All too quickly, the WNBA has hit the All-Star break, capping off a weekend that also boasted a beach party featuring Snoop, Iggy Azalea, and DJ Liz Cambage.
After everyone recovers and rests up, it’s go time: a six-week push to the end of the regular season.
Let’s take a look at where teams currently stand for their second-half outlooks.
Courtesy of WNBA.com
T-1: Connecticut Sun (13-6)
After a 9-1 start, the Sun bizarrely dropped five straight before recovering to win their last four games before the break. Their low point, an ESPN-televised 102-59 loss to the Mystics, seems like a distant memory now.
While their categorical team statistics don’t blow you away (they hardly lead the league in any categories), they’ve got very few holes, which leads to the third-highest offensive rating (101.0) and the second-best defensive rating (95.9).
That defense is somewhat of an enigma. They hold opponents to the lowest three-point percentage by a significant margin at 28.3 (the Sky, the next closest team, sits at 31.1 percent). They are a league-worst, however, in two-point percentage against (48.3). How can they survive this disparity?
Tied with the Dallas Wings, the Sun hold teams to the fewest two-point attempts per game, at just under 46 apiece. (Dallas, by contrast, has the fifth best opponent two point FG percentage against, so other teams’ reluctance to shoot makes more sense).
Why, then, don’t teams attack Connecticut inside more frequently, if they do it with such success?
Jonquel Jones, their 6’6” center, is Connecticut’s defensive anchor, and leads all qualified players in both rebounds (10.2) and blocks (2.4) per game. Her intimidating presence down low deters teams from shooting frequently, but once past her, the lane often opens up. Their strong overall metrics bode well for a deep playoff run, though it remains to be seen if they can hold onto the first-round bye.
If they can stay healthy, the depth of this team gives them a legitimate shot at the title.
T-1: Las Vegas Aces (13-6)
While Connecticut’s tough stretch came in the middle of their first half, the Aces started slow off the starting line. That, of course, was to be expected, as right before the season began, they acquired All-Star starter Elizabeth Cambage (picked sixth off the draft board by her teammate, A’ja Wilson).
Since starting 2-3, Vegas has gone on an 11-3 run, losing only to the Mystics, Sparks and Storm. (An earthquake suspended game that has them down 51-36 at half v. Washington might be a second loss to that squad once the makeup occurs.)
This team’s success is much less of a surprise, as they possess three All-Stars (Wilson, Cambage and sharpshooter Kayla McBride). The slower start was a byproduct of figuring out how to share the basketball, especially between their pair of bigs: Wilson, the reigning rookie of the year, and Cambage, the reigning MVP runner-up (who dropped 53 on my Liberty last season).
A couple of weeks into the season, after a travel weary Cambage got her legs under her, they began to successfully play high-low, and few teams have the size to stop them.
Their depth will be tested, though, as last week Wilson sprained her ankle, which will reportedly sideline her for “weeks.” This thrust super-sub Dearica Hamby into the starting lineup, and she is integrating well, dropping 24 points and nine boards on 9/13 shooting in the last game preceding the break.
On the season, Hamby has the second best +/- on the team, behind only Cambage, and she leads all Aces in net rating. If you’ve caught a game or two, she’s the forward streaking upcourt on made baskets or turnovers to get easy uncontested layups.
The scrappy 94-foot play of Kelsey Plum and the always-ready-for-a-heat-check McBride complement the interior size that makes Vegas, which leads the league in rebounds and assists, such a mismatch nightmare. A’ja has the luxury to let her ankle heal while the team keeps winning.
3: Washington Mystics (12-6, 0.5 GB)
Sitting a half-game out of the conference lead are the Mystics, and they could very well be the most dangerous team of all. They’ve had a few injury scares with MVP and six-time All-Star Elena Delle Donne: a jammed left knee that held her out at the start of the season and a broken nose (though, reminiscent of Sue Bird’s masked dominance, EDD has caught fire since returning to the court in her superhero disguise).
Their other big, 6’4” center Emma Meesseman, returned to Washington after sitting out the 2018 season to play overseas, though she’s only logged seven games thus far, as she returned to Belgium for over a month to participate in FIBA’s EuroBasket tournament.
The rotation’s health and consistency has kept this team an offensive juggernaut throughout the season: Kristi Toliver, Natasha Cloud, LaToya Sanders and Ariel Atkins round out the starters while Tianna Hawkins, Aerial Powers and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (along with Meesseman) are all scorers off the bench.
Washington leads the league in points per game (at 85.5; Las Vegas trails closest at 81.5), offensive rating (110.4; Indiana is second at 101.2), and field goal percentage (.450; next is Chicago at .442). They take and make the most threes in the league, subscribing to the efficiency of the shot like many NBA teams have done in recent years.
Relentless and deep, they’re going to be a tough out when the playoffs roll around.
T-4: Los Angeles Sparks (11-8, 2.0 GB)
For a team that struggled to put consistent lineups together, the Sparks should be content to find themselves tied for fourth place. Chelsea Gray and the Ogwumike sisters have kept this squad positioned to make a run in the second half.
Nneka Ogwumike is another soldier in the three point revolution, attempting 2.7 threes per game while making 41.7 percent (a strong leap from her career averages of 0.8 attempts and 37.4 percent shooting). She’s also pulling down a career best 9.4 rebounds per game.
Her sister, Chiney, has been a terrific addition to the team, especially filling in as a starter when Candace Parker has been unable to go. In her 13 games with the first unit, Chiney is averaging 13.8 points while making more than half her shots and grabbing 8.2 rebounds.
Parker’s return from injury shuffled the lineups, and nobody was more affected than Chiney, whose plus-minus dips from +4.0 as a starter to -6.8 as a bench player. During her seven games back, Parker has tried to shake off the rust, which has resulted in 8.0 points per game below her career average of 17.2. In those games, the Sparks went 3-4.
However, the most important player on this talented team might be the aforementioned Gray. As she goes, so do the Sparks: In their 11 wins, she averages 16.1/5.0/6.4 with a plus-minus of +11.4. During their eight losses, those numbers dip to 9.3/2.9/4.4 and a -9.3 plus-minus. This team has too many weapons—including guard Riquna Williams, who is currently serving a ten game suspension for a domestic violence incident—and is a safe bet for a deep run, once all their pieces are back on the court together.
T-4: Chicago Sky (11-8, 2.0 GB)
Although Vanderquigs will find themselves on opposite benches in Vegas, this first half has been a honeymoon for the recently married couple. Courtney Vandersloot, an All-Star for the first time since her rookie year in 2011, holds down her familiar spot atop the leaderboard for assists, averaging 8.5 per game. Allie Quigley continues to do her thing, leading the league in threes made (51) and is second in three-point percentage (47.7 percent).
Second-year player and first-year All-Star Diamond Deshields leads the team in scoring at 15.2. She’s second among guards in rebounding at 5.8 per game (behind only EDD, who is listed as a guard-forward). Rookie Katie Lou Samuelson has spent a majority of her rookie campaign sidelined with a hand injury and has struggled to find minutes since her return.
Chicago lives in transition. The team is second in pace and second, percentage-wise, across the major shooting categories (i.e. field goal percentage, two point percentage, and three point percentage). They struggle down low on defense, giving up points inside at the highest clip in the W, and their fast-paced style of play leads to lots of turnovers and easy baskets for opponents. It’s a fun team but perhaps a flawed one whose ceiling may be prematurely capped in the playoffs.
T-4: Seattle Storm (12-9, 2.0 GB)
The quest to repeat is never an easy one; harder so when you deal with as many injuries as the Storm have.
Breanna Stewart’s offseason Achilles tear damaged the reality of Seattle’s aspirations, and Sue Bird’s knee surgery ust days before the season tipped off only further sobered expectations. The team, however, has proven to be resilient. Natasha Howard, strongly in the MVP conversation, has risen to the challenge, averaging a career-high across the board in points (18.1), rebounds (8.3), assists (1.9) and steals (2.0).
Guard Jewell Lloyd recently returned after missing nearly a month with an ankle injury and has made her second straight All-Star game while putting up 14.4 points per game.
Seattle needed role players to step up, and they’ve answered the call. Second-year guard Jordin Canada has made the leap as a starter, nearly doubling her productivity in extended minutes.
Forward Alysha Clark is taking more threes than ever, while making them at a higher clip than, well, everyone. She leads the league at 48.4 percent per game, or 1.7 out of 3.6 attempts. Mercedes Russell, who had never started a game before this season, is making the most of her new role, averaging 7.3 points and 6.4 rebounds. (Her previous highs were 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds.)
Lastly, the recent shooting volume of Sami Whitcomb can’t be ignored: She’s climbed to third in three-point attempts per game (6.0) and has taken at least seven shots from beyond the arc in eight of her last nine games.
This team epitomizes the heart it takes to win a championship and continues to perform admirably despite all the bad luck they’ve been faced with.
7: Phoenix Mercury (10-8, 2.5 GB)
The Mercury have positioned themselves well after a horrid start to the season. Their low point was a 15 point loss to the Dallas Wings that dropped them, at the time, to 2-5. In that game, uber-talented frontcourt stars Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner combined to shoot 5 of 27. Griner and Bonner are first and second in scoring at 19.1 and 18.7, respectively.
Despite their size up front, the team is last in WNBA rebounding, with their lack of offensive boards especially damning.
Phoenix struggles with their depth: Outside of guard Leilani Mitchell, nobody scores in double figures. Mitchell, who began the year on the bench, has been a revelation and a catalyst for the team’s success. The Mercury have gone 8-3 since adding Mitchell as a starter, and her 10.9 points are the highest average in her eleven-year career.
The health of future Hall of Famer Diana Taurasi has been a season-long nightmare. A back injury has sidelined her for all but one game, and she’s been day-to-day for the last couple of weeks. If this team can continue to keep its head above water until her return to full strength, they could have a long run this fall.
8: Minnesota Lynx (10-10; 3.5 GB)
When six-time All-Star and 2014 MVP Maya Moore announced she’d be taking a sabbatical this season, when the team lost Lindsay Whalen to retirement and Seimone Augustus to knee surgery, when offseason deals shuffled the roster, it was difficult to predict how this season would shake out for the Lynx. Still, for the seventh straight time, they’ve sent three representatives to play in the All-Star game.
It’ll be the sixth time for 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles, and the first times for both Odyssey Sims and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Napheesa Collier. Collier did not miss a beat after getting drafted out of UConn, scoring 27 points on 8 of 10 shooting in her pro debut.
Now in her twelfth season, Sylvia Fowles still works hard down low, though her numbers have dropped off a bit this year. She’s second in both rebounding (9.8) and second-chance points (3.8). The Lynx work hard to establish her early, as evidenced by the 4.8 points she puts up in first quarter, before spreading the ball around. Has Fowles, who will be 34 in October, lost a step, or is that just part of Minnesota’s game plan?
9: New York Liberty (8-11; 5 GB)
New York hits the break having already topped it win total from last year when they finished 7-27 (more on that shortly). This season has been a roller coaster: An 0-4 start ran a franchise-worst losing streak to 17 games; A strong stretch of play, including taking all three games of a tough road trip that took them out west, brought the Libs back to .500 at 7-7, even while playing shorthanded after losing players to both the Euros and injury; A recent skid has dropped them to 1.5 games behind the final playoff spot.
Nonetheless, this team fights hard and has the potential for a strong second-half surge and playoff berth. Upon joining the Liberty in recent weeks, rookie Marine Johannès has shown flashes, including going a perfect 6-6 for 17 points in a win against the Sparks last weekend, sidestepping defenders for late shot clock threes.
New York has succeeded in taking the load off Tina Charles: Kia Nurse has played her way into an All-Star starter; Amanda Zahui B and Reshanda Gray have proven themselves to be hardnosed frontline help; Asia Durr has, before a recent injury, proven herself to be a creative scorer, capitalizing in the open court, pulling up from the high post and from the corners.
Coach Katie Smith must figure out her rotations for this group to make a push. No team was affected as much as New York by the EuroBasket tournament, but this break is a perfect time for them to figure out how to best deploy all their talent.
T-10: Indiana Fever (6-15; 8 GB)
It’s been a rough couple of years for the Fever, and this prolonged losing has got to break soon. Lucky for them, they look to have found their center of the future in No. 3 pick Teaira McCowan.
In just over 20 minutes a game, the 6’7” McCowan is averaging around 7 points and 8 rebounds to go alongside 1.4 blocks. She got her career off to a fairytale start with a buzzer beating layup against the Liberty to steal a win on opening night. Just last week, she set the Fever’s rookie record with 16 rebounds.
In fact, her exploits go beyond the freshman class: She’s leading the league in total rebound percentage. The Fever have held their own at the center position with McCowan splitting time with Natalie Achonwa.
Even though they’ve rebounding well, Indiana’s defense is severely problematic. They’re giving up the second-most points per game, trailing only New York. They’re dead last in terms of defensive rating, allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions. There’s a trend here: The four teams currently outside the playoff picture are the bottom four in defensive rating.
One thing about this rough season bodes well for the Fever: The draft takes the four teams that don’t qualify for the playoffs and puts them into a lottery. From there, draft odds are based on the cumulative win total over the past two seasons, with the team with the worst record having the most chances to pull the first pick due to weighted odds. With Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu on the draft board next season, this is not the worst year to bottom out.
Were the season to end today, the lottery odds would be as follows:
|Worst WNBA Records
2018 and 2019 Seasons
|New York Liberty||7||27||8||11||15||38|
|Las Vegas Aces||14||19||13||6||27||25|
|Los Angeles Sparks||19||15||11||8||30||23|
T-10: Dallas Wings (5-14; 8 GB)
A year removed from late-season heroics that secured them the eighth seed in the playoffs, Dallas finds itself on the outside looking in. It was a chaotic offseason after Liz Cambage demanded a trade, hoping to end up in Los Angeles before finally agreeing to go to Las Vegas. Four-time All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith has yet to play as she gets back into basketball shape after giving birth in the offseason.
Rookie Arike Ogunbowale has kept the Wings exciting, nonetheless.
She’s got a quick trigger and a permanent green light, shooting the rock more than 15 times a game. While she’s a volume shooter, she lacks efficiency, converting 14.2 points in those shots (for a 33/28/81 line). Her usage rate is third, behind only New York’s Tina Charles and Seattle’s Natasha Howard. Standing at 5’8”, the types of shots she takes are emblematic of the hard work she puts into scoring: Only 40 of her 92 makes have been assisted, and 210 of her 274 field goal attempts have been jump shots.
This iso ball, while allowing her to put up points, rarely translates to Ws.
12: Atlanta Dream (5-15; 8.5 GB)
2019 has proven to be a nightmare for the Dream. In 2018, they had the league’s second-best record, including tops in the Eastern Conference. Yet, they find themselves in the cellar this year.
Last season, forward-guard Angel McCoughtry tore knee ligaments on the day the team clinched a playoff berth, and she’s yet to return, with the recovery process taking its toll on her. Rather than taking on more of the offensive load in her absence, Tiffany Hayes has taken a step back, seeing her scoring dip drastically from 17.2 to 13.6 points per game.
With the exception of third year guard Brittney Sykes, who has played herself into a starting role, much of the team has struggled. They’re dead last in major shooting categories (40.8 percent on twos, 28 percent on threes, and 36.9 percent overall).
Fortunately, Elizabeth Williams has continued to disrupt inside, averaging 1.6 blocks per game for a team that leads the league in the category. They can only hope that their luck inverts again and they hit 2020 with a healthy roster. After all, they will have the worst lottery odds on the heels of last season’s success.
Sources: acrossthetimeline.com; basketball-reference.com; bleacherreport.com; bulletsforever.com; highposthoops.com; si.com; stats.wnba.com; swish appeal.com; youtube.com
Myles Ehrlich is a TBW staff writer from Brooklyn, NY. He has been writing since childhood when it passed the time better than rolling scenery and folk CDs on family road trips. He legitimized his passion at New York University and The Writer’s Foundry MFA. His work has been published with Castings, MASH Stories, and flashfictionmagazine.com. When not writing, Myles is usually playing, watching or reading about sports. His east coast WNBA fandom resides with the New York Liberty; his west coast with the Las Vegas Aces.