WNBA Playoff Picture: Who’s Hot and Who’s Not?


*Stats are as of Monday September 5th*

With only three days left in the WNBA regular season, teams are gearing up for the playoffs.

Some teams are peaking at the right time; others have to regroup before it is too late.

Let’s take a look at who’s hot, and who’s not.

Hot: New York Liberty

The hottest team in the WNBA is the New York Liberty. It was only a matter of time before their star-studded roster jelled together, and they have been on fire after the All-Star break.

The Liberty had an offensive rating of 108.1 before the All-Star break, good for second in the league behind the Aces. After the break, they’ve exploded with a rating of 114.9, making them the most prolific offense in the second half of the season.

One key area where they’ve drastically improved has been on crashing the offensive glass. During the first half of the season, the Liberty were below average in offensive rebounding percentage (22.1%), ranking seventh overall. Their OREB% after the All-Star break spiked to 28.5%, which is second in the league during that time.

Breanna Stewart, Kayla Thornton and Betnijah Laney have all increased their individual offensive rebounding production throughout the season, but it’s been the emergence of 6’6” forward Jonquel Jones that has made the biggest difference.

The 2021 WNBA MVP has averaged 3.1 offensive rebounds per game in the second half of the season after averaging just 1.9 before the break. These rebounds have created extra opportunities for herself and her sharp-shooting teammates, increasing the Liberty’s points per game from 87.8 points per game before the break to 90.1 points per game after.

A big jump in production offensively would’ve been enough for the Liberty to start closing the gap with the Las Vegas Aces, but their defense has also risen to the top of the WNBA.

After having the fourth-best defense before the All-Star break, the Liberty’s 98.8 defensive rating after the break is the best in the league.

As with their offense, the Liberty have improved their defense largely due to rebounding. As a team, they have gone from fifth in defensive rebounding percentage in the first half of the season to first in the second half.

Jones, again, has been the difference.

After averaging only 4.2 defensive rebounds per game (less than 5’11” teammate Sabrina Ionescu) in the first 18 games, Jones has secured 7.4 defensive rebounds per game in the last 19 games.

While Breanna Stewart has solidified herself as a top MVP candidate this season, it’s been the dominance of Jonquel Jones that has propelled the Liberty to 1.5 games behind the Aces for the number one seed going into the playoffs.

And with three wins against the Aces since August 6th, including the Commissioner Cup Championship, the Liberty find themselves in the driver’s seat heading into the postseason.

Not: Las Vegas Aces

After one of the most electric starts to a season the league has ever seen, the Aces have come (slightly) back down to Earth.

Unsurprisingly, the absence of a former WNBA Defensive Player of the Year has had the biggest impact on the Aces’ defense. A foot injury to 6’4” forward Candace Parker, who hasn’t played since the July 7th loss to the Dallas Wings, has affected the versatility in the lineup that head coach Becky Hammon can use to adjust to the opposition.

With Parker, Las Vegas boasted the second-best defense in the league with a defensive rating of 97.1. Without Parker, the Aces’ defensive rating is 101.1, the third best in the league behind New York and Los Angeles during that time.

Even with A’ja Wilson’s elite defensive performance this season, the Aces have struggled without the length and activity of Parker.

As a result, Las Vegas has had to live in defensive rotations more often. Opponents’ assists and three-pointers are way up without Parker’s presence inside. This, combined with the Aces’ propensity to send their opponents to the free throw line more often, has evened the playing field around the league.

The Aces still hold onto the top seed in the WNBA by 0.5 games over the Liberty, but they are no longer as invincible as they appeared to be at the beginning of the season.

Hot: Los Angeles Sparks

The Los Angeles Sparks were 7-13 heading into the All-Star break on a six-game losing streak, and things weren’t getting better.

In the two games after the break, the Sparks lost a heartbreaker at Minnesota and were beat handily in Dallas. With back-to-back home games against the 6-15 Indiana Fever next, the Sparks needed to win to keep their postseason hopes alive.

On July 25th, the Fever traveled to Los Angeles and out-shot the Sparks. They also got to the free-throw line more often and outrebounded the Sparks. Teams were 11-0 this season when winning those three factors.

The Sparks defied the odds and made it 11-1. Jordin Canada made a go-ahead three-pointer with 3.2 seconds left, and the Sparks survived with a 79-78 victory ending their eight-game losing streak.

Two nights later, the Sparks defeated the Fever 81-68. The momentum continued.

Los Angeles put together a six-game winning streak that included a win against the Washington Mystics and the biggest upset in the WNBA this season with a 78-72 victory at Las Vegas on August 19th. It is the only home loss in the regular season for the Aces this season (their home loss in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship to New York does not count towards their regular-season record).

Before July 25th, Los Angeles was eighth in defensive rating at 104.0. Since then, they have a defensive rating of 97.9, good for second in the league during that stretch.

They’ve done it with pressure.

The Sparks are forcing 15.1 turnovers per game since July 25th, most in the league.

Canada, who led the league in steals in 2019 with Seattle, is the WNBA leader this season with 2.2 steals per game. Nneka Ogwumike, who has been on five All-Defensive teams in her illustrious career, is seventh in the WNBA with 1.7 steals per game. Unfortunately, Ogwumike has recently been sidelined due to an injury to her knee, and her status is day-to-day.

The Sparks have clawed their way back in the playoff hunt and currently hold the eighth seed, one game ahead of the Chicago Sky. Both teams have tough schedules for their remaining three games.

Not: Atlanta Dream

Midway through the season, the Atlanta Dream were tied for fourth place with an 11-8 record. They had impressive road wins at New York and Connecticut in back-to-back games in the middle of June.

Since the All-Star break, they have the second worst record in the league, and they’ve won only three of their last 12 games.

To make matters worse, the Dream will have to play out the rest of their season without starting forward Nia Coffey. The 6’1” forward is currently tied for tenth in the league with 1.2 blocks per game. She has been a major factor in their defensive success this season, and her absence will cause a ripple effect on that end.

It’s been their offense, however, that has caused their fall from contention. In their first 19 games, Atlanta’s 103.8 offensive rating ranked fifth in the WNBA. Since then, Atlanta’s offensive rating of 98.4 is the second worst, just ahead of Washington.

Their shooting has gone cold. Their three-point percentage has dropped from 35.7% (fourth) before the break to 32.5% (last) after the break. As a team, Atlanta is last in three-point attempts with only 19.2 per game.

Rhyne Howard’s scorching hot start from three has simmered. After hitting 39.6% (53-134) from three in the first half of the season, she is only shooting 32.3% (41-127) since the break.

Nia Coffey’s absence will not only impact the Dream’s defense, but it will affect their already limited outside shooting as well. She led the team in three-point percentage at 40.2% (33-82) this season.

The Rest of the Field

Indiana, Seattle and Phoenix have already been eliminated from playoff contention.

Las Vegas and New York will finish 1-2, and Connecticut is locked in as the three-seed. Dallas (20-18), Minnesota (19-19), Atlanta (18-20) and Washington (18-20) have all clinched playoff berths and sit fourth through seventh, respectively.

This leaves Chicago (16-22) and Los Angeles (16-23) fighting for the final playoff spot.

About Kenyon Wingenbach

High school girls' basketball head coach and educator at West Fargo Public Schools (North Dakota).

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