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The WNBA Players And Teams Making Noise So Far

At approximately one-third of the way through the 2021 WNBA season, we’re learning some unexpected things about the league and its best teams and players. What will the results thus far mean for the playoff race, and who will take home the most prestigious hardware?

The Most Valuable Player race is largely a three-person contest at this point. Right now, the leader is Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, who has found her 2019 WNBA Finals form in every game. The 6-foot-6 forward is second in the league in win shares, despite missing the last game due to overseas duties for her adopted country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

What makes it likely that Jones isn’t simply playing above her ultimate ceiling in this 10-game stretch is that we’ve seen her do all of it before — just not at the same time. Her 60.9 percent accuracy from 2-point range is right in line with her 60.4 percent back in 2018. She’s hitting more than 48 percent of her threes, but she had clocked two full seasons north of 44 already. She’s second overall in rebounding percentage in the league, but neither her offensive rebounding percentage nor her defensive tally leads the league — something she’s done in two different seasons. Only her assist percentage — a robust 18.9 percent — is anything like breaking new ground for Jones, who at this point is the critical player for Connecticut. As if to prove that point, the Sun went out and lost to the Seattle Storm 89-66 on June 13, in Jones’s first game away.

Another clear MVP contender did play in that game: the Storm’s Breanna Stewart, who put up numbers in line with her season to date. She scored 22 points on 15 shots and grabbed nine rebounds, adding five assists and three steals without a single turnover.

It’s that last point that is most significant, because it represents a new level for her. Stewart has always been a careful steward of the ball, despite her point-forward role meaning it is in her hands a significant portion of the time. Stewart’s usage rate is 27.5, right in line with her career norm of 26.9, but she’s cut her turnover percentage from 13.0 last year and a career rate of 11.9 entering this year to just 5.8 this season. This puts her in Elena Delle Donne territory, eliminating one of the few identifiable gaps between the two players. If Stewart starts hitting 95 percent of her free throws, it will get even harder to tell their games apart.

Speaking of free throws, the third MVP candidate so far — last season’s winner, A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces — is hitting 94.4 percent from the charity stripe after three seasons at just under 80 percent. In all other ways, she’s largely performing as she did last season, which is remarkable from a raw production rate, given that she once again shares the frontcourt with the prodigious talents of Liz Cambage. But any concerns about the way the pair would operate jointly have dissipated, with the two posting a net rating of 10.1 in 210 minutes so far this year, far above their 2.9 mark from back in 2019. (Cambage did not play in 2020.) Yes, Cambage and Wilson rank 10th in net rating of the 12 Aces two-person lineups with at least 200 minutes played. But whether it is the optimal Las Vegas lineup isn’t the real question, and they are jointly producing at a rate that puts Vegas among the contenders. After all, when there is one ball, it helps to have as many possessions as possible to share that ball, and Vegas is playing faster than anyone in the league.

That has contributed to an overall team net rating of 12.4, best in the league and part of a tier of three teams that includes Seattle (10.9) and Connecticut (7.9 overall, but 11.5 in the games Jones was available). Surprisingly, the team in fourth is Vickie Johnson’s Dallas Wings at 2.2. 

Net rating does not determine seeding, and the fact that the WNBA appears to have three elite teams doesn’t matter either, not when a three seed and a four seed are both worth about the same under the current WNBA playoff format — a first-round bye, but a single-elimination playoff against one of the survivors of the 5-8 and 6-7 battles. The New York Liberty are currently ahead of the Wings in the pursuit of the fourth spot, part of a jumble of eight teams within 1.5 games of one another. However, the Liberty are currently navigating some residual ankle soreness from Sabrina Ionescu and the absence of Natasha Howard, as the 5–7 Chicago Sky are suddenly sending out empty injury reports and receiving the performances from Candace Parker they expected after signing her this offseason.

Several teams have clear paths into the top four. For New York, shooting the ball and finding one another is not a problem, but both rebounding and turnovers need to improve. Minnesota needs to get better at protecting the ball, and with injuries to Aerial Powers and Natalie Achonwa, figuring out the rotation is going to take some time. (If it all works and Sylvia Fowles keeps playing as she has been, she could be in the MVP conversation as well.) 

Chicago also faces a turnover issue, ranking last in the league in turnover rate, while Los Angeles simply hasn’t scored enough to take maximum advantage of assistant coach Latricia Trammell’s inspired top-five defense. Atlanta and Dallas need to improve their ability to share the ball — a consequence of Chennedy Carter’s injury and Dallas’ reliance on big-heavy lineups, respectively.

And both Washington and Phoenix simply need to find a way to make more shots — Tina Charles has been fantastic for D.C., but the overall team field-goal percentage is just 39.7 percent. The team badly misses Delle Donne, but there is still no timetable for her return. Phoenix, meanwhile, hasn’t seen bounceback 3-point shooting from Kia Nurse (or really anyone else) and is shooting just 28.5 percent from distance for the season, wasting what could otherwise be an MVP turn from Brittney Griner. Diana Taurasi cannot come back from her sternum injury soon enough for Sandy Brondello’s team. 

And then there’s the Indiana Fever, who don’t have just one component to change through 13 games of a 1-12 season, ranking 11th in offensive rating and 12th in defensive rating. Instead, the most concerning numbers out of Marianne Stanley’s roster are some minutes-per-game averages. Teaira McCowan, the lottery pick from 2019, is at 25.5, and is now coming off the bench. Lauren Cox, lottery pick in 2020, is at 8.7 minutes per game. And Kysre Gondrezick, Indiana’s lottery pick in 2021, is at 10.6.

With the math for a playoff run looking daunting, the Fever simply have to know what the future looks like around Kelsey Mitchell, the team’s one true star. That must start with seeing whether Gondrezick can play alongside Mitchell, if Cox and McCowan are a good match together in the front court, and if not, which of the two Indiana will be betting its future on. Those minute distributions, especially for the latter two, ought to rise considerably in pursuit of that goal.

Check out our latest WNBA predictions.

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.