Feature image photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Last week in the WNBA was somehow even more dramatic than the one before it, so let’s not delay! Natalie and Heather are here to break it down! And, as always, we want to hear your thoughts in the comments!
Heather: Natalie, where do we even start today? We’ve got the All-Star reserves, we’ve got the much-hyped Aces v. Liberty game, we’ve got James Wade leaving the Sky in the middle of the season to join the MNBA, we’ve got a reason to be excited (maybe?) about the Mercury! Where do you want to start?
Natalie: I think we should start with the James Wade news. We found out last week that James Wade, the head coach/GM of the Chicago Sky, has accepted a job with the Toronto Raptors in the MNBA and will leave his team midseason because of it. There have been mixed reactions on social media to the move…what do you think?
Heather: Well, first of all, I was shocked! There are few people in the WNBA with as much power as James Wade. He is operating at the tip top, and with so much success. He just won a championship! He also just traded away a whole bunch of draft picks to bring in fresh talent and rebuild after the loss of Candace Parker, Courtney Vandersloot, and Allie Quigley. He seemed as committed as ever. So it feels like he’s leaving them in a bit of a pickle. I guess, you know, of course I don’t understand why you’d leave a head coaching/GM job in the WNBA to go be an assistant in the MNBA, but I love women more than money, so I’m not the best judge of why someone would ever be compelled to do such a thing! I also don’t understand why he needs to go in the middle of the season?? I wish him all the best, but it’s a baffling move to me. How are you feeling about it? I think you have a much better handle on what GMs actually do in the W than I do.
Natalie: I don’t know that that’s true — I’m not sure anyone truly knows what GMs do — but here’s my thinking about it: I don’t begrudge anyone an opportunity to advance their career. Certainly, especially when you’ve got a family, there are other considerations to be made. I know that a lot of WNBA fans have been weary, for a long time, of coaches using the WNBA as a stepping stone to the MNBA. Back in the day, there was a lot of talk about Bill Laimbeer and Michael Cooper taking coaching jobs in the league to get on the radar of MNBA teams. But I think James Wade has been at it for a long time…he’s coached women, not just here in the US but overseas in Russia as well, I don’t doubt his commitment to the women’s game. I say all that to say, I don’t begrudge him this opportunity. It’s a chance to grow his skillset and make more money.
HOWEVER! I think to do it this way is absolutely shitty. Does he need to leave in mid-season? I cannot believe that that’s a necessity. And if he was looking at other opportunities, I think there should have been more candor about it and some reluctance to give away all of Chicago’s draft picks during the off-season. I’ve personally lost a lot of respect for James Wade for how he’s handled all this.
Heather: I think that’s such a fair analysis, as usual.
Natalie: One of the big things for the Sky this season was the talk of Mr. Gabrielle Union investing in the franchise. Does he do that now that his cousin is no longer the head coach/GM?
Heather: Mr. Gabrielle Union!
Natalie: And! It’s frustrating to me: the Toronto Raptors are willing to find coaching talent in the WNBA and they chose James Wade…I mean, Becky Hammon was supposedly a top contender for the head coaching job and, instead, they hire James Wade.
Heather: That was actually the first thing I thought when the news broke on Saturday, about how Hammon has been in that Raptors conversation for so long.
This James Wade thing feels, to me, kind of indicative of a larger theme this season, which is: When and how is the W going to take the next step, financially? James Wade presumably left in large part because of money. This whole charter debacle with Brittney Griner and who’s even paying for her security (is she really paying for her own security??). Players signing for less than they’re worth (A’ja Wilson’s contract extension just this past week, for example.) Not enough roster spots and teams to keep some of the best players in the world in the league. And on and on. It feels like the James Wade situation is just another on-trend example of the W fumbling what’s good because of money.
Natalie: That such a smart take. You’re absolutely right.
On the other end of the coaching news: we got to see our first few games with Nikki Blue at the helm of the Phoenix Mercury and she got her first win. Her statement after the win — the fact that she had a shower cap ready so she could (to quote her) “protect the press” — endeared her to a lot of people right away: are you one of those people being won over to the Phoenix Mercury?
HEAD COACH NIKKI BLUE’S FIRST WIN!! pic.twitter.com/BYQVc4BFqH
— Phoenix Mercury (@PhoenixMercury) June 30, 2023
Heather: I feel like the universe is conspiring to make you and I — the longtime holdouts! — fans of the Mercury! Nikki Blue’s press conference had me in tears. “All I needed was an opportunity. All I needed was a shot,” is what she said, and she was near tears too! Echoes of Viola Davis’ 2015 Emmy acceptance speech, right? “In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me. But I can’t seem to get there any how. I can’t seem to get over that line. That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” You hear things coming out of the locker room now that are so encouraging, about how the players have new hope, new life, new energy. Even the body language in the press conference, the players were engaged with what she was saying. Such a huge difference. And yeah, that shower cap was cute as everything. Good lord, I’ve talked myself into being excited about the Mercury? Natalie, what’s happening to us?
Natalie: Leave it to Heather Hogan to bring Viola Davis into a conversation about basketball. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken you this long!
Natalie: I think that everyone, even folks like us that don’t like the Mercury traditionally, want good things for the team this season because of BG and because of the burden the team had to bear in her absence and even now with the security/airline challenges. So to see them get a win and to see the lightness in the lockerroom afterwards…I mean, BG was lit up like a Christmas tree, her smile was so bright…and Moriah Jefferson was just elated….that just felt really good to see.
Natalie: And then to see Nikki Blue talk after the game…she just seems like a good person who really wants to succeed in a head coaching role and I want that for her.
Heather: Me too! If I start talking nice about Diana Taurasi, you need to come over here and check that my body hasn’t been snatched.
Natalie: Same, but Sophie Cunningham will be back from injury soon so I’m hoping the cosmic forces will rebalance themselves and my disdain for the Mercury will return to its normal levels.
Heather: Hahaha! Speaking of cosmic forces, last week’s most hyped game was the match-up, finally, between the Aces and the Liberty. The Aces absolutely blew them out! I think you said you didn’t even finish watching, is that right?
— Las Vegas Aces (@LVAces) June 30, 2023
Natalie: It was painful to watch after a while.
Heather: Did you expect it to be a closer game?
Natalie: See, that’s the thing: I didn’t, really? But there was so much hype about these two superteams that you thought it’d come close to living up to the hype…and it just didn’t. I think, if you just looked at these two teams and the way they’ve been playing: the Aces have just been flawless…they’ve just been playing at such a high level…and the Liberty, while they have their moments of dominance, just haven’t looked as consistent or as strong.
So I didn’t expect the Liberty to win but, admittedly, I thought they’d look better than they did. What was your take on it?
Heather: Yep, same. You know, I watch every Liberty game. I’m a big fan. But there wasn’t even a level of fan-delusion that allowed me to think the Liberty had a chance against the Aces. For me, the talk all season has been was so weird because it’s been focusing on the individual pieces on each roster, but when you actually watch the Liberty, you’ve got to know — in your deepest heart — that they are a terrible match-up against the Aces. You’ve got the best, most cohesive offense in the league, multiple superstars able to pop-off every night, against an absolutely mediocre defense in every way.
I actually think that game showcased one of the things that makes Becky Hammon such a great coach, which is her scouting and individual game plans. She conceived about 30 ways for the Aces to take it right at Sabrina Ionescu. One-on-ones off the dribble, ball-screens, off-ball screens, high-low switches. I feel like most teams have a “don’t lose sight of Ionescu” mentality on offense, but the Aces had it on defense. They knew where she was on every play and they exploited the heck out of it.
One of the Liberty’s other standing weaknesses is their transition defense, and, honestly, there’s nothing more fun in the W right now than watching the Aces in the open floor. It’s not just the points, it’s the momentum. You let them start running and they’ll go from a four-point lead to a 20-point lead before you can blink. At this moment in time, I don’t see a world where any team in this league could beat the Aces in an actual series.
Natalie: Barring injury, I think you’re right: no one beats the Aces in a series.
Heather: Were there any other games this week that stood out to you?
Rhyne Howard's career-high 43-point game came up one point shy of tying the Dream franchise record 🤩 pic.twitter.com/lyxaUwRMj6
— espnW (@espnW) July 3, 2023
Natalie: I don’t know if the games themselves stood out but I think we’ve had some incredible performances over the last week. Courtney Williams got the first triple double of her career and just has absolutely been playing lights out for the Sky. Absolute baller. Satou Sabally had cooled off for a bit for the Wings but caught fire again against the Mystics yesterday. Rhyne Howard and Nalyssa Smith both have that Chelsea Gray-sized chip on their shoulders over not being chosen to be All-Stars and are showing out. Howard came within one point of beating a scoring record in Atlanta!
It’s been a real treat to see these amazing performances.
What are your thoughts?
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 1, 2023
Heather: Yes! Yes! Yes! I don’t think I’ve ever seen Courtney Williams so excited in my life, and that’s saying something. She said she felt like Alyssa Thomas, which of course made me laugh so hard. You know who else has that Chelsea Gray-sized chip and is shining so bright this year? Allisha Gray! Atlanta and Tanisha Wright are just what she needed. One of the best things about being a WNBA fan is watching these players grow and succeed. Celebrating them is the absolute best way to spend a summer!
Natalie: It absolutely is!
But let’s talk about the players who did make the All-Star rosters: were there any names you were glad to see on the roster? Any snubs?
Heather: Obviously I was relieved when Alyssa Thomas was the first name they revealed during the announcement! Not surprising, of course, but you never know with these things so I breathed deep when they called her name. And because I am an enormous sap, I love that she’s getting to play with her wifey DeWanna Bonner! I felt the same about Kahleah Copper: unsurprised but very happy! On the flip side, I was unsurprised but annoyed by Sabrina Ionescu making the team for some reason. I think watching her get destroyed on defense every night is wearing me down! I think Nalyssa Smith could easily take her place. And I was surprised in a great way that Ezi Magbegor made it! I was not expecting that, but it is deserved! What about you?
Natalie: I love that teams have been releasing video of the reserve announcements on social media. Those things have been so wholesome. Seeing Ezi and Cheyenne Parker get mobbed by her teammates. Those were great.
Heather: Yes and Kelsey Mitchell looked so shy about it! I have never in my life! She was like that emoji with the wobbly cry smile!
Natalie: I think, obviously, injuries play a role in the people who get selected but I wish that the coaches would just pick the best players — let them get the All-Star tag — and then, if they’re injured, they can be replaced. I say that because I think Shakira Austin and Brionna Jones were both having All-Star caliber seasons and deserve that honor, even if injuries keep them out of the game.
Heather: 100% agree. They have both been playing LIGHTS OUT. Shakira Austin looks like she’s been in the league eight years!
What happens if EDD can’t play because of her ankle?
Natalie: God, I absolutely hated seeing that injury this week. Elena’s been through so much; she deserves one season free of injury to really showcase how good she is.
Heather: I agree, and I think it’s just so telling that she absolutely destroyed that ankle and is going to be out for weeks, but everyone was honestly relieved because when she went down, I think most everyone thought it was her back again. And, honestly, how much more can that girl’s spine take?
“She’s only out for a few weeks with a shredded ankle” isn’t always good news, unless you’re often out with even scarier things!
Natalie: To say the least!
Last week we said that we’d draft teams for the All-Star Game so let’s do that! Who do you want to be: A’ja Wilson or Breanna Stewart?
Heather: Well I want to be A’ja but I think we all know who’s the big dork here, so I’ll take Breanna!
Natalie: Pfff! Not true at all.
Heather: Natalie, you are infinitely cooler than me and if one of us was going to be on a bag of Ruffles it would absolutely be you! And I think that means you get to pick first!
Natalie: Alright, if I’m A’ja, I’ve definitely got to go with one of my Aces as my first pick: I want the point gawd, Chelsea Gray!
Heather: Damn right! And if I’m Breanna, I know who it’s impossible to guard, even with my eleven foot wingspan, and I select: Brittney Griner!
Natalie: Okay, well…even if it’s not who I’d pick…I think A’ja has to go with Jackie Young.
Who, apparently, only cooks on the court, not in the kitchen.
Heather: Hahaha! Stewie’s gotta go with Jewell Loyd, her bestie, next!
Pregame hugs 🤗 pic.twitter.com/gRM6Pfts1N
— Seattle Storm (@seattlestorm) July 2, 2023
Natalie: Yeah, it looks like their friendship definitely survived the move to New York based on their warm interactions before the Seattle game. I don’t know what A’ja will do with her third pick but I’m definitely going SATOU!
(Now we’ve become ourselves.)
Natalie: Maybe: Natalie wants Nneka but, obviously, A’ja is gonna pick Aliyah Boston with her fourth pick…probably her third, if I’m being honest. So that’s where I’ll go here: the rook, Aliyah Boston.
Heather: Oh man, then please let me have Nneka Ogwumike!
Natalie: I’m so jealous.
Now onto the reserves! You want to pick first, this round?
Heather: You love me and want me to be happy and so I choose Alyssa Thomas!
Natalie: And I, as #TeamAces, have to go with KP.
Heather: Let me snag Napheesa Collier!
Natalie: Not my girl Phee! She’s been playing lights out for my fantasy team.
I’m going with another South Carolina product: Allisha Gray!
Heather: Gamecock life!
Well now I’m choosing between love and style! DeWanna with her wifey or Kaleah because my god. Ahhh. Okay I choose love. DeWanna Bonner!
Natalie: Of course you’re choosing love…it’s the most Heather Hogan thing about this conversation besides the Viola Davis mention.
I need a post so I’ll go Ezi.
Heather: Oh my gosh, I have been rewarded for prioritizing love! And thus can now choose Kahleah Copper!
Natalie: I need a point guard for my second group so I’ll go with CVS.
Heather: Kelsey Mitchell for me, please!
Natalie: Cheyenne Parker.
Heather: Elena Delle Donne.
Heather: You’re like “I’ll pass on my last pick.”
Natalie: Ha, if only! I guess I’ll take Sabrina then.
Heather: Well, this fantasy draft only made me more excited for the game!
Natalie: Same here. I mentioned in the comments last week that one person always takes the game way too seriously…who do you think that is, this year?
Heather: Arike again? :joy: What about you?
Natalie: I hope it’s Kelsey Plum so she can get another one of those tiny mvp trophies. LOL.
Heather: Hahahaha!!! And now let’s hand it over to Carmen for FASHION!
Carmen: Our fit of the week goes to A’ja Wilson because pairing a “Protect Black Women” shirt with a skirt straight out of the 1995 cult classic Clueless is the quickest way to my Black femme heart!
But also this gives me a chance to shout out some A’ja’s past fashions which absolutely should have made the cut. She’s been killing it all season. Like this 00s era denim fit (slide through the whole carousel for a laugh):
Heather: Hahahahaha that locker room video! The aces are CLOWNS.
Carmen: Also, speaking of 00s fits, this head to toe bling for Ring Night would’ve looked right at home at a Puff Daddy video in all the best ways:
And this one, from the home opener, custom designed out of sweatsuits is honestly?? A finalist for fit of the YEAR. And I’m not kidding:
Heather: Now that’s a cape!
Carmen: It’s stunning!!