Each week of the WNBA season, we’ll go “All In” on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming.
The WNBA season is at the midway point with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic break starting on Monday, and it’s the perfect time to revisit highlights, things we don’t particularly like and the many, many things we do like out of the first half.
All In On Five will be taking a break along with the W until game action returns, but we’ll still have coverage of Team USA and the league’s fellow Olympians here at Yahoo Sports.
What we like: surprises, drama, a league still rising
Diana Taurasi reached 9,000 career points, Sabrina Ionescu notched her first triple-double (and 10th in WNBA history), Brittney Griner dunked twice, Breanna Stewart is working on a signature shoe with PUMA, the league is 99% fully vaccinated and viewership is up around the many TV spots airing games in 2021.
Phew, that’s not even close to a full list.
What all of this helps show, and what we like most of all, is how competitive play is during the first half of the WNBA season. As East Coasters are well aware, there is no time for sleep when the games are on. This season is still on track for the largest percentage of games determined by three or fewer points. In 109 games through Thursday, 19.27% fall in that category, via Across the Timeline. The 1998 season is second at 18.67%. Nearly one-third of games in 2021 have been determined by five points or fewer.
The season is also on track to have the largest percentage of games determined by at least 20 points, at 20.18%, so the average margin of victory (11.45 points) ranks ninth in WNBA history.
Fans of the league have known for a quarter-century that the talent is here and the games are tight. But the numbers, and the play on the court every night as talent and tightness rises are showing new fans and keeping them engaged. The #WNBATwitter Monday Night Drama is also a boost. This is what keeps fans interested and tuning in, as we’ve seen in other professional basketball leagues with slights and testy exchanges.
We started the year by celebrating the 25th season of the WNBA and looking forward to the future. So far, it’s still looking mighty bright.
MVP race heats up with fresh names
When it comes to preseason predictions, you go with the recent hot hands. For most, including our panel at Yahoo Sports, that meant 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson and 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart. Both led their respective teams into the WNBA Finals in the wubble and appeared poised for another successful season. Candace Parker, with her switch to the Chicago Sky, was also a popular pick.
Stewart (+200 by BetMGM) and Wilson (+500) are still among the favorites by virtue of where their teams are in the standings (and talent, obviously), but there are fresh names in contention at the midway point who deserve accolades.
Jonquel Jones (+150) finished third in MVP voting in 2019, her most recent season, behind winner Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. We’ve detailed the Connecticut Sun center’s MVP candidacy before and nothing much has changed despite a poor showing in the Sun’s shocking loss to the Indiana Fever.
Jones was 5-for-17 (.294), far and away her worst appearance, and took a season-low two 3-point attempts. She still had 16 points and nine rebounds still easing back in from EuroBasket. If she keeps up what she’s done over the first half, the MVP award is hers to take home.
Tina Charles (+500), the 2012 MVP, might be the biggest obstacle standing in her way, but Charles is also the MVP candidate with the most to “lose,” if you will, with the return of a teammate. Charles was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for June, averaging 24.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. She is the only player to average at least 20 points in the month while shooting at least 45% overall and 40% from 3-point range.
Not to mention Charles can be relied on for 30-point, 15-rebound outings. It’s keeping the Washington Mystics above water while they wait out an injury bug. If former MVP Delle Donne returns in the second half, as all would hope, it could change how much Charles is able to dominant the offense.
And then there’s the New York Liberty’s Betnijah Laney (+2000), who just as Jones and Charles can relate has been the most important cog to her team’s success. Laney was bumped up by oddsmakers over teammate Sabrina Ionescu (+3000), whose triple-double is one of our highlights of the first half. Players on teams hovering around .500 don’t typically win the award, and Laney is an understandable long shot. But to go from Most Improved Player immediately to MVP consideration is worth acknowledgement.
Barbie coming to the WNBA?
Barbie has come a long way from relying on Ken for her bubble pink convertible and three-story dream house. And that was just the start of issues when it came to the iconic doll.
Mattel has worked to change the doll’s image over the years to make it more diverse, realistic and empowering. It’s still not perfect, but at least they’re trying. Might that include a Barbie in the likeness of Los Angeles Sparks guard Te’a Cooper?
Cooper teased the doll on her Instagram account this week saying “COOP x BARBIE” was coming soon. It was designed by Tyren Redd, a photographer and creator, and there is no news of a release or official partnership. Yet this is exactly the type of thing both sides would benefit from. The WNBA has long had a marketing problem, and commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said it herself. The league needs to be more front and center, and there are deals, like this, that can be made to do that.
Showing a child a doll of a Black WNBA player with her iconic leg sleeve and noticeable hair is showing him or her the endless possibilities in life. And encouraging them to watch what she’s doing. For a young, up-and-comer like Cooper, it means a decade or more of fandom.
Tea whistling in the ATL
In our preseason preview, we offered up “who to root for, if …” If you like splashy free agent signings, if you like dynasties, if you like trash talk.
Atlanta’s was, and remains, “if you like personalities, potential chaos … and maybe windmills?”
The Dream took over a full Sunday to Wednesday section of #WNBATwitterMondays after Chennedy Carter, a 2020 Rookie of the Year contender, did not reenter the Dream’s loss to the Aces. She was later suspended indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
Ensuing reports have detailed issues between Carter and Courtney Williams, two guards with outsized personalities and therefore each with baggage attached to them. Williams took to Twitter while teammates have chimed in with subtweets of the mess, many standing behind Williams for something no one has directly addressed.
Personality and chaos. The final part of our preseason “if” was based on a video of interim head coach Mike Petersen addressing the team after taking over for Nicki Collen, who took the job at Baylor.
“When the winds of change blow, some people build walls for protection,” he said. “Other people build windmills to create power.”
There are no windmills in Atlanta right now, only walls. Hopefully, that changes during the break with few players heading off to the Olympics and plenty of time to build some camaraderie. But whatever is going on between teammates is only one piece of this larger puzzle.
When we said chaos, we meant in the front office. The Dream franchise has been living a minor nightmare in many ways for the past 12 months. There’s no doubt it’s been, and might continue to be, a burden. That takes time to get past, and there hasn’t been much to work with on the hourglass.
Renee Montgomery and the ownership group were announced in late February, three months before the WNBA season tipped off. They came in at a time when the COVID-19 vaccine was only just rolling out and no one knew what a season during the pandemic at home arenas would look like. And while Montgomery knows the team and area, it’s a sharp transition from that to team owner. A learning curve.
One week after the draft, and therefore a month before the season, they fired general manager Chris Sienko. Then, Collen had an opportunity for a better job. And Petersen has been clear he doesn’t plan to be the full-time head coach past the interim title.
This is a bigger issue than players reportedly getting into altercations, and because of that issue, it’s unlikely we see any big changes until the offseason. That’s when we’ll see who will take the reins, what this franchise will become, and if Carter or Williams are on the roster past 2021.
Commissioner’s Cup could come down to tiebreakers
The Commissioner’s Cup will open the second half of the WNBA season on Aug. 12 by pitting the best team from the East against the best team from the West. Nine of the 10 remaining games are Commissioner’s Cup games and will have an impact on those teams in the running for the half a million dollar prize.
It’s tight in the East with the Sun (7-1) holding a slight lead agains the Sky (6-3) with two games remaining to clinch. Connecticut can book its trip with a win in two tries. The Sky have to win their game against the Mystics and bank on the Sun losing their final two games against the Dream and Liberty. That would force a tie atop the standings and bring in a tiebreaker.
In the West, Seattle (7-1) can lock up the Commissioner’s Cup with one win this weekend in two games against the Mercury, or with a loss by the Aces (5-3). Phoenix’s overtime win against Las Vegas on Wednesday night helped Seattle out. The Lynx (5-3) are in contention to force a three-way tie, but were swept by the Storm and could not win the West title.
The Cup is a new add to the WNBA schedule so it takes some getting used to for reporters, fans and even players. Storm point guard Sue Bird put that into focus this week when she noted point differential is a tiebreaker (after head-to-head meetings), and the team might have misstepped early in the season.
When the Commissioner’s Cup becomes a part of the WNBA’s annual fabric, and things like that are taken into consideration, it will be interesting to see how teams and players handle it.
For what it’s worth, WNBA simulations by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton give the Storm a 94% chance and the Sun a 100% chance (even though they haven’t clinched) to represent their conferences.
Catch up on the week
Dream at Sun, 7 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — The Dream had a four-game winning streak in May, but things have fallen apart. How this team works together and looks on the bench could tell a lot about how they’ll return from the break.
Liberty at Fever, 7 p.m. ET on NBA TV — The Fever are coming off their second win of the season, and Sabrina Ionescu is finding her old form.
Storm at Mercury, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN — It’s time (hopefully!) for the GOAT playoff with Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.
Lynx at Aces, 10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN3 — One of the Aces’ five losses is to the Lynx by one point on June 25. Las Vegas is coming off a loss Wednesday night to Phoenix.
Mystics at Sky, 8 p.m. ET on Amazon Prime Video — The Mystics are hoping to get closer to .500 for the break.
Aces at Wings, 1 p.m. ET on ABC — The Aces will have to stop Arike Ogunbowale and Marina Mabrey.
Sun at Liberty, 2 p.m. ET on ESPN3 — The Sun won in one of the league’s many 20-point blowouts so far and Jones had 31 points and 13 rebounds.
Fever at Dream, 5 p.m. ET on Facebook — Courtney Williams is 10th in scoring (17.4 ppg), while the Fever try to right a sinking ship.
Mercury at Storm, 6 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — Without Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith led the Mercury into Las Vegas and won in overtime this week.
Lynx at Sparks, 9 p.m. ET on WNBA League Pass — The first-half finale will feature Olympians Napheesa Collier and Sylvia Fowles against a Sparks team settling in.
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