We’re nearly a third of the way through the season, which feels at both times like we have enough evidence to judge the WNBA landscape and also like no one is quite sure what to expect over the next couple months.
So what’s real and what’s not? Let’s try and break it down here. The biggest surprise of the season—in my opinion—is the nightmare season that’s going on in Atlanta. Outside of that, we have surprising starts from teams that were meant to be rebuilding or reeling from injuries (Seattle and Minnesota) and the team with the third-best record in the league currently residing in … Chicago? Let’s dive into the four biggest storylines of the season.
Dreams and Nightmares
Do you remember the 2018 Atlanta Dream? The team that won 23 games, had the best defensive rating in the W and led the league in blocks with 5.3 (!!) per game? Yeah, that Dream team is gone after the injury to Angel McCoughtry caused a major shock to Atlanta’s system.
Atlanta stunned just about everyone last year by claiming the second-best record in the league but something just seems off with this team. The defense is nowhere near where it was last year, with the Dream ranking a dismal second-last in the league with a 103.4 defensive rating, better only than the Liberty. Nicki Collen worked wonders during her first year in charge but has hit a major snag during her second. And the defense isn’t helped by an offense that toils to score 71.4 points a game—which also ranks second to last in the league.
Tiffany Hayes’s lingering ankle injury continues to hold the offense back and even the addition of Nia Coffey hasn’t done much to improve the team’s fortunes. Atlanta may be able to get back on track but having an incredibly slow start to a 34-game season is not ideal. Here’s hoping McCoughtry returns sooner rather than later and the Dream are able to turn this around.
A Storm’s Coming
How does Seattle keep doing this? It’s like after every major injury, the Storm just rally together, shake it off and plug the holes. But this team is doing much more than just getting by. Seattle has won seven games so far, the third most in the league, while dealing with injuries to *takes deep breath* Sue Bird, 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart and Jordin Canada.
Indeed, when Canada went down against the Mystics many WNBA fans likely took an exhaustive breath and screamed: “Not again!” But Canada returned against Las Vegas on Tuesday, looking a bit off but on the floor nonetheless.
Really, Seattle has Natasha Howard to thank for much of its success this season. Howard has turned herself into a legit MVP candidate, adding some wildly efficient offense to her usual stellar defense. Howard is currently second in the league in scoring, with her 18.9 points per game just behind DeWanna Bonner of the Mercury—who we will get to shortly. If Howard and Canada can keep the Storm rolling and Bird makes her return later this year, we won’t be talking about how much the reigning champion lost this year. We’ll be asking how far this team can feasibly go in the playoffs.
Mercury’s in Retrograde
It’s only right that we go from a team that’s exceeding expectations to one that has massively underwhelmed this season. Look, no one thought this team was going to be the same without Diana Taurasi, but sitting at 3-5 through the first month of the season—interestingly one spot below the 4-6 Sparks, who were also missing a superstar to start the season—is not a good look.
Phoenix was many people’s choice to make a run to the Finals, with a triumvirate of Taurasi, Bonner and Brittney Griner leading an experienced group through the season. So far, Bonner is holding up her end of the bargain, averaging 20.9 points on 42.1% shooting and doing just about all she can to keep the Mercury in the running. But there’s only so far that can take you when Taurasi in on the shelf—but possibly making her return this weekend!—and Griner taking a small step back from her averages last season.
If Taurasi does indeed return this weekend, it couldn’t come at a better time for Phoenix, which faces Indiana, Seattle, New York and Atlanta in its next four games. The Mercury can’t expect Taurasi to solve all of their problems, and their promising trio of rookies need to be trusted going forward, but if any team is going to recover from a bad start to make a deep playoff run, expect it to be Phoenix.
The Sky’s the Limit
It’s only right that I end this one on a positive note, and who’s been more positive than Chicago this season? I don’t know what James Wade has pumped into Lake Michigan, but it has the Sky playing out of their minds right now, with five wins since June 9, including an 18-point thrashing of the league-leading Connecticut Sun.
By all intents and purposes, this Chicago team should be middle of the pack, with a below-average defensive rating, a slightly above average offensive one and Allie Quigley taking a bit of a step back on offense.
But to watch Chicago when the offense is humming is a sight to behold. Courtney Vandersloot acting as the puppetmaster by spraying passes all over the court, Quigley continuing to knock down shots from the perimeter at an incredible clip and Diamond DeShields being a Swiss Army knife—to say nothing of Stefanie Dolson and Cheyenne Parker’s contributions—make this team a league pass darling. Katie Lou Samuelson gets her cast off in 10 days but her possible return and allotment of minutes remain a mystery. Regardless, this team is loads of fun and if it can keep up its hot play, we could see postseason WNBA basketball in the Windy City for the first time since 2016.