The WNBA season is ready to tip off, but before it does, let’s get bold.
There are 12 teams in the league, so I’ve decided to make a (fairly) bold prediction for each team and back it up with some evidence. I’m not getting too wild here — you aren’t about to read me say “The Indiana Fever win the championship” or “Liz Cambage demands a trade after three games,” because those are too unrealistic to even have a chance of happening. Let’s keep these semi-believable.
12 Teams — 12 Bold Predictions
Atlanta Dream: Maite Cazorla Has An Immediate Impact
The Dream traded out of the first round of this year’s draft, but they took Oregon’s Maite Cazorla in the second. I think Cazorla is going to be one of the rookies who really surprises people this season.
At Oregon, Cazorla was a solid defender who shot the ball well from long distance, and those are things that the Dream can take advantage of, especially when it comes to shooting. Atlanta shot just 31.8% from three as a team last year, a number that’s not going to cut it if they want to be as good as some people think they can be. Their best three-point shooter last year among players who played a significant role was Renee Montgomery, who hit 37.1% of her shots; next was Tiffany Hayes, way down at 32.1%. Cazorla can do a lot to help space things out and provide a catch-and-shoot option for the Dream. In her last year at Oregon, Cazorla scored in the 92nd percentile on spot up attempts. She’s also a capable ball handler who can score in transition.
Chicago Sky: This Is The Year Of Diamond DeShields
I personally don’t think this one is that bold, but I’m including it: DeShields will be this year’s Most Improved Player and is going to help fuel an offensive explosion in Chicago that gets the Sky back into the playoffs.
Last year, the Sky had a net rating of -5.3 when DeShields was on the floor and a net rating of -13.4 when she was on the bench. This Chicago team is better when DeShields is on the court, and another year of growth should enable her to take another step as a scorer.
Overall, I’ve been picking this Sky team to make the postseason for months. Am I worried about their defense? Yes, but their offense has the chance to be the league’s most exciting. DeShields will be a huge part of that.
Connecticut Sun: They’re Going To Miss Chiney
I’ve seen a lot of comments about how Connecticut is going to actually improve with Chiney Ogwumike gone, how her departure opens things up inside for the team’s bigs and gives them room for rookie Kristine Anigwe, who was a rebounding monster at California.
But I’m more pessimistic about the Sun without Ogwumike, even after seeing this alarming number earlier:
Last year, the Sun had a defensive rating of 106.6 when Chiney Ogwumike was on the floor. That improved to 98.6 in the 562 minutes when she wasn't on the floor.
— Justin Carter (@juscarts) May 23, 2019
The problem? Yeah, Jonquel Jones can start and can be very, very good on both ends of the floor, but that means the minutes Jones was playing last year now likely belong to Anigwe, and I think there’s going to be a noticeable drop off there. Yes, this team will be good up front, but I don’t really buy into this idea of there being addition by subtraction. Jones needs more minutes and that’s good, but I don’t think Chiney Ogwumike being gone is going to be something the team can easily recover from.
Dallas Wings: Led By Skylar Diggins-Smith Returning Ahead Of Schedule, The Wings Play Spoiler
The Dallas Wings, after trading Liz Cambage and getting a less than equal return, should be bad this year. Their best player is gone. Their second-best player, Skylar Diggins-Smith, is working her way back after giving birth in the offseason. There were people who thought she’d miss the whole season, but she’s been at training camp and appears to be primed to return this season.
My prediction? That returns comes earlier than we expected. I’ll say sometime in mid-June, and while I have nothing to base that off of except a gut feeling, a mid-June return to a Wings team that’s got a pretty solid roster, including rookie Arike Ogunbowale, Glory Johnson, Kayla Thornton, and Azura Stevens is early enough to put this team right in the hunt for a playoff spot. And with their final game of the year coming against a depleted Seattle Storm team that might also be near that playoff bubble, anything can happen.
Indiana Fever: Natalie Achonwa Has A Better Year Than Teaira McCowan
You know who doesn’t get enough credit in this league? Natalie Achonwa.
Achonwa is entering her fifth season in the league, and she’s coming off a season where she averaged double-digit points for the first time. In fact, she was third on the Fever in scoring and first in rebounding last year while shooting 52.7% from the floor. Achonwa continues to improve, but the Fever spent the third pick in this year’s draft on a center, Teaira McCowan, and McCowan is expected to start at center.
But McCowan was generally acknowledged pre-draft to be a bit of a project, and while a rebuilding Fever team does have time to spend on getting her up to speed with the WNBA game, Achonwa is still the best option the team has at center if they want immediate production from the position, which is why I think Achonwa will outperform her on a per minute basis.
Las Vegas Aces: Improvement, But Not To The Level Everyone Expects
In lieu of writing anything here, I’m going to link to my recent article on the Cambage trade, which explains this pretty well.
Los Angeles Sparks: Marina Mabrey Will Be In The Three-Point Contest
Mabrey is going to shoot a lot of threes this year for the Sparks. Over four years at Notre Dame, she hit 40% of her threes, and she should complement the rest of this Sparks roster well. So, my bold prediction for the Sparks? Mabrey shoots well enough to earn an invite to the three-point contest.
Minnesota Lynx: Karima Christmas-Kelly’s Lynx Career Doesn’t Get Off To A Great Start
Christmas-Kelly had a preseason to forget, and after she was popularly looked at as a strong addition by the Lynx, I’m now worried that she’s not going to play much of a role on this team.
While the WNBA website currently lists her as a starter, players like Stephanie Talbot and Napheesa Collier have the ability to challenge her for those minutes. Collier in particular is an intriguing option on a Lynx team that really needs to get younger.
New York Liberty: Kia Nurse Becomes The Team’s Second Scoring Option
Tina Charles is going to lead the New York Liberty in scoring this year. I’d bet a lot on that statement, because the veteran is by far the most important player on this team and her ability to score inside and outside will be what keeps the Liberty in games.
But most people think rookie Asia Durr is going to be the team’s number-two scorer. It makes sense; the Liberty drafted her second overall because of her ability to take over games as a shooter, and the ball will be in her hand plenty. But I think Durr’s going to take a little while to get going, and in that time second-year forward/guard Kia Nurse is going to really assert herself.
Nurse scored a team-high 17.3 points per game in the preseason while taking 40 total shots, the same number as Charles. Durr took 30 shots. More impressive was Nurse going 9-for-19 from three after a lackluster rookie year from deep. If she’s able to hit her three-ball more consistently, Nurse will be the team’s second-leading scorer.
Phoenix Mercury: Brittney Griner Is Your 2019 WNBA MVP
Alright, this one is definitely not as hot a take as it could be, since Griner is a very good player, but she’s also only made one All-WNBA First Team in her career.
But with Diana Taurasi set to miss a good chunk of this season, Griner will have a chance to really show how valuable she can be. She’s averaged 20+ points per game two years in a row and a second season as the league’s points per game leader — which she was 2017 — seems within reach. Factor in that Griner is a strong defender — five consecutive years on the All-Defense team, the 90th percentile in defending post ups last season — and that the Mercury, even without Taurasi, are going to be a strong team, and we’ve got a recipe for Griner to win her first MVP.
Seattle Storm: The Defending Champions Miss The Playoffs
Injuries have ravaged the Storm and their best player, last year’s MVP Breanna Stewart, and their most important veteran, guard Sue Bird, are expected to miss this season. (Bird did cryptically tweet about the reports not being entirely accurate, but for the purposes of this prediction, let’s assume she’s out a long time at the least.)
As much as I like the pieces they still have in place — Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard, Jordin Canada — this team isn’t as loaded with front-end talent now, and by having players like Canada step into the starting lineup, the bench will suffer as well. This is the kind of moment where you wonder if the team regrets selecting an international stash with their first round pick this year?
So, Seattle finishing ninth or tenth in the league. There’s my bold prediction for them.
Washington Mystics: The Mystics Aren’t A Top Four Team
This is the kind of bold prediction you make when you look at a roster, don’t see many holes, and just need to come up with something.
But I could see some potential issues that hurt this team. There’s the impending European departure for Emma Meesseman. There are some concerns about depth. There are other teams that brought in big, new names in the offseason.
If every team was healthy, I’d feel much better about this bold prediction. As is…well, pretty sure I’ll be taking a loss on this one.