Three to see in the WNBA postseason by Clay Kallam
The WNBA playoffs are about three weeks away, and it’s pretty clear there are two tiers of teams chasing the championship.
In the top group are the Minnesota Lynx, Los Angeles Sparks and New York Liberty. They are locked into the first three spots, and in fact it appears that Minnesota and L.A. are assured of finishing in the top two and will thus avoid any single-elimination playoff games. (The new WNBA playoff format features two rounds of single-elimination games, a one-round bye for the third and fourth place finishers, and a bye into the semifinals for the top two teams.)
So this week, let’s look at those three teams, the heavy favorites to win the 2016 WNBA title. Next week, we’ll check in on the teams battling for the other five playoff spots, though realistically their chances of winning it all are not that great.
Minnesota Lynx (22-5)
Veteran teams, defending championship teams, are much more likely to be able to turn it on when necessary than teams that haven’t been there before. The Lynx, which are both veteran and defending champions, may not be playing at the high level they were last year, and they also sent a cadre of stars to the Olympics, but with Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles and Lindsay Whalen, they have all the pieces to repeat.
Moore, of course, is one of the premier players in the world, and though she’s only shooting 43.8% from the field this year, she does everything else at an elite level and has become a competent defender. Fowles is maybe having her best year ever, shooting 60.3%, blocking shots, and handling the ball better than she ever has before.
Whalen has not been as effective overall, despite that 55.1 shooting percentage, as she has seemed to coast through a few games (maybe because of injury or simple wear and tear), something she never did before. Then again, she has veterans Jia Perkins and Renee Montgomery to back her up, and of course she knows exactly what it takes to win a WNBA title.
The biggest question about the Lynx, however, is their three-point shooting, which languishes at 31.1% right now and definitely could be an issue in postseason. The Lynx have no obvious weaknesses, but no outstanding strengths either – except for the fact that all they do is win.
It’s unlikely anyone is going to look past Minnesota this fall, but L.A.’s flash sometimes obscures the Lynx’ solid veterans, solid coaching and steady play. It would certainly be no surprise if Minnesota repeated as WNBA champions, though this year, it would be no surprise if they didn’t.
Los Angeles Sparks (21-5)
The Sparks live up to the old Showtime image, as they shoot the ball well, they handle the ball well, and they love to get out and run. But they lack a little substance in that they don’t really mix it up in the paint nor do they get to the free-throw line.
Still, the one-two punch of Nneka Ogwumike and Candace Parker is pretty tough to top. Ogwumike looks like the MVP to me, shooting an incredible 70.8% from the field, averaging 9.1 rebounds a game, and assisting, stealing, and blocking shots at an elite level for her position.
Parker is shooting a comparatively pedestrian 46.3% but she is at 39.3% from beyond the arc and is averaging 5.2 assists per game. And since both of these players must be guarded by taller opponents, the Sparks start off every game with a huge mismatch advantage.
Kristi Toliver runs the backcourt (shooting 43.3% from three-point distance) and her assist/turnover ratio approaches 3.0. Essence Carson and Alana Beard both have played well, but the Sparks are not a particularly young team, and there is no question that coach Brian Agler tends to rely heavily on his top seven — and that older core of the team might wear down in postseason. Of course, only reserve Ana Dabovic played in the Olympics so logic suggests that the Sparks should be well rested.
Still the lack of rebounding – minus-19 for the season – is a concern, as is the fact that the Sparks have taken 105 fewer free throws than the Liberty and 88 fewer than Minnesota.
But any team that shoots 49.5% from the field, handles the ball well, and defends the three-point line (which L.A. does very well) is going to be a threat in postseason. There’s a reason the Sparks have won 21 games, and even though they stumbled a bit on the long nine-game road trip, there’s no reason to believe that they will become less effective down the stretch and during the playoffs.
New York Liberty (18-8)
The Liberty feature the other primary MVP candidate in Tina Charles, who is averaging 21 points and 9.7 rebounds a game. She’s also handing out 3.7 assists per game and shooting 81.7% from the free-throw line — in short, she’s just as good as she ever was.
Bill Laimbeer’s scheme, though, has been boosted by the emergence of Sugar Rodgers as a top WNBA player. Her shooting isn’t great (40.6% from the field) but she’s become up an effective all-around player and must be accounted for at all times.
Otherwise it’s a bit of mix and match for the Liberty as they tried to put together a solid offense to go with their excellent rebounding and good defense. They don’t handle the ball exceptionally well and they don’t shoot exceptionally well, but they rebound, defend, and play with the aggression of Laimbeer’s old Detroit Piston Bad Boys.
A big hope for the Liberty is that the return of Epiphanny Prince from a knee injury will revitalize the offense, but so far Prince has been unable to generate much as she rehabilitates. That puts more pressure on second-year point guard Brittany Boyd, who is a questionable shooter, but an exceptional athlete who energizes the team with her speed and physicality. Kiah Stokes is also a valuable piece, as her rebounding and defense off the bench gives the second unit a powerful boost.
Another player to watch is Rebecca Allen, an Australian who has just moved into the starting lineup, and gives the team more offense, especially from the perimeter, and has shown flashes on defense.
All in all, though, New York does not seem to be quite have the quality of Minnesota and L.A., and most would be surprised if the Liberty managed to upset either one in the finals. Making that task even more difficult is the fact that New York must very likely beat both teams to win it all, barring a stunning semifinal upset, as well as surviving the single-elimination playoff game in the second round.
Still, no one wants to play the Liberty in postseason. They are gritty, tough and never an easy out. If they can muster enough offense — which means Rodgers and Boyd must score consistently – they could pull off the ultimate upset. The odds, however, say that even if New York gets to the finals, the likelihood of them winning it all is considerably less than that of Los Angeles or Minnesota.
But the Liberty would be very happy to get the chance to prove everyone wrong.