Sometimes, basketball is just basketball. Take Game 5 of the 2020 semifinals between Las Vegas and Connecticut. Nothing glamorous about it – just a battle of wills, a test of endurance. These contests are fun to remember, but they don’t evoke glee in the moment. Ask me the meaning of “slog” and I’ll show you a free-throw fest.
Other times, basketball seems to transcend the competitive sphere, entering a magical realm where visual gratification trumps any end result. Everything clicks into place. Players move in unison with one another, synchronized as if performing a ballet. This is where I’m inclined to posit hoops as poetry, but I don’t want folks eye-rolling into another tab. You get the picture.
Allowing basketball to reach its most sacred form requires sacrifice and understanding. It requires an atmosphere in which people are comfortable but not complacent, thriving off one another’s company. Cohesion sprouts from joyful seeds planted long before a team laces up the kicks on opening night. That’s what makes our game so glorious. Happy off-court moments breed happy on-court moments. Sometimes, it all just works.
This is all a very wordy way of telling you that I’ve spent the past month and change dreaming up lineup combinations I want to see in 2021. What follows is entirely subjective. These may not be the best five-player groups each team is able to put forth, just the most intriguing to me, personally. As you will soon see, I find spacing to be the ultimate elixir, able to eradicate a slog at moments notice and keep boring basketball at bay. Winsidr’s Justin Carter recently wrote a fantastic piece on the WNBA’s small ball revolution, and a couple of the lineups he outlined will make a repeat appearance here.
Will these lineups make music, or will rhythm elude them? Will they appease the eyes, or send us to TV Guide in search of Spongebob, a documentary about the first ever documentary … literally anything else? Will they even see the floor at all?
The best part about this exercise is the ineffability of it all. We won’t know jack until the season is upon us.
Enough talk. Let’s get hypothetical.
Lineup: Chennedy Carter, Courtney Williams, Odyssey Sims, Shekinna Stricklen, Cheyenne Parker
The Dream trotted out five lineups that played 40 or more minutes in 2020. Four of those lineups featured two traditional bigs, and they all logged negative net ratings. The only high usage group Atlanta showcased that finished with a positive net rating featured Shekinna Stricklen at the 4 surrounded by Elizabeth Williams, Betnijah Laney, Courtney Williams, and Blake Dietrick. This is notable considering Stricklen suffered her worst three-point shooting season since 2012, her rookie year. By all accounts, 2020 was a major disappointment for the Tennessee grad, yet she still provided value for Atlanta simply by spotting-up and creating space.
Things should be different in 2021. Stricklen will likely bounce back. Cheyenne Parker may be the best signing of the offseason, significantly boosting Chennedy Carter’s year two ceiling as an ideal pick-and-roll partner for Hollywood. Offensively, Atlanta will get the most out of that pairing by playing Parker at center. Points are all the rage, so why not just try to outscore everyone and hang on at the other end?
Lineup: Courtney Vandersloot, Diamond DeShields, Allie Quigley, Azurá Stevens, Candace Parker
Of the 12 lineups I decided to highlight here, this is the most obvious. It’s an unimpeachable starting five, ticking the majority of boxes on both ends while providing a thrill factor that cannot be quantified.
Chicago finished ninth in defensive rating two seasons ago, and eighth in 2020. A Parker/Stevens frontcourt won’t magically transform the Sky into an elite defensive team. It could lift them into the top half of the league, though, and that may be enough to punch a finals ticket if the offense continues to hum.
Stevens is a rangy defender and finished fourth in block percentage among those who played at least 100 minutes last season (Beatrice Mompremier, Brianna Turner, and A’ja Wilson led the way). Parker is an elite rebounder with off-the-charts spatial intelligence, still capable of hanging one-on-one against feisty isolation scorers. Working together, they will make opponents think twice before entering the paint.
This group only reaches its fullest potential if Diamond DeShields is the spry version of herself from 2018 and 2019. I’m betting on her.
Lineup: Jasmine Thomas, Kamiah Smalls, DeWanna Bonner, Jonquel Jones, Brionna Jones
Per Synergy, Brionna Jones ranked first in points per possession among 28 players who averaged at least one post-up per game last season. This is where variety inserts itself into a smattering of small-ball lineups. Connecticut can certainly play Jonquel Jones at the 5, but aren’t four shooters enough when your center is bullying folks on the block and racking up offensive rebounds?
DeWanna Bonner was so crucial to Connecticut’s offensive vitality following a disastrous 0-5 start in 2020 that her struggles from three-point land went largely unnoticed. Bonner has never been a high-percentage sniper from deep, yet she often lofts around five threes per game. Her 25 percent mark last season was especially egregious, highlighting just how invaluable Jones is on the glass.
Alyssa Thomas is one of the best players in basketball, but she can’t shoot. Replacing her with Jonquel Jones – a sneaky 2021 MVP candidate – will divert some of the swarming arms away from Bonner. Kamiah Smalls demands undivided attention as a spot-up threat. Much like Chicago must broach the league’s 50th percentile in defense to become a serious contender, Connecticut must broach the league’s 50th percentile in offense to once again sniff the final four. This lineup may be its best chance at getting that done.
Lineup: Tyasha Harris, Arike Ogunbowale, Allisha Gray, Kayla Thornton, Satou Sabally
Arike Ogunbowale is the best isolation scorer in the WNBA. How do you get the most out of a pure, walking bucket? You surround her with players who aren’t inclined to steal the show, yet scoff at the idea of passivity. Contradictory, you say? It’s a fine line, but a walkable one.
Tyasha Harris is happy to hoist, but she thrived as a distributor at South Carolina and is wise beyond her years in the pick-and-roll. Allisha Gray is among the most efficient pick-and-roll ball-handlers in the game, and should command more such actions. If Kayla Thornton can repeat what she did last year, hitting 35 percent on triples with lockdown perimeter defense to boot, she’ll prove essential to new head coach Vickie Johnson’s operation. Satou Sabally is one of the most intriguing and versatile young bigs in the game.
It’s tempting to slot Marina Mabrey next to Ogunbowale given their friendship and chemistry, but if I’m playing so small, I need Gray and Thornton anchoring the defense. Mabrey offers plenty of offensive punch, and will get her chances.
Another plug for my colleague Justin before we move on – he examined the sustainability of a Thornton/Sabally frontcourt last season, concluding it was a workable short-term option but not a long-term answer. As you probably are aware, Dallas has the top two picks in the 2021 WNBA Draft. Replacing Thornton with Awak Kuier or Charli Collier would make this five way more dynamic.
Sorry, getting ahead of myself. Onward.
Lineup: Kelsey Mitchell, Victoria Vivians, Kennedy Burke, Lauren Cox, Teaira McCowan
Oh, what a sad state of affairs when none of your free agent signings are so much as considered for the distinguished honor of being mentioned in a theoretical column written by a twenty-something who wheezes at the thought of playing full court fives. Sorry to be dismissive. That’s why the self-deprecation made a cameo. I just am not intrigued by what Jantel Lavender, Lindsay Allen, Danielle Robinson, or Jessica Breland bring to this roster in the slightest. They’re all great basketball players. I’m a washed-up asthmatic who can type fast. The faulty fit falls on Indiana’s shoulders, not the aforementioned four.
While I’m in the mode of covering my own tracks, another apology must be thrown Tiffany Mitchell’s way. She deserves to be in a better situation. Her handles are electric and her finishing ability plays in all 12 WNBA cities. But the Fever are “rebuilding,” and it’s imperative to develop the youth while securing the best draft pick possible. This lineup achieves that goal.
Do you like the Teaira McCowan / Lauren Cox frontcourt pairing? It feels like that duo has returned a lukewarm consensus. But what does it say if you don’t even give your two most recent lottery picks a chance to coexist? I’m cautiously bullish on a hi-lo attack in which McCowan camps out in the restricted area and seals her defender as deep as possible, Cox faces up on an elbow, Burke and Vivians stand at alert in the corners, and Kelsey Mitchell roves around up top. Cox’s skillset can unlock driving lanes for the whole bunch, and allow McCowan to refocus on the areas in which she excels.
You must at least give this young core a wholehearted chance at succeeding. The worst that can happen is a whole lot of losing and improved odds at landing Rhyne Howard.
Las Vegas Aces
Lineup: Chelsea Gray, Kelsey Plum, Riquna Williams, Dearica Hamby, A’ja Wilson
It should give you an idea of just how stacked this Aces team is that I’ve left two Hall of Fame level players on the bench. Liz Cambage could average 40 points per game (is that so far out of the realm of possibility?) and I’d still want to see Dearica Hamby and A’ja Wilson at the 4 and 5. Angel McCoughtry averaged a career low 20 minutes per game in 2020, Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer doing a fantastic job keeping her fresh for the playoffs. Vegas should trend experimental in the minutes McCoughtry rests.
I want to create as much room for Wilson’s MVP activities as possible. The Aces best high volume five player lineups last year featured a Hamby/Wilson frontline. That paring makes way too much sense on both ends. Defensively, Hamby locks up opposing perimeter threats, funneling them toward the long reach of Wilson. Offensively, Hamby lures defenders out of the paint, either splashing triples or slipping the ball to an eager Wilson. Add pick-and-roll maestro Chelsea Gray to the equation plus two expert shooters in Plum and Williams, and you have a juggernaut with three starter-level players sitting (we can’t dismiss the strides made by one of my favorite players, Jackie Young!).
I’m most excited to see what this Aces bunch can accomplish in transition. Las Vegas led the league in pace last season. Per Inpredictable, the Aces ranked second in points off defensive rebounds and second in points off turnovers. Hamby does just about everything at an above average level, but she’s especially adept at darting straight to the rim off opponent misses. Gray is the Point Gawd. Plum will launch from well behind the arc, whether on balance or off. It’s going to be a nightmare trying to run with this team.
Los Angeles Sparks
Lineup: Erica Wheeler, Sydney Wiese, Brittney Sykes, Seimone Augustus, Nneka Ogwumike
Is this my most outside-the-box selection?
Everyone missed watching Erica Wheeler and Kristi Toliver in 2020. They may not be the most compatible backcourt pairing, and Wheeler wins the coin flip because undrafted players are incredibly fun to root for. Wiese shot 47 percent from three last season. She’s essential to the Sparks offensive operation in a post Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray reality. Money Mone earns the nod because we respect legends over here at Winsidr dot com.
Let’s talk about Sykes and Ogwumike for a second. Those two form one of the most lethal defensive frontcourt combinations in hoops. Gripes over Derek Fisher’s handling of this offseason are valid. Inking Sykes at $110,000 this year and $113,300 in 2022, however, is the steal of the offseason. Her combination of length and bounce will allow Fisher to play offensive-minded players like Wiese and Augustus a little more liberally. Fun!
Lineup: Crystal Dangerfield, Kayla McBride, Aerial Powers, Napheesa Collier, Damiris Dantas
Here we go, folks. Fasten your seatbelts. Place your tray tables in the upright position. Prepare for landing.
We’ve arrived at my favorite 2021 lineup. Where are the weaknesses? Where are the holes? Crystal Dangerfield’s defense, you say? Swell. She has four two-way titans surrounding her. Also, stop nitpicking! Rookie guards averaging over 16 points per game don’t come around every day. Elite offensive 1s can be covered for on the other end.
Don’t be surprised if Napheesa Collier flaunts improved handles in year three. There’s no limit to what ‘Phee can achieve. If she starts tossing folks in the toaster out behind the three-point line, this team can absolutely win the title. Damiris Dantas exceeded four three-point attempts per game in both 2019 and 2020, shooting 39 percent in the former and 43 percent in the latter. She carried the Lynx for stretches during their impressive playoff run in the Bradenton, Florida bubble. What are you supposed to do if Collier posts up on the block with Aerial Powers and Dantas in the corners and Kayla McBride and Dangerfield on the wings? Pack up your bags and call it a day?
I feel like I’m averaging an apology per section, but Sylvia Fowles is the greatest center of all time and deserves an explanation. I just like shooting. What can I say? Fowles was playing at an All-Star level last year before getting hurt. She has plenty left to offer on the court. Keeping her healthy and fresh for the playoffs is a priority. Let ultra-spacy lineups do the heavy lifting.
New York Liberty
Lineup: Sabrina Ionescu, Sami Whitcomb, Betnijah Laney, Jocelyn Willoughby, Natasha Howard
The million-dollar question: how does New York improve upon its wretched 27 percent mark from downtown?
Kiah Stokes and Kylee Shook both intrigue me as options off the bench, but if Walt Hopkins wants to get the most out of his extremely three-point heavy system, he must start Natasha Howard at center. That’s a good start at approaching an answer. Next, you need someone who brings value to the offense without requiring the ball. Sami Whitcomb was a fantastic addition in this regard. Hmm, what else? How about a slasher off the wing, someone who can score in a variety of ways when the defense loads up on Ionescu/Howard based actions. Check. Betnijah Laney is your player.
That leaves one glaring question mark: who plays the 4? I’m enthused that New York did not include Jocelyn Willoughby in its deal with Phoenix. That speaks highly of how the Liberty view her potential. Leaonna Odom also deserves a look. I’m biased towards folks who start book clubs, so we’re going with Jocelyn.
Lineup: Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, Kia Nurse, Bria Hartley, Brianna Turner
How far can I stretch the limits of small-ball? Am I becoming the kid who causes a ruckus just to see if the substitute teacher will say something? I don’t want to be that person. I do want to see this lineup.
Per Synergy, Brittney Griner led the WNBA in post-ups per game last season. Even though she averaged more than a point per possession off those looks, the mere quantity disrupted Phoenix’s offensive flow. What I’m after is a Defensive Player of the Year caliber center whose only goal on the other end is to rim-run. Brianna Turner fits the bill.
The rest really speaks for itself. You’re saying you wouldn’t want to see what Skylar Diggins-Smith, Diana Taurasi, Kia Nurse, and Bria Hartley could accomplish together? Extra points to me for manufacturing a lineup with three UConn alums and two Notre Dame alums. I enjoy chaos.
Lineup: Sue Bird, Jewell Loyd, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, Breanna Stewart, Ezi Magbegor
This is one of the bigger lineups I came up with, yet no one I named is afraid of cooking up on the perimeter. Sure, Ezi Magbegor isn’t launching threes yet, but she’s already incredibly efficient as the pick-and-roll big, undaunted by strong defenders in space. Mikiah Herbert Harrigan was a terrific get. She shot over 42 percent from deep on small volume as a rookie, and will likely receive more run in year two.
However, the focus here is defense. Losing Natasha Howard and Alysha Clark is brutal on both ends, but it exposes Seattle to a much greater extent defensively. The Storm’s answer should be to throw length on the wound and hope it limits the damage.
Mostly, I just want Magbegor to earn a starting nod.
Lineup: Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Alysha Clark, Elena Delle Donne, Myisha Hines-Allen
If I had to pit any of my lineup creations against one another, I’d throw Washington and Minnesota in the ring and grab my popcorn. In fact, I like this starting five so much I mentioned it in the last piece I wrote.
I can’t get over just how absurd it is that Ariel Atkins and Alysha Clark now play for the same team. Or that Myisha Hines-Allen posted a true shooting percentage of 59 percent on nearly 26 percent usage (14th in the WNBA among players who played five or more games in 2020) after being a minor role player during her first two professional seasons.
The only thing that can derail the Mystics in 2021 – other than injuries – is overplaying Tina Charles. The last time we saw Charles play in the W, she was flat out bad defensively. The spacing is way better with Hines-Allen on the floor. This likely won’t be Washington’s starting lineup, but it should be.