WNBA Dissected: Liberty unleashed and more from 2021 Week 1
Breaking down interesting topics from around the WNBA's opening week, from unis to cups to just getting old
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1. Give Me Liberty (keep the death)
Let's talk about the New York Liberty. I didn't do it much last season, because there was so little worth talking about. Even for me, there are only so many times you can talk about why a really bad team is bad. Even now, they've only played three games and two of them were against what is likely the worst team in the league, so we probably shouldn't be getting carried away. However, for the first time in years, there's a team worth watching in New York. So let's get a little carried away regardless.
At the heart of it all is obviously Sabrina Ionescu. The franchise-changing talent that we only saw for three games last year is back, looks healthy, and is taking over games just like we all expected when she came out of Oregon. She's given the team a focus and leader that they didn't have last year when all their other kids were left trying to swim in the scary ocean of the WNBA without their superstar life preserver. All their opponents already have Ionescu as the top line on their scouting report, and it’s glaringly evident from the amount of attention she draws. Ionescu's gravity draws extra defenders - or at least takes up a fraction of the attention of opposing players, so that they're not 100% focused on their own assignment - which creates space for her teammates. Space that no one had last season.
Those teammates are quickly learning to do the things my colleague Gabe Ibrahim helpfully detailed here, saving me from having to splice the video:
When defenders are flocking to your teammate, and especially when that teammate is a gifted and very willing passer, you cut. You cut hard. And as long as you can finish at the rim, you get easy buckets.
Of course, Ionescu isn't the only difference. Last year, Liberty fans had the fun of rooting for a lot of players straight out of college, celebrating their moments of success when we saw the flashes of what they could become at the next level. This year, they're being reminded of how entertaining it can be when you sign genuinely established basketball players for your team rather than kids. Betnijah Laney had a breakout season last year in Atlanta and continues to look like a completely different person from her first few years in the WNBA. She's playing with such an incredible level of confidence and belief in her own ability that it leaps out at you off the screen (or presumably off the court, if you're one of the lucky few watching games in person). There's been a complete mindset change from "role player" to "I am a star, and there's nothing you can do about it". Of course, you have to make the shots to back that up, or you just end up looking greedy and getting benched. So far, with 23 points per game on 53% from the field and 57% from three, she's making even more than she did last year.
Sami Whitcomb was always going to dive straight into the hearts of Liberty fans. There were some eyebrows raised at the amount of money New York gave her (as there were for the Laney contract), but once you see Whitcomb on the court you're going to forget the money pretty quickly. The trademark shots are the quick-trigger threes, but the all-out defense and constant activity brings energy to her team that you don't realize you're missing until she's there. The most expensive and headline-grabbing addition of the offseason, Natasha Howard, hasn't even appeared in a Liberty jersey yet due to overseas commitments. Adding one of the premier defenders in the league who can offer an interior presence and another scoring threat - especially as a pick-and-roll partner for Ionescu (or Laney, or Whitcomb) - should only improve things further.
Not everything is likely to be sunshine and roses all season. This is still a very young team. Even Ionescu - only six actual games into her professional career - is still working out what she can get away with at this level, which has led to a few ugly turnovers. The release of Layshia Clarendon, understandable on a basketball level given she had fallen out of the rotation and the roster is crowded with players the Liberty didn't want to give up, leaves them a little thin on lead guards behind their star. Opposing teams will come up with more ways to handle both Ionescu herself and the Liberty's spread offense once they have more tape, plus much tougher opponents will present themselves than the struggling Indiana Fever or a Minnesota Lynx team missing Napheesa Collier and still trying to put together all their new pieces. But for now Liberty fans, just enjoy that you have a superstar who was born to make shots like this. And revel in it.
2. It's not a cup, it's not a cup, it's not a cup, it's not a cup...
I am willing to accept that it is very early in the life of the "Commissioner's Cup", and that we should give things like this a chance. However, as someone who grew up in the United Kingdom with cup competitions as part of my sporting life, it's hard to ignore my instinctive reaction that the format of this thing is horrible. There's essentially only one 'cup' game in the entire competition - the final. Every other game that's involved in the standings is just a regular-season game that the league has decided also counts for something else. A true cup involves independent games that count for nothing other than that competition, ideally in a straight knockout format. This removes virtually all of the potential drama of an actual cup - the knockout possibilities, the upsets, the chance for a weaker team who won't win anything else that year to claw their way through. You'll have noticed that outside of broadcasters trying to sell it to us with packaged statements during games, everyone has completely ignored it so far, despite 10 of the 14 games played counting for the 'Cup' as well.
The only excitement or attention is going to come if the standings are close heading into the last game or two of the group stage. Hopefully, in future years, they'll evolve the competition to - at the very least - involve semi-finals. The USA has March Madness. You have the NFL Playoffs. They draw some of the highest television ratings for any sporting events, and they're both essentially knockout cups (just with a drawn out qualifying process beforehand). You know how to do this already. Stop going "You know what we should do with this wheel? Make it square."
3. Counterpoint! WNBA gets something very right!
There's been the odd hitch - the multiple leaks before release, the Wings Rebel edition that was quickly pulled from sale, the slow delivery of many fan orders - but let's stand up and applaud the new WNBA unis. I've been begging for years for interesting, visually appealing designs, and most of all for ones that differed from team to team. Even if it saved a little money, it was so, so boring for every team to look essentially the same, with basically a stock Adidas or Nike vest and a sponsor slapped on the front. Now we get stuff like this:
A lot of the teams haven't even used the fun ones yet - no sign of the Stranger Things Fever jersey, or the Sky's broken glass look - but even the more regular options are a gigantic step up. Look at those gorgeous fading two-tone Mercury Explorer unis. And have you noticed how absolutely no one is complaining about sponsors being on the front any more? Hopefully none of the teams had to take a significant hit in income for moving their sponsor's name lower down and into a slightly less prominent position - the fact that more people should be looking at them and buying replicas should offset that. When you make them visually interesting and find room for the number and city/team name as well, people will care a lot less about the company that's sharing the space.
I'm sure plenty of time, effort and money went into these, both for the design and the production costs. But I bet they're selling a hell of a lot more of them, and social media went nuts when they were released. Well done WNBA.
4. Devastating, just devastating
I am very close to being the same age as Sue Bird. I am not, nor have I ever been, remotely close to being an Olympic-level athlete. But I feel every word of this.
These kids just keep getting younger and younger, Sue.
5. Doubling up
We've already seen a couple of examples of this in the opening week, and get used to it because there are plenty more to come - repeat attractions! In order to help fit the schedule into a tight window in an Olympic year, and give them a little leeway in case of Covid complications, teams are often playing each other twice when they come to town on a road trip. For the basketball geeks among us, this is largely speaking thoroughly entertaining. It means the coaches and players have a day or two between games to react to what worked and what didn't in the first game, tweak their own approach, and try to improve for the rematch. We saw New York go from giving up 50 points in the paint to Indiana, including 22 points and 16 boards for Teaira McCowan, to conceding just 28 points inside a couple of days later (and McCowan scoring a virtually invisible 6 points). Some of that is just the natural variation of basketball games (and McCowan's own wild inconsistencies), but you could see the even greater concentration on flooding the paint from New York.
Las Vegas played twice in Seattle in the space of three days and illustrated one of the other fun parts of this type of scheduling - the opportunity to bounce back immediately. On the night they collected their championship rings, Seattle shot the lights out from outside and the Aces couldn't quite keep up. Three days later, without needing to make any huge changes, Vegas got their revenge. Jackie Young attacked more - it's going to be harder for Seattle to hide their weaker defenders this year without Natasha Howard or Alysha Clark - and without the Storm hitting as many threes that was enough.
The only drawback to this is that we'll only see teams like the Storm and Aces face each other once more all season, barring a playoff rematch. But that used to happen in previous years anyway. I for one am a fan of the speedy rematch.
6. Chelsea making passes like Zola
I’ve made fun of some of Chelsea Gray’s highlights over the years. She has a tendency to make those ‘no-look’ passes where you stare at someone for most of the play, then finally look away just before you pass to them and the crowd goes crazy. But this was ridiculous.
That is an extraordinary pass, and not just flashy for the sake of being flashy, but because that was the best way to get the ball where it needed to go. As she explains here, just to make it even better, it was a pass she saw could be available on a previous possession.
So not just flair, but a planned act of true point guard play. Aces fans are really going to enjoy Chelsea Gray.
7. Lineup Minutiae!
Yes, everyone's favorite segment is back. There aren't too many things jumping out just yet while everyone is still working out their rotation and waiting for players to return from overseas and be cleared to play. However...
The Storm picked Katie Lou Samuelson to start at their uncertain small forward spot, with Stephanie Talbot as her clear backup. That left Kennedy Burke and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan essentially glued to the bench, despite each costing the Storm a first-round pick to acquire in the offseason. With Samuelson off competing in the 3x3 Olympic qualifier for the next couple of weeks, there will be extra opportunities for everyone to impress and gain minutes, but it's not a great start for Burke or Herbert Harrigan. The latter at least has the excuse of arriving very late for camp due to visa issues. Also in Seattle, we saw Ezi Magbegor replace Candice Dupree in the starting lineup for their second game, in an effort to contain Liz Cambage (and stay there to face Sylvia Fowles in their third). With Mercedes Russell arriving as an additional option, the post spot in Seattle next to Breanna Stewart could be an interesting one to watch all season.
Atlanta's cavalcade of miniature guards was always going to leave them with some awkward choices to make for their starters and rotation. Odyssey Sims started their opener before Tiffany Hayes replaced her for their second game (having been unavailable for the first). The latter option looked better, because it puts the ball in the hands of Chennedy Carter more consistently, rather than having Carter off the ball waiting for someone like Sims or Courtney Williams to give it up to her. Any variation featuring three guards is going to be risky defensively against teams with big wings, but they'll hope they can make up for it with speed and activity.
Minnesota benched point guard Crystal Dangerfield on Tuesday night, choosing to start Bridget Carleton instead and use Aerial Powers as a 'lead guard'. It didn't work out all that well, ending in a loss to the Liberty, Ionescu's triple-double, and Powers/Dangerfield combining to shoot 2-for-19 on the night. The same move went better for Dangerfield on Thursday night, but the Lynx still lost and Powers struggled again. Powers isn't a point guard. While she's become a much smarter and less greedy player than she was when entering the league, she's much better off as a secondary ballhandler who can look for her own shot while still making the right pass when it's available. You don’t want her brain occupied with trying to run the offense. The problem is that Rachel Banham is similarly better playing off-ball, leaving Dangerfield as the only real point guard option on the team. There's no one obvious to cut (and hardship signing Linnae Harper clearly doesn't have Reeve's trust yet anyway), but this team could use another genuine lead ballhandler. Of course, Napheesa Collier arriving and all the new pieces gaining chemistry is going to help fix many of the issues they've had in early games.
8. Show Me the Money
Last time I wrote this column, we didn't have these, so it's time for the part-plug, part-info blast. We now have salary sheets at Her Hoop Stats, featuring all the information you could ever want about who's under contract to each team, how much they're getting, and how it all adds up. They're being constantly updated including with all the suspensions and hardship contracts we've had over the early days of the 2021 season. It's the only place you can find all this information publicly, and we work very hard to make sure it's updated with current events around the league and entirely accurate. Also, while I obviously encourage all of you to subscribe to Her Hoop Stats for just $20 a year for all the useful statistical data you can find there, the salary sheets are entirely free and available to all.
Meanwhile, on a contract note, one item you can find on those sheets is Gabby Williams's extension, signed last week with Los Angeles after she was traded from Chicago. Whether you think the $144,000 one-year deal was an overpay or not, the interesting element was that it was the only extension signed by a 2018 draftee in the lead-up to the deadline on May 15. While Kelsey Mitchell, Ariel Atkins and Azurá Stevens had signed extensions earlier, that means that the likes of A'ja Wilson, Diamond DeShields, Jordin Canada, Kia Nurse and Myisha Hines-Allen will all become restricted free agents after this season. As we've seen in previous years, most RFAs tend to end up back with their existing teams anyway, but this leaves the door slightly ajar for more movement.
9. Clark's Corner
Yes, just because Alysha Clark herself is out for the season due to injury doesn't mean the section on hustle plays and complementary players named after her is going anywhere. Nominees this week included lots of things Sami Whitcomb did for the Liberty, and the fantastic second-half Sophie Cunningham had off the bench for Phoenix in their win over Washington. However, this crazy sequence in the Chicago-Atlanta game couldn't be ignored.
That's rookie guard Stephanie Watts making a phenomenal defensive play to block a charging Chennedy Carter, then managing to save the ball and fling it to her point guard while falling backwards out of bounds. Then Tiffany Hayes proves that plays like that aren't just for the youngsters only weeks out of school, recovering to make a similar play at the other end and deny Diamond DeShields. The WNBA is back (and it's not all about offense)!