It’s WNBA Opening Day! Let’s Talk Brittney Griner, Becky Hammon, and Make Some Predictions!

Feature image photo by Ethan Miller/Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s WNBA opening day! This year, by popular request, we’re publishing a weekly column — on Mondays — breaking down everything that happened in the W that week! It’s going to be awesome! We’re going to have commentary, fit checks, we’re going to pull out the gay stuff, we think you’ll love it! But before the first games tonight, Natalie and Heather wanted to get together to shake out what’s been happening in the off-season. Friends, it has been busy and it has been dramatic!

Don’t forget to set your fantasy rosters, and let us know how you’re feeling about opening day in the comments.


Heather: Natalie, hi! Welcome to our first WNBA chat of 2023! The new season kicks off today and we already have so much to talk about! Before we really get into the drama unfolding around the league, can we start by talking about the most exciting thing, which is that Brittney Griner is back home and back on the court! How have you felt watching her return to the W?

Natalie: In a word: emotional. I keep trying to pivot back to hating Phoenix as I have for many, many years but you just see her and her smile out there and I forget all about that other stuff. I am thrilled to see her back on the floor and to see her being so joyful as she does it. I light up every time I see her and, especially, every time I see her and Cherelle together. Even though I have no love for this Mercury team, I’m looking forward to seeing them play…last year, the heavy burden this team was carrying, it was just too much. I’m looking forward to seeing them all playing with a sense of freedom again even if I hope they don’t win too often.

The other thing I’d add…and I’ve been thinking about this a lot…is however grateful I am to see BG back on the floor — and I truly am, both as a basketball fan and someone who shares her identity as a black queer woman — I hope she knows that she doesn’t owe us this. She doesn’t need to be back on the floor in the W or in a Team USA jersey ever again to repay us for our advocacy or to show she was worthy of being rescued. She was always worthy and she doesn’t need to prove anything else to anyone. She deserves happiness and peace and if that includes never picking up a basketball again, I hope she knows that’s okay.

Heather: I love to begin our first conversation of the year agreeing with you wholeheartedly, as usual! Both about the overwhelming joy of seeing Brittney and Cherelle back together — their public appearances and also their silly little Instagram stories — and seeing BG back on the court. Seeing all these vets rushing to her, and her huge smile as she wraps them up in her arms. There are some things that just transcend sports and fandom, and the love this league has for BG, their tireless advocacy, you don’t get to witness hope coming to fruition too often like that in a life, I don’t think.

I’m with you on hoping BG knows that if she and Cherelle just want to move to a cabin up in the Rockies or something and never make another public appearance for the rest of their lives, that’s okay too. Whatever they need and want to be healing, healthy, and happy.

One thing that surprises me — and you’ll say it shouldn’t because I’m such a softy — is how teary I keep getting with every new image and video. There was one the other day on Cherelle’s stories, just her beautiful femme-y sandal and pedicured foot sticking into the frame right beside the court where BG was warming up for a preseason game and I just lost it, like Annalise Keating-style sobbing. I’m just so glad she’s home.

Natalie: Not Annalise Keating-style sobbing…LOL.

Heather: Should we tiptoe toward the drama that has already unfolded this season?

Natalie: Let’s do it!

Heather: Okay! Let’s start with the big one: the WNBA has suspended Las Vegas Aces Coach Becky Hammon for two games, without pay, for “violating league and team Respect in the Workplace policies” and have taken away the Aces’ 2025 first round draft pick for “impermissible benefits” with respect to former Aces forward Dearica Hamby’s 2022 contract extension. The whole thing is such a mess, it’s hard to even get a good read on what has actually happened, but from what I can tell from all the half-statements and cryptic quotes: it appears that after Hamby announced her pregnancy last year, Hammon said some really bad stuff to her, harmful and unprofessional, that violated the fair workplace standards of the league. In addition to which, there was an offer for some “impermissible player benefits” which presumably means the Aces asked her to take a lower salary so they could bring Candace Parker in under the salary cap, and make that up in under the table money/benefits. Is that your read on what happened too?

Natalie: So, the truth is, I don’t really know and that’s the biggest issue I have with this whole thing. The league likes to move in such an opaque fashion that it feels like there’s something to hide and it does everyone a disservice.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Heather: Absolutely, and Kelsey Plum, Aces star and WNBA Players Association Vice President, said the exact same thing!

Natalie: I think this investigation needed to be thorough…the investigators should’ve had full access to all interested parties (including current Las Vegas players, coaches and staff)…and there needed to be an explicit accounting of what was done and what was said. That kind of clarity is how we make sure that whatever happens (assuming something did) never happens again. Instead what the WNBA gives us is this punishment — which, let’s be clear: stripping a team of a draft pick is unprecedented in the WNBA — and no real indication of what warranted it.

That said, if the Aces did nothing wrong, they have done an absolutely AWFUL job at responding to the WNBA’s investigation and punishment. The bullshit statement from the team after the punishment came down? Then Becky Hammon just throws Liz Cambage’s name out when she literally had nothing to do with this and wasn’t contacted or interviewed by investigators. Did the Aces spend so much money on that facility that they can’t afford a PR department now?

What are your thoughts on this whole mess?

Heather: The way Becky Hammon has handled this whole thing has been a real eyebrow-raiser for me. I agree with you that the obfuscation is ridiculous and so frustrating, and honestly if the only thing I can know for sure is what Hamby said when she got traded: that she was heartbroken because she’d been promised the Aces would take care of her, that’s enough for me to be thoroughly pissed at the Aces leadership, especially when you’ve got Becky out here talking about “Mom, Mom, Mom” stuff and Candace Parker talking about how her family is one of the main reasons she chose the Aces. The whole thing just does not sit right with me. And (!!), you know, when people have nothing to hide, they just speak plainly. The Aces have done the opposite of that.

I also think that this punishment, while unprecedented, is still kind of weak. What’s the real result? Becky misses two games at the beginning of the season and the Aces lose a late first round pick that might not have even made the team anyway (more on this in a minute, I’m sure). The Aces get a future hall of famer and are still the favorites to win the title. It’s like taking away an ice cream cone to give someone a huge cake and calling it an L.

Do you see any longterm impact from this? Or is it just going to be completely forgotten by the beginning of next week?

Natalie: I don’t think it’ll be forgotten because, again, the investigation didn’t clear anything up…and there’s been a slow leak of details and contradictory statements since the punishment was announced…so I think it’s going to stink things up for a long, long time. It’s “Cut Week” in the WNBA — when all the rosters are trimmed down to 11 or 12 players — and one of the things it’s sparked is a conversation about expansion of the league…and the way this whole Las Vegas thing has played out, it’s left me thinking: I think women’s basketball and its fans are ready for expansion, I don’t think the WNBA as a league is.

Heather: I don’t know if this week has hurt more than usual because we’re losing players I’ve felt really attached to, or if I’m getting attached to more players than usual because of the growth of NCAA Women’s Basketball, or if I’m really just so tired of seeing so many good women get fired out here in the world, but I actually have felt really upset seeing some of these cuts. Losing Didi Richards from the New York Liberty, for example. She was just a shining star of heart and charisma and love for the sport and for Brooklyn. Such a huge loss. Why do you think the W won’t actually makes moves to expand? The preseason game in Toronto last week sold out in ten minutes and they sold 90% of all the merch they sent. Fans are more than ready.

Natalie: I think the league has, historically, been overly cautious. I think they’re looking for a specific type of ownership — like the Tsais or Mark Davises of the world — who can really invest in a franchise. They’re looking for sustainability over the long term. And I think that’s a valid interest but I do worry about them missing the moment.

I mean, you look at the NWSL and how quickly it’s expanding. It’s grown from eight teams to 12 in just a decade and meanwhile, the WNBA hasn’t expanded at all over that same time period. And even though the NWSL is projected to grow to 16 teams by 2026, there are investors who think, seemingly, that the league isn’t expanding rapidly enough and now are looking to start another women’s pro soccer league to compete (the USL).

I know there are a lot of issues — race, gender presentation and sexuality most notably — that play into why soccer feels like a safer bet than women’s basketball, but still…it feels like there’s opportunity for the W to share in that explosive growth and instead, the league is twiddling its thumbs.

UNCASVILLE, CT - JULY 19: New York Liberty guard DiDi Richards (2) calls a play as she brings the ball up the court during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun on July 19, 2022, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT.

Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heather: Yep! The NWSL/USL is such a good way to contextualize this because when the WNBA started, it actually kicked off at the same time as a whole other women’s professional league, the American Basketball League (ABL). It was 1997, right after the Atlanta Olympics, and hopes were sky high, but there was no way in the world that two professional women’s basketball leagues were going to survive, so of course the ABL folded. I think sometimes the WNBA still operates like it’s a 1997 mentality out here and it’s not.

College athletes are coming out of school with their own fans, and then fans of like South Carolina, they’re following those players wherever they go. With NIL opportunities growing in the NCAA, the transfer portal, the media getting more and more invested in women’s college ball, there’s never been a better time for the W to expand. When they don’t, and they cut these players, they’re losing built-in fans!

And now we’re kind of getting to this place where it’s causing other struggles, which we saw on Wednesday, actually, when, after being cut from the Connecticut Sun, Alexis Morris strongly suggested that any player over the age of 30 should hang it up and make room for the rookies.

Natalie: Yeah, I feel for Alexis Morris because she’s a kid and she’s worked so hard to get to this point — and she just won a national championship — so I understand that sense of “I’ve earned this” that she must have. But that response really revealed two things about her (and, I think, to be fair about the new generation of NCAA talent): first, they don’t know the WNBA. They don’t know that there is no other sports league in the world, male or female, that is harder to get into than the W…and I don’t think that college coaches prepare players for that reality.

The second thing is — and this is a problem no matter what job you’re doing, honestly — that Alexis took her anger out on the other players, rather than where it should go: to owners who don’t want to add additional roster spots when teams so desperately need them and the league who is slow-walking expansion.

Heather: Absolutely agree. When you’re, what — 21, 22 — and you’ve been the star on every sports team you’ve ever played on in your life, more and more elite as the years go by, you have no concept of how hard it is to get into a league that only has 144 roster spots, and at a time when sports medicine is allowing players to extend their careers longer and longer.

Were there any cuts this week that genuinely surprised you?

Natalie: Charli Collier in Dallas. I mean, I feel like everytime we get together to talk about the W, I am perplexed by what the Dallas Wings are doing so, maybe, I shouldn’t be surprised at this point. But she’s an elite talent — a #1 pick in the WNBA draft just two years ago — and now she’s being waived? It just feels like absolute nonsense.

Heather: I agree with you! Dallas remains baffling to me, despite being one of my favorite teams! I have thoroughly enjoyed the propaganda from their preseason, though: every hype reel is just like “Oh wow, look our star and coach get along for real!”

Natalie: Didi Richards’ release in New York also surprised me. You talked about what she means to the Liberty as a source of positive energy but I’m perplexed by the decision as a basketball play. Is Richards the greatest offensive player at that spot? No, not at all…but the Liberty don’t need that. What that team needs is a guard that can defend because, as much as Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu bring you on the offensive end, they are defensive liabilities. Richards is a former Defensive Player of the Year out of college…the thing she is very good at — and far better at than all the other options — is defending. It makes absolutely no sense that they’d cut her.

When Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum come to New York and light the Liberty up for 20+ each because their guards can’t defend, they’re going to regret this decision.

Heather: Right again!

Natalie: It feels very much like Phoenix-era Sandy Brondello decision though…just in terms of “let’s count on our explosive offense to save our paltry defense.”

Heather: You are spot on! Truly when she came to the Liberty, that was my main worry! Walt was a terrible head coach, but he was a player development whiz under Cheryl Reeve. DiDi needed someone like him. Emily Engstler was the other huge surprise for me. I just feel like it is all upside for her and she has barely gotten started. She has real Emma Meesseman vibes to me, I hope she lands somewhere else.

Natalie: Agreed.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MAY 13: Chelsea Gray #12 of the Las Vegas Aces drives against Jonquel Jones #35 of the New York Liberty in the third quarter of their preseason game at Michelob ULTRA Arena on May 13, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Aces defeated the Liberty

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Heather: One other huge storyline in this off-season has been the RISE OF THE SUPER TEAM with the Aces and the New York Liberty. How do you see that unfolding in the W?

Natalie: I’m not as sold on the “Superteam” as everyone else seems to be, mainly because, more often than not, it doesn’t work out the way you think it will. There are so many examples of “superteams” failing: like earlier this season in the MNBA when Kevin Durant went to Phoenix to team up with Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton or when Kyrie Irving joined Luca Doncic in Dallas. Everyone thought those were game changing trades and, yet, both those teams got bounced from the playoffs early. And it’s also happened in the WNBA: in DC, when they brought Tina Charles in to play alongside Elena Delle Donne. Charles was a Mystic for two years and she and EDD ended up playing one game together. ONE! And then last year in Phoenix? Tina plus Skylar, Diana Taurasi and BG…it was their ticket back to the WNBA Finals…and well, we all know what happened there.

Heather: For sure, and also these Super Teams rely very often on older players who are kind of playing around the year because most of them are overseas, so their bodies are tired, and if one of them goes down, where does that leave you? The Liberty, by sports standards, are old! (I’m saying that, as I mentioned last year, as a 44-year-old who grunts and grumbles every time I have to, like, stand up from the floor).

Natalie: Is it just me or does it seem, especially with these superteams, that things are as unknowable as they’ve ever been in the W? I thought about this when we were drafting our fantasy teams last week but every team either has a boatload of new talent, lost at lot of talent, has a new coach…it just feels hard to anticipate what’s going to happen.

Heather: I love that feeling! It’s not like any other sports league on earth! One of my favorite things about the W is that I have my favorite teams and players, but also I just love watching women be awesome, and there are so many ways for that to happen in the WNBA.

Natalie: Okay, so now time to embarrass ourselves with some way too early predictions.

Heather: :joy:

Natalie: First up: MVP!

Heather: Am I going to jinx myself with my real guess or use my backup guess to preserve my championship hopes?

Natalie: LOL.

Heather: The first one! Breanna Stewart. I think we’re going to see that ice cold killer like she’s always been, but something new in New York too. I think we’re going to see Breanna Stewart+ this year, which is a bananas thing to say I know. Hurry and say yours so I don’t feel so vulnerable!

Natalie: If she stays healthy — and that’s a big if — Elena Delle Donne.

Heather: I am not joking when I say that I would SINCERELY love to see that. I don’t even care about the Mystics, but I am such a fan of her and Natasha Cloud. And I have a real soft spot for EDD like I do AD Durr because I have some overlap with their same kind of chronic illnesses and I hate that they keep getting taken out by them!

Natalie: Most Improved?

Heather: Allisha Gray. I think she is going to absolutely thrive in Atlanta. Tanisha Wright is just what she needs. You?

Natalie: Oh, that’s a great pick. I think I’m split on most improved so I’ll share my top two: Shakira Austin from the Mystics and/or Satou Sabally in Dallas. Austin had an incredible overseas season and I’m looking forward to that translating to the W. Satou is a player that I’ve just loved for years and I think, just based on what I’ve seen in the preseason, she’s in the best shape of her life so I’m hoping that she’ll finally get the opportunity to showcase what she’s capable of.

Heather: Oh, Satou got herself SHREDDED this off-season! And this is the first season she’s really healthy and, of course, I would love to see that. You know how I feel about my Saballys.

Natalie: I do indeed. Alright, next up: Rookie of the Year?

Heather: Okay so I think Aliyah Boston is going to have a huge learning curve. I loved the Fever/Wings preseason game because I have never seen Boston play against someone of Teaira McCowan’s size who also has such great footwork. I have never seen Aliyah Boston try to post up on the block and get pushed to the free throw line! And what makes that challenge even greater is that she’s not going to get those calls early on in her career, she’s gonna clang around down there and she’s the one who’s gonna get called for the fouls. However! I think she’s the real deal, I think she’s resilient as hell and I think — at the end of the season — she’s going to have grown so much!

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 10: WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Aliyah Boston pose for photos after Boston was drafted 1st overall by the Indiana Fever during the 2023 WNBA Draft at Spring Studios on April 10, 2023 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Natalie: I think that’s spot on…if Aliyah Boston can make that adjustment, sooner rather than later, she’s Rookie of the Year for sure. But if that curve is too steep for Boston, I do like Diamond Miller in Minnesota in the ROY race as well.

So let’s shift to teams now: which team do you think is going to surprise some folks?

Heather: I think the Sky are going to surprise people, I really do. I think everyone’s kind of written them off losing their big three vets, but that team is still loaded with talent. The additions of Courtney Williams and Marina Mabrey are like matches on gasoline, and if that locker room can keep it together — they are young and they have lost a lot of leadership — I think they are going to be fun, fun, fun. I also think there’s a real chance they’ll lead the league in technical fouls, but that’s a whole other story. :joy:

What about you?

Natalie: I feel like I keep coming back to the Mystics. I think you look around the league and there’s been so much upheaval with rosters and coaching…and then there’s DC. They have the same core group of players, a healthy EDD, the return of Kristi Toliver, and some great additions like Amanda Zahui B. and Brittany Sykes. Eric Thibault is technically a new coach but he’s been on the Mystics’ sideline with his dad for years. I think defensively, they’re the best team in the league on paper, so if they can deliver on that front, I think they’re going to surprise some folks.

Heather: That’s so exciting to read! What team do you think is going to win it all?

Natalie: Right now, the Aces. I stay in a state of perpetual fear about the minutes they put on their starters but they won a championship and added Candace Parker, Alysha Clark, and Cayla George so, for me, it’s almost impossible to pick anyone else.

I’ll pose that same question to you in a different way: who does your heart want to win it all and who does your head think is going to win it all?

Heather: I mean I want the Liberty to win it all because they’re my team but also, Natalie, they are SO BORING. How did they end up with the most boring roster on the face of the earth? I think it will be the Aces again, if I’m being honest. I think it’s not just the talent, I think Becky Hammon really is that good of a coach even though I am side-eying her every other breath right now. And just when I was starting to feel an actual affection for her for talking about being gay! We were rooting for you, we were all rooting for you, etc.

Heather: I have two more questions for you: 1) Who ends up with the most technicals at the end of the season? 2) How many cities will Cathy Engelbert actually narrow the expansion hopes list down to? Will it still be ONE HUNDRED at the end of the season?

Natalie: I’d never bet on anyone besides DT when it comes to Ts.

And I hope that the WNBA narrows that list to five or so possible cities…and that there’s a roadmap to the announcement by the seasons’ end and Toronto better be on the damn list.

Heather: This was an awesome first chat, Natalie!

Natalie: This was so great! What a treat to get to do this all season!

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Natalie

A black biracial, bisexual girl raised in the South, working hard to restore North Carolina's good name. Lover of sports, politics, good TV and Sonia Sotomayor. You can follow her latest rants on Twitter.

Natalie has written 410 articles for us.

Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this content! This is my second year of watching the W and the level of detail and analysis you guys provide is extremely helpful to a relative newbie like me. I am hoping Aliyah and my Fever win more than 5 games this year! Watching NaLyssa Smith in AU & the preseason makes me think she’ll have a breakout year. Though my heart breaks for my fave Emily Engstler, who was waived not once but TWICE this preseason. Rumor has it she’s still recovering from a back injury so I’m hoping she can heal up and play some minutes for a team that picks her up on hardship.

    Thanks for the mention of the ABL – only my vintage Jennifer Azzi Lasers jersey is proof that their existence in the late 90s wasn’t just a fever dream.

    Can’t wait for the weekly recaps!

  2. This is incredible! I’ve always found it so difficult to find games and information on the league (even with the league pass!). It’s great to have a weekly opportunity to catch up on what’s going on and what to look out for. Thank you!!!

  3. We need expansion! I agree that maybe I just feel more attached to players these, but I think it’s because they’re so good! Like, I get stressed thinking about the next draft classes and any of them not ending up on a roster. it’s wild! And it’s just demoralizing to see that the NWSL has been about to but the W can’t

    • Also, the Dearica Hamby stuff literally makes me cry. Sheryl Swoopes made a good point on her podcast, that I think is in line with what y’all are saying – players like Hamby are the players jr happens to. Not the superstars, it’s easier to sweep under the rug this way, and it just fills me with anger

  4. It sounds like the WNBPA is doing a separate investigation re: Becky and Dearica. Maybe there will be more transparency there?

    And a weekly column?! WE ARE SO BLESSED!!

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