WNBA Power Rankings: Elena Delle Donne's Return, Ret-Hot Sun Rise

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IAugust 24, 2021

Photo by Stephen Gosling/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. After the first-ever Commissioner's Cup and 21 WNBA games later, who is looking best positioned for the playoff race ahead of the last month of the regular season? 


With just under a month left in the WNBA season, most teams believe they have a final playoff push in them. That's why Saturday's trade deadline wasn't really a main event this year and generally isn't one in the W. Teams don't usually turn into buyers or sellers because the season is only 32 games, and the playoff race this year, especially for the last three spots, is separated by one game. Two teams⁠—the Wings and Mystics⁠—are on the outside looking in but are no more than a game-and-a-half out of the playoffs. 

This week, we saw the return of many injured stars who couldn't contribute to their teams in the first half of the season. Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, Kristi Toliver, Natasha Howard, Aerial Powers and Elena Delle Donne all returned. 

While all of the returning players made a considerable impact on their respective teams, not all performances have led to wins. It takes time to build chemistry when integrating stars into already functioning teams. The issue remains: Which team will figure that out the quickest with the final playoff spots very much still up for grabs?          


12. Without Carter and Hayes, the Dream's (6-17) offense stutters  (No Change)

During the Olympic break, the Atlanta Dream made some personnel changes. Atlanta is now on its third head coach this season. When first interim coach Mike Peterson resigned to attend to his health on July 24, then-assistant and now head coach Darius Taylor took on the role. Two days later, the Dream announced that they had signed veteran forward Candice Dupree, who was waived by the Seattle Storm on July 2. Without Cheyenne Parker for the rest of the season on maternity leave, the Dream lacked depth in the frontcourt. 

But those changes haven't gotten the Dream back into the win column. They haven't won a game since June 29. The Dream also haven't won a game since the team suspended Chennedy Carter indefinitely. 

Since returning from the Olympic break, Atlanta has the worst offensive rating (89.1) and true shooting percentage (44.1), and the second-worst effective field-goal percentage (43.2). From the beginning of the Olympic break, the Dream's offensive rating has endured a decrease of over 11  percentage points. What's the reason for the fall in offensive efficiency? Before injuring her MCL on July 17, Tiffany Hayes was scoring over 17 points a game. She returned to the lineup August 19 but didn't score a point in 16 minutes against the Sparks. Against Chicago on Tuesday night, both Hayes and Dupree, who has a back injury, are doubtful to play.


11. A thin bench plagues the Fever (5-18)  (↓ 1 spot)

Since returning from the Olympic break, the Fever have played hard. In their first two games, they fell by a combined nine points to the Phoenix Mercury and LA Sparks, who both have the star power that Indiana does not. On Saturday, the Fever pulled off an 83-81 upset against the ailing Dallas Wings, on a made layup that resulted in a three-point play from Danielle Robinson with fewer than 15 seconds left in regulation. 

Against the Wings, the Fever played with seven available players, including Emma Cannon, who signed a seven-day contract, and excluding Jessica Breland, who sat out for personal reasons. Moving forward, the Fever will be without 6'10" center Bernadett Hatar, 2021 fourth overall draft pick Kysre Gondrezick, Chelsey Perry and nine-year veteran Jantel Lavender until further notice. Hatar is dealing with an ankle injury, both Perry and Lavender suffered knee ailments and Gondrezick was listed as taking personal leave from the team. 


10.  Satou Sabally's absence has hurt the Wings (10-14) (↓ 1 spot) 

Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

For the Dallas Wings to lose to a team with only seven available players that also has the worst record in the league signals that all isn't well for first-year head coach Vickie Johnson and her young squad. Since returning from the month-long Olympic break, the Wings have been without first-time All-Star Satou Sabally, who has been dealing with an Achilles injury

During this three-game stretch without Sabally, the Wings have produced the league's fourth-worst offensive rating (97.8 ) and second-worst defensive rating (105.8). Against the Connecticut Sun, the Wings were outrebounded 34-22 and allowed 13 second-chance points in their 80-59 loss to Sun. 

Since the Olympic break, their defensive rebounding percentage has endured a 2.4 percentage-point decrease from 72.3 to 69.9. It's no surprise that the absence of Sabally, the team's rebounding leader, has contributed to this shift. 

Against a mostly Candace Parker-less Sky, Dallas was able to bounce back after a blowout at home against the Sun. The Wings won the board battle 45-32. But then against the Fever, Dallas couldn't hold what was once a 12-point lead. 

Without one of its young leaders in Sabally, Marina Mabrey still coming off the bench and  2021's No. 1 overall pick, Charli Collier, playing fewer than four minutes a game after the Olympic break. It's hard to understand the Wings' endgame.


9. Can 2 MVPs carry the Mystics (8-14) into the playoffs?  (↓ 1 spot)

The moment that women's basketball fans have been waiting for came to fruition on Sunday when two-time WNBA MVP and 2019 WNBA Champion Elena Delle Donne made her return to the court almost two years and two back surgeries since her last appearance. Delle Donne played around 22 minutes and scored 16 points on 5-of-11 shooting. 

But with Tina Charles scratched for Tuesday night's home matchup against the streaking L.A. Sparks, can the Mystics and Delle Donne find their footing? Do they have enough depth to play all four quarters, one of their main bugaboos in the first week back? 

While I wouldn't count the Mystics out of the playoff race quite yet—this was a team that made the postseason in the "Wubble" with neither Charles nor Delle Donne—their shooting has gone cold since the W returned from its month-long hiatus. Washington's true shooting percentage has been second-worst at 47.5. 


8. Returners power the Sparks (10-13) during win streak (↑ 3 spots)

Nneka Ogwumike returned to the WNBA with a massive chip on her shoulder after not getting to play for either Team USA or Team Nigeria in the Olympics. Her numbers speak for themselves. The Sparks have won four games straight coming off the Olympic break, and Ogwumike has averaged 14.5 points, seven boards and five assists including a near-triple-double on August 17 in their 85-80 win against the Dream. Kristi Toliver adding another four-plus assists in L.A.'s last four games has made life a bit easier offensively for the Sparks. With Toliver and both Ogwumikes (including Chiney) back, they can make a playoff run. 

While their offense has improved, it's still not fluid or dominant, and their game still relies on their defensive intensity supplied by backcourt duo in Brittney Sykes and Erica Wheeler. When you add Nneka, who's a four-time All-Defensive player, the Sparks become that much more dangerous protecting the paint.      


7. The Liberty (11-14) add Howard but could be without Whitcomb (↓ 1 spot))

Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

New York still has adjustments to make after the return of Natasha Howard following two months out with a sprained MCL. While Howard has been on a tear since her return, putting up 17 points, 7.3 boards and 1.3 steals per game, she's still finding her footing and her speed.

Against the L.A. Sparks at Barclays Center with no fans due to Hurricane Henri, the Liberty turned the ball over 22 times, which included three from Howard, and two in key possessions in the fourth quarter. The Liberty not only lost the game on a turnover during the final moments, they also lost Sami Whitcomb to a nasty-looking ankle injury. While the team hasn't announced her prognosis yet, she needed help getting off the floor and wasn't able to put any weight on her injured ankle.


6.  Without Parker, the Sky's (11-12) will to win changes (↓ 1 spot)

The Chicago Sky began their return to the floor with a win and two losses. The victory came with one player and the two defeats were mostly without her. Candace Parker injured her left ankle again, and the Sky find themselves at a crossroads. 

Chicago's point center has determined the Sky's success this season. They boast a 10-4 record with her and a 1-8 record without the two-time WNBA MVP. 

The most glaring on-off statistic is the Sky's defensive rating. With Parker on the floor, Chicago possesses a 90.6 defensive rating, but without her, the team's defensive rating jumps 8.8 points to 99.4.

There is a lack of accountability defensively when Parker isn't available, and that's striking. After Chicago's 80-76 loss to the Dallas Wings last Tuesday, Azura Stevens tried to explain where the lack of defensive intensity came from. "That's lack of focus on closing out the play," she said. "We had certain stops that were good, and we just weren't locked in to get that final part of the play finished."


5. Against a favorable schedule, the Mercury's (13-10) bench has stepped up (↑ 2 spots)

Since returning from the break, the Mercury have fired on all cylinders offensively, posting the league's second-best offensive rating of 104.3 behind only the Aces (107.9). Defensively, the Mercury have improved and since the break have the third-best rating of 91.3. But that number should be taken with a grain of salt as their four straight wins have come against three teams who have had the three worst true shooting percentages since returning from the break—the Fever, Mystics and the Dream.

A question surrounding Phoenix Mercury this season was who from their bench and supporting cast would provide production outside of the Mercury's big three in Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith? 

Coming out of the Olympic break, Brianna Turner and Sophie Cunningham have answered that question scoring 10 points each per game. On August 15, Bria Hartley was spotted doing pregame work with teammates, so she could return as soon as Wednesday for the Mercury's two-game set against the Liberty.


4. Flaws of the Lynx (14-9) were exposed against the Sun (↓ 1 spot)

Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lynx went into the doubleheader with the Sun on an eight-game winning streak, but the Connecticut Sun came prepared. The Lynx had extreme difficulty penetrating the paint in their two-game series in Uncasville. The key to the Lynx's offense this season has been their ability to score in multiple ways in the paint. Typically, it's either Layshia Clarendon's strong takes down the lane or Sylvia Fowles making it look easy under the basket. 

Before the break, the Lynx had the fourth-best net rating in the league with 3.6. But after two difficult games against the Sun and a bounce-back win over the Sky, that net rating put the Lynx at seventh, dropping three spots. But, the Lynx have a reinforcement. Aerial Powers made her highly anticipated return to the court after surgery on her right thumb. Powers scored 14 points in her return off the bench, with six from free throws.  


3. Without Stewart and Bird, the Storm (12-7) are beatable (↓ 2 spots)

In the four games after the Storm took home the first-ever Commissioner's Cup, Seattle is 2-2. After the Olympic break, the Storm lost two straight on the road against the Chicago Sky and New York Liberty without both Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. (The 40-year-old Olympian and new mother needed their rest!) The Storm fell to the third overall seed, but they sprung back into action on Friday, defeating the Liberty 99-83 and the Mystics 85-78 on Sunday.

When Stewart isn't on the floor, the Storm's offensive rating plummets, lowering almost 20 points from 108.5 to 89.2. When Bird sits, Seattle's offensive rating drops eight percentage points, putting the Storm's offensive rating at 98.6 rather than 106.6. And defensively, Seattle struggles without Stewart, boasting a 95.2 defensive rating when she's on the floor and 100.4 when she's not. 


2. The Aces (17-6) can't treat the 1st half like 'a warmup'  (No change)

While the Aces have played two games and won both since returning from the break, they remain at the No. 2 spot because of how they started both games against the Mystics. In Game 1 against Washington, the Aces trailed by as many as 21 points in the first half. After being down 15 points at halftime, the Aces matched the Mystics evenly in the third scoring around 20 a piece. But then Las Vegas turned it on in the fourth, with both A'ja Wilson and Liz Cambage scoring 19 of the Aces' total 29 points.  


🎙 Hear from @ecambage following the Aces big win over the Mystics! https://t.co/jzW593hSo1

"We had a cute little warmup," Cambage said after the 84-83 win. "The first half was a warmup." 

A couple of days later, the Aces were down 18 points once again at halftime. But this time, Sixth Woman of the Year contender Kelsey Plum put the Aces on her back, scoring  21 points in the second half. Championship teams need to be able to play all four quarters, and Las Vegas still has the tendency to take one off if it isn't motivated or playing hard. 


1. After a disappointing Commissioner's Cup, the Sun are blazing hot (17-6) (↑ 3 spots)

The Connecticut Sun were embarrassed in the first annual Commissioner's Cup, missing easy looks at the basket and not playing their energized defense that's been one of the best in the WNBA all season. Against the Lynx, they reminded us who they are with consistent offense, rebounding inside and effective screening from their big three, Jonquel Jones, DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones. 

But, all of the credit shouldn't be given to the frontcourt. The Sun have an underrated backcourt led by Jasmine Thomas at the point and Briann January at the 2. Both were instrumental defensively against Minnesota, not letting any Lynx guard or wing penetrate. Their defense since the break ended has been terrifying, holding their opponents to 63.3 points in three games. 


Must-see matchups coming up

Las Vegas Aces at Connecticut Sun, 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN 3

On Tuesday, the Sun and the Aces will battle for control of the best record in the league. The Sun hold the season series against the Aces 2-0. The Sun have a .900 winning percentage at home, the highest in the league.


Phoenix Mercury at New York Liberty, 7 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBA TV and 8:00 p.m. ET Friday on CBS Sports Network

It's been a while, but this spicy rivalry between two original WNBA franchises begins again on Wednesday and concludes on Friday. Remember Jazmine Jones and Skylar Diggins-Smith's infamous Twitter exchange? 

Skylar Diggins-Smith @SkyDigg4

@Jazmine_Jones4 Girl shut tf up! They can’t post a highlight? Complain to your organization, first, why they only hype one person!

If Jazmine Jones is ready to play following a foot injury, these games should be great fun. 


One More Thing

On a Monday without any WNBA games to be played, the defending champion Seattle Storm paid a visit that no W team has since June 27, 2016 when the Minnesota Lynx team including Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus all joined President Barack Obama at the White House. Five years later, the Storm were honored on Monday for not only winning a championship in the "Wubble" last season, but also how they've made an impact on communities around them.

Storm center Mercedes Russell was a bit starstruck, recording live video footage on the team's Instagram. She wanted to see if she and teammate Jewell Loyd could do a TikTok without anyone noticing while hanging out in the halls of the White House. 

President Biden @POTUS

The @SeattleStorm don’t just win games — they change lives. Whether it’s encouraging people to get vaccinated or speaking out for racial justice, they are a force for change. It was an honor to host them at the White House today to celebrate their 2020 WNBA championship. https://t.co/MW317KDwgG

"And what makes this team remarkable is they don't just win games, they change lives," President Biden said. "... Encouraging people to get vaccinated, so we can beat this pandemic, speaking out and standing up for racial injustice and voting rights supporting education and membership programs ... mentorship programs for young people and fighting to protect trans youth from an epidemic of violence and discrimination. That's what winners do. They shine the light. They lift people up, they are a force for change. That's the Seattle Storm. That's the WNBA."

Crystal Langhorne, a former WNBA player and two-time champion is now the Director of Community Engagement for the Storm's social justice platform Force4Change. She addressed the President and the entire room, explaining what the Storm are doing after the "Wubble" to champion marginalized communities. 

"But it's not just about amplifying," she said. "It's about investing into communities that have been underserved and working with the organizations that have been leading the way in this space. This summer we worked with our community partners and together invested $100,000 in the Urban League in Metropolitan Seattle, matching what we invested to the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund last year. Social justice cannot fade into the background. We have to continue to amplify, invest, and do whatever we can to be a force for change."