WNBA 2019: looking ahead after a unique season

The Washington Mystics hoist the WNBA Championship trophy after beating the Connecticut Sun. Rob Carr/NBAE via Getty Images.
The Washington Mystics hoist the WNBA Championship trophy after beating the Connecticut Sun. Rob Carr/NBAE via Getty Images.

What a ride this year, with each team in the WNBA writing a new chapter, and for some, going where they haven’t gone before. Here’s what happened, and what might be ahead.

Atlanta Dream, 8-26, 12th place

The Dream’s fall from a 23-11, second-place finish in 2018 to the bottom of the barrel this year was one of the biggest surprises of an unpredictable season. Sure, they were without their second-leading scorer (16.5 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (6 rpg) in injured All-Star Angel McCoughtry, but there was still plenty of additional firepower available. The problem was that the stats of all four of those other starters – Tiffany Hayes, Renee Montgomery, Elizabeth Williams and Jessica Breland – were down in 2019. More troubling was that this cast, which has played together for several seasons, couldn’t ever seem to gel. Miscues and an inability to close out games resulted in nine of their losses being by seven points or less. Midway through the season, they lost a league-worst 12 straight. The only two returners whose stats improved this year were Brittney Sykes and Monique Billings.

It would be easy to say that Atlanta just needs their leader back, if either players or coach Nicki Collen could adequately explain what appeared to be lethargy on the court in stretches. But post-games, no one seemed to have any reasons for poor showings beyond “we just need to….” do this and that.

The team needs to find both on- and off-court chemistry, and they need to find an identity. If they do that, they’ll be back on track and more like the Dream of last year, which came within a bucket of going to the Finals. They are fully capable of getting there, with some work.

Jantel Lavender and Diamond DeShields high-five. NBAE/Getty Images via Chicago Sky.
Jantel Lavender and Diamond DeShields high-five. NBAE/Getty Images via Chicago Sky.

Chicago Sky, 20-14, fifth place

What a turnaround this season for Chicago under first-year coach James Wade. In changing team culture, constantly motivating and adding one key newcomer, Wade guided the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

After acquiring power forward Jantel Lavender from the Sparks over the winter, the Sky had all the pieces it needed to be a contender. They took the court with new energy and cohesion, and had two four-game winning streaks before the All-Star break. When they returned, they ignited to go 9-6 with renewed passion and energy, despite losing Lavender in early August with a broken foot.

What works for Chicago is that each starter is incredibly solid, including point guard Courtney Vandersloot, who broke the WNBA single-season assists record, and All-Star Diamond DeShields, who seemingly can do everything. Each member of the team has a role, and each plays it well. Sky players genuinely like and respect each other, and they are able to carry that with them on to the hardwood, where it counts.

If the entire roster works hard this offseason, Chicago could be unstoppable in 2020, as the sky truly is the limit for them.

Jonquel Jones and her teammates huddle at a pause in play. Chris Poss photo.
Jonquel Jones and her teammates huddle at a pause in play. Chris Poss photo.

Connecticut Sun, 23-11, second place

The Sun overcame their two-year first-round playoffs exit curse this year, and then some, finishing as runners-up in an incredibly riveting Finals series. The season didn’t begin as promising, though, as the franchise was “forced” into trading their 2014 No. 1 draft pick, Chiney Ogwumike, according to coach Curt Miller. But in the Championship post-game press conference, Miller correctly pointed out that his team had “turned themselves into household names.”

The team has great personnel at each position, and depth for days. As a young group, what they needed most they got this year: experience. They went through their usual mid-season slump, but this summer they climbed out of it more quickly and righted the ship for a strong regular-season finish. Their on-court chemistry grew game-by-game, making them one of the best offensive units in the league.

If Connecticut players use the offseason to continue developing their individual skills, as well as get some rest, they could easily return to the Finals in 2020.

Dallas Wings, 10-24, tied for tenth place

It was a rough season for Dallas, which was constantly short on personnel. They didn’t have All-Star point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith for the whole year, nor Moriah Jefferson. Tayler Hill only played six games and Azura’ Stevens, 10, before going out with injury. Starting forward Glory Johnson missed six match ups when playing in the Eurobasket Tournament, and three others were out games after being suspended for in-game fighting in mid-August.

As a result, the team was never able to develop a chemistry, nor did they ever seem confident in running plays. First-year coach Brian Agler laid a foundation and made adjustments, but his young team wasn’t able to execute. A healthier roster, better responses from returners and a new addition or two next season (the Wings get the second pick in next year’s draft) will go a long way.

One player who did benefit and grow over the summer was rookie Arike Ogunbowale, who went above and beyond to carry Dallas. She averaged a team-high 19.1 points and 3.2 assists per game, which included a string of 30-plus-point outbursts at the end of the season. Agler, who is more accustomed to working with a veteran roster, will have to develop Ogunbowale into the star that she has in her in order to grow the franchise.

Indiana Fever, 13-21, ninth place

The Fever have been notably better than their record has indicated for the last two years, but 2019 ended with coach Pokey Chatman being let go. If franchise leaders hire a new coach with dynamic offensive and defensive schemes, who is good at making adjustments, and who can develop players well, the Fever could return to their always-in-the-playoffs ways.

Their roster is full of youth and potential, including last season’s No. 2 pick Kelsey Mitchell and No. 7 Victoria Vivians; this year’s No. 3 pick Teaira McCowan, who made the All-Rookie team; All-Star MVP Erica Wheeler; and others who haven’t even begun to tap into their full skill sets because they didn’t improve under Chatman. Indiana gets the No. 3 pick again in 2020, and the right coach could guide the team towards setting the league on fire. It would not be too distant a goal, under an apt tactician. The Fever certainly have the personnel.

Thursday, August 1, 2019 - The Los Angeles Sparks in action against the Las Vegas Aces at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Maria Noble)
The Las Vegas Aces confer at a game pause. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

Las Vegas Aces, 21-13, fourth place

Many predicted Las Vegas to be league champions this season after they acquired center Liz Cambage. They came pretty close, too, after a Dearica Hamby half-court heave landed them in the playoff semifinals, where they lost to the Washington Mystics.

The Aces have great players, a positive team culture and a strong collective will. What they need is to figure out how to distribute the ball. They have two of the best posts in the league in Cambage and A’ja Wilson. They also have two guards who shoot three’s in Kayla McBride and Kelsey Plum. Hamby – the Sixth Woman of the Year – is a scorer as well, and the way rookie Jackie Young improved over the summer, she will continue to become more of a force.

All of these players demand the ball. And that is the issue.

When Wilson was out with injury in July, Cambage seemed to be more effective. Likewise, when Cambage missed a game or two, Wilson seemed more free. Las Vegas would do well to find ways to play the two together more effectively, as well as their guards. Player individual talents and styles could also be better utilized, such as allowing McBride to be the rhythm player that she is, and designating Cambage as the first scoring option more often.

Some tweaks here and there, and this team could be soon hoisting a trophy.

Los Angeles Sparks, 22-12, third place

The Sparks ended an otherwise solid year with an embarrassing sweep from the playoff semifinals at the hands of the Connecticut Sun. First-year coach Derek Fisher came under fire for limiting superstar Candace Parker to 11 minutes in the final match up. But the real explosion happened over a week later when General Manager Penny Toler was fired after it was revealed she went on a tirade in a team meeting after Game 2, and used racial epithets and curse words.

As I wrote two days later, the entire franchise needs to be reconstructed from the ground up, because the end-of-season implosion was a culmination of years of instability, constant staff and roster changes, and an overall lack of vision, leadership and identity.

The Sparks have a lot of work to do, and it should begin by parting ways with Fisher, who was never qualified for the job in the first place. Not to mention that he has alienated everyone on his roster by refusing to listen to them. The organization needs to be careful about whom they hire as their new GM, as that will set the tone for their future success – or failure.

Minnesota Lynx, 18-16, tied for sixth place

Coach Cheryl Reeve did an impressive job of guiding Minnesota to a respectable season after losing four starters who have helped win the franchise four titles. To her credit, she adapted to her young team and changed her system. Over the last two weeks of the regular season, the Lynx won five straight to ice a playoff spot.

To continue to rebuild, Reeve will have to develop players – something she hasn’t done in the recent past with a veteran core group on hand. These young athletes will also have to gain valuable experience with court time, which Reeve was reluctant to give during the Championship years. Minnesota gets the sixth pick in the 2020 draft, giving them a chance to acquire a franchise player. They need to choose well, because former MVP Maya Moore and super-board-crasher Rebekkah Brunson may not return, and All-Star Sylvia Fowles is 34 years old.

New York Liberty, 10-24, tied for tenth place

All year long, the Liberty looked out of sync. So much talent, and so little flow or togetherness on the court. Some of that was due to several players missing significant time with Eurobasket commitments, but even when the whole team was together, they continued to lose. Maybe it is related to the chaos that surrounds the team.

For the last two seasons they have played at the Westchester County Center, which is better suited for a community college team. New York players get a lot of input from a large staff. Are their messages in sync? And what are coach Katie Smith’s offensive and defensive schemes? It’s difficult to tell.

The Liberty need an identity, they need players present and healthy, they need a permanent playing home, and they need solid, unified execution on the floor. They get the No. 1 pick in next year’s WNBA draft, so they better be ready in order to make the most of it.

Thursday, August 8, 2019 - The Los Angeles Sparks in action against the Phoenix Mercury at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. (Maria Noble)
Brittney Griner spins past Maria Vadeeva. Maria Noble/WomensHoopsWorld.

Phoenix Mercury, 15-19, eighth place

Injuries plagued the league this season, and Phoenix had more than their share. Diana Taurasi finally debuted in August after having back surgery earlier in the year, but she had to go out again, and only played six games. Veterans Sancho Lyttle and Essence Carson also missed significant time with injury. DeWanna Bonner tried her best, as she has in the past, to carry the team, and she averaged 17.2 points and a team-high 7.6 rebounds per game. Brittney Griner also chipped in with 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per outing. But it wasn’t enough, and the Mercury lost in the first playoff round.

If healthy, Phoenix is a dangerous team. But they need to be thinking about how they’re going to replace Taurasi, who is 37, Lyttle, 36 years old and Carson, 33. Rookies Sophie Cunningham and Brianna Turner had productive years, but will each need development. And Griner, as good as she is, could completely dominate if she really stepped up. There is no earthly reason a center who is 6-9 ranks second on her team in rebounds to a forward who is five inches shorter. Griner should be averaging at least 10 boards per night. But there is always a feeling that instead of leaving it all on the court, she takes some home with her.

Jordin Canada races past Renee Montgomery. Neil Enns/Storm photos.
Jordin Canada races past Renee Montgomery. Neil Enns/Storm photos.

Seattle Storm, 18-16, tied for sixth place

The defending champs started the year knowing that MVP Breanna Stewart was out with an Achilles tear, Sue Bird was out indefinitely after knee surgery, and coach Dan Hughes had to have surgery for cancer. Then in the first half of the season, just about every member of the team missed at least two games with an injury. Yet, the Storm stepped up time and time again. Some of their wins were so gritty that it boggled the mind. The bench players who had provided depth last year rose up and showcased their talents in full. And no one was more impressive in that than Jordin Canada, who stepped into Bird’s shoes and took the wheel firmly, dishing 5.2 assists per game and ending as the team’s third-leading scorer.

Seattle players know each other well and don’t care who scores – just as long as there is a win at the end of the night. With Stewart and Bird’s return next spring, the Storm should look like their title-contending selves again.

Washington Mystics, 28-6, first place

Potent offense? Check. Great team chemistry off court that carries on to the hardwood? Check. Ability to step up in the absence of teammates? Check. Coach who makes brilliant adjustments? Check.

Washington seemed to have it all this season, and as a result, they are the WNBA’s 2019 Champions. Coach Mike Thibault put together a team with a good balance of veterans, mid-career players and newcomers, so if the roster is healthy next year, expect the Mystics to get to work early defending their title.

WNBA, 23rd season

The 2019 WNBA season was like no other before it. Injuries took out many of the league’s star players for the entire summer, or large parts of it. Eurobasket competition stole away many others for weeks, which interfered with almost every team’s chemistry in the short season. But as a result, the depth of the world’s best women’s basketball league was on display, as the absence of stars let others step into the spotlight.

Talent is more evenly-distributed among the 12 teams, and new, incredibly-gifted young players continue to infuse the league. This year saw the rise of the Sky and the Aces, with both looking to have promising futures. Lack of direction in two of the WNBA’s founding franchises – the Sparks and the Liberty – continued to plague them. Two teams in the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun played for a Championship that had never won one before.

Cathy Engelbert took the reins as the league’s first commissioner on July 17, and quickly set expectations around building capital to make the league profitable. For perhaps the first time since the inaugural WNBA president, Val Ackerman, the league has a leader who understands how gaining capital, marketing the product, enhancing player experience and catering to fans are all interrelated and equally-important initiatives in fostering growth.

Inconsistent officiating continued to be a hot-button topic for players and fans alike. It was not uncommon to see athletes ready to boil over at referees this season, and it is easy to understand why: it is the same officials year after year, making the same calls that don’t align with their peers.

WNBA referees clearly have experience, and they obviously know the game. But standards need to be set on how they officiate, so that they create the same experience for every team in every game.

Player trash-talking became a thing this year, whether it was in person or on social media. Does this mean the league has reached the big time, or do some just need to grow up? Stay tuned.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement deadline looms. The deadline for the current CBA expires the last day of this month. Both Engelbert and representatives of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association have reported that negotiations are proceeding smoothly, so hopefully a mutually-agreeable contract is forthcoming very soon.

Winter WNBA visibility also remains to be seen. The league and its players usually disappear from October to April, as most head overseas to make money, and nothing is spoken of the WNBA or its personnel until they are back on the shores of the U.S. Engelbert has noted that visibility and marketing needs to take place year-round, so we will see in coming months if she means it.

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