By: Jeffrey Newholm
As the Warriors march on to a seemingly inevitable coronation in June, professional basketball junkies are too quickly facing the prospects of another downer off-season. But for those who can’t wait, the WNBA could at the very least whet one’s appetite for the men to return, and perhaps become an entertaining pursuit in and of itself. Don’t know the first thing about the Summer League? Don’t worry, because I’ll highlight five things to keep an eye on this season as the women’s league celebrates its 20th season.
1..New Faces, new contenders
Often in men’s sports, when there’s one exciting prospect at the top of the draft, several teams play less than their best, to put it kindly, to secure that top pick. This year Uconn’s Breanna Stewart was that top prospect, and several teams engaged in a “slide for Stewie” campaign to get best lottery odds. The WNBA even tried to change the lottery rules to prevent tanking, but it was to no avail: the weak teams engaged in a race to the bottom, which was “won” by the Seattle Storm, who ended up with the top pick and Stewart. The Connecticut Sun did things the more honorable way, swinging trades to acquire three of the top six picks. The Sun and Storm could turn things around quickly with rookies usually making huge impacts their first year and most teams qualifying for the playoffs.
Speaking of playoffs, for most of its history the WNBA had a playoff system similar to the NBA, with four of six teams in each conference qualifying and each round being decided by series. Out of the blue, the league jumped the shark with the system, with the top eight teams making it regardless of conference and the early rounds being single elimination. I’ve written about this more in-depth before, but the important thing to keep in mind is that there’s now a huge incentive to finish in the top two in the standings. With two clear front-runners in the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury, the stage could be set for the best two teams to meet in the finals, which is currently an uncertain proposition in the NBA,
3.More Star Power
Due to the WNBA’s rather low salary cap, many players supplement their income by playing overseas. Last year Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi sat out the entire season for rest, and the L.A. Sparks’ Candace Parker missed the first half of the season. As a result, the Sparks barely made the playoffs and the Mercury were swept by the Lynx in the West Finals. With the Sparks and Mercury back to full strength, fans can see the league’s best players for the entire year. Also, those two teams should be better positioned for playoff seeding, which is much more important now with the new format.
The Olympics are such a big deal that the entire league takes a whole month off for the occasion, despite the fact only twelve players make the team. Unfortunately, most discussion about the team focused on who didn’t make it-Candace Parker, who most believed was an obvious choice. I’ve questioned the move myself, but in the end the show must go on, and the team still has a great chance to bring gold to America for the sixth Olympics in a row. It will be the first chance for gold for young players such as Stewart, reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner, and the last for retiring Tamika Catchings. The US women’s soccer team’s World Cup win took all the headlines, but a sixth straight gold sounds even more newsworthy to me.
5.Hope for the future
Many a social media troll has said that they just don’t care about the WNBA or even that nobody does. Even sympathetic ESPN ran a magazine article with a very defeatist attitude about the state of the league, reporting attendance figures have dipped to record lows and the “white knight” heroine superstar never seems to arrive. But the answer to the troll’s “who cares” is that everyone should. No, women’s basketball, or any sport for that matter, isn’t that important; they’re just a diversion from the real issues society faces. But the hated, vitriol and neglect women’s sports leagues face is emblematic of a much deeper sexism and patriarchy inherent in America’s founding principles and still lingering in the 21st century. Deeply held societal attitudes are hard to change, but showing support, even if it’s just casual interest, for women in sport is a small step in the right direction. This isn’t meant to shame an NBA fan-it’s just to say it doesn’t hurt to broaden one’s horizons. So once the horn sounds on the closeout NBA Final game, I encourage you to take a chance on the WNBA-with so much going on this summer, it could be just the hoop fix the doctor ordered.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.