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Tiering The WNBA After Most Of Free Agency
With WNBA free agency wrapping up, it's a great time to survey the league and see how teams stack up.
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Last week, I wrote about the outstanding situations still bubbling in WNBA free agency. Most of those situations are now resolved, with the massive Natasha Howard and smaller Odyssey Sims trades. Now we can move on to the important stuff: my subjective assessment of the teams. Feel free to roast my opinions in comments or on Twitter (@gabe_ibrahim).
Rather than ranking teams, I group them into tiers. This means that I see little difference between teams within the same tier, and the order I’ve listed the teams inside a tier is pretty much irrelevant. It’s the different tiers that indicate where I think of teams differently. For example, I don’t see much difference between the quality or potential of Vegas, Washington and Chicago, but I wouldn’t put Minnesota in that group.
In this tier: Teams that I would bet on to win the title .
Las Vegas Aces (factoring in Liz Cambage)
There’s just too much talent on this roster to not reasonably expect championship contention. Just look at the names on this team: A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Liz Cambage, Dearica Hamby, Angel McCoughtry, Jackie Young, Riquna Williams. There’s the reigning MVP, four No. 1 overall picks, the only two players in WNBA history to score 50 or more points in a game, a two-time Sixth Woman of the Year and a combined 14 All-Star Game appearances on that list. This team still won’t shoot that many threes, which could limit their upside a bit. There’s also the concern of diminishing returns with so many talented players, but those returns should still be incredible even if not optimal. If all else fails, horns actions with Gray, Wilson and Cambage will probably still be unstoppable.
Washington Mystics (factoring in Natasha Cloud, but no Emma Meesseman)
The last time we saw the Mystics at full strength, they were winning the WNBA championship. Therefore, they have championship expectations, but the roster has changed. Alysha Clark will fit perfectly on both sides of the ball and make up for the loss of Aerial Powers. Tina Charles will help stop the league’s biggest centers from pulverizing the Mystics. If Myisha Hines-Allen can replicate her production from last year and the team is healthy, I feel very comfortable saying that they will reach the Semifinals. One question mark is wing depth. The Mystics don’t have a proven option beyond Clark and Ariel Atkins at the two or the three. Hines-Allen may have to play some small forward in massive lineups with Elena Delle Donne, Charles and/or LaToya Sanders. Of course, health is always a concern with EDD’s teams, especially with so many aging vets.
Hey, a team with no disclaimers! As you know, the Sky picked up the biggest free agent on the market in Candace Parker. I already wrote about Parker’s fit in Chicago, and how well she will do there. However, I had some trepidation putting the Sky in the top tier because reaching their potential still relies on Diamond DeShields’s growth. Every WNBA champion has had a player on the wing who can get you a bucket at any time. Think of Jewell Loyd last year, Kristi Toliver in 2019 or even Diana Taurasi at all times. Luckily, she doesn’t need to be THAT good with the Vanderquigs and Parker doing heavy lifting. But DeShields needs to meet the expectations that we had for her last season for Chicago to win a title. I’m choosing to believe in her and that pushes the Sky into the top tier.
You could talk me into picking them
In this tier: The one team I think is a shade worse than the championship favorites, but not by much.
While I love what Minnesota did in free agency, they aren’t quite as talented as the three teams above. That could change quickly if Naphessa Collier takes another step toward superstardom, or Sylvia Fowles returns to her 2017 form. Both of those things are possible if not likely. But the Lynx have more question marks than the top tier group. Still, this team should be a joy to watch with Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa in the fold. The possibility for McBride to expand her offensive game as a shot creator is tantalizing. Same goes for the lineups that Cheryl Reeve can roll out. I want to see Powers running the offense, McBride pulling up from 25 feet and Collier as the 3 next to Fowles and Damiris Dantas. Minnesota has a championship ceiling, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up better than one of the three teams I mentioned above. Regardless, this is the most fun Lynx team since Maya Moore opted-out.
In this tier: Teams that are too good to count out, but not good enough to put in the title conversation.
I refuse to be included in the Sun’s “DisrespeCT” montage when this team inevitably makes a deep playoff run in 2021. Yes, the Sun will miss injured Alyssa Thomas. Thomas has driven this team’s success on both ends for the past two years. But the Sun still have one of the best perimeter defenses in the WNBA and Jonquel Jones’s return will make the defense stronger. The challenge for this group is creating an efficient offense, which they did not have in the Wubble. Jones needs to be an MVP candidate and shoot threes like she did in 2018 (46.7% on 107 attempts). Even if that happens, I don’t think this team will earn a top-two seed. (Oh no, I just made the montage didn’t I?)
The Mercury still have Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner, so that’s enough to keep them on the fringes of the title hunt. If Griner and Bria Hartley play all season, Phoenix has one of the better finishing fives in the WNBA with the four players I mentioned and Brianna Turner (or Kia Nurse in some matchups). Still, this backcourt will be just as easy to penetrate as they are hard to stop. Turner took a huge step forward defensively last year, but she was playing center when that happened. The Mercury got better this offseason, but I just don’t see them improving in the standings because other teams outpaced them. If Taurasi falls off at all, Phoenix could even fall out of the playoffs.
In this tier: Teams with a wide range of possible outcomes due to new pieces.
After one of the most eventful offseasons in WNBA history, the Liberty have great talent that should mesh well together. They need four things to break right to be very good in 2021: Sabrina Ionescu needs to be a elite player immediately, Betnijah Laney has to be the player she was last year at least on the defensive end, either Jocelyn Willoughby or Leaonna Odom has to grow into a starting power forward in the WNBA, and Natasha Howard needs to be close to her 2019 MVP-caliber form. That’s a lot to ask for! But the vision for New York’s next great team is clearer now than it has been and they may surprise folks in how fast that vision can come to life. Or they could completely flop and I’ll get roasted for this post in a few months.
Seattle Storm (factoring in Sue Bird)
I already know I’m going to regret the decision to include the Storm here. The truth is I could see Seattle finishing anywhere from third to ninth in the standings, which is why they are in this “wait-and-see” tier. The upside is clear. The defending champs are bringing back Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and the still unsigned Sue Bird. If Jordin Canada and Ezi Magbegor take big steps forward, they’ll be in great shape. However, I’m really concerned about the Storm’s defense because what player(s) can make up for the loss of Alysha Clark or Natasha Howard? Katie Lou Samuelson and Candice Dupree ain’t doing that. They’ll probably have to be the best offensive team in the league to contend for a title. It’s not impossible, but the path back to the Finals is murky.
Los Angeles Sparks (factoring in Nneka Ogwumike)
Here’s another team that most of you probably think is too low. The Sparks recovered pretty well after losing Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker. Erica Wheeler can competently run an offense and Amanda Zahui B should fit well as stretch five next to Nneka Ogwumike. Plus, Kristi Toliver is back and she can still win you games when she gets going. However, LA might crater if Toliver or Ogwumike miss any time, because Toliver is the only player who can create by herself and Nneka will be the team’s backbone on both ends. Both of those players are on the wrong side of 30, so I don’t like betting too much on their health. Still, the team has avenues for growth (looking at you Brittney Sykes) and Chiney Ogwumike could alleviate some problems if she returns. Still, I need to see the team in action before confidently predicting their outcome.
In this tier: A team that is trying to win now, but probably can’t do it.
I want to believe in the Atlanta Dream, truly. The individual players on this roster are all very good and the coach, Nicki Collen, is a damn good basketball coach. Yet, the team has failed to make the playoffs and haven’t had a functional offense for each of the last two seasons. Since coming within a game of the WNBA Finals, the franchise has regressed, lost their cornerstone (Angel McCoughtry) and felt a bit aimless. But there have also been mitigating factors with injuries, opt-outs and the league’s players openly battling one of the Dream’s co-owners. All of this is to say: I don’t know what to make of the Atlanta Dream. Chennedy Carter will be a star at some point. Courtney Williams, Tiffany Hayes and Elizabeth Williams have all-star upside. Cheyenne Parker, the team’s big acquisition, can be a great fit on the offensive end if she can stretch the floor. However, the Dream have not been more than the sum of their parts in a long time and this may be this group’s last chance to do that.
In this tier: Teams whose best days are clearly ahead of them.
I can’t evaluate this team until Dallas makes all 36 picks in the 2021 WNBA draft. Okay, the team only has five draft picks this year: No. 1, No. 2, No. 5, No.7 and No. 13. We won’t know who will be on this roster until after training camp. What we do know is that Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally are fantastic and surrounded by players with more potential than production for now. The Wings seem to be taking the prudent course of tinkering while Arike and Satou grow, so their expectations for 2021 should be tempered as they build toward a bright future.
*heavy sigh* Where are the Fever going? After using two top five draft picks on bigs, the Indiana Fever shored up their frontcourt rotation by adding savvy vets in Jantel Lavender and Jessica Breland. Danielle Robinson is a solid, if limited, point guard who will take the ball out of Kelsey Mitchell’s hands. Beyond the organizational failure to build around your young players, Indiana just doesn’t have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot, and the potential of getting Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard in next year’s draft may be the best hope for the Fever.