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The WNBA’s Dominant Top Tier Has Emerged

The Storm, Aces and Sun tower above the rest of the league.
Liz Cambage driving the ball to the rim

Each Thursday this season, Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman is diving deep into the WNBA story lines you need to know.

Summer may have just begun, but it’s not hard to wonder what the fall might look like in the WNBA. Thus far, three teams—the Storm, Aces and Sun—have played in a tier among themselves, which, if it holds up, would bode poorly for the remainder of the league.

The three juggernauts have lost only eight combined times, with Seattle’s last-second loss to the Wings and and Connecticut's tightly-contested loss to the Lynx as the only defeats that didn’t come to another team in the aforementioned group. The three have been stellar on both ends, with each currently ranking No. 1 (Aces), 2 (Storm) and 3 (Sun) in net rating. Not surprisingly, in recent years a team’s point differential per 100 possessions has been a good indicator of who might make the Finals. And not since the 2016 edition, when the Lynx topped the Fever in five games, has a team outside of the top three in net rating made the Finals.

The 11–2 Storm have quietly gotten off to an all-time-great start. The reigning champions, who picked up their league-best eighth double-digit win on Tuesday in a 17-point rout of the Fever, would currently have the fourth-best win percentage in league history if the season ended today, according to Their Big Three of Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd has been lethal, putting up a +22 net rating in a league-leading 313 minutes. Loyd, who entered this season having already emerged as one of the W’s most dynamic offensive players, has elevated her game in 2021, averaging career highs in points, rebounds, assists and field goal percentage.

Entering the season, some wondered whether the team’s peripheral roster changes would limit the Storm’s potential. But thus far, Seattle’s supporting cast has fully backed its stars. While new coach Noelle Quinn is still figuring out some of the team’s rotations, the Storm’s five-person lineup of Stewart, Bird, Loyd, center Mercedes Russell and guard Stephanie Talbot is +35 in net rating in 103 minutes together—just three lineups in the league to have already surpassed the century mark.

Talbot, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise. After sitting out last year’s season due to personal reasons, she made history in Australia’s WNBL, becoming the first player in league history to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. While firmly a role player in the W, Talbot, who was sent to Seattle as part of an understated offseason trade with the Liberty, is averaging a career-high 6.8 points per game on 48.4% shooting from three. Katie Lou Samuelson, whom Seattle acquired from Dallas in exchange for the No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, has seen a similar jump in production. The 24-year-old, who is on her third team in as many seasons despite being the No. 4 choice in 2019, is shooting a career-best mark from both three and the field and averaging a career-high 6.4 points.

Despite getting swept in last year’s Finals, the Aces (9–3) remain fully capable of competing with the Storm. Key offseason acquisition Chelsea Gray has found instant chemistry playing alongside reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson as Las Vegas lineups featuring the two of them are +10.6 in net rating. Gray is a crafty force off the dribble, and her ability to get into the lane and find Wilson no matter where she is on the court provides an added boost. Throw in the return of Liz Cambage, and the organization’s Big Three could go toe-to-toe with Seattle’s.

In some respects, the Aces also have what might be the league’s best problem: They have too many mouths to feed. Jackie Young, the top pick of 2019, is in the midst of what could be her best season to date, and she’s flourished alongside Wilson and Gray. Add veteran guard Riquna Williams to Cambage and the three aforementioned players, and Las Vegas has a starting five that is +16.6 in a league-high 143 minutes together.

Potential complications with getting everyone enough looks come as you look to the Aces’ bench. Kelsey Plum has flashed the potential that made her a top pick in the draft, most recently showing off her scoring ability in a 32-point outing vs. New York on Tuesday, and seems deserving of a larger role. Two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby remains an integral part of the franchise.

While Las Vegas hasn’t struggled in many respects this season, coach Bill Laimbeer is still figuring out how to use Hamby, Wilson and Cambage together. That trio is -1.5 per 100 possessions in 65 minutes together, and the high-octane Aces have played at a slower pace with those three on the floor than the team is normally accustomed to.

Of the three Tier 1 contenders, Connecticut (8–3) is in the most precarious position. Largely due to MVP candidate Jonquel Jones’s absence, the Sun might slip a bit in the coming weeks. Their offense struggled Sunday against the Storm, scoring 66 total points, and just 29 in the first half. Still, the Sun are a veteran-laden group, and Jonquel Jones’s absence is only temporary. How DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones respond going forward will go a long way toward determining whether Connecticut can avoid a single-elimination playoff game.

Much of the rest of the league finds itself fighting to keep pace with the W’s top three teams. Eight squads have won at least four games, but of that group, not one has won more than six. Perhaps Chicago, which is 4–0 in games that Candace Parker has appeared in, can jump into the league’s top group. Despite their 5–7 record, the Sky sport the league’s best defense and an offense that, with Parker and guard Allie Quigley now both back from injury, has shone in its last three games (albeit against Indiana and Minnesota). The Mercury have the star power to rival the league’s best, but Diana Taurasi’s injury has hampered its early-season play. While Dallas, No. 4 in net rating, has shown it can compete with the league’s top teams and can’t be overlooked, it still seems a bit too early to put it in the top group.

Don’t get it twisted: Much can obviously change in the coming months. But for now, the Storm, Aces and Sun run the WNBA.

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Notes from around the WNBA:

For last week’s WNBA column, I dived into why there are plenty of reasons for optimism within the Wings organization. The franchise, which is overflowing with young talent, is poised to be a threat not only in the future but also in the present. Among the most impressive statistical markers of the team—and one I didn’t touch on last week in much depth—is its jump in rebounding.

Last season the Wings were one of the league’s worst teams on the boards, hauling in the third-fewest rebounds per game (32.7) and a league-worst 23.7 defensive rebounds per game. This year, however, the contrast under coach Vickie Johnson is staggering.

Dallas enters Thursday night’s game against the Lynx No. 1 in total rebounds per game, gathering nearly 40 misses per contests. While they don’t have one rebounder in the top 10 of the league, they have four players— Satou Sabally, Isabelle Harrison, Kayla Thornton and Marina Mabrey—who average at least 5.5 boards per contest.

“Going into last offseason our No. 1 priority was rebounding the basketball,” team president Greg Bibb told me of the team’s improvement. “It’s still early, but it’s not like it’s a game or two anomaly. … That’s a huge move, and it’s a credit to the coaching staff to focus on that. It’s a credit to the players to do the work to produce those numbers.”

As I detailed, much of the WNBA can be broken down into three tiers just over a third of the way into the season. There are the three teams we focused on above—Seattle, Las Vegas and Connecticut—then a deep tier of the eight teams who all have between four and six wins—and then there’s the Fever.

Not much has gone right for Indiana this year. It is No. 12 in defensive rating, allowing 111 points per 100 possessions and No. 11 in offensive rating, scoring just 93.1 points per 100 possessions. The Fever, who are tied with the Liberty for the longest active playoff drought in the league (at four seasons), have lost the last seven games by double digits and often face a talent discrepancy when matching up with their opponents.

Teaira McCowan, the 2019 No. 3 pick, has five double doubles on the season and remains a difficult cover on the inside, and fourth-year guard Kelsey Mitchell still appears to be on an All-Star-level trajectory. But the cupboard appears to be relatively bare otherwise. The roster is entirely different from the team that is just six seasons removed from making the Finals. The organization is on track to finish with a losing record for the fifth straight year.

Thinking more broadly, the Fever have never held the No. 1 pick in the draft, but with Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard viewed as the potential top prospect and a possible franchise star, perhaps the team could regain its glory sooner than many expect.

The league announced Monday that it will hold its All-Star Game on July 14 in Las Vegas. The game will pit the All-Stars voted in who are members of the U.S. women’s national team against other voted-on, non–Team USA All-Stars. Voting will include a combination of ballots from fans, current players and national media.

The official announcement of the game is a break from precedent, as there had not been an All-Star Game in each of the past four Olympic cycles. While not technically an All-Star Game, in 2004 there was a summer exhibition in which the U.S. Olympic team faced off against non-Olympic WNBA stars voted on by the media. The game, which was played at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, was the final send-off for the Olympic team before it went on to win a gold medal in Athens. Similar to what we could see this year, it also featured an added bit of motivation for those who were not headed overseas for the Games.

“We’d like to try to win; that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Bill Laimbeer, then the coach of the Detroit Shock and the coach of the WNBA All-Stars in the 2004 exhibition, said at the time. “We’re up against a very talented ball club, obviously. I’m going to throw stuff at them defensively that they’ll probably see over in Athens. That’s the best way to beat a team like the U.S., to keep them confused.”

This summer, a number of first-timers seem poised to take part in the game. Among the presumed newbie locks are Wings star guard Arike Ogunbowale, who led the league in scoring last year (when there was no showcase), and Betnijah Laney, who won the league’s Most Improved Player Award last year with the Dream and has upped her scoring to 21 points per game with the Liberty this season.

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