It’s hard to believe, but with the Olympic break less than a week away and set to run from July 12 to Aug. 15, the WNBA is already nearing the midway point in the regular season. Following regular season games on July 11 and the All-Star Game in Las Vegas on July 14, the league will go on a month-long break for the Olympic Games in Tokyo until the second half of the season commences Aug. 15.
Over the course of the last few months, there have been plenty of storylines, surprises and disappointments that have popped up since the 2021 season began May 14. From teams climbing and falling in the league standings, to injuries flooding all 12 teams, to drama percolating throughout the WNBA and more, the new year has already been exceptionally entertaining to follow.
As the league prepares to take a month-long pause before resuming for the homestretch leading up to the postseason, let’s look back on the first half of the regular season and pick out some takeaways from the year thus far.
Storm and Aces Appear to Be the Best Two Teams Once Again
In 2020, the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces were two of the top teams in the WNBA. They later met up in the WNBA Finals where Seattle came away with the league title behind a 3-0 series sweep in the bubble.
This season, Seattle and Las Vegas are once again sitting atop the league standings and have been flipping back and forth throughout the first half of the year for who stands as the WNBA’s best team. The two squads have also played each other three times, which were all exciting contests.
Going into the final week of the first half of the regular season, both the Storm and Aces sit at 14-4 overall, and both teams also carry multi-game winning streaks. If the rest of the year continues the way the first half has, we could very well see Seattle and Las Vegas make deep playoff runs and potentially face off again in the WNBA Finals.
Sun, Sky and Lynx Are the Second Tier of Teams
As the midway point in the season approaches, we are also starting to see which teams follow closely behind the Storm and Aces in the WNBA standings and could end up being title contenders at the end of the summer. Following the weekend of July 4, the Connecticut Sun, Minnesota Lynx and Chicago Sky have quickly emerged as the next tier of teams behind the league leaders.
Connecticut has cooled down to some extent since getting off to a hot start to the new year, but it remains in third place in the standings behind Seattle and Las Vegas.
Right behind the Sun, the Lynx and Sky have been two of the hottest teams in the league over the last 10 or so games. The Lynx have erased a 0-4 start to the season to move into the fourth spot in the standings, and the Sky have recovered from a 2-7 start to jump into fifth place.
There are other teams that could enter into this second-tier conversation as the season progresses, but as of late, Connecticut, Minnesota and Chicago are headlining that second group of teams.
Bottom Three or Four Playoff Seeds Might Come Down to the Wire
It is just the midway point in the regular season, so there is still a lot of time left for teams to shift around the league standings and playoff picture conversations to take place. But if the second half of the year mirrors what has taken place over the course of the first half, the bottom three or four playoff seeds will likely come down to the wire.
With about a week until the Olympic break begins, the sixth through 11th seeds occupied by the New York Liberty, Dallas Wings, Phoenix Mercury, Washington Mystics, Atlanta Dream and Los Angeles Sparks are all separated by just three games. All it would take for a team to pull away from the rest of the pack is a hot stretch to climb up the standings.
Once the regular season picks up again following the Olympic break, the race for those bottom playoff seeds will intensify, and the final stretch should be interesting to watch.
Commissioner’s Cup Didn’t Live Up to the Hype
Going into the 2021 campaign, the WNBA announced it would be introducing the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup, which is an in-season tournament between all 12 teams taking place during the first half of the summer. This new in-season tournament provides players and teams with the opportunity to compete in an additional, unique way and earn prize money. The Commissioner’s Cup was supposed to debut during the 2020 season, but with the season being played in the bubble, it was held off until this year.
With this new in-season tournament taking place, many were curious to see how much attention it would get and how much buzz the tournament would create throughout the league, teams and fan bases.
— WNBA (@WNBA) July 5, 2021
Now with the qualifying regular season games that count toward the Commissioner’s Cup nearing completion and the Cup Championship Game tipping off in a little over a month on Aug. 12, we’ve learned that this first season of the competition didn’t quite generate the excitement that the WNBA had originally expected. In addition to fans not being that interested in following or talking about the Commissioner’s Cup, some players have even come out and said that they haven’t really thought much about the in-season tournament or prioritized it in comparison to other goals.
“It’s definitely an afterthought,” Lynx forward Napheesa Collier said earlier this season. “It’d be great to get involved, but it doesn’t have an impact on our season. It’d be nice to get some money, but we’re thinking about our regular season.”
It will be interesting to see how the Commissioner’s Cup concludes and how it carries on if the WNBA continues to have it on an annual basis. But as of now, the tournament hasn’t lived up to the hype leading into the season.
Hardship Contracts Are Confusing
With injuries unfortunately flooding the league in the first half of the season, we saw a decent amount of player movement and signings as teams scrambled to fill vacancies on their rosters.
One avenue multiple teams have utilized following those injuries has been the use of hardship contracts, which are essentially replacement contracts following an injury or injuries to players that will keep them out for an extended period of time. As a result of the frequent use of hardship contracts, we have been reminded that these contracts result in a crazy amount of hoops for teams to jump through.
On numerous occasions this year, we have seen players sign hardship contracts to replace a specific injured player on a team. When the injured player is ready to return, even if the team has more than one injured player and can use multiple hardship exemptions as a result, the player on that hardship contract has to have their contract terminated and then be re-signed under a new hardship contract if desired.
Basically, hardship contracts are still really confusing, and we certainly got several lessons in how these contracts are used throughout the first half of the year.
The Game Is Obviously More Fun When Players Are Healthy
In the first few weeks of the regular season, the WNBA was hit hard with injuries and saw many key, big-name players miss time due to new injuries or remain on the bench with injuries acquired before the season began.
Now at the midway point in the year, some of those players have returned to the floor for their teams, which has been a welcome sight for their respective squads and WNBA fans as it makes the league better overall. The reinsertion of those key players has played a large role in teams putting on some of their best performances of the season right now.
A couple of athletes who have returned from injury recently are two of the WNBA’s best players, Chicago Sky’s Candace Parker and Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi. Parker has been a big reason why Chicago has surged up the league standings, and Taurasi’s presence and leadership with the Mercury are valuable for Phoenix to pair with Brittney Griner and company.
With some of the WNBA’s top players returning to the floor to compete, the overall product is much better and more entertaining. Now we can only hope for additional players to return following the Olympic break when the league progresses toward the playoffs.
The first half of the season has been entertaining to watch on multiple fronts. And with the halftime buzzer for the WNBA regular season about to sound, there is still plenty more basketball to look forward to.