After attempting to sort through the muddled middle of the playoff race on Monday, we’re taking a look at the the three teams at the top and three teams at the bottom of the standings, assessing the postseason readiness of the title-contending Las Vegas Aces, New York Liberty and Connecticut Sun before evaluating the future prospects of the lottery-bound Indiana Fever, Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury.
Las Vegas Aces (30-6)
What to make of the current state of the Aces?
On one hand, it seems fair to be more than a bit concerned about their recent play. For the first time this season, they lost back-to-back games, falling to the Mystics and then the Liberty. In their last 10 games, they are 6-4.
Of course, a majority of the league’s teams would be thrilled to go 6-4 in a 10-game stretch. And even as they have taken four losses in the month of August, the Aces still have the second-best net rating in the league for the month. There’s also everything that came before August. Through the season’s first three months, Vegas eviscerated the rest of the league, with a 24-2 record and 19.0 net rating.
Is the late-season slippage simply due to the wear, weariness and waning focus caused by a long season, with arrival of the playoffs providing the adrenaline rush needed to rejuvenate the defending champs? Or, have the Aces, literally, exhausted the best version of themselves, unable to rediscover the top gear required to become the first team to repeat as champions since the 2002 Sparks?
Recently, head coach Becky Hammon indicated her team had tired legs. In the season’s final four games, will she opt to reduce her stars’ minutes, even if that means risking another loss or two? Or, will Vegas be intent upon maintaining the No. 1 seed over the fast-rising Liberty, thus guaranteeing homecourt throughout the postseason?
Up next: Thursday, Aug. 31 vs. Washington Mystics (10 p.m. ET, Prime Video); Saturday, Sep. 2 vs. Seattle Storm (9 p.m. ET, NBA TV)
New York Liberty (28-7)
All is well in Liberty land!
Earlier this season, it was fair to question their “super team” bona fides, as, on a number occasions, the Liberty looked best when it was the “Stewie Show.” Yet, New York has steadily come together over the course of the season, deserving credit for maintaining a calm, patient confidence in their process. Month by month, their offense has improved, reaching peak potency with a 112.2 offensive rating in August. New York also has tightened things up on the other end of the floor, with a league-best defensive rating of 94.5 in August. A net rating of 17.7 for the month also compares favorably to Vegas’ mark of 19.0 for the season’s first three months.
Even if it is unlikely that the Liberty surpass the Aces for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, they have coalesced into, quite possibly, the most dangerous postseason team.
Up next: Friday, Sep. 1 vs. Connecticut Sun (8 p.m. ET, ION); Sunday, Sep. 3 at Chicago Sky (3 p.m. ET, ESPN 2)
Connecticut Sun (24-11)
With both the Storm and Mercury missing this year’s playoffs, the Sun now own the W’s longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances. Since 2017, Connecticut has been a playoff fixture. However, two trips to the Finals in the previous six postseasons has yet to yield a title. Will their seventh-straight try prove to be the lucky one?
The two teams looming over them in the standings suggests not. Instead, it seems that the Sun, once again, will play the role of the “tough out.” If, as expected, they meet the Liberty in the semifinals, the Sun will give them a heck of a time, with MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas imposing her force of will on the action, doing anything and everything as she spends every single second on the court.
Yet, for all the ways she is excellent, Thomas’ limitations tend to become her team’s limitations. In the playoff crucible, a never-say-die spirit cannot compensate for an unreliable halfcourt offense. Can first-year head coach Stephanie White implement new wrinkles that help Connecticut score consistently?
Until then, it would be wise for White and the Sun, all but locked into the No. 3 seed, to take it easier down the stretch of the season, ensuring Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, in particular, are as fresh as possible for the playoffs.
Up next: Thursday, Aug. 31 vs. Phoenix Mercury (7 p.m. ET, Prime Video); Friday, Sep. 1 at New York Liberty (8 p.m. ET, ION)
Indiana Fever (11-24)
As Christie Sides exulted after the Fever defeated the Storm last Thursday, Indiana has won 10 games in a season for the first time since 2019. After notching three-straight wins with their victory over the Dream on Sunday, the Fever can reach 13 wins for only the second time since 2017 with just one more win in their final five games.
As usual, the Christie Sides victory walk off. She spotted me this time and held up 10 fingers. Why? That’s win number 10 for the Fever this season. First 10-win season since 2019. @TheNextHoops pic.twitter.com/tKhyZnsf2h— Tony East (@TonyREast) August 25, 2023
It’s been seven seasons of struggle in Indiana, with the organization unable to find a centering force since the retirement of Tamika Catchings. Until this season. Soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Aliyah Boston instantly has emerged as the kind of force of player and personality that the Fever have lacked.
Even if this season still has featured more frustration than optimism, things finally are moving forward in Indy. And while it would feel good to win two, or even three, more games before season’s end, securing the best lottery odds in the 2024 WNBA Draft lottery will feel even better. Add presumptive 2024 No. 1 pick Caitlin Clark as Boston’s co-star and, sooner than later, Indiana will be smashing through that 13-win barrier.
Up next: Friday, Sep. 1 vs. Dallas Wings (7 p.m. ET, ION); Sunday, Sep. 3 at Dallas Wings (4 p.m. ET, ESPN 3)
Seattle Storm (10-25)
Although they will miss the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons, the Storm have spirit. Can it carry over into 2024?
As Eric Nemchock recently explored, Seattle deftly has approached a 2023 season of transition, giving young players the time and space to make mistakes, as is characteristic of a rebuild, while also relying on seasoned vets to set a positive culture that does not accept losing.
Whether or not Seattle quickly returns to playoff contention largely depends on the decision unrestricted free agent Jewell Loyd makes this offseason. If Loyd opts to continue building a legacy in Seattle, the re-ascent could be relatively rapid, especially if the lottery gods bless the Storm with the No. 1 pick. Imagine Loyd leading a young core of Caitlin Clark, Ezi Magbegor and Jordan Hortson. Add in the promise flashed by Dulcy Fankham Mendjiadeu and the return of vets Sami Whitcomb and Kia Nurse (and maybe unrestricted free agent Gabby Williams), and suddenly things are super intriguing in the Emerald City.
Even if Loyd chooses to take her talents elsewhere, this season has given Seattle enough reasons to be optimistic about the young team that would take the court in 2024.
Up next: Thursday, Aug. 31 at Los Angeles Spark (10 p.m. ET, League Pass); Saturday, Sep. 2 at Las Vegas Aces (9 p.m. ET, NBA TV)
Phoenix Mercury (9-26)
At least the Mercury have their 2024 first-round draft pick.
Otherwise, it is hard to muster much optimism about the immediate future in Phoenix, which will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2012. It would be a shock if impending unrestricted free agent Skylar Diggins-Smith, who was away from the team the entire season, ever wore a Mercury jersey again. And while Brittney Griner always has expressed appreciation for the Phoenix organization, she also is an unrestricted free agent.
That leaves Diana Taurasi, who will turn 42 years old soon after the 2024 season begins, as the central star in Phoenix. Although DT is an all-time great, it seems unwise for an organization to try to build around her, even if only for one more season. It will be interesting to observe how the leadership team deputized by new owner Mat Ishbia will navigate a potentially tricky path forward.
Up next: Thursday, Aug. 31 at Connecticut Sun (7 p.m. ET, Prime Video); Sunday, Sep. 3 at Minnesota Lynx (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV)