Power Rankings: Reasons to watch Edition

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Welcome to the Winsidr’s Power Rankings. Every two weeks, the staff ranks the WNBA teams from 1-12 and I talk about the results. Here are the results from our first rankings of the year.

The WNBA is at a peak in terms of talent and gameplay. Teams have played magnificent basketball across the board this year. The trend will undoubtedly continue as the season goes on and, just maybe, the W will turn the corner as a sports league faster than anyone has predicted.

While excitement and media coverage of the WNBA is also at a recent peak, something is missing from the league still. As Natalie Weiner of SB Nation put it not long ago, “[t]he WNBA is many things, but unfortunately ‘cool’ is not yet high on that list.”

She’s right but here is the thing: THIS LEAGUE IS SO COOL. It’s cool and exciting and fun and the basketball is simply beautiful.

The point of the power rankings is to see how our writers view teams. But in this Power Rankings space, we are going to have fun and wander in the  landscape of the WNBA. Sometimes, we’ll talk straight up about basketball and other times, we’ll use basketball as a vehicle to talk about something else.

For our first installment, I want to give each of us a reason to watch every team in the league. It could be the play of superstar or season-long storylines or a player’s accessory. But it will be something we can all point to when asked why we love watching this league and each team in it.

One quick note before we start: Our writers vote on the power rankings on Saturday before the games are played that day. So each team will have their schedule in their section with any results that may have already happened and I’ll list the results that may screw up our rankings here:

  • Wings getting off the schneid with a win against Atlanta 71-61
  • Liberty ride AMANDA ZAHUI B’S 37 POINTS to beat LA 98-92

 

12. Dallas Wings: Imani McGee-Stafford yelling

The Dallas Wings are stuck on the ground, both literally and figuratively. After opening the season with 4 straight losses, the team’s flight out of D.C. got cancelled and they were stuck in the Nation’s Capital overnight. I don’t know how the team fared, but I am 100% sure that Imani McGee-Stafford told everyone in the airport exactly how she felt about it.

Imani has been one of the few bright spots for the Wings so far. She has contributed rather efficiently when she has had the chance to play. She put up 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting in just 7 minutes against Washington and 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting  in 15 minutes against Indy. Her energetic play provides a spark for the Wings on the court.

But she also provides a spark from the bench, which you can probably hear when you watch Dallas play. I sat right behind Imani during the Wings’ game in D.C. and she did not shut up the entire game in a very good way.

She was yelling out encouragement, calling out picks, and making sure the team never got too low in the blowout. Her voice actually cracked at one point from the yelling. She excused herself and kept shouting. It was a great example of how a player can contribute even when they don’t play.

Schedule

6/15 vs. Atlanta (W, 71-61); 6/20 vs Phoenix; 6/22 @ Las Vegas; 6/26 vs Connecticut; 6/28 @ New York

11. New York Liberty: Tina Charles making music

Filmmaker Tina Charles continues to dominate her day job. After debuting a movie about her father’s music store, Tina has gotten right back to entertaining on the basketball court. Charles ranks 3rd in the W in scoring with 17.9 points per game. She’s tied for 5th in rebounds with 8.5 nightly. Her shooting percentage has dipped to 37.7% from her career average of 45.6%. But she has made up for it with the best free throw percentage ever (84.2%) and the most free throw attempts per game of her career (4.8).

Tina is also just amazingly fun to watch. She plays an old-school brand of basketball while wearing Spongebob Squarepants themed shoes. She just always finds enough space to get buckets with a Cheesecake Factory menu-sized list of moves. Turnaround bankers, glacial drives with beautiful finishes, bodying smaller defenders, up and unders. One of my favorite things about her is that she leans back so little on her fade aways. It gets enough space but doesn’t change much about her motion.

While I realize that cross-gender comparisons are tired, this is one is worth mentioning. Tina and Bernie Sanders have the same shot release, as our intrepid leader Aryeh Schwartz pointed out. Watch this video and see if you can see Tina shoot without thinking about universal healthcare.

Schedule

6/15 @ Los Angeles (W, 98-92); 6/19 vs. Chicago; 6/22 @ Minnesota; 6/25 vs. Dallas.

10. Atlanta Dream: Heartwarming moments

Tough stuff for Atlanta so far this year. The Dream are off to a nightmare start to 2019 without Angel McCoughtry and Tiffany Hayes hobbled with an ankle injury. They won the first game of the season in a thriller against Dallas. But, they proceeded to get blown out by the Storm, Mystics, and Aces. The cherry on top of this sad sundae came Saturday night when Atlanta fell to the previously winless Wings. (Note: That game did not factor into these rankings.)

But, there are somethings that are more important than wins and losses.  The Dream have been at the center of one of the cutest and most memorable moments of the season. After losing to the Aces, Brittney Sykes remembered what’s important and… well just watch.

It’s extremely cute and heartwarming, but it’s also so important for the league. Not only does that kid have a lifelong memory, but the video made the rounds on social media and even made it on the Today Show. The moment now becomes a reason for young girls and boys to go to game and try to meet their favorite players. In short, it grows the game.

Huge shoutout to LW Productions (go follow him on twitter now) for his work capturing these moments. Very glad that he will be on the Winsidr team this year and super excited to see what other videos of his will have me crying.

Schedule

6/15 @ Dallas (L, 61-71); 6/19 vs Indiana; 6/21 @ Connecticut; 6/23 vs. Washington

8 (TIE). Indiana Fever: Erica Wheeler swaggin

One thing that you will find out if you continue to read our Power Rankings: I am from Miami, Florida. Miami is a very strange place in a very strange state. But, Miamians celebrate their own people as fiercely as any city in the country. So obviously, I have to hype up fellow Miami (Liberty City specifically) native Erica Wheeler in this space.

Wheeler’s shooting pops out on her stat sheet. She’s shooting a ridiculous 51.4% from the field, 40% from three, and has not missed a free throw yet. She does a lot of that shooting off picks. She slices and dices into the lane then pulls up from anywhere. Synergy Sports rates her as excellent shooting dibble jumpers when using a pick with 1.043 points per possession. If defenders commit to her, she uses her great vision to find her bigs near the basket.

Also, the little things Wheeler incorporates into her game catch your eye. She’ll use these extra hard dribbles when looking for a pass. When she finds it, the ball is in perfect position to throw missile passes to teammates who either catches the ball or get rocked in the face. She’s been an excellent representative of the 3-0-5 and hopefully, will continue to be a big of the Fever’s resurgence.

Schedule

6/15 vs Chicago (L, 64-70); 6/19 @ Atlanta; 6/21 @ Chicago; 6/23 @ Seattle; 6/25 vs Minnesota; 6/28 @ Phoenix

8 (TIE). Phoenix Mercury: MVP candidates or not?

In Winsidr’s preseason awards poll, our writers picked Brittney Griner to win MVP with DeWanna Bonner also getting votes. The basic theory makes sense. Diana Taurasi is out, these two would produce more, and the team would continue to be one of the best in the W. Uhhh about that last part…

The Mercury are 2-4, including a galling 85-68 loss on Friday to the Sparks. They rank 11th in defensive rating (104.5 estimated points allowed per 100 possessions) and 10th in points scored per game. 3rd quarters have really killed them as they have a -30.5 net rating (the team’s point differential per 100 possessions).

Which brings us to the MVP Candidates. Bonner has certainly played at an MVP-level so far, averaging a league-best 23.8 points. Griner threw down a dunk against Chicago and has played well overall. Both have played near their expected levels despite the team’s shortcomings.

So where do they stand in the early MVP discussion? I think you’d get a different answer from every person you ask. That’s what it’s my reason to watch. While MVP discussions at this point are asinine, thinking about the question reveals what’s most important to you: team success, individual brilliance, value added, scoring or defense, and the list goes on.

So watch the Mercury and argue with your friends or any of us at Winsidr on twitter about why these two should or shouldn’t be in the MVP race.

Schedule

6/20 @ Dallas; 6/23 vs Los Angeles; 6/26 vs Indiana

7. Minnesota Lynx: Swarming Defense

The undermanned Lynx surprised many early this season. Minnesota came out like gangbusters and won 4 of their first 5 games. They demolished the Sky by 18 and notched wins against two of league’s best teams.

While they have fallen back down to earth with two losses, the defense continues to be fantastic. They currently rank fourth in the league in defensive rating, giving up an estimated 96.2 points per 100 possessions.

But it’s not just that the defense is good. Minnesota’s defense is suffocating and swarming. My favorite stat in all of sports is the “havoc” stat in college football, used to measure how often defenses force offense into negative plays.

With their almost 10 steals a game, the Lynx would have a tremendous havoc rate. Opponents turn the ball over 17.7% of the time against Minnesota. Napheesa Collier has long arms and quick hands. Their guards are tenacious and they love to pressure the ball. It’s just a joy to see a whole defense attack at all times and hopefully, it will continue for Minnesota.

Schedule

6/16 vs. Las Vegas (L, 80-75); 6/22 vs New York; 6/25 @ Indiana.

6. Chicago Sky: Diamond DeShields’s Rec Spec Power

Sometimes, a player just looks so cool that they have to be good. Diamond DeShields fills that description right now with the most distinctive piece of equipment in the W: her goggles.

DeShields has to wear the glasses in response to her Keratoconus, an eye disease affecting the cornea. They allow her to take contact without fear of going blind, as DeShields told Maggie Hendricks of the Athletic. Essentially, the goggles enabled Diamond to play the game.

If that’s the case, then thank you to the doctors who created those things because DeShields has a chance to become a superstar this year. She is one of the most athletic players in the league, but she also has tremendous basketball IQ and smoothness. While she is slightly behind her 2018 numbers so far, DeShields has shown flashes of the potential we are all salivating over. Check out her highlights against Phoenix.

If you try to respect her speed, Diamond pulls up and hits a jumper. If you get out on her to stop the shot, she blows right past you for a layup. You can’t trap or hedge too hard on the pick-and-roll or else DeShields will drop a pass off to her bigs. Even when she doesn’t have the ball, you have to stayed glued to her or else its an open three as she dances around the arc. Accordingly, Synergy Sports rates her as excellent as a pick-and-roll ball handler, shooting jumpers off picks, and catch-and-shoot situations. The rec spec power is very real with DeShields and she could be the league’s next superstar.

(Quick note: Essence Carson of the Phoenix Mercury also has tremendous rec spec power, which deserves mention here.)

Schedule

6/19 @ New York; 6/21 vs Indiana; 6/23 vs Connecticut; 6/26 vs Washington; 6/28 @ Seattle

5. Las Vegas Aces: Laimbeer’s monster

The Aces have faltered a little in 2019. While many believe Vegas could win the title, they likely also foresaw their early struggles. The group just got together two weeks before the season and had to incorporate a new superstar.

But even when they figure it out, this team will be funky. First you have the two bigs. A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage play very different ball-dominant styles that don’t necessarily fit together. It seems more likely that they will need to alternate possessions rather than play off each other.

The rest of the team should fit well together around the two stars. Kayla McBride, Kelsey Plum, and Sugar Rodgers all hit threes to space the floor for the bigs. But there is one large impediment to this theory: Bill Laimbeer.The two-time coach of the year and three-time champ is obviously a great coach. But he’s not a believer in spacing or threes.

Since his return to the W in 2013, just one of Bill Laimbeer’s teams finished higher than 10th in three points attempts (2017 Liberty, 7th). This team is no different. Vegas has taken a league-low 85 threes (but they’re 1st in three-point percentage at 36.5%). Factoring in Dearica Hambry’s emergence on the low block, Laimbeer can create a weird-looking offense that will challenge modern notions of offense. I believe the Aces will figure it out, but it may not be what we expect.

Schedule

6/16 @ Minnesota (W, 80-75); 6/20 vs Washington; 6/22 vs. Dallas; 6/25 vs. Seattle; 6/27 @ Los Angeles

4. Seattle Storm: Heart of a Champion

Star players, great coaching, and good luck are prerequisites to win a WNBA title. But every champion has intangible qualities that set them apart. For the Seattle Storm, that quality is resilience and focus. And they’re showing those traits in droves early in the season.

Before the season, last year’s MVP Breanna Stewart tore her achilles, Sue Bird had to get her knee scoped, and Dan Hughes stepped away from the team to battle cancer. Many pundits wrote the Storm off and declared 2019 a lost season.

But, the Storm just keep coming. They’ve gotten out to a 5-3 start, thanks in large part to Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd stepping up. But also thanks to just never folding.

The best example of their resilience came on Friday against last year’s Finals opponent, the Washington Mystics. Jordin Canada hurt her knee early in the game and poof, one of the Storm’s bright spots went out with yet another injury.

So without any of the point guards they entered the season with, Seattle faced a 11-point deficit heading into the 4th against a great team. And they won on this Jewell Loyd dagger.

Amazing guts to stay in that game and impressive focus to pull it out. It may be corny, but that’s the heart of a champion.

Schedule

6/16 @ Connecticut (L, 67-81); 6/21 vs. Los Angeles; 6/23 vs Indiana; 6/25 @ Las Vegas; 6/28 vs. Chicago.

3. Los Angeles Sparks: Chelsea Gray, Assassin

Chelsea Gray is enjoying the best season of her career so far in 2019. She is posting a career-high of 16.7 points per game and a career-high in assists with 5.3 per game. Her three-point shooting has also gone up as she hits 45.8% of the 3.4 attempts she takes per game. Gray has also hit 95.2% of her free throws on a career-high average of 3 attempts per game. The 26-year old All-Star has clearly taken a step forward this year and may approach the highest-tier of WNBA stars this season.

While she has played great at all times, her performance at the end of close games has set Gray apart. The WNBA (and the NBA for that matter) defines “clutch” as the last five minutes of a game in which the point differential is 5 or less. Of players with 2 or more clutch opportunities, Gray ranks first in points as she averages 4.4 points per opportunity. No other qualified player averages over 3.5 points in these situations. She single-handily sealed a win for LA over the Liberty last week with 11 points in the last 5:10 of the game. Gray’s heroics start at the 0:57 mark of the video.

Gray already has a well-earned reputation for stepping up in huge moments. Coming into 2019, she was considered one the league’s most clutch players. But this year, Chelsea is cementing herself as the league’s premier closer and an Arya Stark-level killer. Watch for her to putting Valyrian Steel daggers into the heart of opponents and just hope that your favorite team isn’t on the receiving end.

Schedule

6/15 vs New York (L, 92-98); 6/18 vs Washington; 6/21 @ Seattle; 6/23 @ Phoenix; 6/27 vs Las Vegas

2. Washington Mystics: Teamwork

The Mystics came up just short of a title this year. Elena Delle Donne’s injury just before the Finals  robbed D.C. of any chance against Seattle. The team is now hoping to “run it back” and, YO, they look poised to do it early on. During a 4-game win streak (punctuated by losses to the # 1 team), the Stics won by an average of 18 points.

Their offense has been a juggernaut. D.C.’s offensive rating is 111.6, while no one else is above 106 estimated points per 100 possessions. According to Synergy Sports, the Mystics are the top-ranked offense in both transition and the half court. They also take and make the most threes in the league.

As someone who lives in D.C. and wants to cover a long playoff run, I got very excited about the Mystics’ the win streak and their offense. But for any basketball fan, the way the Mystics play should make you happy. The offense is fast-moving and clean, but most importantly it’s beautiful and collaborative.

D.C. leads the league in assists per game with 21.7 while turning over the ball the least (11.6 turnovers per game). More impressively, every player is liable to have a huge game. Natasha Cloud and Tianna Hawkins have both set career highs in scoring for a single game. In each game of their 4-game win streak, at least 5 Mystics scored double digit points. 9 of the Mystics’ 10 players with at least possessions are described very good or excellent on Synergy’s ratings. If D.C. continues to play team ball, they very well could “run it back.”

Schedule

6/18 @ Los Angeles; 6/20 @ Las Vegas; 6/23 @ Atlanta; 6/26 @ Chicago; 6/29 vs Connecticut

1. Connecticut Sun: Jonquel Jones’s Catch Radius

Connecticut has dominated 2019 so far. They’re 8-1 with the third-best offensive rating and second-best defensive rating in the league. Courtney Williams has been efficient in addition to her usual flash. Alyssa Thomas and Shekinna Stricklen both average more than 10 points on over 42% shooting. They also get after it defensively and hound other teams into bad decisions.

But the most impressive part of Connecticut’s season is Jonquel Jones’s performance. Many projected the 6’6″ center to solidified her stardom. But she has out-paced those projections through 9 games. Her 17.2 points per game is a career-high. She also leads the league in rebounds with 12.2  and blocks with 2.7 per game.

But the most fun part of watching Jonquel is her ability to catch any ball near her. An entry pass four feet over head? No problem, she pulls it down and gets a bucket. Three defenders near her on the roll? Just throw it up homie and JJ got it. Her long arms and athleticism give her the catch radius of an NFL receiver. Connecticut’s guards never need to worry about throwing a perfect pass because, with JJ, any pass is the perfect pass.

Schedule

6/16 vs Seattle (W, 81-67); 6/21 vs Atlanta; 6/23 @ Chicago; 6/26 @ Dallas

Next Power Rankings: Week of July 1st. See you then!

 

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  1. Pingback: Weathering the Storm: Why Seattle can continue winning despite yet another injured star » W-Insidr

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