Feature image photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
It’s WNBA crunch time. Two teams were eliminated from playoff contention this week, and two more aren’t far behind. The Aces and Liberty are still vying for that top seed, and they meet again this week in New York to take it head-to-head. The Aces also visited the White House this week, charming the hell out of everyone, including us (as usual).
Natalie: Since we talked last week, two WNBA teams — the Phoenix Mercury and the Seattle Storm — have played themselves out of the playoff race, despite having 5/6 games left to play on the season. I thought we’d start with those teams this week.
The Phoenix Mercury are currently sitting at 9-25 for the season and face a lot of question heading into the post-season. Will Diana Taurasi come back? Will Brittney Griner come back? Do the Mercury keep Nikki Blue in the role of head coach? Looking back on this season, what were the high points and the low points for the Phoenix Mercury…and what would you like to see them do so they can get better?
Heather: I’m so glad you started here. I really wanted to talk about this and offer fans of both teams some encouragement, and also just W fans in general. If you’d said, two years ago, that both the Storm and the Mercury wouldn’t be in the playoffs in 2023, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Phoenix had the longest running playoff streak at ten years, and the Storm had been seven years in a row. On the flip side of that, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me the Liberty would be vying for the number one seed overall.
The caliber of talent in this league, the legitimate change-making rookie classes, the retiring icons — all of those things mean that every season is a new story. I know this really sucks for Phoenix and Storm fans, but I think they have a lot to be hopeful about. I know we keep saying it, but the fact that BG was able to play at all this season, and at such an elite caliber, remains the most shocking and wonderful thing. She’s not even back to full strength yet, but I feel like she’ll be closer to that next season. They’ll likely have a nice draft pick in a stacked draft class.
I don’t think Diana Taurasi will retire. There was a package about her during the game last night and the training staff were talking about how they have to bully her into going home, even on her rest days. I think she’s going to play until she can’t walk. I think Nikki Blue was in an absolutely impossible position, and I would really love to see her get a chance to coach at least a full season with a whole and healthy squad, but I don’t know. It kind of seems like prime time to clean house.
What do you think the Mercury need to do to be contenders again? And then same questions, but for the Storm?
Natalie: So, I think you’re right about the conditions for WNBA teams changing pretty rapidly and there should definitely be some level of optimism for fans of both of these teams…though I think, without question, Phoenix has the more difficult road to get itself back to a playoff caliber/championship contending team. Obviously the return of BG was such a high point for the franchise and the W….but then it felt like everything else was just one speed bump after another….the security/flight issues, the issues with Skylar, the injuries to key players…and so no matter how great BG looked, it was hard for the team to get any momentum.
Like you, I’d like to see Nikki Blue back in the head coaching job for another year and see what she might be able to do with a healthy roster. Last month, the Mercury hired Nick U’Ren as their general manager so I’m anxious to see what he does in his first few months on the job. Signing BG or just knowing whether BG feels like she wants to keep playing is, in my book, the #1 thing on his to-do list and then he has to build around her (or start evaluating who might fill that void). I think Taurasi’s coming back for one more year…the All-Star Game being in the Valley next year feels like the perfect swan song. But even if she’s back, U’Ren has to really start to transition this team out of the Diana Taurasi era…the Fever didn’t do it effectively when Tamika Catchings was winding down her career and it’s made their rebuild considerably tougher than it had to be.
Heather: Wow, that Fever comparison is real and stark! I still don’t know if the Fever have fully recovered from Catchings retiring!
Natalie: I think the Storm are actually in a much better position than the Mercury even though there’s only one game separating them in the standings right now. Jewell Loyd had shown the type of leadership that’s needed to lead this team, Ezi Magbegor continues to get better and better, and I like what they’ve gotten out of Jordan Horston and Ivana Dojkic at points this season. If Gabby Williams makes it to this roster earlier in the season, I think they’re in the playoff hunt.
Heather: I absolutely agree with that!
Natalie: I want to see the Storm keep Noelle Quinn at the helm and make a serious play for Skylar Diggins in free agency. What do you think could help the Storm?
Heather: I also want to see Noelle Quinn return. Coaching the Storm through this season, knowing they were unlikely to make the post-season for the first time in so long, and with so many young players and a superstar putting on a career-best show — that’s not an easy task. I think most coaches in this league would’ve seriously struggled with that, and likely wouldn’t have been able to keep the locker room from tearing itself apart.
Jewell Loyd looked so, so sad and disappointed last night, but the depth of character she’s shown this season to pull everyone around her up, to make them all better for the future, despite also knowing the Storm were super long-shot playoff hopefuls — I can only think of a handful of players who are capable of that kind of leadership. They’ve also got their new arena and their Aces-challenging practice facility on the way, and we know that’s going to be a big draw for free agents. I know a lot of people think Caitlin Clark is the solution to every woe in the W, but not here. I think what the Storm could use is another veteran shooting guard who’s also not afraid to get down in the paint. Honestly, what the Storm need is Betnijah Laney — but they can’t have her!
Natalie: See, I think the Storm need a dedicated PG like Sue Bird was who can free Jewell up to just be a scorer instead of a scorer and the team’s primary ball-handler. But then again, Seattle does well with the strong defensive-minded wing (see also: Alysha Clark). Laney’s contract is coming up and with all those 4 max deals (or near there), I do wonder if New York will have the money leftover to pay Laney what she deserves.
Heather: That worry has been gnawing at me all season. Who do you think would be the Storm’s best get if they go for a point guard?
Natalie: You’re right to worry: it’s the problem that’s playing out in Vegas right now, right? Close to max deals for the four anchors of that offense — A’ja Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young — and they can barely afford to pay anyone else. Candace Parker and Alysha Clark both take paycuts to play there, I think.
But to answer your question: I think Skylar’s the best option, by far.
Heather: That would be a dangerous team! And so exciting!
So, what other two teams do you think are also unlikely to make the playoffs?
Natalie: That’s tough to say but I think the Fever and the Sky. I just don’t think they’ll be able to catch up to the Sparks who had won six straight before dropping that game to the Sun yesterday.
Heather: I agree.
Natalie: And that’s crazy, right? Because the season started out so promising for the Sky.
Heather: Yeah, no. This is NOT something I would have predicted before James Wade left! And I also wouldn’t have predicted, even at the All-Star break, that the Sparks were going to come to life and win six in a row!
Natalie: It’s just a matter of the Sparks getting healthy, truly. Jordin Canada’s been great, Nneka’s been a rock…and then you’ve had different players stepping up when the team has needed it. Azurá Stevens, Katie Lou Samuelson, and Layshia Clarendon in particular have come up big.
Heather: I feel like we are in the middle of a Layshia Clarendon revival, and I love it. They have just been tossed around from team to team, cut, hardship contracts, and on and on. To see them thriving with the Sparks in a really meaningful way that’s likely going to help push the Sparks into the playoffs — something I’m not sure many people expected two months ago — has been so rewarding. I also think this is one of the few teams that’s on a real upswing here at the end of the season, which is exactly when you need to be on an upswing, and as much as Curt Miller drives me absolutely bananas, I do think that’s the mark of a veteran coach. We talked about this last week re: Sandy Brondello. Getting a team to peak at the right time is a real skill. And, honestly, any day I can see Nneka Ogwumike’s hard work, skills, and next-level leadership pay off, that’s a good day!
I’m also happy for these Sparks fans who have been asking us all season to give them SOMETHING to hope for!
Natalie: See, I don’t know why people didn’t expect it from Clarendon: this is literally what they do! Think about when they were in Minnesota and how they willed that team to victory. I think, with the short rosters and Layshia being injury prone…it’s hard to convince teams to take a chance. But anytime Clarendon can get that opportunity, they’re going to show and prove.
Heather: And look damn good doing it.
While it looks like the Atlanta Dream will probably make the playoffs, they are going into the post-season, limping. They’ve lost their last 3 games and gone 2-8 over their last 10. After their loss to Dallas on Saturday, Head Coach Tanisha Wright didn’t mince words, telling her team that they needed to grow up. What do you think is going on in Atlanta and can they right the ship in time for a playoff run?
— WNBA Got Game (@wnbagotgame) August 28, 2023
Heather: The Dream and the Sparks seem like they’re on exact opposite trajectories, don’t they? I honestly don’t know what’s going on in Atlanta. The Fever loss was especially demoralizing. They made a 16-point comeback, went up double digits, and then just fell apart! I know Kristy Wallace was having one of those weird unconscious games where everything she threw into the air went through the hoop, but even so! The key for the Dream for the rest of this season is going to be mental toughness. It SUCKS to drop that many games in a row, and seemingly out of nowhere. It gets inside your head, it creeps into the locker room, it’s the wrong time of the year for it to be happening. The Dream have so much talent, now they need to prove that they have the tenacity to bounce back from adversity.
Speaking of which: The Mystics have Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin healthy, together, for the first time since, like, June? Do you think they can close out these last six games strong and actually make some noise in the playoffs?
Natalie: Gosh, I hope so…but I feel like Charlie Brown and the Mystics are Lucy….and everytime I think things are going to get better, they pull the ball away at the last second. So, suffice to say, I’m trying not to get my hopes up.
In all seriousness, though, those three, plus Brittany Sykes (who I think should be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation) and Natasha Cloud make for a formidable line-up. The questions I have are: 1. can they rebuild their chemistry in time to make some noise down the stretch and 2. is Eric Thibault a legit coach or a nepo baby?
Heather: You’re right, those are the exact questions. Number one? Absolutely. This is a team that’s had good amount of time together, they seem to really like each other, and you can already see them starting to get back into the flow. Watching them on transitions and help defense over the weekend, I was like, “Yeah, they still got it. They’re still working together.” As for Eric Thibault, I honestly don’t know. I can’t get a read on him, but that might be because I don’t pay much attention to him. What do you think about that?
Natalie: I genuinely don’t know. At times when I’ve watched the Mystics this season, it feels like he’s out of his depth and the thing keeping them afloat is Natasha Cloud acting as a player-coach. I hope he’s up to the task but I truly have no idea.
Last week, we talked about the MVP in the WNBA and it felt like afterwards things got very heated. A’ja goes off for 53 against the Dream, tying the scoring record held by Lyin’ Liz Cambage. The Connecticut rolls out a full-court press to make the case for Alyssa Thomas, including a sizzle reel, her teammates rocking her jersey and her throwing out the first pitch at the Red Sox game. THEN, Stewie hops in the chat and is like, “don’t forget about me!” She puts up 38 points in 3 quarters against the Lynx.
Float like a butterfly, sting like AT.
Introducing…The Beast Inside. Quiet and reserved off the court, absolutely fearless on it.
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) August 24, 2023
Heather: Unreal. Natalie! UNREAL.
Natalie: Neither of us have a vote in the MVP race but how are you feeling about how everything’s ratcheted up?
Heather: I don’t know! 😭
How did all three of them go EVEN MORE BERSERK? I think what AT is doing is so endlessly impressive in large part because she’s doing it every. single. night. Like yes, of course, Stewie and A’ja’s performances this week were otherworldly, and Stewie didn’t even play in the fourth quarter, but AT just broke records doing what she’s been doing all season long. Also, I’m sorry, but she looked SO GOOD in that Red Sox jersey. Watching what they do these last two weeks is going to be really special, I think! Did anything change from your thoughts last week?
Natalie: Well, I’m a little more scared of Alyssa Thomas than I was before…which, frankly, I did not think was possible.
But, really, I’m just glad I don’t have a vote because I’d be pulling my hair out trying to make a decision.
Heather: Absolutely. So, speaking of A’ja, the Aces finally got to go to the White House to celebrate their championship last season, and the whole thing was so joyful! How’d you feel seeing them there getting their flowers from Vice-President Harris, and also! Do you think the Aces are ushering in a new era of WNBA celebrity?
Natalie: The whole thing really was great.
And, I guess, I hope that the Aces are ushering in a new era of WNBA celebrity but I’m not convinced yet that they have yet. I think the Aces have a great combination of players with gregarious personalities and a genuine understanding about the social media landscape…and that comes together to create magic. Other teams in the league haven’t been as judicious about capturing their players’ identities and personalities and marketing them. I love it.
That said, last week A’ja tied the WNBA scoring record and she’s still out there wearing someone else’s shoe. SOMEONE, GIVE A’JA WILSON HER OWN SHOE. Nike can hand out a signature shoe to Sabrina Ionescu and Elena Delle Donne. Puma can give one to Stewie. But A’ja doesn’t have one? Not even a A’ja Wilson signature leg sleeve?!
So as much as I want to believe that the game is changing, it also feels like it’s very much the same as it always was.
Heather: That’s absolutely right!
Natalie: Before we toss it over to Carmen, we’ve got a special Monday game tonight…another Aces/Liberty match-up. Who you got?
Heather: I’m going to jinx them, but I think the Liberty! They’re playing lights out and the Aces are in a bit of a funk. What about you?
Natalie: I agree with you. I think the Liberty are just playing too well right now. Also? Hot take: I think Becky Hammon should sit Kelsey Plum or Chelsea Gray. She won’t but she should. This team is tired and she needs to start resting her players ahead of the playoffs.
Heather: Chelsea! Sit Chelsea! My fantasy team will be dead with KP!
Er, or, you know, what’s best for these real life humans I adore.
Natalie: LOL. Perfect way to end this week’s conversation.
Shall we kick it over to Carmen for her Fashion Fits of the Week?
Heather: Let’s do it! As always, this remains the absolute best way to start the week! Thank you, Natalie!
Carmen! We’re here for your FITS OF THE WEEK!
Carmen: I’m scared because Natalie said I CAN’T PICK THE ACES.
Natalie: I didn’t say you can’t pick the Aces!
Carmen: No I heard you! You said it!
Natalie: I said that people thought you were being biased because you’re always picking the Aces.
Carmen: Okay, but in my defense!
I rest my case.
Natalie: Also, true! If there’s a better fit, I challenge someone to name it!
Carmen: I’m saying though!
Okay, I do have some other round ups… here I come with them.
So first, as I promised last week, I am surveying all of the W teams in a lookout for who is — overall — the swaggiest, and I have to say that across the board, Chicago came through dripping.
Everything litty, we keeping it 🔥H O T🔥 pic.twitter.com/yEh2jzpaiX
— Chicago Sky (@chicagosky) August 24, 2023
There is not a bad look or weak link in the bunch, which is surprisingly difficult to pull off team-wide! Everyone has that one friend who love but they style choices are a little circumspect lol. But I think the Sky must have a group chat or something because, every single person got in line.
Speaking of group projects, I also wanted to shout out the Sun because coordinating the entire team wearing AT’s jersey was as heartfelt, sweet of a move as it was an impressive sartorial one. I really loved that each teammate wore the the jersey in a way that matched their own personality and gender presentation, you know? DiJonai Carrington and Natisha Hiedeman are giving femme and masc approaches to the same fit and I am here for it. But obviously the real winner here is DeWanna Bonner wearing AT’s 25 as an early 00s throwback jersey dress???
— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) August 24, 2023
Shout out to Alyssa Thomas for real, because having your fiancée wear your number while also holding your hand while you both walk into the arena to play on the team that you play on together? That’s A FLEX.
Natalie: Fine picks all around.
Carmen: But of course, this week has to once again go to the Aces for their White House looks. Chelsea Gray getting out and then holding her hand out so that her wife Tipesa didn’t fall absolutely altered my brain chemistry.
Carmen: And a special shout out to A’ja Wilson. You know what you did.