Editor's note: Welcome to Bleacher Report's WNBA power rankings, where we will examine the standings and happenings on and off the court each week.
As we are about to hit the halfway point of the 2021 WNBA season, general managers are scrambling to lock down their rosters before the Olympic break. Veterans on protected contracts such as Candice Dupree and Kiah Stokes were waived by the Seattle Storm and New York Liberty. And then the Indiana Fever did the unexpected, releasing Lauren Cox, the third pick in 2020. What does it signal? If anything, dysfunction.
Speaking of dysfunction, there are multiple teams looking for answers heading into the final week before the Olympic break.
Is it too soon for the Washington Mystics to panic considering they have been without Elena Delle Donne and Alysha Clark all season and Myisha Hines-Allen, Natasha Cloud and Erica McCall since at least June 19? Or how about the Phoenix Mercury, who got whupped at home by the Minnesota Lynx? And finally, what's going on with Chennedy Carter and the Atlanta Dream? The 2020 No. 4 pick left Sunday's game against the Las Vegas Aces early—and not because of injury. On Monday, the team announced Carter had been suspended indefinitely.
Aside from the intrigue, this latest week in the W included returns and reunions.
For the first time in their young careers, sisters Karlie and Katie Lou Samuelson finally went head-to-head when the Storm defeated the Los Angeles Sparks 84-74. Tina Charles returned to New York, where she was honored by the Liberty and fans at Barclays Center. While Charles went off for over 30 points once again, the Liberty this time got the last laugh, winning the Saturday battle 82-79.
Our power rankings will be determined by the last week's action and take into consideration teams' strength of schedule and quality of wins and losses. But for our first ranking, we reviewed teams' performances since the May 14 start of the season. Find out which teams are thriving and which ones are still figuring it out before the midseason break.
12. Who do the Indiana Fever (2-16) want to be?
Although Indiana finally snapped its nine-game losing streak, its decision to waive Lauren Cox, who in her three games with L.A. has shown she can hold her own in this league, remains perplexing.
The Fever continue to struggle with their identity. Do they want to fully commit to a rebuild or do they want to try to squeak into the playoffs? The latter might not even be plausible at this point. However, that's not the only decision they need to make. In their second win against the Connecticut Sun, Danielle Robinson led the team with 19 points. Robinson, in tandem with Kelsey Mitchell, makes sense when it comes to playing with pace, but how does 6'7" Teaira McCowen fit into the puzzle when her style of play completely contrasts?
11. Trouble in paradise for the Atlanta Dream (6-11)
The Dream have lost five of their past six games, and that's apparently begun to weigh on the team. The Next's Spencer Nusbaum reported Sunday that Chennedy Carter's early exit during the Dream's matchup against the Aces stemmed from an argument she got into with a teammate.
For a young team with an interim coach and no general manager amid a shift to a new ownership group, issues of infighting are concerning. The Dream have a similarly pressing on-court concern, as from June 17 through Sunday, they've compiled a 114 defensive rating—the worst mark in the league.
10. Persistent offensive struggles impede the Los Angeles Sparks (6-11)
The Sparks have also lost five of their past six games, but they outrank the Dream because of how they've been able to remain competitive against top-tier competition like the Aces and Storm. The Sparks have one of the league's better defenses, led by Defensive Player of the Year contender Brittney Sykes. But her 0.185 defensive win shares per game don't make up for the fact that L.A. has had the league's worst offense since June 17. As good as their defense is, this team can't win games scoring under 75 points a night.
9. The Big Three isn't enough for the Phoenix Mercury (7-9)
The Mercury are looking for answers right now, coming off an embarrassing 99-68 loss to the surging Lynx. The question remains, is this team deep enough for a playoff run?
If they continue playing games where players outside of Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith cannot put points on the board, this team isn't sustainable. Since June 17, the Mercury own the fourth-worst offensive rating (98.4) in the league. For a team with so much veteran offensive talent and three Team USA stars, this metric is concerning. On the other end, Phoenix has performed even worse, registering a defensive rating of 103.2—third-worst in the WNBA.
8. The Washington Mystics (7-10) are treading water amid costly injuries
Playing five games in 12 days, the Mystics continue to struggle with a lack of available players and limited practice time. With new pieces like Megan Gustafson and returning WNBA champion Shatori Walker-Kimbrough in the mix while Myisha Hines-Allen, Natasha Cloud and Erica McCall continue to get healthy, Washington has to learn to jell quickly.
The encouraging news is they have some time to practice before their final game ahead of the Olympic break against the Chicago Sky on Saturday. If Myisha Hines-Allen and Natasha Cloud are both available, the Mystics immediately become a different team that can not only play the high-low game with Tina Charles and Hines-Allen, but they also can play better perimeter defense featuring Ariel Atkins and Cloud.
7. The Dallas Wings (9-10) are learning how to close out games
With a 3.2 net rating, the Dallas Wings are the fifth-most efficient team in the WNBA. But that efficiency hasn't always translated into wins. Seventy percent of their losses have come by single digits, as the youngest team in the league is still struggling to consistently finish games.
The late-game struggles come down to leadership. Vickie Johnson has been relying upon second- and third-year players Satou Sabally and Arike Ogunbowale, but according to Sabally, both still have a lot to learn. "We've definitely proven that we're the leaders of this team, but we also still need to learn a lot," she said after the Wings fell 99-96 to the Liberty on Monday night. "We see coach VJ as our leader."
6. The New York Liberty (10-9) can win under pressure
On the other hand, the New York Liberty can win games under pressure and have found a way to walk away with single-digit victories in 80 percent of their victories. They have only one win when Sabrina Ionescu scored fewer than 10 points.
After a 5-1 start, reality sank in. Teams began to apply pressure to the backcourt, and Ionescu's hefty minutes in the beginning of the season caught up with her. While Ionescu was dealing with defensive pressure and left ankle tendinitis (a sprain in that ankle ended her rookie campaign in 2020), the Liberty relied upon first time All-Star Betnijah Laney too often. But after Ionescu sat out two games to rest and learned how to counter the pressure, she and her team returned to form.
When Ionescu and Laney are firing on all cylinders and creating shots for themselves and others, that energy trickles down, making New York a dangerous team.
5. The Minnesota Lynx (9-7) are starting to put it all together
The Lynx are one of the hottest teams in the league right now, rolling on a four-game winning streak. Re-signing Layshia Clarendon for the rest of the season should do wonders for the Lynx, which had a massive hole at the 1 spot. Crystal Dangerfield is more of a scoring guard and posed a matchup problem on defense because of her size. Sylvia Fowles is better able to play to her strengths when she has a point guard like Clarendon setting her up.
One of Minnesota's other signings is beginning to find her footing, too. Kayla McBride scorched the Mercury, scoring 24 and 26 points in two successive games in Phoenix. McBride shared with the media what finally coming into her own on a new team means to her.
Dani Bar-Lavi @dblfluidity
Last night, I asked the Lynx's Kayla McBride how she was feeling after back-to-back games scoring 20+ points, and what's motivated her in this stretch. She gave me one of the most thoughtful and emotional answers I've ever gotten from an athlete. Here it is in full. #CantTameUs https://t.co/YEHTIzirS0
4. Is fatigue setting in for the Connecticut Sun (12-6)?
The Connecticut Sun initially looked like a favorite to win the WNBA championship. However, a couple of poor showings, including a loss Saturday, against the lowly Fever is concerning.
"I thought they played really hard, like wounded, hungry for a win and I thought they competed really hard against us on Thursday and Saturday," Sun coach Curt Miller said Saturday. "I thought they out-competed us."
The Sun didn't shoot well from beyond the arc in either game against Indiana, combining to shoot 9-of-37 (24.3 percent) from long range in the two matchups. Could there be some fatigue beginning to sink in for MVP hopeful Jonquel Jones after she hopped right back in after competing in Eurobasket? It's possible.
3. The Chicago Sky (10-9) maintain efficiency with Candace Parker
The Chicago Sky are beginning to cool down as well, losing two of their past three to the Sun and the Dallas Wings. Why are they ranked third?
Well, since Candace Parker returned from her left ankle sprain nearly a month ago, Chicago has had the third-highest net rating at 9.2 and the third-highest true shooting percentage (56.9). Also, even though the Sky have a worse record, they've won eight of their past 10 games and their schedule has been tougher than the Sun's, earning them a higher spot in these rankings.
2. The defending champion Seattle Storm (14-4) roll with less
The final two teams have the same record. So, which leads the pack? The starkest difference between the Storm and Aces is who each team has lost and gained.
Seattle waived seven-time All-Star Candice Dupree last week. The way she plays never seemed to complement franchise player Breanna Stewart in the way current Liberty power forward Natasha Howard did in years past. But while the Storm defense is less potent without Howard or Alysha Clark, the offense had made up for it with Stewart and Jewell Loyd making runs in the MVP race.
1. Can anyone compete with the depth of the Las Vegas Aces (14-4)?
What the Aces gained in the offseason offsets the veteran presence they lost in Angel McCoughtry. The 2020 team that made the WNBA Finals now includes Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum and free-agency signing Chelsea Gray.
While many were skeptical about how Cambage and 2020 MVP A'ja Wilson would complement each other after their first season together in 2019, Wilson improved her game, adapting to what Cambage does best. In 2019, Wilson averaged 1.8 assists per game, but that figure has ballooned to 2.8 this season.
The Aces' dominance on both sides of the floor comes in part from the improvement of 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jackie Young. Young leads the league with 0.234 defensive win shares per game, 0.025 over Jonquel Jones. She also has a 109.5 offensive rating, which is higher than teammates Gray, Plum, Cambage, Wilson and Dearica Hamby.
Game of the Week
Minnesota Lynx at Las Vegas Aces, 10:30 p.m. ET Friday on ESPN 3
The Lynx upset the Aces on June 25, the first game Vegas played after being off for a week. If Minnesota can defeat Vegas a second time, how quickly can we include the Lynx as championship contenders once again?
One more thing
In a Monday story by Seth Berkman of the New York Times, Liberty guard Rebecca Allen opened up about what it was like for her to be a part of the league's protests against racial injustice five years ago.
At age 23 and in her second year in the league, Allen was hesitant to stand with her peers and protest the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In 2016, the league didn't support players' activism and organizing as it does today. Under an older version of the collective bargaining agreement, the Australian could have been making as little as $39,676, and she didn't want to be fined for wearing a protest shirt that wasn't approved by the league.
Tanisha Wright, Allen's teammate at the time, reassured Allen that veterans would pay the fines of younger players. But Wright wanted Allen, who is white, to understand that the reason the players were protesting outweighed the money they were going to lose.
Reflecting years later, Allen was embarrassed. "It's a moment I haven't forgotten to this day," she said. "I've never actually spoke to her about it, because in some ways I was embarrassed, thinking money was the most important thing."
But her embarrassment didn't stop her from learning how she could do better. Last June, Allen joined Cambage and the national team, the Opals, as they abstained from training until Basketball Australia committed to implementing more robust and substantive social justice initiatives.