Looking Back and Looking Forward; a trip around the Eastern Conference

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The WNBA Finals ended last week. Collectively, it was time for fans of the W to recharge. I’ve spent the past seven-plus days reconnecting with family members and reminding them I’m more than just a byline. I’ve become reacquainted with the sun. I’ve found inventive ways to hit the snooze button.

I haven’t written about basketball since the morning after Seattle broke out the brooms. That’s exciting for me and terrifying for my editors. I have a lot to say. Let’s jump right in. 

I’ll be hopping around the league, identifying something we learned from each team this season, and presenting a question I have about each team going forward. Today, we begin with the Eastern Conference. 

ATLANTA DREAM

What we learned – Chennedy Carter will be a superstar in this league

Obviously! We’ll have incisive analysis to follow, analysis that goes beyond forecasting stardom for a college phenom who scored 46 points in a single game as a freshman. “What we learned” may not be news to most, namely those acutely aware of the NCAA scene. But this is the clear, top takeaway for a team still years away from its goal of returning to the WNBA Finals. For Atlanta, the path back to playoff success assumes the form of Chennedy Carter. 

I’ve waxed rhapsodic about Carter for a while now. Her rookie season justified my enthusiasm. Already a clear and comfortable leader at the professional level, Carter’s shooting percentages are at odds with the perception of her as a gunner. She posted 47/37/82 splits, placing slightly above average in all areas of the floor. She appeared quite comfortable in the pick-and-roll, able to score in a variety of ways, and accelerate at unpredictable moments to fluster defenders. Her assist numbers will rise as she hones her risk/reward meter. Almost all rookie point guards turn the ball over too much, and while Carter was no exception, there were times when she’d drop jaws by slipping a dart to Monique Billings or Elizabeth Williams on the roll. 

We glazed over her exceptional performance against the eventual champions. 35 points, 7 assists and just six missed shots in her only appearance against Seattle! One of my favorite individual performances of 2020. 

I want to see Carter go from two 3-pointers a game to four. Carter took one triple from the right corner and one from the left corner over 16 full games in 2020. More, please! After Carter passes to the screener in pick-and-roll actions, why not have her relocate to one of the corners? Oftentimes help defenders come crashing down from the corners to the paint when a pick-and-roll achieves its desired effect. One extra pass, perhaps a pindown screen, and boom – more home runs for Hollywood. 

A question – Will Betnijah Laney suit up for the Dream in 2021?

The struggle in asking forward-looking questions at the current moment is to avoid harping on 2021 roster construction. Look at how much player movement occurred in the 2020 offseason. Outlining expectations for a team that may look drastically different months from now is a fool’s errand. Luckily, you’re speaking with a fool. 

Laney wasn’t the Dream’s biggest surprise – she was arguably the league’s biggest surprise. Her offensive repertoire ballooned in the Wubble, and now it puts Atlanta in a funky spot. Is Laney, who is now an unrestricted free agent, too good to bring back? I won’t sit here and pretend to be a salary cap expert. I will tell you that players who defend the perimeter, hit 3s, and create for themselves on offense command upper echelon salaries. Atlanta has to decide whether or not it believes Laney fits Carter’s timeline. Where do Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes fall into this picture? 

The Dream weren’t good on either side of the ball this season. As the season progressed, they battled. They were competitive. Now it’s time to select who you want surrounding Carter for years to come. 

CHICAGO SKY

What we learned – The Sky are full of talent, but Diamond DeShields completely determines their ceiling. 

Chicago slid its way into preseason title conversations due to impressive depth, continuity, and coaching. Swell. Without a fully healthy Diamond DeShields, it didn’t matter. Even in a limited capacity, DeShields was a difference maker, showcasing slick passing and solid player-to-player defense where her springiness temporarily abandoned her. When DeShields and Azurá Stevens exited the Wubble, Chicago crumbled. 

We understood Courtney Vandersloot’s elite offensive abilities entering the season. Her excellence wasn’t news. But Chicago’s stretch run proved just how foolish Vandersloot’s supposed MVP case truly was. Firstly, you can’t claim MVP honors without adding value on one side of the ball. This league is rich with two-way stars. If you aren’t playing good defense, you likely don’t have an MVP case. Secondly, it’s tough to be the MVP as a limited scorer off-the-dribble. Again, this is not a knock on Vandersloot, who played exceptionally this season and did everything she could to keep Chicago afloat entering September. This is simply to point out that Diamond DeShields is the most important player on this roster. Chicago’s title hopes hinge on DeShields’s health and development. 

A question – Just how important does James Wade deem Cheyenne Parker? 

The most vital unrestricted free agent on Chicago’s roster – the only one of significant import – is Cheyenne Parker. The Sky will have to perform some salary cap gymnastics if they want Parker to return. 

This was a breakout season for the 28-year-old. Parker added a three-point shot and knocked down nearly 47 percent of them on decent volume. As a center! All while playing solid post defense!! Parker was Chicago’s best clutch player, often making decisive plays on both ends in the final minutes of games. She has a sparkling bag of moves which she loves to deploy in the paint, getting to her left through contact with regularity. It’s incredibly difficult to slow Parker when she’s cooking with the rock. 

Now that Parker can stretch the floor as capably as Stefanie Dolson can, is the gap between the two … existent? Sure, Dolson is a better passer, but Parker isn’t incapable in this area and she’s unquestionably a superior defender. Would Dolson and her $175,000 expiring contract be attractive to the other 11 teams? 

Chicago ranked 8th in defensive rating in 2020. At some point, Wade has to account for the fact that two of his primary pieces (Vandersloot and Allie Quigley) aren’t defensive stoppers. Parker prevents the Sky from getting gashed on drives in the interior. Just how much do they value what she brings to the table? 

CONNECTICUT SUN

What we learned – You can’t put a price on #grit and #heart

Oddly, considering the two 2020 finalists reside in Washington and Nevada, I’d select Alyssa Thomas as this year’s best playoff performer. There’s overuse of the term, “will,” and then there’s apt application. This falls in the latter barrel. Thomas willed the Sun to five grueling games against the Aces. How else am I supposed to put it? 

There’s an identity Curt Miller’s teams assume that makes them a joy to watch and a nightmare to play against. Even sans Nneka Ogwumike, many assumed the Los Angeles Sparks would roll through the Sun en route to the semifinals. But Connecticut mucked the game up so fiercely that outside of Candace Parker, the Sparks’ offensive valve was shut off completely. Sound game planning mixed with sound execution often equals favorable results, the exception being when you’re simply outmatched. Miller and Thomas managed to get the most out of this bunch on a nightly basis, preaching rebounding and defense even after an 0-5 start. That’s the takeaway: a little hustle mixed with self-belief goes a long way. 

A question – Is Connecticut the way-too-early 2021 title favorite? Am I being irrational?

Miller and Co. have many contracts to ink this offseason. Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas are unrestricted free agents. Brionna Jones is one of the four or so most intriguing restricted free agents in the league (along with Allisha Gray, Sami Whitcomb, and Brittney Sykes). You never know when a player has become disillusioned with their current surroundings and wants out. You never know when another team will poach one of your breakout stars with a massive offer sheet. You just never know. 

But who wouldn’t want to return to Connecticut? Who wouldn’t want to play for Curt Miller? Who wouldn’t want a chance to compete for a ring? In a similar spirit, are you betting against a starting five of Thomas, Briann January, DeWanna Bonner, Thomas, and Jonquel Jones? Is there a better hypothetical two-way five in hoops? How would anyone score on that team? Is there a limit to how many questions I can ask under the subhead, “a question?” 

INDIANA FEVER

What we learned – What you find “on paper” may be misleading. 

Look, I wasn’t expecting Indiana to blow the doors off the 2020 season. I wasn’t necessarily even expecting the Fever to end their playoff drought, which is now the longest-running playoff drought in the WNBA. I simply picked them to be the No. 8 seed and thought we’d see progress under new head coach Marianne Stanley whether or not they qualified for the postseason. Instead? More stagnation. 

On paper, this team made a lot of sense. Kelsey Mitchell was eager to assume an expanded role. She was one of the few who delivered. The return of Victoria Vivians was to add much needed floor spacing, the selection of Lauren Cox was supposed to provide Teaira McCowan with a complementary frontcourt partner, and veterans Candice Dupree and Natalie Achonwa were to set the tone for a team on the up-and-up. 

Though this bunch enjoyed flashes of extreme brilliance, the mundane outpaced the magnificent. Indiana’s pace of play never improved in the way Stanley envisioned entering the Wubble. Mitchell was a force offensively, Kennedy Burke made the most of her sporadic minutes, and Julie Allemand was named to the All-Rookie team. Outside of those three players, disappointment abounded. Vivians suffered another injury. Cox was late to Florida. Dupree looked a step or two slow as the season progressed. 

Indiana was wretched defensively, the worst in the league by a bit. The blame can be tossed in a number of directions, but many will focus on the Fever’s supposed anchor, McCowan, when diagnosing where the Fever went astray this season. 

A question – Can Teaira McCowan be the best player on a WNBA Finals team? 

McCowan entered the season with intentions of becoming the best center in the league. She exited the season having started less than half of Indiana’s games despite no injury issues. She often looked lost on defense, unable to hold her own in space despite earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors back in college. This was a massively disappointing sophomore campaign. 

It’s easy to critique the player, but let’s look at the bigger picture. Indecision is something you want to avoid as a professional basketball franchise. Indiana is full of indecision right now. The Fever must decide whether or not they are committed to McCowan as a franchise centerpiece. This sounds like an absurd question, but you know what was even more absurd? Indiana’s best player, Indiana’s best young building block, one of the assumed future stars of the WNBA, being yanked between the starting lineup and the bench all season long. Not a good idea! Not advisable! 

Two paragraphs in and I’ve yet to even approach my own question. I think McCowan is a building block. She’s that good – unstoppable on the offensive glass, able to block anything within her reach without fouling a ridiculous amount, and shrewd in how she sees the floor, something for which she never receives credit. But the best player on a WNBA Finals team? We have a long way to go. Her overall defense and conditioning must improve. Her offensive repertoire must expand to the point where offensive rebounding isn’t her best mode of scoring. Most importantly, Stanley must back her as the leader of this team. 

NEW YORK LIBERTY

What we learned – There are foundational pieces on this roster not named Sabrina

Ionescu mania obscured the collection of talent on this roster, and though her early season injury was obviously a major bummer, it opened the door for others to receive some shine. 

I mention Jazmine Jones every chance I get. I was overjoyed when Jones made the All-Rookie team. What a promising player. Leaonna Odom proved that despite her second round status, she has a place in this league. Her length created looks around the rim that will only become more comfortable with time, leading to an impressive 49 percent mark from the field. Kylee Shook is a super intriguing small-ball center. There’s no way I’m selling my Megan Walker stock. If anyone can figure out how to carve a space for themselves on a WNBA roster, it’ll be Jocelyn Willoughby. 

Let’s look beyond the rookies for a moment. Kia Nurse had a brutal season shooting the ball, but I’d still consider her a foundational piece on this roster. The team is young. The offense was historically, remarkably bad. Looks will only get easier the farther we get into Walt Hopkins’s tenure. People tend to forget about Asia Durr, but few could fill it up like she could at Louisville. New York will be adding another top pick to this assortment of promising ballplayers at the draft. The future is bright. 

A question – Which wings have staying power? 

The future may be bright, but assembling young assets and talent is only half of the battle. Identifying which players are core pieces and which players are expendable is often the most vexing half of the pie for rebuilding franchises. 

New York has its point guard of the future. Past that, it’s a rather blank slate. Amanda Zahui B., the Liberty’s most consistent and perhaps best player in 2020, is an unrestricted free agent. Is it worth committing significant money to a veteran who serves the same role as the younger Shook? 

To me, the biggest source of intrigue here is on the wings. We know Ionescu will be running the show. We know that Hopkins will likely choose a stretch-5 to round out his starting lineup. But which 3-and-D players will fill the gap? The problem for New York this season was that its 3-and-D players weren’t actually that good at shooting 3s or playing defense … yet. Soon, the Liberty will have to decide whether their smattering of 2020 draft picks are bench players or future starters. How the wings – namely Odom, Willoughby, and Walker – perform on defense and behind the arc in 2021 will determine a lot. 

WASHINGTON MYSTICS

What we learned – Playing time is among the most valuable commodities 

All basketball players need is an opportunity. The Mystics embodied this truism in the Wubble. First, Myisha Hines-Allen grasped a starting role and immediately flourished within it, becoming one of the best players in the league. Her performance had folks wondering whether she would’ve had a bigger impact on Washington’s 2019 title team with more playing time. Who cares. She’s here now. Then, during a rut later on in the regular season, Washington signed rookie Stella Johnson, who also made immediate positive contributions before suffering a season-ending injury. 

The Mystics are one of those model organizations, so it’s not surprising they were able to overcome so many key absences in the Wubble. Still, it was fun seeing more unheralded players make sizable contributions when called upon. It perplexed me why Chicago didn’t utilize Johnson at all in the season’s early going. Depth was being tested across the league, and here stood a player who could shoot and run the show. Why not give her a chance and see what stuck? Washington did and Mystics fans are mighty pleased with the results.  

A question – Will there be enough playing time to go around? 

Always! The idea of “too much talent” is a fib. 

I’m not even going to begin to predict what Washington’s starting lineup will look like next year. I will offer this: Hines-Allen must be prioritized over Tina Charles, should Charles return. 

Again, you can never have too much talent. That’s really all there is to it. Washington will again be a title favorite in 2021. The rest remains to be seen. 

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