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WNBA Six Pack: Assessing the muddled middle of the playoff race

While the WNBA’s top three teams have clinched a playoff berth, the rest of the playoff picture is unsettled, with six(ish) teams still fighting for their place in the postseason tourney. We attempt to sort out how the playoff field might shake out.

Las Vegas Aces v Washington Mystics
With the returns of Ariel Atkins, Elena Delle Donne and Shakira Austin, the Washington Mystics may be becoming the best version of themselves in time for the playoffs.
Photo by Kenny Giarla/NBAE via Getty Images

With less than two weeks remaining in 2023 WNBA regular season, the postseason field remains unsettled. In fact, it remains quite a mess below the top three seeds.

The Las Vegas Aces, New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun all have clinched postseason berths, with the third-seeded Connecticut five games clear of the fourth-place Dallas Wings in the standings. The Wings, however, only are 3.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Sparks, who currently claim the eighth and final playoff spot.

In short, it mostly is a muddled mass of mediocrity. Which teams will rise above averageness and emerge as a potential upset threat in the postseason? And which ones will continue to fall prey to their flaws, slumping into the postseason as first-round fodder?

In this week’s first edition of “WNBA Six Pack,” we look at the six teams fighting and flailing for playoff positioning: the Dallas Wings, Minnesota Lynx, Atlanta Dream, Washington Mystics, Los Angeles Spark and Chicago Sky.

Dallas Wings (19-16)

Multiple times this season, it has appeared that the Wings were on the verge of elevating themselves above the mass mediocrity and establishing themselves a legitimate title contender. Yet, they inevitably stumble, epitomized by losing back-to-back games to the Sky in early August and to the Lynx this past week.

With a win over the Mercury on Sunday, the Wings rose to a still-disappointing 5-5 in their last 10 games. Their remaining schedule is soft, with four of their five games against teams below them in the standings. However, this might be a problem for the Wings, as they have been at their best against the league’s best, with victories over the Aces, Liberty and Sun (twice).

Nevertheless, Dallas should maintain the fourth seed, giving them homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Although they are an unremarkable 10-7 at home, their upside —with Arike Ogunbowale’s explosive offensive abilities alongside the overwhelming size and athleticism of the trio of Satou Sabally, Natasha Howard and Teaira McCowan—inspires confidence in their ability to show their best selves on the playoff stage.

Up next: Friday, Sep. 1 at Indiana Fever (7 p.m. ET, ION); Sunday, Sep. 3 vs. Indiana Fever (4 p.m. ET, ESPN 3)

Minnesota Lynx (17-18)

As our Eric Nemchock recently highlighted, the Lynx deserve credit for their resiliency, recovering from an 0-6 start to the season to rise all the way fifth-place in the standings, even if their ascent was aided by other teams’ inconsistencies and injuries.

The Lynx have two critical games this week against the teams just below them in the standings: the Mystics and Dream. Minnesota has defeated Washington twice, while losing both games to Atlanta.

A pair of victories would put Minnesota in strong position to maintain their claim on their fifth seed. Considering their recent back-to-back wins over the Wings, the Lynx could enter that first-round series with confidence. In contrast, outside their improbable upsets over the Liberty and Sun without Napheesa Collier, Minnesota has struggled mightily against the league’s top three teams, as evidenced by their home loss to New York on Saturday. Furthermore, earning a playoff berth only to get obliterated by the Aces, Liberty or Sun could cause the conversation about whether or not the Lynx should have tanked to reemerge, whereas a close-fought first-round series against the Wings would inspire confidence for the current group’s future.

Up next: Tuesday, Aug. 29 at Washington Mystics (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV); Friday, Sep. 1 vs. Atlanta Dream (8 p.m. ET, ION); Sunday, Sep. 3 vs. Phoenix Mercury (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV)

Washington Mystics (16-18)

Cursed with a cascade of injuries for much of the season, there’s a chance 2023 may turn out to be a success for the Mystics. In Saturday’s win over the Aces, the Mystics demonstrated the team they could have been if not for overwhelming injury woes, combining a lockdown defensive effort with just enough offensive pop to upset the defending champions.

However, Washington’s closing schedule is not kind. After an important contest against the Lynx on Tuesday, the Mystics travel to Vegas for a rematch with the Aces, a team that tends to exact revenge after suffering rare losses. The Mystics also meet the rising Sparks and sputtering Dream before closing out the season with the increasingly dominant Liberty. Of their remaining six games, only a game at the Mercury offers a likely reprieve.

Yet, if Washington escapes this slate with a winning record (and no additional injuries), it will be a sign that they have coalesced into the team they were supposed to be. They then should head into the playoffs with an improved seed and positive momentum, presenting a genuine threat to the W’s top three teams.

Up next: Tuesday, Aug. 29 vs. Minnesota Lynx (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV); Thursday, Aug. 31 at Las Vegas Aces (10 p.m. ET, Prime Video); Sunday, Sep. 3 at Los Angeles Sparks (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass)

Atlanta Dream (16-19)

A loss to the Fever on Sunday afternoon exacerbated Atlanta’s late-season swoon. After last Friday’s home loss to the Sparks, head coach Tanisha Wright aired out her frustrations in the postgame press availability, lamenting, “This team needs to grow up.”

As documented in Lucas Seehafer’s comprehensive injury database at The Next, the Dream have been one of the league’s healthier teams, with only six total injuries and an estimated 1.3 win shares lost due to injuries, the fewest among teams in the playoff race. Two of these injuries have occurred in the last two weeks, with Nia Coffey suffering a season-ending hand injury and Allisha Gray dealing with a lingering ankle sprain. Atlanta did not take advantage of a relatively strong health record throughout the majority of the season. Now, as injury concerns begin to burble, the Dream risk falling to the fringe of the playoff seeds.

Since a seven-game winning streak ended July 20, Atlanta is 4-11, with an offensive rating of 95.2 and net rating of -7.0, both of which are the worst marks in the league. Upcoming home games against the Mercury and Storm should allow Atlanta to improve these numbers, as well as secure two needed wins. Yet, the Dream already have lost to both teams. If Gray’s return cannot help the Dream rediscover a rhythm, it’s difficult to see them avoiding a further drop down the standings, and a swift playoff exit.

Up next: Tuesday, Aug. 29 vs. Phoenix Mercury (7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports); Friday, Sep. 1 at Minnesota Lynx (8 p.m. ET, ION)

Los Angeles Sparks (15-19)

Despite Sunday’s win streak-snapping loss to the Sun, the Sparks should have confidence not only in their ability to make the playoffs, but also to make noise in the playoffs.

In many ways, the Sparks’ season parallels that of the aforementioned Mystics. LA can empathize with Washington’s injury woes, and, like their counterparts in DC, LA’s health bill has gotten clean (or clean enough) at the right time. Although Chiney Ogwumike remains out with a foot injury and Lexie Brown continues to struggle to shake an illness, head coach Curt Miller has found a rotational rhythm with the players now available, as our Edwin Garcia has detailed.

The Sparks also manifested their full potential with an upset of the Aces, which preceded that of the Mystics’ and occurred on Vegas’ home floor. And LA, again echoing Washington, has a pretty tough season-ending stretch. A meeting with those Mystics next Sunday kicks off an East Coast road trip that also includes a rematch with Sun and a game against the Liberty. Yet, sporting the second-best defense in the month of August, the Sparks have the potential to shut down the offenses of the Mystics and Sun. Even if things go awry against the high-powered Liberty, the Sparks look like a good bet to hang onto a playoff bid.

Up next: Tuesday, Aug. 29 vs. Chicago Sky (10:30 ET, CBS Sports); Thursday, Aug. 31 vs. Seattle Storm (10 ET, League Pass); Sunday, Sep. 3 vs. Washington Mystics (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass)

Chicago Sky (14-21)

A victory over the Storm on Sunday buoyed the Sky’s sinking playoff hopes.

That Chicago has proven to be a team of streaks suggests a well-timed hot streak could earn them a playoff berth, and prevent the embarrassment of handing over a lottery pick to the Dallas Wings (an asset exchanged in the offseason trade for Marina Mabrey). After winning three games in a row as July turned to August, the Sky dropped six-straight contests and, in turn, fell outside the playoff standings.

Chicago also can point to their offensive firepower as a reason for late-season optimism. The Sky have crossed the century mark in five games, with four of these coming since July 30. While they have proven that they can compete with all comers on that end of the floor, defense, especially transition defense has been a persistent problem for the Sky, which Zachary Draves repeatedly has emphasized in his coverage of the team.

Tuesday’s game in Los Angeles is absolutely pivotal for Chicago. A loss to the Sparks, who are 1.5 games above the Sky in the standings, would have the Sky clinging to the edge of the playoff picture.

Up next: Tuesday, Aug. 29 at Los Angeles Sparks (10:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports); Sunday, Sep. 3 vs. New York Liberty (3 p.m. ET, ESPN 2)