WNBA Week 13: The Aces Visit the White House, The Mercury and Storm Miss the Playoffs

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.

Natalie: Indeed.

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?

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.

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.

Heather: lololololll

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.

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???

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.

Heather: 😂

Carmen: And a special shout out to A’ja Wilson. You know what you did.

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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 401 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.

Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 714 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. While I don’t think Caitlin Clark is the solution to every problem in the W, I do actually think she could be a solution in Seattle. I’m with Natalie that I think what they really need is a PG, and I think if they lean into Caitlin’s facilitating skills and high IQ, rather than her scoring, she could be a good fit. I think Dulcy and Ezi are really solid in the paint, Gabby is great on the wing obviously but I really like what I’ve seen from Jordan there too, Jewell is Jewell, and they just need that last piece. I’d be more than fine with SDS instead, but just thinking if that doesn’t work out.

    I am talking on the basketball end though – I also do want Jewell to continue to be the face of the team, and I wouldn’t want the excitement of the #1 draft pick to get that instead, like when Stewie was drafted the year after Jewell.

    I’m rooting for the Mystics, Natalie!! They’re looking so good and I think they can close it out! I’m also still rooting for the Fever to make the play-offs. It’ll take basically a miracle, but they’ve shown flashes of being able to deliver a miracle!!

    And, yes, gotta agree AT looked way too good in that Red Sox jersey.

    • Jewell is an unrestricted free agent next year, and I know there’s a lot of talk about her going to Chicago. I wonder if she’s willing to come back for the continued rebuild.

      So glad y’all talked about the way Noelle has kept a positive locker room in the face of a lot of frustration. Those players look like they have so much fun together — going out to eat with Sami’s kiddo in tow, showing up for Gabby’s sister’s art show, doing whatever they do with that WWE belt. I really hope they kept Noelle Quinn at the helm.

      • It’s funny, I definitely don’t always see the positive locker room part, at least from Jewell. They’re all professional don’t get me wrong, but there’s been stretches where I found it hard to watch games because she looked so demoralized. I’m surprised everyone’s so up on Noelle – I love her as a person, I love how kind and gentle she is and how she takes accountability instead of blaming people, but I think she has some work to do on the X’s and O’s End. I know she was in a tough position this year, but I honestly felt the same way last year – we were just able to fight through it better because of having Sue as a coach on the floor and the magic that was the Stewie/Jewell dynamic. But I’m happy to give her another chance and see how she does next year, with this group having a year until their belts and some high draft picks and maybe some smarter off-season signings, etc.

        But all this to say, I could see Jewell leaving. I really hope she doesn’t!!!!!! But I could see it. Chicago is home and the Dwayne Wade era is exciting and they need her specific skill set. I want her on my team but ultimately I want her happy and trying to tell myself I get to watch her either way!!

        • Also I learned they apparently have one of the highest defensive rating in league? Good to hear things like that, and also another reason Caitlin wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for us!

      • @ Em Drobs: As much as I think Seattle needs a point guard, I don’t know that you want to rely on a rookie at that spot. The jump to the W requires such a steep learning curve but especially so at that position. You look at the Nancy Lieberman Award winners (the award given to the best PG in college basketball) and I don’t know that any winner has been able to come into the league and thrive in the same way. Are Seattle fans willing to give Clark a year or two to develop at that spot?

        It’s also worth noting how hypothetical this conversation is: I don’t know that Caitlin’s there for the Storm to pick unless they orchestrate some sort of deal like Atlanta did when they traded up to get Rhyne Howard. Obviously, it’s a lottery so who really knows but Indiana’s going to have the best chance to get Clark at #1 and Phoenix will, obviously, be in the mix as well. But there are other options too if the Storm are looking for a rookie PG: Deja Kelly, if she opts not to use her extra year of eligibility, or Paige Bueckers.

        (Not sure she’d go for it, given the way the Mercury have handled things, but if Phoenix could agree to a sign and trade with Indiana for Diggins and swapping picks…that’d be something. Clark and BG? That’d be sweet.)

        I liked the way the Mystics looked last night against Minnesota. Just a total team effort. They’ve got a tough stretch ahead — four out of their last five games are on the road, with only one opponent out of playoff contention — so I think we’ll find out soon how tough this team is…and whether they’re the threat in the playoffs that they looked like last night.

        @pearlpants I don’t know what Jewell will do. Obviously, if she wants to be closer to home, there’s not a lot that the Storm can do to compete with that. But, I think if she’s looking at the state of the franchises as part of her calculus, it makes sense to stay in Seattle. Even if the Sky make the play-offs — which isn’t a guarantee — I think the Storm are in a better position to compete for a championship over the next few years. After losing Parker, Sloot, Quigley and Stevens, James Wade made some questionable decisions as GM which has left them with a motley crew on the roster and no real picks to help build for the future. Obviously the investment by D. Wade is great and I think it’s going to put the Sky on the path of competing with other teams in the league, in terms of facilities and player support, but that’s far away too.

        • Ah everyone needs to stop wishing Paige on my Storm!! I see enough of that from the UConn homers and I’m sorry I am just not as up on her as they all are!! Love Deja though.

          That’s definitely a fair point that it’s hard to come in and immediately take the reins as a PG. Honestly the best example might be noted Caitlin fan Sue Bird (which tbh, may absolutely be where I’m getting this entire idea from) and the league was really different back then.

          I do love the sound of Clark and BG I must say! I go so back and forth on Indiana. On some days I’m so sure SDS is exactly what they need, other days I think they need to just focus on continuing to build chemistry with the young group they have. I feel like the Grace/Aliyah combo has shown flashes of brilliance.

  2. being a Dream fan has been TOUGH the last several games. they keep having three fourths or half of an amazing game of basketball and then the other quarter or half just not having their shit together. i think allisha gray being out a couple games with her ankle didn’t help and i think losing nia coffey for the rest of the season is massively demoralizing to a team already feeling shaken

    • @caitthegreat I’m not sure what happened. They had that streak in July that had me really believing that they’d turned the corner and then…well, this. I get the impulse to blame it on this spat of injuries but this has been a problem for a while.

      But your spot on Atlanta, consistently, fading down the stretch. They’re winning the game against the Sparks until about 8/9 minutes left in the 4Q and then they let it slip away. They’re up 8 with 2 minutes to go against the Fever and give up that game too (HOW?!). I’d chalk it up to tired legs but this is a young team…they should be better than this.

      I’m mystified.

      • and from post game pressers and such, i get the impression that tanisha wright and her staff are pretty damn mystified too! i do think it’s incredible how far she’s brought the team in just two seasons. adding allisha gray to the roster has paid off in spades, and the work that gray, howard, and hillmon can do is impressive. but then they make silly mistakes. careless fouls, turnovers, taking the first shot instead of the best shot, and i think that speaks to the young team piece. even your veterans like d rob can only do so much

  3. I so, SO want AT to win MVP. I’m not even a huge Connecticut fan, but I bought her jersey (the Keesusk one, in part bc it’s Indigenous-designed). I guess for me, with Wilson and Stewart both having won it twice already, I think you should consider the bigger picture of a career, and how AT feels overdue for recognition in general, and then ALSO has the achievements she’s had this year. I mean, think about how bad CT could have been without her this year???? New coach, no JJ, no Brionna Jones, come on

    I didn’t realize that A’ja had tied Lyin’ Liz’s (lol) record! Excited for her or someone else to break it.

    I vote Eric Thibault as nepo baby, in terms of the chances he’s gotten to choice, but then developed into a pretty okay coach, given those chances and mentorship and having Natasha and Kristi as player-coaches.

    Love this column as always!

    • Thanks for the love, LGBT-Rex.

      I’m still on the AT4MVP train that I was on last week, despite those great offensive performances from Stewie and A’ja. It’s just hard for me to ignore all the history making moments she’s had this year. Plus, I’m not sure if you saw the story ESPN did on AT and DB (Heather posted it in one of her link round-ups, I think) but that made it clear how integral Thomas is in seeing the vision for this team. She’s as much responsible for the team’s buy-in as Stephanie White (who I think is a COY frontrunner)…which just adds to the MVP candidate resume for me.

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