Biggest questions for each WNBA team in 2020 [Part 2]

We’re in the endgame now. After two insane weeks of WNBA Free Agency, the dust is settling. Most teams are done making moves outside of filling out their training camp rosters. A bombshell or two could be on the way (*stares at Tina Charles*). But we largely know what most rosters will look like in 2020. Now we can begin ranking teams and asking the big questions for each roster.

My criteria for the team’s biggest question is what issue will most impact the team’s ability to win the 2020 WNBA Championship or complete whatever other goals they may have. These questions don’t necessarily relate to long-term team-building issues, like cap room, contracts, or further free agency signings. It’s all about how teams complete their 2020 goals and the biggest impediments to those goals.

NOTE: I had to break this up into two parts because of length. I did by using last year’s standings. Part two is the bottom 6 teams and you can check out Part 1 of the top 6 teams here.

Minnesota Lynx: How does Reeve rebuild?

After news broke that Odyssey Sims would miss time and Danielle Robinson signed with Vegas, the real bombshell rocked the Lynx organization. Seimone Augustus left Minnesota after 13 years, 4 championships, and 8 All-Star game appearances for their archrival in Los Angeles. Her departure could signal a Lynx rebuild.

They reportedly went after some big names. But Head Coach and GM Cheryl Reeve was unwilling to mortgage the future because this team’s best days are likely ahead of them. Rookie of the Year Naphessa Collier, Stephanie Talbot, Jessica Shepard, Lexie Brown and (potentially) Cecilia Zandalasini make up a tantilizing under-25 core. But they still need time to develop.

So how does Minnesota go from potential to powerhouse? Reeve could try to rebuild on the fly while competing for a playoff spot. They did so in 2019. This path would be best if she thinks the youngsters will be ready to challenge for a title in 2021.

She could also blow it up, better their 2021 draft pick, and collect assets/cap space for the resplendent 2021 free agency class. Odyssey Sims, Damiris Dantas, and newly acquired Rachel Banham could be a part of the next great Lynx team. Of that group, Dantas is most likely to be moved since she’s an expiring deal. The biggest decision point is whether to trade Sylvia Fowles. She’s 34, but still very productive and could get the Lynx a hefty return.

It’ll be a tough decision for Reeve. But as she knows, winning a championship in the WNBA requires tough decisions.

Phoenix Mercury: Can the bench keep them afloat?

The most discussed question mark for Phoenix has been Bria Hartley’s max contract, which I broke down here. But Hartley’s contract really becomes an issue going forward rather than this season. She will be likely fine as their starting two-guard. But her max salary does effect their ability to address their most pressing concern: the bench.

Currently, the Mercury’s bench is made of Nia Coffey, Alanna Smith, Sophie Cunningham, and Brianna Turner. They have the 10th pick in the draft and (probably) enough cap space for one bench contributor.

Coffey is somehow the most accomplished of the group at 24 years old. The three-year vet is on her third team in as many season. She is a solid defender who held opponents 0.791 points per possession last season. But Coffey is a work in progress on the other end. She has never posted more than 5.3 points per game or better than 44.3% true shooting percentage. Coffey has also never played in the playoffs.

The trio of sophomores all showed flashes of their potential, particularly Brianna Turner. Turner put up 0.959 points per possession on offense in a limited sample size and rebounded well. Cunningham was already a good defender in her rookie year.

But still, Phoenix lacks even one proven bench player. They still can find one in free agency, perhaps re-signing Essence Carson. However, they will need major growth from the young players and a great game plan to keep them above water when the starters rest.

Indiana Fever: Is Teaira McCowan a star?

The Fever are bringing the band back together in 2020. They re-signed restricted free agents Tiffany Mitchell and Betnijah Laney to reasonable deals. Victoria Vivians returns from a knee injury that sidelined her for all of 2019.

New Head Coach Marianne Stanley will have a lot of continuity from last season. But this team didn’t make the playoffs in 2019. To make real noise in 2020, Teaira McCowan needs to develop into a star in her second season.

McCowan, the 3rd pick in the 2019 draft, came into the league as a big’s big. At Mississippi State, she used her 6’7″ frame to tower over opponents for rebounds and blocks. But when she got to Indiana, it became clear that she needed to work on her footwork on both ends to unlock her potential.

She came off the bench at the beginning of the season and went through some growing pains. But by the end of 2019, McCowan looked like the beast that she can be. Over the last 10 games of the season, she averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds per game while leading the team with an 8.6 net rating. She finished the year leading the league in rebounding rate and in the 87th percentile of offensive efficiency, per Synergy.

The Fever need a whole season like the end of 2019 from McCowan. Actually, they need more. She’ll need to develop into a better rim runner and improve her defense on faster bigs and switches. McCowan needs to be a star to take Indiana to the next level and she has all the tools to do so in 2020.

Dallas Wings: How can they maximize Arike Ogunbowale?

With Skylar Diggins-Smith gone, the Wings have anointed Arike Ogunbowale as their franchise player. They have signed several players to three-year contracts that time up with Ogunbowale’s rookie deal and collected draft picks to add young players. But Dallas still has a lot to figure out in terms of what system works best and which players fit around Arike.

Ogunbowale averaged 19.1 points per game, became the first rookie to put up multiple 35-point games, and set the rookie record for most 20-point games in a row. However, she scored inefficiently and finished in 65th percentile in points per possession, per Synergy. She also initiated the offense often last year, despite scoring most efficiently off ball and not creating shots for others enough.

Arike will refine her skills, but the Wings need to adjust their offense to unlock her full potential. She had 309 more possessions than any other Wings player, which made it hard for Arike to be efficient. She needs another ball handler on the court and shooters or players with driving ability to outlet to when she gets in traffic.

Moriah Jefferson will help with ease the ball handling load as she returns from injury. Allisha Gray and Kayla Thornton should play more complimentary roles after a year with Arike. The Wings also acquired shooters Astou Ndour, Marina Mabrey, and Katie Lou Samuelson to fit around their star. With four first round picks, the Wings should be able to find at least one more player to maximize Arike (If they don’t take Satou Sabally, I’m going to freak out).

See Also

All of this should work. But Dallas is anxious to figure out exactly what is best for Arike Ogunbowale after losing Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liz Cambage in consecutive seasons.

New York Liberty: Who is part of the future?

Like Dallas, the Liberty have to plan for the future rather than the present. That future will become much more clear when they make the first overall pick in the April’s draft (Hello, Sabrina Ionescu!). But for now, they can sort through their current roster for which players are part of their future.

Asia Durr, last year’s first round pick, and Kia Nurse, the team’s most efficient scorer, are clearly building blocks. Marine Johannes is as well with her a new contract after an eye-opening first year. 

Han Xu, because of her lack of playing time, and Amanda Zahui B, because she’s an expiring contract, are debatable as future pieces. But Zahui B played great in 2019 and Han Xu’s potential is tantalizing (both on and off the court)

The rest of the roster is up for discussion. Layshia Clarendon, Brittney Boyd, and Rebecca Allen will all be back in 2020. Clarendon’s leadership and Allen’s shooting ability makes them great bets to find a long-term role if healthy. Kiah Stokes and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe will battle it out for a roster spot in training camp.

This brings us to Tina Charles. The superstar has played for her hometown Liberty since 2014. She is core designated at the moment and rumors have swirled about a potential trade. For New York to start a new era, they may have to move on from Charles. It doesn’t necessarily need to happen this year but New York could fetch a big return by trading her now. This won’t be an easy decision for either party so I expect we may have to wait for a resolution.

Atlanta Dream: Who is the alpha dog?

After finishing dead last in 2019, the Atlanta Dream had one of the best off-seasons in the WNBA. They completely shook up their roster by acquiring Courtney Williams, Sheekina Stricklen, Glory Johnson, and Kalani Brown. They lost Angel McCoughtry, Brittney Sykes, Marie Gulich, Jessica Breland, and Nia Coffey. Atlanta has a chance for a fresh start after a season marked by missed shots and reported locker room turmoil.

Now the issue becomes making these players fit together. They’ll have to figure out a lot (who starts, how to create a good enough defense, who is the point guard). In my opinion, the biggest issue is finding a balance between Tiffany Hayes and Courtney Williams.

Tiffany Hayes played at an All-Star level from 2016-2018 and made All-WNBA first team in 2017. Courtney Williams dominated the 2019 playoffs on and off the court after a breakout season in Connecticut. Like most stars, they likely expect to be the team’s leader. Both of them led their teams in usage percentage and field goal attempts last season. A battle between alpha dogs could lead to chemistry issues, which Atlanta is desperate to avoid after last season.

In fairness, both players have played with other stars–Hayes played with McCoughty while Williams teamed with Jonquel Jones (among others)–without problems. But Williams is ascending to stardom and likely wants to be a primary option, a position that Hayes likely thinks is filled. Winning will help. But head coach Nicki Collen needs to make sure they can coexist on the court and off of it to help this group reach their potential. I think they can and will, but the relationship could go sideways and torpedo the season.

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