Who will step up in the second half of this unpredictable WNBA season?

The Chicago Sky celebrate their 2021 WNBA Championship. Getty Images file photo.

In an unprecedented season of roster changes and inconsistent team performances, the battle toward the WNBA Championship in September has seen more twists and turns than usual.

The top five teams – Chicago, Las Vegas, Seattle, Connecticut and Washington – have separated themselves from the rest of the pack by at least three games. Each has had its own unique journey to the midpoint of the season. And every team, depending upon what adjustments are made after this weekend’s All-Star break, has a legitimate chance at earning the title.

We look at their road so far:

Chicago Sky (16-6)

Expectations for the defending champions were high coming into the season. After stumbling out of the gate with two losses, they embarked on a pattern of winning two or three, and then dropping a game.

Four on the roster were late to arrive, due to overseas commitments, and star forward Candace Parker missed two games with an injury. But in late June, the Sky got their rhythm and won five straight. The Minnesota Lynx snapped that streak this week, but Chicago got right back in the win column the next night with a solid performance.

Coach James Wade said his group has come together.

“We’re getting our chemistry down,” he said. “We’re more solidified. We have hiccups here and there, but now we’re a more consistent team because everybody has been here for a while.”

“We’re playing with a sense of urgency. We’re coming into form of who we want to be. Day by day, practice by practice….it’s a natural process that’s going to keep coming all season.”

Parker, last year’s Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman will play in Sunday’s All-Star game, and Allie Quigley will participate in the three-point shooting contest Saturday.

  • Sue Favor

Las Vegas Aces (15-7)

No team has had a more mercurial season than the Las Vegas Aces. They spent the last three weeks of May in domination mode, breaking their own per-quarter scoring record twice, and thrashing opponents.

The last two weeks have been challenging, however, as the team dubbed title contenders in the preseason have lost five of their last seven games while seeming to forget how to play defense. In Wednesday’s post-game press conference, after a 116-107 loss to the New York Liberty, Las Vegas coach Becky Hammon was clearly tired of answering the same questions.

“They have to execute it!” she said. “They have to want to do it!”

The Aces are going through what every great team goes through when they can sense a possible championship. It has nothing to do with talent or the skills – it’s more mental, and having sound judgment under pressure.

The style they play is shoot when open, take the three, push the ball up. That works sometimes, but when facing a team with solid transition and half-court defense, it doesn’t work consistently enough. That’s when the pressure sets in, trying to make something happen instead of reading all the options, offensively and defensively.

It would help Las Vegas to practice in-game, running their plays through more. Players having a high IQ is important, as well. For example, when taking on three defenders by the basket, your teammates won’t be able to help recover the ball, because they’ve spread the floor. This miscalculation could be fixed by reading the defense better.

The Aces also need to recover their own defense, which had been a tremendous asset of theirs before their losing streak.

  • Celina Smith

Seattle Storm (15-8)

The Storm had roster struggles early, as two were late to arrive, veteran Sue Bird was out a few games with an illness, and center Mercedes Russell has missed extended time with a non-basketball injury. Their win-loss record followed suit.

But the midseason addition of All-Star and Olympian Tina Charles last week is looking like it might be a difference-maker for the four-time champs, in a year that will be Bird’s last, pending her retirement.

Charles, who came from the Phoenix Mercury by request, has taken extra time to learn Seattle’s plays. After a surprise loss to the Atlanta Dream last weekend, the Storm roared back to rout their next two opponents. In last night’s win, over the Los Angeles Sparks, they shot 64.6 percent from the field, with all nine players scoring at least two field goals. Charles came off the bench for 18 points.

Coach Noelle Quinn said the more Charles gets comfortable in the team’s system, the more she’ll be able to contribute.

“Her ability to stretch the floor, her ability to go to work in the paint, and her rebounding, are thing that we’ve been deficient in,” she said. “She’s picking things up very quickly.”

Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, who will be All-Stars again this weekend, are a formidable force, as is the Seattle bench. But Quinn said the team is taking a level-headed approach.

“We’re taking it one game at a time, being present,” she said. “We don’t need to look too far. We have work to do (and) we don’t want to peak too fast. We still have a ways to go, but thee positives are that we’re getting a lot of contributions from everyone.”

Loyd said the team is motivated.

“We’re hungry,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, or if we’re in practice – everybody wants to go hard.”

“We’re right where we want to be; we’re moving in the right direction. And we’re excited.”

  • Sue Favor

Connecticut Sun (14-8)

Five games into this season, coach and GM Curt Miller had to be wondering what he has to do to get the Connecticut Sun team he envisioned on the court for a full season.

Having already dealt with prior year losses of Jonquel Jones and Alyssa Thomas, the loss of Jasmine Thomas may have seemed easy to overcome to some.

It’s not.  She is more than just the captain, and more than just the point guard.  She is a calming presence, a veteran leader not afraid to speak up in difficult moments of a game.

The Sun enter the all-star break with a 14-8 record, already having more losses than all of last season.  If you look deeper though, despite their current third place in the standings, Connecticut is only 5-5 in their last 10 games after a 9-3 start.

Slow starts have been particularly damaging, as they are always trying to come back from deficits. In their last six games, in only one did they have the lead after the first quarter (by two vs. Atlanta). In the other six games they trailed after one by 7, 8, 10, 12, and 16.

Without Thomas and backup Briann January – who left via free agency in the offseason – anchoring the defense, the Sun is allowing 8 more points per game this year. They have had their shut down periods, but it needs to be for four solid quarters for them to improve.

Thomas’ absence has impacted the offense as well, as there has been indecision on the roles of certain players. First Natisha Heideman took over the point guard reins. Then Miller tried Alyssa Thomas at the point, and a big lineup. That was effective at times, but it took Thomas from the strongest part of her game, the paint. Now Heideman is back at the point. Connecticut needs her to take hold of the job and not look back.

The frontcourt is still the strongest part of the team, with Jonquel Jones, Alyssa Thomas and Brionna Jones all being named All-Stars. They are three of the top four scorers on the team, and they will take them as far as the Sun will go. More consistency from DeWanna Bonner is needed, and Courtney Williams has been Courtney Williams – the player they wanted when she returned from Atlanta – a high-energy scorer.

To make a deep playoff run, which the team is certainly capable of, they need to fix those issues though, as the schedule ahead brings multiple games with Las Vegas, Seattle, surging Minnesota (three times), and a West coast trip to end the season.

  • David Siegel

Washington Mystics (14-10)

Franchise player Elena Delle Donne is back this season after sitting out 2021 due to back surgery, and her playing time is limited, and scheduled. As a result, the Mystics are like two different teams.

When Delle Donne is playing, the offense runs through her, and Washington usually wins. She brings a calming factor to their overall game – especially on the offensive end. They are guarded differently without Delle Donne on the floor, and in turn, have to stay alert to the reads that are/are not available.

Bottom line, they are different, as any team would be without a two-time MVP on the court. They also have Natasha Cloud and Alysha Clark on the floor in the absence of Delle Donne, and they both provide quality vocal leadership to the team. Let’s also not forget about the All-Star, Aerial Atkins, who provides a lead-by-example quality to the team.

Coach Mike Thibault and his staff are masterful at getting the most out of each player, and they all embrace their role, with or without Delle Donne on the court. That will prove to be a huge difference-maker during the second half of the season. Especially for a player like Shakira Austin, who has been afforded quality minutes of experience as a rookie.

  • Christy Winters Scott