losing so many key players. This season might not feature the same mainstays as seasons past, but it has all the same talent and excitement.

Cat Ariail: The season has been noisy, but in a mostly positive way. The impending CBA negotiations have created a constant white noise, with the possibility of a renegotiated CBA — whether on injuries, travel accommodations, suspensions or mental health care — reverberating. The standings have been noisy, an indication of the league’s depth of talent. The Rookie of the Year race between Arike Ogunbowale and Napheesa Collier has been noisy, and is getting noisier. Players have also made noise, using their platforms to promote social causes and spoken up for themselves, with Brittney Griner and Liz Cambage recently defending their integrity as people and players. This vibrancy I find much more intriguing than the Lynx-Sparks hegemony that had defined the league until last season.

Albert Lee: This season is about the rise of the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference has won nine of the last 10 WNBA championships and two of the last three WNBA Finals series have been between Western Conference teams. This season, the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun are in position to be the top two seeds in the WNBA Playoffs and meet in the Finals. This is shift is huge and refreshing.

Best or most exciting moment, on or off the court

Christine: The all-out battle for Rookie of the Year! We’ve got Napheesa Collier and Arike Ogunbowale as the front-runners, and there are strong, defensible arguments for either. But we’ve also got rookies who might not be in the main conversation — like Jackie Young and Teaira McCowan — who are still having statement seasons. It’s been a lot of fun to watch these players develop and become necessary pieces of their teams.

Eric: All-Star weekend was just tremendous. Between the overall presentation, the guest performances and the off-court festivities, it’s clear those in charge of planning the event knew how to put on a show. Can we have the All-Star Game in Vegas every season?

Tamryn: Leaping off Eric’s answer, the battle between Diamond DeShields and Jonquel Jones in the Skills Challenge was amazing and Shekinna Strickland thwarting Allie Quigley’s three-peat quest in the Three-Point Contest made for exciting viewing. But Erica Wheeler — an undrafted player balling out on the biggest stage of her life and being named All-Star MVP — stole the show.

Cat: For all the competitiveness, this season has not given us a “signature” regular-season game. The All-Star Game, as Eric expressed, more than filled this void. All-Star weekend showcased the best of what the WNBA can be. Even with the Olympics occurring next year, the league needs to make sure to again host a polished, professional All-Star or All-Star-esque event.

Worst or most disappointing moment, on or off the court

Jim: The one part of the game that no one can predict or control is injuries, but they have appeared to center around star players this year. Multiple teams have suffered depleted rosters, but for a team already lacking in offensive depth, like the Atlanta Dream, the step back in the absence of veteran Angel McCoughtry has been huge. After a very promising 2018 season, it would have been fun to see the Dream have a shot at taking the next step forward.

Tamryn: The plight of the Dream this season is pretty disheartening, especially after Nicki Collen was named Coach of the Year in 2018, with Chris Sienko named Basketball Executive of the Year. Where does Atlanta go from here — raze everything to ground zero for a full rebuild?

Eric: I feel like we harp on this every year, but the officiating has been holding the product back. They simply weren’t calling anything for the first two months of the season. I get that fans don’t want to see games with 60-something free throws, but it’s equally as frustrating when game scores fall off a cliff and teams are constantly shooting below 40 percent from the field. It appears the WNBA got the memo on this, though, as significantly more fouls have been called in August. We’ll see if that trend continues into the playoffs.

Cat: The domestic assault accusations against Riquna Williams and Natasha Howard have stained the 2019 season. In the weird world of sports fandom, the accusations seem particularly unfortunate because both have had strong seasons. Before her 10-game suspension, Williams was putting up her best scoring numbers since 2014. Howard has been spectacular, raising her play yet again to go from Most Improved Player to MVP candidate. Yet, even if Williams and Howard were end-of-the-roster players, the accusations against them would be just as unfortunate. The WNBA needs a domestic violence policy that treats all players, regardless of their identity or ability, the same.

Christine: The downsides to the limited roster size/salary cap have been very obvious this season. Leilani Mitchell stands out on the veteran side: She didn’t make the Mercury for salary cap reasons, but was brought back quickly and is clearly a key player for them now. Not to mention all the rookies who didn’t make opening-day rosters but are now back playing with the teams that waived them. Teams need to be able to keep the players they want — not be forced to cut them and basically save them for later.

Coaches of struggling teams who may not be around next season

Albert: The most important thing with bottom-feeder teams is to see if key younger players are improving and fitting in with the new system. In Indiana, sophomore Kelsey Mitchell is their leading scorer but she is only making 36 percent of her shots. In New York, Kia Nurse has stepped up to become the Liberty’s second leading scorer but rookie Asia Durr hasn’t put up the numbers I’d expected. I’d say that Chatman gets another year in Indiana but Smith may be let go after the year. As for Phoenix, I think Brondello will be offered a soft landing if she weren’t to return next season.

Eric: Chatman was promoted to GM and then began Indiana’s rebuild, so I think she gets at least one more season to see it through. Smith, on the other hand, inherited a contender when she was hired, so I’m guessing her leash is a little shorter. Brondello? Even if Phoenix hangs onto that eighth seed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a change there. Taurasi or no Taurasi, I think we can all agree that the Mercury have under-performed big time.

Cat: Based on Brittney Griner’s recent comments, I believe Brondello’s job is secure. I’m inclined to say that Chatman and Smith also deserve another year, but the way the hire of James Wade has invigorated the Chicago Sky suggests otherwise. Chicago’s transformation may be of particular interest to Liberty owner Joseph Tsai, especially if he intends to move the team to Brooklyn. A new coach with a new plan (and Sabrina Ionescu?) could encourage Brooklynites to head to Barclays Center and support the Liberty.

Player or team that has exceeded expectations

Christine: The Sky have been running with the same core for a long time. That things are finally starting to click team-wise is extremely encouraging. It would have been even better if they’d been able to get this season’s rookies as engaged as last season’s rookies were. But they’re showing they can overcome adversity, especially with new arrival Jantel Lavender being out. The Sky’s big wins also feel more earned this season than last — like they’re beating good teams not because the other team is missing key players or something, but because they’re also a good team.

Albert: The Seattle Storm have impressed me the most this season. Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird will miss the entire season but they have managed to punch above their weight. Natasha Howard is playing at an All-WNBA Team level while Jordin Canada has blossomed as Seattle’s starting point guard. The Storm will probably not win the WNBA championship but it wouldn’t shock me if they made the semifinals.

Eric: As for team, I am a big fan of Seattle’s coaching staff and believe that players like Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard have been underappreciated until now. As for individual players, I really love what Erica Wheeler has done this season. She’s become the focal point of the Fever and has responded with a career year. I’d put her in the conversation for Most Improved Player.

Jim: The development of Jordin Canada in the absence of Bird and Stewart, especially on the defensive end, has been great to see.

Cat: Seattle! With Stewart and Bird out, I expected the Storm to be lottery bound. Considering that Jewell Loyd has had a down year, the Storm’s competitiveness is even more impressive. Off-court drama aside, Howard deserves much credit for developing into a bona fide No. 1 option.

Tamryn: A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage may be the Aces’ superstars, but Dearica Hamby — too often overlooked — is consistently relentless on both ends of the floor, game in and game out. When Wilson and Cambage missed time due to injury, Hamby hammed it up in the starting lineup. But she plays just as well off the bench.

Player or team that hasn’t lived up to the hype

Christine: Alanna Smith. It seemed like a natural fit to have her play for Sandy Brondello given the Australia National Team connection, but the experiment clearly isn’t working. Plus, the Mercury are carrying a lot of rookies, which makes it hard for even the eighth overall pick to establish herself. I can’t wait to see how she develops in the offseason, and to see if that helps her have a bigger impact on the Mercury — or if another team will simply be a better fit for her.

Eric: While I think Atlanta overachieved last year, a 5-21 record this season is just brutal. No Angel McCoughtry is a big deal, but the Dream brought back just about every other player from the 2018 semifinals squad (as well as that season’s Coach of the Year), so such a huge drop off is a tough pill to swallow.

Jim: The Fever have improved but I think the expectations were about contending for a seventh or eighth spot in the playoffs. If it does not happen this year, maybe other changes in the organization will happen.

Cat: As a cynical Atlanta sports fan, I did not expect the Dream to replicate last season’s success. But I saw the Dream as a middle-of-the-pack playoff team — just not the clear bottom-feeder team they’ve become. While she does not deserve all of the blame, Tiffany Hayes’ inability to consistently perform as an All-WNBA player has lowered Atlanta’s ceiling, especially on offense. Her teammates’ failure to hit open shots and space the floor, in combination with refs swallowing their whistles, have made it even harder for Hayes. It will be interesting to see how the Atlanta brass responds. Do they believe last year’s really good luck simply turned to really bad luck, encouraging them to run it back with mostly the same squad? Or have their struggles, especially scoring the ball, motivated a more significant retooling? Maybe just pray to the lottery gods!

Tamryn: Kia Nurse. I didn’t have specific expectations for her sophomore season but preseason talk about her potentially having a breakout 2019 season piqued my interest. Unfortunately, Nurse remains a streaky shooter, an inconsistent help to Tina Charles and not the best candidate for WNBA All-Star Three-Point Contest. On that point, most of the players the league selected for the contest did not live up to the hype. Allie Quigley, Kayla McBride and winner Shekinna Stricklen showed up for the nationally-televised battle. But the more head-scratching selections — namely Nurse and Chelsea Gray — would have viewers seeing WNBA players on TV for the first time believe their performances represent the league as a whole. Two of the best spot-up shooters in the game were not chosen, but they would have put on a thrilling show. They are Leilani Mitchell and Lexie Brown.

Hopes and predictions for the 2019 WNBA Playoffs

Cat: I’m all in on the Mercury. It seems that the Griner suspension has given Phoenix a new purpose and focus. I expect Griner to play with a vengeance the rest of the season. The GOAT has been ruled medically cleared to play, so if the trio of Taurasi-Griner-Bonner is fully healthy and fully engaged, the Mercury can take any team in the league. Since the league adopted the current playoff format in 2016, Phoenix has advanced from the first single-elimination round to the semifinals every year. But let’s see them take on the Connecticut Sun, as these teams have developed a nice, albeit too brief, playoff rivalry over the past two seasons.

Eric: Is anyone beating Washington in a five-game series? I think the Sparks and Aces probably have the best shot at upsetting the Mystics in the playoffs, but it would still be a long shot. Phoenix will hopefully have Diana Taurasi back by then, and we know how she performs in winner-take-all scenarios. But does she have one more epic run left in the tank?

Christine: It’s hard to say if this could even happen, considering they’re currently on opposite ends of the playoff standings, but a Mystics-Mercury postseason matchup would be very interesting. The Mercury demolished the Mystics twice this season, and the Mystics’ sole win against them was very close. I’d also like to see how far the Aces can get, considering they barely missed the cutoff last season. When Vegas is on a roll and healthy, it’s very hard to stop them.

Jim: The Storm can beat anyone in a one-game elimination scenario and their defensive intensity could be jarring to their opponent. But I think the WNBA Finals will see the Aces and Mystics face off and it should be a great series. Although the Sun are tired of going home in the single-elimination rounds after dominating the regular season, it remains to be seen if they can get it done when getting it done counts the most.

Albert: I believe the Mercury and Storm are the teams that can advance from the single-game elimination rounds to the semifinals. But I also think the Mystics will face the Sun or Aces in the WNBA Finals barring a semifinals series against the Mercury. As for who wins the WNBA championship, the Mystics are the team to beat!