WNBA Roundtable: Answering 2020-21 Season’s Big Questions

Though the WNBA has announced its intention to return, a lot of questions remain for TBW’s staff, including the moral, competitive and technical implications of what will unfold at the IMG Academy.

We searched for some answers in this recent roundtable between TBW’s WNBA writers Myles Ehrlich, Jannelle Moore and Huw Hopkins.

WNBA player Nneka Ogwumike recently said that getting the league started is important for humanitarian reasons. But with Coronavirus still prevalent and the Black Lives Matter marches being of the utmost importance, is the WNBA unintentionally creating a potentially dangerous distraction to everything the United States is facing?

Jannelle Moore: The WNBA shouldn’t offer a distraction to anyone. Honestly, I don’t even think that the NBA should come back under these conditions, either.

This pandemic has not waned at all, and the more people who are in a so-called ‘bubble’ will likely just heighten the risk even more.  With the current racial climate in this country, we don’t need distractions. We don’t need pacifiers at this time. This is the time to sit, listen and work on breaking down those systemic barriers. Sports as a whole will distract.

Myles Ehrlich: I can see both sides of this. It’s difficult to argue with Renee Montgomery’s stance, though the drop-off in media coverage already, as it relates to the daily protests across the country, is incredibly upsetting.

On the other hand, let’s say you decide to play. People look to sports for normalcy, but they’ll tune into a game and see players take the court, and each one will have a platform of her own. Pre-game, post-game, messages on warmups or sneakers. Maybe, even, as Breanna Stewart tweeted, the court:

Additionally, if the athletes push this conversation, they can pressure the league and owners to buy in as well. Professional basketball, with its majority of Black players, can be a megaphone for the movement.

Huw Hopkins: I agree with Jannelle that now is a time for sitting and listening to the people that are pained and want to be heard.

If a WNBA or NBA player wants to forego competing in the next few months, I will be in the first wave of people supporting them, but I feel those that have an opportunity to be vocal on one of the first major sports platforms that will be seen in the USA for months can have an enormously powerful voice.

However, from a health standpoint, the country is a mess. Even where I live in the United Kingdom, things are not going well, but I fear for the people of the United States.

And with Florida’s toll rising in greater numbers than most states at present, putting all sports leagues within a few miles of each other seems like a terrible idea right now.

If the season still moves ahead as scheduled, 22 games will be tough for any team to build up momentum or figure out rotations. So what type of teams will thrive in this format and will there be an asterisk on the season?

Ehrlich: In every facet, you’ve got to believe the advantage goes to the veteran teams that are used to playing with one another.

Squads that made fewer offseason splashes will have less core turnover and shouldn’t be falling behind on playbooks or lagging in on-court chemistry. The lack of travel should also benefit those experienced squads. Of course, depth also comes into play, as we don’t quite know what the free agency pool will look like. 

The Chicago Sky, Las Vegas Aces, Los Angeles Sparks and Seattle Storm are best suited for this season, in my opinion. I’m hesitant to put Washington on this list until Elena Delle Donne opts in, though the Tina Charles’ offseason addition does offer insurance.

UNCASVILLE, CT – SEPTEMBER 06: Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson (31), Chicago Sky center Astou Ndour (45), Chicago Sky forward Gabby Williams (15), Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields (1) and Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot (22) during a WNBA game between Chicago Sky and Connecticut Sun on September 6, 2019, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

As for an asterisk, absolutely not.

Every team is dealing with the same pandemic. Sure, some teams have been hit harder than others, especially if they had more players from overseas.

Last season, however, Seattle’s chances of repeating disappeared with Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird’s injuries. Should there have been an asterisk there? It’s hyperbolic, sure, but level playing field, valid season. And each team will be able to compete.

Moore: The teams that are already seasoned will have the advantage because those are the ones with built-in chemistry. There’s not a lot to figure out in terms of rotations because that should have been done already.

It shouldn’t be an asterisk on the season because, regardless of the circumstances, the games are being played. These players have to play on in the midst of what’s in front of them. 

Hopkins: While I’m also leaning towards the veteran teams with great chemistry, it’s hard to ignore the young teams loaded with talent.

They will be fresh, focused and able to play many games in a short space of time without much rest. Older veterans like Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi and Seimone Augustus are unlikely to have the historical impact they are used to having.

UNCASVILLE, CT – JULY 12: Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi (3) defended by Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas (25) during a WNBA game between Phoenix Mercury and Connecticut Sun on July 12, 2019, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

And even if they do, going from no real basketball for nearly two years to full-blown activity will need to be carefully monitored. Nobody wants injuries, but Bundesliga soccer in Germany have had their fair share since returning just over a week ago, for example.

But this shouldn’t distract from the legitimacy of this year’s championship. Are there more important things? Yes. Will there be injuries? Quite likely. Is everyone in the same boat? Yes.

Just like the San Antonio Spurs’ 1999 NBA championship during the 50-game lockout season, the WNBA title of 2020 will be just as official as any other.

Which team do you think will come away with the championship?

Hopkins: Despite my concerns about some of the older players, the Seattle Storm didn’t get their chance to repeat last season. They won the 2018 championship convincingly but were crippled by injuries to their top two players and more.

The roster is also made up of mainly Americans, so there won’t be too many players sitting out this season.

Of course, this could change: Ezi Magbegor might stay in Australia, Sami Whitcomb might prefer to focus on building her family, some players have been very outspoken about social injustice, and others might feel it’s unsafe.

We will see who opts to return, but if the majority of the team’s top players show up, the talent might be overwhelming.

Moore: I believe that the field is open. You can make a case for a team such as the LA Sparks, the Washington Mystics, and even the Connecticut Sun.

Ehrlich: Again, it might be too early to tell, and we should revisit after the June 25 deadline for opt-outs, but I also like the Seattle Storm. Last season, players like Natasha Howard and Jordin Canada elevated their games to new heights.

That will only serve to help the now-healthy stars, who can share the load.