What’d we learn from the first half of the 2019 WNBA season?
All eight playoff slots are up for grabs. This is going to be fun. Before the second half of the 2019 WNBA season unfolds, let’s look back at what we’ve learned so far.
Connecticut Sun (13-6)
Still rebounding; Strick still running
Through 19 games this season, the Sun have mirrored 2018’s dominance on the glass. They were first in offensive rebounding rate (36.0 percent) and second in defensive rebounding rate (72.1). This season: first (36.3) and second (72.3), respectively.
The extra shot opportunities have propped up a guard corps struggling on 2-point jumpers to date.
Controlling the defensive glass fuels transition opportunities. Per Synergy Sports, the Sun are second in overall transition frequency, using 28 more possessions than the sixth-ranked Sparks and 86 more than the Wings at No. 10.
Shekinna Stricklen sprinting into open 3-pointers remains a chief concern for all opponents. Per Synergy, Stricklen has used 34 possessions in transition through 19 games. 27 of them have ended with a 3-point attempt; 12 have ended with a made 3-point attempt.
The Sun will stretch teams out even further if Jonquel Jones can get going from beyond the arc (29.4 percent on 85 attempts) as a spot-up threat trailing the break.
Las Vegas Aces (13-6)
Washington Mystics (12-6)
The collision course of contrasting styles
Unless Connecticut makes another mini-leap or L.A. and Phoenix get completely healthy, these are your top-two championship contenders. One is the No. 1 offense in the league. The other boasts the top defense.
Their contrasting styles would make for an exciting series. Washington leads the league in both 3-pointers made (8.6) and attempted (25.3) while Las Vegas is last in both. How much does that swing a potential series?
The Aces will face a steep climb if the Mystics get hot for a game or two, but you could argue that they’ll have an easier time playing through their stars.
Can you have a similar impact on Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson—effective turn-and-shoot players working with a clear advantage against Washington’s front line to establish deep post position across all 40 minutes?
Los Angeles Sparks (11-8)
Big minutes needed from Williams
The 2019 Sparks look like they’re going to be more dependent on Riquna Williams than some may have anticipated. Look back at last year’s perimeter rotation.
Williams has to produce. She was in constant competition with established veterans Odyssey Sims and Essence Carson last season. Chelsea Gray is still running the point and though Alana Beard has been limited by injuries, free-agent signing Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has been productive sliding into that role.
To date, Williams has shot better on 3-pointers (40 percent) than inside the arc. She’s 9-of-42 on two-point attempts outside the restricted area. Everything but the spot-up 3-pointers might be where L.A. needs her most, passing on some of those looks in the future to instead break down her own defender and get into the lane to create something for others.
Chicago Sky (11-8)
Addressing the low-hanging fruit
There’s value in not being dead last!
That’s where this team was last season in turnover percentage (18.7), defensive rating (109.9) and defensive rebounding percentage (64.5). Through 19 games, they’re up to ninth (19.2), eighth (97.5) and sixth (68.0), respectively.
Some of it is noise. Offense is way down across the league. Everybody’s defensive rating looks much better within the context of this season. The turnover percentage is actually higher. You don’t get points for other teams being sloppier with the basketball. But the rebounding is up a tick.
And improvement across all three categories points to the same thing: Giving your immensely talented offensive core more chances to score. They’ve accomplished that to a degree and now look like what so many expected even last season: A capable playoff team nobody would be eager to run into in a single-elimination setting.
Seattle Storm (12-9)
We’ve seen Natasha Howard go from No. 4/No. 5 scoring option to leading scorer this season. Seattle is currently tied with L.A. and Chicago with the fourth-best record.
This second half will be all about how much they can get from Jewell Loyd.
Does she have another small leap in her, or are the past two seasons (around 43 percent from the field and in the high-30s from deep) about what we should expect?
Her shots at the rim have plummeted after accounting for 30 percent of her attempts in 2017. She’s down to 16 percent this season, and most of those looks have been replaced with midrange jumpers—38 percent of her 2019 shot attempts to date.
Some of that is team context. A key part of what made Stewart the MVP last season and Seattle one of the league’s best offenses: She became one of the most dangerous shooters in basketball.
Mercedes Russell has filled that slot in the lineup. The Storm can’t open up the lane like they did last year.
Loyd can do plenty of damage from the midrange. But that alone probably won’t be enough to propel this team beyond the first or second round. Using the remainder of the season as time to experiment cutting loose with more pull-up 3-point attempts would be interesting. She’s already so comfortable hitting those shots from 18 feet. How would it look if she took a few more from beyond the arc when the opportunity arises?
Phoenix Mercury (10-8)
How different would the playoff picture look right now if L.A. didn’t match the max offer sheet Odyssey Sims signed with the Mercury back in February?
As it turns out, Phoenix really needs another playmaker to create more open triples for their cast of capable spot-up shooters. Brittney Griner, DeWanna Bonner, Briann January and Yvonne Turner each taking on a little bit more responsibility to initiate hasn’t panned out in Diana Taurasi’s absence.
Phoenix keeping three rookies was more about the future, though they probably hope they would have gotten more out of them by now. Inking Sims would have been, too, easing the burden on Taurasi now and eventually taking on an even bigger role when she retires.
Minnesota Lynx (10-10)
To the teams that can’t find enough shooting….
Remember what the Lynx did this past offseason. Cheryl Reeve turned two second-round picks, a guaranteed roster spot and some cap space into Lexie Brown, Steph Talbot and Damiris Dantas—their three leading 3-point shooters at the break. That trio has accounted for more than a third of their made triples through 20 games.
Though they would have had to move on from a key player to retain her, how bad must it hurt as Atlanta to see Dantas shoot it so well this season?
And Alexis Jones still has some time in L.A., but what if they had just attempted to extract Talbot from Phoenix in a sign-and-trade for Sims?
Minnesota’s a streak away from the lottery and a top-four spot. Their season could easily go either way.
Should things go sideways, there is plenty of good news to go around. All three players are big positives on their current deals and project well beyond 2019 as low-usage threats that can slide and contribute in next to star players.
New York Liberty (8-11)
Betting on what you’ve got
If the Liberty are fully committed to securing a playoff bid, then it’s time to go all-in playing to the strengths of this roster. They have plenty of shooting to surround Tina Charles and ask her to become more of a playmaker from the elbows and the post.
This group does not have a top-tier pick-and-roll creator. They do have five guards (Bria Hartley, Asia Durr, Kia Nurse, Marine Johannes, Rebecca Allen) that can shoot on the move and make decisions to beat scrambling defenses.
Brittany Boyd and Tanisha Wright aren’t big enough scoring threats, especially away from the ball. They can set people up running the team’s shooting sets, but the Liberty can’t keep giving opponents somebody to ignore away from the ball.
Their more limited lineups make life more difficult for Charles, who’s been a below-average shooter to date on two-pointers outside the restricted area. Charles has to help herself by passing on some of those tougher looks, but that’s always been a core part of who she is—those shots made up 72 percent of her attempts in her near-MVP 2016 campaign.
New York has too much shooting to not use Charles as the lead playmaker to loosen up the defense and force opponents into tougher decisions when they try to send help. The Liberty should also feel incentivized to lean more on Durr, Nurse and Johannes—three dynamic shooters they should want to build around—regardless of the outcome.
Those three guards and Charles are the obvious foundational pieces. Winning a playoff game or two this year wouldn’t be insignificant. But to get much further than that in the not-too-distant future, it’s probably time to endure some potential growing pains and collect as much data as possible on those four players the rest of the way.
Indiana Fever (6-15)
All eyes on Wheeler
All-Star Game MVP Erica Wheeler will have accrued five years of service after this season.
Why does that matter?
She inked a two-year deal this past offseason, meaning she’ll hit the 2021 market as an unrestricted free agent.
Barring any major changes in upcoming CBA negotiations, Indiana could just core her. But they have another intriguing lead guard in Kelsey Mitchell. Will they ever be able to truly maximize the skillsets of each playing them together? Could one be packaged to net somebody else that would push the Fever closer to playoff contention in the near future?
Dallas Wings (5-14)
There were two obvious key components to this Dallas group as the season began: long, versatile defenders and 40 minutes of strong point guard play.
Skylar Diggins-Smith and Moriah Jefferson haven’t logged a minute all season. That was a distinct possibility for the former but is more of a disappointment for the other (and a topic for another day).
The other key pillar has been fun to see in practice. Azura Stevens, Glory Johnson, Imani McGee-Stafford, Isabelle Harrison, Kaela Davis and Kayla Thornton all fit that bill. They can switch a lot of actions with most of those combinations—one plus that has really helped them to force opponents to shoot over them and/or score late in the shot clock.
Stevens missing time due to a foot injury has iced one of the team’s more exciting developmental angles. We haven’t seen Tayler Hill at full strength, either. The absences in the backcourt have made them impossible to judge with a quick glance at their win-loss record.
Arike Ogunbowale getting all these reps as the go-to creator is important. She’s getting an accelerated look at what it’s like being a focal point of an opposing WNBA defense.
Their offense can perk up in a hurry if they can get those three guards healthy along with whatever additional help they may acquire along the way.
Atlanta Dream (5-15)
Two extremes; two big questions
Everybody following this league has to wrestle with this incredibly complicated question: How much luck/good fortune do we attribute to last year’s stretch when they won 14 of 15 games, and how much should Angel McCoughtry’s absence be weighed in evaluating what they’ve done in 2019?
Sometimes things do truly take a turn for the worst. The overall defense and defensive rebounding isn’t where it was, but are we really going to say that their best defenders got worse overnight?
How much of the season’s struggles come down to the fact that we’re all human? Tiffany Hayes started the year banged up, they knew they wouldn’t have McCoughtry at least for a while and they lost some games. Surely some of that was going to seep in eventually.
Not making shots ranks near the top of the list of causes. Renee Montgomery shot 37.1 percent on 6.2 triples per game last year. In 2019: 28.7 percent on 6.1 attempts per game. Brittney Sykes hasn’t made the leap as a shooter (23.3 percent on jump shots this season and 27.6 in 2018).
Simply not getting calls, an area where every team probably has a case, definitely hurts this McCoughtry-less group more than others. Not only are her 6.3 free throw attempts per 36 minutes gone, but the combined attempts for Hayes and Sykes are also down from 12.7 to 8.0.
Alex Bentley got hot down the stretch last season and has now probably swung a little too far the other way, but any player taking 40-plus percent of her shots from midrange that isn’t a very reliable 3-point shooter would’ve had it coming.
It’d be tough to criticize an argument for either extreme path the Dream could take from here: Aim to reload and run it back in 2020 or fundamentally alter the core group. Hayes is 29. There’s still time to set her up for an MVP-type season if they can surround her with enough shooting. The team also completely lacks a back-to-basket scoring presence.
But assembling star talent outside of the draft is extremely difficult. (Thanks again for making that ridiculous win-now trade in 2017, previous regime!) Maybe McCoughtry taking some possession-to-possession pressure off of Hayes and the supporting perimeter pieces would be enough.
They’re currently five games back of the eight spot with 14 games to play. They’re very close to the point of no return. Is there a trade out there worth executing to either bring in a young player or a first-round pick ahead of the August 6 trade deadline?
Now’s the time to start digging.
Stats obtained via WNBA.com and are current as of July 29.
A correction was made July 31: Erica Wheeler signed a two-year deal with the Fever in the 2019 offseason, meaning she would not become a free agent again until 2021.
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