WNBA Dissected: Goats and lynxes and rooks, oh my! Plus more from 2021 Week 12
From all-time greats to grating inconsistencies, rotation questions to contract decisions, we take a look at interesting topics from around the WNBA this week
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1. The WNBA can rent a car
The WNBA announced their W25 list this week, a group of what their panel considers the top-25 players from the league's first 25 seasons. They've been doing this every five years since the All-Decade team was announced in 2006, and it works as both a nice celebration of the league's history and a way to shout "Yes, we're still here!" at all the doubters. Which is why it was such a shame that there was so little buildup to this year's announcement. Honestly, I'd have written about this last week if I'd remembered that the official league list was about to be released, but they publicized it so poorly that I'd forgotten it was imminent. In a season where we couldn't breathe for them telling us about the glories of the Commissioner's Cup for months it was baffling that the W25 virtually disappeared after the initial announcement, until the list was actually released. Even in the first half of the game where they announced the 25, they called it the "shortlist for the WNBA GOAT vote" rather than the Top 25 @ 25 or anything that made it clear that this was their choice for the elite players from the WNBA's history. The whole exercise has felt like a huge missed opportunity for the league to celebrate its legends and promote itself.
Now on to the actual list. There's never going to be an exact consensus on these things. Before the announcement I tweeted out my list, including an initial 21 that for me were just in:
All 21 appear on the official list, and on most of the independent selections I saw on social media over the last week (although admittedly not all). So we at least seem reasonably close to a consensus on a large core group. The final few, however, are always open to debate. I had 20 more names on my 'shortlist' for the final four spots:
Some people will think some of those should be definites. Others may think it's ridiculous to include some of them at all. These final spots are always incredibly difficult, and often splitting tiny hairs between greats. As the next tweet said, my final four on Sunday was Pondexter, Taylor, Vandersloot and Douglas. Leaving out Ticha Penicheiro pains me, believe me, and if I was picking today instead she might easily get in (despite very few of these players having altered their resumes in the last four days). For the record, that means I had three differences from the official list, with Taylor, Vandersloot and Douglas getting in for me ahead of Cash, Ogwumike and Penicheiro.
So I don't think the W25 list is right, exactly, but they're not far off.
2. Getting my GOAT
First, the one bit I like about this WNBA GOAT vote thing. The hashflag for #WNBAGoatVote is outstanding:
Look at that adorable little goat in its orange headband and WNBA hoodie, with its little WNBA ball. Quality work, graphics team.
The actual competition it's being used to advertise is not my cup of tea. I understand the effort to engage the fanbase but trying to find a singular #1 in a team sport, via a public vote, is a lot less interesting to me than arguing out the list of 25 in the first place. I also assume Diana Taurasi will win, partly because the Mercury and some sections of the media have done an excellent job of already branding her 'the goat' over recent years. Only complacency from her fanbase assuming that they barely need to vote would be likely to see it head anywhere else.
For what it's worth, my vote would go to Tamika Catchings, for most of the reasons that Kevin Pelton helpfully went into a while back. I doubt the public at large is going to agree.
3. Best of both worlds?
Last season, the Minnesota Lynx were a good team, but also a dichotomy. When Sylvia Fowles was healthy and available, they were an excellent defensive team. When she wasn't, the defense dropped off significantly but they were more fluid and effective offensively and scored better as a result. Part of the reason for that uptick offensively was that Fowles being out slid Napheesa Collier to the 4, which inevitably made them a quicker and more perimeter-oriented team by adding an extra wing to the lineup.
Last week Damiris Dantas was ruled out for the rest of the 2021 WNBA season due to a Lisfranc injury in her right foot. While obviously it's never a positive to lose a starter due to injury, especially at such a late stage in the season, it does lead to some interesting choices for the Lynx. Cheryl Reeve's immediate reaction to the Dantas injury wasn't to replace her with another big, which she could've done with either Natalie Achonwa or Jessica Shepard. Instead, Collier went to the 4 again and Bridget Carleton came back into the starting lineup on the wing. There are also now extra minutes on the perimeter for the returning Aerial Powers, and potentially for Rachel Banham even once Layshia Clarendon is healthy again to resume her role at point guard. It won't be the same as either group from last year, but could it marry the pace and range of the Collier/Dantas frontcourt with the defense of the Fowles lineups?
The Lynx have been successful lately regardless. They've won 13 of their last 16 games, with the only losses coming on the road to the rolling Connecticut Sun and last night’s disappointment against Las Vegas. The question is whether they can beat the top teams in the league once we hit the postseason, something Minnesota has struggled with since 2018 when the core of their dynasty began to age-out and retire. They've managed to remain pretty good - which is impressive in and of itself when you lose legends like Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson - but not quite good enough to challenge for rings. Even without Dantas, this year's squad gives Reeve options. We've seen Collier at the 3 and 4 in virtually every game, flipping matchups and complicating lineup decisions for their opponent. The numbers also indicate a more balanced squad this year, that hasn't needed Fowles on the floor to be a good defensive team. Obviously it helps, but they haven't fallen apart on that end of the floor when she comes out or misses an occasional game.
With the various injuries and roster fluctuations they've had this year, the Lynx may still end up a tick behind the league's elite when it comes to the playoffs. It's amazing how often the championship winners are either the healthiest team over the course of the season, or the team whose core has been together the longest - or both. The Lynx haven't been that healthy, and several important pieces only joined them this year. But they're definitely interesting. And they won't be an easy out for anybody, whether playing big or small, quick or slow. They can match up with anyone, or drag you into playing a way you don't want to play, which makes for a lot of fun possibilities once the games that really matter arrive.
4. Reckless endangerment of my sanity
All any of us really want with officiating is consistency. Call the same stuff at both ends of the floor, night-to-night, game-to-game. There'll be some rules we still don't like, but if you stick with the same rulings for the same actions, we'll get used to it. Which is why this stuff drives me nuts.
That is a virtually textbook example of the 'reckless closeout' that was being called reasonably often early this season. Kahleah Copper tries to challenge Kelsey Plum's three, gets there late, and slides under her foot on landing. Based on calls we saw earlier in the year, that should've been reviewed and upgraded to a flagrant foul. It's not a rule I love, because it's so often created by a shooter jumping forwards significantly on their shot and landing on a defender who couldn't do a lot about it, but on the example above Plum barely goes forward. Copper just slides under her. It's exactly the kind of defensive play that the rule was brought in to try to remove from the game.
There was no review, and no upgrade. Two days later, this:
That's a much more questionable 'reckless closeout'. Aerial Powers is fighting around a screen, and Ariel Atkins jumps forward significantly, thereby creating the contact. This time, with a more veteran officiating crew, they reviewed the play and upgraded it to a flagrant. Which is fine. It's a tough call on Powers, but we've seen so many turned ankles in recent weeks that I have no problem trying to remove some of the plays that cause them from the game. Sometimes you have to over-do the punishment a little to make players think about their actions more and change them in future. But in that case, be consistent. Believe me, I have zero desire to increase the number of video reviews in WNBA games. We already have too many, and many of them take far too long (if you can't see anything to change your mind in under a minute, stick with the damn call made on the floor). But teams have to know what the rule is. Otherwise you just get whining and clips of similar plays being sent to the league office with complaints about unfairness.
Plus, you just know one of these is going to come up at a crucial moment in the playoffs. If the Copper one was a common foul and the Powers one was a flagrant, what's the call when Player X slides under someone in Game 5 in October? Who the hell knows.
5. Worst. Class. Ever?
Despite the campaigns already well underway from the various team social media accounts, I'm not going to dive into all the end of season awards just yet. But let's talk about the All-Rookie Team. This has been a genuinely awful year for rookies. Michaela Onyenwere remains the likely Rookie of the Year thanks to a few decent appearances early in the season and managing to average over 20 minutes per game. She hasn't been great by any means - a PER under 10, shooting 38% from the field and looking significantly overmatched against some of the league's power forwards - but this year that's enough. Aari McDonald, who the various coaches in Atlanta have seemed reluctant to play for most of the season, is her only real competition while averaging under 15 minutes per game and shooting 34%. Charli Collier, the No. 1 overall pick, is a virtual lock for the All-Rookie team simply because she's actually played. At least for part of the year. Collier has largely fallen out of Dallas's rotation as the season has gone on, due to the Wings consistently being a worse team whenever she's been on the floor. But the minutes will probably be enough. There's no one else to vote for.
Didi Richards has at least participated in most of New York's games this season. The accumulation of minutes, which has her approaching a similar total to Collier at this point, and a couple of recent scoring outbursts will probably be enough to push her onto the 2021 All-Rookie team. Then for No. 5 your guess is as good as mine. Arella Guirantes and Dana Evans have somehow participated in 21 and 26 games respectively, not that you're likely to have noticed. DiJonai Carrington had a couple of moments early in the season before essentially falling out of the rotation in Connecticut. Awak Kuier had five blocks on Tuesday night. Destiny Slocum has played in 18 games (and is the only one on this list for the fifth spot shooting over 31% from the floor). It's unbelievably slim pickings.
There have certainly been draft classes in the WNBA where most of the useful rookies didn't get going until later seasons. 2015, for example, featured Dearica Hamby, Betnijah Laney, Cheyenne Parker, Isabelle Harrison and Crystal Bradford, none of whom did much as rookies (although most of them would've made the 2021 All-Rookie team with their nondescript rookie seasons). But 2021 has been shockingly poor. At a time when a lot of people want to talk about expansion, this year's class of newcomers hasn't exactly been supporting the case.
6. Extension Minutiae
Yes, not lineups this week, but extensions. We're past the deadline for rookie-scale contracts to be extended, so the likes of A'ja Wilson, Diamond DeShields, Jordin Canada and Kia Nurse will have to wait until the offseason. However, we do often see veteran extensions in the final weeks of the regular season, as teams try to ensure they have key players locked down before free agency. The situation you want as a team is to have a maximum of one important player about to become an unrestricted free agent (UFA), because then you can core that player if necessary. If you have more than one, at least one will become a true UFA and you could end up losing them for nothing.
Seattle, for example, would love to clean up their situation. They have three starters set to become UFAs, in Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd. Bird is easy, because at this point it seems like she'll either stick around or walk off into the sunset (she's even indicated in the past that she might take less than the max if the team needed her to). Stewart and Loyd are more complicated. Loyd won't be signing an extension, because by rule extensions can only start at a maximum of 120% of the final year of the previous contract. Loyd's current deal was signed under the old Collective Bargaining Agreement and is therefore now significantly under market value at $121,500. An extension could start at $145,800 at most, whereas Loyd will be expecting at least next year's max salary of $196,267 in free agency. So that's not happening.
Unfortunately for the Storm, a Stewart extension is unlikely as well. She's already at the new max, so 120% would be fine and take her up to next year's supermax of $228,094. However, you need five Years of Service in the WNBA to qualify for the supermax in a veteran extension. Stewart is currently playing in her fifth WNBA season, and doesn't officially receive that fifth Year of Service until this season is over. So by waiting until the offseason, she can earn over $30,000 more per season. She can also tack on an extra year if she wants to. So the Storm will likely go into the offseason with all three of Stewart, Loyd and Bird about to become UFAs, only able to core one of them (presumably Stewart, unless they are absolutely, definitively, 100% sure she won't walk away).
Jonquel Jones is in the same situation as Stewart - currently playing in her fifth season - so is similarly unlikely to sign an extension. Connecticut will probably core her, as their only other meaningful impending UFA is guard Briann January, so they don't have quite the same complications as Seattle.
After that, there aren't too many obvious candidates. Chicago has a host of players about to become UFAs, but have always looked like they were going to restructure the roster somewhat in the upcoming offseason. If someone like Courtney Vandersloot or Kahleah Copper wanted to give them a discount to lock in money now then they'd probably do it, but a deal like that seems unlikely.
Perhaps the most likely remaining candidates to sign someone to an extension should be Atlanta, who have Courtney Williams, Tiffany Hayes, Elizabeth Williams and Odyssey Sims all about to become UFAs. Courtney Williams could extend at the supermax, because she already has those five Years of Service that Stewart and Jones are on the brink of. That would allow them to focus on the others and outside free agents in the offseason. However, given the mess with Chennedy Carter and the continuing lack of a General Manager or long-term head coach, it doesn't seem like the Dream are in a position to get any deals done. So this may be the rare year where we play through the final couple of weeks of the regular season without seeing any extensions signed.