WNBA Dissected: Chasing the final playoff spots, taking the money, Cambage, cups, and more from 2022 Week 12
This week's journey around the world of the WNBA as the regular season approaches its conclusion
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Six into Three Doesn't Go
In case you haven't been counting, there are now 17 days remaining in the 2022 WNBA regular season. In case you haven't checked the standings lately it's, well, basically the same as it's been for months - five teams are in, barring something completely insane; six are still fighting for the final three spots; and Indiana are hoping the lottery draw goes well. So which three are going to slide into those final spots, and who's going to be left on the outside looking in?
Let's start at the bottom. Minnesota found an unfortunate time for a three-game losing streak, which dropped them to 10-19 before last night’s win in Atlanta. So even if they run the table from here, 17-19 is the best-case scenario. On the bright side, they now have some winnable games coming up, with Atlanta again, LA and Phoenix on the schedule in their next four games, and there's a chance that Seattle and Connecticut could be resting players after already locking in their spot before facing the Lynx over the final few days of the season. But they’re running out of games. They're going to need help.
It's unfortunate for the Lynx, because they've been a pretty solid middle-of-the-pack team for much of the season now - and when eight of twelve teams make the playoffs (i.e. 67% of the league), middle-of-the-pack is generally good enough for a postseason berth. Hell, the Sky won a title last year after finishing an inherently mediocre 16-16. Minnesota's problem is that they started the season 3-13, and when you dig that deep a hole you need better than solidly average to dig your way out. They've also been better than their record would indicate. They're eighth in net rating for the season and sixth since the midpoint of the season. Pythagorean record, a mathematical calculation of what a team's record should be based on points scored and allowed, puts them at 14-16 and sixth in the standings (if you use every team’s Pythagorean estimate). It all suggests they've lost too many winnable games, which has led to their actual record. Unfortunately for the Lynx, that's the number they use to decide the playoff teams.
New York are at 10-17, which compared to the Lynx at least gives them the advantage of having three extra games left to play. More of their 2022 future is still in their own hands. The problem is, it's not June anymore. The Liberty went 7-4 in June, but a brutal 3-13 (so far) in May and July combined. Maybe the positive angle is that they're alternating good and bad months, so in August they’ll ride a hot streak into the playoffs?
The Liberty certainly control their own destiny, because not only do they have all those games left to play, they're also virtually all against the teams competing with them for those final playoff spots. After tonight's game against Chicago their final eight are Phoenix, LA, Dallas and Atlanta, all twice each - the exact four teams that currently sit in front of them in the standings. It's there for the taking if they're good enough to grab it. There's also the possibility that the Liberty could get a boost from the return of Betnijah Laney, although there's been precious little information regarding her return. They said she'd be out for eight weeks when she had surgery on June 1, which would've brought her back this week, but there's been no change to the injury report. It's a boost that could drag New York over the line into the postseason.
Atlanta have been something of an enigma this year. As I've written several times - and some Dream fans have vociferously disagreed with me, by the way - I don't think the franchise really wanted to make the playoffs this year. The roster was set up with nearly everyone on expiring deals, ready to develop their youth and change the culture in 2022, before adding another high pick in 2023 and maybe making a splash in free agency. But they've turned things around quicker than expected, Tanisha Wright's been mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate (she won't win at 12-17, but it's reasonable to mention her), and they're genuinely in this playoff race.
If they're going to get there, the time to push is now. Starting last night the Dream began a four-game homestand against beatable opponents (Minnesota, Dallas, Indiana and LA). So while their home-and-home with New York on the final weekend of the season could end up being crucial, the Dream are in a position to solidify their spot before then. This is a Dream squad that continue to rely on their defense to win games, but as the season's worn on opponents have figured out their aggressive approach to a certain extent. It's forced them to search for more offense, with inconsistent results. There's every chance that those final two games against New York will still be needed to decide the playoff future of at least one of the teams involved - very possibly both.
As I discussed last week, Phoenix have become an interesting case since the departure of Tina Charles. Instead of the 'superteam' that was envisioned when the 2022 Mercury were put together, they've become this scrappy, scrambling, gunning squad that have pieced together enough wins to keep things interesting. Since Charles left, net rating pegs them as the fifth-best team in the league, with a 7-4 record that has moved them up the standings. If the style of play necessitated by near-constant small lineups doesn't wear them down too much, they look like one of the clear favourites to grab one of those final three postseason berths.
The tricky part of their remaining schedule comes next week with a pair of games in Connecticut. That could keep them amongst the pack, but then a four-game homestand to close the season gives them a good chance to finish the regular season strongly. Only the final game against Chicago sees a visit from a top-five team, and by then the Sky's seeding may well be set in stone, so Phoenix may be facing their bench. For a team that's gone 9-5 at home this season vs 4-11 on the road, closing out the year with four straight home games may be exactly what they need to clinch a playoff spot.
Dallas remain as messy and baffling as ever. On the nights where they show up and everything clicks they can beat anyone; when things aren't working they bring back memories of this franchise's Tulsa years. Recent results haven't been great. They're 4-8 over their last 12 games, and two of those four wins were over Indiana. It probably ends up sounding like a broken record, but their playoff hopes will likely come down to the wire on the final weekend, when they'll be in Phoenix on the Friday night and LA on the Sunday. For most teams, the run of home games preceding that weekend against Indiana, New York and New York again would be the chance to secure their spot, but if you trust this squad to go 3-0 in that stretch, you haven't been paying attention.
Finally, the Los Angeles Sparks, who've spent plenty of time in the news this week for reasons other than their playoff chances. Could removing Cambage from the locker room energise the remainder of the squad for a final push? It's certainly possible (although there was very little sign of it last night against the Mercury). We've seen what's happened in Phoenix without Charles, and the removal of Cambage won't require anywhere near as drastic a variation in LA's style of play.
The schedule may not help them much. After a quick stop at home to face the Lynx on Sunday night they're off on an east coast road trip, featuring four games in six nights. Then it's back home to play Connecticut twice before ending the season against Dallas. They're going to have to show some fight to make it in. Even with Cambage the Sparks haven't actually been as good this season as their record might suggest. 10th in net rating ahead of only New York and Indiana, their Pythagorean record would put them at 8-20 and floundering. Fortunately for LA, the wins and losses that actually count are the ones that happen out on the court.
As Many Words As She Deserves
I don't want to spend much time discussing Liz Cambage and her departure from the Sparks this week. If you care about the details, you'll have read most of them by now. I'm just tired. I've been tired of the Cambage drama for a long time, longer than many WNBA fans. Superstar-level talent gets you a lot of extra chances in professional sports. You can get away with all manner of objectionable activity if you happen to be good enough at the game. Liz may well have finally hit the limit.
I'm sure there are teams in Europe who'd still pay her a lot of money to play if she wanted to show up, but it would be unguaranteed money where she'd have to perform and be worth the trouble for them to keep paying her. I doubt she'll think it's worth the effort. Maybe, once the dust has settled and memories have faded a little, there'd be a WNBA team willing to give her another shot. But it's probably unlikely that it'd be a team she'd believe to be worthy of her time. So there's every chance we've already seen her play her final WNBA minutes. The Australian Opals already gave up on her as well. So she may well have played her last minute of professional basketball. Hopefully, she'll be happy in whatever she does next.
From a basketball perspective, what a thoroughly disappointing waste of talent.
Sadly, on Wednesday the Connecticut Sun confirmed that Bria Hartley's injury during Sunday's game against Minnesota was exactly what it looked like - a torn ACL.
From a brutally simplistic team perspective, the impact isn't that big. She'd only recently been signed by the Sun after finally being bought out by Indiana, and Connecticut can go back to Natisha Hiedeman and Alyssa Thomas taking on the point guard responsibilities, with rookie Nia Clouden and recent addition Kiana Williams helping out where necessary. But for Hartley this is desperately cruel.
After signing a three-year max deal with Phoenix in 2020 that almost everyone decried as an overpay, she was in the process of proving people wrong with a season that might well have seen her make the all-star team if the game had existed in 2020's bubble year. Then she tore her ACL. After working her way back, and then barely participating in Phoenix's run to the Finals last year while still recovering from the injury, she was shipped to Indiana before this season when the Mercury had to create cap space to make any meaningful roster additions. Especially after she arrived late due to overseas commitments the Fever didn't really have a role for her, given their youth movement, so she spent most of this year sitting on the bench. Then, just as she's starting to look like a useful piece for the Sun (clearly ahead of Clouden in the rotation and allowing Alyssa Thomas to stay away from playing the point), she's cut down by the same major injury yet again.
This is a clear example of why you can't blame any player for taking every dollar they can get. If you get a three-year guaranteed max offer - especially when you're a player at Hartley's level, rather than the dead-cert superstars who know deals will almost always be waiting for them - you go ahead and grab that cash, and turn off your Twitter mentions if there are too many know-it-alls out there who don't think you deserved it.
Teams have to treat the game like a business. Yes, they'll support players through injuries, work with them on charitable endeavors, and maybe even continue to treat you like family once you've retired. But if you're not worth it on the court, they won't be signing you to your next contract. If the right deal is put on the table, they'll trade you. If the numbers make sense and they think it'll improve the team, you're going to get cut. So players have to treat this like a business as well. I wondered all season why Hartley wasn't being bought out, but maybe the offers from Indiana or the money available from other teams didn't make it worthwhile to her. And the way it played out shows exactly why. It's distinctly possible that her WNBA career could be over. Her days of earning max money in this league almost certainly are. So if players want to take a discount to help their teams put together a better roster, that's fine. But if they want to demand every last red cent they can possibly get, that's 100% justifiable too.
Still Not a Cup
As with Cambage, I've spent a lot of words talking about the Commissioner's Cup in the past. Also as with Cambage, I'm not exactly what you'd call a fan. I have to admit, I didn't watch this year's final live, because I was at the semifinal of an actual cup competition that evening (and probably still singing in my sleep by the time the CommCup tipped off). We came very close to this week's WNBA Dissected being a comparison of every WNBA team's season to a member of the England women's soccer team.
There are some good ideas within the Commissioner's Cup. This year's efforts to bring each team's charity efforts to the forefront made sense, and the final works fine. People understand a final. The winner gets the trophy and most of the money, there's an MVP, it's straightforward. The rest of it still desperately needs a re-think. Get this right and you can lead the way for US leagues that have long considered how to add versions of the cup competitions from overseas as something else worth winning each year. Carry on like the first two years and everyone's going to carry on not giving a damn.
Do something to make it stand out. Have actual knockout games (quarterfinals, semifinals etc.) before the current single game that anyone notices is part of the Commissioner's Cup. Or host the whole thing as a single-venue tournament as a curtain-raiser to the regular season. You think more players might show up in time for the start of the year if the CommCup prize money is on the line? Or replace the damn all-star game. Have the voting, have the debates, name the all-stars - replace the typically unwatchable game with semis and a final over the weekend for the CommCup title.
And if we do play more than one game as a purely CommCup contest, how about changing something? Use the Elam Ending, or remove the defensive three-seconds rule to make zones entirely legal, or add a four-point line. Make me interested.
But most of all, can we not just make 10 regular season games play double-duty as Commissioner's Cup group games? It's such a lazy, dull, ignorable way to decide a pair of finalists. Do more to make this an independent, identifiable competition. The teams are already trying to win those regular season games, I promise. We’ve apparently found room to go to 40 games next season - why aren’t we using those days to fix this tournament? At an absolute bare minimum, can we add semifinals? Please? On the day Cambage walked out on the Sparks, Amanda Zahui B was paying a lot more attention to the same semifinal I was watching than the team that suspended her before this season. Knockout games matter. They're exciting. Make the Cup into a cup.