The WNBA West at the Break
by Clay Kallam
We’re about halfway through the five-week Olympic break, and after expanding from Three Points to Six Points last week to look at the WNBA East, we’ll keep going with the West this time around.
Next week, it will start to get serious in Rio, so we’ll shift our focus there.
1. Los Angeles (21-3, No. 1 seed in playoffs): The Sparks looked mortal on their five game pre-break road trip, and they start the post-Olympic schedule with four more road games – but then they spend five of the last six games in the friendly confines, including what could be a pivotal match-up with Minnesota.
Then again, the Lynx have four players on the Olympic team, playing every other day, while the Sparks have no Olympians and should return Aug. 28 well-rested and ready to finish the season like they started it.
Of course, maybe it’s asking too much for Nneka Ogwumike to duplicate her first 23 games, when she posted historic numbers. Her win share was .480 (only Lauren Jackson was better, in 2006), her PER was 33.2 (average is 15), and the more familiar numbers (19.4 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 2.8 assists per game; 70.6% shooting, 1.5 A/TO) were exceptional. Candace Parker, though, might be able to contribute a little more, even though she’s second in the league in assists (at 6-5) and is averaging 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds a game.
One concern is Brian Agler’s penchant for playing just seven players, and a criticism of his long WNBA career has been that his teams tend to fade in the playoffs, perhaps because of that workload. Maybe the extended Olympic break will make a difference, but there’s no doubt Agler rides his top five pretty hard. So far, though, it’s worked well, and there really isn’t much reason to expect much of a drop off come September – especially if Ogwumike is still playing at historic levels.
2. Minnesota (21-4, No. 2): There’s no question the Lynx have talent – tremendous talent. There’s a reason Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus, and Lindsay Whalen are all in Rio, but note that only Moore is under 30 years old, and that Whalen and especially Augustus are not playing up to their previous high standards.
Fully healthy and fully rested, Minnesota and L.A. are a tossup. But as noted, the Sparks have no one grinding it out in Rio and the Lynx have four starters playing every other day for two weeks. Still, the top two teams get a bye into the semifinals, and so really, the only thing at stake is an extra home game in the Finals – and so far each team has won in the other’s arena.
Nonetheless, a long season will get only longer when the playoffs begin, and Minnesota may need every possible edge, so that Sept. 6 game at Staples might be the determining factor in home-court advantage in the Finals. Set the DVR now …
3. Phoenix (10-14, No. 7): Certainly the most disappointing team in the WNBA this year, the Mercury were expected to challenge L.A. and Minnesota, and instead are fighting off Seattle and Dallas. Why? Poor defense, poor rebounding, and a desultory effort from Brittney Griner.
The talent appears to be in place, though Penny Taylor (who will retire from the WNBA at the end of the season) has missed seven games, so the focus has settled on coach Sandy Brondello, who just hasn’t been able to get all cylinders to fire.
Diana Taurasi, for example, is firing, but she’s only hitting 38.6% of her shots, and even the addition of post Kelsey Bone on June 25 didn’t provide much of a spark. On other hand, opponents are making a spectacular (from their point of view) 39% from three-point distance and shooting 44.6% overall, so job one is to shore up a defense that allows 86.1 points a game (in just 40 minutes).
Of course, all will be forgiven if the Mercury stumble into the playoffs and then catch fire, as a trip to the Finals would erase a summer’s worth of frustration. But even veteran teams – and Phoenix is just that – can’t just turn the motor on and off, so the projection here is for a) elimination in the semifinals, and b) a new coach in 2017.
4. Seattle (9-15, lottery land): It’s a little unfair to put the Storm in the lottery, as they are tied with Washington for the last spot, and lose on a tiebreaker, but on the other hand, 9-15 isn’t exactly a sterling won-loss record.
Of course, most didn’t even think “Seattle” and “playoffs” would be connected by this point in the season, so Jenny Boucek has to get a little credit for keeping an underwhelming roster relevant heading into September. Well, September may be pushing it, as the Storm play Los Angeles and Minnesota Aug. 26 and 28, respectively, so they could be further down the table by Labor Day.
There’s hope for the future, though, as the team’s top two players are rookie Breanna Stewart, who’s living up to every bit of hype and barring disaster, will be Rookie of the Year, and Jewel Loyd, who may not be consistent yet but is steadily improving. At the other end of the age spectrum is Sue Bird, who’s having a wonderful year, but she turns 36 in October and can’t help but return from the Olympics at least a little worn down.
After that, though, 29-year- old Crystal Langhorne has been declining in effectiveness for the past three season, Alysha Clark is a gritty journeyman but not much more and, really, that’s where the story ends when it comes to WNBA talent. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis appears to be a bust, and the collection of castoffs and veterans behind her are not likely to fuel a deep run in the playoffs.
All in all, the Storm are probably better off in the lottery, as it’s hard to see them winning more than one game in the new playoff format, and adding some support for Stewart and Loyd is more important than a couple postseason upsets.
5. Dallas (9-16, lottery land): There are some who believe that the two most important stats are your shooting percentage and the other team’s shooting percentage. After all, each team has roughly the same number of possessions per game, so the team that takes more advantage of their possessions, and limits the opponents, should win.
Well, by that metric, the Wings are lucky to have won nine games, as they are last in the league in both categories. Highly touted second-year player Odyssey Sims is shooting just 34.5%, which is in great part the reason why her PER is 13.2, well below the 15.0 league average. And though Twitter goddess Skylar Diggins is shooting slightly better (38.3%), her PER is 12.7 – and those two have the highest usage rates on the team.
It would help if Glory Johnson were healthy, because after she returned from her seven-game suspension to start the season, she averaged 13.2 ppg on 48.1% shooting, and grabbed 9.2 rebounds a game, but she’s only played 13 games all season. Karima Christmas and Courtney Paris are also playing pretty well, but the Wings were counting on young guns Sims, Diggins, and rookie Aerial Powers, and none has come close to meeting expectations. (To be fair, Diggins is coming off a knee injury.)
The Wings do have a favorable post-Olympics schedule (no games against the Lynx) and a 6-3 finish would have them solidly in the playoffs – and maybe if they make a few more shots, and cause a few more misses, they could even surprise a favorite down the stretch.
6. San Antonio (5-18, lottery land): So the starting backcourt was supposed to be Danielle Robinson, one of the top point guards in the league, and Kayla McBride, one of the best young shooting guards. But Robinson tore her Achilles’ tendon before the season began, and McBride tore her ACL after 17 less than scintillating games.
This left Dan Hughes with prized rookie Moriah Jefferson, who has played extremely well at the point. Monique Currie, Dearica Hamby and Jayne Appel-Marinelli have started every game, and none of those three causes assistant coaches to stay up until 3 a.m. plotting strategy. None averages in double figures, and none have a PER higher than 12.5, and there’s no reason to expect much improvement after Rio.
The Stars have gotten some good play from Kayla Alexander, but Haley Peters, Alex Montgomery and Sydney Colson haven’t taken advantage of their opportunities, so it’s hard to find a path to success with this roster.
Maybe when McBride and Robinson return next summer, and if the roster gets a boost, there will be hope in San Antonio. For now, though, it’s Mo Jeff and a band of gypsies trying to squeeze out a win whenever and however they can.