The 2019 WNBA season tips later this week. This weekly ’12 Things’ column will touch on something happening with each team around the league throughout the season.
The focus of the first three installments this month: A 2019 WNBA season preview. Part one featured some (not so) bold predictions, including playoff picks and two sophomores expected to take some big steps forward.
Up next: preseason power rankings and the tiers of the WNBA at the start of the 2019 regular season. We’ve got three tiers—title contenders, the battle for the final playoff spots and the teams I expect to be in pole position to net the pick that they could use next year on a certain guard out of Oregon.
1. Connecticut Sun
I think six is the magic number this season. A clear case can be made for each in this tier as a clear-cut title contender. Relative health has to be prioritized in making these projections in conjunction with the list of injured players and those expected to miss time to compete in EuroBasket this summer.
Connecticut’s continuity puts them over the top at this stage. Led by their best three players—Jasmine Thomas, Alyssa Thomas and Jonquel Jones—we’ve seen this collection of talent produce as a top-four offense each of the last two seasons. Players four through 10, maybe even 11, mesh with that core and Curt Miller’s style of play.
Miller can also shape-shift without sacrificing much. Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen are the returning starters on the wing. The former gives them somebody that can go get a shot late in the clock and score efficiently from the midrange; the latter is one of the league’s premier 3-point shooters. Layshia Clarendon and Bria Holmes give Miller two more big, physically imposing defenders on the perimeter that can still excel offensively with this team’s group of shooters around them.
A healthy and confident Morgan Tuck, as seen last season, allows Miller to put more size on the floor, and Alyssa Thomas can toggle between defending an opponent’s biggest threat at either forward spot. Both Jones and Tuck are very comfortable spot-up and pick-and-pop players. They’re ideal fits next to Thomas, freeing her up to set more screens and catch on the move to make plays against a scrambled defense.
Connecticut’s top three are also foundational pieces teams covet in building top-four defenses. Start with the bookends. Jasmine Thomas can defend either guard spot. Jones is an intimidating presence on the glass and at the rim. Alyssa Thomas is the swing piece holding it all together, helping Jones clean up on the glass and forcing the issue in transition.
The 4 spot is so demanding on a night-to-night basis, where you’re faced with the likes of A’ja Wilson, Candace Parker, Tina Charles, DeWanna Bonner and Elena Delle Donne. Thomas is listed at just 6-foot-2, but her quick feet and overall strength still make her one of the best in managing those difficult assignments.
Again, these rankings are meant to assess where these teams are at heading into the opener. For now, because of the reasons stated above, I think the Sun are in the best position to race out to a hot start, upping their chances of locking down a coveted top-two playoff seed.
2. Washington Mystics
Perimeter depth is becoming a bit of a concern with news of the Kiara Leslie and Aerial Powers injuries. Still, the Mystics are simply more equipped in the frontcourt to offset the early-season injuries and EuroBasket departure(s).
Playing Elena Delle Donne at the 3 doesn’t compromise their spacing or general ability to play through her in isolations or post-ups. Tianna Hawkins is built for this kind of bench role on a Delle Donne team, stepping in as a stretch four that’s able to pull an opposing big out of the lane.
LaToya Sanders was money from the midrange last season. Sure, it’d be nice if some of those makes could be converted to 3-pointers, but the team knows she’s going to slide into open pockets of space near an elbow and can make quick decisions once she gets it. Myisha Hines-Allen’s comfort level from the perimeter will be worth monitoring, especially while Emma Meesseman is away at EuroBasket.
Sanders remaining in the starting lineup makes sense. Mike Thibault will have an easier time staggering Delle Donne and Meesseman to keep at least one post hub on the floor at all times. They can make a more permanent decision upon Meesseman’s return.
Ariel Atkins had a wonderful rookie campaign as an A-plus 3-and-D wing right out of the gates and proved to be capable of making the next play when defenders closed out hard to run her off the 3-point line. Natasha Cloud will need to continue to punish opponents for leaving her open. She shot 38.6 percent on 83 3-point attempts last regular season.
Will Thibault keep a third point guard on the roster? Kristi Toliver and Cloud could also be staggered to share that load across all 40 minutes.
As with Connecticut, I’m all in on the core pieces of their defense. Cloud and Atkins solidify them at the point of attack and allow them to match up with teams that have two big-time scoring guards. Even with a very slight frame, Sanders affects more shots around the basket than you might expect upon watching her for the first time.
Washington’s core pieces know who they are and still feel the sting of being swept by Seattle in the Finals. Delle Donne is a top-three player at the peak of her powers. Unless some of the team’s shakier shooters fall off a cliff, I think the safer bet lies in trusting Delle Donne’s ability to carry them home in early-season close games, whereas the next four teams have a major new piece to incorporate and/or are waiting on one of their stars to return from injury.
3. Las Vegas Aces
Bill Laimbeer was very straightforward after Sunday’s preseason game when asked about the team offense and the integration of Liz Cambage. They can throw it in to Cambage or to A’ja Wilson, watch the defense collapse and play out of that.
Laimbeer shouldn’t have much trouble keeping two of Kelsey Plum, Kayla McBride and Sugar Rodgers on the floor to capitalize on all that attention to burn teams with open 3-pointers. Jackie Young will need to prove it from the perimeter to a degree, but will also infuse them with a deadly element as a cutter and driver as defenses scramble to rotate.
The addition of Rodgers was key. Nia Coffey wasn’t ready to contribute with what this team needed—a solid defender with some serious versatility as a 3-point shooter. Rodgers can bolt around Wilson or Camabge screens to create open shots or driving lanes for herself. Teams probably can’t afford to switch that stuff and leave a much smaller player on Wilson or Cambage.
We’ve seen Kayla McBride, even more of a threat as a downhill scorer, thrive out of those actions last season with Wilson. The presence of Jackie Young will free Plum up to get off the ball and do more of the same, further weaponizing her status as one of the team’s best shooters.
I don’t see the ‘only one ball’ talking point burbling to the surface with this group. Cambage against all but two opponents will be such a hammer at the rim that she will be the obvious focal point making the lives of Wilson, McBride and Plum much easier.
Their guards already did a wonderful job of emphasizing pace and early offense last season. Jackie Young will be a terror in the open floor, and Rodgers will walk into dozens of open triples early in the clock.
My one concern in these early stages will be Wilson and Cambage’s handling of matchups with the elite frontcourt scorers that will force them to tilt more of their time defensively toward playing out at the 3-point line—out of their comfort zone and leaving their defense at large more susceptible to drives and opposing players flying in to attack the offensive glass.
4. Phoenix Mercury
5. Atlanta Dream
6. Los Angeles Sparks
Who makes the most of the time without Diana Taurasi, Angel McCoughtry and Candace Parker? The Mercury are probably in the best position right the ship offensively. They have the most functional depth and won’t run out of players that can credibly defend and make open shots. Head coach Sandy Brondello can easily up the usage of Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner and Briann January.
The Dream, by comparison, will likely be without their star for the longest amount of time. I think Atlanta is simply in a better position to ask Tiffany Hayes to carry them than Los Angeles is to ask the same of Chelsea Gray. Without Jantel Lavender, will the Sparks get any semblance of the midrange shooting contributions the Dream get from Jessica Breland?
The Chiney Ogwumike trade still doesn’t totally quell LA’s defensive rebounding concerns. They don’t have a natural matchup for the biggest, strongest centers to keep them out of prime offensive rebounding real estate unless No. 7 overall pick Kalani Brown emerges to log significant minutes. Finishing anywhere but dead last in offensive pace would help, but with largely similar personnel, we need to see it first.
The last two spots
7. Chicago Sky
8. Dallas Wings
9. Minnesota Lynx
10. Seattle Storm
These are all flawed teams, or at least face major questions due to key absences/injuries. The news of Sue Bird’s injury broke just prior to the publishing of this piece. With time, I may have even dropped them into the next tier. But it doesn’t feel right to totally write off the champs with the chance still out there that Bird returns for a decent chunk of the season.
The Sky can become a top-four offense relatively easily with their personnel. If they cut down their turnovers and rise toward the middle of the pack with their defensive rebounding, they’ll put a lot of pressure on opponents to keep up with them. Diamond DeShields is an absolute superstar in the making, and new head coach James Wade as enough lineup flexibility to keep the floor spread for her to go to work.
The Wings and Lynx are equal mysteries at this stage. It’s obviously impossible to project a return date for Skylar Diggins-Smith. But there’s some number out there, that probably went down with the news of Bird’s injury, that’s a pretty reasonable bellwether of their playoff chances. If she plays, say, 15 games, that has to at least put them in the mix in a very real way, though some may disagree based on their read of this Minnesota roster.
I just don’t know where the offense is going to come from for the Lynx. They’ve got a myriad of unproven and/or tentative 3-point shooters, which is far from ideal in tandem with Sylvia Fowles. Unless somebody completely shocks the world in that regard, the argument that Fowles can carry them home in close games doesn’t hold much water. She’ll have too tough of a time even getting enough touches with how much attention teams will shade her way.
The Lynx will be a fascinating watch, though, even from the start as Danielle Robinson and Odyssey Sims find their legs with this group as its primary creators. The addition of Lexie Brown will help them open up the floor. If Rebekkah Brunson (concussion symptoms) indeed is forced to hang ’em up, Napheesa Collier will fortify their defense some from day one regardless of her nominal position in various lineups.
11. New York Liberty
12. Indiana Fever
The Liberty not having their whole team for the full season drove the nail in the coffin for me. I think Bria Hartley, Asia Durr and Kia Nurse together next to Tina Charles and somebody else is their best shot even though none of the three are true point guards or proven No. 2 scoring options (yet). Marine Johannes was a very worthy flier, but the roster as it stands today probably needs her presence from the jump as another scoring guard to get them back into playoff contention.
Han Xu will be very fun to watch in her rookie season. As with Brittney Griner, it is very striking to see some of the tallest centers in this league shoot jumpers so effortlessly over other bigs, but both do it very well.
This is a big year for Brittany Boyd, who happens to be exactly what Durr needs—a lead guard that can dime shooters up sprinting off of screens and make the initial move to puncture a defense and force it into rotation.
If you wanted to make a case for Indiana, I think you’d point to Teaira McCowan having the kind of impact on the Fever that I’m expecting to see the Sky piece together collectively. More stops at the rim and transition opportunities via a stronger presence on the defensive glass will do wonders for Kelsey Mitchell, already a devastating lead guard that can pull off the dribble from anywhere.
But I just don’t think they’ll quite have enough scoring or spot-up shooting around her after losing Victoria Vivians to the ACL year suffered while playing overseas. Shenise Johnson and Betnijah Laney will do very good things for this team on the wing, and I like the idea of Mitchell with either Erica Wheeler or Paris Kea in some two-PG lineups.
The third and final part of this ’12 Things’ series will spotlight 2019’s most interesting players—one from each team.
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