Minnesota Lynx rookie Napheesa Collier (right) at the 2019 WNBA draft. (Photo courtesy of WNBA.)
Three Minnesota Lynx players remain from 2018, two from 2017, and only one of those two has stepped onto a court this season. After an opening week and a half full of action we’ll jump around the league to check in on the retooling in Minnesota, the full frontcourt in Las Vegas, the rebuilds in Chicago and Indiana as well some worker’s comp issues in Seattle.
STARTING LINE UP
5 main stories of the week.
1) Lynx off to a perfect start: There is no point in lying: nobody could not have predicted this type of start for the Lynx. They are the only perfect team left that has also been able to win their games comfortably regardless of score. A rookie stepping into the role of Maya Moore is not supposed to be able to score 27 points on 8-10 shooting and have the second-highest scoring debut in league history. Napheesa Collier only managed 14 points on 4-12 over her next two games, but multiple rebounds and playing around 30 minutes is all Minnesota truly needs from her.
Sylvia Fowles is the last remaining part of their championship-winning team from two years ago that has played this season. Fowles has put up double-digit rebounds every game so far, along with her regular 10 points and five assists. With Collier, fellow rookie Jessica Shepard, the Lynx have some depth to win a lot of games this year — just don’t bet on them going undefeated.
2) When will Cambage start: It’s three games into the season and I’ve only been able to watch the duo of Cambage and reigning Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson for 14 minutes! They do have a terrible net rating of -35.1 when sharing the court together, but at some point you need to play your two best players together and let them go to work. In theory they are two of the most dominant inside players in the league on both ends of the floor. Although, Wilson has looked a little lost on defence. A presence such as Cambage could calm her down.
Head Coach Bill Laimbeer may be waiting for Cambage to get healthier after her minor achilles injury prior to the season but starting Carolyn Swords at centre has been a complete failure. Although the Aces can make the playoffs regardless of their start they do need to start playing well soon to build chemistry and have a chance of home court advantage come playoff time.
3) Big stars across LA: Through two games new Head Coach Derek Fisher has rotated 11 players into the line up with all of them averaging over 12 minutes per game. Part of the reason he’s had to go this route is injury: Candace Parker has yet to play and Alana Beard missed a game. International teams keep requesting players, such as Maria Vadeeva, rookies Kalani Brown and Marina Mabrey and free agent Tiera Ruffin-Pratt. Also, in what would have been the biggest story of the offseason if not for Cambage, the Sparks traded a first-round pick for Chiney Ogwumike — conveniently the sister of Nneka Ogwumike, allowing the sisters to reunite.
After swapping out Vadeeva, Beard and Ruffin-Pratt for the trio of Chiney Ogwumike, Alexis Jones and Sydney Wiese, the roster got younger and more athletic, which seemed to work for the Sparks as they took down Connecticut. It will be interesting to see this team rotate when all 12 players are available as chemistry and matchups could determine who starts on any given night. The players will need to perform regardless of circumstances, and it will be on them to force Fisher to give them more minutes in an environment that could create a new dynasty out west.
4) Storm still fighting: The circumstances are far from ideal for Seattle fans to start their title defence. Raising their banner to start the season against Phoenix was no easy task but they managed a win. Next up is a trip to Minnesota before taking a day off to travel to Atlanta. A double header in Atlanta and Chicago capped off a set of three road games in four days for the busiest team in the league. They did all of this without the reigning MVP in Breanna Stewart, who will miss the year with an achilles injury. She left Seattle the day after legendary point guard Sue Bird had surgery that might end her season.
The team now runs through Natasha Howard down low and Jewell Loyd on the perimeter, which is still a tall task for most teams to beat as evidenced by the Storm’s 2-2 record. The two biggest factors for the Storm are Howard getting rebounds. When she collects 20 per cent they win. For Lloyd she needs to be efficient and share the ball. Filling in for Bird is Jordin Canada who will have to do her part to shoot enough to force the defence to guard her and lighten the playmaking load for Loyd to prevent her from forcing passes.
5) Next steps in the rebuilds: Of the four teams to miss the playoffs last year, one is now a contender and another is headed for another lottery pick. This leaves two teams that are considered rebuilding and have hope to make the playoffs, but wouldn’t be surprised if they fall just short. The team with higher expectations is in the windy city where the Sky are hoping their mix of veterans and youth can push them into the playoffs for the first time since 2016. A big win over the defending champs should give this team confidence, especially once Katie Lou Samuelson, the fourth overall pick in the draft, makes her debut. With Allie Quigley and Courtney Vandersloot leading the show as veterans, the Sky are playing for both now and the future.
The other franchise hoping that 2019 will be better is the Sky’s neighbours in Indiana. The Fever finished with the worst record in the league last season. The rookie standouts Victoria Vivians and Kelsey Mitchell were two of the four worst contributors, and while Mitchell should improve, Vivians will be out for the year and will have to watch from the sidelines. Their new rookie Teaira McCowan scored the buzzer-beating shot in the opener to give them the win after being picked third overall. She could help them in late-game situations with her rim protection.
Other interesting pieces of information.
6) Atlanta missing their leader: They were a defensive team last year and that’s only going to become more of an identity this season. The Dream are living their nightmare scenario so far without Angel McCoughtry who will be missing all year with a torn ACL. McCoughtry was second in points and rebounds, third in assists and first in steals. The other problem is the defence has not been up to par. After finishing last year with the top defensive rating, they have completely flipped the script and are now in last.
7) Is Washington good or are they bad: The two games the Mystics played have been complete opposite performances. Luckily for them the first game can easily be written off as not having Elena Delle Donne in the lineup and Toliver out for most of the second half with a leg injury. The truth probably lies more in the second game, but as we saw last year with Delle Donne, she can get hurt so Washington must learn to adapt and survive without her.
8) Connecticut still loaded up front: No Chiney Ogwumike, no problem. The Sun’s are coming off consecutive 21-win seasons but appeared as if there might be a slight downturn after trading one of their top players last season. Jonquel Jones has once again taken over the starting role and excelled as she did in 2017 when Ogwumike was hurt. Jones is one of those players who manages to collect rebounds at will, leading the league by collecting 20.8 per cent of available boards and 28.8 of available defensive boards. She ranks sixth in the league by averaging five three-point attempts per game, as a centre, after connecting on them 46.7 per cent of the time — the second-highest amount in the league last season. If she can find her stroke from deep again maybe this will finally be Connecticut’s year.
9) Dallas hanging on, barely: Two losses by a combined seven points is not a bad start for a team that is without its top two players from last year, one of which is returning soon after giving birth (Skylar Diggins-Smith). Of their nine players averaging over 13 minutes, only two are older than 26 (both are still only 28) so the Wings will be a team with room to grow. But until that improvement happens they will need to get by using defence and relying on finding the hot hand on any given night. Rookie Arike Ogunbowale has the makings of a star and is getting the chance to run the offence, but with any rookie point guard there will be lots of growing pains, such as being ranked 10th in both offensive rating and turnover percentage.
10) Charles still driving Liberty: Regardless of how skilled a player is, basketball will always be a team game and there is no better example in the WNBA of that than in New York with Tina Charles. Charles finished third in usage rate last season at 28.5 per cent, only 0.2 per cent behind the leaders, before jumping up to 42 per cent to lead the league by a wide margin. Currently she has almost doubled the usage of Bria Hartley, who is at 21.6 per cent. The young duo of Kia Nurse and Asia Durr need to provide the veteran with some support and soon.
11) Changing arenas: The Washington Mystics opened their new home last week: St. Elizabeth’s East Entertainment and Sports Arena, which needs a nickname. A maximum capacity of 4,200 should make the arena feel more intimate and provide a better atmosphere. In Atlanta, the Dream have returned to their new home after leaving for two seasons due to renovations at State Farm Arena. In Seattle with an NHL team coming to KeyArena, the Storm will be on the move for the next two seasons. This year they will play 12 at Alaska Airlines Arena and five at Angels of the Winds Arena, both seat 10,000. With these changes, currently there are seven teams in arenas that hold less than 12,000, which I tends to lead to a better atmosphere for players and fans.
12) Worker’s comp issues: Wrapping up on a lighter note, after some delays Seattle’s Sue Bird was able to have arthroscopic surgery on her left knee last Tuesday. The main story is her timeline for return to help the Storm defend their title, but with Canada there is no rush. What makes this interesting is that the reason Bird had to wait a few weeks for the surgery is because it was being held up for approval form the worker’s comp board of Washington state. I don’t know who was sleeping on her case but I’m a little surprised Bird and the Storm weren’t able to push that one through a little faster.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
A starting line-up, with one bench player, who were the best over the last 6 days (amount of games has an impact).
G: Erica Wheeler (Indiana)- Did you know she went undrafted? I’m pretty sure all writers are obliged to bring that up, but don’t overlook her performances to start the year for the Fever. In her three starts she’s racked up points on efficient shooting, seventh in points and field goals, and ranking third in assists in her fifth season.
G: Odyssey Sims (Minnesota)- After coming over from LA, crossing the line in that bitter rivalry is no small task in itself. Sims has done exactly what you want in a point guard by being consistent and reliable for the Lynx so far.
F: Nneka Ogwumike (Los Angeles)- Her sister may have been the one making all the headlines but as the older sister, she’s done her talking on the court with a pair of double-doubles to start the season to help provide some stability in LA.
F: Natasha Howard (Seattle)- She fits in nicely for the former MVP with career highs of 19 points and 11 rebounds and easily crushes the highs of 13 and 6 she put up last year. She’s currently top 10 in points, rebounds, steals, blocks, and free throws both attempted and made.
C: Jonquel Jones (Connecticut)- Last year’s Woman of the Year who now gets the chance to start and put up a career high of 22 rebounds against LA to help lead the league with 14.3 per game to go along with 16.8 points, which is ninth best.
Bench: Dearica Hamby (Las Vegas)- Plays just under 20 minutes a night and leads the league in net rating. Not much else to say other than I wish I could see her start.
Every week will be a different theme and for this it’s going to be first impressions of every team.
1) Minnesota Lynx (3-0): A team with three returning players: one out injured and another who only joined prior to last season. This is the perfect start for a “rebuilding year.”
2) Seattle Storm (2-2): This team can survive without their two stars if Howard and Loyd play efficiently and get the necessary support from the rest of the roster.
3) Connecticut Sun (3-1): Jonquel Jones for MVP? Maybe not but she has had the start many expected her to have out of the shadow of Chiney Ogwumike.
4) Las Vegas Aces (1-2): Hamby deserves to start somewhere in this league. Unfortunately the Aces frontcourt is already loaded, and she could become trade bait after signing a new three-year contract in the offseason.
5) Los Angeles Sparks (1-1): Eight players started in the first two games and with a deep roster that could remain the norm for the Sparks.
6) Phoenix Mercury (1-1): They still have no bench. Five points over two games is not going to cut it.
7) Washington Mystics (1-1): It may not be all about Delle Donne, but a 15-point loss in her absence turned into a 21-point victory upon her return.
8) Indiana Fever (2-1): I really want to get excited for them. Beating somebody other than New York would cement their status as a playoff team in my books.
9) Chicago Sky (1-1): A team that relied on outside shooting has flipped the script and been one of the most aggressive teams when it comes to scoring in the paint through two games.
10) Atlanta Dream (1-2): Someone needs to score for this team. Brittany Sykes is their leading scorer at 10.3 per game — good for 41st in the league.
11) Dallas wings (0-2): They play with lots of heart, but the talent is clearly not there for a playoff run. They play at the league’s slowest pace and are ranked last in most shooting categories.
12) New York Liberty (0-2): Tina Charles is in for another long year. Hopefully the Liberty can turn into a contender before it’s too late for her.