The 2019 WNBA playoff picture is as open as it will ever get as the second half of the season begins. Just 3.5 games separated spots No. 8 and No. 1 as play resumed Tuesday.
Each of the top eight has a legitimate shot at a top-two seed and the accompanying double-bye into the semifinals, avoiding single-elimination postseason play altogether. New York is also lurking at No. 9, at least still in play for a No. 3 or No. 4 seed with a single-bye into the second round.
It’s a make or miss league. A few of either are sure to dramatically impact the playoff picture with so many teams jockeying for those byes.
Misses have drawn the headlines thus far. Connecticut ranked second in offensive rating at the break, scoring 98.9 points per 100 possessions. That output across an entire season would rank 11th, 10th and 12th in the past three seasons.
While everybody in and around the league has agreed that the level of play is the best it’s ever been, two key factors have clearly had a hand in the offensive downturn: the officials have taken more of a ‘let ‘em play’ approach, and you could build an entire Olympic roster with the list of players—Sue Bird (knee), Diana Taurasi (back), Angel McCoughtry (knee), Maya Moore (personal), Breanna Stewart (Achilles), Skylar Diggins-Smith (maternity leave), Candace Parker (hamstring; ankle), Victoria Vivians (knee), Moriah Jefferson (unknown)—that have missed all or most of their team’s games to date.
With that said, let’s look around the league at some of the top candidates either due to come crashing back down to earth or bounce back up to match their career norms, potentially enough to single-handedly aid a team’s rise from No. 5 to No. 4, or even No. 3 to No. 2 in the standings. (All stats are obtained via WNBA.com unless otherwise noted and are current as of July 29.)
Sun’s run for a top-two seed
Sun opponents have shot a league-low 28.5 percent from deep on the sixth most attempts per game. Seattle opponents have shot a league-high 35.9 percent. The league average is 33.5. That big gap between league-average 3-point shooting and the success of Sun opponents should close some.
If Connecticut finds itself on the other side of opponent 3-point shooting luck, their starting backcourt could be in line to balance some of that out by performing more to their career norms.
In short, Jasmine Thomas and Courtney Williams are due to start hitting more of their two-point jumpers. Each sits below 28 percent on midrange jump shots.
Williams’ shooting is the bigger concern. She connected on 42-plus percent of her attempts in each of the past two seasons as one of the league’s most prolific midrange artists.
The question has to be asked. What’s she doing for them offensively if she isn’t taking a lot of those shots and they aren’t falling?
Williams simply not embracing spot-up triples is troubling. She did inch up to 2.3 3-point attempts per 36 minutes last season and is now back down to 1.2.
Getting to the foul line is not a big part of her game. This season’s free throw rate (.193) would be a career-high. And her share of restricted-area attempts has continued to slump since 2017 (23.5 percent of all shot attempts, 15.7, 11.5).
Thomas is a much bigger threat knifing to the basket. Knocking down a few more shots will bring more scoring balance. Those shots still have a place deep in the shot clock when defenders duck under screens. She shot north of 41 percent from midrange in 2017 but has tended to finish in the low 30s.
The second half of the season should also teach us more about burgeoning superstar center Jonquel Jones. She shot north of 40 percent from deep in each of the past two seasons but just 29.4 percent in the first half of 2019.
Were those two seasons outliers? Will she ultimately settle in somewhere in the middle?
If Jones and the Sun firmly believe she is that 40-plus percent high-volume shooter, now is the time to really get mean. Run her off of screens and ramp up the pick-and-pop usage, forcing opposing centers to chase her around in the halfcourt and open up more of her driving game.
Aces making more midrangers, naturally finding more threes?
The Aces rank fifth in midrange attempts per game (16.8) but have made just 31.0 percent of them—a clear step below the league average of 35.3.
Like the Sun, this number should perk up some down the stretch. But the shooting of their best players has been interesting to track because the addition of Liz Cambage has them spreading the wealth more than any of their three All-Stars have in past seasons.
A’ja Wilson is a very good midrange shooter. She shot 45 percent last season on more than seven attempts per game. This season, she’s only getting up about three per game. Similar story for Kayla McBride, a 40-plus percent midrange shooter each of the past two seasons on one of the league’s toughest samplings.
Kelsey Plum shot just 22.6 percent to date on 62 two-pointers outside the restricted area. She rarely takes bad jump shots, though. The Aces want to play with pace, and Plum has been aggressive in looking for clean pull-up windows.
Liz Cambage, meanwhile, is clearly still feeling out her jumper’s place within the team’s halfcourt offense. She attempted about two midrange jumpers and one triple per game last season. Flashing the confidence to shoot when she’s really left open will open up more driving opportunities.
The Aces are dead last in 3-point attempts per game. But is the midrange shooting to blame? Probably not in any major way. That’s Wilson’s comfort zone. Then there are opponents actively working to, you know, run McBride and Plum off the 3-point line.
Should Bill Laimbeer be working to find ways to create a few more per game for the right people? Of course. So should every other head coach.
Cambage and Wilson also need more reps together as different opponents throw different looks at them in the paint. More kick-out opportunities will present themselves. For now, Wilson is sidelined by an ankle injury.
Dearica Hamby has entered the starting lineup. She can and will spend more time spotting up from deep than Wilson. Tracking her success and aggressiveness will be key. Hamby can open up more room for Cambage in the interim and push Laimbeer to play her even more at the 3 when Wilson returns.
Head in the cloud
Natasha Cloud and Kristi Toliver are the only reliable initiators on Washington’s roster. Their styles contrast nicely when the team is able to play with pace. Toliver burns you with the pull-up shooting; Cloud will rev up and get downhill even when you duck under a screen. Both are very good passers.
Cloud shot 38.6 percent on 4.2 attempts per 36 minutes last season. In 2019: 28.6 percent on 4.9 attempts.
That’s a huge swing that would limit her effectiveness in a playoff series and eat away at some of Washington’s other strengths if Mike Thibault has to consider scaling back her minutes.
Cloud not making shots further incentivizes opponents to send extra bodies at Toliver and Elena Delle Donne. Cloud is also one of their best defenders. She’s big and strong enough to make their switching work and performs well both one-on-one and in matchups that require more pursuit around screens.
So, has Natasha Cloud already regressed? It’s a question that could shape the entire course of the postseason.
At long last…
And now that EuroBasket 2019 has come and gone, we’re finally due for an extended look at their full team. They didn’t have LaToya Sanders’ defensive versatility in 2017 when they got swept in the semifinals by the Lynx. They didn’t have Meesseman last season as their offense sputtered before being swept in the Finals by the Storm.
Sanders drilled 57 percent of her 96 midrange attempts in 2018 and 37 percent of 54 attempts this season. The former, of course, is exceptional, while the latter is about average. Sanders shooting in the mid-to-high 30s is still helpful. Forcing her defender to travel more ground opens up some room around the rim, but opposing centers can manage that dance if they really lock in.
Meesseman will stretch all the way out beyond the arc. Her ability to make opponents fear her out there, especially in a playoff series, remains an open question. Their balance was out of whack in the 2017 playoffs as she essentially became a full-time spot-up shooter. She shot just 3-of-13 from deep and 6-of-27 from midrange.
But Washington’s entire team is much better now. They have more guards and wings to plug in as spot-up threats around Delle Donne and Meesseman. The toughest question facing Mike Thibault will likely be either/or in nature. Who closes games: Meesseman or Sanders?
Both have a big role to play if this team is going to capture its first title. Thibault also has Tianna Hawkins and Myisha Hines-Allen on the bench. All things considered, he’s in a good position to keep Delle Donne, Meesseman and Sanders fresh for the postseason.
And who knows? Maybe we’ll see all three out there together for extended stretches as part of one of their best playoff units.
Rookies giving the offense a boost
How much will Katie Lou Samuelson play down the stretch? She played just 49 minutes in the first half as she missed about a month due to a hand injury.
The Sky have a very real shot at much more than a return to the playoffs. A bye is there for the taking.
Samuelson is a high 30s/low 40s 3-point shooter that can pass, cut and hit tough shots on the move. Will James Wade find ways (and feel a need) to put her on the floor with Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Diamond DeShields and Stef Dolson?
That unit would be really tough to guard, likely forcing an opposing big to chase Samuelson around screens. They already have plenty of shooting sets installed for Quigley. Vandersloot and DeShields would have another deadeye shooter to set up when they turn the corner in pick and roll, all while Dolson opens up the lane spotting up from deep.
Even if she doesn’t get much run with the starters, she’d be another interesting wing to plug into the very fun DeShields-led bench units that have included Gabby Williams, Kahleah Copper and a big.
Pac-12 pick ’em
Who plays more minutes the rest of the way, playoffs included: Alanna Smith or Kristine Anigwe? The former Bay Area Pac-12 foes are each in positions to immediately contribute to a contender.
Smith’s life should get easier once Taurasi (eventually, hopefully, maybe?) returns. She’s a ready-made stretch 4 that hasn’t had a chance to have the game’s top pick-and-roll creator set her up for spot-up looks with Brittney Griner rolling to the rim and DeWanna Bonner lurking as a second-side creator—the natural pecking order that made this team downright terrifying, with Smith merely adding to last season’s offensive juggernaut.
Minutes at the 4 aren’t easy to come by in Phoenix, even with the knee injury that has kept Sancho Lyttle out since July 12. Bonner spends a lot of her time there. Smith shot 2-of-17 from deep in 124 minutes in the first half. Knocking down shots around a healthy Taurasi would help the team score more like the 2018 Mercury (107.3 points per 100 possessions), a clear cut above the glut of teams currently scoring between 97 and 99 points per 100.
A bigger lineup may also help the Mercury clean up more on the boards. They currently rank 10th in defensive rebounding percentage (66.3) and last in offensive rebounding percentage (24.6). Smith pulled down 22.9 percent of available defensive rebounds as a senior at Stanford per Her Hoop Stats.
The narrative out of Connecticut in the preseason was all about fourth-year big Brionna Jones stepping up in the aftermath of the Chiney Ogwumike trade. Jones just hasn’t panned out. Anigwe still does everything at a million miles an hour. But she’s still been the better option at backup center.
Connecticut’s starters have been healthy. Their starting lineup has played more together this season (316) than any other. The offense has dropped off more (4.4 points per 100 possessions) than the defense in the other 444 minutes than the defense. Look for Anigwe and stretch 4 Morgan Tuck to build some cohesion. Both can attack off the bounce some. Anigwe is capable of scoring on smaller and like-sized bigs right away at this level, especially with 4-out spacing—something she never truly had in college.