Feature image photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
The final week of the regular season is upon us, and there’s four teams left fighting for three play-off spots. Also? Plenty of drama around the W’s restrictions on charter flights in the post-season. Get in here and talk it all out with Natalie and Heather!
Heather: Well, Natalie, my dear friend, we have arrived at the last week of regular season play in the WNBA! How are you feeling heading into this final week? The Atlanta Dream, Washington Mystics, Los Angeles Sparks and Chicago Sky are all vying for the last three playoff spots. And we’ve had playoff charter drama before the playoffs have even started. The W is finishing strong!
Natalie: I’m anxious.
I don’t like to call myself a fan of any particular team in the WNBA but if I had to chose, it’d be the Mystics…who I became a fan of a long time ago because they drafted Chamique Holdsclaw. And loving the Mystics over the years has been hard but when Elena Delle Donne came to town and the franchise started to see a resurgence and eventually a WNBA championship…it felt like all those years of toil were worthwhile. And while they’d struggled in the last couple of years to recapture that light, it felt like, coming into this season, it was prime time for things to come together.
And then the wheels came off…and then you thought they’d gotten the wheels back on…only for them to fall off again.
Heather: That’s honestly a perfect metaphor for the Mystics.
Natalie: I mean, to finally have some joy about having their full roster back — for one game! — and then to see the wheels come off. Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin get hurt against Las Vegas and then Kristi Toliver goes down on an non-contact injury after fighting so hard to come back. And then, not too long after that Queen Egbo gets hurt as well. I’m just gutted for this team and for KT in particular.
.@WashMystics just announced their injury report on the big screen, and fans erupted at the sight of "No injuries to report." The players, too, threw their hands in the air to celebrate having everyone available for the first time since June 9. @TheNextHoops #WNBA
— Jenn Hatfield (she/her) (@jennhatfield1) August 29, 2023
We’ve talked a little bit about whether Eric Thibault truly deserves to be head coach of this team…well, he’s got a prime opportunity to prove himself by motivating this team over these next three games…because they looked absolutely dejected after that game in LA.
Natalie: What are you looking at down the stretch, especially for those teams still in the hunt for those remaining playoff slots?
Heather: For me, my eyes are on the Dream this week. (Another Chamique Holdsclaw team!) They have been impressive in so many ways this season, but August was an absolute disaster for them. They’ve lost seven of their last nine, and finally pulled up out of it with a win against the Mercury last week. Every game they have this week is winnable. They’ve got the Storm, the Mystics, and the Wings (who could be resting starters by Sunday because they’ve already locked up their playoff spot and Teaira McCowan seems tired.) They’re young, Tanisha Wright is obviously really frustrated with them, but if they can turn it on, I can really see them making the playoffs for the first time since 2018. And I think that would be HUGE for them heading into next year.
The team my heart goes out to the most? The Chicago Sky! I think if James Wade had stayed they’d have already locked up their spot in the playoffs. Now they’re the team with the worst record that’s still in the hunt. I love a team of underdog scrappers, and it’s gotta be extra hard to fall so far from that championship just two years ago.
Natalie: Well, in fairness, only like two players are left from that championship squad (I’m exaggerating, of course, but not by much).
Since we talked last, one additional team has been eliminated from playoff contention and that’s the Indiana Fever. Not content to sail off quietly into the off-season, though, the Fever came out and put on an absolute showcase on Sunday, beating the playoff-bound Dallas Wings. It was a true late season reminder of what this team is capable of: Kelsey Mitchell *and* Nalyssa Smith both going AWF for 30 points each, Aliyah Boston doing it all: 13 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks! Erica Wheeler dishing out 11 assists. Grace Berger giving quality minutes off the bench, along with Victoria Vivians who was CRUCIAL on the defensive end. They were really just great.
I think we’ve talked a lot about the apparent conflicts within the Fever lineup this season — and rightfully so — but it’s worth noting that, irrespective of what happens over their last three games, the Fever have won more this year than they had in the last two years, combined. They’ve gotten so much better and, at least to me, seem to be on the right path. But, I suppose the question is, as this team looks toward the future: does this team believe that?
What do you think, Heather? What moves (if any) are you expecting to see from the Indiana Fever in this off-season?
Heather: Oh boy, what a great question. I have such an enormous amount of affection for this team. The way they came out and handed it to the Wings this weekend, even after they were out of playoff contention is honestly a perfect microcosm of what they accomplished this season. Completely counted out, but they believed in themselves, and were determined to give it everything they had every minute of the game. I’ve said this about a billion times this season, but the tenacity and mental toughness they have exhibited — I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team lose so many close games, or mount so many shocking comebacks (only to end up losing by a bucket or two) — in a single season. They’ve never given up and I have so much respect for that. They won, what? Five games last season. And 12 this season? Not ideal, but something to be proud of!
I think, first and foremost, they’ve gotta figure out what’s been happening in that locker room and address it. If you can’t play with Aliyah, you can’t play in Indiana. She is the future of that franchise and she’s proven over and over and over again why she deserves to be that player. I don’t know where Christie Sides falls in that conversation, I think she’s done some things really well this season, like keeping the team believing in themselves, but I don’t know if she’s ever had a good handle on interpersonal player dynamics. I think the young players from this year are going to be so much better next year with some rest and a full season under their belts. Indiana could use a sharpshooter from behind the arc. I’m not saying Caitlin Clark! Even though I guess her boyfriend just got a job with the Pacers?
What about you? You were ready to clean house earlier this season!
Natalie: You made so many great points, I hardly know where to start agreeing with you…but I suppose the most important point is “if you can’t play with Aliyah, you can’t play in Indiana.” That’s it. Point blank, period. If there’s a player in the locker room not willing to do that then, I’m sorry, even if they’re a very good player, they’ve got to move along. Of course, the quandary is that a bunch of those players are going to have to take pay cuts to go elsewhere because no one’s going to pay them what Indiana can. I like the idea of a sharpshooter behind the arc…and, certainly, Clark fits that bill, but I’d also like to see Lin Dunn do some wheeling and dealing — especially if some of those players want out — and get some veteran leadership in that role.
Natalie: Obviously, Skylar Diggins is at the top of the list for me.
I know she wants to win a championship so maybe it’s not in the cards but — and I say this as someone who’s watched Skylar since her days with the Irish — I think she’s gotten a bad rap. She’s developed a reputation in the league that isn’t really fair.
For lack of a better descriptor, she’s not Liz Cambage. Skylar works hard to make things work — she gives All-Star level effort — but when the front office doesn’t want to make moves to put them in a position to win, she wants to move on to the next thing. When you talk about the situations she’s forced her way out of (Tulsa, Dallas)…are there people really suggesting that both those franchises weren’t absolute shitshows during that time? Those front offices were a mess but Skylar still gets blamed.
I think there’s an opportunity in Indiana to rewrite her narrative…I don’t know how enticing that is for her, though.
Heather: I agree completely. I think the Skylar Diggins Sweepstakes is going to be one of the most exciting and game-changing things about this off-season. I think Skylar wants to win and I think Skylar wants to finally be respected in the way she deserves. I think those will be the biggest factors in her decision.
Natalie: I want to go back to something you said earlier about the Chicago Sky and how they would have already locked up their spot in the playoffs if James Wade hadn’t abandoned them during the season…because I’m not sure I believe that?
I think the start that they had surprised a lot of folks out of the gate and people, including myself, who had doubts about the way this team was built, were like, “maybe I was wrong?” But ultimately, they’re exactly where I thought they were going to be…maybe slightly better. After everything the Sky lost in the off-season — Candace Parker to Vegas, Courtney Vandersloot to New York, Allie Quigley to quasi-retirement, Azurá Stevens to Los Angeles, Emma Meesseman to international commitments — Wade kinda created this patchwork quilt of a team…which, in my mind at least, was never going to be a contender.
Compare that to Minnesota, who, before the season started, I thought was going to be a playoff team. Sure, they had no answer for the loss of Sylvia Fowles but they had Napheesa Collier back and strong rookie talent in Diamond Miller. Plus they’d gotten Tiffany Mitchell in the off-season? I thought they were a lock for the play-offs. But then they start the season, 0-6, and, again, I’m thinking, “maybe I was wrong?” But fast-forward to now and the Lynx are comfortably in the playoffs.
Heather: I think “patchwork quilt” is the exact right way to describe what he put together there! I’m not sure what this particular Sky team could have done, but I do love a Courtney Williams, Kahleah Copper, Marina Mabrey trifecta because I love it when a bunch of players who have been constantly overshadowed, and who clearly have chips on their shoulders about it, get together and go full Bad News Bears. I think what I wanted for them probably outshines what they were really capable of doing.
Natalie: I just think they were three versions of the same player…and I’m not sure that was ever going to work out.
Heather: Totally fair and I guess what that means is that… I have a type? 😂
What do you think about the turnaround the Lynx have had?
Heather: Well, I’ll be honest: It has shocked the heck out of me. I know, historically, anyone who has ever underestimated Napheesa Collier has been made to look like a clown, so I’ll just go ahead and put on my red nose! And also ask forgiveness from Diamond Miller for underestimating her too. But! In my defense! The Lynx dropped, like, their first seven or eight games of the season! They didn’t even win a game until June! Just a few weeks ago they were the only team in the playoff hunt with a losing record! And now they’re at .500, on a stunning upward trajectory, and neither Phee nor Diamond show any signs of slowing down. What happened? What shifted and led them here, do you think?
Natalie: I mean, we forget that Phee was out for most of last season…and she rushed back to play only because she wanted to be part of Sylvia Fowles’ farewell tour. I think that sometimes, when you’re recovering from an injury or in Collier’s case, a pregnancy, rushing back only prolongs your recovery…so I think a lot of what we’ve seen is just Phee regaining her form.
I said that Miller was going to be a high caliber player straight out of the gate but the person that’s surprised me most is Dorka Juhasz. It is so hard to make it in the WNBA…so much so that now we’re seeing first round picks being waived. But Dorka was picked by Minnesota, with the 16th pick, in the second round and players drafted that “low” hardly ever see WNBA rosters. But Dorka hung in there and has been absolutely showing out for the Lynx this season, including getting double doubles in these last two crucial games. An absolute steal for the Lynx.
Heather: That’s such a great point! I’ll be so excited to see what happens with them this week and likely in the playoffs. This is the time of year where veteran coaching REALLY makes a difference, and Reeves just pulled down her 300th (!) win.
So, if you’re one of the teams that has locked up a playoff spot, how are you treating this week? I especially want to hear your feelings on the Aces, who have all of a sudden given Syd Colson some real minutes.
Natalie: I think there’s still a battle for positioning within those standings but, if I’m at the top of the table — like the Aces, the Liberty or the Sun — I’m resting players. Sandy Brondello did this a bit over the weekend by resting Sabrina Ionescu and I wish that other coaches would follow suit. Give a player a game off just to give their body that extra recovery time. Is it going to help your regular season record? Probably not…but is it going to extend your players’ capacity heading into the most important games of the season? Absolutely.
Heather: I think you’re absolutely right, and I think Becky really started to realize that losing the Liberty a few times in a row. The Liberty’s bench, like you and I both said, has been the difference-maker in the Aces games and Becky Hammon’s gotta know that.
Natalie: The Aces leaked a few pictures over the weekend during a practice session and Candace Parker was in them. Do you think it’s a false flag operation or could we really see CP return for the playoffs?
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) September 2, 2023
Heather: Oh my gosh, I am so glad you brought that up! I feel like I am in the biggest Candace Parker mystery-solving spiral of my life! I have never had less access to what is going on with her playing ability! It made me so hopeful we really will see her, even in limited minutes, for the playoffs. I know that’s not what’s best for my team, but I think it’s what’s best for women’s basketball and one of my all-time favorite players. I was already buzzing with excitement for the next few weeks and those pics really did send me over the edge.
You think we’ll see her?
Natalie: Gosh, I hope so. With her — and even with the Toliver injury — I just keep thinking, “this can’t be how it ends.”
Heather: I know. ☹️
Natalie: Both those players are towards the tail ends of their careers. Both have lucrative jobs in basketball outside the WNBA. Neither have to be playing, you know? They’re working to get on the floor because they’re competitors who absolutely love this game. I want better for both of them than to have injuries be the way their careers end.
Heather: I could not agree more. I did an air-punch!
Natalie: You mentioned it earlier but to talk about it a little more: another big WNBA story last week — and, honestly, this feels like it’s been a story every week, TBH — is playoff travel. Back in April, the league announced the expansion of its charter flight program to include “flights for all postseason games beginning with the start of 2023 WNBA Playoffs through the WNBA Finals.” Seems simple enough to understand, right? But over the last week, it appears that the league has added a few caveats to that policy. And by few…I mean, enough to render Cathy Engelbert’s previous promise absolutely meaningless.
In a memo obtained by Howard Medgal of The Next, the league stipulated that “between rounds, Teams will have the option to charter from the home market or directly to Game 1 of the following round (only one route permitted, not both).” It’s a little complicated to understand but, one thing’s for sure: it’s not the ALL that teams were promised back in April. But yesterday, the WNBA Players Association seemingly affirmed that Engelbert would be held to her promise.
What do you make of this latest development in the WNBA’s travel saga?
Heather: When this news broke, that there were actually all these wacky stipulations around charter travel for the playoffs, after Engelbert had so clearly promised, repeatedly, that every team would be able to travel by charter in the post-season, my main feeling was just complete annoyance. I haven’t had any strong feelings about Cathy Englebert one way or another until this season, and now I am just not very high on her whole deal. Truly, screwing up BG’s travel and security was enough to make me side-eye her for a long time, but it has just been thing after thing after thing this season, where she seemingly broke a promise, or went back on her word, or — honestly, more accurately — used confusing, obfuscating language in the original promise knowing full well it was going to cause trouble when she later “clarified.”
It’s just so amateur hour, you know? These are professional athletes who are bringing in more money and viewers than ever, and it sucks that they’re constantly having to fight their own commissioner to be treated with respect and honesty. ESPECIALLY when nearly every player in the W who has spoken on this issue says that travel is their #1 concern going forward. Like, what did Cathy think was going to happen? She KNEW everyone was expecting charter flights in the post-season! She’s seen the outcries on social media from the players! Did she think she was going to release these bonkers travel rules and everyone would just shrug and accept it?
Natalie: You’re right to note that: ESPN conducted a survey of the players recently and travel was their #1 issue and I was listening to The Athletic‘s new women’s basketball podcast and they previewed a wider player survey that echoed those results. So, clearly, this is a big issue…
And I don’t think Cathy Englebert is stupid…I don’t think she’s being obtuse…I think she’s doing this on purpose. I think it’s a strategic business move. If statement after statement, survey after survey reiterates that players want these charter flights, why offer them up to the players and get nothing back in return? Why not hold out for as long as you can — especially with the new TV deal and CBA talks on the horizon — so that you can get some concession from players around salaries or benefits or whatever?
Heather: Yep, I think that’s absolutely right! And as a person on the players’ side, it makes me so grumpy!
Natalie: Also, what gets lost in all this…Cathy Engelbert has to be responsive to the players but she works for the owners. She ends up taking a lot of heat that should be directed at them. The truth is, the owners could change the rules on charter flights tomorrow if they wanted to….but they don’t. There’s clearly not a majority among the owners on the subject of charter flights…and even the ones who have voiced support for it seem reticent to push the issue…so I think players should reserve a bit more of their anger for their bosses.
Heather: That’s such an important point, and one I would do well to remember when thinking about these things because, for example, it’s not like Cathy Englebert is keeping Skylar Diggins out of the Mercury practice facilities. These owners should be shouldering a lot more responsibility in taking care of their players.
Natalie: There are three spots left in the playoffs but four teams. Which team is on the outside looking in at this time next week?
Heather: Chicago. Who do you think?
Natalie: Yeah, I agree. I will say, though…they might be able to sneak in if the Mystics can’t will themselves to victory against the Mercury.
Heather: That would be a stunning upset!
Natalie: I just think, emotionally, the Mystics are TIRED.
Heather: Except Natasha Cloud who has never been tired a minute of her life!
Natalie: And Brittany Sykes too. If Washington makes it into the play-offs, it’ll be on the backs of their relentlessness.
Heather: And whatever devil is in charge of the curse that’s been placed on EDD’s body.
Natalie: It never rests!