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The Biggest Needs for Every WNBA Nonplayoff Team

What should the Mystics, Dream, Fever and Sparks prioritize this offseason?
Natasha Cloud standing with her hands on her hips

Natasha Cloud

With the 2021 WNBA season behind us, a very compelling offseason lies ahead for all 12 teams. Let’s take a look at the four teams that failed to qualify for this year’s playoffs and what they can do to succeed in ’22.

Atlanta Dream (8–24)

Unfortunately for Atlanta, 2021 was anything but a dream. Instead, it was one of the most tumultuous seasons in recent memory.

The Dream failed to hit double-digit victories for the third season in a row, and much of that could be attributed to the degree of turnover within their front office.

General manager Chris Sienko was fired before the draft. Nicki Collen, a former WNBA Coach of the Year, resigned before the start of the season, taking the top job at Baylor. Then interim coach Mike Petersen stepped down amid health concerns, forcing assistant coach Darius Taylor to take the reins and proceeded to win only two games following the switch.

Thankfully, with former champion Tanisha Wright as the team’s new coach, Atlanta may finally have found a long-term solution in that department. But a coaching switch wasn’t the only front-office adjustment the franchise recently made.

The Dream brought in one of the league’s best executives, Dan Padover, to be their next general manager. Padover helped transform Las Vegas from one of the league’s bottom-feeders to a championship contender, as the Aces made it to the WNBA Finals in 2020, their first appearance since ’08 when they were still in San Antonio. Padover was a huge part of that championship run, quickly putting Las Vegas on a pathway to success through trading (acquired Liz Cambage from the Wings) and also signing talent that complemented their franchise star A’ja Wilson. Angel McCoughtry, Chelsea Gray, Danielle Robinson and Riquna Williams are just some of the top talents the Aces have acquired through free agency.

However, the task of building a winning culture in Atlanta will be quite the undertaking. Last season, off-court incidents were abundant for the Dream. All-Star guard Courtney Williams will not return to the team after a viral video came out this month showing Williams, Crystal Bradford and Kalani Brown in a fight in Atlanta. A fight between second-year guard Chennedy Carter and Williams during a July 4 matchup against the Aces was the primary reason for Carter’s indefinite suspension for “conduct detrimental to the team.”

So what needs to change in Atlanta?

With the amount of turnover in the front office and a lack of team chemistry in the locker room, there needs to be a massive culture shift. The Dream’s signing Wright is a huge step in that direction, considering she’s a former champion as a member of the 2010 Storm. Coming from one of the best-run franchises in basketball, she not only brings a wealth of knowledge but also knows what it’s like to be a part of a winning culture. If Wright can command the respect of the players and get them to buy into the rebuild, altercations like the one between Carter and Williams last season will be few and far between.

The first step the Dream should take in the offseason is re-signing Tiffany Hayes. Before her Grade 2 MCL tear, the veteran shooting guard was averaging 17.6 points, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals as the team was 5–7 at the time and competing for a playoff spot. It’s possible Atlanta wouldn’t have fallen apart the way it did if its best player was on the court more often. Her experience and leadership are going to be critical for this group moving forward, and it’s clear that she still has a few good years left of All-Star-level basketball.

The Dream should also look to sign and/or trade for an established veteran on the team, preferably a point guard. The free-agency pool this offseason is looking extremely active, and while Atlanta may not necessarily be a hot destination right now, it will need to replace the production of Williams and look for an upgrade at the forward and center positions.

As for free agents, the Dream should look to acquire Riquna Williams. The former 2015 WNBA All-Star was one of the most lethal scorers in the WNBA as a member of the Tulsa Shock (now the Dallas Wings). In fact, she once held the WNBA single-game points record with 51. Although she is now 31 years old, Williams still averaged 10.5 points per game as a starter for the Aces last season. She would be a great player to pair with Hayes in the frontcourt.

As for the draft, the Dream could look toward NaLyssa Smith, a power forward from Baylor. She was considered one of the best players in the country last year, winning the 2021 WBCA Wade Trophy Winner (National Player of the Year) and also was the consensus Big 12 Player of the Year. She has everything you want out of a forward—a great back-to-the-basket game, rebounding, motor and leadership.

Indiana Fever (6–26)

The post–Tamika Catchings era hasn’t been pretty for the Fever.

Not only did Indiana fail to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, but it also hit one of the franchise’s most dreadful milestones—a record-breaking 12-game losing streak that spanned for more than six weeks of the regular season.

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For a team that’s been rebuilding since 2016, it seems like the Fever have only gotten worse over time. A key reason is their lack of player development among some of their highly touted draft picks in recent seasons. Although Lauren Cox struggled with injuries in her early career, Indiana failed to get its ’20 third pick any significant playing time whenever she was healthy, as it seemingly treated her more like a benchwarmer rather than a franchise cornerstone. She was released in late June. The ’21 fourth pick, Kysre Gondrezick, also struggled and ended up on personal leave for the last 12 games.

The Fever aren’t necessarily devoid of talent—they have one of the best scorers in basketball in Kelsey Mitchell. Tiffany Mitchell improved her efficiency this season (although still lacks a consistent three-point shot) and Julie Allemand was one of the better rookies in the Wubble last year before missing all this season with an ACL tear. Third-year center Teaira McCowan has immense potential, particularly with her defense and rebounding, but she needs to be a more consistent scoring threat in the paint. Catchings, who is now the team’s general manager, has faith that McCowan can turn into a dominant post player.

Given that Kelsey Mitchell is only 25 years old and seemingly in her prime, there is no time to waste it if you’re Catchings and the Fever. With the best odds to earn the No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, the Fever would be silly not to select Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard if they receive it. She would be a fantastic 1–2 punch duo with Mitchell and would spell trouble for the rest of the league if they jell. Howard’s a terrific shot creator who can pretty much shoot from anywhere on the floor but also can play off the ball with Mitchell as the primary ballhandler.

However, the No. 1 pick is not a guarantee. With the number of free agents hitting the market, Indiana should look to sign another two-way wing player who’s an efficient scorer and can also improve its defense, which was the worst in the WNBA last season by most metrics. The Liberty’s Rebecca Allen, whose contract is up this offseason, is a terrific option for the Fever. She is a proficient three-point shooter and an underrated defender who can guard multiple positions. She was tied for fourth in the WNBA in steals (1.6).

The Fever have received several lottery picks since the start of their rebuild and haven’t taken advantage of them outside of their 2018 second pick, Kelsey Mitchell. It seems as if most of their draft picks in recent years have struggled to flourish under the Fever coaching staff. Throughout the offseason, the Fever should focus on developing younger players, like McCowan, Gondrezick and Allemand, to become the athletes that the franchise expects them to be: the cornerstones of a brighter future in Indiana.

Los Angeles Sparks (12–20)

With the departure of Candance Parker in last year’s offseason and the laundry list of injuries that plagued the Sparks throughout this season, it’s shocking to see that L.A. was just a few wins away from clinching its 10th consecutive playoff berth.

The Sparks returned only three players from the 2020 season—former WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike, defensive stalwart Brittney Sykes and second-year role player Te’a Cooper. Thankfully, Wubble opt-outs Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver returned to the court this season, as well.

However, this year’s Sparks were primarily made up of free-agent signings—many with only a few years of WNBA experience. Their most notable signings included guards Erica Wheeler and Nia Coffey, along with center Amanda Zahui B. With not only Parker gone but their longtime starting point guard in Chelsea Gray, the fate of the franchise fell on the shoulders of the team’s lone superstar, Nneka Ogwumike, and their young core of players.

Unfortunately, this new-look Sparks roster never got a chance to prove itself due to injury woes all season long. Nneka missed half the season with a left knee sprain. Her younger sister Chiney suffered from a knee injury in May and missed nearly three months of action. Toliver played in only 19 games this season due to an eye injury and a broken pinkie.

On a brighter note, the players competing regularly for the Sparks proved their worth. Although Cooper can be a streaky shooter, she showed flashes of offensive potential with multiple 20-point games. Zahui B. also took major leaps, as she averaged a career high in points per game (9.2) and also improved her scoring efficiency.

Defensively, the Sparks were among the WNBA’s elite. Led by Sykes, who was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season, L.A. was able to force even the most potent offenses into low-scoring affairs. It has a number of versatile defenders who are scrappy and play physical defense for all 40 minutes. In nearly every defensive category, the Sparks ranked among the top three in points allowed, opponent field goal percentage and defensive rating.

But defending is only half the battle. L.A.’s lack of offensive firepower outside of Nneka and Wheeler was something that defenses exploited, particularly when their franchise star was on injury reserve.

When game-planning for the Sparks on offense, teams will often pack the paint against them because they know L.A. has only a few players who can stretch the floor and shoot from downtown efficiently. Outside of Nneka, a capable three-point shooter, L.A. relied upon Coffey (41%) and Toliver (35%) to drain outside shots. But again, Toliver didn’t play the whole season, so Coffey was really the only consistent outside scoring threat this team had.

While Wheeler is a quality starter, the Sparks need a better second scoring option who can take the load off Nneka and also be a legitimate No. 1 option if necessary.

A sleeper free-agency pickup for the Sparks could be Angel McCoughtry. While her injury history is concerning, particularly the ACL tear from May, the risk may be worth it for an L.A. team that should be aiming for the playoffs next year. At 35, she may not be the star she once was; but she’s still one of the most gifted offensive talents in the league.

On another note, the Sparks were by far the worst rebounding team. L.A. averaged only a measly 29.3 boards a game, which was the worst in the WNBA last season. This could be due to their lack of size, as it’s one of the smallest teams in the league.

L.A. should pursue a forward or center in the draft (or free agency) who can rebound the ball more effectively and create second-chance opportunities as the Sparks were the second-worst team in the league in that category (8.6 points per game).

Los Angeles is a large market and will always attract free agents. The Sparks certainly need to this offseason, given that they do not own any first-round draft picks and may not land a slam dunk in the second round. But if coach Derek Fisher can attract a big-name free agent to play alongside his franchise star and address the rebounding issues in the draft, they will be back in the playoffs in 2022.

Washington Mystics (12–20)

The Mystics were extremely hopeful for a successful 2021 season, and they had every right to be, considering the talent they were bringing back.

Former MVP and eight-time All-Star Tina Charles made her highly anticipated Washington debut after sitting out the Wubble. Elena Delle Donne, the MVP just two years ago, was supposed to return at some point this year after offseason back surgery.

Unfortunately, Mystics fans can only lament about what could’ve been. Delle Donne didn’t make her return until Aug. 22 against the Storm and played in two more games, as nerve pain ended her season prematurely. Charles suffered a left gluteal strain in Delle Donne’s first game back and missed the next four games.

Delle Donne and Charles played only a combined 16 minutes together, a disappointing reality for a franchise banking on the two superstars to help them contend for another championship.

However, Washington’s poor record didn’t stop Charles from having a career renaissance. The Mystics star center averaged 23.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game on great efficiency from the field. She was the league’s scoring champion this year, which is a testament to how she’s expanded her game. No longer is Charles solely just a dominant presence down low but also an all-around scoring weapon who is incredibly tough to slow down.

That being said, Charles is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The Mystics need to do everything in their power to re-sign her, as several teams will be in the market for the 11-year veteran. The biggest key for Washington is to convince Charles that the supporting cast around her is still strong enough to compete for a championship when healthy, as there are still some remaining pieces from the 2019 Finals roster.

Speaking of the 2019 Finals roster, the Mystics should also make every effort to keep former WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. The veteran power forward missed all of the ’21 season after wanting to take some personal time following a grueling stint with the Belgian national team. However, she should be ready for a comeback year in ’22. Meesseman is one of the most underrated players in the league, with the way she impacts the game on both ends of the court, particularly her ability to stretch the floor with her shooting.

Meesseman has been public about her love for the Mystics franchise, so that could be a sign that she wants to re-up her contract.

However, with Delle Donne’s injury history growing and Charles’s getting older, convincing her to stay with Washington will be a harder sell than last year. The Mystics struggled with depth all season. They were the third-worst team in the league when it came to bench points, with an average of only 16 per game. With Charles often carrying a much bigger load as the only reliable scoring weapon, many will wonder whether she would rather go to another team.

While the Mystics do have the ability to be a high-scoring team, they were one of the least efficient teams in the league, with the worst field goal percentage (41.1%) and the fourth-worst true shooting percentage (51.9%). The roster has capable scorers, but many of them were inconsistent due to injuries.

Because depth is an issue, staying healthy is going to be vital to their success moving forward. Hopefully, Delle Donne is able to return back to form next season, as Mystics fans will be itching to see how good the Charles–Delle Donne duo can really be, if Charles stays.

Also, this team has a good mixture of youth and experience on the roster, with players such as Ariel Atkins (an All-Star this season), Myisha Hines-Allen and Natasha Cloud all having championship experience from 2019 but still young enough to continue to grow.

Washington doesn’t necessarily need to make any other major offseason moves besides adding depth to its bench. Some unrestricted free agents to look at are Sky center Stefanie Dolson, Sparks small forward Coffey and Mercury shooting guard Sophie Cunningham.

Even if Charles and Meesseman come back, their next challenge will certainly be reestablishing team chemistry, as we haven’t seen the Mystics at full strength since the 2019 postseason.

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