Vox Media

2022-07-11 19:24:38 By : Ms. VICKY. C

The Atlanta Dream, Las Vegas Aces and Chicago Sky received the most attention in our midseason roundtable.

Brittney Griner has been wrongfully detained for 144 days. It is time to bring her home.

Cat Ariail: Even after swinging a trade for the No. 1 pick and selecting Rhyne Howard, it was easy to imagine the Atlanta Dream suffering through another chaotic and underwhelming season, with a patchwork roster of promising young players and proud vets failing to mesh under first-year head coach Tanisha Wright (More on her below!). “Losin’ for Aliyah” seemed like it might have been the only shred of hope for fans. Instead, the Dream have been revitalized. While it is not always pretty, you can count on the Dream playing with a will and want to that was absent last season. Atlanta is ascendent, whether or not they manage to maintain a playoff berth. (And, they’ll really be on the rise if some lottery luck still results in Aliyah Boston heading down 1-85 after she completes an illustrious career in Columbia.)

Eric Nemchock: Even though their current record may not reflect it, the New York Liberty have been one of the WNBA’s best teams since the start of June, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how quickly they’ve turned things around after starting the season 1-7. The backcourt of Sabrina Ionescu and Marine Johannès is one of the league’s most electrifying, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll look like when star wing Betnijah Laney returns from her knee injury.

Sabreena Merchant: The Atlanta Dream. I wildly underestimated the strength of this roster, but Tanisha Wright has this group defending maniacally (in a good way!) while juicing just enough offense out of it. This seemed like a certain lottery team, and instead, the Dream are making a real playoff push.

Josh Felton: One thing that has surprised me about the Atlanta Dream is how good their defense has been this season. It has been historically good at times. Although they have dealt with a ton of injuries, their starting lineup of Cheyenne Parker, Erica Wheeler, Nia Coffey, Rhyne Howard, and Kristy Wallace has produced a relative defensive rating of -8.2 (since the All-Star break), which would rank sixth in WNBA history. The potential of this team as championship contenders is evident once the offense starts to improve.

Edwin Garcia: Before the start of the season, I had the Atlanta Dream as the second-worst team in the WNBA. I liked a few of their players, like Cheyenne Parker and Rhyne Howard, but I did not see the team being as good defensively as they are or having the 6-3 start. I’m still skeptical that they will make the playoffs, but they have proved me wrong so far.

Zack Ward: I had the Dream at No. 11 in my preseason power rankings and they are tied for sixth. That’s the biggest leap of any team. I think that people generally agreed with Cat: that Howard would not be enough to bring the Dream out of second-to-last. That belief was probably influenced by Charli Collier’s underachievement last year. A more interesting answer would be the Aces; they took the second-biggest leap from my preseason power rankings (+4). Believe it or not, I didn’t think “No Liz, no problem” and Vegas has been so much better playing smaller ball without her. I did not see Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young upping their scoring averages by 5.1 and 4.9, respectively.

CA: Before this season, I did not know who Rebekah Gardner was. Now, one cannot watch a Chicago Sky game without gaining familiarity with Gardner. The 32-year-old rookie’s energy and effort is infectious and impossible to ignore. While women’s hoops fans might bemoan the college stars and lottery picks who fail to make final rosters, more credit needs to be given to Gardner, who converted years of grinding overseas into a rotation spot on the defending WNBA champions.

EN: Jackie Young has played many different roles for the Aces during her young WNBA career, from acting as the team’s de facto point guard to its primary perimeter defender, and this season she’s added a considerable amount of scoring versatility to her game. Young has always been tough to stop below the free throw line, but she’s shooting the long ball more often (3.2 attempts per game) and more effectively (46.9 percent) than ever before, opening up not only the rest of her game, but the games of her teammates as well; she’s one of three WNBA players currently averaging at least 17 points, four rebounds and three assists per game. It’s rare to see a player take the kind of dramatic scoring leap Young has, and she’s proving herself worthy of the No. 1 overall draft pick the Aces used on her in 2019.

SM: Han Xu was not a positive player in 2019, and then spent two years away from the WNBA. Now, she’s putting up historically efficient box score lines and changing the archetype for a player of her size. Her impact is undeniable and she’s must-see television as one of the very best stories in the league.

EG: Lexie Brown is having a career year with the Sparks. She’s averaging career highs in points, rebounds and assists and is shooting an incredible 46 percent from three. As a guard, she’s often defending the best player on the opposing team and has done a great job of that. I did not anticipate this kind of impact from her this season, but now I’m sure she will only continue to shine as we enter the second half of the season.

ZW: Three “old” rookies in Rebekah Gardner, Kristy Wallace and Nikolina Milić have all been pleasant surprises. I think Garnder has been the most surprising because she went undrafted, while Wallace was taken 16th overall, and because at age 32 she has four years on Milić and six years on Wallace. Gardner also leads the trio with 8.9 points per game. The most surprising thing about Gardner is that she is shooting 53.7 percent from the field as a guard!

JF: With all of the moves Phoenix made in the offseason, one would have imagined five months ago that the Mercury would be poised for a championship run right about now. However, with the absence of their best player Brittany Griner, this team has struggled to even contend for a playoff spot. Many suspected they would struggle without Griner, but not this badly.

CA: I agree with Josh. Although extenuating circumstances have imposed an unprecedented mental and emotional toll on the Phoenix Mercury, they still are the league’s most disappointing team. In the absence of Brittney Griner, it was unlikely that Mercury would build on their 2021 run to the Finals. However, it is still dismaying for a vet-laden team to devolve into on- and off-court sniping (whether overblown or not) and sit below .500 with a number of lackluster performances.

EN: Another vote for Phoenix here. Maybe preseason expectations for the Mercury were too high, and yes, the unfortunate absence of Brittney Griner is undoubtedly weighing heavily on the Mercury both on and off the court. Still, it’s a star-driven league, and in Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Tina Charles, Phoenix entered the season with a core of players who have a seemingly endless list of individual accolades and experience playing with one another internationally. That core didn’t even make it to July before the team was forced to split it up, and the Mercury are now in danger of missing the playoffs without a first-round draft pick in 2023 to compensate (traded to Chicago). Their season has been an abject failure, top to bottom.

SM: It’s Phoenix. It has to be. A potential super team in serious danger of missing the playoffs. I hate kicking the Mercury when they’re down, because the weight of the Brittney Griner detainment hangs over everything this season, but Phoenix has been home to some bad basketball in 2022.

EG: I was never the biggest fan of Phoenix, but going from WNBA Finalist to this is disappointing. Obviously, they have the biggest story and tragedy of the WNBA season in the absence of Brittney Griner, and perhaps that alone is the root of this performance. Still, it just feels like the team is woefully underperforming given their lineup. Diamond DeShields is still not back to her 2019 form, the Tina Charles experiment didn’t work, and what is happening with Skylar Diggins-Smith? Nothing is working in Phoenix and this season is quickly becoming one the Mercury will like to forget soon.

ZW: The Mercury have taken the biggest fall from my preseason power rankings (-6). I had them third even without BG. I was really high on Tina Charles because of last year’s regular season and really high on Diana Taurasi because of last year’s playoffs. I’m also a big Diamond DeShields fan and I’m not the only one. Rebecca Lobo said she considered DeShields to be a potential future MVP when she was traded to Phoenix. The Liberty took the second biggest fall (-5), but they’ve had a lot of injuries.

JF: Tina Charles’ fall from grace over the past year has been tough to watch. After averaging 23 points last year for a struggling Washington team, the expectations for her joining the Phoenix Mercury were to elevate their ceiling from champion contender to championship favorite. This did not happen; her on/off numbers in Phoenix were absolutely dreadful and was part of the reason the Mercury decided to part ways with her. Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected Charles to be sitting on the back of the bench in Seattle after the season she had last year.

CA: Many W fans likely envisioned that Hollywood heading to Hollywood would result in Chennedy Carter emerging into the kind of star that her skill set suggests she could be. Yet, Carter’s career has seemed to have stalled. Coming off the bench, she’s playing less than 15 minutes per game, scoring and shooting less efficiently than in previous seasons. This disappointment could be attributed to lack of opportunity or potential off-court challenges of which outside observers are unaware. Nevertheless, it is hard to not have hoped that Carter’s fresh start with the Sparks would have kickstarted her star turn.

ZW: Veronica Burton. Lexie Hull is playing just as poorly, but most of us thought she was a bad pick at No. 6. Burton was a No. 7 pick that Dallas had reason to be excited about. She’s a rookie and everyone knows how hard it is to fit in in Dallas, but I expected her to be yet another solid WNBA player on the Wings’ roster who would make it even more difficult to decide who to play. Instead, she’s averaging 1.6 points while shooting 24.3 percent from the field and 15.8 percent from three. 0.8 steals per game in 12.6 minutes is impressive, but she is a capable offensive player and it’s disappointing to not see her live up to that. Hopefully she can turn things around and last in the league.

SM: I want to say Charli Collier, but is she even on the court enough to count?

CA: It’s been great to see AD coming into their own, both on and off the court.

EN: How often do you see a player get their first WNBA contract at 31 years of age? Rebekah Gardner is the ultimate example of “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready:” After years of honing her game overseas, the Sky signed her for 2022, knowing that her latest round of overseas obligations wouldn’t even allow her to prepare with the team in training camp. Gardner rewarded Chicago’s faith and patience, immediately becoming a valuable contributor to the defending champs with energetic play and tenacious defense. It’s not unrealistic to expect her to be in both All-Rookie and All-Defense consideration by the end of the season.

JF: Sue Bird announcing her retirement has been the biggest storyline of the year. Watching her final season has been an absolute joy and privilege. Every city she has played in has showed her tremendous amounts of love, and she deserves it. Congratulations to her on such a phenomenal career.

EG: After winning their first WNBA championship, the Chicago Sky have returned better than ever. The team has multiple All-Stars and brought in reinforcements like Emma Meesseman to make them the team to beat in the W. Many had the Las Vegas Aces as favorites, but the Sky have made one thing clear: if you want to win the championship, you must go through Chicago.

SM: Nneka Ogwumike bouncing back after a rough 2021. She’s having probably the second-best season of her career and just earned her first All-Star starting nod, and her footwork remains impeccable, one of the great joys of watching the WNBA. Ogwumike has given so much to the players union and the league, and it’s great to see her recover her individual brilliance this year.

ZW: I can’t pick! Between Tina Charles all of a sudden having her best shot since leaving New York at winning a first championship (the past two and a half seasons were all supposed to be good shots, but Charles got incredibly unlucky), to Alyssa Thomas being in the MVP discussion in spite of torn labra and having a shot at her first championship, pro or college, to A’ja Wilson’s revenge tour after last year’s heartbreaking Game 5 loss to Phoenix and her having a shot at a first championship. I can’t decide who to root for out of Seattle, Connecticut and Vegas because those are all great storylines.

CA: Brittney Griner. Free BG. (On a lighter note...shout out to new mom Maya Moore, who is living her life, and letting the public into her life, on her own terms!)

SM: Cheyenne Parker. Honestly, I thought if Atlanta had an All-Star, it should have been her instead of Howard. She carries so much of the offensive burden for the Dream — ideally, less so with Tiffany Hayes back — and she does so efficiently while still being a really solid defensive center. Great to see her (another relatively new mom!) excel in 2022.

EN: Where would the Dallas Wings be without Allisha Gray? In a season full of ups and downs, Gray has been the Wings’ most consistent presence, leading the team in minutes played per game (31.8) and on/off court differential (15.3). Dallas has many exciting players who tend to draw both praise and criticism as the team’s success ebbs and flows, and, as such, Gray’s steady play isn’t appreciated nearly enough. I’m not usually one to complain about All-Star snubs, but I think Gray should be representing the Wings in Chicago this weekend.

EG: I want to take this moment to appreciate Sylvia Fowles. She is one of the all-time greats in WNBA history and she is not getting enough love and recognition for everything she has done for the game of basketball. She should be one of the season’s main storylines and get the same love and attention Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi receive. Watch as many Minnesota Lynx games as you can this season and do not miss her last game; it will be a historic moment.

ZW: Lexie Brown. She was waived by Minnesota and then by Chicago prior to last season before Chicago eventually added her back and played her 9.5 minutes per game. This year she’s started 14 of 22 games for the Sparks, averaging 27.7 minutes, eight points, 2.4 assists and 1.2 steals. She’s made 41 threes (tied for ninth in the WNBA) at a 46.1 percent clip (third in the WNBA). I'm not saying she’s unsung this season, but she was always too talented to be barely clinging to a spot in the league.

CA: Although her topline scoring numbers are not to the level of a traditional MVP, Candace Parker’s value to the Chicago Sky is unimpeachable. Her intelligence as an organizer on the offensive and defensive ends endows her with an all-around impact that makes her a deserving MVP. At age 36! Parker stuffs the box score, averaging 13.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, five assists and almost two “stocks” in 28.5 minutes per game. She’s also having one of the best shooting seasons of her career, converting a career-best 86 percent of her free throws while making 38.6 percent of her career-high 4.2 3-point attempts per game. Despite some roster turnover and early-season absences, Parker and the Sky currently sit at the top of the standings at 16-6, with a spot secured in the Commissioner’s Cup championship.

EN: A’ja Wilson is playing perhaps the best basketball of her WNBA career. She’s the only player in the league currently averaging a double-double (18.5 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, the latter of which leads all WNBA players), and she’s also averaging a career-high 2.1 blocked shots. There has always been an “undeniability” about Wilson’s game, and, as the Aces compete for the WNBA’s No. 1 overall playoff seed, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another player who I’d want on my team in a must-win game.

EG: I have to agree with Eric here. A’ja Wilson is at the top of her game, leading one of the best teams in the WNBA. I think she’s the MVP of the league and would win the award if it were announced today.

JF: A’ja Wilson has led the Aces to the league’s best offense by a wide margin. They are such an exciting team to watch and Wilson has been playing the best basketball of her career. If the Aces can get back on the track they were headed towards during the first month of the season, this will be A’ja’s award.

ZW: Breanna Stewart has led the Storm to a nearly identical record to the Aces and has done so with less help than A’ja Wilson. Wilson has three teammates with higher stat scores than Jewell Loyd (26.35): Kelsey Plum (32.65), Jackie Young (28.75) and Chelsea Gray (26.4). I consider Plum to be in the MVP conversation, so it’s hard to call Wilson the most important player to any one team. Stewart slightly edges out Wilson for second-place in stat score (35.45 to 34.25) with Sabrina Ionescu being in first with a 35.95. If Ionescu leads a dramatic turnaround for the Liberty and her stat score becomes significantly higher than the rest of the pack, I will have to vote for Ionescu. But for now it’s Stewart.

SM: Stewie. Her WARP (wins above replacement player) is lapping the rest of the field, and she’s putting together a DPOY-worthy season to match her offensive excellence.

CA: While Shakira Austin has impressed, Rhyne Howard is the ROY. Within the season’s first weeks, Howard stamped herself as a superstar, flashing enviably elite ease as a shooter and scorer. However, her instant excellence came with a burden, as she quickly became the fulcrum of the Dream’s offense and the focal point of opponent’s scouting reports. This pressure and attention has contributed to some struggles, especially when a number of Atlanta’s vets were out of the lineup with injuries and illness. Yet, Howard’s offensive highs, in combination with her consistent effort on defense, more than exceed her uneven performances.

EN: This is a tough one. Rhyne Howard is undoubtedly a gifted scorer who has injected new life into an Atlanta Dream franchise that was, to put it mildly, in need of an overhaul. On the other hand, Shakira Austin has fit in seamlessly with the Washington Mystics’ championship aspirations, positively impacting both ends of the floor and displaying an immediate WNBA readiness rarely seen from centers. It reminds me of the 2019 Rookie of the Year race between Arike Ogunbowale and Napheesa Collier: A dynamic scorer putting up big individual numbers vs. a player who clearly makes her team better (particularly on defense) but whose impact is a bit harder to quantify. I think I’m going to go with Howard, with volume being the deciding factor (30.6 minutes per game and a 23.9 percent usage rate compared to Austin’s 21.3 minutes per game and 18 percent usage rate); that’s nothing at all against Austin, but it’s rare to see a lower-usage player come away with this award when the alternative is someone like Howard, and it’s not like Howard’s own numbers are completely devoid of impact, either.

JF: Another vote for Rhyne Howard here. She has been terrific in her first season in Atlanta and was also a well-deserving selection to this year’s All-Star game.

EG: Being a rookie is hard. Leading as a rookie is even more challenging. Leading as a rookie and exceeding all expectations one could have of you and your team in year one is next to impossible. That’s exactly what Rhyne Howard has done in Atlanta. She’s an All-Star, her team already has more wins than they’ve had since 2018 and she is the current Rookie of the Year.

ZW: Rhyne Howard. It feels like she’s already won more in the pros than she did in college even though the Dream have a losing record. How did Kentucky never go to a Sweet Sixteen in her four years?! Of course, it still went 84-37 compared to Atlanta’s 10-12 record, but the point is that she seems like a winner now and is having an impact on winning for a team that many thought wouldn’t win many games, whereas in college there were questions about why Kentucky took some bad losses and had some disappointing results in the tournament. Maybe she just needed a fresh start and with that fresh start she has restored the intimidation factor that comes with the No. 1 overall pick. Her unbelievable offensive talent has immediately translated to the next level.

CA: It could have been argued that Jackie Young was a disappointing No. 1 pick, as fellow 2019 draftees Arike Ogunbowale and Napheesa Collier had emerged as All-Stars. However, Young, voted as a starter as a first-time All-Star, is proving that such an assessment was premature. A sturdy defender with a shaky offensive game over her first three seasons, Young has blossomed as a legitimate offensive threat while maintaining solid defense. Most impressively, she has optimized her once-questionable jump shot, helping her swish 46.9 percent of her career-high 3.3 trey attempts per game.

EN: This award often goes to players who simply play and/or shoot the ball more than in the past, but in Jackie Young’s case, there’s obvious improvement behind her impressive per-game statistical jump. She was once an offensive liability to the Aces, but the days of opposing defenses flat-out ignoring her beyond the perimeter to double-team A’ja Wilson are over, and she’s become quite adept at shooting it off the bounce, too, turning her into a complete three-level scorer who presents major problems in the pick and roll. That isn’t something you could have said about Young even as recently as one year ago.

EG: Jackie Young fits all the criteria for most improved. She’s putting up career numbers, is part of a successful team, and is an All-Star. No one has taken the leap Jackie Young has taken this season, making her the most improved player in the league.

ZW: Jackie Young. Han Xu has taken a big leap though, so she should be in the conversation. But Young has gone from on the border of even being a star to superstar and that can’t be overlooked. Kelsey Plum has gone from star to superstar in my opinion, so the jump isn't quite as big. It’s been great to see the improvement of Ezi Magbegor, Aari McDonald, Katie Lou Samuelson, Jessica Shepard and Shey Peddy as well. These are all great stories.


CA: I assumed that the Seattle Storm’s status as a championship contender would be dependent on an elite offense, spurred by the supreme scoring talents of Breanna Stewart. While Stewart’s scoring has been supreme, the Storm’s offense has not been. Rather, defense has driven the Storm’s success, and Stewart also has been critical to this success. The Storm own the league’s best defense, with a rating of 94.7. When Stewart is on the court, the Storm’s defensive rating is 89.6. Despite her offensive responsibilities, she maintains and models the high-level of activity that is at the core of Seattle’s defensive identity, evidenced by her career-high 1.9 steals per game.

EN: As Cat mentioned, it’s been the Storm’s defense that has carried them, and right now there’s no player in the WNBA playing better defense than Breanna Stewart. Her length, activity and overall disruptiveness fuels a Seattle defense that currently turns opponents over on 20.9 percent of their possessions (most in the WNBA). No individual player single-handedly makes their team’s defense elite, but while Seattle has several players having strong defensive seasons — Ezi Magbegor and Gabby Williams, in particular — Stewart’s presence allows the Storm to take significantly more risks on that end of the floor than they’d be able to without her.

JF: Another vote for Breanna Stewart here. Not only does she anchor the league’s best defense currently, but she is the reason this team is elite on that end. With Stewart on the floor, the Seattle Storm have a strong case for being a top 10 single-season defense of all time; no that is not a typo. Without her, Seattle has been a below average defensive team. Stewart’s impact alone makes a mediocre Seattle defense look legendary.

EG: Alyssa Thomas deserves consideration for DPOTY. She can truly guard every position on the court. She is fast enough to defend guards and handle switches, and has the verticality to protect the rim and defend traditional bigs. The Connecticut Sun are contenders this season once again, and Alyssa Thomas and her defense are a big reason why.

ZW: Breanna Stewart. She’s been showing her full array of defensive talents this year, from being physical in the post against bigger players to helping out on the perimeter. And the second in steals things is pretty impressive. It would be cool to see Slim get DPOY though; she’s been locked in on winning it for a while.


CA: Brionna Jones should have the Sixth Woman of the Year award just about locked up. Despite coming off the bench, she is an All-Star! Among qualified candidates, she offers the most scoring, with 13.6 points per game. Per 36 minutes, her numbers compare favorably to last season, when she was a starter and named Most Improved Player. For example, she is scoring more points per 36 minutes in large part because she is getting to the line more frequently, an indication of the increased pressure she is putting on defenses as an interior scorer. For a Sun offense that has sputtered of late, Jones’ reliable low-post game is increasingly essential. (And maybe so essential that she should no longer come off the bench?)

EN: We saw what Brionna Jones was able to do as a starter for the past two seasons, and she hasn’t missed a beat after returning to a bench role in 2022. She remains an incredibly efficient scorer, her 63.5 percent true shooting percentage ranking among the league’s best, and while her game is almost strictly paint-bound, she retains her individual effectiveness in just about any lineup the Sun put her in. Jones is perhaps overqualified for this award, but the letter of the law makes her a candidate nonetheless, and she’s plenty deserving of winning it.

EG: Have to agree with Cat here. This is the Brionna Jones award. She’s been sensational all year and unless you feel like being a former starter somehow penalizes her, I find it hard to believe she won’t win this award by season’s end.

ZW: Brionna Jones. But don’t forget about Jessica Shepard, who has been replaced by Damiris Dantas in the starting lineup and had 22 points, 19 rebounds and six assists off the bench on June 19. If Shepard doesn't start again this season, I think she could challenge Jones for the award. And so could Tina Charles.

CA: I’m inclined to give Tanisha Wright tons (and tons!) of credit for the Atlanta Dream’s unexpected transformation into one of the hardest playing teams in the W. As expressed above, it would not have been surprising if Atlanta’s season again veered off course. The authority and accountability that Wright has brought to the organization has ensured the opposite. Furthermore, a situation that could have been ripe for resentment — with the franchise orienting its identity around a foundational first-year future superstar — has shown no such signs, with Wright earning full buy-in from a number of players at different stages of their careers. Wright is not a traditional Coach of the Year candidate, as the Dream are not in contention for the league’s best record, but her arrival in Atlanta exemplifies the importance and power of great leadership.

EG: We haven’t seen back-to-back WNBA champions since 2002. Thanks to the coaching job James Wade has done, that is a very real possibility. He’s taken the champs and made them better. He not only built out the roster as the GM, but has coached that roster to the best record in the league. Rarely does this award go to a title favorite that was also good last year, but I believe this is the rare exception where James Wade deserves the award. If he does win it, it’ll be the second time he has won the award in four years.

ZW: Becky Hammon. She's gotten the Aces to be better than they were with one of the league’s best players in Liz Cambage. She’s gotten them excited and determined to prove that they are the best. She’s also kept them the top offense in the league with a drastically different style of play. The Aces are taking 12.4 more threes per game this year and have the top scoring average just like last year. For her to have handled that transition so beautifully is impressive.

CA: The Chicago Sky. The defending champs embody “Championship DNA” and similar clichés, inspiring confidence in their ability to become the first back-to-back champs since the Los Angeles Sparks exactly two decades ago (2001, 2002).

JF: It’s still early, but the Chicago Sky seem to be clicking at the right time. They have a defense and offense good enough to compete with anyone. Most importantly though, they have championship experience after winning it all last year. It’s been over 20 years since a team has won back-to-back titles, but I think the Sky do it this year.

EG: The Las Vegas Aces. They are talented, hungry, and have multiple players having career years. Yes, the Sky are No. 1 in the standings. But repeating is so difficult and I think the Aces will overcome previous failures and finally win their first WNBA title.

ZW: The Seattle Storm. Breanna Stewart, Tina Charles and Jewell Loyd’s 57 combined points in the final game before the All-Star break ends up being a sign of things to come and the Storm become a super team that ends Charles’ run as the greatest player without a championship.