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The Weekly Roundup: Parity Among the League’s Fab Five, Minnesota’s Travel Woes, and the Most Gif-Able Reaction in WNBA History
Exploring the razor-thin margin between the league’s top five teams
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Just when I start to think it’s foolish to try and make heads or tails of the 2022 WNBA season, things start to make sense. Every team in the bottom half of the standings is on a losing streak, and every team (save Connecticut) in the upper half is on a winning streak (for the sake of argument, one game constitutes a streak here). Based on the chart of net ratings below, it’s become clear that there are three tiers of WNBA teams - Tier 1: Chicago, Seattle, Connecticut, Washington, and Las Vegas; Tier 2: Dallas, Minnesota, Atlanta, Phoenix, New York, and Los Angeles; and Tier 3: Indiana.
While things are sure to heat up over the next couple of weeks as the aforementioned Tier 2 teams (currently separated by just two games) jockey for playoff position, let’s take a closer look at Tier 1.
Stat of the Week: Parity among the WNBA’s top five teams
Who’s the clear favorite to win the WNBA title? Well, right now, the obvious pick is Chicago. Owners of the best record in the W, the Sky have been firing on all cylinders lately, compiling a 9-1 record over their last 10 games. A team with three Finals MVPs that is also playing this well seems primed to repeat. But what about Seattle? The Storm knocked off Chicago in the teams’ sole meeting (so far) this season, sit just a game and a half behind the Sky, and their roster includes the front-runner for league MVP (Breanna Stewart), one of the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year (Ezi Magbegor), and a former MVP coming off the bench (Tina Charles). Despite stumbling to a 5-5 mark over their last 10 games, fourth-place Connecticut owns a 2-0 edge in its regular season series against Seattle. With reigning MVP Jonquel Jones and a shoo-in for this year’s Sixth Woman of the Year in the front court in Brionna Jones, we need to throw the Sun into the mix. But we can’t forget about Las Vegas, right? The Aces have split meetings with Seattle and Chicago, and, if offense wins championships, let’s just hand Las Vegas the trophy now. The Aces’ offensive rating of 107.6 ranks second all-time in the league behind the 2019 Washington Mystics. If we consider Las Vegas a viable championship contender, then we must give some consideration to Washington. Having knocked off Las Vegas in both of their meetings, the sky’s the limit for the Mystics if Elena Delle Donne is healthy during postseason play.
Ok, that solved absolutely nothing. I guess that’s to be expected in a paragraph where the predominant words are “if” and “but.” Anyway, let’s get back to the task at hand: answering the question of who the clear favorite is to win the WNBA title. The issue with the question is that the premise is flawed - the cannibalization among the league’s top five teams suggests that there is no clear favorite this season.
One statistic in support of this view is the difference in net rating between the WNBA’s top five teams. Net rating measures how many more points on average a team scores than its opponent per 100 possessions. This season, the difference between the team with the best net rating, Chicago, and the team with the fifth-best net rating, Las Vegas, is just 2.4 points per 100 possessions. That would be tied for the second-smallest such difference in league history.
So, there’s a near-unprecedented level of parity among the league’s top five teams. Pair that with the WNBA’s postseason format changes that make upsets more likely (removing byes and single-elimination games), and it means we’re in for a wild, exciting, and unpredictable ride come playoff time in August!
Entering last week, the Minnesota Lynx faced a daunting schedule of three games (two on the road) over a 67-hour span. That’s not ideal for a franchise in the middle of a playoff race where the margin for error is razor thin. So, the last thing Minnesota wanted to encounter was a series of flight cancellations and delays. Unfortunately, as Lynx forward Natalie Achonwa chronicled on Twitter, that’s precisely what happened, resulting in Minnesota arriving in Washington at 1 a.m. Sunday morning just 14 hours ahead of tip-off.
The league not chartering flights for its players is an issue that’s reared its ugly head on multiple occasions. While the WNBA has made strides in addressing this problem, including chartering flights during the Finals starting this season, it’s nevertheless frustrating hearing such travel horror stories. I understand that the requirement to fly commercially was collectively bargained, but it still fuels the notion of the WNBA as a second-class league. However, what’s even more aggravating are the reports that Minnesota did not receive a prompt response when it notified the league about its travel issues.
“The greater disappointment was a lack of support that we felt in terms of unresponsive messages to the league,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “From our standpoint, there was no communication with the leadership of the Minnesota Lynx. And so, to me, that’s an epic fail. So was there consideration given? I have no idea. It was leaked to me later on that there was communication to Washington. There wasn’t communication with Minnesota, and I’m not sure how that would happen.”
The silver lining during this whole fiasco involved Washington coach Mike Thibault and Reeve. The league contacted Thibault about moving the time of Sunday’s game to accommodate Minnesota’s late arrival. Thibault explained why a near-sellout on Japanese Heritage Day prompted the Mystics to decide against moving the tip-off time. Further, Thibault described how all teams deal with travel issues, with his lack of sympathy encapsulated by the most gif-able reaction in recent memory. In an age where Twitter outrage is prevalent, it was refreshing to see Thibault later tweet an apology and Reeve simply accept it.
Player of the Week: A’ja Wilson
She’s the betting favorite (per DraftKings) to win league MVP, so I suppose it’s only fitting that A’ja Wilson is the first three-time winner of the weekly roundup’s Player of the Week honor. Following a 2-5 stretch leading into All-Star weekend, Wilson helped Las Vegas right the ship. The 2020 MVP averaged 22.7 points, 8.3 boards, and 3.7 stocks (steals plus blocks) en route to the Aces’ 3-0 week.
The Aces’ prolific offense is well-documented, but it’s their performance on the defensive end that will determine how deep of a postseason run they make. Their success on the defensive end hinges on Wilson. The Aces allow 8.2 more points per 100 possessions when she’s on the bench; that’s the biggest defensive rating differential on the team. In addition to ranking second in the W in both blocked shots and defensive rebounds, she’s three total rebounds shy of averaging 10 boards, two blocks, and one steal. Sylvia Fowles, Lisa Leslie, and Candace Parker are the only players in league history to have finished a season with such numbers.
WNBA schedule this week (All times Eastern)
Here is a complete listing of this week’s games, start times, and where you can catch the action.
Her Hoop Stats content in case you missed it
From dropping 116 points on Las Vegas to a 34-point blowout loss to the Aces, July’s been a roller coaster for the New York Liberty. Heaven Hill covered this and offered his thoughts on All-Star weekend in his latest Liberty Notebook.
What would the deal have looked like if Phoenix had decided to trade Skylar Diggins-Smith? Richard Cohen broke down several scenarios (one for each team, in fact) and even put together the holy grail of trades, a trade involving all 12 teams in the WNBA! Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here.
In the latest episode of Courtside, Gabe Ibrahim and Christy Winters-Scott provided their WNBA power rankings and offered their thoughts on the fake trades Richard proposed in his piece above.
Coach Carolyn Smalls and Basketball Chess broke down film of the Iverson re-screen action that Atlanta recently ran against Chicago.
Other recommended content
For Winsidr, Owen Pence chronicled Jackie Young’s basketball journey, from her formative years in Princeton, Indiana to a national title at Notre Dame, and finally her growth into one of the WNBA’s top guards.
For The Dallas Morning News, Peter Warren described the recent emergence of Wings center Teaira McCowan and how she will play a pivotal role in Dallas’ effort to make a deep postseason run.
The Indianapolis Star’s Gabby Hajduk explored how Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell has overcome some of the more difficult periods during her time in the W, from this season’s All-Star snub to the isolation she experienced in the 2020 bubble.
Trivia question of the week
First, here’s the answer to last week’s trivia question:
Name one of the two WNBA championship teams to have survived an elimination game in each of their playoff series on the way to the title.
Answer: Houston Comets (1999), Phoenix Mercury (2009)
And now, here’s this week’s question:
What is the sum of the following?
Triple-doubles in the WNBA this season
WNBA Defensive Player of the Year awards won by Sylvia Fowles
Number of times Las Vegas or New York scored 100 points in their three meetings with each other this season (so, theoretically, the maximum would be six)
The jersey number of the player leading the WNBA in assists this season