After more than three months of jockeying for position, four of the eight playoff-bound WNBA teams will begin their postseasons on Wednesday. As the No. 5 through No. 8 seeds, Chicago, Seattle, Minnesota and Phoenix will face off in two single-elimination games. The reward for the winners is another single-elimination game on Sunday against No. 3 seed Los Angeles or No. 4 seed Las Vegas. In the past few seasons, this playoff format has produced several upsets, including Washington over New York in 2017 (courtesy of nine 3-pointers from Kristi Toliver) and Phoenix over Connecticut in both 2017 and 2018 (courtesy of Diana Taurasi, who sports a career 13-1 record in playoff-deciding games).
Meanwhile, atop the bracket, Washington and Connecticut secured double-byes, skipping the single-elimination games, and they now await the winners of the first two rounds for their best-of-five semifinal series.
Let’s take a look at each of the eight playoff teams, starting with the four in action Wednesday and progressing to the title favorites.
No. 8 Phoenix Mercury
15-19, 4-6 in past 10 games
The Mercury still have Taurasi, arguably the greatest WNBA player of all time, but she is recovering from back surgery and is “day-to-day for the foreseeable future,” according to High Post Hoops’ Brendon Kleen. And, unlike the previous two seasons, the Mercury will start the playoffs on the road, where they went only 6-11 this season. To make another run to the WNBA semifinals, the Mercury will likely need a big performance from 6-foot-9 All-WNBA center Brittney Griner, who is averaging 20.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season while shooting 56.4 percent from the floor. Forward DeWanna Bonner, the Mercury’s other 2019 All-Star, will also need to be efficient on offense. She has carried the team at times this season and averages 17.2 points per game, but she has struggled with efficiency, shooting only 38 percent from the floor, including 27 percent on 3-pointers. An X-factor for Phoenix could be the experience of head coach Sandy Brondello, who has 17 career WNBA playoff wins and knows a thing or two about being the underdog from coaching Team Australia against the United States. Don’t be surprised if she has a trick or two up her sleeve.
No. 7 Minnesota Lynx
18-16, 6-4 in past 10 games
If you believe in the phenomenon of “odd-year teams,” Minnesota should be your bet to win it all in 2019, as the Lynx won WNBA titles in 2011, 2013, 2015, and 2017. But head coach Cheryl Reeve’s team wasn’t even a surefire playoff team at the start of the year, returning only three players from 2018 (a fourth, Temi Fagbenle, rejoined the team midway through the 2019 season) and adding nine through the draft, free agency and trades. Center Sylvia Fowles (13.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG), point guard Odyssey Sims (14.5 PPG, 5.4 APG) and potential WNBA Rookie of the Year forward Napheesa Collier (13.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG) have been Minnesota’s Big Three this season, and they will likely need to play like it to get Minnesota to the semifinals. The other crucial stat for the Lynx will be turnovers, which have been their Achilles’ heel all season. They turn the ball over on 20.5 percent of their possessions, which ranks last in the league, and surrender more than 16 points per game off of those turnovers. Those numbers will almost certainly need to improve for the Lynx to advance.
No. 6 Seattle Storm
18-16, 5-5 in past 10 games
The Storm are the defending champions, but they have an entirely new look in 2019 after seasonlong injuries to stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. They can struggle on offense, ranking ninth in offensive rating, but are perhaps the most exciting team in the league to watch on defense. Point guard Jordin Canada and forward Natasha Howard rank first and second in the WNBA in steals per game, which fuels the Storm’s 17.3 points per game off of turnovers, good for the third-best mark in the league. Howard also ranks third in the league in blocks with 1.7 per game, making her the first WNBA player to rank in the top three in steals and blocks per game since Yolanda Griffith in 1999. Watching Seattle is even more exciting because it usually means seeing relatively few stoppages in play; despite playing such an aggressive defense, the Storm both commit the second-fewest fouls and draw the second-fewest fouls in the league, per 100 possessions. The Storm’s road to a championship looks quite different than it did last season, when they were the No. 1 seed, but tough defense, a talented point guard and a potential First Team All-WNBA forward aren’t a bad place to start.
No. 5 Chicago Sky
20-14, 6-4 in past 10 games
Behind first-year head coach James Wade and point guard Courtney Vandersloot, the Sky surprised many onlookers by challenging for a top-4 seed. The Sky’s strength is its backcourt: Its top three scorers are starting guards Diamond DeShields, Allie Quigley and Vandersloot. Vandersloot also recently broke her own WNBA record for assists in a season — finishing with an even 300 — and averages 11.2 points, 9.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. With center Jantel Lavender recently suffering a season-ending injury, Wade will have to come up with a game plan for Chicago to battle inside. One blueprint might be in the Sky’s 105-78 win over Phoenix on Sept. 1: Griner scored 26 points for Phoenix, but Chicago hit more than 50 percent of its shots, had six players score in double figures and committed only six turnovers to run away with the win.
No. 4 Las Vegas Aces
21-13, 6-4 in past 10 games
Before the season started, Las Vegas was a trendy pick to win the title behind three former No. 1 draft picks, sharpshooter Kayla McBride and 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage. The team’s defense has been formidable, but the Aces have been inconsistent on offense, which may have cost them a chance at a double-bye. As SB Nation’s Mike Prada recently explained, they’ve actually been better when Cambage and starting forward A’ja Wilson — arguably the team’s top two players — are not on the court together. But the Aces made the playoffs for the first time since 2014, and they now have a chance to peak at the right time. Look for potential WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby (11.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 48.8 percent shooting) to tip a game in the Aces’ favor with her energy and versatility off the bench.
No. 3 Los Angeles Sparks
22-12, 7-3 in past 10 games
Every team this season has had to deal with players missing games, whether due to injury, the FIBA EuroBasket tournament in late June or personal reasons. For the Sparks, though, it was at a different level: The first time their entire roster was available to play was Aug. 22. So in many ways, it feels like Los Angeles’ season is just getting started. The good news is that the Sparks have three All-Star talents with championship experience in Chelsea Gray (14.5 PPG, 5.9 APG), Candace Parker (11.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.5 APG) and Nneka Ogwumike (16.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG). The bad news is that the roster is still settling in under first-year head coach Derek Fisher and, as The Athletic’s Sabreena Merchant recently detailed, the Sparks have struggled to close out games on the road. That could be a problem because the Sparks are unlikely to have home-court advantage beyond the second round. One player to watch in a potential semifinal series against Connecticut is Chiney Ogwumike, who was acquired from Connecticut shortly before the 2019 season. In three games against her former team this year, she averaged 14.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game and shot 69 percent from the field.
No. 2 Connecticut Sun
23-11, 7-3 in past 10 games
Connecticut settled for the second seed after spending several weeks atop the league standings and finishing with a 15-2 record at home, tied with Los Angeles for best in the league. That home-court advantage bodes well for them in the semifinals, as the Sun will host the first two games and a potential Game 5. What else bodes well? They cannot draw Phoenix, their playoff nemesis of late, until the WNBA Finals (and even then, it would be a best-of-five series, not a single-elimination game).
The Sun are led by center Jonquel Jones (14.6 PPG, 9.7 RPG), forward Alyssa Thomas (11.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.1 APG) and point guard Jasmine Thomas (11.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG). Guard Courtney Williams is one of the most exciting players to watch leaguewide: She grabs 5.6 rebounds per game despite standing only 5-foot-8, she can score in bunches, and she has the swagger to match her game. Backup center Theresa Plaisance could be an X-factor; Connecticut acquired her from Dallas at the trade deadline specifically to give the team the kind of veteran forward that teams like Los Angeles (Chiney Ogwumike), Washington (Tianna Hawkins, Emma Meesseman) and Las Vegas (Hamby) have on their benches. Put all of these pieces together, and the Sun have a strong chance of making their first WNBA Finals since 2005.
No. 1 Washington Mystics
26-8, 9-1 in past 10 games
You may have heard that the Washington Mystics have a good offense. That’s true, but it’s a little like saying that UConn women’s basketball head coach Geno Auriemma, an 11-time NCAA champion, is a good coach. Led by MVP front-runner Elena Delle Donne, guard Kristi Toliver, point guard Natasha Cloud and Meesseman, Washington recorded the highest points per possession (1.128), the highest effective field-goal percentage (53.6 percent) and the most assists (746) in league history over an entire season. Delle Donne became the first player in league history to shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point range, and 90 percent from the free-throw line.1 Cloud just set a new Mystics single-season assists record, and Meesseman, Hawkins and guard Aerial Powers all have credible cases for WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year. With a double-bye to the semifinals, the Mystics get a nine-day break, which they will use both to rest their bodies and to fine-tune their play on both ends of the court. That break could be just what the doctor ordered for the Mystics to win their first-ever WNBA title.