WNBA Power Rankings: Chicago Drops Without Candace Parker, Vegas Holds Top Spot
The second annual Commissioner's Cup is set, as the defending champion Chicago Sky and league-leading Las Vegas Aces have clinched spots in the Cup Final on Tuesday, July 26, on Prime Video.
While the remaining 11 designated Cup games might appear obsolete, the location of the Final has yet to be decided. Last season's Commissioner's Cup between the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun was played at a neutral site: the Footprint Center in Phoenix. But for the second iteration of the Cup, home-court advantage is in play.
The Aces are currently in line to host the game, but all hope isn't lost for the Sky to host at Wintrust. According to Em Adler at The Next, for Chicago to host, the Aces must lose to the Lynx (which isn't impossible based on what happened on Sunday) and the Storm.
The Sky must defeat the Aces on Tuesday in Vegas and erase the two games they would trail Aces in the overall league standings before July 14. It sounds like a long shot, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.
In other WNBA news, Sue Bird officially announced her decision to retire after this season a few days ahead of her final regular-season game in New York, the state where she grew up.
Sue Bird @S10Bird
I’ve decided this will be my final year. I have loved every single minute, and still do, so gonna play my last year, just like this little girl played her first ☺️ <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TheFinalYear?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TheFinalYear</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/seattlestorm?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@seattlestorm</a> <a href="https://t.co/Uo2YqCCKUD">pic.twitter.com/Uo2YqCCKUD</a>
While her pending retirement was essentially a foregone conclusion when she signed a one-year deal with the Storm this past offseason, Bird's curtain call in Brooklyn couldn't have been more poetic. More on that later.
Lastly, voting for the 2022 All-Star Game has concluded. B/R was given a media vote this year, and I will reveal who and why I voted for as we get closer to the announcement of the final rosters are announced on June 28. Now, on to the power rankings.
12. Los Angeles Sparks (5-9) (↓ 2 Spots)
Is it harsh that the Sparks fell two spots after only playing one game this week? Some might say so, but they were the only team that either didn't win or show some signs of growth. Also, the Sparks have played only two games since June 6, leaving ample opportunity to get some quality practice time following their coaching change.
This week, they fell 92-82 to the Dallas Wings, a team with the third-best offense in the league. While the Sparks defense has improved ever slightly over the two games Fred Williams has been at the helm, the Sparks struggled to guard Dallas from the perimeter. L.A.'s perimeter rotations were a step slower than the rhythm in which Dallas took their shots in, which led to the Wings shooting a combined 44.8 percent from deep.
The only bright spot for the Sparks this week (and really this season) has been the return to form of Nneka Ogwumike, who against the Wings was as efficient as she's known to be. She posted a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds on 6-of-7 shooting in the loss.
11. Minnesota Lynx (3-13) (↑ 1 Spot )
While the Lynx didn't pick up a W this week, they move up because of how they lost and who they lost to. Minnesota fell to the Storm and the Aces, two teams in the top five in net rating, by a combined three points.
Against the Storm, the Lynx stayed in it by winning the points-in-the-paint battle 48-24. Kayla McBride led the way with 20 points, including a game-tying three with 52 seconds left in regulation. But after a Storm timeout, Seattle got a clutch finish on a pick-and-roll action from Breanna Stewart to give her team the lead for good.
The Lynx came out against the Aces on the road with much more energy in the first half and led the game by as many as 14 points. Minnesota was fueled by point guard Moriah Jefferson and forward Jessica Shepard. Jefferson dropped 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three. Shepard put up a historic 22 points, 19 rebounds and six assists in a heartbreaking loss.
Her Hoop Stats @herhoopstats
And . . . In 28 minutes of play, Shepard joined Lisa Leslie as just the second player In WNBA history to collect at least 22 points, 19 rebounds and six assists in a single game. Leslie accomplished the feat July 22, 2002. <a href="https://t.co/MOrnZSNQGb">https://t.co/MOrnZSNQGb</a>
The Lynx were down three with five seconds remaining, and since Minnesota was without a timeout, Shepard drove on A'ja Wilson and put up a turnaround fadeaway in the paint. She scored but didn't realize the Lynx needed a three rather than a two to tie it.
10. Indiana Fever (5-13) (↑ 1 Spot)
After a poor defensive showing against the Phoenix Mercury on June 15, which allowed Tina Charles to put up 29 points and seven boards, the Fever took advantage of a Chicago Sky team without Candace Parker. Indiana out hustled the defending champs, defeating the Sky 89-87 on Sunday.
The Fever won the rebounding battle 39-27 on a combined 20 rebounds from rookies NaLyssa Smith and Emily Engstler. Smith dominated Chicago to the tune of 26 points and 11 rebounds on 11-of-17 shooting.
A nice surprise in the Fever's victory was the career-high 23 minutes of play rookie Lexie Hull received. Hull scored 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting, along with three rebounds. She finished the game with the highest plus-minus on her team at plus-15.
While I wondered how helpful playing veterans in place of Hull for a rebuilding team was a couple of weeks ago, head coach Carlos Knox noted in the postgame presser that he wanted to reward Hull for the work she’s done in practice.
9. Phoenix Mercury (6-10) (↓ 1 Spot)
This week, the Mercury have the same ranking as their lackluster defensive rating. Phoenix sits at ninth with a 105.2 defensive rating, and their last three games haven't been much better, with a defensive rating of 104.9. If the Mercury want to be a serious contender in the playoff hunt, they have to play with the same grit that got them a 99-90 OT win in DC on June 12 against the Mystics.
In the second game of that two-game set, the Mystics came to play while the Mercury played with less focus, turning the ball over 16 times. While Phoenix's superstars didn't shoot the well, the common remedy to something uncontrollable is to play better defensively. The Mercury didn't do that either.
While Phoenix bounced back and defeated the Fever 93-80, a team it should beat, Phoenix then lost 93-88 to the Dallas Wings. Tina Charles and Skylar Diggins-Smith combined for 48 points, but the Wings outrebounded the Mercury 31-24 and scored 16 second-chance points to Phoenix's two. The Mercury's consistent issue this season has been effort. How much longer do they have to buy in before it's too late?
8. Atlanta Dream (7-8) (↓ 1 Spot)
The Atlanta Dream are now on a four-game losing streak after losing both games this week. What fueled the losing streak and, in particular, the losses this week has been twofold: First, the Dream played against two of the top three teams this week, including the defending champion Chicago Sky and Connecticut Sun.
It's worth remembering that seven out of the Dream's eight losses have come against teams with a .500 record or better. Atlanta, just like Indiana, was always meant to be rebuilding and looking to define its style of play and team culture for years to come.
Second, the Dream have abandoned some of their defensive principles against some of the best teams. Part of the enigma of the Dream this season has been the way in which the defense has kept them in games amid a very disjointed and turnover-prone offense. However, the Dream are still functioning without two-way player and veteran leader Erica Wheeler who's been out with a left foot sprain.
The one bright spot for Atlanta this week was two 21-point performances from AD (who uses they/them pronouns), a player the Dream acquired in a trade two weeks ago. While their defense is still a work in progress, AD looks like a much more confident player offensively. How did the switch flip so quickly? A new offensive system? A new environment? All seem to have done wonders for AD so far.
7. New York Liberty (6-10) (↑ 2 Spots)
It wasn't a fluke that the Liberty went toe-to-toe with the Chicago Sky on June 12, and they proved that by how they played both the Washington Mystics and the Seattle Storm this past week.
What's been noticeable has been how well they've played on the defensive side of the ball, something that head coach Sandy Brondello wanted to be a top priority in her first season at the helm. New York has the seventh-best defensive rating (100.6), putting them in the middle of the pack. In the past four games, however, the Liberty have had a defensive rating of 98.8, third best in the WNBA.
What was impressive in their 77-65 win over the Mystics was how New York won the game despite shooting 19.4 percent from three. This team struggled at the beginning of this year and all of last year with keeping composure when their shots didn't fall. And the Liberty's adjustment against Washington was more intensity defensively and scoring 44 points in the paint.
An issue for the Liberty moving forward is figuring out how to close some of these tight games. Against the Storm on Sunday and the Sky the week before, the Liberty ran out of gas, and both their opponents' most experienced players came up in the clutch. Brondello said following Sunday's 81-72 loss to the Storm, "they have Breanna Stewart, and we don't."
6. Dallas Wings (8-8) (No Change)
Even though the Dallas Wings finished the week 2-1, they stay put because of the strength of their schedule. The Wings beat teams they were supposed to beat in the Sparks and the Mercury. Had they won by larger margins, though, they might have moved up.
Arike Ogunbowale had a monster week scoring 28, 24 and 27 points while shooting a cumulative 48.1 percent from the field. As someone who is a career 39.3-percent shooter from the field, her efficiency was a welcome sight. However, he struggled to take care of the ball and turned the ball over nine times in the Wings' body of work this week.
Dallas' loss to the Aces came due to a monster 31-16 third quarter won by Las Vegas. The Wings didn't maintain the focus on defense they needed in order to complete the upset. The struggles on that end of the court were a theme over the last three games, as Dallas finished the week with a 104.8 defensive rating.
5. Seattle Storm (10-6) (No Change)
It was all about Sue Bird this week for the Storm. Following the Storm's tight two-point win over the Lynx, she began her goodbye tour where her college career started in Connecticut against the Sun. The Storm came up a bit short and were outrebounded 40-26 by a Sun team that has the highest-rebounding percentage in the league (55.3 percent).
Two days later, Bird brought her best to New York, her home state. And while it was an epic back-and-forth between one of the most well-established teams of the past few years and one of the up-and-comers in the Liberty, Seattle made sure they got this win for Bird. Jewell Loyd passed up the final shot so that Bird could leave New York with a made three-point bucket.
During the postgame broadcast interview with ESPN, Bird spoke about how it's time for her to pass the torch. Following the victory, she embraced the young Liberty guards Sabrina Ionescu, Marine Johannes and DiDi Richards, all players that represent the future of the league.
Amid all the pomp and circumstance for Bird, there are concerns about what the road ahead looks like for Mercedes Russell. The team shined a bit more light on what the non-basketball injury is for the center this past week. Russell has been battling atypical headache syndrome, and she'll be reevaluated in the next couple of weeks.
4. Chicago Sky (10-5) (↓ 2 Spots)
The Sky reminded us this week why Candace Parker is so integral to not only everything they do but to how they are able to win in this league. It shouldn't come as a surprise to many that the Sky struggled this week while she was out with a knee injury. They escaped a near-overtime loss against the Atlanta Dream and then lost to the Indiana Fever, the team with six rookies on their active roster.
If you look at the points in the paint from both games, it’s very clear as to what hole is most obvious without Parker available. Chicago lost the points in the paint battle in both games, giving up 54 to Atlanta and then 56 to Indiana.
What makes Parker so special is her ability to impact the game from both ends, and it was evident that the Sky missed their paint protector. Parker has been taken off the injury report for Tuesday's game against the Aces. But regardless, Chicago needs to figure out who has to take on more defensive responsibility if Parker misses extended time in the future.
3. Connecticut Sun (12-5) (No Change)
Is it time to be concerned about Courtney Williams? It might be. The Sun had an up-and-down week in which they beat the Dream handily, won against a more competitive opponent in the Storm, and then got absolutely blown out of the water by the Mystics on Sunday.
But something that came to light this week for the Sun was the lack of production that they are getting from Williams. While she had a 20-point, eight-rebound performance against the Atlanta Dream—a former team that she was likely motivated to beat—Williams' numbers against the Storm and then the Mystics were underwhelming.
Against Seattle, she shot 2-of-9 from the field, scoring four points. On Sunday at Washington, she scored seven points on 3-of-11 shooting. This season, she's shooting 40.7 percent overall and scoring 10 points a game, some of the lowest totals in her career.
2. Washington Mystics (11-7) (↑ 2 Spots)
It is difficult for the Mystics to establish consistency with Elena Delle Donne off the floor one day and on the next. The fact that they are 8-3 with Delle Donne in the lineup versus 3-4 without her speaks volumes.
What also speaks volumes is examining the team's offensive rating with her versus without her on the floor. With her, the offensive rating is 104.1, and without her, the team's offensive rating is just 95.1.
For the Mystics, it's not just about if Delle Donne goes off and scores 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting in Washington's 71-63 win over the Sun on Sunday. With their two-time MVP on the floor, the Mystics are guarded differently, which gives them more options and flexibility on offense. The Mystics also play more confidently with Delle Donne.
The showing Washington had against Connecticut represents more of the Mystics' potential on both ends of the floor. Moving forward, the organization has to figure out what adjustments need to be made on nights when Delle Donne rests and learn how to play confidently and fluidly without her.
1. Las Vegas Aces (13-2) (No Change)
This week, the Aces found a way to win both games despite failing to come out without enough energy in the first half. Did the early morning camp game the Aces played at Dallas play a role in the early sluggishness? Perhaps it did, but why did it happen again against the Lynx?
The Aces are figuring out what to do in games when their shots don't fall. In the first half of both games, the Aces shot below 25 percent from three. But then, in the second half of both games, Las Vegas got the ball to 2020 MVP A'ja Wilson and allowed her to get to work in the paint. Wilson didn't shoot under 75 percent from the field in the second half of either game.
Should the slow starts continue for the Aces against the Mystics and the Sky this week, though, those first-half deficits might be harder to climb out of.