The WNBA is back to kick off another season on Friday, and the FiveThirtyEight WNBA predictions are back as well, forecasting the outcome of each game and the season as a whole. This season projects to be a tight one, as our model sees three teams — the Connecticut Sun, Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces — with a 15 percent or better chance to win it all this fall.
So what might set each of the 12 teams apart this year? To be clear, there are plenty of variables that will help determine the champion in this half-marathon (36 games! The most yet!), half-sprint (season ends Aug. 14, weeks earlier than usual, to accommodate the calendar for international competition). But I’ve identified one key stat for each team that just might determine how far it goes.
Boiling it down to just one stat is no easy task,1 but it may provide a proper on-ramp for the season.
Connecticut Sun: Turnover percentage
It was a mixed blessing of a season for Curt Miller’s team in 2021. The Sun finished with a 26-6 record and held distinct title favorite status entering the playoffs, only to lose to the eventual-champion Chicago Sky in the WNBA semifinals. Most of the vital members of that team, including 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones, are back, while Alyssa Thomas will be available for a full season this time around.
Which brings us to an area a 26-6 team might improve: taking care of the basketball. The Sun finished ahead of only the offensive devil-may-care New York Liberty in turnover percentage last season, and while the Liberty played up-tempo, the Sun finished last in pace by a wide margin, amplifying the impact of every lost possession. While Briann January will be missed on the defensive end, her turnover percentage of 22.1 percent ranked second-highest among Sun rotation players last year, behind only the now-waived Beatrice Mompremier, and January’s minutes will largely be taken by Courtney Williams, who has always taken care of the basketball well and posted a career-best rate of 9.2 percent in 2021.
Las Vegas Aces: Three-point attempts
The new regime under Becky Hammon has telegraphed that this is not your older, gruffer-coached Las Vegas Aces (much as those of us who appreciate a pithy quote will miss Bill Laimbeer). The Aces averaged 13.5 3-point attempts per game last season, easily the lowest rate in the league, and that came despite elite shooters on hand in Riquna Williams, Kelsey Plum and Chelsea Gray, who all shot north of 38 percent from deep last season.
Hammon has an NBA staff and a modern NBA approach we’re already seeing.
This will matter both in how it improves the Aces’ offensive efficiency on the offensive end and how, combined with the departure of Liz Cambage, it creates more space for 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson.
Minnesota Lynx: Assist percentage
The Lynx are coming off a season in which they complemented their typically elite defense with a top-five offense, finishing 22-10 behind a balanced attack led by Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier. But Cheryl Reeve’s team will be without Collier for at least part of the season due to her pregnancy, and that may not be the biggest change in how the roster operates.
The Lynx announced on Tuesday that Layshia Clarendon and Crystal Dangerfield, among others, had been waived. Clarendon’s 37.3 assist percentage led the team by a wide margin, while Dangerfield was third and Collier was, perhaps surprisingly, second on the team in total assists. So the Lynx’s offensive approach is undergoing a massive change. Expect more of Rachel Banham directing traffic and plenty of experimentation by the always-innovative Reeve.
Seattle Storm: Rebounding percentage
The Storm were enormously effective at scoring the ball in 2021, and they defended at an elite level, but they were bounced out of the playoffs after a single game in part because they were outrebounded 48-39 in their matchup against the Mercury. It was a seasonlong limitation, with only Cierra Burdick, who did not return in 2022, and Breanna Stewart, who is asked to do so many other things as well, north of 15 percent in total rebounding percentage, while the team finished seventh in the league.
It’s not a prerequisite to success in Seattle — the Storm were middle of the league in the stat both regular seasons they won titles in 2018 and 2020 — but it became far better once the playoffs arrived. Seattle would certainly increase its margin for error if it could get more on the boards from people like Mercedes Russell, Ezi Magbegor and just-signed Reshanda Gray.
Phoenix Mercury: Brianna Turner’s production
There are far more important aspects to the detainment of Brittney Griner in Russia than its effect on the court. But it is undeniable that, in Griner’s absence, the Phoenix Mercury are going to need more production from Brianna Turner, their starting center. There are reasons for optimism — for instance, Turner took a career-high 6.1 shots per game in 2021, her third straight year of getting more involved offensively.
But still, the Mercury will be missing Griner’s MVP-level contributions for an unknown period of time, and defenses can overplay Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith on the perimeter until and unless Turner makes them pay a price inside for doing so. Newly acquired Tina Charles will take on plenty of the load, too, and she can stretch defenses. But Turner must complement her by playing the true 5 she can be as we all await the safe return of Griner.
Chicago Sky: Net rating
What’s fascinating about the Chicago Sky’s playoff run was just how out of the blue it was. The Sky dominated the 2021 playoffs, with a 10.8 net rating over the 10 games that culminated in a championship. But during the regular season? The Sky were a true .500 team, 16-16 with a 1.5 net rating and got even worse during the stretch run: Their net rating in their final 15 games was -1.4, and it was -7.1 in their final five.
Flags fly forever, of course, and the Sky kept most of their championship core intact while adding Emma Meesseman, no stranger to playoff heroics herself. But it is worth asking: Did the Chicago Sky just enjoy a hot streak at the right time? Or did they finally found their true, elite level? Net rating in the 2022 regular season just might tell us.
Dallas Wings: Share of points in the paint
I could also go with defensive stats like rim protection here, but the biggest question is just how much prized acquisition Teaira McCowan changes the way Dallas plays on offense. The Wings were 10th in the league in percentage of points in the paint last year, and among rotation players, only Bella Alarie, who is sitting out the 2022 season, took at least half her field goal attempts from 0 to 3 feet.
McCowan took a whopping 64.2 percent of her shots from 3 feet and in. She is a true 5, the likes of which very few other WNBA teams have, and her impact on the Wings will be considerable. How much it improves them over 14-18 last year will be determined by their big bet on McCowan, who has been extremely effective in her WNBA minutes so far.
New York Liberty: Games played, Sabrina Ionescu
Look, sometimes the stat-based take doesn’t require much of a deep dive. Sabrina Ionescu was drafted by the New York Liberty in 2020 to lead the franchise, and we sadly still haven’t gotten to see, really, what that looks like. She dominated in three games her rookie season, then was lost for the year with an ankle injury. She came back hobbled in 2021 and played through pain, pushing herself too hard, she told us on media day, yet still tied with Sami Whitcomb for the best net rating on/off mark on the team.
Ionescu said she now understands how to properly rest herself to stay ready for the rigors of a WNBA season, and while Natasha Howard’s health, Betnijah Laney’s continued two-way excellence and, yes, Whitcomb’s incredibly underrated play will all matter, the Liberty are a championship contender if and only if Ionescu is the player they drafted. If healthy, she will be. We just need to see it.
Washington Mystics: Games played, Elena Delle Donne
Look, this one is even easier. The Mystics were 18.1 points per 100 possessions better with Delle Donne on the court than off the court in the 2019 title-winning season. Without her in 2020, Washington went 9-13. In 2021, she played only 52 minutes, and the Mystics were 35.8 points per 100 possessions better with her on the court than off it, and Washington missed the playoffs.
Alysha Clark’s return matters, too. Ariel Atkins is an All-Star two-way wing. Natasha Cloud is one of the best point guards in the league. But if Delle Donne, a generational player, is on the floor, the Mystics can play with anyone. Without her, it’s not clear that they can even make the playoffs.
Los Angeles Sparks: Offensive rating
This we know: As long as assistant coach Latricia Trammell is directing things on the defensive end, the Los Angeles Sparks will stymie opponents. Players change, but L.A. is hard to score on, year after year.
But offensively? The team was fourth in 2019, sixth in 2020 and last in 2021. Head coach and general manager Derek Fisher dramatically revamped the roster in the offseason, adding the all-time single-game scoring record holder in center Liz Cambage, an exciting combo guard in Chennedy Carter and a capable shooter in Katie Lou Samuelson. The parts are all in place for a dramatic leap forward inoffensive production. How they come together will dictate whether the Sparks return to contention or find themselves in the Aliyah Boston lottery next offseason.
Atlanta Dream: Rhyne Howard’s numbers
This season is not about contending for the Atlanta Dream, barring some improbable events. Instead, it is about finding out what they have in Rhyne Howard, the top overall pick in the 2022 draft. Will her numbers look like they did at Kentucky, with elite steal and block rates as an opportunistic wing at one end, and a combination of finishing skills and stretching the floor at the other end? Or will this be a process requiring more patience?
The same will be true for last year’s top pick by Atlanta, point guard Aari McDonald, who will be given the keys to the offense, and Naz Hillmon, a sleeper pick to help the Dream up front for years to come. And ultimately, a lot of how this project goes for new GM Dan Padover will come down to whether the ping-pong balls land in the right position next fall to provide Atlanta a chance to draft Aliyah Boston. But whether these three can fit next to her — or play well enough to overcome a lottery outcome other than the Dream’s … dream — will be determined by what they do this season.
Indiana Fever: Three-person on/off rating, NaLyssa Smith, Emily Engstler, Kelsey Mitchell
This one is hyper-specific, too: The Fever are in a full rebuild under new interim general manager Lin Dunn, and it showed on draft night. In the first two rounds, Indiana kept its picks and selected at 2, 4, 6, 10 and 20. NaLyssa Smith and Emily Engstler were the lottery picks, and the franchise needs to build around its star, Kelsey Mitchell, a ray of sunshine amid the clouds over Indianapolis who just signed to a multi-year contract.
There are reasons to think this will work — both Smith and Engstler profile as true two-way, multi-talented stars with skill sets to complement Mitchell’s. It’ll be a bonus if Lexie Hull, the sixth pick, is an effective shooter off the bench, and if Queen Egbo, the 10th pick, can develop into a rim-runner by the end of the season. The potential steal of the draft at pick No. 20, Destanni Henderson, earned a roster spot over veteran point guard Lindsay Allen and has a chance to learn from the brilliant veteran Danielle Robinson.
Indiana would also like to get that top pick and select Boston in 2023, of course. But their 2022 draft selections, should they pan out the way Dunn believes they will, offer them a path forward even if they don’t win next year’s lottery.