WNBA Dissected: Playoffs? We're talking playoffs? Plus more from 2021 Week 10
Trying to make the postseason fair, examining whether lower seeds have a chance anyway, looking at the lack of trade activity and more from around the WNBA this week
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1. Playing with the playoffs
The excitement of Tuesday night got me thinking about a debate that I thought was worth bringing up earlier than usual this year. I'm typically someone who roots for the underdog. Like many people, when you don't have an established favorite among the teams involved, the excitement of a potential upset is great theatre. However, when it comes to the WNBA's playoff system, it just starts to feel unfair. You can create the potential for an upset without making it feel like teams who've spent a long and arduous regular season earning their spot are being screwed.
For anyone who doesn't remember, the current WNBA system, which has been in place since 2016, involves two rounds of one-off playoff games. I have no problem with the first set. Teams 5-8 in the overall league standings have generally had fairly mediocre seasons and having to play a loser-goes-home game to stay alive seems reasonable. It's the second-round that I've disliked since the beginning, and which leads to the same arguments every year (slipping quickly away when the excitement of the playoffs takes over, whoever wins through). The third- and fourth-best teams in the entire league could have their seasons ended immediately in one game. Yes, in a standard season they get to play at home (it was even more unfair last year when every game was at a neutral venue), but one freak game could negate all the work of an excellent team.
Look at this season. All the numbers say there have been three elite teams this year. The standings have started to close up a little in recent weeks as the Storm have given their stars some rest, but valuations like net rating still have Las Vegas, Connecticut and Seattle well clear of the chasing pack. One of those teams will be playing in the second-round with the potential to have their season ended by a bad shooting night, or a hot streak for an opponent. For decades we've established that playoff series are necessary to decide the champions in professional basketball but now we have a system where one of the few elite teams might not even get the chance to play in one.
This is where I go back to the idea of rooting for the underdog. Typically, I would. But in the second-round of the WNBA playoffs I rarely want to, and that's definitely going to apply this year. We want to see the genuine top teams go at each other, just like they did on Tuesday night when Minnesota upset a tiring Seattle and Connecticut beat Las Vegas (for the third time this season). So an upset becomes the last thing you want as a neutral until we're down to those teams. It's going to feel like the battles of the 2021 season haven't really come to fruition if we don't get a semi-final series between two of the top teams. And while Minnesota, or Phoenix, or Chicago, or whomever, might have a puncher's chance in the other semi, the prime advantage of finishing with the No. 1 seed should be avoiding the other two in the semi-finals.
The obvious way to fix this would be to make the second-round into a best-of-three. At least then the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds would have a little insurance. A chance to save themselves if one crazy game happens. The problem is that if you just add that in, you extend the season. We all know that the WNBA is already working within a small window, where players arrive late and are rushing off to European seasons practically the moment their WNBA seasons end. Personally, I would have no problem removing regular season games. For systems where the actual champion is always decided by the playoffs at the end - and therefore the regular season is essentially a very long-winded qualifying stage - I've always felt like US sports played too many regular season games. Obviously it's not the 82 or 162 of other leagues, but the 36 that the WNBA currently wants as its standard base could be a little lower if necessary. They came down to 32 as insurance against Covid issues this year and no one has felt cheated or like everything is ending too soon. 34 was the base number for a long time and that was fine as well. The WNBA doesn't have quite the same issue as a lot of other leagues with reducing the number of games, because in many cases the teams aren't making that much money from each game they host. The only real reason the NBA still plays an 82-game schedule is because each of 41 home dates is a money-making event for an NBA owner. Without that hanging over the WNBA, adding more playoff games rather than regular season games should've been the priority.
That said, even without extending the season or removing regular season games to create space, the system I've suggested in the past could have worked. Rather than what the WNBA currently has, I wanted something based on the system Australia's AFL uses. There would be two extra games in total, but only by involving the top seeds earlier, so ESPN should be happy. In the first round, 1 hosts 4 and 2 hosts 3. The winners of those games goes through to the semi-finals (which would be best-of-five as currently established). Meanwhile, 5v8 and 6v7 are going on exactly as they currently do in the WNBA's first-round, with the loser being eliminated and the winners staying alive. Then in the second-round, the losers of the 1v4 and 2v3 games host whoever battled through from 5-8 to decide the remaining semi-finalists. The primary argument against this system is that it negates the advantage currently held by the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, because they'd no longer have guaranteed spots in the semi-finals. However, they would have two home games (if necessary) and a win in either would advance them to the semis. I feel like that's enough of a chance. You’d have to lose twice to lower seeds, both on your own floor, so there's insurance.
All I'm saying is that teams as good as Las Vegas, Seattle and Connecticut don't deserve to be playing one game for their lives in what could potentially be their only playoff game of 2021. It's not fair. Let's move to something that gives the teams that have earned it a little more insurance, and then we can root for upsets with impunity.
2. Having said that...
Okay, so everything I said above stands. However, I keep hearing fans and broadcasters alike talking about how teams could come together late in the season and then be dangerous in the playoffs. Maybe Phoenix gels, Bria Hartley recovers enough to help out and they go on a tear. Maybe the return of Elena Delle Donne in Washington lifts them back into the elite group and they sneak in to make a run from a low seed. Maybe Chicago finally puts the pieces together well enough to be as good as many hoped at the start of the season. Well, I mean, sure. Maybe. But history says it ain't gonna happen.
I don't want to rain on anyone's hypothetical parade, but we've got quite a few years of evidence now that late runs are a hell of a longshot. Since we went to the current playoff system in 2016, only one team from outside the top-two seeds has made the Finals, and that was the No. 3 seed Washington Mystics in 2018 who got stomped by the Storm 3-0. Between the big advantage of the double-bye and establishing themselves over the course of the regular season, the top teams continue to hold that advantage into the playoffs.
Upset streaks used to happen a little more under the old system. When the teams were split into conferences you might have an easier run of opponents if most of the good teams were on the other side of the country, making a surprise playoff push more plausible. In just the final couple of years of the old system, an Indiana team that were the No. 3 seed in the East made the Finals the year after a 15-19 Chicago team did the same as a No. 4. In fact, teams like that making it all the way to the league's showpiece event (and often being blown out when they ran into an elite team from the other side of the bracket) was probably a key element in the WNBA switching to the system we have now.
So yes, it could happen. Elements like Delle Donne getting healthy late in the season after not playing at all earlier on are events that generally don't happen, so could lead to unusual eventualities. I'm just saying to be aware that the odds are not good. Fairytales don't often come true.
3. Trade winds silent
Talking of dreams that don't come true, did you catch a load of all that trade deadline excitement? No? That'll be because there wasn't any. It wasn't a surprise, but even with all my suggestions there were no moves at all around the deadline. In fact, the only trade we've had during the season was when Chicago seemed to admit they'd drafted the wrong backup point guard and made that messy deal with Dallas to swap Shyla Heal for Dana Evans.
The lack of trade activity in the WNBA is genuinely a little bit of an issue. Proposing trade ideas and listening for rumors is a key part of the fan experience these days in a lot of other leagues, but with the WNBA it often feels like there isn't much point. Having only 12 teams inevitably restricts the options, because there just aren't that many people to negotiate with. The salary cap situations around the league didn't help this year either, with so many teams right at the limit (or even over it) so that the math would've been complicated for a lot of deals.
Things could be done to encourage more activity. More teams would obviously help, and there have certainly been increasing hints that the league is considering expansion as an option again. They could also open up more years of picks to be traded. The NBA allows draft picks from way into the distant future to be included in deals, with 2028 picks having already changed hands. In the WNBA, you can go a maximum of one league year into the future. Given that this year's draft has already happened, that means that all teams have to work with right now are 2022 picks. This rule was presumably in place to protect teams from themselves. The whole reason that the NBA has something called the 'Stepien Rule' is to prevent teams from mortgaging their future in terrible deals. But that illustrates how protections can be put in place while still allowing teams some freedom. Maybe opening up one more year of picks would be reasonable and open up some extra deals. More years would also allow teams to plan in more meaningfully different ways. It’s harder for deals to be done when lots of teams are trying to achieve exactly the same things.
The other issue is that too many teams make the playoffs. When two-thirds of the league gets into the postseason, and two wins is all it then takes to make the semi-finals, almost everyone still thinks they're in with a chance when we hit the trade deadline. That probably isn't going to be changing any time soon, because everyone wants to keep the fans interested and avoid too many meaningless games towards the end of the regular season.
Of course, we could also do with more GMs willing to take a risk, or to accept the reality of their situations. Until then, we'll just have to keep making up hypothetical deals of our own.
4. Lineup Minutiae
The interesting - and exciting - lineup changes recently have been created by players returning to health. New York has had Natasha Howard back in the lineup, moving Kylee Shook back to the bench (and sometimes behind Reshanda Gray as the primary backup as well). Minnesota has Aerial Powers back in the mix, leaving Cheryl Reeve to work out how to find minutes for all her wings on any given night. Even LA finally has a genuine post rotation, with both Ogwumikes back and available for Derek Fisher.
Perhaps most importantly, Washington finally had the pleasant problem of working out how to fit Elena Delle Donne into their rotation. She's playing limited minutes and occasionally looked a little stiff, but even with Tina Charles out the Mystics dismantled LA on Tuesday night. In her return against Seattle, Delle Donne started out as the nominal 3, defending Katie Lou Samuelson while Charles and Myisha Hines-Allen took the posts. However, Delle Donne's always been more successful defending inside than on the perimeter and she spent plenty of time as a genuine post both in that game and the one against LA. It's good both to see her back, and to see her capable of recovering for another game only 48 hours later.
Events in Atlanta remain somewhat baffling from the outside. Even besides the Chennedy Carter mess, signing Candice Dupree (for $10,000 more than her minimum, for no obvious reason) to swallow minutes didn't make a lot of sense. Now they've added guard Blake Dietrick, who immediately played over 22 minutes on Tuesday while rookie lottery pick Aari McDonald was reduced back to barely 10. Interim head coach Darius Taylor is understandably trying to win games, considering this is essentially an audition for him, but that's part of why you don't add veterans who won't be part of your future in the first place. Make those youngsters you want to see develop the best options available, and then whoever the coach is will have to use them whether they like it or not.
5. Clark's Corner
I want to talk about a player scoring barely seven points per game, with a usage rate lower than Stephanie Jones and a PER under eight. Who is playing over 30 minutes a night for a very good team. Who I pretty much adore. Yes, Briann January deserves some recognition.
Back when their relationship with Courtney Williams disintegrated and the Connecticut Sun were essentially forced to trade her, January didn't look like much of a return. An exciting young scoring guard was heading out the door, and a much older point-guard who didn't even take six shots a night was coming the other way. But it's worked. January fits on this squad with her hard-nosed defense, relentless effort, and willingness to take a backseat to the other options that need to be fed. She'll still fire when the opportunity presents itself, and leaving her alone to double Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner or Brionna Jones is a risk, but that's very much a backup option. Her value comes elsewhere.
Opposing guards might score against the January/Jasmine Thomas backcourt, but they're not going to get anything remotely easy. Like trying to swat away a fly that just won't stop buzzing around, January sticks to her assignment and refuses to go away. As with virtually all good defenses the Sun are very good at recovering and rotating to help where necessary, so we don't often see it, but she's also one of the best guards at defending in the post when a switch forces her there. She blocks the entry pass in the first place, or uses her body to put up the most resistance possible if the ball does make its way in. And as I've mentioned many times over the years, she's absolutely elite at making sure that referees see contact when it's made. That can sound like a criticism, but it's genuinely not intended as one. It's a thin line from there to flopping, but January makes sure the officials have something to call if she gets clipped going around a screen, or is in position to take a charge. That's a skill.
She was a key part of a Finals team over a decade ago, and has a real shot to be there again this year. She may have had a little more athleticism back then, but veteran smarts make up for a lot. January's aged like a fine wine.
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Genuine analysis from someone who watches carefully. Thank you, Richard.