Feature image photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
The WNBA’s 2023 season is in full swing now, friends! All-Star voting is underway; teams are cementing their identifies for the season; and superstars are setting themselves apart from the rest of the pack. Also, Natalie is tied for first in our Fantasy League (while Heather is barely breaking even). We got together, once again, to break it all down!
Heather: Natalie, hello! Another awesome week of WNBA basketball is in the books, and what a fun weekend of games!
Natalie: Absolutely…but I think we have to start this week’s conversation in the same place we began last week’s conversation: the discussion about Brittney Griner’s travel. The All-Star center did not play much this week, after being sidelined with a hip injury a few minutes into the Seattle game, but her travel and security remained a big topic of conversation. What do you think about what we know so far about the WNBA’s “solution” to those travelling woes?
Heather: I’m glad you’re kicking off here because I think we are both still very unsatisfied with the answers the WNBA and the Mercury are giving about what actually happened in that airport in Dallas, why it happened, and what they’re actually going to do about it going forward. Much like last week, stories continue to trickle out from different sources, and they’re contradictory, and no one in charge seems to be telling the whole story — still. Maybe the most illuminating (and infuriating) bit of information so far came on Friday when SportCenter had on both WNBA Commissioner Cathy Englebert, followed by Terri Jackson, the Executive Director of the WNBA Player’s Association.
There was all this weird reporting that the W has approved charters, but that still left more questions than answers. It’s one company they approved, it only flies out of four W cities, apparently the Aces have already used it at least once and not been penalized, it costs the same as commercial air because they rent out the whole plane on a predetermined route (which includes Phoenix to Dallas, which makes the fact that BG got accosted in DFW even more ridiculous), but then Vanessa Nygaard said the Mercury were afraid to book charter and get in trouble, blah blah blah. But here’s the thing that’s got me the most furious: In that SportCenter interview, Terri Jackson said BG is paying for at least some of her security detail OUT OF HER OWN POCKET.
I don’t feel any closer to okay about this than I did the day it happened. How about you?
Natalie: I don’t, actually. I watched the Phoenix game yesterday against New York and the commentary there seemed to be that the Mercury have developed a plan to allow BG to fly charter, safely, but they won’t tell anyone what it is for “security purposes.” Which, on some level, I get that…like it makes sense for the league to withhold certain information…but, at the same time, that situation in Dallas was a loss of trust from my perspective. I lost a lot of faith in the leadership of the W and the Phoenix Mercury that they’d do what’s necessary to protect BG…so they need to step up to the plate with more details and more evidence that they’re doing right by BG and Cherelle and right by the players at large.
That interview with Terri Jackson was so reassuring to me — even though it stoked my anger — because I thought, well here’s someone who’s going to put BG first and who’s not going to parrot whatever the WNBA company line is. We need more of that if the league wants to save face with the fans.
Heather: Absolutely! She pulled no punches! And she is so very clearly in touch with the players, with BG and Cherelle, and damn committed to making sure they have what they need to actually be safe.
Natalie: As you noted, this public character situation feels wholly unsatisfactory…like, okay…these four WNBA cities are taken care of but what about the rest? Like there’s nothing about the solution that the WNBA has proposed, with respect to this public charter, that would’ve changed that situation that happened in Dallas because the charter service doesn’t fly to Indianapolis…which is where the team was going at the time. So, fundamentally, what has the league done to really address the circumstances that lead to that confrontation in the Dallas airport? And, also: who the hell is paying for it?
The more the WNBA drags their feet on the obvious answer — which, above all, includes NOT MAKING A WOMAN WHO WAS WRONGLY IMPRISONED AND TRAPPED IN A COUNTRY WHERE SHE DOESN’T SPEAK THE LANGUAGE, FLY ALONE — the more convinced I am that they want to hold onto charter flights as a negotiating chip for the next CBA…and are just trying to piecemeal a solution to get them through this season.
And, sorry, just one more thing: this was always going to happen. The league was always going to need to deal with its travel woes AND they were going to have to worry about the security of their players.
We’re talking on the Juneteenth holiday where we commemorate the end of slavery in this country. On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas with news of the emancipation. I mention that because when you think about legacy of activism and organizing around Juneteenth, the WNBA players have been at the forefront of carrying that legacy in a sports arena. And the more the players of this league speak out on social justice and human rights issues, the more they’ll become targets of a certain segment of the population that, like that dude in the Dallas airport, isn’t afraid of accosting those players.
So even though BG returning to the league sped up our consideration of all this, this discussion about player safety needed to happen. It was inevitable.
Sorry, I just had to get that all off my chest.
Heather: I’m so glad you did. You and I have been watching this league from its inception, and there are so many things that have grown and changed beyond anything either of us could have imagined back in the late 90s — all because these players have shown frankly heroic conviction and courage in pushing the W to reflect the players who actually make it up. It’s unlike any other sports league on earth. Yesterday, during the Liberty game, at halftime, they were doing a Juneteenth drumline celebration on court while CBS played this inspirational Pride package where all these gay players — so many gay players — spoke about how gay people are perfect just the way they are. Nic jokingly said, “My intersectionality was shaking!” but it’s true, right? That’s the W. And the W has a lot of work to do to be an actual safe space for these players, especially BG, and I’m with you all the way in everything you said, Natalie. You nailed it.
Natalie: So since we’ve talked about the Mercury, and you mentioned that game against the Liberty, let’s start there: Phoenix had a rough week. On top of these travel and security issues, both Diana and BG are out for multiple games last week and the Mercury now sit at the bottom of the WNBA standings. What’s your take on this squad?
Is there anything that they can do to right the ship?
Heather: Well, their second string nearly caused the Liberty’s second string to blow a 20-point lead on Sunday, so there’s some fight there!
But seriously, I don’t feel like they have much of a plan. DT’s done — and that’s fine! She’s given it her all, she’s one of the all-time greatest basketball players ever, she’s going to go on and do literally anything she wants in the women’s basketball world next, but she’s for real washed. I don’t see a world where Skylar Diggins-Smith is rushing back to play for Vanessa Nygaard after Nygaard showed her ass last year by saying the All-Star game isn’t an All-Star game without DT (even though it had Skylar!).
Nygaard is embarrassing the heck out of me. That Skylar thing, sitting there and nodding along while Sophie Cunningham blames DT going scoreless on the refs, her consistently ineffectual sideline pleas. And, frankly, I’m not sure she has the gravitas to guide these players through the rest of this season, emotionally, after what happened to them in that airport. I do wonder where she was when this was happening. If that had been me, you would have seen my angry little lesbian head in that man’s camera shielding my players with my whole aging body!
They need to rebuild, but they can’t do it this year, and I don’t think they can do it with Nygaard or Taurasi and I don’t think the Mercury have even begun to think about who they are without Taurasi. It’s going to be a looooong season for them.
Natalie: If you watch a Phoenix game, there is this sense, among the Mercury and their fanbase, that they are owed something. They are owed these calls in the game. Diana is owed a spot on the All-Star team. That kind of thinking is not going to get you far in the W…it’s just too competitive.
Natalie: What’s interesting to me about the Phoenix Mercury is that they have these players Shey Peddy, Sug Sutton…who are the exact opposite of that…They understand that no one owes them anything…they aren’t going to be handed a WNBA roster slot…so they do all the hard work to get here and to prove that they belong. Each and every time on the floor.
Heather: I agree, and that’s kind of what I mean when I say the Mercury don’t know who they are without DT! Like they have the players to have an entirely different identity — if they wanted to!
Natalie: I think the Mercury are the most poorly coached team in the league. Like I don’t even think Cheryl Reeve is trying in Minnesota and I still think she’s doing a better job than Nygaard.
Heather: God that’s so true. What a terrible truth! But a true truth!
Natalie: I think she’s letting the team (read: DT) run her, rather than running the team, and you just can’t win that way.
And, listen, DT is an all-time great…the GOAT if you believe some people (I am not one of those people, but you know, whatever)….but she is not a coachable player at this level in her career. I think Sandy Brondello is in New York because she wanted to chart a post-DT Mercury, DT was like, “nope!” and the leadership of that organization just went along with it.
Heather: You nailed it again! Everything you’ve said here is spot on! Sandy seemed light as a feather on the Liberty sideline this weekend against the Mercury. I think most of that was probably being back with BG, whom Sandy has said repeatedly is her family for life — but I think at least some of it was coaching the team she’s now coaching against this inevitably sad incarnation of the Mercury.
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) June 19, 2023
Natalie: I think, particularly in the close moments of where Phoenix seems to have a chance — like against the Wings two weeks ago — you see that Nygaard just isn’t a good coach…she can’t game plan for those crucial moments…but I’m not sure she was ever set up for success.
Heather: It’s honestly a relief to hear you think she’s so out of her element too. I kind of started to worry I was being too hard on her because I feel like she does not know what she’s doing most of the time!
Natalie: Since we’re on the subject of DT, a lot of Autostraddle readers have been asking how you can not like Taurasi but like Marina Mabrey when they have some of the same…shall we say…swagger. Did you want to address that?
Heather: Yes! I would love to! It’s all in what we’ve just talked about here. There’s a bullying entitlement to everything Diana Taurasi has ever done, in my mind, from the minute she stepped on the floor at UConn.
And then there’s Mabrey, who’s an angry little scrap pup, but her vibe feels so different to me. She came off that Notre Dame team that included Arike and Jackie Young, who won the National Championship in 2018 off Arike’s legendary buzzer beaters in the Final Four and the National Championship. Mabrey was the third best player on that team! She’s still the third best player to come off that team! Does Mabrey even get drafted if Arike doesn’t crush that tournament? I honestly don’t know. She plays like there’s a chip on her shoulder because there’s a chip on her shoulder, because she’s not the best, because no matter how hard she works and how much she shines, she’s never going to be the best.
Where I think DT feels like she deserves every call every time, and every chance to play for the Olympic team, and every chance to play in the All-Star game, Mabrey seems to think if she doesn’t fight for every single call, she’ll disappear. Diana Taurasi’s going to the Hall of Fame and lots of people will call her the GOAT for the rest of her life. Mabrey’s just out there fighting, every play, every call, every night, and she’ll still never be the best. I like that!
I like it when players know how hard you have to fight to be part of The 144 —and I’ve also never heard Mabrey say she wants to murder rookies, or threaten to fight a referee in a hotel lobby.
Natalie: That makes complete sense.
Heather: Oh wait, there is one more thing, and it’s petty.
Natalie: It’s okay! Be petty!
Heather: Former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw hated Geno Auriemma and spent so much time getting under his skin, and I saw some of that in Mabrey too, and so before I even knew her, I knew she was the enemy of my enemy.
Natalie: LOL. I didn’t know you had that level of petty in you, Heather. I salute it!
Heather: Geno brings out the absolute worst in me! Anyway, speaking of the best player on Mabrey’s teams, what’s going on with Kahleah Copper?
Natalie: I wish I knew. She was out for the Sky’s game against the Fever for personal reasons and whatever those reasons were, they seemed to haunt her yesterday against the Mystics. She just was not herself and it was very apparent.
Heather: I agree. She only played two minutes in the first quarter and that’s when I started to get worried. We’ve kind of hit that first snag of the season where players are needing to start thinking about rest days and even rest games — but this seems like more than that.
Natalie: I know we’ve had some heroics from Mabrey and Courtney Williams lately…and Dana Evans is playing some great basketball…I think these last few games have emphasized that this is still Kahleah Copper’s team and the Sky only goes as far as she can carry them. When she’s playing well, she elevates the rest of that squad…but when she’s not — like yesterday against the Mystics — I think the team regresses dramatically.
Heather: Absolutely agree. It’s also becoming apparent that a lot of those monster numbers by other players are happening, at least in part, because defenses are preoccupied with Kah. They’re rightly obsessed with keeping their eyes on her on both sides of the floor, at all times, and that frees up everyone else in different ways.
Natalie: So let’s go from folks who had lackluster offensive weeks to players that really showed out…starting with Jewell Loyd vs. Arike Ogunbowale. How spectacular was that Storm-Wings game?
Heather: Oh, Natalie! I had to take a nap after that game I got so worked up! Speaking of Notre Dame stars! Arike is my number one fantasy player obviously, and I was playing against someone who has Jewell Loyd, and it was unreal watching both of their numbers just climb and climb and climb. You said before the game started that you were ready for an explosive offensive showcase, and boy did they deliver. It’s hard to think of two more exciting players than Jewell and Arike right now; both of them are like trying to guard a player who’s already running downhill.
Watching them was like watching magic! Like the reason sports transcend so many things! For two hours, I was flying with them!
Natalie: I think, to open that game, Arike came down and hit a three…and then Jewell Loyd heads down to the other end and is like, “anything you can do…” and then — bang! — hits from deep. It was really great…these are both two dynamic shooters who can score, almost, at will. Both ended up having career nights.
As exciting as that game was, it ends up being part of a three game skid for the Wings. Are you worried about that team?
Heather: I keep getting confused about how the Wings are losing. There’s Arike doing Arike stuff, there’s Satou being better than ever before, they lead the league in offensive rebounding, they’re often scoring over 100 points a game, and they’re still losing half their games. I watch them play and I feel so thrilled for them, and at the end of 40 minutes, I’m like, “…how? Did they lose? Again?”
Obviously having Teaira McCowan overseas for all of July is causing problems for them, probably even more than they anticipated, despite the fact that Kalani Brown has stepped up in really admirable ways.
Natalie: I think the rest of the WNBA should be clamoring to get Kalani Brown off waivers when the Wings have to release her because she has been great.
Heather: I felt that way about Odyssey Sims too. She shined for her minute on the Wings.
Natalie: I will say, I am worried a bit about the Wings because they just aren’t doing what they need to do on the defensive end. Plus, while I’m always thrilled to see an offensive showcase from Arike, this team does its best when there’s a balanced scoring effort between her, Natasha Howard and Satou.
McCowan coming back definitely helps them defensively but I wonder what it does to that offensive triangle that they’ve been building.
(Also, I wish Satou would stop talking to the refs after every call. It’s pulling her out of the game.)
Heather: I think that’s a really good analysis, and they’ve had Crystal Dangerfield in and out, so it’s going to be mid-August before their full team is hitting its stride, together — assuming everyone stays healthy.
There’s some more offensive brilliance happening this season that came through again this week. You’ve got Alyssa Thomas on triple double watch every game. You’ve got Aliyah Boston absolutely silencing anyone who thought she couldn’t make the transition to the W. What else has you excited right now?
Natalie: The Atlanta Dream are on a three game win streak and they’ve definitely got me excited. After last year, I had a lot of faith in Tanisha Wright and what she was building with the Dream…but then the year started and they just weren’t living up to my expectations? But it feels like they’ve finally settled in and now they’re on a tear. I think Rhyne Howard and Allisha Gray are one of the best backcourts in the W and as they continue to develop chemistry, they’re going to be tough to contain.
Heather: Yes! I just feel like I have spent the last week and a half saying “Oh! Okay, Dream! Okay!” There was some weird headline on ESPN last week like “Can Rhyne Howard live up to her draft position?” And I was like, “UH, SHE ALREADY HAS.”
I had hoped so hard that Allisha Gray could find what she needed with Tanisha Wright. She was so close, but just couldn’t get comfortable in Dallas. It’s so cool to see her settling in and playing her game — and winning! And, you know, Haley Jones has surprised me! She’s getting more and more minutes, and what was great about her at Stanford is great about her in the W. She’s got all those eyes and a head on a swivel, she’s got a nose for where the ball’s coming off the glass and where everyone’s spreading out to, and she’s even starting to dance toward being comfortable behind the arc. I think Atlanta’s going to end up showing a lot of people what’s up by the end of this season.
And, of course, I continue to both underestimate and be thrilled by the Sun. I’ve got to let go of my leftover Curt Miller animosity and just love these Suns for who they are. They are playing like a team with something to prove! I like it!
Who’s not living up to the hype so far?
Natalie: Probably the team that Curt Miller is coaching now.
Natalie: In their defense, the Sparks have been really hampered by injuries, but still: losing to the Lynx at home? It felt like, in the late moments of that game, Miller didn’t seem to have a game plan for the Sparks and they were kind of aimless…so Minnesota was able to get the W.
Heather: Let the Lynx tank, Curt! God!
(I just felt Napheesa Collier scowl at me from a thousand miles away.)
Natalie: I’ll pose a different question to you: thinking about the All-Star roster that you’ve created, did anyone impress you enough this week that you’d think about changing your lineup? Did anyone in your lineup slip?
Heather: Great question! I think this past week only cemented for me that, no matter what the Storm’s record is, Jewell deserves a starting spot on the All-Star team. And, don’t judge me, okay — I hadn’t really voted for Stewie because I just assumed everyone would be voting for Stewie. After watching what the Liberty looked like when she had one (1!) off-game, I started voting for her.
What about you?
Natalie: I think Napheesa Collier has been someone that’s impressed me over the last few weeks. It took her a few weeks to get warmed up but now she’s scoring consistently (unlike some of her other Lynx teammates) and really showcasing what she’s capable of. Is she a definite addition to my all-star roster? No, but I’ve been trading off…voting for Phee one day and AT the next…so that I could throw some points her way.
Heather: That’s smart! Phee is making a great case for herself! Shall we turn it over to our esteemed colleague Carmen Phillips for her fits of the week!
Carmen: Ok so the first thing to know is that both of my fits of the week come from the Aces and also specifically from my two favorite players and fantasy wives (much respect to their actual real life wives) — but I swear I didn’t plan it like that! I take my job seriously and I’m thorough in my research!
That out of the way, the obvious first choice for me here is Candace Parker’s fit for the Aces Juneteenth game. As my overstuffed drawers would attest, I’ll fall for a good Black feminist t-shirt every time. I saw Angela Davis from a mile away while scrolling and had to immediately double back. Pairing it with the Lady Vols orange Adidas was just a Midas touch.
My second choice of the week comes from a different Aces theme night — but Chelsea Gray wearing a t-shirt of her wedding kiss with her wife for Pride night was really Top Tier.