With just three weeks left in the WNBA regular season, things are ramping up. With Connecticut, Las Vegas, Seattle and Phoenix already having clinched their spots in the playoffs, just four spots remain and none of the league’s eight remaining teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. In short: every game matters. A win means a shot at the WNBA playoffs and a championship, a loss means WNBA players are one step closer to wrapping up their season and going fishing.
To break down all the madness of this historic WNBA season, I sat down with my equally basketball obsessed colleague, Heather Hogan. We looked back at the Olympics and the impact it had on the second half of the regular season. With so much still up in the air, we tried to sort out with how the rest of the season will shake out (spoiler alert: we don’t really know) and what the post-season might bring for a few WNBA teams.
Natalie:: The last time we talked about basketball was before the All-Star Game and the Olympics. Any overall thoughts about how the Olympics went and Team USA becoming an unparalleled dynasty?
Heather: I was honestly a little surprised by how easily they plowed through the Olympics! You rightly said their biggest competition would come from the WNBA All-Stars (you also manifested the All-Stars winning and Arike Ogunbowale going off with MVP numbers!), but I thought they’d all be at least a little tired, a little banged up coming off WNBA play, but they looked so great. Internationally, there’s just no answer for Brittney Griner and A’ja Wilson. My experience this year was soured by Team USA’s snubs, but I did watch all the games anyway of course.
What I actually really ended up loving was the 3×3 tournament. And, of course, I never get tired of seeing Dawn Staley win. How was it for you this time around? And has the back half of the season started unfolding the way you assumed it would after the Games?
Natalie: Like you it was hard not to let the Olympic snubs — particularly the snubbing of Nneka Ogwumike — sour my entire Olympic viewing experience but eventually all of that receded because, at the end of the day, I just really love this game. The 3×3 format was, surprisingly, one of my favorite things about the Olympics…though admittedly, I spent a lot of time thinking about what other WNBA players would work great in that format. I mean, c’mon, it seems tailor-made for Arike.
Heather: Arike is made for 3×3 basketball! Two less defenders to fridge on her way to some spectacular basket! I did end up ordering the Arike MVP WNBA All-Star orange shorts this year instead of any Team USA gear.
Natalie: I wasn’t surprised by Team USA’s dominance. The only team with the real capacity to challenge them was Australia and once Liz Cambage stepped aside (or quit or was let go or whatever happened there), winning gold was a formality.
As far as turning back to the WNBA season, I’m shocked at how easily some players have adjusted to returning to regular season play. You look at Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, for instance, and they’re both still carrying the exhaustion from their Olympic experience (also, you know, having a whole baby in Stewie’s case). Jewell Loyd tried to work through her Olympic exhaustion but I think in that Storm game against the Liberty, it caught up with her. You see it as well with A’ja who’s had a couple not-so-great games since being back with the Aces. They were asked to carry a huge load in Tokyo and now they’re just tired.
But, man…what that Olympic run did for Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury. It feels like that core finally gelled while being abroad and they’ve come back to the league and have been dominant. SEVEN STRAIGHT WINS. What’s your read on the post-Olympics WNBA?
Heather: I think that’s a brilliant and concise run-down of where we are after the break. I frankly couldn’t believe Jewell Loyd was still going the way she was after the Olympics, but I agree it’s caught up with her. I think maybe she was just running on pure adrenaline. There’s a kind of smug giddiness on WNBA Twitter when the Storm start slipping, and I absolutely get it, but I don’t think they’re going to be out of it for long. They’ve got three Olympians on their team! So yeah, in the short term, there’s gonna be some recovery! But near the end of the season, I feel like they’re going to be standing.
Natalie: Oh, gosh…the doom and gloom around WNBA Twitter and the Storm…they drop a few games and folks start being like, “oh, they should just let this season go and try and get a lottery pick.” Meanwhile, I’m like: they just won the Commissioner’s Cup, cut them some slack. I mean, obviously, you’d preferred not to play in one of the single elimination games for the playoffs but if you have to play in one of those, playing with a rested and healthy Sue Bird, Stewie and Jewell Loyd feels like you’ve got as good a chance as anyone to advance. The Storm is going to be just fine.
Heather: Hahaha, exactly! Sports fandom — much like queer TV fandom — often struggles with object permanence! Sue, Stewie, and Jewell know more about peaking at the right time to win championships than just about any other sports trio I can think of!
I was also reading just yesterday that Napheesa Collier’s been playing with Plantar Fasciitis this entire season plus the Olympics, so I think Cheryl Reeve’s gotta be super smart with her minutes as the Lynx continue their strong play.
Natalie: I hadn’t heard that about Collier (*insert flash of anger that she took Nneka’s spot on the Olympic roster*). You’re right that Cheryl Reeve has to be good about managing her minutes. Two things really work in the Lynx favor: first, probably more than any other team in the league, the Lynx really buy into that “next man up” mentality…one player goes down, someone else has to step up and shoulder part of the load. But second, and perhaps, most importantly: the Lynx have Sylvia Fowles and the rest of the league doesn’t. Until this most recent injury, Syl has been playing out of her mind since returning from the Olympics…and it’s been amazing to watch.
Heather: Oh man, Sylvia Fowles! When she pulled down 20 rebounds to go with her 29 points last week, I was, for real, hollering at my TV. She played every minute of that second half! She came up with that crucial block and you could just see that she had pushed her body and mind to be operating at a different place than everyone else. It was one of the most dominant performances I have ever seen. And frankly I was glad to see Cheryl Reeve come out after the game and call out ESPN for all the ways they were hyping Sue and Stewie that game when Syl was there giving them one of the best WNBA performances ever on her way to likely being defensive player of the year! When she said “The WNBA has grossly underserved Fowles career,” I yelled back “YES!”
And yes, the damn Mercury! Skylar embarrassed the Liberty so bad the other night I had to turn off the game! People were obviously looking forward to the little grudge match between her and Jaz Jones after their Twitter run-in — which Skylar was absolutely right about, of course — but Diggins didn’t even blink. She doesn’t look tired at all! So I guess things look about how I thought they would up top, but the middle of the pack is where the real action is! How do you think these less loaded teams are going to shake out in the coming games?
I think the Sky are going to get there and I think they are going to be dangerous. I think the Storm do NOT want to see them again. I think the thing about Quigley, Parker and DeShields is they really believe that on any given night they can beat any team in this league, and I think they’re right about that. If they stay healthy, they’re not going away.
Natalie: Something that strikes me about the Storm…I mean, obviously, they’ve got the injury to Jordin Canada to worry about now but that trade of Natasha Howard to the Liberty is really coming back to bite them. They’re missing that inside post-presence to take some of the weight off Stewie’s shoulders. I think the Sky’s post-play is probably the best its been all season: Candace Parker’s playing at an incredible level, Azurá Stevens is reallly stepping up and Stefanie Dolson’s come back from the Olympics with a bit more fire…
That said, they really are Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde at this point, though? I mean, on any given night, you really don’t know which Sky team is going to show up. If they can build some consistency across these last few games, I think there’s a chance they could make some noise but there’s an equally good chance they’ll flame out when they’re on the big stage.
Heather: You’re rubbing salt in my Lady Vols’ wounds with that analysis of Parker and DeShields — but you’re absolutely right!
As for the other teams still in the hunt, I think the Lynx will be there because I think Sylvia’s gonna put them on her back and take them there, and I think Layshia Clarendon’s really determined to prove what they want to prove after being cut from the Liberty (who I expect to keep up the nose dive they’re in right now, to be honest; they are banged up as heck). And I really, really think the Wings have a chance, especially if Satou Sabally is able to come back from her injury and play near the top of her game. How about you?
Natalie: I don’t know what the chances are that Satou Sabally returns before the playoffs but these games without her have really proven how much of a linchpin she is for that Wings team. The offense really flows through her and she’s also a strong presence on the defensive end and without her, the team is kind of rudderless. That said, I do think — maybe more than anything else — the Wings’ problem is a coaching one? The substitution patterns on that team make absolutely no sense…and I don’t understand what they’re doing half the time.
Heather: It’s hard for me to say anything negative about Vicki Johnson, but I agree her substitutions don’t make much sense. I felt at first like she was just trying to find the right combination of people but now I just can’t…figure it out? One very weird thing to me is how she doesn’t seem to want Marina Mabrey and Arike on the floor at the same time even though they have had amazing, championship-winning chemistry together since college! I get the sense that VJ’s not a huge fan of the “pull up anywhere any time, hot-head” mentality that Muffet McGraw made work for them at Notre Dame!
But gosh I want to see them in the playoffs!
Natalie: The Fever, I think, are treading water until their season ends. That team has to clean house at the end of the season including — and I’m sad to say this as someone who sincerely believes that Tamika Catchings is the GOAT — ending the the Catch as GM experiment. She has to go and so does Marianne Stanley. They need to rebuild that entire roster around the question: “what do we have to do to allow Teaira McCowan to be great?” Anything that doesn’t push McCowan into her rightful place as one of the best bigs in the league isn’t worth the Fever’s time.
Atlanta’s in that same boat but I think they’ve got a real question about what to do about Chennedy Carter. Obviously, there’s a problem in their locker room but the team has to do something…if they continue to sit her for the rest of the season, what trade value does she have? What other WNBA team is going to step up and take a risk on her?
Heather: Yes, I completely agree with both of those things. I think Tamika Catchings is going to go on to do even more great things for women’s basketball, but being a GM just isn’t one of them. McCowan can do it all. I remember being blown away by her footwork in college and it has only gotten better. She’s big, but she’s not only big. And she can shoot! I agree with you that she needs a team built around her so she can shine.
I think the Dream also have the chance to build something powerful! The Chennedy Carter thing bums me out so hard. I want to see her succeed! I want to see her on a team where she feels like she’s fulfilling the role that satisfies her and with a coach who can manage all the big personality things that cause so much ruckus. She’s such a talent; I would hate for this to be the beginning of a downhill slide until she’s out of the league. I think the Liberty are also on the list of teams that have one more year before they really need to be shaken up with a new coaching staff.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) August 30, 2021
Natalie: Are you surprised by Sabrina Ionescu’s — I think it’s safe to call it — underwhelming return to the WNBA this season? Or were our expectations just too high for a player coming off an injury?
Heather: That’s a good question. I am surprised, yeah. I watched her play so much at Oregon and I really thought it’d be a slightly bumpy but, overall, super successful transition for her into the WNBA. But now that I am watching her play every game, I’m seeing so many glaring things that she has GOT to be coached on and improve on or she’s never going to be more than middling point guard. How frazzled she gets when she’s getting trapped, her inability to keep her dribble alive, her complete fear of taking big shots now (and often ANY shots), her inability to play small ball at all, and, for me, her lack of fire and leadership.
The Liberty have one of the most active and exciting benches in the WNBA, and you can see how it ignites the rest of the team, but Sabrina just seems trapped inside her own head. Obviously the injury’s a big deal and has been dogging her, but there’s a mental aspect to her play that’s impossible to overlook. One of the few times this season I have seen her play with real ferocity is the recent game against the Mercury, which makes sense on account of Sabrina’s ankle getting busted right after Diana Taurasi said she likes to murder rookies or whatever.
As we start to wrap up, I’d love to hear who you think’s in the running for MVP!
Natalie: Oh God, I don’t know that I have an answer. Tina Charles was my favorite when we talked last but with absences, injuries and the return of Elena Delle Donne to the Mystics, I think she may be fading? Jonquel Jones from Connecticut was another one of my frontrunners but I think DeWannna Bonner and Brionna Jones are stepping up and inadvertently pushing her out of that conversation.
Maybe Fowles and Griner are my frontrunners now but I genuinely don’t know. What about you?
Heather: I think that’s right. For me, right now, it’s Griner, not only because of her current play but also because I think that gold medal game boosted her up the ladder in people’s minds who don’t watch every WNBA game like we do — :joy: — and because I think she’s going to show up big time in the playoffs as the Mercury go super far this season.
Before we go, last time we talked, you made the magic happen with your hopeful prediction for the All-Star game — so! What’s one thing you would love to see happen before the end of this WNBA season?
Natalie: Oh, this is a tough question…
Heather: Because you understand your power now!
Natalie: I mean, my answer to this normally would just be to root for the failure of the Phoenix Mercury but Skylar’s playing so great and Kia Vaughn is stepping up so I feel like I can’t actively root against them anymore?
Heather: Very fair.
Natalie: This will probably sound like a cop-out answer but I think the thing I want most is for there not to be any more injuries. I want as many teams as possible to go into the playoffs as the best versions of themselves and to let the chips fall where they may. There have been so many great moments this year…so many players stepping up and finally getting a chance to shine…that I just want those moments to continue.
What about you?
Heather: That’s a really good wish! I want Candace Parker to win one more championship and go out on top and I want Diana Taurasi to retire, which I know will not be a popular answer with our readers, but….
Natalie: I don’t see DT retiring without a farewell tour.
Heather: THE OLYMPICS WERE HER FAREWELL TOUR!
Natalie: Maybe…she’s soon to be a mom twice over so who knows?