Professional Basketball

It’s Crowded At The Top At Season’s Midpoint

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We have reached the midpoint of the 2018 WNBA season this past weekend. If the standings from the first half of the season are any indication of future events, the playoff seedings might not be determined until the last weekend of the season.

This season’s schedule doesn’t leave for a lot of down time and every team faces long road trips. Some teams have already been hampered with the daunting road schedule while others will face that challenge in the forthcoming weeks.

In seasons past, there are usually one or two teams that dominate as the frontrunners with the rest of the league jockeying for better seeding in the season’s second half. Not so this year. Only five games separate the top of the standings to the eighth and final post-season position, with seven of those teams having winning records.

Here’s a recap of the season so far:

Seattle Storm (14-5)

Stewart – Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart prepares to shoot over Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles during the June 26 game at Target Center. Stewart currently leads the WNBA in scoring with 22.2 points-per-game. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sports Page Magazine

The Seattle Storm has been acquiring top-notch young talent over the last few years but needed better coaching to pull it all together. With the arrival of Dan Hughes out of retirement, the Storm got exactly that. They started the season with a five-game winning streak and have won the last four in a row to keep them on top of the league’s standings. Forward Breanna Stewart leads the league in scoring with 22.2 points-per-game and guard Sue Bird is second in the league with 7.5 assists-per-game. However, a good portion of their home schedule has concluded and will face most of the second half on the road, which means their biggest challenge may be forthcoming.

Phoenix Mercury (14-5)

The Phoenix Mercury didn’t have the best season a year ago especially with injuries and retirements to key players. The return of forward DeWanna Bonner to the lineup and with guard Diana Taurasi playing some of the best basketball of her career has made the Mercury a force to reckon with. Taurasi ranks third in scoring with 20.4 points-per-game and fifth in assists with 5.0 assists-per-game, while center Brittney Griner is the eighth best rebounder with 7.5 rebounds-per-game. This combination enabled them to go on an eight-game winning streak and, like the Storm, Phoenix is currently riding a four-game win streak. Taurasi was named Western Conference Player of the Month for June and head coach Sandy Brondello was named Head Coach of the Month also for June. What is unknown is what the loss of forward Sancho Lyttle will mean for the rest of the season as she is sidelined for the season with a torn ACL.

Washington Mystics (12-6)

The Eastern Conference Player of the Month for June, Elena Delle Donne, is currently ranked sixth in scoring with 19.9 points-per-game and guard Natasha Cloud ranks sixth with 4.5 assists-per-game. The Mystics managed to pull together two four-game winning streaks during the first half of the season. They have only played six games on the road, so they will be spending a lot of time on the road during the rest of the season. Still, head coach Mike Thibault knows his team and if he can keep them focused while on the road, the Mystics should find themselves in good position come playoff time. Head Coach Mike Thibault just won his 300th game as a head coach, being the first in WNBA history to hit that plateau.

Los Angeles Sparks (12-8)

Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike pulls down a rebound during the July 5 game against the Minnesota Lynx at Target Center. Ogwumike currently ranks seventh with 7.6 rebounds-per-game. Photo by Abe Booker III/SportsPage Magazine

For the past two seasons, the 2016 WNBA Champion Los Angeles Sparks were one of two teams that dominated the early standings. This season, the Sparks have dominated with an 8-2 home record but are only 4-5 on the road and will play five of their last seven on the road. They won five in a row during the first half of June. Forward Nneka Ogwumike ranks seventh in rebounds with 7.6 rebounds-per-game and guard Chelsea Gray ranks fourth in assists with 5.3 assists-per-game. Still, this team is filled with championship-caliber veterans who know how to win and should not be overlooked by the end of the season.

Minnesota Lynx (11-8)

The defending champion Minnesota Lynx team struggled early in the season. They lost the season opener to the Los Angeles Sparks in a nail biter, and then played six of their following eight games on the road. They opened the season with a 3-6 record causing many to wonder if age caught up with the veteran team. After a week of practice to regroup, they won their next seven in a row putting them back in contention. Forward Maya Moore currently ranks eighth in scoring with 18.9 points-per-game and has won Western Conference Player of the Week twice this season. Center Sylvia Fowles leads all rebounders with 11.9 rebounds-per-game and forward Rebekkah Brunson, the league’s all-time leading rebounder, ranks ninth with 7.3 rebounds-per-game. When Moore and Fowles have a great night, the Lynx are unstoppable. When those two have an off-night, anybody can beat them. If the Lynx find consistency, they might find themselves back in the hunt for a back-to-back championship.

Connecticut Sun (10-9)

The Connecticut Sun opened the season by winning their first five games but fell from grace when they went on the road. Forward Chiney Ogwumike ranks sixth in rebounding with 7.6 rebounds-per-game and guard Jasmine Thomas ranks eighth in assists with 4.3 assists-per-game. Between the road schedule and injuries to Ogwumike and forward Alyssa Thomas, the Sun are not performing at the level they are capable. If head coach Curt Miller and navigate his team through tough times, they could peak come playoff time.

Dallas Wings (9-8)

Dallas Wings guard Skylar Diggins-Smith looks for an open teammate during the June 19 game against the Minnesota Lynx at Target Center. Diggins-Smith ranks third with 6.4 assists-per-game behind Seattle’s Sue Bird and Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot. Photo by Abe Booker III/Sports Page Magazine

The Dallas Wings are perhaps the most inconsistent team in the WNBA right now, which has been the main challenge for head coach Fred Williams. Veteran center Liz Cambage returned to the team after taking a few years off, and currently ranks second in points with 20.6 points-per-game and second in rebounds with 9.8 rebounds-per-game, while guard Skylar Diggins-Smith ranks third in assists with 6.4 assists-per-game. They have talent and experience. Some nights they can put it together and win, other nights they can’t and lose. If Williams can figure out how to get consistency from his team, the Wings might be the most dangerous team come playoff time.

Atlanta Dream (8-9)

Nicki Collen took over head coaching duties during the off-season, replacing veteran coach Michael Cooper, and forward Angel McCoughtry returned to the lineup after taking a year off. Forward Jessica Breland ranks fourth in rebounds with 7.8 rebounds-per-game. The Dream has stabilized after struggling in the last few seasons and has a solid base for Collen to build from in future years. They will have a good stretch of their remaining schedule at home, which could put them into post-season play.

Las Vegas Aces (8-12)

The biggest move in the WNBA off-season involved the San Antonio Stars moving to Las Vegas and luring Bill Laimbeer away from New York to lead the team as head coach and general manager. While in San Antonio, the team stocked up on young talent in successive drafts and selected center A’ja Wilson with the top overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft. Wilson is currently ranked third in rebounding with 8.4 rebounds-per-game and fourth in points with 20.3 points-per-game, making her essentially a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year. Guard Kayla McBride holds the tenth position in scoring with 18.5 points-per-game. This is a season for Laimbeer to perform talent evaluation and institute his system. There is tremendous upside for this team even if they don’t make the playoff cut this season.

Chicago Sky (7-12)

The one word that comes to mind about the Chicago Sky is “almost.” Despite a losing record at this point in the season, they have lost a lot of close games and have found some success. Under second year head coach Amber Stocks, the team is building for future success. Guard Courtney Vandersloot leads the league in assists with 7.6 assists-per-game, but the team faced a major setback with the loss of guard Jamierra Faulkner with a season-ending knee injury.

New York Liberty (5-13)

New York Liberty player Bria Hartley announcing a play to run – Photo by James Garman – Sports Page Magazine

The New York Liberty promoted Katie Smith to head coach during the offseason, filling the vacancy left by the departure of Bill Laimbeer to Las Vegas. The team also relocated from Madison Square Garden to the smaller Westchester County Center in White Plains. Consequently, the team has suffered from growing pains from playing in a smaller arena with a new head coach. When they win, it has been by small margins. When they lose, it has also been typically by small margins. Center Tina Charles ranks seventh in scoring with 19.8 points-per-game and guard Brittany Boyd ranks seventh in assists with 4.4 assists-per-game. Smith, a

WNBA legend as a player, has been around the league long enough to know that it will take some time and a few adjustments to get her team on the right track.

Indiana Fever (2-17)

The Indiana Fever is the one team that is difficult to figure out. Nearly every game they have played this season has been within reach, but they only have two wins to show for the effort – a 32 point margin of victory against the Atlanta Dream at home, and a 12 point victory over the Minnesota Lynx on the road. Guard Erica Wheeler ranks tenth in assists with 3.9 assists-per-game and forward Natalie Achonwa ranks tenth in rebounding with 7.2 rebounds-per-game. The Fever began the season with a 10-game losing streak and followed up their first win with an additional six-game skid. The addition of veteran guard Cappie Pondexter may begin to help them close out close games victorious, though it is probably too late to make a post-season push this year.

 

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