Feature image photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
The WNBA regular season has come to a close, and playoffs start THIS WEDNESDAY. Luckily, just today, Spectrum and Disney got their greed worked out and ESPN is back on TVs for people in NYC and LA. Now we can watch all the ups and downs and drama and magic! But first, Natalie and Heather are here to wrap-up the final games and peep the playoffs.
Heather: Natalie, we made it through the whole WNBA season and neither of us suffered any serious injuries from leaping around and shouting! And now the playoff field is set, games start this very week, and the season’s awards will start rolling out soon. How are you feeling?
Natalie: Well, while I might not have suffered any serious injuries, my fantasy team was not so lucky and I ended up having an abysmal season. Just week after week of not having half my roster due to injuries. But not you! Congratulations for winning our Autostraddle Fantasy League for the second year in a row!
Heather: I would like to thank DeWanna Bonner and also Alexis Morris for making DeWanna Bonner so mad at the beginning of the season!
Here’s to us plus-35s!
Natalie: Here, here!
But to answer your question more directly, I am so excited about these playoffs, in large part because the final games of the regular season gave us a preview of what the playoffs hold in store. Chicago edging out Connecticut in overtime and Washington beating New York at the buzzer! It’s just a reminder that playoff basketball is here and there’s far more parity in the league than the standings might suggest. How are you feeling heading into these playoffs?
Heather: Exactly like that! I was honestly so excited for the Mystics yesterday (don’t tell Stacy) because they completely leveled the playing field with that AMAZING buzzer-beater win. Their health issues have been heartbreaking this year, as you’ve talked about with so much heart, so to see them heading into the playoffs with a more full roster and a big win? What a triumph. And they still didn’t have Shakira Austin!
The Sky win was exciting in very similar ways. That team thrives on being counted out and then showing out. Plus Kah signed a huge contract extension over the weekend and has to be feeling super confident. I started this season thinking no one could beat the Aces in a series and now I really do think something magical and nuts could happen! Maybe even — especially even?? — to the Liberty.
— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) September 11, 2023
Natalie: Don’t let Stacy hear you talking like that!
Since you brought up the Sky we should acknowledge that we were both wrong in our predictions last week. We both said that we thought the Chicago Sky would be on the outside looking in, come playoff time, but they won 5 of their last six to beat out the Los Angeles Sparks for that 8th and final playoff slot. First, were you surprised to see the Sky come on so strong and second, what do you think the future holds for the LA Sparks?
Heather: I kinda loved being wrong about them! Total Sky move to show us!
I was actually really surprised and sad for the Sparks, but I do think they have a lot to be excited about for the future. I can see a world where the Sparks get the second pick in the draft and Angel Reese comes out and ends up there, which feels like a good fit in a whole lot of ways. They played with such a hurt roster ALL YEAR so that will likely be better next season. Curt Miller continues to drive me nuts but there’s no denying he’s a great coach. Their fan base stays hyped year-round. I’ll be shocked if they miss the playoffs again next year. How about you?
Natalie: I mean, I think reforming that franchise into a really professional organization was always going to take time but the injuries this year truly did not help. They’ve got big decisions ahead of them: two of their most consistent players this year, Nneka Ogwumike and Jordin Canada, are both at the end of their contracts. I can’t imagine Nneka playing anywhere else but I truly, truly hope the franchise doesn’t try to lowball her as this league is wont to do with players they feel like won’t go elsewhere (see also: the Vanderquigs in Chicago). Give Nneka the SUPERMAX deal she deserves.
Heather: Imagine trying to lowball NNEKA OGWUMIKE.
Natalie: Canada’s going to be a challenge as well because she’s had such a great season and shown such incredible improvement under Curt Miller’s system. But, with Jewell Loyd, Kahleah Copper, and Betnijah Laney already signing their extensions with their respective franchises, the market for veteran scoring guards is scarce…so Canada could definitely see some enticing offers from other franchises. If the Sparks want to keep Canada in LA, they’re going to have to slide up to the table with a legit deal.
A Queen and A Goat all in One!!! 👸🏾🐐 https://t.co/NbBlKIkZLd
— Jordin Canada ✨ (@jordin_canada) September 10, 2023
Heather: I absolutely agree with both of those things — and maybe it’s naive, but I think the Sparks will pay up for both of them.
Natalie: I was, actually…especially in the case of Jewell Loyd who I think we’d heard a lot of rumblings that she might be interested in playing for her hometown team, the Chicago Sky. But while I think the Sky are going to get better eventually because Dwyane Wade has joined that ownership group…it’s still hard to look at that franchise — without the draft picks and without the facilities — and think that their future, in the short term is going to get better. Loyd’s going to stay in Seattle and continue to lead that franchise through their evolution.
I think it’s telling, though, that Loyd and Copper both signed just two year deals.
Heather: Absolutely agree.
Natalie: I was surprised by the Laney signing as well…if only because I think she’s improved her stock so much this season — she’s the lynchpin of that New York defense — that I think that she could’ve fetched a premium. I’m surprised she didn’t at least try to test the market in free agency to see what opportunities were out there. I think she deserves more money than what New York is paying her, TBH.
But, look, I think there are a lot of things that go into these decisions, beyond the money. I think Laney’s someone who’s been a journeyman (journeywoman?) in the league…moving from Chicago to Indiana to Atlanta and finally to New York…and I think, after going through that, there’s some security to knowing where you’re going to be and who you’re going to be playing with.
Heather: I agree with that too! I assume one of the main selling points was that they’re going to try to keep this whole team together and try for some kind of dynasty situation.
However! One thing I’ve learned about Laney in the past years is that she is an excellent negotiator and money manager, thanks to her mom (also a basketball legend). Like she kept her own house when she got married over the summer because she’s accruing even more equity in it before she sells it in the NYC real estate market. She was just casually explaining that during Team USA training this year. I also think, like you mentioned, she’s improved her stock even more this year. It’s so telling that in that Athletic player survey, she’s one of the top players that other players says is underrated, and when you get announcers who watch all the games, they are nothing but endless praise for her. If you follow the WNBA simply by the highlights, you might miss her contribution, but if you watch the league, you know she’s crucial.
As a Liberty fan, I am THRILLED she’s staying.
Natalie: I bet you are!
I was going to add though…obviously, I think money matters and I want to see these players paid commensurate with their talents…but I also think, once you get to this level, these players want to win. And whether the Liberty do it this year or next year, Betnijah Laney’s as close as she’s ever been to a championship…and I can’t imagine that doesn’t figure into her calculus somehow.
Heather: Do you also get the sense — this kind of goes along with what you were saying about the two-year deals — that the players are kind of expecting this league to get remade in the next few years, money-wise?
Natalie: I absolutely do. The league’s going to add at least two franchises and renegotiate their TV deal soon and I think everyone expects that to be a windfall for the W. After that, I fully expect the Players’ Union to opt out of the CBA and negotiate new terms for their deals.
Heather: That feels so exciting! These players deserve so much more!
Natalie: So, shall we turn our attention to the playoffs? What first round match-up has you most intrigued?
STEW YORK CITY TO TIE THE GAME
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) September 10, 2023
Heather: I’ll tell ya: I think the Mystics have a real shot to upset the Liberty! A lot of the commentary on Sunday was about how Stewie and JJ weren’t shooting well, but they weren’t shooting well because the Mystics absolutely stymied them with their physicality. The Liberty had no answers for getting pushed around, it got them frustrated and frazzled, and they stayed that way. One of the Liberty’s great strengths is they just wear people out. You saw this in the Chicago game last week. Even if other teams can hang in there a full half or three quarters, they eventually just run out of juice. That also happened with the Mystics but they didn’t give up. There was never second they thought they were out of that game. Even that last second out of bounds play, complete confidence. So much of high seeding is a psychological impact on your opponents, and now what do the Mystics have to be afraid of?
Also, of course, nothing delights me like Post-Season Arike.
Natalie: Obviously, that win against the Liberty yesterday on New York’s home court has to have the Mystics believing that they’ve got a chance to pull the upset in this series. To have beat the Liberty without Shakira Austin…to have outscored New York in the paint…those are things that build your confidence.
(Not that this team needs that boost because I think Natasha Cloud and Brittany Sykes are convinced that they can beat anyone, anywhere, at any time.)
Heather: I love that about them!
Natalie: But something about yesterday felt like…and I’m sorry to make a college basketball comparison but it’s just what came to mind first…do you remember when South Carolina lost to Kentucky in the SEC Championship in 2022?
Heather: Oh I sure do.
Natalie: I don’t know that South Carolina wins the championship that year if Kentucky doesn’t upset them in that SEC championship. They’d been kinda coasting through their schedule, easily dispatching their opponents, and taking for granted that they need to really fight to win a championship. That loss shifts South Carolina into a different gear and establishes a different level of focus…and they don’t lose again.
That loss to the Mystics felt like that SEC championship to me.
Heather: That’s such a good comparison and a way more optimistic read than mine! I like it!
Natalie: I don’t want to count out this Mystics team. Cloud and Sykes have been a dynamic duo to watch and Elena Delle Donne can light any team up at any moment…and, obviously, if they can get Shakira Austin back, that’s huge. But I think that was a loss at the exact right time for the Liberty and I’m expecting them to come into the playoffs with a renewed focus.
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) September 11, 2023
Heather: That’s a great read. I’m just so excited for this series now, even more than I was. Let’s touch on the other match-ups! Aces vs. Sky. Today ESPN called the Gray-Plum-Young backcourt the best in WNBA history.
Natalie: We’ve underestimated the Sky already and they’ve proven us wrong but I’m not sure they have enough to get past the Aces in that first round match-up. That hill just feels insurmountable. They got swept by Las Vegas in the regular season and the Aces are 19-1 at home. What do you think?
Heather: I think you’re absolutely right. The Sky exceeded expectations snagging a play-off spot. The Aces would need to have a historically terrible collapse for the Sky to actually win a series against them.
Natalie: What about the Minnesota-Connecticut series? Who do you expect to come out on top in that series? Connecticut won their regular season series, 3-1.
Heather: I think Alyssa Thomas isn’t going to win MVP, and I think on some level she knows that, and is going to keep — in her own words — “making it look easy” to do impossible things. I haven’t had a good read on Minnesota all season, so I won’t pretend to have some sudden insight into them now. Napheesa Collier hasn’t cooled off and if anyone in this league knows how to get the most out of players in the playoffs, it’s Cheryl Reeves. These two teams are similar in the sense that they both feel like they still have something to prove. The Lynx might take it to three games, but I think the Sun win. How about you?
Natalie: This is an interesting series to me because these teams feel like two sides of the same coin to me. Both teams are kind of work horse teams that aren’t necessarily going to be flashy but they’ll grind it out to get the win. But the big difference between them is the consistency. Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner are going to show up for Connecticut every night and Tiffany Hayes is a reliable scoring option. Compare that to Minnesota where Collier’s the team’s lone consistent scoring threat. You’ll have a game where Diamond Miller will show out or Kayla McBride or Tiffany Mitchell will have an outstanding game…but the very next game, those players are MIA.
Heather: You nailed it.
Natalie: So I think this series could go three games, if the Lynx can show some consistency, but if they look like the team that lost to the Fever yesterday? The Sun are going to close it out early and get some rest before they face the winner of that Mystics/Liberty series.
Did you think that regular season closer between Dallas and Atlanta was a good harbinger of what fans can expect from their playoff series?
Heather: Your thoughts on the Lynx/Sun us honestly a perfect segue to the Dream vs. Wings. Atlanta lost by almost 20 yesterday, meaning — I’m pretty sure — they dropped all their games to the Wings this year. On paper, that just doesn’t seem right. It feels like the Wings and the Dream are actually a perfect match-up. Arike/Sabally/McCowan vs. Howard/Gray/Parker. It seems like it could be a 125 pt per team shoot-out! The Wings keep destroying the Dream in the paint. They had 46 points in the paint to the Dream’s 28 yesterday, and almost twice as many rebounds (29 v 17). And I don’t think Atlanta has an answer for that because Dallas is a damn factory of stellar post play. McCowan, Howard, Kuier, Brown — and if all four of them somehow manage to get in foul trouble or run out of steam, just slot Satou Sabally down there! The Dream don’t have an answer for that, I don’t think.
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 10, 2023
Natalie: I think when the Wings were putting together this roster in the off-season, I was admittedly perplexed because “who needs that many post-players?!” But there seems to have been a method to Dallas’ madness because their post-rotation really does wear on other teams…and they just beat them into submission. And you can help in the post, either, because you give Satou space to work or you leave Arike out to do Arike things…
Heather: That’s absolutely correct!
Natalie: Even if the Dream were operating at their best and I don’t think anyone thinks they are, the Wings would be a difficult match-up for them. I’m expecting Dallas to take it home.
Heather: Me too! I do have a lot of hope for the Dream though! I really do! But maybe not this year.
So I think we’re both saying the top seeds will likely advance in all rounds? And I’m saying, of all those, the Mystics scare me the most.
Natalie: I’d agree with you.
Heather: Last week, we found out about Carly Usdin’s new series, The Syd + TP Show!
Natalie: This is quite the glow-up for Carly…from talking about the travails of Jenny Schechter on To L And Back to this?
Heather: If we suffer, we shall also reign!
This show really does look so good and gay. I have watched the trailer about ten times and cackled every time. Syd Colson belongs on TV.
Natalie: Syd Colson was absolutely made for this.
You and I have talked, for years, about how great a reality TV series based on the W would be but I’m not sure this is what we had in mind. But still, I love it.
Heather: Oh no, we were thinking Hard Knocks — this is like Clown Knocks. Gotta start somewhere.
Natalie: In fairness I vacillated between Hard Knocks and Basketball Wives but yes.
Heather: To stay on theme, Carmen’s out of the office, but here’s my nomination for Fit of the Week.
Natalie: Always the Aces.
Heather: I understand why people hate them. They are too charismatic for anyone else to compete.
Natalie, it has been the most fun talking through this whole season with you every Monday, an absolute highlight of my entire summer!
Natalie: It’s been my absolute pleasure!
Heather: Next week we’ll see how smart we are about post-season basketball!
Natalie: Fingers crossed for great basketball and no injuries!
Heather: Here, here!