By: Lyndsay Helfrich
(Photo via @WashMystics)
With the Olympics in Tokyo wrapping up, the players of the WNBA are returning from the break and the Intermission’s WNBA coverage returns. Before the break we saw the MVP race heat up, some contenders falter, and some struggling teams find their rhythm. Regular season play resumes on August 15th with a full slate of six games back-to-back, kicking off with the Chicago Sky hosting the Seattle Storm on ABC and the Connecticut Sun facing the Dallas Wings on ESPN 3. Next up at 6 PM ET we have the Washington Mystics against the Las Vegas Aces on League Pass and the Atlanta Dream face off against the GOAT herself Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Suns on CBS. The Minnesota Lynx take on the New York Liberty at 7 PM ET on Facebook and finishing off the night is the Indiana Fever against the Los Angeles Sparks at 9 PM ET. It’s going to be a full day but if you set up your devices and screens accordingly, you shouldn’t have to choose between games. Basketball is not over folks!
We're headed into the home stretch of the season with the trade deadline approaching on August 21st; so far there hasn't been a lot of chatter but that is expected to heat up in the coming weeks. Trade SZN is always hot so keep refreshing your Twitter feeds. The postseason is approaching quickly and there are a lot of teams jockeying for position in the standings. The regular season ends on September 19th and the first round of single-elimination first-round games begins on September 23rd. We’re just over a month away from the playoffs so buckle up for a wild ride.
Let’s dive into what to watch for this second half of the 2021 WNBA season, it’s sure to be exciting.
Commissioner’s Cup Final
(Twitter via @seattlestorm)
The season first kicks off with the final of the Commissioner’s Cup between the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun on August 12th on Amazon Prime Video. The Commissioner’s Cup is a new addition to the schedule that doesn't necessarily mean anything special from a standings perspective, but there is a sizable cash prize, a very nice trophy, and the bragging rights. The Sun would love to get a win over the Storm having lost their previous two matchups. Watch MVP front runner and Eurobasket Champ Jonquel Jones try to continue her tour de force against former MVP and always in the conversation Breanna Stewart.. The Storm sent six members of their roster to the Olympics; Sue Bird, Stewart and Jewell Lloyd went and played for Team USA’s Women’s Basketball Team while forward Katie Lou Samuelson was set to go on behalf of Team USA’s inaugural 3-on-3 event; Stephanie Talbot and Ezi Magbegor played for their home country of Australia. Fatigue may be a factor for the Storm, but so will the motivation of returning home with gold medals for many of them.
The Olympians Return
(Twitter via @WNBA)
Team USA solidified their dynasty with another gold medal led by Las Vegas Ace’s Forward and reigning WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson and coached by the legendary Dawn Staley. As always, they were stacked with All-Star and Hall of Fame talent, all on WNBA rosters. The American’s weren’t the only ones to send players abroad; Australia had five members of their national squad on WNBA rosters, followed by Canada with three, while there were also a number of players who have been on WNBA rosters at various times such as New York’s Marine Johannes of France and Washington’s Emma Meesseman playing for Belgium. These players represented six WNBA franchises and while not all of them medaled at the games, many of them had strong performances that they will be hoping to build on upon returning. For everyone else, the Olympic break provided an opportunity for rest and rehab. The WNBA season is a gruelling race from start to finish and this time is necessary for players, and it has provided the chance for a few to hopefully come back from injury. Teams will be looking for players with fresh legs to help lead the push down the final stretch of the season.
The postseason is approaching quickly and the standings are packed tight. As things currently stand, the Seattle Storm are sitting atop the league and the Washington Mystics are clinging to the final playoff berth in eighth. Things are far from settled, however. The Storm are only three games up on fourth place in the standings, and while they have been dominant, they cannot afford to falter with the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun hot on their heels. As mentioned above, the results of the Commissioner’s Cup final between Seattle and Connecticut are important to a contentious fight for seeding. Seeding is important in the WNBA as the top two seeds get double byes and the next two get first-round byes; this means the top four seeds skip the single-elimination games of the first two rounds.
Chicago is sitting in the fifth spot at .500 and looking to continue the hot streak they went into the Olympic break riding. Legend and hometown hero Candace Parker returned to Chicago, hoping to help the perennial playoff team get on the plane of winning championships, but it's been a difficult season. While Parker was out with injuries, the Sky faltered to start the season but upon her return managed to tear off a series of wins. They will need to keep winning in order to improve their seeding; they are 2.5 games back from the Lynx for fourth spot, and the Sky would love to get out of at least one single-elimination game, as the early round format has not been kind to them of late. New York is a young and feisty team trying to hold onto their playoff spot; they may not be serious title contenders, but they shouldn’t be underestimated either. Hot on their heels are the Phoenix Mercury, led by veteran stars Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins-Smith and of course, Diana Taurasi. They’ll need budding star Kia Nurse to continue to find her stride and Taurasi to stay healthy if they want to hold off the Mystics and keep their spot in the standings. The Washington Mystics are just two seasons removed from winning a title and while they are clinging to the final playoff spot, they cannot be written off yet. Superstar Elena Delle Donne is set to return from injury, guard Natasha Cloud returned from an ankle injury before the break, and forward Emma Meesseman possibly returning from overseas give the Mystics some hope of climbing the standings, but they are in this position right now in no small part because of Herculean performances by their MVP candidate Tina Charles.
(Twitter via @wslam)
At the halfway point of the season, it's a good time to check in on the MVP race. There has been no shortage of standout performances this season with new faces emerging and some familiar ones continuing to dominate. Players like New York’s Betnijah Laney have burst onto the scene, with Laney becoming a first-time All-Star and establishing herself as one of the best scorers in the league. New York is sitting sixth in the league and is going to be relying on her continuing to deliver. Reigning MVP A’ja Wilson started the defence of her title and continued to dominate into the Olympics. Her Las Vegas Aces are sitting near the top of the league and are looking to make a return to the finals and there is no doubt A’ja wants to add a WNBA Championship trophy to her gold medal. She may not have won MVP at the Olympics, but she is certainly in the hunt. Rounding out the rest of the list are two other former MVPs in Breanna Stewart and Tina Charles, as well as the Bahamian Beast herself Jonquel Jones. Stewart has had a strong second season since coming back from an Achilles tear and is looking to snag her second MVP award with the Storm sitting atop the standings. Also returning to form is Mystics star, Tina Charles. The Mystics have had a rocky season so far, barely hanging onto a postseason berth, but Charles has shown she is still a force to be reckoned with. She leads the league in scoring and is looking to win her first championship this season. The return of 2019 Elena Delle Donne will only help Charles remain in MVP form and the Mystics could very easily go on a run. Battling Charles for the scoring title, Connecticut Sun star Jonquel Jones has been on a tear this season; not many centers can regularly make step-back threes and make it look easy. Jones has been the engine that is driving Connecticut to third in the league and they are looking to get back to the finals after their 2019 appearance. It’s a heated race that will no doubt come down to the wire.
Atlanta Dream Coaching Changes
(Twitter via @AtlantaDream)
Back before the beginning of the season Atlanta Dream head coach, Nikki Collen found herself with the opportunity to become the bench boss at Baylor University, following the departure of Kim Mulkey to LSU. Head coaching changes in sports are normal, but this came as something of a surprise to many as there had been no real indication of change coming. It was a decision that was made amicably and with the support of her Dream players, leaving assistant coach Mike Petersen as interim head coach, along with the other assistant coach Darius Taylor. Well, just a few short months later and Darius Taylor is now the head coach of the Atlanta Dream. Mike Petersen announced on July 25th that he was stepping away for health reasons, effective immediately, with Petersen moving into an advisory role and Darius Taylor would be taking over. Atlanta is in a precarious position, 2.5 games out of the playoff race and now with their third coach this season. Alongside his departure, they have also lost Cheyenne Parker to a recent pregnancy announcement and the indefinite suspension of their young budding star guard in Chennedy “Hollywood” Carter. They have had a putrid 2-11 record since the start of June and hoping that Taylor can help them right the ship.
Elena Delle Donne Returns
(Twitter via @WashMystics)
It’s been mentioned above, but Elena Delle Donne returning is a big deal. The 2019 MVP has recently returned to practice for the first time since that 2019 campaign that saw her win her first WNBA title. Delle Donne has spent nearly two years recovering from three herniated discs in her back that she suffered during those finals and the two-time MVP spoke to the media for the first time on August 9th. She was open about her struggles, often wondering if she would live pain-free or even play basketball again. Delle Donne has returned to full contact, five on five practice, and while her reps are being limited by the Mystics, she is showing strong signs of being able to return to the court. The Mystics medical team will be re-evaluating her later to determine whether she can begin to travel with the team as they head out to the West Coast to start the second half of the season. Delle Donne elaborated on the difficulties of rehab and it is encouraging to see her on the mend officially. The Mystics are hoping their superstar can make it back on the floor to pair with their other former MVP in Charles; they have a talented core that should be able to compete for titles, but Delle Donne is an important piece in that puzzle and Mystics coaches, players and fans are all pleased to see this progress. On a larger level, it is always positive to see players return from serious injuries as no one wants to see someone in that position. The game is better when the best players are healthy and playing.
The excitement never dies in the WNBA and the 2021 season has not disappointed so far; the second half certainly won’t either.