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Five Burning Questions for the WNBA’s Stretch Run

Are Jonquel Jones and the Sun clear title favorites? Should we be worried about the Storm? And more.
Jonquel Jones holding the ball as Nneka Ogwumike defends

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

The end of the 2021 WNBA regular season is fast approaching, with all but two playoff spots locked up. While the field is mostly set, there is still a lot to be determined in the final 10 days of the year, with a number of seeding battles potentially having major implications for which team takes home this year’s title. With just over a week to go until the regular season comes to a close, here are five burning questions to consider.

1. Should the Sun be clear title favorites?

Since losing to the Storm in the first Commissioner’s Cup final, the Sun have rattled off eight consecutive wins, all but one coming by double digits. While their offense has been productive during that span, the key to the Sun’s second-half run has been their stifling defense, which is allowing a league-best 86.9 points per 100 possessions since the Olympic break.

Connecticut relies heavily on its starting lineup, with DeWanna Bonner, Brionna Jones, Jasmine Thomas, Briann January and Jonquel Jones having played more than 320 minutes together this season, 80 more than the second-most used starting five in the league, despite appearing in just 18 games. And while it’s fair to wonder whether limited bench usage might be a postseason shortcoming, the advantage gained by their starting lineup (they’re a league-best +18.7 per 100 possessions) could easily overshadow any such problems.

Oh, and on Jonquel Jones: She enters the final 10 days of the season as the front-runner to take home the MVP award. After sitting out last year amid the pandemic, she has been named the WNBA’s Player of the Week four times, leading the league in win shares per 40 minutes by a healthy margin. (We’ll have more on her in the weeks to come.) All told, it makes sense that according to FiveThirtyEight, the Sun, who hold a 1 1/2-game lead over the Aces for the league’s No. 1 seed, have a 72% chance of making the finals and a 45% of taking home this year’s crown. No other team has a more than 25% chance of winning the title, per FiveThirtyEight. You can make a case for Las Vegas, Seattle, Minnesota and Phoenix to make the finals, and potentially win it, but the Sun have justly earned the distinction of this year’s title favorite.

2. What will it take for Seattle to regain its title form?

For much of the season, the Storm appeared as a lock to grab one of the league’s precious postseason double byes. But a second-half skid, which has seen them go 3–5 since the Commissioner’s Cup final, has led Seattle to the middle of a very tight postseason race. Last week, I noted that the Storm’s inability to limit opponents on the perimeter was one cause of their recent downturn. (Seattle was No. 2 in three-point percentage defense at the end of the first half of the season but has been the league’s worst team since play resumed.) If the Storm want to make a title push, they will also need star guard Jewell Loyd to return to form. Loyd has seen some of her numbers slip since returning from Tokyo, where she helped Team USA capture yet another Olympic gold. She’s shooting just 37.2% from the field since the season resumed, down from 44.4% during the first half, and is averaging fewer assists per game as well. In Seattle’s 34-point win over Washington on Tuesday, she looked very much like herself, however, scoring 20 points and recording six assists on 46.7% shooting from the field.

Perhaps the blowout win—and a comeback 10-point win over the Liberty over the weekend—will mark the beginning of Seattle’s late-season push. And if you need more reason for long-term optimism, Seattle is 3–0 against Connecticut this season.

3. Of the teams currently 3 to 6 in the standings, which could make the deepest postseason run?

Excluding Seattle, which I discussed above, it’s hard not to view the Mercury as a legitimate threat. Like Connecticut, they are led by a superb starting five and are seeing impressive playoff pushes by Skylar Diggins-Smith and Brittney Griner. Phoenix is certainly peaking at the right time and could be a very difficult team to face, in either a one-game matchup or a best-of-five.

The Mercury Are Peaking at the Perfect Time

Minnesota will also be a tough out in the playoffs, with seven-time All-Star Sylvia Fowles putting together another masterful season on both ends of the floor. But while Minnesota is stout defensively, allowing just 97.3 points per 100 possessions since play resumed, its offense isn’t as productive as some of the league’s other top teams. While they had gone on a five-game winning streak prior to dropping Wednesday's contest with the Aces, the odds of a deep playoff run also aren’t helped by guard Layshia Clarendon’s dealing with a recent leg injury and forward Damiris Dantas’s going down for the season with a foot injury.

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Chicago presents a number of matchup problems on offense, and is No. 2 in offensive rating since the Olympic break, but the Sky have been conceding more than 104.1 points per 100 possessions over that span, a mark better than only that of the Mystics, Fever and Liberty.

4. Which possible No. 7 or No. 8 seed could pose the biggest threat?

The answer to this question would have been the Mystics, who in an ideal world would be entering the playoffs with a healthy Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne. But after playing her first two WNBA games in two years on Aug. 22 and Aug. 27, Delle Donne hasn’t played since due to her back injury, and the timeline for her return is unknown. For that reason, it’s hard to foresee Washington making a major push.

Arike Ogunbowale’s scoring ability gives the Wings a chance to beat anybody on any given night, and, as a result of the league's playoff format, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see a postseason scoring barrage help lift Dallas past one or two opponents. But a close home loss to the Dream and a blowout home loss to the Sun don’t exactly inspire confidence, either.

5. Who is more likely to impact the playoff race, Indiana or Atlanta?

Of the lone two teams entirely out of playoff contention, the Dream seem better suited to play the role of playoff spoiler in the final 10 days of the season. Last Sunday they beat the Wings, a brutal loss for a team trying to fight for its playoff life, and Atlanta has upcoming games with the Sparks and Mystics still on their schedule. As the race for the final two playoff spots comes to a close, keep an eye out on the Dream to see what havoc they can create.

Indiana, by contrast, finishes off its schedule with three games against the Lynx, one game against the Sky and one vs. the Dream.

Notes from around the WNBA

The league released the W25 on Sunday, honoring the “greatest and most influential players in WNBA history.” A large panel of media members—including myself—and women’s basketball pioneers and advocates were provided a list of 72 candidates who have played in the league for at least two seasons and met at least four of the seven criteria below, and were asked to select 25 names.

  1. Been the winner of at least one major, individual postseason basketball-related award/honor:
    • MVP or Finals MVP
    • Defensive Player of the Year
    • Most Improved Player
    • Sixth Woman of the Year
    • Rookie of the Year
    • Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award
    • Peak Performer as league leader in either points/rebounds/assists per game in a season
  2. Been selected to the All-WNBA First or Second Team
  3. Been selected to the All-Defensive First or Second Team
  4. Been selected to the WNBA All-Star Game (starter, reserve or replacement player)
  5. Been a member of a WNBA championship-winning team
  6. Ranked (as of July 31, 2021) among the top 30 career leaders in at least one major statistical category (pts, ppg, rebs, rpg, assists, apg, steals, spg, blocks, bpg)
  7. Been selected as the winner of the Season-long WNBA Community Assist Award

The exercise was incredibly difficult, with a number of fully deserving players not making the final list. Among the players on my 25-person ballot who missed out was Rebekkah Brunson. She holds the WNBA record for most titles by a player (five). She finished her career second in league history total rebounding and first in offensive rebounding. A force around the basket, Brunson, who retired in 2018, also made seven All-Defensive teams.

While Brunson did not make the list, five current or former Lynx players were included on the W25: Fowles, Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Katie Smith and Seimone Augustus.

Two players—Deanna Nolan and Teresa Weatherspoon—were on the league’s Top 20@20 list, but not on the ‘W25’ list released this weekend. Weatherspoon, like Brunson, was the only other player on my ballot who didn’t make the final list. While Weatherspoon never won a WNBA championship, she led the Liberty to the Finals four times throughout her career, still the only Finals appearances in franchise history. A Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer, she also made five All-Star teams and won two Defensive Player of the Year.

As the Dream and Fever wrap up their seasons, keep in mind that the upcoming WNBA draft is expected to have at least one true difference-maker in it, with Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard as a name to watch. Howard, who is the likely No. 1 pick entering the upcoming college basketball season, averaged 20.7 points and 7.3 rebounds last year for the Wildcats en route to winning her second straight SEC Player of the Year award. She was the only player in the nation to average more than 20 points and at least 7.3 rebounds per game, while also totaling more than 90 assists and 60 steals. She can score from all over the court, but has proved through her first three seasons with Kentucky to be more than just a basket-getter. As Robert O’Connell wrote for Sports Illustrated in March, “Howard has every move and counter in the book, but where she shines is in inventing, seemingly on the spot, some wrinkle on hoops standards.”

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