The 2021 WNBA season is here, and so are FiveThirtyEight’s new WNBA predictions.
How excited am I about this? The days each of my two children were born loom large in my memory. So does this. I won’t be answering questions at this time about how I rank those three developments.
The teams’ Elo ratings and season projections will be updated in real time after every game, so the squads will have plenty of time to prove or disprove their outlooks. In the meantime, I’d like to provide one key component to watch for each of these 12 teams that can help ensure that those at the top reach or exceed expectations, and those further down — who can print our page and use it as bulletin board material — can render our projections moot.
Let’s start in Seattle, where Elo has the Storm as a near-lock to make the playoffs and a 31 percent chance of winning it all, a total roughly equivalent to the next three highest teams on the list. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by pointing out how much of that comes from the great Breanna Stewart, who was roughly even in win shares with A’ja Wilson in the 2020 regular season, then found another level, as she so often does, in the playoffs — 0.384 win shares per 40 minutes in Seattle’s postseason rout of the league.
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No, the key will be a 21-year-old with 292 career minutes to her name: Ezi Magbegor. She’ll be asked to make up for the production at both ends of Natasha Howard, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year who now plays for the New York Liberty after an offseason trade. The early returns suggest she can — Magbegor’s talent is a reason Seattle could make that trade — but seeing her do over a full season what Howard’s been doing for half a decade will tell us quite a bit.
The Las Vegas Aces have an 84 percent chance to make the playoffs, with a 13 percent chance of winning it all. With the returns of Kelsey Plum and Liz Cambage, and the massive free-agency addition of Chelsea Gray at point guard, Bill Laimbeer’s team may have enough talent on hand to weather the loss of Kayla McBride to free agency and Angel McCoughtry to a torn ACL last Saturday.
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But tell me what A’ja Wilson’s shot chart looks like, and I’ll tell you how likely the Aces are to be hoisting a trophy. In 2019, playing with Cambage, Wilson struggled to find her own space on the floor. She got some open looks just outside the paint but really did most of her damage right at the rim, and less of it in total. In 2020, without Cambage, more of her work came from all over the paint — and she led the Aces to the Finals while winning the MVP. Gray and Plum will help with spacing, but the way Wilson and Cambage resolve who plays where will determine Las Vegas’s altitude.
Next up is the Connecticut Sun, with an 83 percent chance of making the playoffs and 12 percent to win that last game that eluded them in 2019. I deem this an appropriate level of respect for the return of Jonquel Jones, who opted out of 2020 but is one of the elite talents in the sport, and will be asked to carry the load far more than expected with Alyssa Thomas set to miss the 2021 season. DeWanna Bonner is as reliable as they come on the wing, and you could set a watch to Jasmine Thomas’s contributions, so the question is whether Briann January will return to her previous form. A playmaking guard, January is a career 38.2 percent shooter overall, 38.1 percent from three. But last season, she shot just 29.3 percent overall and 35.5 percent from deep — and defenses knew it, and adjusted, all year. I’m not willing to call 2020 determinative for anyone, let alone a longtime pro like January, but if Connecticut is going to win it all, January needs a season like her Phoenix years, if not her Indiana ones.
Out in Los Angeles, Elo has the Sparks at 77 percent likely to make the playoffs and 9 percent to win it all. Changes abound for Derek Fisher’s crew, with Candace Parker and Gray out, and Kristi Toliver, Erica Wheeler and Amanda Zahui B. in, while Chiney has once again doubled the team’s Ogwumike count after opting out of the 2020 season. And it is Chiney who will help determine the team’s ceiling. It is easy to forget that she was the top overall pick in 2014, and a two-time All-Star, because of all the other roles she’s played since. But she is still just 29 and is playing next to someone who knows her as well as anyone in her sister Nneka; the simpatico combination of those two on things like crashing the boards and finding space could unlock Los Angeles’s potential. Having Big Shot Kristi won’t hurt, either.
The Minnesota Lynx are fifth on our list, with a 77 percent chance to make the playoffs and 8 percent to nail down Cheryl Reeve’s fifth WNBA trophy. This one we’ll keep simple: Sylvia Fowles may be the best center in the history of the league. The Lynx got seven games total from her in 2020 due to injury. Yes, they are deeper at the position now — having Natalie Achonwa as a backup center is an almost embarrassing level of luxury — but Fowles is the game-changer, one of the increasingly rare traditional fives in the league, and thus an ever more difficult defensive matchup as a result. The Lynx added loads of talent this winter — McBride, Aerial Powers and Achonwa, while key young cogs like Bridget Carleton are a year more experienced. But a healthy Syl will determine Minnesota’s fate.
The Phoenix Mercury are projected at 74 percent to make the playoffs and 7 percent to deliver another trophy to Diana Taurasi’s amply populated case. Taurasi staying healthy and at the elite level she’s played at for two decades is obviously vital, and a revitalized Brittney Griner, buoyed by the lead guard skills of Skylar Diggins-Smith, presents matchup problems. But Phoenix can reach its best self with the help of Kia Nurse. Last season in New York, battling an ankle injury, the career 39.7 percent shooter entering 2020 shot just 27.3 percent from the field. Her defense will keep her as a key contributor, but this is someone who started an All-Star game as recently as 2019. To win it all, Phoenix needs Nurse to return to her previous levels of efficiency.
Out in Chicago, Elo has the Sky at 70 percent likely to make the playoffs, 6 percent to win it all. As above with Stewart, I’m not going to waste time explaining to you why the 2020 DPOY is going to help a defense that finished eighth in defensive efficiency last season. Candace Parker is a perfect fit in every way. And another former Tennessee star can learn from her in Diamond DeShields, who looked to be on the cusp of stardom in 2020 before injury and other struggles conspired to stop her — though happily, DeShields told media recently that she is happy every time she steps on the court again. Defenses asked to slow down Parker, along with the playmaking, deep-shooting marriage that is Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley in the backcourt are going to end up giving plenty of single coverage to DeShields. And that’s going to be to Chicago’s benefit.
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There’s a simple answer to how Washington can exceed its expectations — Elo has the Mystics eighth overall, 68 percent likely to make the playoffs and 5 percent to win it all. This may turn out to be low, with Tina Charles patrolling the paint and the uber-valuable Natasha Cloud back at point guard after each opted out of the 2020 season. But there’s an X-factor, and it is the 2019 MVP, Elena Delle Donne, who had multiple back surgeries last year. Simply put: She can be in the argument for best player in the league, right alongside Stewart and Wilson, if she’s healthy. If she’s healthy, there’s no chance Washington finishes eighth.
Next up is the incredible collection of bigs that are on hand in Dallas — we give the Wings a 53 percent chance to make the playoffs and 3 percent to win it all. Adding Awak Kuier and Charli Collier to a frontcourt that already featured Bella Alarie, Satou Sabally and Isabelle Harrison means there’s plenty of players to go around at the 4 and 5. But while Dallas has options at point guard as well — from underrated two-way player Marina Mabrey to Ty Harris, along with newly drafted Dana Evans — the player with the most star potential is Moriah Jefferson. The second overall pick in the 2016 draft, Jefferson has struggled with knee injuries throughout her career and played only 148 minutes last season. A healthy Jefferson, playing next to human “and-1” Arike Ogunbowale, will supercharge new coach Vickie Johnson’s offensive attack.
Next up is the Atlanta Dream, 49 percent to make the playoffs and 2 percent to win it all. I’m going to turn this over to Odyssey Sims to explain why I’m not making this about the Atlanta Dream guards: “You guys love to talk about ‘Atlanta has too many guards, how’s this gonna work, how’s this gonna work.’ I’m tired of you guys saying that, you know what I mean like, seriously like, yes we have a lot of guards,” Sims said to assembled media on Zoom Monday.
Very well, Odyssey. My key is at forward. Specifically, the three. Shekinna Stricklen was a primary target for Atlanta after the 2019 season because of her perimeter shooting — entering 2020, she was 41 percent overall, 37.5 percent from deep for her career. Those numbers were 34.1 percent overall and 33.3 percent in 2020, her first season with the Dream. The more of a threat she is, the more space Cheyenne Parker and Elizabeth Williams will have to operate in the paint, and the more room guards like Sims, Chennedy Carter and the newly drafted Aari McDonald have to penetrate.
Next comes the Indiana Fever, who are at 43 percent to make the playoffs and 2 percent to win it all. And I’ve got a relatively obscure number that I’ll be watching: how many minutes, combined, Teaira McCowan and Lauren Cox play together. If the Fever as a concept are to succeed, their two lottery picks in 2019 and 2020 need to figure out how to work together in a big lineup. And to be clear, they’ve not failed at this — they simply haven’t had a chance. Cox was injured for much of 2020, and ultimately, the two managed just 57 minutes together, and with a net rating of 17.2, third-best of any two-person combo in Indiana last season! The higher that minute total, the more those two are healthy, working well together and earning head coach Marianne Stanley’s trust.
Finally, we have the New York Liberty, which Elo has at a 26 percent chance of making the playoffs and less than 1 percent to win it all. Take heart, Liberty fans: At least this isn’t a FanGraphs-Orioles scenario.
Here’s why that seems low to me: Sabrina Ionescu. There are numerous upgrades on this New York roster, from the massive addition of Howard as a legit stretch-four star and pick-and-roll partner for Ionescu, to the two-way stylings of 2020’s Most Improved Player, Betnijah Laney, to longtime shooter and glue player for the Storm Sami Whitcomb. But even in a handful of games last season, what we saw from Ionescu was a difference-maker, and it is almost impossible to imagine a full year of Ionescu running the show for a team that then finishes last in the WNBA. The more she’s playing, the lower it will look.
And in the meantime, Elo has offered Walt Hopkins the kind of bulletin board material coaches dream of.
Check out our latest WNBA predictions.