Dodging the Draft Lottery: Who Makes the Playoff Leap in 2021?

The WNBA is largely a league of parity. We have not seen back-to-back champions since the Lisa Leslie-led Los Angeles Sparks won consecutive titles in 2001 and 2002. Unfortunately, of late, the league’s basement dwellers have been a relative constant. The four teams that missed out on the postseason in 2020一the Atlanta Dream, Dallas Wings, Indiana Fever, and New York Liberty一are no strangers to recent failure. Over the last four seasons, these teams have clinched a playoff spot just four times in 16 total opportunities. That 25 percent clip, in a league where two-thirds of the teams are eligible for a playoff run, represents a harsh string of disappointment for these franchises. After falling short in 2019, this same quartet were again early exits, this time from the 2020 Bradenton bubble.

However, hope springs eternal, and with the WNBA’s 25th anniversary on deck, these four squads will again look to climb out of the cellar. A flurry of free agency moves have taken place over the last three weeks or so, in an effort to shake up the standings. While more moves are still to come, with both further signings and the draft, an all-too-early check in feels necessary. 

Each of the four has taken a different approach this offseason, so the question must be asked: after this tornado of transactions, which team has best positioned itself to climb into the 2021 playoffs?

Atlanta Dream

2020 Record (7-15); last playoff appearance, 2018

Arrivals:

Cheyenne Parker (from CHI), Tianna Hawkins (from WAS), Yvonne Turner (from PHX), 2022 second-round pick (from CHI)

Departures:

Betnijah Laney (to NYL), Renee Montgomery (retired), 2021 second-round pick (16th overall, to CHI), 2022 third-round pick

The Atlanta Dream played exciting basketball in Bradenton, led by rookie Chennedy Carter and her made-for-SportsCenter shotmaking. Carter, who finished a distant second to Minnesota Lynx guard Crystal Dangerfield in Rookie of the Year voting, proved herself an adept finisher at the next level. Her 17.4 points per game (PPG) led all rookies outside of New York’s Sabrina Ionescu (whose sample size was just three games), and she did so while topping the W in usage.

Atlanta’s most efficient play, however, came from Betnijah Laney, whose 17.2 PPG on 48.1 percent shooting far outpaced her previous career highs. Her play earned her both the Most Improved Player designation and a max contract offer, which takes her up I-95 to join the new-look Liberty.

Last year, according to Synergy, the Dream graded out in the top half of the league in jump shots from all over the court. The rest of their offense left something to be desired; only New York generated fewer points per possession (PPP) than Atlanta’s 0.876. In an effort to boost those numbers, Atlanta sought out frontcourt help: they signed free agents Cheyenne Parker and Tianna Hawkins, and acquired Yvonne Turner from the Phoenix Mercury.

Parker, at 28 years old, could prove to be one of the most impactful signings when we look back at this offseason. Parker’s 1.027 PPP ranked 20th among all WNBA players last season, and she was one of just 35 players to eclipse the one-point mark. In 25 minutes per night, she made nearly half her jumpers and almost two-thirds of her shots around the rim, en route to an incredible 55/47/86 split (all career highs). According to Across the Timeline, there have been just seven such seasons in WNBA history.

With how well Laney played last season, does Parker’s addition do enough to move the needle and propel Atlanta into a playoff spot? With the number three pick in hand, do they look for guard depth, or to improve on the wing? Unless they find another day-one star, the nightmarish string of seasons will continue for the Dream.

 

Dallas Wings

2020 Record (8-14; missed playoffs by one game); last playoff appearance, 2018

Arrivals:

2021 first-round pick (1st overall, from NYL via SEA), 2022 second-round pick (from CHI)

Departures:

Katie Lou Samuelson (to SEA) , 2021 second-round pick (16th overall, to CHI), 2022 second-round pick (to SEA)

So far, no team has seen less action in free agency than the Dallas Wings. For the second straight season, the Wings are crowding the first round of the draft. A year after selecting second (Satou Sabally), fifth (Bella Alarie), and seventh (Ty Harris), they’re ready to do it again. This time, however, they’ve added the number one pick as well. With four of the first seven names off the board, Dallas is positioned to continue to fortify its young core. All the movement we’ve seen regarding 2021 draft picks league-wide begs the question: are the Wings the only team bullish on this year’s incoming class? 

This season, it’s not just a matter of whether or not a draft is projected as strong. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, every collegiate player has been granted an extra year of eligibility, which will likely reduce the number of draft entrants. Additionally, with attendance at games limited, scouts have had less access to game tape (and fewer games have been played, with the myriad cancellations).

The only exchanges the Wings have made in the first several weeks of free agency involve future assets. They traded Katie Lou Samuelson to Seattle, in exchange for that top overall pick. From the Storm’s perspective, this could read as a condemnation of the next crop of rookies. While it’s understandable that Seattle is in win-now mode, it’s fair to wonder if Samuelson一the fourth selection in 2019’s draft一has shown enough over her first two years as a pro to balance out the potential of this entire pool of prospects.

There’s still time before Cathy Engelbert announces draftees in April, so there’s the possibility that the Wings are still looking to package some picks for an impact player, but many of the large names rumored to be on the move have already been shuffled. For an organization who has, of late, struggled to keep franchise players happy (see: Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith), Dallas’ top priority should be to surround Arike Ogunbowale一who is halfway through her rookie deal一with a roster that can make some postseason noise. The potential of the Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally pairing is tantalizing, but Dallas will need to fill their cap space more wisely if they’re to make that jump. While re-signing Allisha Gray一a consistently efficient scorer who cracked the top 10 in PPP last season, according to Synergy一was a strong move, Dallas is relying on a home run in the draft to crack the top eight next season. (Still, though, those odds are not as rough when you hold the first two selections and a third of the total first-round picks.)

Indiana Fever

2020 Record (6-16); last playoff appearance, 2016

Arrivals:

Lindsay Allen (from LVA), Jessica Breland (from PHX), Temi Fagbenle (exclusive negotiating rights from MIN), Chanelle Molina (training camp contract), Danielle Robinson (from LVA), 2021 second-round pick (24th overall, from LVA), 2022 first-round pick (from MIN), 2022 third-round pick (from MIN)

Departures:

Natalie Achonwa (to MIN), Candice Dupree (to SEA), Kamiah Smalls (to CON), Erica Wheeler (to LAS), 2021 second-round pick (14th overall, to LVA), 2022 second-round pick (to MIN)

 It has been an interesting offseason for the Indiana Fever, to say the least. With the three longest tenured Fever players all departing in free agency, it’s truly a new era in Indiana. As I wrote a few weeks back, the Fever need to figure out if the future is the McCowan/Cox tandem. Despite ranking near the top in rebounding percentage over each of her first two seasons, McCowan has struggled to find heavy minutes, starting just 26 of a possible 56 games. With Achonwa now in Minnesota, the job should belong to McCowan. For her to be a defensive anchor, the 6’7” center will need to be a more consistent rim protector. Cox, who played the 4 alongside Kalani Brown at Baylor, is comfortable providing weak-side help on the interior.

Jantel Lavender is going to spend a lot of time down low, as well, complementing that pair. Her signing一three years, $175k each season一raised eyebrows at the start of free agency, largely because she is coming off a foot injury that sidelined her for all of 2020. The year before, while playing for the Chicago Sky, Lavender excelled around the rim, ranking third in the W in shots around the basket, according to Synergy, putting up 1.431 PPP on just under 70.0 percent shooting. The signing of Breeland, as well, adds veteran depth in the trenches.

The rest of the money spent by Indiana has gone towards addressing the backcourt. Danielle Robinson, Lindsay Allen, and Chanelle Molina are not being signed just to replace the departing Erica Wheeler, but to potentially cover for Julie Allemand, who played her way onto the All-Rookie team last season and looked like their point guard of the future.

“This summer, [Allemand will] have a commitment with Belgium and we’re waiting to see what happens with the Olympics. At this point in time, we’re not sure what Julie’s status will be over the summer,” Coach Marianne Stanley said during Robinson’s introductory press conference. “With or without her, Danielle is going to give us another experienced leader on the floor.”

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Spacing will likely be an issue. While Kelsey Mitchell, who made 58 threes on 38.9 percent shooting, always has the green light, Allemand was their only other consistent shooter from deep last season (totaling 44 threes on 47.8 percent shooting). By contrast, Robinson shot just five-of-13 from beyond the arc last season, and is a career 16.0 percent long-range shooter. Perhaps that’s what they look to address in the draft, but as of mid-February, Indiana’s roster subtractions not only keep them out of the playoff hunt, but makes it likely that the 2022 draft will come with improved lottery odds. 

New York Liberty

2020 Record (2-20); last playoff appearance, 2017

Arrivals:

Natasha Howard (from SEA), Betnijah Laney (from ATL), Sami Whitcomb (from SEA), 2021 first-round pick (6th overall, from PHX)

Departures:

Kia Nurse (to PHX), Stephanie Talbot (to SEA), Megan Walker (to PHX), Amanda Zahui B (to LAS), 2021 first-round pick (1st overall, to DAL via SEA), 2022 second-round pick (to SEA)

Of the four teams we’ve discussed here, the Liberty were, by far, the most aggressive in free agency. After a season-ending ankle sprain limited Sabrina Ionescu to just eight quarters in 2020, she returns to an overhauled roster that, on paper, is ready to compete on both sides of the ball. The acquisitions of Betnijah Laney and Natasha Howard go a long way towards addressing their issues on the defensive end. The team has not finished higher than ninth in defensive rating since 2017, which is also the last time New York made the postseason. “Defense is the place where you can achieve consistency,” Coach Walt Hopkins told the media at Howard’s introductory presser last week. “That can be your rock when the ball is just not going in. A good defense makes your offense better.”

The offense, which performed at or among the league’s worst in every statistical category last season, also promises to be much improved. In Bradenton, despite attempting more threes than every team but Dallas, New York shot a brutal 27.7 percent from downtown, trailing the next worst team, the Connecticut Sun, by 3.5 percentage points.

Sami Whitcomb can help there. On last year’s Liberty roster, only Amanda Zahui B (now in Los Angeles) and her 34 triples outnumbered Whitcomb’s 32, though Whitcomb’s makes came in 168 fewer minutes. Just two members of the Liberty shot a higher percentage than Whitcomb’s 38.1 percent: Jocelyn Willoughby (40.5 percent) and Paris Kea (39.4 percent); the duo combined for only 28 makes, though. 

Whitcomb is not the only long-distance reinforcement incoming. In the bubble, Laney hit 30 shots from beyond the arc on 40.5 percent shooting. Back in 2019, the Liberty’s two most consistent three-point shooters were Rebecca Allen (29 makes on 42.6 percent shooting) and Marine Johannès (25 makes on 37.9 percent shooting). Both were overseas opt-outs last year, and Coach Hopkins一who mentioned that he keeps up with them weekly一is thrilled to finally work the pair into his gameplan: “Marine, in terms of her playmaking and passing,” he told Winsidr, “[a]nd Bec’s versatility on both ends, it’s not just the shooting.” Add all that to Ionescu, who hit six threes in her second career game, and you’ll need to cover this team all the way out to Flatbush Avenue.

That space, too, will clear room for Natasha Howard and Sabrina Ionescu to run the pick-and-roll. Just 5.7 percent of New York’s possessions ended in the PNR last season, according to Synergy, but look for that number to improve significantly with this pairing. When Sue Bird was healthy in 2018 and 2020, Howard ranked in the 96th and 88th PNR percentiles, respectively. When Bird missed 2019, that number slipped to the 41st percentile. When asked about that potential, Howard couldn’t hide her enthusiasm:

Now, full disclosure—I also cover the New York Liberty beat, so feel free to take this with a tablespoon of salt, but here’s the prediction: despite winning just two games last season, New York will leapfrog the other three lottery teams, plus at least one more 2019 playoff team, to claim a spot in the 2021 postseason.

 

Note: Thank you to the Across the Timeline Transactions Tracker for assisting with all these moves, and to Her Hoop Stats for salary cap data.

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