We are now into the second half of the season in the WNBA, and as the standings have shifted, things are really starting to look interesting in the playoff races for both conferences. In the West, the Minnesota Lynx have continued to improve on both ends of the floor, and have seen their fortunes turn around not only by their own play, but with the season ending injury of Skylar Diggins for the Tulsa Shock. The Lynx are now 15-4 overall, and 11-2 in the Western Conference. They are getting MVP numbers yet again from Maya Moore, and scored big with a trade that brought former Sky center Sylvia Fowles to the team. Seimone Augustus had knee surgery in mid July and is out indefinitely, but the Lynx have still gone 3-1 since her absence, and still look like the best team in the league. They are 2nd in points per game, 4th in rebounds, 2nd in assists, and 1st in points allowed. As of right now, the addition of Fowles has been great, with her averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds a game.
2nd place in the West are the Phoenix Mercury. This is a team that struggled early on in the season without Griner and Taurasi, but had the talent in players DeWanna Bonner, a first time all star this year, and Candice Dupree to step up and lead in their absence. Since Griner returned, the Mercury have continued to improve, and sit at 12-7 after nail biting win yesterday on the road against Atlanta. They are 4th in points per game, 8th in rebounds, 8th in assists, and 4th in points allowed. They are going to have to improving their defense and their passing if they want to compete come playoff time against Minnesota.
The only other real contenders in the west other than Phoenix and Minnesota are the Tulsa Shock, but even then, I still believe it’s a two horse race. Tulsa had everything going for them at the beginning of the season, after losing the season opener to the Lynx, they went on an 8 game win streak and looked like the best team in the league, until tragedy struck and their leader Skylar Diggins went down in Seattle June 28th with a ACL knee injury that will keep her out the rest of the season. Since then the Shock went on a 3 game losing streak, a two game win streak, and are now mired in a dismal 6 game losing streak. Looking at their record at 10-10, they will actually probably still make the playoffs, thanks to the three teams they are in front of, the Stars who sit at 6-14, Los Angeles who sit at 5-14, and the Storm who sit at 5-16. All three of these teams are slowly improving, and have young talent for the future, but none at the moment stand any real chance come late September.
The Eastern Conference has been a bit more competitive, and we’ve seen a real shift in the standings as well as what you might call the power rankings of the conference. The Liberty currently sit at the top of the Eastern Conference at 13-6, and have gone 7-2 since the start of July. Tina Charles is leading the team with 17 points a game, but on the defensive end, rookie Kiah Stokes is second in total blocks and 3rd in the blocks per game but also 1st in blocks per 40 minutes, something to watch out for as she gets more playing time in the games and seasons to come. One of the Liberty’s biggest weaknesses is their 3 point shooting. They are attempting and making the least amount of 3 pointers in the league, and will need outside shooting to improve as the season gets into crunch time.
Sitting in second place in the East at 11-7 are the Mystics, who really struggled at the beginning of July losing 3 games in row, albeit against the three toughest opponents in the conference, the Sky, the Liberty, and the Fever. Starting July 17th however, they went on a 5 game winning streak until losing to the Sky yesterday in a tough to swallow 71-68 loss. One area where the Mystics have shined is in passing the ball, as they are first in assists per game, while they are just 8th in points per game and 6th in rebounds. Defensively, they are 2nd in points allowed, and they are led by their forward and center duo of first time All-Stars Emma Meeseman and Stefanie Dolson. Dolson and Meeseman are statistically mirror images of each other, with both averaging 13 and 12 points per game and 7 rebounds a game as well. The other leader on their team is Ivory Latta who is also pulling out 12 points per game and is 9th in 3 point shooting in the league. If the Mystics can improve their overall offensive output while improving their overall rebounding, I think they can take on anyone else in the East come playoff time.
The Chicago Sky sit 3rd in the East just behind the Mystics with win more win but also one more loss than Washington at 12-8. The Sky continue to dominate the league in offense, as they are the only team averaging more than 80 points a game. However, their struggles defensively have hampered them, as not only are the only team to average at least 80 points per game, they are also the only team to give up 80 or more points per game as well. They are the second best shooting team percentage wise, just barely behind Minnesota at 45.4% per game, as well as the best free throw shooting team in the league at 85.8% per game. They are 3rd in rebounds per game, but only 9th in assists. They are led by Elena Delle Donne, who is having a MVP worthy season thus far. Delle Donne is first in points per game, tied for 2nd in rebounds per game, 4th in blocks average while 2nd in total blocks, and is 1st in the league in free throw percentage at an amazing 95.3%, which is even more impressive when you realize she has also taken 16 more free throws than anyone else in the league. The Sky are 7-3 since the start of July, but it’s not all Delle Donne, they are getting great production from their other 2015 All-Star Cappie Pondexter and Courtney Vandersloot, who leads the league in assists, and Allie Quigley who is averaging 11 points a game. Where the Sky have to step it up of course is on the defensive end, and not having a true center is hurting them in the interior. If they want to stay competitive, especially in the playoffs, they are going to have to get someone like Jessica Breland or Shasha Goodlett playing better inside defensively.
Sitting 3rd in the East are the Indiana Fever, who are now 11-8 thanks to a 3 game win streak and only 2 losses since the start of July. The Fever are led as ever by Tamika Catchings, and are getting good numbers out rookie Natalie Achonwa, steadily improving since injury Erlana Larkins, Marissa Coleman, and Shenise Johnson. As a team overall, they are 11th in assists and rebounds, and 9th in points allowed, as well as 5th on points per game. They need to stay together and have someone different stand out every night to win in the playoffs.
After going 7-1 at the start of the season, to the surprise of pretty much everyone, the Connecticut Sun have cooled off mightily in the last month, and have only won 2 games since June 30th. They endured a 6 game losing streak from then until July 22 where they got a huge overtime win against Minnesota. They have lost two more games since however, only winning again at home 67-66 against Seattle. The rest of the season does not bode well for the Sun either, as they face a daunting schedule with only 5 games against teams with worse records. They need to get back on track on both ends of the floor and they have to improve in rebounding and passing the ball, as they sit 10th in the league in both categories. They are led by their young duo of Kelsey Bone and Alex Bentley, who both made the All-Star team for the first time this year. They are the only players on the team averaging double figures in points, and need more production from everyone else to get things back on track.
Last place in the Eastern Conference goes to the Atlanta Dream, who sit at 7-13 in the middle of a disappointing season thus far. They have been up and down all season, but now are in the middle of the 5 game losing streak, thanks in part to their weak defense and middle of the pack offense. Led by MVP candidate Angel McCoughtry, who is averaging 19 points a game, just behind Delle Donne and Maya Moore, the Dream aren’t getting enough from the rest of the roster to win games, who are second to last in field goal percentage at 40% and are giving up the second most points per game in the league at 79.7. Even if they get hot and make the playoffs, I don’t see the Dream having the depth to make it out of the first round, and that’s a big IF they get there.
When looking at the league as a whole, we have seen teams like the Sun and Shock start the season playing very, very well, and then suddenly having their season jump off a cliff in terms of wins and quality play. It will be interesting to see if any other teams start losing lots of games as the season goes on. Teams like the Mercury, the Liberty, Chicago, or the Mystics could suddenly go cold or get hit with a starting player’s injury. And as the season stands now, I have to say it’s Minnesota’s title to lose, because they have had big injuries, but have stayed strong and played extremely well all year. Maya Moore is an MVP candidate as usual, and has a very strong cast of supporting players behind her helping this team look like a very tough team to beat in the playoffs.