Top 10 Storylines of the WNBA Playoffs
Eight teams begin competition in the 2022 WNBA postseason on Wednesday night, and there is a boatload of storylines heading into the playoffs.
Featured here is one storyline per team along with two more general narratives to keep an eye on as we move through the W's 26th postseason. Each storyline is ranked based on my own personal level of intrigue.
Which teams will accomplish their goals? Who will reach another level in the games where it matters and most? What surprises and upsets are ahead? And could fans get to witness something that hasn't happened in 20 years: a back-to-back WNBA champion?
All of this and more is ahead. Also, don't forget to get caught up on the Top 25 players to watch heading into the playoffs.
10. Can the Mercury Shock the Aces in a Second Straight Year?
In 2021, a lot went right for the Phoenix Mercury. The team made it to the WNBA Finals as the No. 5 seed by winning two single-elimination games by a combined six points. And then, with veteran savvy and superior coaching, the Mercury defeated the Las Vegas Aces in the semifinals in five games.
A postseason later, the Mercury find themselves in familiar yet also quite unfamiliar territory. Once again Phoenix will face off against Las Vegas, but both the playing and coaching staffs are almost completely different from a season ago. This time around, there's no Brittney Griner, no Skylar Diggins-Smith, no Diana Taurasi (out with a quad strain) snd no Kia Nurse (still rehabbing a torn ACL), while former head coach Sandy Brondello is now with the New York Liberty.
The three players from last year's team who will be available for this best-of-three series with Las Vegas are sharpshooting guard Sophie Cunningham, utility guard Shey Peddy and defensive stalwart Brianna Turner. With so much less star power this time around and only one All-Star available to play in Diamond DeShields, this series will be an uphill battle for a Phoenix team that has never stopped battling adversity.
9. Are the Dallas Wings McCowan’s team?
On Tuesday, Dallas Wings head coach Vickie Johnson was awarded with WNBA Coach of the Month honors, and moments later, the league announced that Dallas center Teiara McCowan was the Western Conference Player of the Month.
During Johnson's 5-2 record in the month of August, franchise player Arike Ogunbowale played in only one game because of two different injuries, and 2020 No. 2 overall pick Satou Sabally didn't play in any of Dallas' August slate.
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Teaira McCowan is the first Dallas Wings player to be named Player of the Month since the franchise moved to Dallas. <br><br>Vickie Johnson is the first Coach of the Month recipient in Dallas Wings franchise history since the league added the honor in 2017.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/AllForTexas?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#AllForTexas</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/WNBATwitter?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#WNBATwitter</a>
With those two out of the equation, the Wings' offense has single-handily been run through McCowan. The goal is either to get her a paint touch to score or create open outside looks.
On Tuesday, Johnson was asked about Sabally and if she could play in this series. Her response was optimistic and noted that the "possibility is likely that she will play on Thursday” in Dallas' first game in Connecticut.
Adding Sabally back into the fold might appear positive on the surface, but the Wings might run into an issue I wrote about before this season began: How can these two operate together with such incompatible styles of play? And will the Wings continue to operate fully through McCowan?
8. Does Travel Become an Opponent?
In the first round of the playoffs, there are three days in between games, enough time to make sure players rest, recover and can travel without stress. But, once teams advance into the semifinal rounds, there are two days in between Games 1 and 2 and then three days in between Games 2 and 3. Games 4 and 5, only if necessary, will be played with only one day in between.
The semifinals are the round I'll be keeping an eye on for potential airport snafus. While the Finals games are only separated by one day of rest in between, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced last month at WNBA All-Star that the league would be providing charter flights throughout the 2022 Finals.
For the league and its governors to finally bite the bullet on charter travel, will something dramatic need to happen during the 2022 postseason? An issue with travel will only put more pressure on those decision makers.
7. Which WNBA Rivalries Are Born?
I've thought about WNBA rivalries a lot since Commissioner Cathy Engelbert took the helm at the W in 2019. When she instituted the Commissioner's Cup in 2021, an objective of hers, in addition to giving the players more opportunities to earn money, was to also try to develop and new WNBA rivalries.
The most famous, which has somewhat fizzled out due to players retiring and player movement has been, between the Sparks and the Lynx, two teams known for absolute battles in the finals from 2015 to 2017.
Now, with both of those teams not in the playoffs this postseason, which teams are in line to engage in some memorable battles and create some inter-team tension?
- Seattle Storm vs. Las Vegas Aces: This would be a battle between the two best players in the world in Breanna Stewart and A'ja Wilson. Could this grudge last with Stewart potentially departing the Seattle in 2023?
- Connecticut Sun vs. Chicago Sky: Sun head coach and general manager Curt Miller and his team have been trying to figure out how to beat the Sky ever since the 2021 semifinals. This season, the Sun have lost each and every one of the battles between the two this regular season.
- Chicago Sky vs. Las Vegas Aces: This is what I would call a rivalry renewed. These two teams went at it in 2019, when the Aces defeated the Sky at the buzzer in a single-elimination game. Yes, I am talking about the Hamby heave. While some personnel and coaches have changed since, this season's Commissioner's Cup showed how competitive these two teams are with each other.
6. Can the Connecticut Sun Make It Back to The Finals?
The pressure is on for the Connecticut Sun, a team that has performed oh so consistently in the regular season over the past six seasons, winning over 20 games in five of those six seasons. In that span, the Sun have made it to only one WNBA finals, where they fell to the Washington Mystics in a five-game, back-and-fourth battle in 2019. But since those heroics of Elena Delle Donne and Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, the Sun haven't been able to put together a solid playoff run.
Last season, after finishing with the No. 1 overall seed and being awarded the double bye in the old postseason format, the Sun looked out of rhythm in the semifinals and were outcoached by James Wade and his Chicago Sky, the eventual WNBA Champions, according to Sun head coach and GM Curt Miller.
While the Sun were reintegrating Alyssa Thomas into a system she hadn't played in all season due to an Achilles injury, they also struggled to make clutch shots down the stretch. Miller's response was to an early playoff exit was to re-sign shooting guard Courtney Williams after two years away from the franchise, with the hope that she could provide shot-making that the Sun's guards from last season could not.
While Williams has had an up-and-down season back in Connecticut, does she get hot in the postseason? And what happens to Miller if the Sun cannot prove they are a Finals-ready team in 2022?
5. What Does Playoff Sabrina Look Like?
Sabrina Ionescu has only played in one playoff game, a single-elimination game last season against her current coach, Sandy Brondello. The Liberty lost 83-82 in a game where Ionescu scored 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting, dished out 11 assists and picked up five rebounds.
While that is verging on an Ionescu-ian stat line, the most clutch performance came from 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney. She scored 25 points on 10-of-22 shooting along with four rebounds and three assists. Both stars were playing injured, with Ionescu still not fully recovered from her Grade 3 ankle sprain and Laney dealing with torn meniscus cartilage.
Ioenscu has played at a level closer to her potential in a mostly healthy 2022 All-Star campaign, while Laney is still finding her way in Brondello's system after playing only nine games during the regular season due to another knee surgery in June.
Ionescu has also played well against the Sky this season, averaging 15.5 points, 7.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists in four games played. While she struggled with the hard hedging and trapping of Chicago's bigs in the first matchup earlier this season in May, Ionescu has adapted to that defensive scheme.
Will an older and wiser Ionescu propel the Liberty to advance through the playoffs for the first time since 2015? Let's find out.
4. Does "The Plan" Work Out for the Mystics?
Coming into the 2022 season, Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault had a plan: For Elena Delle Donne to be the healthiest she can be following two back surgeries, she had to not play in every game. She had to conserve herself so that by the time the playoffs came around, she would be able to give the Mystics the lift they needed to go on a deep postseason run and potentially win a second WNBA title.
While "the plan" made it hard to vote Delle Donne into the All-Star game and consider her for the All-WNBA first team, the awards weren't really the purpose of the plan, right? The plan was to ensure that the Mystics would be able to charge toward the playoffs with their best player healthy and without restraint.
The next question for Thibault is whether this season be a success if the Mystics don't end the season as champions? Or will it be a success if their franchise player plays through the postseason without setbacks? Delle Donne has another year on her contract before she becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2024, and not to mention that the Mystics have another lottery pick in the 2023 draft thanks to having the right to swap picks with the Sparks.
3. Can the Aces Survive Without Much Depth?
My criticism of the Las Vegas Aces since at least June has been their lack of depth on their bench. On most evenings this season, the Aces would finish with four players not getting a single second on the floor.
All season long I have been hoping that first-year head coach Becky Hammon would give some of these reserves in class-clown backup point guard Sydney Colson and rookies Aisha Shepard and Kierstan Bell some more run. While reserve post players Theresa Plaisance and rookie Iliana Rupert have also been in and out of the rotation, one of those two will have to step up with Dearica Hamby missing anywhere from two to four weeks with a knee contusion.
In the Aces' first-round matchup against the equally depleted Phoenix Mercury, depth shouldn't be a huge issue. But how will they fare in a series against either Seattle and Washington? Both potential opponents in the second round will have a much more talented and experienced bench. How will the Aces do when opposing coaches like Mike Thibault or Noelle Quinn are able to spend hours and sometimes days planning to take advantage of this lack of bench depth and production?
2. Will Sue Bird Be Sent Off the Right Way?
The Storm have had one goal ever since Sue Bird announced she was returning to the franchise and the WNBA for one more year. Since the top of 2022, Seattle has shown it wants to send Bird out the right way: with a fifth WNBA Championship to cap off her future Hall of Fame career.
In order to give Bird the appropriate sendoff and the best shot at one final title, the Storm cored shooting guard Jewell Loyd and re-signed Breanna Stewart to an ominous one-year deal. (I say ominous because of the offseason meeting she had with the New York Liberty. There was no way she wouldn't leave Sue for her final season, but who's to say she won't leave Seattle following Bird's retirement.)
Then they improved on defense by signing defensive guard Briann January, who also will retire at the end of the season. Seattle also traded for Gabby Williams, a point wing also with strong defensive instincts.
But then what didn't go to plan was the season of center Mercedes Russell, who the Storm signed to a three-year deal last winter. Russell only played in five games after dealing with recurring headaches all season long. With a massive hole in the post, in came Tina Charles in late June after departing the Mercury. Charles had the same common goal as the Storm. Both wanted to win a championship and win it right now.
The question now is: Can the Storm do it? Can they march through two series and end up in the place where they've wanted to be since day one of the 2022 calendar year?
1. Does a Team Figure Out the Sky's Weakness?
There were many moments during the 2022 regular season where the Sky looked ready to do the unthinkable, something that hasn't been pulled off in WNBA history in two decades: win back-to-back titles. While the Sky only have 10 available players due to the early departure of first-year post player Li Yueru, that doesn't mean they don't have depth.
The 10 players all can be trusted out on the floor. During the regular season, Chicago has been a top-four team in both offensive and defensive rating. The Sky found a way to beat teams even when shots weren't falling and key players like Courtney Vandersloot and Candace Parker were missing, a feat they couldn't have accomplished in 2021.
The question is whether a team or coach can figure out a way to defeat this team more than once? Do the Sky even have a weakness? According to Nekias Dunkan of Basketball News, they do, but it's subtle.
He noted that denying the Sky's passing post players in Candace Parker and Emma Meesseman in the high post, the slots and at the elbows, it forced those two players into longer shots rather than a higher-percentage shot in the paint or at the rim. This was how the Aces got the upper hand in the Commissioner's Cup last month.