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WNBA Weekly Rebound: Playoff Push

Photo courtesy of WNBA.

With roughly a third of the season left, the playoffs are approaching fast. This article takes a look at what every team has at risk as the league enters the final push for seeds to determining qualification and possible byes through the first two rounds.  .

POWER RANKINGS

Based on recent results above all else.

1) Connecticut Sun (16-6): Taking out a five-game losing streak just before the halfway point of the season, the Sun have been by far the best team in the league. Out of their six losses in the season, only two were decided by more than seven, and three of their losses have been by one possession. 

The reason behind their defeats are obvious when looking at the numbers. The Sun lead the league in rebounding percentage, but when their REB% drops they experience losses. Connecticut, like most teams, struggles when turning over the ball; they have three losses in three games with a negative assists/turnover ratio.

Connecticut is the most balanced team in the league with the second best offensive and defensive ratings in the league. Jonquel Jones is leading the team with a net rating of 19.5 and putting up MVP-type numbers this year in a true breakout performance. All five regular starters for the Sun have a positive net rating. However, the team lacks depth as every bench player is in the negative. This reveals another potential weakness for Connecticut.

2) Washington Mystics (14-7): With so many returning players, it’s no surprise Washington is back near the top of the standings. They were the only team to truly embarrass the Sun this year in a 102-59 win. The Mystics have done their damage on the offensive end, scoring 109.5 points per 100 possessions. The next highest team is Connecticut at 99.8. Washington leads the league in multiple other categories such as true shooting percentage, assists/turnover ratio, and turnover percentage.

The free-flowing offence begins with the duo of Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Tolliver. Tolliver has a bigger effect on the offence with the team’s offensive rating dropping 15.4 points with her off the court, compared to Delle Donne who improves both the offensive and defensive ratings by 7.2 points each. If the duo can stay healthy, the Mystics have proven successful.

3) Las Vegas Aces (15-7): Adding an MVP candidate in Liz Cambage, along with another first overall pick in Jackie Young, the Aces’ journey was always going to be hard. However, not many expected a 6-5 start. The Aces have begun to find some success, even without young star A’Ja Wilson, who is out injured, winning nine of their past 11 games.

With Dearica Hamby dominating off the bench this year, the Aces have the biggest wild card of the top three teams. Hamby is part of a surprising veteran group that has helped guide a team with the last three first overall draft picks. Las Vegas is the rare team that could benefit from not getting a double bye come playoff time. This would allow the young stars to adjust before playing other elite teams.

4) Los Angeles Sparks (13-8): The one team that is lurking just outside the top three is one that could ultimately prove to be the most problematic for that trio. No team has been harder done by injuries than the Sparks who have had only three players play every game, and two of those are members of the supporting cast. The Sparks are expected to have a team that can easily go eight deep in starting talent, plus four young players on the end of the bench who are within their first three seasons.

Unsurprisingly, after starting 4-6 the season began to turn around when Candice Parker returned to form, after a rough three game stretch in her return from injury. Parker put up 18 points on 6-12 shooting in a win over Las Vegas that seemed to Spark Los Angeles to a 9-2 record over their last 11, including wins over Washington and a second win over the Aces. If, and this appears to be a big if with this team, the Sparks can get a full squad, don’t be surprised if they win the title. An extra bye or two is most important to them.

5) Phoenix Mercury (11-10): Another team that is also making improvements as the season goes on resides in the desert. Phoenix has been up and down all season, failing to put together a winning streak of more than three games, while also only losing three consecutive games once. The lack of consistency is not hard to figure out as the Mercury have been relying on the duo of Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner all season.

Without Diana Taurasi for all but 16 minutes this season due to a back injury, Phoenix has had to rely even more on veterans such as Briann January and Leliani Mitchell who are setting new career highs for minutes per game in their 10th season each, as well as Essence Carson playing over 20 minutes per game in her 11th season. Unless someone steps up consistently, the Mercury will be in trouble without a bye come playoff time.

6) Chicago Sky (12-9): The winds are finally changing in the windy city thanks to the All-Star backcourt of Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. Second year youngster Diamond DeShields is still finding her game but did manage to join her teammates on the All-Star roster despite some offensive struggles at times.

The Sky have won the games against the teams below them in the standings, with a win against the Sun being their only win over a higher-ranked team. The stats continue the theme of Chicago being average at most categories. However, they lead the league assisting on 70.7 per cent of their field goals. The Sky are second in effective field goal percentage, while also ranking second worse in opponents effective field goal percentage. Although Chicago may play an open style of basketball, the only goal they have is to make the playoffs.

7) Seattle Storm (12-11): Minus their two best players the Storm are doing everything they can to defend their title. However, without reigning MVP Breanna Stewart and legend Sue Bird there is only so much they can do. Natasha Howard is averaging career highs across the board with 18.2 points, eight rebounds, two assists, along with two steals per game.

Unfortunately for the Storm, the rise of Howard’s play has coincided with Jewell Loyd taking a step back as well in multiple categories. The increased focus Loyd has drawn from defences without her former co-stars has revealed some holes in her game that she will need to work on for the Storm to continue to succeed in future years. The best Seattle can hope for is Mercedes Russell, Jordin Canada and Sami Whitcomb along with the rest of the supporting cast can step up and make the other teams earn the title.

8) Minnesota Lynx (10-11): Hanging on to a playoff spot has been quite the achievement for a team that many expected to fall apart before the season due to all the new and unexperienced faces. In what be one of head coach Cheryl Reeve’s best performances she has managed to build a cohesive team out of all the parts.

Sylvia Fowles and Odyssesy Sims have received a lot of attention for their work, but without rookie Napheesa Collier doing impressive work across the board the Lynx wouldn’t be in a playoff position. After losing five of six, including their last four, the schedule won’t ease up with two games against Washington and Los Angeles, along with a trip to Connecticut and visit from Las Vegas over their final 13 games.

9) Indiana Fever (8-15): This young team in Indiana continues to collect young stars that make an impact but have yet to piece the puzzle together to form a winning team. Teaira McCowan is already averaging over eight rebounds per game despite limited minutes early in the season. With McCowan improving, the spotlight has been taken off Erica Wheeler who has broken out this year and taken over the offence for the Fever.

With only two players having been in the league for more than five years, Indiana has lots of room to grow but making the playoffs this year would be hugely beneficial for players such as McCowan and sophomore Kelsey Mitchell as they move forward in their careers. Winning consecutive games after the All-Star break has been nice, but doesn’t erase the six consecutive losses that preceded it as part of a stretch of 10 losses in 11 games.

10) New York Liberty (8-13): The breakouts of Kia Nurse and Amanda Zahui B have given the Liberty a spark at times, but some inconsistent shooting has kept New York from reaching a playoff spot. New York is held back as they continuously allow opponents to score at will, allowing more points than any other team per 100 possessions

Seven of the top eight players in minutes for the Liberty have a negative defensive rating. The biggest culprits are their three highest played players in Tina Charles, Kia Nurse and Brittany Boyd respectively. Regardless of how well Charles and Nurse put up points, unless something improves drastically on that end of the court, the Liberty will miss the playoffs yet again.

11) Dallas Wings (6-16): With Dallas all but guaranteed to miss the playoffs there is no need to rush Skylar Diggins-Smith back after her pregnancy. Dallas should close the season playing the way they have all year, using a rotating cast of players in different line-ups to help plan and build for future years. With nine players under the age of 25, and nobody older than 29, the Wings should be able to contend for multiple years once they figure out roles and line-ups that work for their roster.

Arike Ogunbowale is one of the leading candidates for rookie of the year due to her success while being the primary option in Dallas. Ogunbowale and second year forward Azura Stevens provide a solid foundation, but more talent will be required if the Wings want to become a top team in the upcoming years.

12) Atlanta Dream (5-17): There are games periodically where Atlanta manages to get some offence going from one of Tiffany Hayes, Brittney Sykes or Alex Bentley to win. After having an elite defence last year, Atlanta has managed to stay near the top of the rankings thanks to the interior defence of Elizabeth Williams and Jessica Breland.

Looking at team offensive stats shows where the Dream need to make offensive improvements. Atlanta is last in offensive rating, points per game, field goal shooting percentage, three point field goal percentage, assists, assists ratio, and ranking second lowest in both assists percentage and assists/turnover ratio.

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: Courtney Vandersloot (Chicago Sky): Coming off the second All-Star game of her career, Vandersloot has not slowed down one bit. Vandersloot has managed to just nudge ahead of her previous league record to 8.7 per game thanks to 11 and nine assist games this week. Averaging 17.5 points per game over two games, thanks to shooting a combined 65 per cent overall and 44 per cent from long range.

G: Lelani Mitchell (Phoenix Mercury): Phoenix appears to have solved their issue of relying on Bonner and Griner, at least temporarily, until Taurasi returns. Mitchell had one of the best stretches of her 12-year career. Her 28 point performance on 10-15 shooting was the most she’s scored in her career and included a WNBA record tying 8 threes on 12 attempts, along with a bonus eight assists.

F: Elena Delle Donne (Washington Mystics): A fantastic week for one of the top MVP contenders. Delle Donne averaged a staggering 26.7 points per game over three games this week. She shot 63.8 per cent on all field goals and 71.4 per cent from beyond the arc and was perfect from the free throw line. The bonus for the Mystics was the 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game with only 0.7 turnovers per contest.

F: Jonquel Jones (Connecticut Sun): Three games, three double-doubles. Jones is as close to automatic as it gets in this league to putting up points and grabbing rebounds on a nightly basis. The Sun forward managed to also have an assist/turnover ratio above two and shoot 35 per cent from three.

C: Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury): A bit of recency bias here? Maybe, but a stat line of 26 points, nine rebounds, a career high eight assists and four blocks is breathtaking. That performance makes it easy to overlook the fact that Griner put up a 30 point, nine rebound game against the Mystics earlier in the week as well. The fact those numbers were some of the highest in the league on average, despite Griner only playing 11 minutes against Connecticut, highlights how stellar they were.Bench: Tamera Young (Las Vegas Aces): Young beat out Kelsey Mitchell just barely based on consistency over three games last week. Young averaged 11 points and 5.7 rebounds, along with 12 assists and only two turnovers. Helping the Aces bench stay afloat with Hamby starting in place of Wilson, Young stepped up her game accordingly.

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