By: Jeffrey Newholm
Some girls dream about being a CEO. Some dream about being a princess or actress. But no one would dream of hitting a Final Four shot to end a team’s 111 game winning streak. Morgan Williams didn’t bother to dream something so outlandish-she lived it. But 2018 has quickly proved that the WNBA is the most competitive professional league in America. With only 12 teams, the 16,500 NCAA estimated college players must vie for 144 roster spots. This week, the unthinkable happened for lovers of underdogs-Williams was cut. And they’ll be plenty of cuts, dimes, and breakaways as ten of those teams chase the Minnesota Lynx and Los Angeles Sparks, the class of the league. How high are these teams shooting, and which elite players will soar even higher than the rest?
Double Byes (Top two teams): Minnesota Lynx, Los Angeles Sparks
As of this writing, it looks unlikely that the Warriors and Cavs will meet in the finals for the fourth year in a row. But the WNBA’s double dynasty is definitely still going strong. In fact Mechelle Voepel even bothered to give the reasons why the Lynx and Sparks wouldn’t meet for a third straight year. But there’s no need to overthink it. The Lynx formed a strong nucleus around Maya Moore and impassioned coach Cheryl Reeve. They are favorites to defend their title and win a record fifth. L.A. is equally strong behind Candace Parker and Cappie Pondexter. Pondexter, like Dwanye Wade and Derrick Rose, opportunistically jumped from a losing team to a contender. Great basketball games often have a feeling of inevitability. We all know who will win, but we don’t know when the run will come. Similarly, we all figure it ‘ll be Minnesota and L.A. again-but no one knows exactly how the ball will bounce.
Single Byes (#3 and 4 seeds): Phoenix Mercury and New York Liberty
The Liberty have dominated the regular season for years, but three attempts in a row have had a frustrating postseason out. Rookie coach Katie Smith is in an unusably enviable spot, with a loaded and determined roster lead by Tina Charles. But anything short of the semifinals would be another disappointment. Behind Brittney Griner and the esteemed Diana Taurasi, the Mercury have twice rallied to reach the league semis, just to get swept. With time running out on Taurasi’s career, Sandy Brondello needs to rally a shifting supporting cast quickly before the window wanes.
First round berths (5-8): Washington Mystics, Connecticut Sun, Las Vegas Aces, Dallas Wings
Elena Delle Donne won the MVP award in 2015 but like many before her forced a trade from the woebegone Sky. The Mystics battled injuries last year before Minnesota swept them in the semifinals. Delle Donne, even going back to Delaware, has always been forced to do too much, but it’ll be enough for the playoffs. The Sun shone much brighter in 2017 with a very balanced roster and coach of the year Curt Miller. The teams may be near its ceiling, however. Although very poorly managed by the Spurs while in San Antonio, the Aces are fronted by fiercely advocated marking of both the team and #1 Pick A’ja Wilson. With the NCAA’s all-time scoring leader in Kelsey Plum, Wilson, and successful coach Bill Laimbeer, the Aces have too much not to make the playoffs. The Wings are a Pegasus waiting to soar behind a finally healthy Skylar Diggins-Smith and intriguing pick Azura Stevens. A run to the semifinals is plausible, but lack of postseason success will be a deficiency.
Lottery: Seattle Storm, Indiana Fever, Atlanta Dream, Chicago Sky
The Storm are the strongest contender listed here to make the playoffs. Sue Bird leads a roster filled with improving talent. However, ineffective coaching has held the Storm back with Dan Hughes its third coach in two years. The Fever added NCAA #2 scorer in Kelsey Mitchell but have very little otherwise. The franchise is still searching for an identity without Tamkia Catchings. Angel McCoughtry is a very able and underrated star will surely boost the Dream in her return from a 2017 absence. However the rest of the team played poorly without her, and she’ll need to shoulder a huge load. A key player finally re-signed for the Sky in Stefanie Dolson. The Sky also adds top four picks Diamond Deshields and Gabby Williams. However Chicago lost every preseason game handily and will need some more work before breaking through the crowded field.
MVP: Brittney Griner
Griner has always been a defensive menace but finally broke 20 points a game last season. A Mercury push to a top two seed could secure her first award.
Rookie of the year: A’ja Wilson
Wilson is extremely confident, professional ready and poised to lead the Aces to virtuous success in Sin City.
Coach of the year: Brian Agler
There tends to be voter fatigue for major awards, so L.A.’s Agler gets his turn over Reeve, who won in 2011 and 2016.
Most improved player: Layshia Clarendon
Clarendon has broken through as a starter the last two years, and with McCoughtry back to serve as the foundation can continue to build a rapidly ascending career.