Last week we took a trip around the Eastern Conference, ruminating on lessons learned in the Wubble and lofting questions into a futuristic void. Now we’re back for more, Western Conference style. Let’s get into it.
What we learned – Dallas is operating on an accelerated schedule
The Wings are honeymooning, luxuriating in the most pleasant and intoxicating phase of a rebuild.
Basketball purgatory is filled with teams stuck in eternal mediocrity. Why suffer through rotten relationships if they’re not taking you anywhere? Why resign to grumpiness when a sunnier future awaits all parties? Sometimes bottoming out is the best way forward. Dallas severed ties with Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith entering 2019 and 2020, setting certified All-Stars free as it hunkered down and entered rebuild phase one: asset aggregation.
Phase one was an unmitigated success. Dallas assembled such a cadre of young talent it zoomed past the assumed timetable of a team focused solely on the future. The youngest squad in basketball nearly made the playoffs. Dallas’s roster was packed with such promise that some, such as 2020 7th overall pick Tyasha Harris, received the short end of the playing time stick. Currently, that’s a beautiful problem to have. Soon, it may become an issue. Not on the honeymoon, though.
Drafting Arike Ogunbowale 5th overall in 2019 was a franchise-defining win. Few (if any?) have shouldered a top five usage percentage in their first two professional seasons. Ogunbowale soaked up tons of attention while gradually improving key aspects of her game. That isn’t easy. Defensively, the Notre Dame graduate still has a ways to go. She continued to suffer lapses in judgement, gambles going unrewarded. That’s completely understandable for an offensive-minded youngster. Ogunbowale did bump her steal percentage significantly in 2020, showing glimpses of potential on that end. Progress. Her assist-to-turnover ratio and effective field goal percentage rose. She broke brains with buzzer-beaters. She made All-WNBA First Team.
Ogunbowale’s college teammate, Marina Mabrey, seized her own opportunity in Bradenton. 42 percent from three-point land on five attempts per game as a point guard is stellar. Ogunbowale and Mabrey feed off each other. Confidence begets more confidence. Things get spooky for opposing defenses when Ogunbowale and Mabrey are chucking without hesitation.
Then there’s the 2020 class. The sky’s the limit for Satou Sabally. Bella Alarie has the makings of a dominant small-ball 5 as she becomes stronger on offense and more confident in her jump shot. Harris just needs a consistent opportunity to shine. I collect Harris stock like a hoarder collects old newspaper clippings.
A question – Who will take the Wings where they want to go?
The honeymoon phase is a dream – picturesque waterfronts, barefoot strolls on the sand under moonlight, wins over teams loaded with established veterans. Now comes the difficult part: building something sustainable, the actualization of potential and promise. How can Dallas prove to its young stars that Texas is the place to be?
Clearly, the Wings didn’t feel Brian Agler was suited to accept this mission. I won’t argue with it. Agler is credentialed but perhaps not the best choice for a precocious, eager bunch still a ways away from title contention. I return to the topic of Tyasha Harris. Why was Agler starting Moriah Jefferson over Harris? If I stood at the helm of the Wings operation, my goal would be to play Ogunbowale, Sabally, Alarie, Harris, and now Mabrey as much as possible. That’s it. Anything else and you’re overthinking it.
I like Crystal Robinson for the head coaching vacancy. She’s a fantastic basketball mind who has a wonderful rapport with the roster. I won’t spend time trying to prognosticate who Dallas will select. But it seems like an obvious choice is sitting on the Wings bench.
Whoever assumes the role won’t have it easy. Among the main questions for Dallas entering 2021: what to do with Astou Ndour?
How perplexing was Dallas’s series of swaps with Chicago back in February? In essence, the Wings parted ways with Azurá Stevens and a 2021 first rounder in exchange for Ndour, Katie Lou Samuelson, and … a 2021 first rounder? I am a bundle of confusion.
Ndour wasn’t able to carve out a consistent role in her first year with the Wings. It was a bummer. Ndour makes more sense elsewhere, but who wants any part of the remaining two years on her contract, worth upwards of $190,000 per? The Wings dug themselves an unnecessary hole and hopped right in. Yikes.
Lastly, is Allisha Gray gone? At times in 2020, Gray was the best player on the Wings. Gray and Kayla Thornton did their best to keep Dallas afloat defensively. Now a restricted free agent, Gray will receive some enticing offer sheets. It may not make sense for Dallas to match.
However the Wings choose to move forward, I have but a single request: please, please make Tyasha Harris the starting point guard moving forward! You won’t regret it!!
LAS VEGAS ACES
What we learned – Angel McCoughtry still has plenty of game
We didn’t learn that A’ja Wilson is a viable number one option. We knew that. We didn’t learn that Las Vegas was weak in the backcourt. We could see that coming from miles away.
We did learn that, with a carefully curated workload, McCoughtry is still a top 15 to 20 player in the league. I was among the skeptics when Las Vegas inked McCoughtry to a two-year deal this offseason. How would her legs hold up over the course of the season? How would her limited abilities as a jump shooter further muck up the Aces spacing?
Who knew McCoughtry would blow away career highs in field goal percentage (51.77) and three-point percentage (47.06)? Who knew she would rank top 10 in steals per 36 minutes and top 15 in defensive win shares, per Basketball Reference? For 20 minutes per game, McCoughtry was a star. She blended in beautifully with what Las Vegas wanted to do, assumed a bigger role come playoff time, and delivered.
Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer deserves credit for keeping McCoughtry fresh throughout the season, and that must be the plan in 2021, too. There’s no way McCoughtry repeats her 47 percent mark from downtown. That’s an outlier. Still, she has to continue shooting it. There will be more space on the floor once Kelsey Plum returns. The Aces wings must take advantage of their roomier surroundings.
A question – Is Liz Cambage part of Las Vegas’s future?
This offseason holds no shortage of intrigue. Two superstar unrestricted free agents – Liz Cambage and Candace Parker – are the source of much of it.
Las Vegas can absolutely afford to bring Cambage back. But is it prudent to construct a roster in which the four best players on your team are forwards and centers? You can look at this one of two ways. On the bright side, Cambage, Wilson, and Dearica Hamby were extremely effective when they shared the floor in 2019. On the dimmer side, they only played 62 minutes together the entire regular season. Bright side? You’ll have an All-Star at the 4 and the 5 every minute of every game, barring injury. Downside? The talents of your best players overlap, preventing everyone from reaching peak levels of production.
Every single decision Las Vegas makes must, MUST center A’ja Wilson. She’s the Most Valuable Player. She’s 24-years-old. She’s the best offensive player and the best defensive player on the roster. It’s not complicated.
Bringing back Cambage stunts Wilson’s growth. There’s just no two ways about it. I have immense appreciation for Cambage’s game – it’s not on her that the fit here is faulty. Wilson should be surrounded by defenders that won’t force her to overextend. She should be surrounded by shooters that compliment her post and mid-range game. Wilson makes the most sense as a center surrounded by shooting and defense, and guess what? Hamby and McCoughtry are the perfect frontcourt partners for her! They tick all the boxes. Sunk cost fallacy may nudge Las Vegas towards re-signing Cambage, and that would be a misstep.
I can’t advise Aces GM Dan Padover to let one of the best players in the league walk without offering an alternative course of action. Aerial Powers is an unrestricted free agent. Washington has many mouths to feed. Why not make her a home run offer? We already touched on Allisha Gray. Why not throw a large offer sheet her way?
Kayla McBride, another unrestricted free agent, proved during these playoffs that she isn’t yet ready for the biggest stage. Too many sloppy turnovers, too few assertive stretches. McBride holds plenty of promise, but Las Vegas needs to cash in its chips right now. Losing Wilson is too great a risk.
Are you telling me you’d bet against a starting five of Plum, Gray, Powers, Hamby, and Wilson? With McCoughtry continuing to play 20 minutes per game as the best bench player in the league? Didn’t think so.
LOS ANGELES SPARKS
What we learned – Good defense means staying disciplined
This was the hardest section to write, Eastern Conference included. What to glean from a solid, successful season abruptly squashed one evening as a migraine headache, some cold jump shooters, and a resolute bunch from Connecticut coalesced to eliminate the Sparks?
We learned that one game playoffs, though often riveting, are foolish and unfair. We learned that many of you (hello, various coaches not named Brian) owe Candace Parker an apology.
We learned that keeping opposing offenses off the charity stripe is essential in creating a solid defense. Seattle, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles were the top three defensive teams in basketball this season. All three also finished in the top third of the league in opponent free throw attempt rate. Coincidence? Unlikely.
There are so many canny defenders on this team. How many will return?
A question – Will the Point Gawd be LA’s 2021 point guard?
Posing but one question about LA’s upcoming offseason? Incredibly daunting. Damn near impossible. Like asking a recent college graduate, “what’s next?” during the middle of a global pandemic.
There are so many variables. Is Candace Parker happy? Does Nneka Ogwumike crave a change of scenery? Will Brittney Sykes be the most sought after restricted free agent on the board?
One thing stood out to me as the Sparks feebly exited the Wubble, and it was the play of Chelsea Gray. Gray has long been one of my favorite players to watch. Slick passing and microwave oven shooting (she’s heating up!) will never go out of style. That’s what made Gray’s dud against the Sun – 4 points, 0 assists, 2-for-9 from the field – such a disappointment.
Parker came to play. Most of LA’s role players did not, but that’s why they’re role players. Gray is part of the so-called “Big 3.” Her vanishing act took Los Angeles out of the game. Jasmine Thomas and Briann January deserve tons of credit for playing stifling defense throughout the playoffs, but All-Stars are supposed to beat great defense with superior offense. Gray opted out of that challenge.
Let’s assume Parker wants to remain a Spark. Ogwumike, too. Is Los Angeles better suited letting Gray walk in free agency, slotting Kristi Toliver in at point guard, and matching whatever offer sheet Sykes commands? Gray is no slouch defensively, but Sykes brings way more on that end due to her length and spry legs. Sykes is a force with the rock in transition. Toliver has #rings. She’s battle tested, and one of the only key Sparks under contract for 2021.
The point of this exercise isn’t always to arrive at a conclusive answer. Some of these questions are lobs. Others, such as this one, are devised to foster conserversation, or tie the brain into knots. Because honestly, though I feel like letting Gray walk makes sense in theory, I’m also scared to endorse it as a game plan. Fans adore Gray. Reacting this harshly to one bad performance seems rash, extreme.
Shrug. Sometimes I wish I was in charge of a franchise’s department of basketball operations. This is not one of those times.
What we learned – Napheesa Collier isn’t Minnesota’s only core building block
It’s funny and fun when a collective fanbase clearly outsmarts the sport’s primary decision makers. Crystal Dangerfield falling to 16th overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft is the perfect example. Nothing against Kathleen Doyle, but what made Indiana leery of selecting Dangerfield? I’ve spent months attempting to whip up a feasible explanation, yet I remain as lost as A’ja Wilson alone in a room with a loaf of banana bread.
The Lynx must be giddy about the upcoming decade of hoops. They drafted the last two Rookie of the Year award winners. Their 2020 first round pick, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, may have been the most underrated freshman in Bradenton. Almost all of Minnesota’s most efficient lineups featured Herbert Harrigan. The Lynx re-signed Damiris Dantas to an extremely team-friendly two-year deal. Somehow, Minnesota reaped the rewards of Dantas’s breakout and still retained her. That’s a massive win.
Dangerfield is the story, though. Rookies who average 16 points per game on solid efficiency and are undaunted by the rigors and stress of high stakes professional point guard play? Priceless. Dangerfield and Collier have already developed a cool chemistry on the offensive end. They’re a perfect pair.
How does anyone root against this team?
A question – How does Minnesota jump back into the league’s top tier?
For years, the Lynx were firmly entrenched in the league’s top tier – teams capable of winning the WNBA Finals. The last couple of seasons dropped Minnesota into tier two – playoff locks with a limited ceiling. Other than allowing Collier and Dangerfield to age into their primes (*chuckles* their primes could each be a decade long), how does Minnesota lift its ceiling back to championship heights?
Most key pieces are secured for 2021, but Minnesota would be smart to negotiate a new deal with the reserved Bridget Carleton, who was essential to the Lynx’s success in the Wubble. Carleton isn’t the difference between early playoff exits and true title contention, but players like her and Dantas are crucial in the big moments, versatile and reliable on both ends.
It still feels like Minnesota is a wing away. Collier is already a top five player in the game; you can absolutely win a title with Collier as your best player. But Collier is never going to be a ball-dominant scorer, and Dangerfield needs someone on the wings to ease her burden. Too often against Seattle in the playoffs, Dangerfield was eliminated from offensive possessions as Storm defenders met her above the three-point line, aggressively hedging and pushing her towards half-court on pick-based actions. Having a leak-out valve who can face-up and create one-on-one and off the dribble – that’s the final piece of the puzzle.
Luckily, Minnesota has the cap space to go acquire that final puzzle piece without sacrificing Carleton.
Somewhat related: let Maya Moore make her own decisions and enjoy her life in peace! Your thoughts on Moore’s future endeavors are not welcome here.
What we learned – Brianna Turner was a steal at No. 11 overall in the 2019 WNBA Draft
And for that matter, so was Ezi Magbegor at No. 12! What a loaded draft class.
I’m going to pocket some of my thoughts on Turner because she’s someone I plan to write about this offseason. This year, though, we learned that Turner holds Defensive Player of the Year potential. Which leads us perfectly into the massive, looming question …
A question – Is Brittney Griner part of Phoenix’s future?
No situation in the WNBA begs for some clarity more than Griner’s current relationship with the Mercury. I won’t even begin to speculate on the rumors. But have we seen the last of Griner in a Phoenix uniform?
Griner is signed to the supermax, under team control through 2022. Whoops. From a chemistry standpoint, Phoenix clicked after Griner exited the Wubble. The Mercury offense began flowing in a way it hadn’t with Griner present. Skylar Diggins-Smith found a groove. The ball started whipping from end to end more regularly. Small lineups feasted on opposing defenses.
Defensively, what does Phoenix sacrifice by slotting Turner in for Griner at the 5? Anything? Is that, in fact, an upgrade? Turner and Griner started alongside one another at the beginning of the season, but lineups with those two sharing the floor clogged up offensive driving lanes at near catastrophic levels. Both make more sense playing center.
Phoenix has other flexible members of the frontcourt it can bring off the bench. The Mercury leaned heavily on Kia Vaughn (an unrestricted free agent) in 2020. Alanna Smith has two years remaining on her rookie deal and can capably play the 5 in small-ball bench units. It’s become easier to find stretch 4s and stretch 5s in free agency or through the draft. An Azurá Stevens type at power forward alongside Turner at center makes more sense than hitching your proverbial wagon to Griner.
The logical next question here: would there be trade suitors for Griner? I’ll let you all discuss that one amongst yourselves. (The answer has to be yes.)
What we learned – Breanna Stewart remains elite after tearing her Achilles
No drop-off. Same old Stewie. Two-time Finals MVP. 26 years old. Scary. Next.
A question – Will Sami Whitcomb be Seattle’s salary cap casualty?
It’s quite unlikely Sue Bird, Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard, and Whitcomb all return to defend the title. Bringing back Bird at her current rate ($215,000, the supermax) along with fellow unrestricted free agents Clark and Howard, who are both slated for raises in 2021, will be difficult enough. Those three are the priority, though, leaving Whitcomb as the odd player out.
Whitcomb is a fascinating restricted free agent. I can’t wait to see who forces Seattle’s hand by drawing up a competitive offer sheet. Every team wants more shooting. Every team would love to add Whitcomb. But how many can afford her?
For ESPN, Kevin Pelton wrote about Seattle’s ability to bring back Howard and Clark. Any hesitation in this regard would be sheer folly.
Somehow, there was this perception that because of a rusty offensive start to her season, Howard significantly regressed as her role diminished in 2020. That’s not how I saw it. Howard is the ideal center next to Stewart and remained defensively dominant. Though her scoring totals decreased and her rust early on in Florida was evident, Howard enjoyed a very efficient year offensively. She was a rock in the playoffs. Unless Howard is unhappy because folks refuse to dish her any credit for Seattle’s success (which would be understandable), then the Storm must bring her back.
Clark was one of the top 10 or 20 players in the league this year by most advanced metrics and will elicit much buzz in the free agency market. Seattle understands how crucial Clark is to its success and I’d be flabbergasted if she signed elsewhere this offseason.
There’s just no way Bird retires, right? Not after that WNBA Finals performance. What’s wrong with coasting during the regular season as your incredibly deep roster secures a postseason pass, then emptying the tank come playoff time? The Storm desperately need Bird’s shooting at point guard, and the partnership is mutual.
That leaves Whitcomb. Seattle flaunted its embarrassment of riches against Las Vegas, claiming the trophy without Whitcomb, who was off enjoying the birth of her first child. If you’re a team in need of three-point marksmanship and with cap space to spare, look no further than Sami Whitcomb.