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WNBA Power Rankings: There's a New No. 1 at the All-Star Break

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IJuly 13, 2021

Photo by Josh Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

Editor's note: Welcome back to Bleacher Report's WNBA power rankings, where we will examine the standings and happenings on and off the court each week. As we head into the All-Star Game and the Olympic break, what did we learn about the league?

After her team played the final WNBA game before the Olympic break, Minnesota Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve looked relieved to be on a break from weeks that sometimes included playing four games in seven days. She was asked Sunday night, "[As] the hottest team in the league ... is there a little part of you that wishes that you could just keep playing?"

Reeve shook her head and replied, "Not at all."

"This has taken a lot out of us, and you know, we need a break," she said. "I think the way the season started for us and the sense of urgency that came, we expended a lot of energy to get to this place."

Aside from perhaps the streaking Indiana Fever, who ended the first half on a three-game win streak, the same could be said for every other team in the league. Players not participating in the Olympics are expected back in their team markets within two weeks as the W will allow teams to get some practice and skill work in before Olympic competition concludes. The first Commissioner's Cup featuring the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun takes place Aug. 12 before the second half of the season resumes Aug. 15.

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But this final week in the WNBA didn't pass without drama. Phoenix Mercury head coach Sandy Brondello had the Australian Opals (Liz Cambage, Ezi Magbegor, Rebecca Allen, Leilani Mitchell and Stephanie Talbot) arrive at pre-Tokyo camp July 7. But Brondello still coached her team while opponents were missing players. Also, there's now new information on what led to the indefinite suspension of Chennedy Carter.

Our final power rankings before the Olympic break will be determined by last week's action and will take into consideration teams' strength of schedule and quality of wins and losses. Disturbances such as inconvenient travel, missing players and locker room conflict are taken into account. Find out which teams are heading into the break with momentum and which ones should be motivated to put on a better showing when the break concludes.

         

12. What Can Keep the Dream (6-13) Alive in Atlanta? (↓ 1 spot)

Hakim Wright Sr/Associated Press

On July 7, The Next's Spencer Nusbaum reported how guard Chennedy Carter earned her indefinite suspension. In the first quarter of Atlanta's 118-95 loss to the Las Vegas Aces, Courtney Williams approached Carter on the bench. Williams noticed that Carter appeared disengaged during the game and forcefully encouraged her to change her attitude. This led to an argument and then a subsequent discussion between the two after the game where Carter "made noises," taunting Williams to fight her.

What has been the result of this off-court drama? Well, the Dream have lost four games in a row, including falling to the Sun and Fever in the final week. Being without dynamic scorers Carter and Tiffany Hayes, who's out with a Grade 2 MCL tear, has yielded lackluster offensive production. In their final week before the break, the Dream couldn't score over 75 points.

         

11. L.A. (6-13) Defense Loses Its Spark (↓ 1 spot)

Without the Ogwumikes (Nneka and Chiney) and Kristi Toliver, and even before their injuries, L.A.'s offense has struggled. What kept them in games against the Aces and Storm last week was their aggressive perimeter defense led by Brittney Sykes and Erica Wheeler.

But in the Sparks' past two games of their six-game losing streak, their defensive intensity has waned dramatically. In their past two losses, the Sparks had a defensive rating of 104, third-worst in the league. The Sparks turned the Lynx over 18 times, and they still lost 86-61 on Sunday.

        

10. 'Scorching-Hot' Fever (4-16) (↑ 2 spots)

Hakim Wright Sr/Associated Press

The Fever have won three games in a row, a feat that a couple of weeks ago may not have seemed possible. After beating the Sun at home, the Fever had a six-day break before facing the New York Liberty at home and then flying to Atlanta two days later. Before the Fever played New York, Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins explained that you can't overlook any team.

"If our team executes our principles, plays with passion and plays together, we can beat anybody in the league," Hopkins said. "If we don't, we can lose to anybody in the league." And that's what has happened to all the teams that have fallen to the Fever this season.

Perhaps Danielle Robinson was fortunate during the Liberty game that the opposing team had been on a flight that arrived the morning of the game. As for Atlanta, the Fever kept the Dream scoreless for eight straight minutes between the third and fourth quarters. If Hayes and Carter were on the floor, would things have played out differently?

         

9. Wings (9-12) Struggle to Remain Airborne (↓ 2 spots)

In the Wings' last two games against the surging Lynx and stacked Aces, Dallas has given up 85 and 95 points, respectively. The Wings finished the week with the worst defensive rating, 113.2, over nine points worse than the Sparks.

The Wings can't win games when their top three scorers in Arike Ogunbowale, Satou Sabally and Marina Mabrey are shooting under 35 percent from the field. While the Wings lost another single-digit battle to the Lynx, the Aces had their way with them, beating them by 16 points.

Returning from the break, head coach Vickie Johnson is going to have to reckon with what's been the main question all season for Dallas: How does she manage minutes and develop her young players? Also, why isn't Mabrey starting? And why does Bella Alarie, one of the Wings' better on/off players, play only 10.6 minutes per game?

         

8. Natasha Cloud Boosts the Mystics (8-10) (No change)

Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

The Mystics played just one game this past week and in doing so hopped back into the top eight in the standings. That doesn't change their ranking because of the lack of sample size and Cloud's return.

Against the Chicago Sky, Cloud found six different teammates on 11 assists, including a couple of touches for Tina Charles on the block and a "touchdown" pass to Shatori Walker-Kimbrough halfway through the third quarter. Cloud's ability to put pressure on the paint, penetrate aggressively and drive-and-kick was what made the Mystics WNBA champions in 2019.

        

7. Did the Mercury (9-10) Engage in Foul Play? (↑ 2 spots)

When I last wrote, I explained how in flux the Mercury were. But a week later, they finished winning two of their last three going into the break. Diana Taurasi didn't play in their three games last week because of a hip injury, but could she be preserving herself for the long month leading into Tokyo? Without the league's all-time leading scorer, how did Phoenix recover from being blown out by Minnesota?

Brittney Griner, who was named Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday, shifted into high gear. And when she faces Cambage and the Aces, she has extra motivation. When Griner first faced Cambage this season, she put up 27 points and 11 boards. Last Wednesday, BG racked up 33 points and 10 rebounds and dished out five assists to lead the Mercury in their 99-90 overtime win over Las Vegas.

When the Mercury faced Seattle two days later, things got a little fishy. Brondello and the Mercury went up against the Storm, who were missing Magbegor and Talbot. Both had reported to the Australian national team's camp. Brondello is the coach of said national team, so what was the deal?

Sue Bird was visibly frustrated when asked by the broadcasting team why the Storm were struggling. "Yeah, I mean it's tough when you're missing two important players," she said. "I guess Aussie, Aussie, Aussie; is that what I'm supposed to say? I wish Sandy were there with them. What's going on down there?"

Did Brondello stay an extra day or so with the Mercury before heading into the break? I'm not sure. Alex Simon of The Next asked for an explanation but didn't get much:

Alex Simon @AlexSimonSports

I did! About 10 days ago, I asked Sandy about the players who were going to report to the Opals before the WNBA first half ended. While she’s sticking with the Mercury for the final weekend, here’s her explanation for why the players went to Vegas a little early: https://t.co/HGIv1lUxdG https://t.co/Zz7M1EDTDU

         

6. Liberty (10-11) Need Some Sleep (no change)

The Liberty had a tough week. After defeating Dallas and setting a franchise record for three-point makes last Monday, they seemed ready to remain at .500 or above. But then Hurricane Elsa arrived, delaying not one but two of the Liberty's flights to and from Indiana.

On Thursday before their Friday night game against the Fever, the team waited in the airport for nine hours before being sent home to take a flight early that next morning for a 7 p.m. ET game. New York's sluggish defense allowed Danielle Robinson and Kelsey Mitchell to get any look they wanted when they went downhill, and the Fever captured their second win in a row by an 82-69 score.

Against the Sun two days later at 2 p.m. after another delayed flight, this time by four hours, the defense looked alive, but the offense looked spent. Betnijah Laney and Sabrina Ionescu attended the ESPYs the night before, and New York could only manage 54 points in its 17-point loss to Connecticut.

         

5. Sky (10-10) Are Out-Willed (↓ 2 spots)

Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sky only played one game this week against the Washington Mystics at home, and it was a battle for the ages in the post. Both Candace Parker and Tina Charles finished with double-doubles as Charles put up 34 points and 17 rebounds and Parker notched 17 and 13.

But for the Sky, it was all about who wanted the game more, and that was Charles and the Mystics, who out-rebounded the Sky 44-35 and snapped a four-game losing streak in the 89-85 overtime win.

         

4. Sun (14-6) Return to Form (No change)

After underestimating the Fever, the Sun handily beat the Dream and Liberty, who both had off-court issues. Jonquel Jones continued her MVP quest, putting up two straight double-doubles.

The Sun aren't title contenders only for their offense, but for their consistent defense as well that is anchored by Jones, Jasmine Thomas, Brionna Jones and Briann January. And it isn't just the veterans who have bought in. Second-year players Kaila Charles and Beatrice Mompremier have defensive ratings that are fourth (92.5) and fifth (92.9) on the team, ahead of both January and Brionna Jones.

         

3. Lynx (12-7) Reenter the Championship Conversation (↑ 2 spots)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Lynx have won seven straight games. Last week, I noted that if the Lynx could beat the Aces a second time, then Minnesota would be able to reclaim championship contender status. On Friday, the Lynx defeated the Aces 77-67, holding all scorers, including A'ja Wilson, to under 20 points.

Should we take this victory with a grain of salt because Kiah Stokes started in Cambage's place? Possibly, but the Lynx haven't lost a game since June 19, and they've found a way to win games while playing to their strengths.

When Layshia Clarendon was asked about what was clicking after the team's final victory before the break against the Sparks, Clarendon noted it's a function of all the pieces they have working together after starting the season in flux with limited time to practice. Clarendon (who at the time was on the Liberty), Kayla McBride and Napheesa Collier were all absent during training camp.

"I just think all of the pieces have worked together," Clarendon said Sunday night. "So we've had games where K-Mac goes off, we had a game where Syl [Sylvia Fowles] goes off. I think we've found the balance of how to win games when we all are clicking on the cylinders. ... I think we are finally jelling and meshing, so I think that's what you are seeing. The chemistry is finally starting to show through, and that's what's been nice."

         

2. Aces (15-6) Can't Fill Cambage’s Void (↓ 1 spot)

Finding separation between the top two teams remains difficult, but the Aces showed they need this one-month break after falling to the Mercury in overtime and starting slowly against the Wings on Sunday.

A'ja Wilson willed her team, almost notching a triple-double against the flailing Wings. While Cambage was practicing with the Australian Opals, Las Vegas was missing the pressure she provides in the paint. Charli Collier had the best game of her rookie season, putting up 13 points, many of which were scored on Stokes.

           

1. With Less Talent, Storm (16-5) Play Smarter Defense (↑ 1 spot)

Photo by Josh Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

After falling to the Mercury in the first game of their two-game series Friday, head coach Noelle Quinn and assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg had to refocus a defense that was short two players in Magbegor and Talbot.

In the first game, the Storm allowed Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith to score close to 30 points apiece. The following game, they made Kia Nurse beat them rather than BG and Diggins-Smith. Seattle put weaker defenders on Nurse, allowing her some open looks. She went off for 28 points on 9-of-19 shooting, but Griner and Diggins-Smith both scored under 20.

           

Game of the Week

WNBA All-Stars vs. USA National Team, 7 p.m. ET Wednesday on ESPN

In the WNBA's 25th season, the league decided to pull the trigger on an idea it toyed with 11 years ago. In 2010, the W put on The Stars at the Sun, an exhibition that wasn't branded as an All-Star Game. It pitted Team USA against a team of WNBA All-Stars in a contest that took place at Mohegan Sun Arena, home to the Sun.

This year, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert opted to create a pre-Olympic send-off that also honored the 25th anniversary of the 1996 Olympic team, a group that began the USA women's gold-medal streak and led to the launching of the WNBA.

Three members of that 1996 squad will coach the matchup. Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson serve as co-head coaches of Team WNBA opposite Dawn Staley, the head coach of Team USA.

In addition to the anniversary fanfare, the first WNBA All-Star Game in two years presents some extra motivation for all involved.

"I think it's going to be very competitive this year," Engelbert said in June. "Very, very competitive because everyone is training for, they're vying for the gold medal. Whether you are on the USA team or Australia or any other team that's been vying for that gold in Tokyo."

Although Team WNBA has seven first-time All-Stars, that doesn't make the matchup unbalanced. If anything, Team WNBA has a good chance to come out on top. Rachel Galligan, a women's basketball analyst at Just Women's Sports, predicted that with veteran leadership and potent offensive weapons on both sides, Team WNBA could win this.

At halftime, the Three-Point Contest will return with two more newbies as well as three-time All-Star Jewell Loyd and two-time contest champion Allie Quigley. The Sky guard will face off against MVP hopeful Jonquel Jones (a 6'6" post player!) and the Liberty's Sami Whitcomb, who are vying for the league's top true shooting percentage. Joining that trio is Loyd, who will be participating in her second Three-Point Contest. This season she's tied for eighth in three-point makes this season. 

        

Impact of Space Jam: A New Legacy

This Friday, Space Jam: A New Legacy, the sequel to the original Space Jam film from almost 25 years ago, will be released in theaters. Starring LeBron James as the protagonist in the place of Michael Jordan, the new film focuses on the theme of urging young people to follow their passions. The film also features two WNBA stars in Diana Taurasi and Nneka Ogwumike as the White Mamba and Arachnneka, who are antagonists and members of the Goon Squad.

During the Sparks' game against the Lynx on Sunday night, broadcaster Ros Gold-Onwude described a conversation she had with Ogwumike about stepping into the role. Ogwumike noted that while the voiceovers were some of the most enjoyable parts of the experience, she struggled with being a villain and had to record multiple takes. "It would be like, 'No, no, no. You have to be more evil,'" Gold-Onwude said about how Ogwumike was coached.

Space Jam: A New Legacy @spacejammovie

Introducing the Goon Squad! Arachnneka, The Brow, Wet-Fire, White Mamba, and Chronos are stepping up to the Tune Squad in Space Jam: A New Legacy in theaters and streaming on HBO Max* July 16. Get tickets now: https://t.co/2PYkw9SdJG https://t.co/XjQiOHdjJ2

In the original 1996 film, women's basketball players weren't featured. At an advanced screening that the Sparks put together for young people associated with nonprofit Brotherhood Crusade, an organization in L.A. that helps underprivileged people overcome institutional barriers, Ogwumike spoke to the group of children about what that inclusion means to her.

"We're experiencing a time in which women's basketball is catching fire," she said. "It's really igniting, so for that representation to be in there, it's a testament to the time that we're in. It's a testament to a new legacy. It's a testament to I think LeBron and Warner Bros.' awareness on what's important. And having that representation is important."

          

Maya Moore Redefines What Courage Means in Sports World

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On Saturday night, four-time WNBA champion Maya Moore was honored during the 29th annual ESPY Awards with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. On the heels of her new ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Breakaway, which premieres Tuesday, Moore accepted the award and explained what exactly she believes courage is.

"The headline has been centered around the courage it took for me to step away from the game of basketball. But I'd like to take some time with you tonight to actually talk about a different aspect of courage in this story—specifically the courage that it takes to love when it's hard," she said.

Moore reflected on the emotional, cerebral and spiritual toll that fighting against injustice has taken on her. Being able to look across the room and see her friend and now-spouse Jonathan Irons in the audience was still surreal for Moore. But rather than dwell on what the past few years have been like in fighting for her husband's freedom, Moore looked ahead and took the majority of her acceptance speech to educate the sports world on what her social action campaign Win With Justice has done and what it will do in the near future.

Win With Justice has always meant to educate and provide tools to help society be more active in fighting against prosecutorial misconduct in our criminal justice system. She mentioned a partnership with For The People, a nonprofit that assists prosecutors and family members who are in the process of rectifying unjust sentences. The partnership is going to allow for prosecutor-initiated resentencing, a process that will allow prosecutors the ability "to reunite families and restore communities" that have been deeply impacted by mass incarceration.

Moore closed her speech by reminding her audience what the responsibilities of athletes and sports people are. "As athletes, we have unique power and influence over our culture and communities for what matters most," she said. "And one of the best ways that we role model this is about being honest about our own humanity first."

What does being honest about humanity mean to Moore? It means stepping outside your comfort zone and experiencing people who have different life experiences—exactly what her journey has been with Irons.

She noted that athletes make sacrifices all the time, be it relenting comfort for achievement or relenting self for the good of the team. She invited everyone watching to make a different type of sacrifice, one that is centered on helping others and humanizing someone else.

"Power is not meant to be gripped with a clenched fist or to be hoarded," she said to close her speech. "The power is meant to be handled generously so we can thoughtfully empower one another to thrive in our communities for love's sake, championing our humanity before our ambitions."

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