WNBA Week 5: All-Star Starters and Mercury Drama Bombs

Feature image photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It’s been an exciting — and messy — week in the WNBA, so we won’t keep you waiting! And as always, we would cherish your comments on this week in the W!


Natalie: Should we start in Phoenix? Following a 2-10 start to the season, Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard was fired. I think, based on our previous conversations, we’d both probably agree that this was a necessary firing but were you surprised at the timing?

Heather: Yes, let’s start with this drama, which we both secretly love. I was surprised the Mercury fired her at this exact moment in time because, well, she’s no different than she was last year — so why not fire her in the off-season? Or! Why not just keep tanking it out and see how you can do in next year’s presumably stacked draft class? The Lynx are unapologetically going that route! How much is Nikki Blue actually going to be able to do with this roster? Honestly, taking it a step further, how much are the Mercury ever really going to be able to move forward until Diana Taurasi retires? I guess this decision both makes perfect sense and also leaves me with so many more questions! How about you?

Natalie: So, I think you’re hitting on the exact right point. Did Nygaard need to be fired? Yes. But does this materially change things in Phoenix in any way? Not at all. And while there are some dynamics in Phoenix that make it special — DT’s strangehold over that team, BG’s future, etc. —- the history of midseason firings/hirings in the WNBA makes the trajectory pretty clear. Last year, Marianne Stanley is fired, mid-season, in Indiana after starting 2-7 and then she’s temporarily replaced by Carlos Knox who goes 3-24. Or you can look at LA, where Derek Fisher was finally fired after going 5-7 to start the season, but Fred Williams comes in and goes 8-16 over the remainder of the season. So, irrespective of who the coach is, the trajectory of this Mercury team still doesn’t change much.

So did the Mercury need to make this change now? Not really. It’s not going to matter much in the end. But I think you were starting to see more outward signs of frustration with Nygaard from the players and it was becoming increasingly untenable.

Heather: I feel like Vanessa Nygaard was out of her depth from the second she took that job, but last year, there was only one thing on everyone’s minds and it was BG and that was correct. There was nowhere to hide this season. I guess I do kind of wonder if this was a calculated move to get Skylar back? Do you think that could have something to do with it?

Natalie: Yeah, I mean…coming into this job, the bulk of Nygaard’s head coaching experience was at the high school level (though she did serve as an assistant in San Antonio, Washington and Las Vegas for short spells) so she was definitely out of her depth. I don’t know how much of this has to do with getting Skylar back…I hope it does, both as someone who loves Skylar’s game and who wants better for BG than this kind of season…but those issues between her and Taurasi are still there and I don’t know what can be done to ameliorate them.

It’s also worth noting: BG only signed a one year deal to return. Everyone’s thinking about Taurasi — for good reason, she’s been the cornerstone of this franchise for a long time — but what if BG doesn’t come back next year? I mean, she doesn’t need to be here…we’ve talked about that, right? So what if she doesn’t come back to the league next season? Or what if she just decides to go elsewhere? There’s so many question marks with this Phoenix Mercury team and I’m not convinced that the front office is prepared or equipped to deal with them in any real way.

Heather: I absolutely agree with this assessment wholeheartedly. And I honestly can’t even figure out what DT’s motivation is for staying at this point? She’s done it all, a dozen times over. She’s watching her legacy kind of crumble before her eyes, and she could honestly be doing literally anything else in the world of women’s basketball. It’s so bizarre to me. She, once again, didn’t make the All-Star Team, at least not the starters, and the players only ranked her as the 14th best guard in the league, according to the voting numbers the W released yesterday. Hang up those high tops, Taurasi!

Natalie: I think she’s just someone who loves the game, who loves to compete, and can’t imagine not playing basketball. For other star players who’ve been on the edge of retirement, you see a path forward for them — either in coaching or commentary or as an executive in player development — but I can’t imagine Taurasi in any of those roles…so this feels like the thing she has to be doing. I don’t know.

Heather: That’s a really insightful and empathetic read and that’s why you’re one of my favorite people. I should introduce Diana Taurasi to my therapist!

Natalie: Probably not a bad idea.

Heather: Shall we talk about who DID make the All-Star starting roster? (And one glaring omission.)

Natalie: Yes! We shared our initial line-ups for All-Star starters in the Autostraddle WNBA slack channel. I think you got all but one, right?

Heather: I did!

Heather: I am honestly so excited for these two line-ups, except for, obviously, Alyssa Thomas reaaaaally should be here. What’s your overall feeling, first of all? And then: Aliyah Boston! The list of rookie All-Star starters is one of the most legendary lists in all of sports: Chamique Holdsclaw 🧡, Tamika Catchings 🧡, Sue Bird, Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner 💜, Shoni Schimmel.

Natalie: So, I agree that AT should definitely be among the starters — I mean, she just broke the triple-double record in the W and could easily average one a game if she wanted to — but I think she was disadvantaged by the voting system. When you logged into vote, it gave you the top frontcourt players by scoring…and AT, because she’s doing so many other things for that Connecticut team, isn’t in that top echelon of players.

Heather: YES!

Natalie: I’m genuinely so happy for Aliyah Boston. I didn’t doubt that she’d eventually be one of the greats in this league but I thought it’d take a beat: it’s hard to make the transition into this league…these are the best of the best…the game is so much faster and so much more physical than at the college level….and usually it requires an adjustment period. But Boston has been outstanding from Day One.

Heather: I feel exactly the same. I am so thrilled for her. I think we both were pretty convinced her learning curve would be steep, but that she’d come out on top. But! It hasn’t even been three months since she played her final college game. Isn’t that nuts?

Natalie: It truly is. So, I’m thinking, for next week’s conversation, we’ll do our own All-Star draft. The reserves (chosen by the coaches) will be announced on Saturday so we’ll know who all the participants will be. What do you think?

Heather: Oh my gosh YES! I LOVE THIS IDEA! Were there any surprises for you on the starters list? And also, were there any surprises for you on the — always telling — player rankings?

Natalie: So the player rankings was my absolute favorite part.

Heather: The tea!

Natalie: Everyone’s talking about Sabrina, right? Ranked sixth by fans and media, among the guards…and then 19th by her peers.

Heather: Sabrina Ionescu at 19 — I mean, how many starting guards are in the W total? — is 👀. Also seems like we’re not the only ones who want DT to retire.

Natalie: So, here’s the thing about Sabrina…and to an extent, DT: they are both incredibly talented players — I don’t want to discount that at all, they’re both are tremendously talented — who also benefit from white privilege (or white passing privilege in DT’s case). The W is a league that’s built on the work of black women but the media loves to find a white player to put front and center….and so I wasn’t at all surprised to see Sabrina come in at 6th for the media — who, again, loves a white savior — or for the fans, who embrace that white savior trope readily.

I think there are white players who recognize the dynamics that are at play and those who don’t…and the ones who don’t, to borrow from the great Molly Ivins, were born on third base and think they hit a triple. Sabrina thinks she hit a triple.

Heather: That’s exactly it. It’s almost like the exact opposite of Katie Barnes’ Jonquel Jones profile from last season, right? Sabrina’s a great basketball player. Is she Nike signature shoe great at this point? No. Is she All-Star starter great at this point? No. Liberty fans, online and in person, have been complaining for years now that they can’t get their hands on anyone else’s jerseys, not online and not in the store in Barclay’s. You have to order them custom. Then there’s this constant hype on her friendship with NBA players, with Vanessa Bryant. And there’s Sabrina herself, who is — I’m sorry — not super likable. We didn’t even talk about this yet, but that girl has been going around commenting on TikTok and Instagram that she’s not gay and that her shoes aren’t gay. Everything she does is upside-down for earning respect in this league.

Natalie: That said, while I don’t think Sabrina’s 6th, I don’t think she’s 19th either…but I think when you’re shushing a crowd, while a player from the other team is coming off the court bleeding when you’ve only scored 8 points…players are going to take that shit personally.

Heather: End of story. You know, actually no. Because you know what? ESPN tweeted that out hyping her up! It was so gross and classless and of course ESPN celebrated it!

Natalie: Yes! Because they love a white savior.

Heather: Exactly. Imagine them tweeting out Alyssa Thomas doing that. Not in a billion years.

Natalie: DeWanna Bonner does that shit all the time.

Heather: Absolutely.

Natalie: Nary a mention.

Heather: You know, and on the flip side of this conversation, you’ve got Kelsey Mitchell! Player rank 5!

Natalie: I wasn’t surprised by that. Kelsey’s been doing the work in Indiana…not just in terms of getting her own points but she’s constantly been given a roster full of rookies and second year players and has had to lead them through the WNBA terrain. I’m happy that the other players in the W recognize what Kelsey’s done.

Heather: Me too. One of the things you and I keep coming back to, when we talk about the Fever, is how do they stay dialed in and keep their belief in the team when they lose so many heartbreaking close games. And that’s happened to them so much this season. So much of that credit goes to Kelsey Mitchell, who just keeps her head up and keeps pushing and encouraging, stays focused, doesn’t let the little things slip, nose to the ball on every play. She absolutely deserves that recognition and it’s a perfect example for why the player vote SHOULD count 25% toward the all-star score.

Natalie: I think the voting system for All-Star has to change. That much is clear.

Speaking of heartbreak, Week 5 in the WNBA brought us some heartbreaking injury news: Brionna Jones ruptured her right Achilles tendon and is out for the rest of the season with the Sun.

Heather: Absolutely heartbreaking. By the time Natasha Cloud was literally carrying Shakira Austin off the floor yesterday, I was actually in tears. I hate seeing these players go down like this. I know it’s part of the game, but god, they give everything and so much is riding on their (very underpaid!) careers, every game, it’s just a punch in the heart.

Natalie: It really does. We’ve had injuries already this season — DT and BG just came back from their respective injuries this week, for instance — but, unless I’m forgetting someone (which I probably am), Jones’ is the first season-ending injury we’ve had during the season. And it sucks because she was really stepping into her own, now that she’s not splitting time at center with Jonquel Jones, Bri was given the space to really showcase her talent. I hate that that’s been cut short.

Heather: It’s also an enormous blow to the Sun as a whole. They have been defying all odds and expectations this season, and Bri has been a huge part of that.

Natalie: And we still don’t know the prognosis for Shakira’s injury — the Mystics have said it’s a hip injury that’ll be looked at when they get back to DC — but watching it…it looked bad. I’m really just praying it’s not as serious as it looked because she was having an incredible season. Definitely a contender for Most Improved and possibly even an All-Star reserve slot.

Heather: Absolutely. And the Mystics are kind of in that same bucket with the Sun, right? Like they could really be something, but that does depend so much on Shakira. She was in such agonizing pain that Brittney Sykes covered her up with a towel so the cameras couldn’t see her.

Natalie: Ugh, I hate it so much. So, so much.

Heather: We love these players too much to have any kind of objectivity.

Natalie: We really do. I think that’s what’s great about the W…for anyone who’s just becoming a fan…there are so many incredible players, with incredible stories, that you don’t have to pick a team necessarily. You can just cheer for these players.

Heather: Yes, and that means any game can be a joy to your heart! Plus the way these teams are really going all in on social media, it’s giving more access and generating even more loyalty and love. The most classic example from this week? Syd Colson’s reaction to Chelsea Grey’s dime of destiny!

Natalie: Another great example this week was Destanni Henderson, who got cut by the Fever at the start of the season, getting a hardship contract with the Sparks and then absolutely showing out.

Heather: It was so good to see her back out on the floor. I think she has IT and I hope she gets a chance to really prove it. There’s lots of stories of players getting cut and passed around early in their W lives, who then go on to have great careers. I do feel like Dawn Staley prepares her players for that possibility! And I think Henny would be such a great asset and teammate!

Natalie: Given how much she loved Henny’s draft day fit last year, this feels like a good time to turn it over to Carmen for our WNBA Fit of the Week.

Carmen: Fit of the week is gonna be GAYYYYYYYYYYY

I want that shirt so badly, does anyone know where to get it? I want to wear it with some Tomboyx briefs and drink beer and watch basketball on my couch immediately. I want to pair it with some 90s style high rise shorts and go to a sports bar. I want to wear it and be gay in every humanly way possible.

My second round fashion choice is Destanni Henderson. 85% because I am just so happy to see her playing again after getting cut by the Fever during training camp (and to such sensational results!! I know she’s only on a temporary contract with the Sparks, but can they keep her?) but also because Henny is always a vibe.

Natalie: Not to say you’re predictable or anything but…

Carmen: Hahaha! I’m not sure if this is a callout of my noted love for studs with dimples or my allegiance to Gamecock nation, but also? Yes, on both counts. I’m proud of my brand!

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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 400 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.

25 Comments

  1. Thanks for doing this every week, Heather and Natalie – I always love reading it. I don’t follow Sabrina super closely and I had no idea she was doing that – seriously thanks for sharing, it’s always good to know when someone’s a turn-off like that. Just like Candice Wiggins!

  2. Honestly I don’t get that bothered by Sabrina’s antics, mainly because I’ve just accepted they’re part of the game at this point (although I much more prefer players who don’t do them), my main issue with her has always been her under delivering! Player rank 19 definitely feels lower than she deserves, but also, I understood it. As a liberty fan there’s always been players I appreciated more, and now there’s even more in the Super Team era. Players getting hyped more than others I can imagine is always a little weird to contend with as a teammate, but it must be hella frustrating when it’s not the best player getting all the attention!

    And I’m so pissed about Alyssa Thomas!! Not to be anti democracy but this is why fan votes shouldn’t count that much!! EDD and Napheesa also not being there is a real head scratcher, but AT not being in literally feels like it discounts all legitimacy of this fame lol

    As someone who’s been saying Nygaard should be fired at every opportunity, I also feel the timing is so strange. And also Phoenix’s front office makes such weird decisions, didn’t they trade their draft pick this year? I honestly could see them doing the same thing next year and 2025, like what are they even thinking. I’d respect a tank more tbh!

    • I actually don’t mind the antics myself. I’m very much on Team “Talk Yo Shit.” You can’t love players like DeWanna Bonner and Natasha Cloud and object to that kind of behavior.

      That said, I’m also in the school of, if you’re going to talk shit, you should be able to back it up. You can’t shush anyone when you’ve only got 8 points (on 25% shooting) in 26 minutes. Don’t be shushing the crowd when you’ve got more turnovers than assists. Sabrina ranked 7th in scoring for the Liberty that night…she didn’t need to be shushing anyone.

      The thing about Sabrina is that she’s oblivious. About this, about how her race makes her a media darling, about how arguing with some rando on TikTok about her gay shoes is a dumb thing to do or about how Eric Church’s “Fast Car” is a cover. She’s just oblivious…to everything.

    • I’m a newer WNBA fan but started getting into it watching DT when Phoenix lost championship to the Sky a few years back. She’s so entertaining to watch from her swagger to her passion. I am sad to see y’all really dislike her. I am hoping to watch more from her. I was sad when Bird retired as those two were my favs. Not sure why Phoenix gets so much flack as they’re my fav team. I do appreciate this column though.

    • is there a bad time to relieve an underperforming white woman of duty in favor of a promising Black woman? especially when it would be hard to blame her for what the white lady did. also, the high-level experience could net gains down the road? also also, could Coach Blue really make things worse? i mean, maybe-but-not-likely? and if footprint center suddenly looks better to SDS, then someone looks smart. if those things don’t work out, then nothing is that much different besides hopefully better pay for Coach Blue.

      there’s so much talent that’s not continuously playing in the league right now, if things do improve maybe forthcoming draft classes aren’t the same singular consideration for struggling teams. kinda thinking of how Thibault Sr lured EDD to Washington, at least what i remember about it…

  3. the sparks game on friday night was pride night and it was a thrilling and triumphant win(and also rae from the ultimatum was there) and also i really hope they keep destanni henderson !!!!!

  4. Layshia tagged the jersey situation on their Instagram! I didn’t get to look closely yet, but it looks like it was a pretty limited deal? But also I need one to live, so I hope they consider another run.

  5. So newbie viewer here. I’ve never really gotten into the pro-side of sports, always been more of a collegiate level viewer but decided to get into WNBA after realizing the massive disparity between the men’s and women’s leagues in every way possible. (I mean I always knew but really looking at the numbers and media coverage is just mind blowing) Anyways… I read the 101 guide (helpful and delightful!) but had a few more q’s.

    All-stars… this is a game/event that happens in the middle of the season? And basically fans decide who get on a team? Is it just one game or night of events or is it multiple games? And do they have coaches? Do they practice as a team or is it just like a pickup game with no plays or developed strategy?

    Hardship Contracts… this is just a wild concept to me. I understand that they happen when a team needs additional players due to injuries/sickness and when the team gets down to 10 players. Watching Destanni Henderson and I just can’t imagine wanting to let her go after the effort and energy she brings to the team. So like once the injured/sick players return, Destanni will be cut once again? Can she play for other teams now or is there rules against it since she knows plays and current strategies of the sparks? It’s just crazy to me that a person can be unemployed one morning but that night be playing with a team you’ve never practiced with or know any plays or playing styles (not to mention the logistical nightmare of just getting to the location of that team) and then play phenomenally but then be unemployed again 10 days later.

    Commissioner’s Cup… what is that?

    Sorry for all the questions, the media coverage for the league is terrible so it’s hard to find basic info out. Having these weekly recaps is immensely helpful and wonderful to see!

    • The all star game is indeed one game that happens in the middle of the season, they have coaches, and fan voting counts for 50% of it, media votes count for 25%, and votes from other players count for 25%

      Hardship contracts work as you say, and there’s no limit on teams you can play for as far as I know. Sadly every roster has a hard salary cap so once whoever Henny is replacing bc of injury / illness comes back she will have to be waived again unless they find some sort of loophole! It really sucks and this is why everyone’s calling for roster expansion – literally I get stressed when I fall in love with new players bc there’s higher chances of them getting cut than signed! The Sparks in particular have been riddled with injury and illness this season so she’s actually not the first player signed/waived from a hardship contract on that team alone. I know there’s something called “end of season contract” that teams can use, but again I think that could only happen if whoever she’s replacing isn’t able to play for the rest of the season.

      And then over the course of the season, certain games will be designated as “Commissioner’s Cup” games. Each team with the highest record from those games from each conference (only Eastern and western in the WNBA) will face off, and whoever wins gets a special trophy and also a cash bonus

    • Thanks so much for your questions, Betty. I know it can be intimidating to ask them when you’re just getting into the league but I hope you (and others) feel free to ask them here. This is how we grow the game :)

      Em Drobs has answered your questions for the most part (thanks, Em!) but I’ll add a few more tidbits:

      The All-Star Game is on July 15th this year and falls about midway through the season. Em noted the voting percentages but I’ll add: that 50/25/25 voting applies only to the starters. The coaches pick the reserve players and they’ll be announced on Saturday.

      The game does have coaches: it’s an honor given to the two coaches with the best records in the league. This year, it’ll likely be Becky Hammon (Las Vegas) coaching Team A’ja and Stephanie White (Connecticut) leading Team Stewie. The coaches are there, mostly, to just sub players in and out. The game is light-hearted (usually. there’s always one person who takes it very seriously) and very much like a pick-up game. I’m hoping for another great moment like this, from last year, when Sylvia Fowles dunked in her final All-Star appearance.

      The game itself is the centerpiece of the weekend but on Friday night, the WNBA also hosts a 3-point contest and a skills competition. If you’re interested in what the skills competition looks like, check out Sabrina’s win from last year.

      Em nailed it on hardship contracts. It’s such a hard situation…we’ve seen twice this season — with Odyssey Sims in Dallas and Henny in LA — where hardship players come in and really bolster a team, only to (inevitably) be cut again. But you just hope that their story ends like Karlie Samuelson and eventually they end up on a roster. The LA Times had a good story on this just recently: ‘All the feels’: How WNBA players and teams handle hardship contracts.

      • Thanks everyone for the explanations and links!

        So technically Destanni Henderson could be picked up for another short hardship contract by a different team if or when she’s waived? Gosh, I’m a softie, I just wish they’d make a team for all the waived players… I’d root for them so hard!

        So the commissioner cup games are kinda like conference games? Or is it a separate thing outside the playoffs?

        • The short answer is, yes…if the Sparks return some players, Henny has to be waived and some other team can come in and scoop her up. It’s a crazy way to live but, if you’re looking to play your way into the league, it’s what you have to do.

          Kalani Brown’s a good example: waived by the Wings on May 17 then signed to a hardship contract two weeks later. She came in, balled out, but was released today. Dorothy Gentry of The Athletic is reporting that Dallas is looking for another hardship exemption to re-sign her which would allow Kalani to immediately rejoin the team. But the Wings waived two players today and have one extra roster slot to offer Kalani a rest-of-season contract. The only problem? The Wings can’t make that contract offer for 10 days after releasing her. In the meantime, Brown’s a free agent and can talk to other teams.

          Because Brown took that hardship contract, she’s raised her stock a lot and other teams who need bigs are definitely going to give her a look. I’d be shocked if Connecticut didn’t give her a call, after losing Bri Jones, and Chicago, Phoenix and Minnesota could definitely use someone with Brown’s size and talents.

          That’s a complicated answer…but, yes, the league should expand rosters and add more teams. That’s the best long-term answer to making sure these players get an opportunity to prove themselves in a less helter-skelter way.

          On the Commissioner’s Cup games: yes, they’re just the first 10 conference games of the season for each team.

  6. Glad to know I’m not the only one with q’s! I’m trying to catch up and it’s getting easier as I watch more games and read AS coverage (or me madly Googling things in every timeout/commercial break) but sometimes it’s still confusing or the info isn’t easily findable because again, women’s sports gets neglected in so many ways.

  7. The film crew for Basketball Wives was just at a Dallas Wings team dinner following Natasha Howards fiance according to Maddy Siegrist soooo we may have some wnba relaity TV content v soon~~~

  8. I’m a newer WNBA fan but started getting into it watching DT when Phoenix lost championship to the Sky a few years back. She’s so entertaining to watch from her swagger to her passion. I am sad to see y’all really dislike her. I am hoping to watch more from her. I was sad when Bird retired as those two were my favs. Not sure why Phoenix gets so much flack as they’re my fav team. I do appreciate this column though.

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