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Sizing up the bottom of the WNBA playoff race

Which of the middle six teams are best equipped to make the postseason?

Minnesota Lynx v Atlanta Dream Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

The WNBA has tiered itself into three main groups two-thirds of the way through the season (or potentially four, if you think Chicago belongs in a class of its own).

We have the contenders, otherwise known as the five teams in the WNBA with winning records and positive scoring margins: the Sky, the Aces, the Storm, the Sun, and the Mystics. One of these squads won’t have homecourt advantage in the first round, but they’re all virtually assured of making the postseason, especially Chicago, which has already clinched a playoff berth by virtue of beating Seattle Wednesday.

At the bottom of the standings is the Indiana Fever, currently on a 10-game losing streak, at least six losses behind any other WNBA team, and in prime position to have the best odds in the Aliyah Boston draft lottery at the end of the year.

In the middle, there are six teams battling for the final three playoff spots: Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, Minnesota, and New York. Three of them don’t own their first-round pick, so missing the postseason would be doubly disastrous. Let’s take a look at how each of these squads stacks up for the final stretch of the season.

Atlanta (12-14)
Remaining schedule: @LAS, @SEA, MIN, DAL, IND, LAS, @MIN, @LVA, NYL, @NYL
538 projection: 17-19, 88% chance of making playoffs

The Dream dropped their first two out of the break, looking occasionally lifeless against the Mystics and the Sky, but have rebounded with a vengeance. Atlanta went into Phoenix and took just the fifth home game all season on the Mercury’s home court with a dominant fourth quarter. Then buoyed by the return of Rhyne Howard and her sweet jumper, the Dream routed the Aces in Las Vegas to start a win streak. Atlanta’s had a dominant defense all season, and the return of Tiffany Hayes gives the Dream another offensive hub to take the pressure off of Howard.

Even though this team was projected to land outside of the playoffs for a fourth straight season — and Boston or Haley Jones would look quite good on this roster — Atlanta has exceeded expectations and doesn’t look to be falling backward any time soon. The Dream only have two games remaining against the top seeds, and they’ve already beaten both the Storm and the Aces already this year. It’s no wonder FiveThirtyEight has Atlanta as a near-lock to return to the postseason for the first time since 2018.

Los Angeles Sparks v Atlanta Dream
Rhyne Howard appears to have no intentions of starting her WNBA career outside of the playoffs.
Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

Los Angeles (11-14)
Remaining schedule: ATL, @LVA, @PHX, MIN, @NYL x2, @ATL, @WAS, CON x2, DAL
538 projection: 15-21, 51% chance of making playoffs

The Sparks have the second-best record in this set, but also the second-worst net rating. However, L.A. has actually been more competitive on the road this season, and six of their final 11 — including four against fellow teams in this crew — are away from Arena.

Location really isn’t the biggest concern for L.A. going forward, rather the health of its roster. Brittney Sykes and Liz Cambage have spent time in the health and safety protocols, and Kristi Toliver is dealing with a nagging calf injury while Chennedy Carter hasn’t played in nearly three weeks. That’s put a heavy strain on Nneka Ogwumike and the remaining backcourt, specifically Jordin Canada and Lexie Brown, which is one of the reasons for the team’s offensive struggles. If the Sparks can get some more bodies on the court, this group should be able to hold onto a playoff spot, and they have no incentive not to since they sent their first-round pick to the Dream in the Carter trade this offseason.

Dallas (11-14)
Remaining schedule: @CHI, @IND, WAS, @ATL, @CHI, LVA, IND, NYL x2, @PHX, @LAS
538 projection: 16-20, 74% chance of making playoffs

Dallas is arguably the most talented and definitely the deepest of these six teams, but the Wings haven’t strung together more than two wins in a row since May. Consistency is a real issue, no doubt exacerbated by the fact that rotations change from game to game. Still, the Wings appear to have found a rhythm in Teaira McCowan’s minutes, Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey can pop up with hot shooting performances on a moment’s notice, and Allisha Gray remains one of the most underrated players in basketball. (Why does Dallas want to trade her?) Even with Satou Sabally hurt, the Wings have too many threats available to realistically fall below the eighth seed, and they owe their first-rounder to Indiana in 2023, rendering tanking moot.

Phoenix Mercury v Dallas Wings
Both Dallas and Phoenix have had underachieving seasons, but for wildly different reasons.
Photo by Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images

Phoenix (11-16)
Remaining schedule: SEA, LAS, @NYL, @CON x2, NYL, MIN, DAL, CHI
538 projection: 15-21, 45% chance of making playoffs

Phoenix is perhaps the most confounding team in the league, and with Brittney Griner still wrongfully detained, everything on the basketball court feels almost immaterial.

But the Mercury are fighting their hardest, 5-4 since the Tina Charles divorce, having picked up some quality wins in Dallas and against New York and Washington. The formula is pretty simple in Phoenix: an ace point guard in Skylar Diggins-Smith, a dynamic roller in Brianna Turner, and shooting all around. Sometimes it works, like when Diana Taurasi finds her mojo at age 40, and other times the Mercury just don’t have enough depth to close games out. Another team without its 2023 first (that went to Chicago in the Diamond DeShields sign-and-trade, Phoenix will be clawing until the final game to get back to the postseason. It could be an interesting one, as the Sky — even if they’ve locked up playoff seeding — could be playing spoiler to add a lottery pick to their 2023 roster.

Minnesota (10-17)
Remaining schedule: CON x2, @ATL, @LAS, @SEA, ATL, @PHX, SEA, @CON
538 projection: 14-22, 29% chance of making playoffs

The Lynx have had the most impressive stretch of the middle six, winning six of eight while taking down Chicago and Las Vegas in the process before a 3-in-4 nights set brought them down a peg. In the month of July, Minnesota has a plus-4.4 net rating, far more in line with a roster that has Sylvia Fowles, Aerial Powers, and Kayla McBride than the 10-17 record.

But those losses still count, and the Lynx have a brutal schedule to close out the year. It’s great that Fowles is asserting her dominance all the way into retirement and Powers has found her offensive efficiency. The playmaking of Jessica Shepard has been a delightful subplot, as has the resurgence of Moriah Jefferson on her third WNBA team. Maybe Napheesa Collier can even return to play a few final games with Fowles! The policy is always not to bet against Cheryl Reeve, but Minnesota may have dug itself an insurmountable hole this year.

Minnesota Lynx v New York Liberty
Minnesota and New York both have tons of talent, experienced head coaches, and big hills to climb to get into the playoffs.
Photo by Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images

New York (13-23)
Remaining schedule: @WAS, CHI, @CHI, PHX, LAS x2, @PHX, @DAL x2, @ATL, ATL
538 projection: 13-23, 14% chance of making playoffs

The eighth seed in last year’s postseason who clinched on the final day of the regular season, the Liberty hope they can also be in the hunt this year. New York appeared to bring some momentum into the All-Star break, staging a double-digit comeback to beat the Aces on their home floor, but the Liberty haven’t won since. They can’t score unless the starters are on the court, but they can’t defend without their reserves. It’s been a challenge for Sandy Brondello to find two-way lineups.

The good news is that New York finishes the season with eight straight games against teams that are in this bunch, so the Liberty will have the opportunity to control their own destiny. They’ve rallied from rough stretches before within this very season, and there remains the possibility of getting Betnijah Laney back, who would solve some of those two-way problems. This is still a group that has two All-Stars, including one in Sabrina Ionescu who can legitimately bend opposing defenses. New York would need to get on one hell of a roll to jump in the standings, but that’s the fun of a playoff chase.