Feature image photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The WNBA Semifinals are in full swing! The Aces lead the Wings 2-0 and the Liberty and Sun are tied 1-1. We’re heading to the visiting team arenas for Game 3 in both series. AND the MVP votes have been counted. As always, Natalie and Heather are here to chat it out.
Also, just a quick note that this is Heather’s last week at Autostraddle, but! She and Natalie will 100% be finishing out this year’s WNBA season with their weekly chats.
Heather: Good morning, Natalie! My gosh, we have so much to talk about! I don’t even know where to start! Where do you want to start? I will, as they sing in Sister Act 2, follow you wherever you may go!
Natalie: So, first of all, I love that movie…and second of all, you’re absolutely right. I was just thinking about how much WNBA news there is to cover — two semifinal series, the MVP award, the prospect of a new WNBA franchise, the rumors about a new coach in Chicago — and I’m not sure where to start.
But I guess we’ll talk MVP: the results of the closest MVP race in league history were announced just prior to last night’s game twos and, just as you’d predicted in the pre-season, Breanna Stewart of the New York Liberty collected the trophy. The award is Stewie’s second — after winning in Seattle in 2018 — but New York’s first ever MVP. How’d you feel, both about the award and the timing of its announcement?
1-of-1. Check her resume. 🤷♀️ pic.twitter.com/uIRivBhuV3
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) September 26, 2023
Heather: This is an awesome place to start because it touches so many of the things you just mentioned. So, when I said I thought Stewie would be MVP, I also thought I’d want that to be true by the time we got to this point in the season. Because I thought I wanted the Liberty to win the championship most of all. But! Wow! I was wrong! As usual, the WNBA season just gets into my heart and shakes it all up like a tossed salad because I love these players, this sisterhood, so so much.
Of course, I see the argument for Stewie. I thought the way she picked up her daughter, Ruby, at the press conference and said, “This is for you, Ruby” was just the sweetest thing. But, honestly, she’s my third choice now that we’re here. I do think Alyssa Thomas deserved it. Once you opened my eyes to thinking about the MVP in a way that rewards not just the best player on the best team, but also should be open to honoring players that are having unreal, record-breaking seasons, AT shot right up to the top of my list. Followed very closely by A’ja, because I do believe the Aces are still the best team in this league. Also, and we’ll get to this, there’s a very real chance AT and the Sun will be in those finals with the Aces, over the Liberty, which makes AT’s case even stronger. Both she and Aja seemed kinda furious and devastated and that broke my heart. So, I guess I Monkey’s Paw-ed myself. I got what I said I wanted, but now it’s not what I want! I’m so curious to hear how you feel about how these votes shook out this way.
Natalie: Yeah, I’ll admit that I was pretty disappointed in the outcome of the MVP. I don’t want to take anything away from Breanna Stewart — she is an incredible player and is one of the greats in the W — but, if I had a vote (and again, neither of us do), she would’ve been third on my list, behind AT and A’ja. As you noted, Alyssa Thomas just had a historic season…and when you break that many records, when you really are the most valuable player on your team…I feel like that’s something worth recognizing. And if voters aren’t going to go with the player making history, then traditionally the award has gone to the best player on the best team which is A’ja Wilson.
I’m really perplexed by it, to be honest, because if you look at their stats, they’re pretty even: in some categories, A’ja’s ahead, in other categories Stewie has a slight lead. But when you look at efficiency, when you look at field goal percentage…A’ja just has an edge…and it doesn’t make sense to me that she wasn’t the pick (if they weren’t going to give it to AT).
I think the voters weighed the losses that the Aces took to New York this season heavily and that might have given Stewart the edge in the end…I really don’t know.
Heather: I agree with all this. I think there are so many reasons A’ja ended up in third place that have nothing to do with her actual play. Like, if she hadn’t won last year, would she have won this year? Probably! If there wasn’t Aces backlash because that team is so unapologetically who they are? Probably! If the Aces had taken any of those last games against the Liberty, if Stewie was leading a team that isn’t in NYC, and on and on.
Natalie: Here’s my question for you: Stewart won the equivalent of the Electoral College. She was not the winner of the most first places votes (Thomas edged her out 23-20). She was not the winner of the most second place votes (Wilson edged her out, 25-23). And she was not the winner of the most third place votes (Thomas won that, 25-17). What do you think that says about the way voting is done and do you think it needs to change?
— Arielle (Ari) Chambers (@ariivory) September 26, 2023
Heather: Oh my god, calling it the Electoral College is SPOT-ON. I think the voting is completely convoluted. There’s also no reason for it. Based on my understanding, players are rewarded 10 points for a first-place vote, seven points for a second-place vote, five points for a third-place vote, three points for a fourth-place vote and one point for a fifth-place vote. We do this on the TV Team, right? When we’re voting for best movies and stuff. And we do it to adjust for the fact that we haven’t all seen every queer movie on earth; we all have different tastes; we want to be able to, say, honor movies that are so good and important but don’t have big budgets. We vote that way to accommodate a lot of built-in structural issues. None of those things apply to MVP voting.
I also read this hasn’t happened — where the runner-up finished with more first place votes than the winner — since Lauren Jackson and Sheryl Swoopes in 2005. So yeah, I do think the league needs to look at this process. How about you? What would you change if you could?
Natalie: I hadn’t heard that about LJ and Sheryl Swoopes. That’s an interesting stat to know. I agree that the league needs to look at the process…and expand the media pool (give us votes!)…and, most of all, find out whatever idiot gave that fourth place vote to A’ja Wilson and make sure they’re never allowed to vote for anything ever again. Not MVP, not All-Star, not even American Idol….that person should be banned!
Heather: Hahahaha! Me and you and Dawn Staley agree on that!
Natalie: The other thing I’d change about it is the timing of the announcement. I get that the league wants to be able to give the MVP trophy to the MVP on the court…and to make a splash with that presentation…but it can’t be announced on a game day moving forward. It’s just too much. I think the emotion of it all carried over into all the candidates’ performances last night and I don’t think we got better play because of it. I thought Stewie came out flat, AT just wasn’t herself and A’ja was overly aggressive and got herself into a little foul trouble early. The league did those players a big disservice with the timing of that announcement. Give them a day to absorb the news and to recover from the disappointment, if necessary.
Heather: There is no doubt in my mind that’s the correct move. You could see it all over A’ja and AT last night, how heartbroken they were.
So, let’s jump into what’s happening in the semifinals! The Aces lead the Wings 2-0 heading to Dallas for game three, and the Liberty and Sun are split 1-1 heading to Connecticut. These games have been unreal. On the Aces/Wings side of things, the Aces look more locked in and cohesive than they have all season. On the other side, the Sun are absolutely not backing down; they really believe they’re going to those finals and that they deserve to be there.
Natalie: The Liberty/Sun match-up has been fun to watch…which is a thing I can say because I’m invested in the outcome quiet like you are. I think the Mystics, though they lost that opening round series 2-0, exposed a vulnerability of the Liberty — in terms of responding to an aggressive defense — and the Sun have just picked that up and are running with it. They stumbled a bit last night…as I said, AT just wasn’t herself out there and, tbh, neither was Bonner. Rebecca Allen got in early foul trouble and that really hampered her ability to contribute.
I’ve been saying, since the early part of this season that the Liberty’s vulnerability was at the guard slot. As great as Courtney Vandersloot’s vision is on the offensive end of the court and as great of a shooter as Sabrina Ionescu can be, when it comes to defense, they’re lackluster. There was a point last night when Tiffany Hayes yelled, “you can’t guard me!” at Sabrina and I was just like, “well, in fairness, she hasn’t really proven that she can guard anybody.”
🗣 "You can't guard me!"
28 points and counting for Tiffany Hayes in Game 2 🔥 pic.twitter.com/Bd1gcAH8kU
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 27, 2023
Heather: Hahaha, Natalie!
Natalie: Listen, it’s true. The girl can shoot the lights out but her defense is lackluster at best
Heather: The Liberty’s defense and shot selection is absolutely KILLING THEM. It was obvious from the minute game one kicked off that a major part of Connecticut’s plan was for Tiffany Hayes to take it to Sabrina, and hat’s off to Stephanie White, because that was the exact right move. Sabrina’s really only able to play any kind of solid defense when there is serious help, but with AT and Bonner on the floor, Stewie and JJ can’t really jump off and help her because you can’t leave either of them open for a second. At first Hayes was just blowing up Sabrina on the baseline, which is Sabrina’s biggest weakness, but last night, she was just eating her lunch all over the court.
One-one-one, Sabrina’s defense is an ENORMOUS liability, which you and I have been saying since day one.
Natalie: What do you think helped the Liberty get the win last night?
Heather: The fact that AT and Bonner were out of it, was the biggest factor. And a close second is the play of Betnijah Laney on both sides of the ball. I feel like the main thing Stacy and I have been yelling at the TV during these games is THANK YOU, LANEY. She’s scoring all over the floor, her defense is so beautiful and tough, she’s getting the absolute hell beat out of her and not getting her head down about it, she’s keeping everyone else’s heads up. Laney has been the heart of this team for years now and she still is, in my opinion. Did you hear that stat in the third quarter last night — the third quarter of game two! — that it was the Liberty’s first transition points of the entire series? Stephanie White is running circles around them! What do you think we’re going to see as the series moves to CT? What do both of these teams have to do if they want to make it to the finals?
Natalie: I think you’re right about Laney: she’s so instrumental to the Liberty’s success because she’s contributing in all facets of the game. I think if New York is going to win this series, it really does depend on Laney being in her bag. The other thing I think is important is Jonquel Jones staying out of foul trouble. The way that she’s been guarding AT has been really brilliant: Thomas really chases the contact on her release and JJ backs off at exactly the right moment so she doesn’t give AT that contact, which throws off her shot, and keeps JJ out of foul trouble.
Natalie: On the other side, I think Thomas and Bonner need to come back, dialed in. Hopefully Natisha Hiedeman can rebound from whatever got sick during last night’s game…and contribute both defensively and as a zone buster, when the Liberty slide back into that defense.
Heather: Yep, I think that’s it! I was honestly praying Hiedeman just got hit in the stomach or something — “just” got hit in the stomach — and isn’t dealing with some kind of stomach bug that wrecks the team, or a concussion, which I am always on the lookout for now.
On Friday, the Wings will also host their first WNBA Semifinal game since the franchise arrived in Dallas. The home team is down 2-0 to the defending champs. Do you think they’ve got a shot of making this a series?
Heather: I do not.
I mean, you’re right, but you’re supposed to be the optimistic one here!
“We’re here for a reason… our team is competitors and they will be even more prepared.”
— Dallas Wings (@DallasWings) September 27, 2023
Heather: I know! That’s how good the Aces are! They steal my optimism! (While also giving me life? It’s very confusing.) Plus, like you, I wanna see A’ja’s revenge tour.
I looove the Wings and I think they’ve got so much to be proud of this season. I think they’ve got such a bright future ahead of them. I think Satou is gonna be an A’ja caliber player. But the Aces are locked in somehow even more than they were last season. They look like that untouchable team again.
Natalie: Last week I said that A’ja Wilson has been the best player of these playoffs but the Dallas Wings have been the best team of these playoffs…and…well…only one of those things is true right now.
Heather: But you were absolutely correct when you said it!
Natalie: A’ja Wilson has been, continues to be, phenomenal. Back to back to back 30 point games in the playoffs…the first time it’s ever been done in WNBA history….there really aren’t enough superlatives for her.
Natalie: And what’s crazy about it: you saw in the post-game interview how emotional she was about not getting the MVP. She was clearly hurt. But she came out there and did the work.
Heather: You could seriously tell from the second she walked into the building yesterday — and you said this, too, at the time — that she came to take care of business.
Natalie: Do I think the Aces are an untouchable team? Not yet. Don’t get me wrong: they’ve looked very good through these first two games but I’m still waiting for a game where their core four are clicking at the exact same moment.
In Game One, you had Kelsey show out but then she struggles with her shot in game two. Conversely, Chelsea Gray locked lackluster in game one but shot the lights out in game two. So, while I think the Aces look very good, I still think there’s another gear that they can shift into…and, frankly, that should be scary for the rest of the league.
Heather: That really is terrifying.
I’m curious what you think Candace Parker would add to this conversation, if she hadn’t gotten hurt.
Natalie: Look, I think Kiah Stokes is a decent post player — and obviously, A’ja feels really supported by her on defense…so much so that she wanted to share her DPOY trophy with Kiah — but Kiah Stokes is not a scoring threat.
Heather: I’m nodding.
Natalie: You put Candace Parker in that game and the defense has to stick to her…because she can score from anywhere on the floor…and that’d open things up for A’ja so much more.
Natalie: And now I’m just heartbroken thinking of what could’ve been.
Heather: Oh no! She’s still gonna get another ring!
Natalie: She probably will but you and I have been watching Candace Parker playing since she arrived in Knoxville. You know this isn’t how she wants to win another ring.
Heather: You’re right, of course. I think that’s why we both felt so sick when she got hurt. And it was like she knew too.
Okay I gotta pull us up out of this nosedive of feelings! Hey, Cathy Englebert’s finally moving on expansion?
Natalie: YES! According to reporting from The Athletic, the league is close to announcing a new WNBA franchise in the Bay. The team would play in Oakland and would be owned by the same group that owns the Golden State Warriors.
Heather: I can’t believe we’re finally getting some real details! How does Oakland feel for the expansion?
Natalie: It feels ideal. Jacob Low, the owner of the Warriors, has a strong history of supporting women’s basketball so it doesn’t feel like one of those situations — like Vegas, TBH — where a WNBA team is just a stalking horse to lure other sports franchises to the area.
Heather: I agree!
Natalie: I think there’s been a groundswell of support from the community in Oakland, including, of course, LGBT support, and that’s encouraging to see. I am a little weary about the San Francisco/Oakland of it all — according to The Athletic, they’d actually play their games at the Chase Center in San Fran — but hopefully it gets sorted in a way that keeps the team accessible to everyone.
Big year for Bay Area sports fans: first the announcement of an NWSL franchise and now this!
Heather: And you know a women’s sports-only bar is gonna open up to accommodate that, another huge win for the community. I’m frankly shocked that Cathy’s finally moving on this, and really, really relieved. The players and the fans need to actually SEE something happening because the league is at a tipping point. This feels like an excellent first step.
Natalie: Do you think it’ll only be one franchise that’s announced?
Heather: I’m really hoping for two, another east coast team, in Charlotte preferably. Sorry, that’s in North Carolina, for all you non-Southerners. A Charlotte/Atlanta rivalry would be so much fun.
Natalie: It really would. I only asked that question because, after reviewing hundreds of cities…if all we end up with is one extra team? I mean, I’m happy for Oakland but still…
Heather: Mmmhmm. It would be very cool to see Cathy doing more than the BARE MINIMUM.
Natalie: The other big news this week is that New York Liberty legend, Teresa Weatherspoon, might be on her way back to the W. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that T-Spoon is in negotiations with the Sky to take over as that franchise’s new coach. What do you think of this development?
Heather: Well, I bleeping LOVE Teresa Weatherspoon. And I am a firm believer that these star players who have continued to dedicate themselves to the league for their whole careers deserve these huge opportunities more than anyone. I mean, Carolyn Peck was the first Black head coach to win a NCAA championship in 1999 and then it didn’t happen again until Dawn Staley. It’s RIDICULOUS that there are still so many barriers to Black women getting head coaching jobs, even in the WNBA, and I would love for T-Spoon to take this chance and just absolutely crush it.
This Chicago team, as it is right now, feels like a great fit for her personality. The energy, the understanding of individual player needs and how those intersect with all the team needs, the experience, the gravitas. I want this for her so badly! Do you think it’s a good fit?
Just to drive this point home — sorry, I know I talk about college basketball too much — but T-Spoon lost her Louisiana Tech coaching job to Tyler Summitt, who was a child that was completely unqualified for that position, and who had an affair with one of his players. So.
Natalie: So, personally, I’m of two minds about this: on the one hand, I’m thrilled that Teresa Weatherspoon is coming back to the W. As you noted, when you think about the energy of this Sky team — the scrappy, never-say-die, fight and swagger — there are very few people who embody that more than Teresa Weatherspoon. So it feels like a good fit…I can’t wait to see how she molds Kahleah Copper into the MVP-level talent that we all know she can be.
That said, this is twice now…first with Becky and now with Spoon…where the NBA continues to play in the face of these female coaches. Hammon had done the work, T-Spoon had done the work. They deserve the opportunity to advance in the NBA if that’s what they want to do and the NBA seems content to limit them, repeatedly. What do these women have to do to get a shot at a head coaching job in the NBA? Have Hall of Fame careers? They’ve done that. Win championships as a coach? Becky’s done that. Be absolutely beloved by the players they coach? Spoon definitely did that. Like, what the fuck, do these women have to do?!
Natalie: The same thing that got Teresa Weatherspoon ousted at LA Tech is keeping her out of the NBA job she’s paid her dues to get…and I can’t blame her (or Becky) for being tired of these NBA owners passing them over and saying, “fuck it, I’ll just go back to the W, where I’m respected and appreciated.”
Heather: That’s absolutely right. No one could have said it better.
Handled business at The 🏠@_ajawilson22: 30 PTS // 11 REB // 2 BLK // 55% FG@cgray209: 23 PTS // 5 REB // 8 AST // 59% FG@Kelseyplum10: 18 PTS // 3 AST // 40% FG // 4 3PM@JackieYoung3: 13 PTS // 9 REB // 4 AST@kstokes41: 4 PTS // 7 REB // 2 STL // 2 BLK#RaiseTheStakes pic.twitter.com/yDmUjue379
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) September 27, 2023
What’s your prediction for what’s gonna happen Friday, in both the Aces/Wings game and the Sun/Liberty game? Dp the Aces wrap it up and go home and rest? Do the Wings pull out at least one? Do the Sun start a home sweep? Do the Liberty figure it out and look like the Liberty again?
Natalie: I really want the Wings to win at least one game in this series but I don’t feel confident enough in their performance thus far (stop arguing with the refs! it’s messing up your game!) to predict it. So, yeah…I’m going with the Aces to close out that series on the road.
Heather: Teaira! You already got benched once for standing there talking to the refs while the game plays out on the other end of the floor!
Natalie: This is what I’m saying! She and Satou both got undone by the refereeing last night.
I think the Sun rebound from their disappointing performance in Game 2 and take Game 3 at home. I’m not betting on a sweep in Connecticut, though…I think we’re heading to a Game 5 between the Sun and Liberty.
What do you think?
Heather: You said last night that it’s almost impossible to imagine it NOT going to a game five. I hope it does, honestly, because, while I don’t think it’s the best thing for either team that’ll face down the Aces, I think it’ll be great for the game and also great for Alyssa Thomas. The Liberty really dominated the major nationally televised games this year, which of course is a factor in the MVP voting, because it’s also a factor in everything that hits social media and SportsCenter. I want the Liberty to win, but I also want what’s best for women’s basketball, and I really do have nothing but love and respect for AT.
Now it’s time to turn it over to Carmen for her lusty fashion pick of the week!
And all I have to say about that is, respectfully and lovingly to Natasha Howard’s partner, but: Lord I have seen what you have done for others. And I would like that for me.