WNBA Power Rankings: Defending Champs Retake Top Spot, Mercury and Wings Fall
We've reached the mid-point of the WNBA season, and the league wanted to end the first half of 2022 with a bang.
The defending champion Chicago Sky found three very different and compelling ways to beat teams in one week. The Sky had a historic comeback in Las Vegas, Candace Parker dropped her third career triple-double on her former team and point guard Courtney Vandersloot put the Lynx to sleep with the game-winning three to beat Minnesota 88-85.
Meanwhile, Tina Charles and Phoenix Mercury agreed to a contract buyout amid the organization's struggles and less than favorable position in the playoff race. The evening after the announcement, the Mercury played well without the 2012 MVP and defeated the Wings 83-72.
Chicago moved up, and Phoenix shuffled down in our rankings for the week, but who else made headlines?
12. Indiana Fever (5-15) (↓ 2 Spots)
The Indiana Fever are now the holders of the worst defensive rating in the league (107.0). And while the rookie-laden roster is coming back down to earth as the lottery-bound team we knew they'd be, their performance against the Dallas Wings was uninspired.
Indiana gave up 34 points in the first quarter, including six made threes, in their 94-68 loss on the road. The Fever also turned the ball over 18 times.
While interim head coach Carlos Knox noted that the turnovers were unforced early in the game, he also mentioned that his team needs to better prepare themselves for how opposing defenses apply pressure. When the Fever played the Mercury on Monday night, Indiana was much more competitive. It held a lead in the second quarter from 7:20 through the final six seconds of the half. But once the second half came, Phoenix seized control on 6-of-11 shooting from three by Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith combined.
The bright spot this past week for the Fever was how Kelsey Mitchell performed. The combo guard scored 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting along with four assists against Dallas, and she followed that performance with 22 more points and four more assists against Phoenix.
The fifth-year pro has put up some of the best numbers of her career, including points per game (19.2), three-point shooting percentage (40.2 percent) and assists per game (4.1). While I didn't put Mitchell on my All-Star ballot, I would be shocked if she didn't make it to her first All-Star game as a reserve.
11. Phoenix Mercury (8-12) (↓ 2 Spots)
The Mercury had an incredibly eventful week. It began with getting swept in a two-game set against the Minnesota Lynx. They were outrebounded and outworked by the Lynx in both contests and lost by over 10 points each time. The Mercury allowed the Lynx to shoot 43.8 percent from the field in Game 1 and 50.7 percent in Game 2.
Two days following the second straight loss to the Lynx, eight-time WNBA All-Star Tina Charles and the team agreed to what the collective bargaining agreement refers to as a divorce or, in less dramatic terms, a contract buyout.
The Mercury had a lot to prove during their game that same day in Dallas, the first without Charles. And despite shooting 42.0 percent from the field, Phoenix won 83-72 with much more energy dedicated to defense. The Mercury forced 15 turnovers, which included seven steals and three Dallas offensive fouls.
While head coach Vanessa Nygaard proclaimed in the postgame presser that the "reports" of her team's "death have been greatly exaggerated," let's see if they can carry this momentum past a two-game set against the Fever. On Monday night, the Mercury defeated Indiana, the league's worst and least experienced team 83-71 at home. A win against a more talented and more consistent opponent will only prove if Phoenix's demise actually has been "greatly exaggerated."
10. Minnesota Lynx (5-14) (↑ 1 Spot)
The Lynx began the week with two decisive wins against the dysfunctional Mercury and capped up a five-game stretch where they played with the best offensive rating in the W (110.5).
When head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve was asked about the synergy on offense, she chalked it up to her team's improved decision-making on pick-and-roll. Point guard Moriah Jefferson had a combined 14 total assists in that two-game set.
But the upward trajectory came to a halt when the Lynx lost to the Chicago Sky Sunday night in dramatic fashion. While Minnesota fell at the final buzzer to Courtney Vandersloot's game-winning three, the Lynx turned the ball over 18 times, which the Sky converted into 15 points.
The Lynx's offense overpowered the Sky's defense, but what was noticeable were the offensive struggles from Aerial Powers. She and Kayla McBride took the most shots on Sunday, with Powers going 2-of-10. Has she become a liability on offense? I'm not sure, but there's a sizable dip in offensive rating (4.4 points) when she's on the floor versus Bridget Carlton.
9. Los Angeles Sparks (7-11) (↑ 3 Spots)
The Sparks walked away with two quality wins this week against two top-five teams. L.A. played with the necessary effort to escape the Elena Delle Donne-less Mystics and got a pivotal win on the road in Seattle, defeating the Storm 85-77.
In both wins, Nneka Ogwumike played like the 2022 All-Star starter she is. She scored 45 points combined in those wins and shot over 66 percent from the field in each victory.
Against Seattle, the Sparks held Jewell Loyd to three points on 1-of-9 shooting. Is the L.A. defense turning the corner?
Perhaps not, because between those two wins, Candace Parker put on a show at her old stomping grounds, where she notched up her third career triple-double to help the Sky trounce the Sparks 82-59. And like Sabrina Ionescu did before her, Parker secured the triple-double in three quarters.
And while the Sparks went toe-to-toe with the Aces on Monday night, falling 79-73 at home, Las Vegas was missing Chelsea Gray. I'm not ready to say that L.A. is ready to contend with the best. At least not yet.
8. Dallas Wings (9-10) (↓ 2 Spots)
The Wings had an incredibly inconsistent week. They fell to two teams that have considerably less talent than they do in the Mercury and the Dream. And what came in between these losses was a 94-68 blowout victory against the Indiana Fever.
But both opponents Dallas lost to were coming off major adversity and were hungry for a win. For the Mercury, they had just endured the departure of Tina Charles, and the Dream were trying to end their four-game losing streak.
In both games, Dallas didn't play with the effort necessary and either lost or tied with their opponent in the rebounding battle.
The loss against the Dream is quite symbolic for how I sum up the Wings. Teaira McCowan scored 14 points on 10 shots and was responsible for getting Dallas back into the game despite playing a hair under 17 minutes. And Arike Ogunbowale, who continues to struggle with defensive effort, sat out for half of the third quarter and the first five minutes of the fourth.
This team continues to be an enigma. How can they operate with multiple identities? But amid all of Dallas' talent and offensive firepower, they still are one of the youngest teams in the league and struggle with having the composure necessary to beat the teams that they should.
7. Atlanta Dream (8-10) (↑ 1 Spot)
The Dream began the week snapping their four-game losing streak but then put themselves back on another one after losing to the Liberty and the Sun. The going of late has been rough with Erica Wheeler, Kristy Wallace, Nia Coffey, Tiffany Hayes and Kia Vaughn all out. That's basically the makings of a starting five.
And so for head coach Tanisha Wright, it's been a tall task to win games while she's trying to define roles for bench players who haven't played a heavy set of minutes up until now.
She's been figuring out how best to use AD, who has defensive limitations, and rookie Naz Hillmon and third-year Beatrice Mompremier, who both didn't have defined roles and didn't get a ton of playing time earlier on in the season. And as a result, the lack of experience of who is able to play is catching up to Atlanta.
The bright spot for the Dream this week has been the play and leadership on both sides of the ball from sophomore Aari McDonald. She scored in double digits in every game and was responsible for picking up key steals that propelled the Dream into transition.
6. New York Liberty (8-10) (↑ 1 Spot)
To begin the week, the Liberty received the news that Sabrina Ionescu would be a WNBA All-Star starter. In June, Ionescu has been the player who WNBA talent evaluators knew she could be.
In 10 games this month, she's averaged 19.8 points, 7.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds per game. And along with Ionescu's success has also come boatloads of success for the Liberty.
That continued this week when New York earned road wins against the Connecticut Sun and the Atlanta Dream. Though Atlanta has been inconsistent as of late, what was impressive about both victories was how the Liberty maintained leads and made key shots in response to the momentum of their opponents.
What also was incredibly impressive was that New York has achieved both victories without sharpshooting wing Rebecca Allen (concussion protocol), Betnijah Laney (right knee) and Jocelyn Willoughby (left knee).
The Liberty have looked like a much more mature team with added composure since falling in close losses to Chicago and Seattle two weeks ago. According to Natasha Howard, the difference has been in the collective leadership from her, Ionescu and Stefanie Dolson.
5. Seattle Storm (11-7) (No Change)
The Storm showed inconsistencies this week with a solid win over a talented Mystics team that this time featured Elena Delle Donne but then fell 85-77 to the Sparks two days later.
Is this a function of the Sparks genuinely getting better, or did Seattle just have a very uncharacteristic shooting performance from superstar guard Jewell Loyd? It's hard to tell, but something that the Storm struggled with in both games this week and really all season long has been getting production out of their bench.
A solution to this problem is on the way, as The Ball Out Media reported over the weekend that Tina Charles will sign with the Storm once the eight-time All-Star clears waivers. With a lack of clarity on Mercedes Russell's atypical headache syndrome, this move makes sense for Seattle, who initially were on Charles' radar this offseason before deciding on Phoenix, per ESPN.
In Seattle, Charles will be reunited with longtime friend and Team USA teammate Sue Bird. Will a pairing with a different legendary guard work a bit better this time around? Both Charles and Seattle will need each other to accomplish their ultimate goal: winning a championship in 2022.
4. Washington Mystics (12-9) (↓ 2 Spots)
Washington began its West Coast road trip a bit rocky. First, they fell to the struggling L.A. Sparks 84-82 without franchise player Elena Delle Donne.
But following that loss, the Mystics figured out how their preferred starting lineup could function.
They had Delle Donne for two straight road games, which was a first this season. While there were more growing pains for Washington in Seattle, where they shot the ball 37.1 percent from the field, the Mystics put it all together in Las Vegas and squeaked out a win in a tit-for-tat battle in which four players reached double figures.
According to The Next's Jenn Hatfield, the Mystics' preferred starting lineup of Delle Donne, Shakira Austin, Alysha Clark, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud had only played 44 total minutes together before this road trip.
Following the trip, this number increased to 75 minutes. Consistency and an ability for Myisha Hines-Allen to be ready in the situations when Delle Donne has to rest will determine the Mystics' fate. Can they compete for a championship this season? That rests on how quickly they figure out how these pieces fit together.
3. Connecticut Sun (13-6) (No Change)
Connecticut went 1-1 this week, falling to the red-hot New York Liberty and defeating the struggling Atlanta Dream on the road. That very fact begs the question: Where are the Sun exactly? Are they struggling, thriving or are they languishing?
Their loss against the Liberty proves that Connecticut's Achilles' heel all season long will be their perimeter defense. While the Sun still had the best defensive rating this week (89.9), they allowed the Liberty to shoot 13-of-32 from three (40.6 percent).
They also posted the fourth-worst offensive rating (94.9) this past week. On Sunday against the very shorthanded Dream, the Sun shot 2-of-10 from three, the worst field-goal percentage from deep in franchise history.
Furthermore, can Courtney Williams bring it when the Sun don't play against the Dream? On Sunday, she put up a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double against her former team, marking the second time she's dominated Atlanta this season. However, she's averaged 9.7 points and 3.9 rebounds per game against all other opponents. Connecticut still needs more consistency from its top offseason acquisition.
2. Las Vegas Aces (14-4) (↓ 1 Spot)
Las Vegas played in two absolute classic games this week, both of which they lost.
The first came on Tuesday against the defending champion Chicago Sky. In the first half, the Aces scored 41 points and played what head coach Becky Hammon believed was their most brilliant quarter of the season.
But then, as Hammon also said postgame, the Sky woke up and "kicked [the Aces'] asses" the rest of the way. The turning points came in the third quarter when the Sky scored 30 points and limited the Aces to 2-of-13 shooting from the field for only 11 points.
Against the Mystics, the game was quite evenly matched, but it was clear that the Aces starters were gassed by the time it hit overtime. The Mystics could insert Myisha Hines-Allen, who played nearly 21 minutes, to fire up their defense. The Aces didn't have one bench player log more than 16 minutes or five points.
On Monday night the Aces were without point guard Chelsea Gray, and Riquna Williams returned to play for the first time this season after being out with a foot injury. Las Vegas' offense played with less of a flow and was predicated more on isolation-style play from its two stars in Kelsey Plum and A'ja Wilson. The two combined for 54 of Las Vegas' total points in their 79-73 win over the Sparks.
Their games this week exposed Las Vegas' depth, an issue that looms over the Aces and will continue to unless some changes are made. The Aces should try figuring out their bench's roles now so that it doesn't come back to bite them in the postseason. But, that doesn't mean they will. Perhaps the fact that rookie Iliana Rupert played 15 minutes and scored five points on 2-of-3 shooting against the Mystics is a sign that Hammon is beginning to figure out Vegas' bench a bit more.
1. Chicago Sky (13-5) (↑ 3 Spots)
The defending champions won all of their games this week, each of which came with a highlight.
First, the Sky made the greatest comeback in WNBA history, rallying to defeat the Aces on the road 104-95 after being down by 28 points.
Second, Candace Parker put on a show in L.A., notching a triple-double in the Sky's 82-59 rout of the Sparks.
And finally, in a game when head coach and general manager James Wade was in health and safety protocols and the Sky weren't as sharp, Chicago managed to beat the Lynx on a buzzer-beating three from Courtney Vandersloot.
Besides the theatrics of Parker's triple-double and Vandersloot's game-winner, a major development this week for Chicago has been how Julie Allemand has settled into the Sky's offense.
While she didn't get a ton of run in the comeback against the Aces, she played over 20 minutes against both the Sparks and Lynx. Against L.A. and Las Vegas, she was a bit more tentative shooting the ball and scored zero points on three combined field-goal attempts. However, she did record six assists in each game.
But when the Lynx came to town, the Belgian guard made all four of her shot attempts for 11 points and added four more assists. If she can continue to build comfort and confidence, the Sky will only get more dangerous and difficult to stop.