Seeding is still greatly up in the air with just under two weeks remaining in the hotly-contested WNBA playoff race. Chicago and Las Vegas have likely cemented top-2 seeding — the pair separated by just one game, while the Aces find themselves one game up on the third-seeded Connecticut Sun. Meanwhile, the Suns are a game and a half up on the Mystics, which currently sit in fourth, and the Storm, currently in fifth. Those aforementioned two teams just split a two-game series over the weekend. Playoffs are clinched for the top-5 seeds, but who they’ll be playing and whether or not they’ll have homecourt advantage remains to be seen.
The WNBA playoffs are shifting to a new format this season, eschewing one game elimination games and moving to an 8-team postseason. The first round will feature best-of-3 series, while the semifinals and finals will be best-of-5.
This makes the mid-tier playoff push all the more exciting over the last 12 days of regular season play. The sixth seeded Dallas Wings (14-16) are only 2.5 games up on the 11th seeded Minnesota Lynx (12-19). This could get chaotic!
What’s the situation in which each team trying to make the playoffs finds itself? Why should you root for them to make it? And who are the standouts for each team? Let’s dive in.
(Before we get started: I’m not going to cover the Indiana Fever. They’re staunchly out of playoff contention, Kelsey Mitchell is out for the rest of the season, and things have been difficult in a rebuilding year. However, there’s real reason for excitement and optimism with a young group. Destanni Henderson is starting to get more run and this is a team still worth watching as they find themselves and continue to develop. The playoffs just aren’t in the cards.)
The Wings are weird, man. They have a really compelling roster with young talent, but their identity changes on a game-to-game basis, which is frustrating both from an analysis and development standpoint. Satou Sabally’s injury has really hampered this team as she’s an All-Star level talent. Teaira McCowan’s emergence in the frontcourt, meanwhile, has changed the dynamic of the team.
Once Teaira McCowan gets deep position, it's just kinda over lol pic.twitter.com/6d01EAIk4I
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) July 25, 2022
The Wings have made a concerted effort to feed her in the post and she’s responded by averaging 15.4 points and 8.7 boards per game across seven straight starts.
As mentioned with the identity shift, though, McCowan’s takeover has been part of the oddity. The Wings started the year built on an aggressive hard hedge, trapping defense, which Isabelle Harrison fit perfectly. She started the season playing at a career rate, but things got thrown out of rhythm as the Wings tried to incorporate more of the roster (they routinely play 11 players a game). I just am not sure what this team is supposed to be and they seem to go through stretches where they’re unsure, too. While the offense has found more stability playing through the post, it can become very one-dimensional and predictable. The defense has fallen off hard — ninth in the W over that seven game stretch, as McCowan brings size and some rim protection, but the roster isn’t built to play a deep drop consistently.
On the bright side, this team just played one of their better games of the season against the Atlanta Dream. Arike Ogunbowale played one of the best defensive games I’ve ever seen from her while also dishing the rock, making consistent playmaking reads, and generating high-quality offensive looks. It was perhaps the most encouraging game I’ve seen from her in regards to her ability to be the engine of a team and I (and the Wings) hope it’s a glimpse into what we can expect out of her going forward.
With six games remaining, the Wings are in an interesting spot where they can maintain their seeding with .500 play or fall out of the playoffs if they hit a rough patch. They play the Aces this week before finishing the last five games against other teams vying for playoff positioning. If last night’s victory against the Sky (with Ogunbowale sidelined) is any indication, the Wings feel like a playoff lock.
The Mercury have found some stability after a rough start, evening out to roughly .500 level play since the start of June. Most importantly: Free Brittney Griner until it’s backwards.
Skylar Diggins-Smith has been arguably the best guard in the league this season. She’s played phenomenal defense, created high level offense for others, and generated her own shots like few in the league can. Phoenix has found a bit of a base defensively, playing zone consistently to try and offset their lack of frontcourt size.
Brianna Turner’s rim protection and defense have been special. I don’t want to imagine this team without her.
Can't remember the last time I've seen someone get a clean fade off against Brianna Turner
Doesn't matter if you're bigger, stronger, or have a high release
She sits on that shot and times her contests so so well pic.twitter.com/HjJI7hQBeU
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) June 26, 2022
Sophie Cunningham is having a breakout season, making a late push to put herself in the Most Improved Player conversation. She’s gunning from deep and solidifying herself as one of the sharpshooters of the league.
Phoenix has been strapped for depth this season, hurt substantially by injuries throughout, and have felt in flux all year. What makes it interesting is the potential they bring to a best-of-3 series. Yes, they’re undersized, but the shot-making they can bring on a night-to-night basis is difficult to match, particularly if they hit a hot stretch, something that can strongly influence a small sample of games. The Mercury led the league in three point attempts in July, and while they were only eighth in actual accuracy, the point remains.
Diana Taurasi’s heating up. Over her last five games, Taurasi was averaging 24.4 points a night while canning 41.7 percent of her 9.2 attempts from deep per game prior to exiting last night’s game before halftime. She’s getting to the line at an impressive rate. The bar is low, but her defense has been better as well.
Phoenix has another match-up with the Sun after last night’s loss before they round out their schedule with the Liberty, Lynx, Wings, and Sky. It’s not an easy schedule, but the Mercury are shaping up as the most likely sixth seed. Three games against the shot creation on this team? Good luck!
Los Angeles Sparks
The Sparks are in an incredibly weird spot right now as a team. Sitting at 12-18 and in the ninth seed, this season hasn’t exactly gone as planned. While I think some were too hasty in considering this team a title contender, being below .500 for much of the season has been unexpected. Last week, starting center and former All-Star Liz Cambage left the team. While the identity they built around her wasn’t exactly fruitful, it was still something they were leaning into. They’re trying to find themselves again and it hasn’t gone great.
I think there’s a happy medium where this team can really tap into playing a bit smaller, being aggressive and active on defense, and trying to grind out possessions with sets. Part of the issue though is the lack of shooting, which in turn really hurts the spacing.
Lexie Brown and Katie Lou Samuelson are both amid career years and have shot the lights out from deep. Kristi Tolliver is the only player on the team outside of that duo who shoots two or more threes per game above league average. That is a tough recipe for success!
The Sparks’ halfcourt offense pic.twitter.com/FpcDb5yu3m
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) August 1, 2022
Nneka Ogwumike is having an All-WNBA level season. She’s been otherworldly. But there isn’t a single lead guard on the team who can command an over on pick-and-rolls. Paint touches aren’t generated regularly, so the shot diet is extremely difficult to survive on. If L.A. is going to make a late season run and be competitive in the playoffs, the defense has to be better. We’ve seen glimpses, but it’s now or never.
What I’m most curious to watch for over these last few games: What happens with Chennedy Carter?
Carter was traded for in the off-season, one of the most intriguing prospects in women’s basketball, and she’s been far from prioritized by the Sparks. Again, part of that is roster constraints, but also, figure it out. The team needs to create easier offense and finding ways to make Carter and Ogwumike work in tandem should be a priority down the stretch. Those paint touches we mentioned? Yeah, Carter can create them in bunches.
It's absurd how shift Chennedy Carter is pic.twitter.com/hG1WGpHI5V
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) June 1, 2022
The Sparks have six games remaining; the second game of a back-to-back series with the Liberty, and road games in Atlanta and Washington before closing out in L.A. with two games against the Sun and a season finale against the Wings. This schedule is not for the faint of heart! I’m really hoping the Sparks start to find their footing, and that sink or swim schedule is certainly going to induce some form of reaction.
The Dream are on a four game losing streak headed into Wednesday’s match-up with the Indiana Fever, but make no mistake, this season has been a success. They came out hot to start the year, putting forth the best defense in the league across the first stretch of the season. The defense is still solid, but injuries and fatigue have sapped the Dream a bit as they’ve hit a rough patch.
The name to watch here is Tiffany “Tip” Hayes. She missed the early portion of the year after dealing with injury returning from overseas play, but she’s been the best player on the team and one of the best in the league since re-entering the starting lineup.
Few players are better angle manipulators and craft scorers in the league than Tip Hayes pic.twitter.com/DYAUkolCQf
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) July 29, 2022
Averaging 16.2 points per game on 64 percent true shooting, Hayes is an immaculate bucket. The angles she creates from attacking off of second side actions are second to none, and few in the league finish at an above-average clip on tough looks in the interior like she does. Her slashing and drive game is unreal.
Everything about this team oozes fun to me. Watching a young team develop while being competitive is as good as it gets, as far as I’m concerned. What strides will rookie Naz Hillmon make as she keeps seeing extended run? How does Rhyne Howard continue to attack the interior and work on her budding game off the dribble as a shot creator? Does this team find their groove again and make that foray into the playoffs that felt distant before the season?
The Dream take on the Fever and Sparks at home before road games against the Lynx and Aces, and then close with a home and home against the Liberty. I feel good about Atlanta’s chances, but they really need to go over .500 in this stretch. A win against the Lynx, one of the teams that have risen most in the last month, is a must.
Speaking of the Lynx, IT IS SYLVIA FOWLES’ LAST SEASON. An absolute legend in the game, one of the all time greats, and still playing at an All-Star level, Fowles and the Lynx are looking for a proper send-off. After a wretched start to the season marred by injury, signings that didn’t work out, and poor play as a result, the Lynx are 9-6 since the start of June with the second-ranked offense in that time frame and a slightly above average defense.
Cheryl Reeve has sought to get the most out of a DHO and high-post oriented, movement-based offense, which has in turn gotten Fowles rolling downhill more often, making her that much harder to guard. Her fluidity still at her size and age is remarkable.
Lynx are really running some wonderful things offensively pic.twitter.com/9KM6md5QjL
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) July 17, 2022
Aerial Powers went from one of the coldest stretches of her career to playing like an All-Star over the last month. In July, Powers averaged 16.9 points per game on 45.3/33.3/87.2 splits while getting to the line at a top notch rate.
This footwork and quickness into the shot from Aerial Powers is so so so clean
Can tell there's countless of hours of prep into that pic.twitter.com/GlTxL8BoGu
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) June 29, 2022
Her drive game has been essential for creating better looks for the Lynx, in tandem with Moriah Jefferson’s rejuvenation in Minnesota. From getting cut in Dallas after a myriad of injuries the past few season, to playing legit plus ball as a starter on a team vying for a playoff spot is one of the coolest and most rewarding stories of the season.
This isn’t last year’s team, but watching this group grow from subpar to legitimate playoff level squad has been pretty incredible this year. While they have played better of late and have arguably been the best of the 6-11 seeded group over the last two months, they can’t afford to drop games. They only have five games left and against stiff competition — facing the Storm (twice), Dream, Mercury, and closing with the Sun is about as tough of a draw as they could’ve asked for.
New York Liberty
The All-Star Break was not kind to the Liberty, as they dropped five of their last seven games after returning from the break before blasting the Sparks last night. The offense, which started to click in June, has fallen to 8th in the league over that time frame, and their 9th-ranked defense hasn’t helped their case either. Turnovers continue to plague the offense, they struggle to get to the line (dead last in percentage of points scored from the free throw line), and they just don’t generate easy points on the inside regularly.
It’s important to note how much injuries have impacted this team, as franchise star Betnijah Laney has only played four games, and starting wing Jocelyn Willoughby just returned from an injury a few weeks ago after going down in May.
On the bright side, Laney practiced with the team on Tuesday, and while a date hasn’t been set for when (or if) she will return, she is trending in that direction. Consistency has arguably been this team’s biggest struggle, and the last seven games will hopefully provide the runway this team needs to find something to propel them into next season.
While many expected them to make the playoff leap this season, where they’re at now is understandable to a degree, even if it’s disappointing from a team building standpoint, but next season will be pivotal. Sabrina Ionescu’s growth into a true star this season has been the most important part of their season, bar none.
Ionescu is developing into the player the Liberty envisioned, and that’s easily been the most fun thing to follow along with as the season has gone on for this team. Her two-player game with Natasha Howard is absolutely divine, as they form one of the better pick-and-roll duos in the league.
We're getting some gorgeous offense out of the Ionescu/Howard two-player game pic.twitter.com/BDjEv5QpX3
— Mark Schindler (@MG_Schindler) June 18, 2022
No schedule is “easy,” in essence, but the Liberty face the least difficult schedule to close out of this group of teams. It starts with a back-to-back against the Sparks, then the Mercury on the road, then a two-game series with the Wings in Dallas, and then a home-and-home with the Dream finishing up in New York at Barclays Center on the 14th. The Liberty, in a way, control their own fate, playing strictly against the teams seeded above them in that mid-tier while having the most games remaining in the league (tied with the Wings). Whether or not they can find something remains to be seen, but it’ll be worth watching what they can do along the way and whether or not they can muster a stretch to claw their way into the playoffs.