WNBA playoffs preview: Favorites, contenders and pretenders
By Victor Mather
The Chicago Sky are set to begin their bid to become the first back-to-back WNBA champions since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002. But the regular season was close at the top, and several teams could easily lift the trophy this year.
The WNBA playoffs began Wednesday night, with the second-seeded Sky hosting the seventh-seeded New York Liberty and the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces hosting the eighth-seeded Phoenix Mercury.
The other two series — No. 3 Connecticut Sun vs. No. 6 Dallas Wings and No. 4 Seattle Storm vs. No. 5 Washington Mystics — start today, at 8 p.m and 10 p.m. Eastern Time, respectively.
How do the playoffs work?
The first round is best of three, with the higher-seeded team hosting the first two games. If a third game is necessary, it will be played at the home of the lower-seeded team.
The semifinals and finals are best of five, following a traditional 2-2-1 format for home games.
Besides the joy of making it to the end, the finals will bring the players another perk. For that round only, the league will pay for teams to fly by chartered plane.
Where can I watch the games?
ABC and the various ESPN channels will show the playoffs. Games can also be streamed via ESPN.
When are the finals?
They are scheduled to begin on Sept. 11 and run through Sept. 20 if all five games are needed.
Who’s going to win?
The big three are Las Vegas, Chicago and Connecticut, who all finished within a game of each other at the top. Seattle and Washington, which finished with identical records of 22-14, are the next tier down.
It is very hard to see any of the bottom three teams winning. Dallas was .500, and the Liberty and Phoenix both lost more than they won in the regular season.
For the statistically minded, Las Vegas had the league’s most potent offense, scoring 109.6 points per 100 possessions. Washington had the stingiest defense, allowing just 96 points per 100 possessions.
But in net rating, combining offense and defense, it was Connecticut at the top, scoring 9.5 points more than the opposition per 100 possessions. That could make the third-seeded Sun a sneaky favorite.
Who are the players to watch?
The top-seeded Aces have a powerful one-two punch. Forward A’ja Wilson is a favorite for the MVP award after finishing in the top five in points per game (19.5) and rebounds per game (9.4), and guard Kelsey Plum scored 20.2 points a game while leading the league in 3-pointers made.
Seattle has another MVP candidate in forward Breanna Stewart, who led the league in scoring with 21.8 points per game, and few will take their eyes off the legendary Sue Bird, 41, the WNBA career assists leader, who will retire after the playoffs.
And it will be worth watching Sabrina Ionescu of the Liberty, who at this point still has just one career playoff game.
What’s the history?
Seattle has four WNBA titles, all of them — yes, even the one back in 2004 — with Bird. Phoenix has won three times; once each for Washington and Chicago. The Dallas Wings won three times when they were known as the Detroit Shock. The other three teams are seeking their first titles. It’s an especially sore point for the Liberty, who have been in the league since the team’s first season in 1997.
What teams and players are missing?
Seven of the eight teams are the same as in last year’s playoffs. With Washington returning after a year away, the odd team out is the Minnesota Lynx, who finished 14-22 and snapped an 11-season playoff streak.
That means no playoff showcase for Sylvia Fowles, who is retiring after a season in which she led the league in rebounds per game.
The absence of the Los Angeles Sparks will cost fans a chance to see more of Nneka Ogwumike and the steals leader, Brittney Sykes.
The Mercury will be without both the injured Diana Taurasi, the WNBA’s career leader in scoring, and Skylar Diggins-Smith, who led Phoenix in scoring this season but will miss the playoffs for personal reasons. But the team’s grimmest absence of all is Brittney Griner, who is appealing her conviction on drug-smuggling charges in Russia, where she has been imprisoned since February.