WNBA Dissected: Heal turn in Chicago, new boss in Seattle and more from 2021 Week 3
Examining a confusing trade, a coaching change, graphical errors and funky fonts from around the WNBA this week
Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can also buy Her Hoop Stats gear, such as laptop stickers, mugs, and shirts!
Haven’t subscribed to the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter yet?
1. No longer a time to Heal
Wednesday was a quiet day in the WNBA for those of us that watch and cover the league. An unusual midweek day with no games where everyone could draw breath after a string of crazy finishes and overtime periods. Then this happened:
On a base level, one side of this was simply Dallas opening a necessary roster spot for the returning Allisha Gray and Satou Sabally and finding a little value in how they did it. Then the other side was Chicago trying to make an upgrade at backup point guard. However, this one was a little more complicated and a little more interesting than that. So let's dig deeper.
Sifting through my twitter mentions over the last couple of days (people like Woj must literally never check their mentions, given what mine were like after breaking this news), the predominant reaction from the twitterverse was very clear: James Wade is an idiot, and the Chicago Sky are a disaster zone the likes of which the world has scarcely ever seen. Shockingly enough, the world of Twitter may be overreacting a touch, just for once. First let's look at the cost, which is a small risk but will probably be minimal. A third-round pick is worth virtually nothing in the WNBA, so the real value for Dallas is the pick swap. Chicago is betting on themselves to dig out of their current 2-5 hole and likely finish above Dallas in the standings (the Wings are currently barely better at 2-4, although that’s essentially been without Gray and Sabally). It seems a reasonable expectation from Chicago given the Sky have basically been an unlucky near-.500 team so far this year, despite missing key pieces in Candace Parker, Allie Quigley and Stefanie Dolson for almost every game. The Wings look feisty, but still desperately young and inexperienced.
It's hard to deny that this looks bad for Wade and the Sky. They took Shyla Heal at #8 in this year's draft, and had to know what they were getting. She's 19, the Australian WNBL she's grown up playing in is a decent league but not a great one, and she hasn't even been a starter there for very long. She was always going to be very raw. They took her over players like Evans, Kiana Williams and Destiny Slocum, knowing that they needed immediate help at backup point guard behind Courtney Vandersloot (and that she might be late arriving for camp, given Covid slowing down visa and immigration processes). Heal has admittedly looked shaky in her brief appearances on the floor. She's been rushed, and not seemed quite ready for this level. In an ideal world, if she was on a WNBA roster this year, she'd have been playing a similar role to what Williams has done in Seattle - a third point guard who rarely plays outside of blowouts, and can learn at the feet of veterans. Heal had considerably less help on the floor than originally intended, due to the injuries to Parker and Quigley, but her level of play shouldn't have been a surprise.
The thing is, the worst general managers in sports are the ones who refuse to accept a sunk cost and make decisions based on trying not to look bad, or who won't admit that they made a mistake. It was a very quick assessment, but Wade decided that Heal either wasn't what he'd expected, or wasn't what his team needed anymore. This Sky team was built to win right now. They signed a 35-year-old Candace Parker in the offseason to push an expensive, veteran roster over the top to a championship, not to build for the future. So, after a five-game losing streak, he felt he needed to make moves. Even if it meant giving up on the 2021 No. 8 and No. 10 picks on the same day as giving up assets to acquire the No. 13, that's an understandable move at this point. Even if it means a chorus of "Well why didn't you just take Evans at 8 then!" on the internet.
That expensive roster played a role here, too. The Sky have been flirting with the team salary cap limit since opening day, and even those hardship exception deals everyone's been using to supplement their rosters cut into any space a team has. That's why Heal was in this deal - Chicago wasn’t just giving up assets for Evans, they were also getting the Wings to waive Heal for them. Heal being waived by Dallas means her salary for the season falls on their cap (despite the actual cash paid to her having come from Chicago, while she played for them). Having also waived Stephanie Watts on Wednesday and having been required to release hardship signing Lexie Brown, the Sky are currently down to 10 players and by rule have 72 hours to get back up to 11. Reportedly, the player they want in that slot is still Brown, but they don't have space for her pro-rated veteran minimum salary just yet. So they'll have to sign a cheaper player and wait until there's room for Brown's number.
The Watts news has gotten a little lost in all the noise, but that's an acceptance of failure from Wade as well. She was acquired in the Gabby Williams trade just before the season, a trade that there was no need for Chicago to make at that point, given Williams had already been suspended for the year and therefore her status wasn't going to change until 2022. So having moved on from Watts already, all the Sky have left to show from that deal is the rights to Leonie Fiebich, a German youngster with a chequered injury history who might never play in a WNBA game. Even if you're not a fan of Williams, that's already a poor return.
So, generally speaking, I have more sympathy for Wade and the Sky here than most of the populace appears to have. They accepted that mistakes had already been made and tried to rectify them somewhat while not worrying about how it looked. It's unfortunate for Heal in particular, who never got much of a shot, but hopefully she'll be back (and as an unrestricted free agent, assuming she clears waivers, she can try to target a good landing spot). Evans herself hasn't done a lot in her brief appearances with the Wings, so we'll wait and see if she's much of an improvement for Chicago. Once Brown is back, Evans may find herself in that third point guard role that Heal should've been in to start with.
Oh, and from a Dallas perspective this is fine. They gave up a player they probably would've cut anyway, and if Chicago's season ends up in the tank they could move up the draft. Not bad from a player they never expected to fall to them at No. 13 in the draft. Mostly because they probably expected Chicago to take her at No. 8.
2. A BIG lineup (issue)
Honestly, I've learned to pretty much laugh at this stuff and move on over the years, but we reached a new level of pre-game graphic insanity and inaccuracy before the Lynx-Storm game this week:
You'll notice three players listed for Minnesota who've never played for the Lynx, Sylvia Fowles turning Sly, and even the Seattle group is wrong (because Mercedes Russell started at center, not Dupree). Errors in these listings have become so commonplace that many of us look at them more to check for weird mistakes than to gain any information, but it is disappointing. I'm sure there are occasional errors in the same graphics for NBA games (sometimes there are very late changes to starting lineups which don't make it in), but a lot of fans mentioned that it felt disrespectful after seeing this image. The perception of the WNBA as a league that isn't broadcast with the same care and attention as major men's leagues is something that's hard to shake, and these errors are some of the many micro-events that make that persist. This particular one was wild, and clearly put together by someone who had no clue about the league or what they were doing.
It also came fast on the heels of this one. No, it's not photoshop, and the Liberty had not made a surprise free agent signing. Last we heard, Washington is still hoping that she'll be on their side of this matchup later in the year.
3. Storms of change
Bizarrely somewhat overshadowed by the wailing around the Chicago trade - the reigning champs have a new head coach! Dan Hughes abruptly retired on Sunday, only a couple of weeks into the season, and handed the reins over to assistant Noelle Quinn. Having had medical issues in the past, and after missing last season due to not being medically cleared to go to the WNBA bubble, many of us were immediately concerned that there was an unknown ailment that led to this decision. Fortunately, apparently not. He'd just had enough of the grind and felt it was a good time to hand things over. After a successful career that included a championship with the Storm in 2018, and a coaching tree that has branches stretching all across the current WNBA, who can blame him for wanting to walk off into the sunset?
Seattle Storm @seattlestormDan Hughes Announces Retirement from the @WNBA. Legacy continues as Noelle Quinn elevated to Head Coach. Read more ⬇️ https://t.co/LRYWiz9SLp #TakeCover https://t.co/O4tpKGtKgi
It's an unusual situation for a new head coach to be stepping into. Typically, you take over from someone who's been fired, which normally means you're trying to rebuild or improve a team that needs new direction. Quinn's taking over a team that won the championship last year, and despite significant changes in playing personnel over the offseason still has designs on repeating. In some ways, Quinn herself seems like something of a surprise pick. Gary Kloppenburg is still there, having led the Storm to that championship in the bubble last year in Hughes's absence, and would've appeared to be the standard, veteran hand to slide back into the primary seat. Instead they went with the far younger, less experienced option in Quinn, who was still playing for the Storm in 2018 and is younger than both Sue Bird and Candice Dupree, currently on her Storm roster.
However, Hughes and the Storm hierarchy wouldn't have made this move unless they felt Quinn was ready, and she still has Kloppenburg next to her to lean on when necessary. Taking over such a strong veteran squad makes things easier for her than for the vast majority of first-time head coaches. A lot of her job, at least initially, will be to not rock the boat. They've already won a lot with this core group of players and this system, so there's no need for much change. The tests will come when some adversity hits, which is inevitable. Can she make the in-game moves and the pre-game decisions to give the Storm an edge when they need it at crucial times? Can she lead the Storm forward when Sue Bird finally, surely retires in the not-too-distant future? We'll see. It's always nice to see former players getting a shot, but there's always an additional level of risk in hiring someone unproven. Good luck to her.
4. Give 'em the hook
There were so many huge plays this week. Courtney Williams and Kia Nurse broke some hearts with game-winning shots, we had multiple overtime games on the same night, and Layshia Clarendon had a ridiculous debut with Minnesota that almost featured a buzzer-beater of their own. Clarendon's almost-winner in regulation was waved off for being after the buzzer, but they hit a big three late in overtime of the same game just before Sylvia Fowles did this to virtually seal the win:
The way the Lynx reverse the ball back up top to get a better angle to enter the ball to her, then she looks to go right, sees the double-team coming, and pivots back to her left for the pretty jump-hook over Jonquel Jones - who just might be the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year right now - is class. If you want to get really, genuinely picky, it might be a travel. But maybe the refs were too busy admiring the move to make that call.
5. By the numbers
It's a little early for me to be paying too much attention to the statistics this season has thrown up so far, so we're looking at my favorite numbers so far - jersey numbers! You see, along with the new jersey designs this year, the WNBA and Nike finally let teams use differing fonts for their numbers. It's such a tiny thing but plays such an important role in making each one stand out from the crowd. There have even been a variety of approaches from different teams. Some have stuck with the same look across all their unis, like Phoenix with these slanted figures, matching the slanted lettering they also use consistently.
Some, like Chicago, have switched between jerseys. The Sky have these curved but still unusual numbers on the black Explorer and white Heroine uniforms, but stylized, futuristic jagged numbers on the blue Rebel jerseys.
I know some people are still waiting on replica jerseys they ordered back when these things were released, and that's ridiculous and I sympathize. But as someone who just has to look at them rather than wonder when mine might arrive, the numbers are just one more element that I love.
The only problem for the WNBA is that now if they ever try to switch back to an identical global look across the league, they're going to cause a riot.
6. Lineup Minutiae!
Let's rattle through some quick hits this week.
New York, having lost Natasha Howard to injury, continues to start Kylee Shook over the more experienced and established Kiah Stokes. This may be in part because Stokes is still expected to leave at some point to play for Turkey in EuroBasket Women, but Stokes has also been very quiet in her limited appearances (before comfortably her best game of the season last night against the Aces). If and when Stokes leaves, it'll be interesting to see who the Liberty might bring in on a replacement contract to help fill the hole, and how much time they get.
Seattle seems to have settled on Mercedes Russell as their post starter next to Breanna Stewart, ahead of Candice Dupree or Ezi Magbegor. To help them win now, and take pressure off Stewart defensively, Russell makes the most sense. The only negative is that the better Russell plays, the more expensive she gets as a free agent at the end of the season.
Derek Fisher is fiddling with things in Los Angeles. The injury to Chiney Ogwumike forced some changes, but moving Brittney Sykes to the bench wasn't one of them. Promoting Sykes into the starting lineup was one of his successful moves last year, so moving her back down feels like a fairly random roll of the dice to shake up his team. With how miserable the Sparks have looked offensively - currently last in the league by a distance in offensive rating - it's probably worth trying anything.
Finally in this section, just a note that we're seeing a hell of a lot of three-guard lineups this season. A lot of teams - Atlanta, Las Vegas, Washington, Dallas, some others depending on how you categorize certain players - have eschewed the traditional small forward. It's obviously easier to do when other teams are doing it as well, because you won't be overwhelmed by size as much defensively. Even with the big centers and star power forwards that you see in the WNBA, 'smallball' is working its way into this league.
7. Clark's Corner
Okay, this is hardly the kind of player that Clark's Corner was created to recognize, but I love this play and can't leave it out. At first glance, this is just a very nice bounce-pass from Jordin Canada to Stephanie Talbot cutting backdoor for the layup. But watch Sue Bird, especially on the replay angle. She's motioning over her shoulder to Talbot as the trailer on the wing (and talking as well), telling Canada where the pass should be going. She's literally playing point guard when she doesn't even have the ball.
Like I said earlier, Noelle Quinn is walking into a pretty nice gig for a first-time head coach.