The playoffs are just around the corner, so it is time for a little change to the rebound this week — we’ll take a close look at each team in the league. For the playoff teams I’ll give you a reason to support them and why they will be crowned the champion this season. The unlucky teams will have a look back at what led to their season ending early, why next year could be better and why it could be worse. Also included will be a preview of the first-round match-ups between the Sparks and Lynx, as well as the Mercury and Wings.
At this point in the year this will look an awful lot like the standings and serve as my order of pick to win the championship over the next few weeks.
1) Seattle Storm (26-8):
Why to cheer for them: If you like offence this is the team for you. They set a WNBA record for threes in a season with 307. MVP favourite Breanna Stewart leads the way. She is supported by veteran Sue Bird, breakout All-Star Jewell Loyd and most improved player candidate Natasha Howard, who are all fun to watch.
Why they will win: They finished with the best record in the league, tied for best home record and finished with the best overall record in the league. When they had their regular starting five this season they went 23-4 while also winning eight of their last nine.
Why they will lose: They lost their season series to Atlanta? Yeah that was about the biggest weakness I could find for this team other than maybe they lose their shooting touch in a defensive battle.
2) Washington Mystics (22-12):
Why to cheer for them: You get to watch Elena Delle Donne, one of the top offensive players in the league, lead a deep group, which has come to rely on contributions from across their roster. Ariel Atkins might be the most important rookie in the playoffs as the third option on the team and could have been a Rookie of the Year contender on a weaker team. Overall though, the team has no weaknesses and is almost built for playoff success.
Why they will win: Delle Donne is capable for going of for 30 points on any given night and have proven they can win tight games against good competition all season. They also won eight consecutive games, including five on the road. Heading into their season finale which was meaningless to them.
Why they will lose: Winning close games at the buzzer is a great skill to have, but if a game is coming down to the final possessions, their second-round opponent, either the Sparks or Lynx, will have lots of experience in a playoff environment, which could be the downfall for Washington.
3) Connecticut Sun (21-13):
Why to cheer for them: The league’s highest scoring offence could be lead by Alyssa Thomas, Chiney Ogwumike, Jonquel Jones, Jasmine Thomas, Courtney Williams, Shekina Stricklen… Yeah, they’re a pretty deep team that can score from anywhere.
Why they will win: They can bury you under a barrage of threes at any point and simply shoot you out of the building with their league-leading three-point percentage on the second most shots. They won four consecutive games to end the season as they locked up a bye while beating playoff teams along the way. They also ended the season winning eight of nine overall and started the season 7-1 showing how lethal they can be when on their game.
Why they will lose: As we have seen with every team that relies on long range scoring, all it takes is one bad night and they could lose. If it were to happen in the second round it would be the end of their season. A match-up with Seattle would be fun offensively but might also reveal they are just a little behind the league’s top team.
4) Phoenix Mercury (20-14):
Why to cheer for them: If you are a fan of superteams with no bench to speak of this is your choice. The three headed monster that is Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner have carried the Mercury after the injury to Sancho Lyttle as they have consistently scored at an elite level averaging 58.5 per game between them.
Why they will win: If you take out their awful 2-9 stretch after Lyttle got hurt at the end of July they were one of the top teams all season. With Taurasi orchestrating the offence and Griner controlling the paint on both ends the Mercury will be a tough out.
Why they will lose: Winning without support from role players is almost impossible in any sport so unless someone steps up they could be in trouble. Looking at their first match-up in Dallas, Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith will prove a strong test for their stars while a game against the Sun would test their depth to the extreme.
5) Atlanta Dream (23-11):
Why to cheer for them: They earned a bye to the semi-finals and will be playing without an All-Star this postseason. After Angel McCoughtry got hurt late in the season the Dream kept plugging along under first year coach Nicki Collen who has transformed the team into the league’s best defence. Breakout star Tiffany Hayes will lead a group looking to prove their success wasn’t a fluke this season after missing the playoffs last year.
Why they will win: The Dream went 4-1 after McCoughtry got hurt, including a win over the Sparks. Locking up home court advantage for the semi-finals was key as they are tied for the best home record in the league at 13-4. The team has also been 6-1 with Brittney Sykes starting and 17-0 when leading at halftime. The team has a prefect 11-0 record in games decided by less than 6 points. They will not have any fear in a tight game.
Why they will lose: Other than the game with Los Angeles, the only other playoff team Atlanta has faced without McCoughtry was Phoenix, who defeated them strongly. This might be an unfortunate sign for the playoffs. Without McCoughtry their might not be enough top end talent to compete over a five game series.
6) Los Angeles Sparks (19-15):
Why to cheer for them: It’s a chance for redemption! Over the years fans have had a chance to get to know the faces on this roster with their consecutive finals appearances and this could be a sign of the end for them and the Lynx. Candace Parker might be the most talented overall player and can put up a near triple double on any night.
Why they will win: It’s never smart to bet against a team with this much experience winning, they’re not going to just roll over and accept an early end to their season. They lead the league in steals and opponent turnovers overall as their aggressive defence continues to be their success, they are 11-2 when their opponent scores under 75 while allowing a league low average of 77. Dominating the glass will also be important for a team that has struggled offensively at times, and an 8-2 record when collecting more rebounds has proven to be a successful formula for the Sparks.
Why they will lose: Father time and fatigue catches up with everyone at some point. While the teams at the top of the league have been rebuilding and gearing up to take down the Lynx and Sparks the moment appears to have arrived with the Sparks ending the season 8-12 over their last 20.
7) Minnesota Lynx (18-16):
Why to cheer for them: A chance to see Maya Moore and Sylvia Fowles attempt to drag their team deep into the playoffs as they try to defend their title. Also, it will be the last games of the career of Lindsay Whalen, who has struggled this season especially as of late as she has been coming off the bench for the first time in over 10 years, as she gives it one last go before taking over as Minnesota University women’s basketball team head coaching job.
Why they will win: Fowles wakes up collecting double-doubles, and I meant he basketball kind not coffee, while Moore is still one of the top players in the league when on top of her game with a long record of winning championships. Other than that, maybe Fowles collects 20+ rebounds giving the Lynx a chance?
Why they will lose: Plain and simple: this is an old tired team that has struggled to keep up with a league that is younger and faster than them. Unless the veterans on this team have been conserving energy, I don’t see them finding success in multiple games with minimal rest between them.
8) Dallas Wings (15-19):
Why to cheer for them: Liz Cambage has already hinted that she might not come back to the WNBA after making her return this season. It would be a shame to miss one of the most dominant athletes, in any sport, as she works her way towards a title. Rookie Azura Stevens could be an impact player later down the line to help support the team’s true star in Skylar Diggins-Smith who has been overshadowed but is still one of the league’s top guards.
Why they will win: Cambage has proven time and again she can put up 30 points and 15 rebounds while taking over a game on both ends of the floor. Diggins-Smith is the type of player who will fight until the very last second and do whatever necessary to get the win at the end of the night which is a lethal combination.
Why they will lose: I don’t want to sound mean but, I don’t think the Wings have anyone capable of scoring over 10 points other than Stevens and Glory Johnson, which is a problem in a sport where you need to put up at least 80 points. Other than a must win game with the Aces, the Wings finished the season losing 10 out of 11 and are playing under a coach with two games of experience.
9) Chicago Sky (13-21):
Why they missed the playoffs: Defence. It’s half the game and it’s one where the Sky were abysmal, finishing with the lowest net rating in the league. They showed minimal improvement throughout the year and should use their draft picks this upcoming draft to solidify their defence both on the perimeter and on the inside.
Why next year will be better: They finished the season on a 6-5 run as they appeared to settle in to a solid rotation and learnt to move the ball well on offence with all their young pieces. Diamond Deshields and Courtney Vandersloot both had strong performances throughout the last half of the season.
Why next year will be worse: If their improved offence doesn’t stick around then don’t expect them to make the playoffs. Another year also means Vandersloot and two-time 3-point champion Allie Quigley will be another year older and more likely to want out of town if nothing changes.
10) Las Vegas Aces (14-20):
Why they missed the playoffs: Over their first eight games of the season they collected one win, and over their last nine games of the season they won twice with the playoffs within striking distance. Going half the season with a few wins is not going to get the job done.
Why next year will be better: Another year of A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum and Kayla McBride playing at their best should yield the type of results they were getting in the middle of the season. Head coach Bill Laimbeer is one of the best in the league and should be able to shape the team into playoff contention, especially with yet another top pick on the way.
Why next year will be worse: If Wilson stumbles at all in her second year the offence could crater without her being able to manipulate defences. Without more long-range shooting teams will continue to find success by packing the paint and stalling the Las Vegas offence in key situations leading to more losses.
11) Indiana Fever (6-28):
Why they missed the playoffs: Not so much why they missed the playoffs but their performance in close games and holding leads in the second half explains why their record was as bad as it was. They had the league’s worst offence, them and New York were way behind the pack, while also finishing with the second worst defensive rating.
Why next year will be better: With so much youth on their roster the struggles were expected, the key now will be learning from them. Kelsey Mitchell and Victoria Vivians finished their rookie year third and fifth in league history for made three’s with 78 and 65 respectively. Adding another top pick to work inside might make a big difference for the pair as they look to improve their efficiency.
Why next year will be worse: They might not win any games? On a serious note though, any injuries or regression from there two rookies or a young player like Natalie Achonwa would be a bad sign for their long-term future which is their main concern.
12) New York Liberty (7-27):
Why they missed the playoffs: Other than Tina Charles scoring the Liberty were not able to find much consistent success this season. Losing 13 games in a row to end the season did not help matters, but they were a longshot before that even started.
Why next year will be better: It can’t be much worse in terms of injury or poor performances. Kia Nurse showed flashes of brilliance in her rookie season so with more playing time and experience she could be good in a few years. Amanda Zahui B contributed off the bench with some consistency, even notching a few double-doubles, and could work her way into the starting line-up next season.
Why next year will be worse: It will take another year before they have a bad enough cumulative record to get one of the top selections to add to their core so expect another long season of growing pains in the big apple. Maybe Laimbeer was that important to the success in New York before leaving for Las Vegas?
FIRST ROUND PREVIEW:
In a one-game series anything can happen, but that won’t stop me from making a prediction.
Dallas Wings @ Phoenix Mercury: Expect a blowout in this game with the Wings being in a total free fall playing their third game under the new Head Coach while the Mercury have been rolling again looking like a top team. The stars will be shining in this game with four of the league’s top 10 scorers involved — Cambage (1st), Taurasi (3rd), Griner )6th), Diggins-Smith (10th) — while all ranking in the top five in free throws made per game. Both teams have been streaky all season with long winning and losing streaks, except right now Phoenix is hot while Dallas is cold. One little thing to keep track of is the Mercury are 18-0 when they lead at halftime and 11-1 when they connect on at least 10 threes. In a game where both teams rely on their stars the trio in Phoenix should be able to handle the duo in Dallas. Prediction: Phoenix win.
Minnesota Lynx @ Los Angeles Sparks: I can’t quite recall the last time these two teams met in the playoffs. This should be a fun game. Meeting a little earlier than either team would prefer and playing in an earlier round than they are used to, both teams will be familiar with each other and a fantastic chess match should follow. Both teams will be relying on their defence to get the job done. They also both scored on average 78.9 points per game, which was the lowest in the league. The Sparks finished first in points allowed with 77 while the Lynx were second at 78.3, which means it will come down to which offence executes more. In that scenario it’s hard to ignore the stronger depth the Sparks have as well as the energy they still play with on defence compared to a Lynx team that appears to have finally lost a step other than Fowles and Moore. Prediction: Sparks win.
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: Diana Taurasi (PHX): In the Mercury’s only real game of importance Taurasi almost became the second player in history to put up 20 and 15, instead all she could muster was 27 points and 14 assists in a win over the Dream. With Taurasi leading the team and helping her teammates get open shots Taurasi appears to have entered the zone she’ll need for the playoffs.
G: Diamond DeShields (CHI): The rookie put together some strong performances to cap off her excellent season in a pair of games against the Fever. Over three games this week DeShields scored at least 24 in each game, including a career high 28 against the defending champs in Minnesota. The aggressiveness she showed this week if carried over to next season could be a great sign for the third overall pick in last year’s draft.
F: DeWanna Bonner (PHX): A pair of double-doubles from the veteran showed she is more than a third wheel in the dessert. Her 21 points and more importantly 16 rebounds, a season high, helped Phoenix beat the Dream to clinch a home game in the playoffs. Bonner has ripped off 20 points in six of seven including a season high 31 a week ago to get ready for the playoffs.
F: Breanna Stewart (SEA): In a week where many top players only had one meaningful game I decided to go with the MVP favourite who put up 22 points and 15 rebounds in her only full game of the week against the Liberty. She couldn’t miss this week going eight for nine from three and 14-16 overall over two games.
C: Liz Cambage (DAL): Another clutch performance from Cambage with 43 points and 13 rebounds against the Aces clinched the Wings a playoff spot and ended a nine-game skid. Cambage made 16 trips to the free throw line and collected seven offensive boards being the top of presence down low Dallas needs to get by Phoenix and potentially Connecticut.
Bench: Jonquel Jones (CON): Since this is my article I get to bend the rules a little and am going to pick Jones who has come off the bench most of the year, including her first game this week, before starting the final two games of the season in place of an injured Chiney Ogwumike. Jones one game off the bench was a 27 point and 10 rebound performance that was her highest scoring game of the season. Against Minnesota Jones put up 26 starting in Ogwumike’s absence. If Ogwumike returns in time for the playoffs then the Sun will be a tough out with their full depth thanks to Jones on the bench.