Hockey is almost over, and the NBA is basically done, so now all we have to look forward to over these impending hot summer months is a World Cup, the ability to blast Bad Girls out of our apartment windows, and some goddamn WNBA basketball. That last thing starts tonight, folks! Let’s get to the preview.
I’m a stubborn traditionalist when it comes to basketball league alignments, so even though WNBA’s playoff system makes conference affiliation irrelevant, I’ll go through all the teams in the bad conference first (the East) and then the good one after that (take a guess). Teams are listed in order of their record last year, because there’s no way in hell I’m going to get bitten by the same season-preview gimmick that had Islanders fans chirping at me all NHL season. Here we go:
The Eastern Conference
2018 record: 23-11
2018 All-Star: Angel McCoughtry
What makes them cool? After sitting out 2017 to rest, and then picking up a knee injury during the 2018 season that puts her 2019 in doubt, too, Angel McCoughtry’s era in Atlanta may have anticlimactically come to an end. But the slightly younger Dream guard Tiffany Hayes has shown that she can fill the void and become the new top dog.
Hayes, now entering her age-29 season, averaged a career high 17.2 points per game last year with the Dream while upping her defense to become one of the best two-way guards in the game. Want proof? Her steal and halfcourt buzzer beater against the Sun last season was maybe the WNBA highlight of the year. Hayes is a ferocious, aggressive player who doesn’t mind driving into the paint to earn buckets against bigger opponents, and she’s got the toughness and confidence necessary to handle the extra attention that comes from being the team’s top option.
Why won’t they win the title? History shows that the Dream are undeniably a worse team without McCoughtry’s contributions, even if they did fight hard without her in that five-game semifinal against the Mystics last year. Hayes certainly has what it takes to keep them interesting, and players in their mid-20s like Brittney Sykes and center Elizabeth Williams may not have hit their ceiling yet. But nobody the Dream picked up in the offseason can replicate McCoughtry, and that signals at least a slight dropoff for a team that might have overachieved in 2018.
2018 record: 22-12
2018 All-Stars: Kristi Toliver, Elena Delle Donne
What makes them cool? With Breanna Stewart likely out for the season with a torn Achilles, Elena Delle Donne has a legit claim to stake as the best healthy player in the world. A powerhouse forward who’s nearly impossible to guard one-on-one, Delle Donne boasts both the strength to score ugly inside and some impressive outside shooting accuracy for her 6-foot-5 frame. Entering her third season with the Mystics, she’s hungry for a better ending than last year, when a knee injury suffered in the semis kept her below 100 percent and prevented the Mystics from winning any games off the Storm in the Finals.
The superstar is aided at point guard by Wizards assistant coach Kristi Toliver, who’s averaged double-digit scoring every year since 2011. In the frontcourt, there’s a formidable big duo of 32-year-old LaToya Sanders, who broke out in 2018 after a WNBA career defined by injuries and outside obligations, and Emma Meesseman, who returns to the Mystics after missing 2018 to represent Belgium in the FIBA World Cup.
Why won’t they win the title? Whoa whoa whoa, don’t be so negative so fast. The Mystics came just three wins away from glory last year, and that was with Delle Donne playing at less than full health. Their nemeses, the Storm, are seriously hobbled by their own injury problems now, and Washington has to be psyched up to kick some ass in 2019 now that they’ve tasted real disappointment. First place in the East certainly won’t be their main goal, but if the Mystics (and by “the Mystics” I mean Delle Donne) stay healthy, it’s hard to see how this conference could be controlled by any other team.
2018 record: 21-13
2018 All-Star: Chiney Ogwumike (Gone! Traded to Los Angeles!)
What makes them cool? The outlook in Connecticut is nowhere near as bleak as the above line might lead you to believe. Yes, the Sun’s top scorer and best player used her leverage to force a trade with the Sparks that netted Connecticut a first-round pick. But this opens up an opportunity. The Sun were overstocked in the front court, and the reunion of the Ogwumike sisters in LA opens up a slot once again for reigning Sixth Woman of the Year Jonquel Jones in the starting lineup. Jones is a totally illogical player, in the best possible way. The 25-year-old shot an impeccable 46.7 percent from three last year (second-best in the league), and led her team in blocked shots. She’s a silky smooth 6-foot-6 sniper, and there remains plenty of supporting talent to maintain the Sun’s upward trajectory.
Why won’t they win the title? Since 2013, the Sun have won the same number of playoff games as the St. Louis Spin, and one of those teams doesn’t exist. The Sun could be good, but before their plans get too grand, they’ll need to prove they can outlast the Phoenix Mercury in the postseason, which they failed to do in both 2017 and 2018.
2018 record: 13-21
2018 All-Star: Allie Quigley
What makes them cool? Gah, this is quite a steep drop. The Sky were the worst defensive team in the league by a mile (or, like, 4.4 points per game) last season, and any talent that’s going to turn them around is still pretty raw. James Wade, formerly an assistant with the Lynx, is the new head coach tasked with molding these mounds of potential into something workable on the court.
If there’s a player to watch here, it’s not the 32-year-old Quigley, whose All-Star nod comes mostly from goodwill built up after a strong 2017 campaign. Really, she wasn’t even the best Sky player in her own marriage, as Courtney Vandersloot puppeteered the offense with a record-breaking 258 assists. Diamond DeShields, the rookie who finished second on the team in scoring last season, is probably the Sky’s best hope to become a generational cornerstone. She occasionally makes some flashy passes and always wears some cool-ass glasses. Just arrived is Katie Lou Samuelson, the fourth overall pick out of UConn, who bolsters the three-point shooting of a team that wasn’t hurting from beyond the arc to begin with.
Why won’t they win the title? If I were feeling mean, I’d make some sort of wisecrack about how Samuelson is cursed to never ever play for a championship. But really, the Sky just still haven’t proven they can win without Elena Delle Donne.
New York Liberty
2018 record: 7-27
2018 All-Star: Tina Charles
What makes them cool? No more James Dolan! After a series of dumb missteps, including an infuriating move out of MSG and into White Plains, the Liberty finally shook off their awful owner this past offseason. Unfortunately, now New York has to pay attention to their problems on the court, where they missed out on the playoffs last year for the first time since 2014.
Nobody scored points for the Liberty in 2018 besides former MVP center Tina Charles, who took more than twice as many shots as any of her teammates. But joining the franchise this summer is second-overall pick Asia Durr, who is just what this group needed. There was no better pure scorer in this year’s draft; Durr dominated at Louisville with 21.4 points per game her senior year. On multiple occasions as a Cardinal, anchored by fearless three-point shooting, Durr even went off for 47. For more novelty/long-term project value, there’s also Han Xu, the 19-year-old second-rounder from China who, at 6-foot-9, will be one of the tallest players in WNBA history.
Why won’t they win the title? The Liberty ended the season on a 13-game losing streak. How ’bout we dream a little smaller?
2018 record: 6-28
2018 All-Stars: *Frowny Face*
What makes them cool? Only their top draft pick, Teaira McCowan. The Fever were terrible at getting rebounds and blocking shots last season, but lucky for them, those are McCowan’s specialty. The 6-foot-7 McCowan was monstrous at Mississippi State, an automatic double-double who harnessed her raw gifts with intelligence and efficiency. She won’t be enough to make the Fever good, but at least they won’t be a joke as long as she’s on the court.
Why won’t they win the title? Aside from Canadian center Natalie Achonwa, the Fever’s most efficient scorer, there’s almost nothing else of any value in Indianapolis. Even the most biased, optimistic Hoosier would have a tough time predicting a playoff appearance for this cellar-dwelling Fever group.
The Western Conference
2018 record: 26-8
2018 All-Stars: Sue Bird (Injured! Bad knee!), Breanna Stewart (Injured! Torn Achilles!) Jewell Loyd (Functioning properly! Everything is fine!)
What makes them cool? If the defending champs somehow manage a repeat in 2019, it’ll actually be a feel-good story about a scrappy underdog overcoming major adversity. Between their takedown of the Mystics in last year’s Finals and now, MVP Breanna Stewart tore her Achilles while playing for a Russian team, and cold-blooded Sue Bird injured her knee badly enough to put her season in doubt, too.
As shitty as it is to be robbed of Stewart’s masterful play and Bird’s opportunity to continue what’s been a mind-blowing final act, the onus now falls on Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd to salvage this lost season. Howard, a quick and versatile big who broke out last year after getting traded from the Lynx, is better at blocking shots than anyone not named Griner, and showed she could carry the offense under pressure when she got a career-high 29 points to go with 14 boards in Game 3 of the Finals. Loyd, the obvious second scoring option with Stewart off the court, still has room to grow at just 25 years old, but she’ll have to work hard both to continue improving her efficiency and to just create good shots minus the passing of Bird and without the MVP attracting so much defensive attention
Why won’t they win the title? I don’t care how much anyone wants to sell me on young back-up point guard Jordin Canada, this is an ICU masquerading as a defending champion basketball team. It sucks, but it’s true. Maybe they’ll at least get a great draft pick out of all this misfortune.
2018 record: 20-14
2018 All-Stars: Diana Taurasi (Wounded! Back surgery!), DeWanna Bonner, Brittney Griner
What makes them cool? The Mercury’s Big Three will start the season as a Big Two, and center Brittney Griner and forward DeWanna Bonner will be forced to score the lion’s share of points until Diana Taurasi fully recovers. Nobody aside from that trio averaged even eight points per game for Phoenix last season, but even with no depth, they made it within a game of the WNBA Finals. Having three of the WNBA’s top eight players by win shares means the role players can just sit back and watch without feeling any guilt.
Griner is unstoppable close to the basket, that much has been common knowledge all decade. But Bonner’s 2018, her comeback year after having twins, was also another in a long line of reliably good-to-great seasons that the 31-year-old has put up for Phoenix over her career. Bonner averaged 17.3 points a game, led the team in steals, and despite being five inches shorter than her teammate, her rebounding is almost as good as Griner’s. She’s a more flexible compliment to Griner’s inside power, with the ability to play any position from the 2 to the 4 and excel.
Why won’t they win the title? I mean, the Mercury do have a shot, and even if Taurasi isn’t 100 percent, they should still easily make the playoffs. A top scorer and cutthroat leader is a hell of a lot to replace, though, and outside of their incredible tall duo, it’s unclear who else on Phoenix can be an effective, consistent presence.
Los Angeles Sparks
2018 record: 19-15
2018 All-Stars: Chelsea Gray, Nneka Ogwumike, Candace Parker (Hamstrung!)
What makes them cool? A lot! Their trade with the Sun for Chiney Ogwumike gives the Sparks a duo of All-Star sisters to fill out a fearsome lineup that includes big and strong point guard Chelsea Gray, future Hall of Famer Candace Parker (when she heals), and back-to-back reigning Defensive POY Alana Beard. The 26-year-old Gray, in particular, has been a joy to watch as she’s come into her own over the past two years, presenting matchup problems no matter who tries to guard her.
But the reunion of the Ogwumikes will be everyone’s focus throughout this Sparks season. Chiney’s missed a couple of full seasons in the recent past due to injury, but when healthy—like she was in 2018—she’s a dynamite offensive rebounder who just doesn’t miss her shots around the rim. It might take a bit of juggling and some trial-and-error for new head coach Derek Fisher to figure out exactly how best to use his frontcourt-focused trio of Parker, Chiney, and Nneka, but there’s no doubt at all that the talent in LA is overwhelming.
Why won’t they win the title? This is yet another very good team whose high expectations are tempered slightly by poor health. Much like the Mercury with Taurasi, if Parker can’t come back and play at the level we’ve come to expect, the Sparks will probably still make the postseason, but their status as title threats becomes significantly less serious.
2018 record: 18-16
2018 All-Stars: Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore (Taking a break!), Rebekkah Brunson (Concussed), Sylvia Fowles
What makes them cool? Mainly Fowles, who’s still an absurdly dominant big even as the rest of this ex-dynasty starts to dissolve around her. Last year, the Lynx didn’t win a playoff game for the first time since 2010, and while they can’t be fully dismissed just yet, their future hopes took a massive blow when leading scorer Maya Moore announced she’d sit out the 2019 season to focus on other aspects of her life.
The Lynx did attempt a bit of a makeover with an active offseason, bringing in promising young players like Stephanie Talbot and Damiris Dantas. But they all revolve around Fowles, probably the second-best two-way player in the game after only Breanna Stewart. As Minnesota’s center, Fowles averaged 17.7 points per game and led the league in both field goal percentage and rebounding last year, blowing the competition out of the water in that last category by beating the next best player (Liz Cambage) by 2.2 boards per game. She’ll be a double-team magnet in 2019, even more than she already was, but those defenses may have to try triple-teams before they can begin to dent her abilities.
Why won’t they win the title? Without Moore or the retired Lindsay Whalen or maybe Brunson, too, and with the 35-year-old Augustus winding down her career, this could be a tough transitional year for the Lynx. Don’t expect too much.
2018 record: 15-19
2018 All-Stars: Liz Cambage (Departed! Traded to Las Vegas), Skylar Diggins-Smith (Still here but just had a kid, so we’ll see!)
What makes them cool? Oh Christ, don’t make me do this. Um. Probably the only cool thing about the Dallas Wings is that they singlehandedly set loose a fearsome, fun new contender out West, giving up the final year of Liz Cambage’s contract to the Aces for peanuts in return. I’ll talk more about the WNBA’s best big directly below, but with the Aussie now in Vegas and with Skylar Diggins-Smith’s season debut date still a question mark, the only particularly compelling woman on this roster is rookie Arike Ogunbowale. The former Fighting Irish and fifth-overall pick brings big-game experience and a weird Kobe fetish to what’s otherwise an apathetic shrug of a franchise.
Why won’t they win the title? Stop wasting my time!
Las Vegas Aces
2018 record: 14-20
2018 All-Stars: Kayla McBride, A’ja Wilson
What makes them cool? There’s a reason I saved them for last! Don’t let the uninspiring 2018 win-loss total fool you, this is an honest-to-god superteam. Not only did the Aces take their first steps into competitiveness last year under head coach Bill Laimbeer, they got so much more insanely better than any other team this offseason that they might be the actual favorites to win it all.
The rise from the dead began last year with the arrival of rookie big A’ja Wilson from South Carolina—she immediately became one of the best scorers in the league. Averaging 20.7 per game, Wilson lightened the load of the Aces’ only other decent scorer, Kayla McBride, and along with 2017 first-overall pick Kelsey Plum, the Aces had a promising core to try to make the playoffs for the first time since they were the San Antonio Stars and it was 2014.
But that was only the start. The Aces won the lottery this offseason and used their third straight first-overall pick to add Notre Dame’s Jackie Young, an all-around skilled small forward. Then, they pulled the trigger on an earthshaking, lopsided trade for Liz Cambage. Cambage, a dominant scorer who just played her first WNBA season since 2013 (she’s loudly voiced her preference for playing elsewhere) and set a new scoring record with a 53-point game for Dallas in 2018. Together with Wilson, she’ll form a terrifying frontcourt that rivals even the Mercury. There’s no guarantee that Cambage sticks around in America, however, so enjoy this incredible team while it lasts.
Why won’t they win the title? The fuck are you talking about? Worst to first, baby! Hop on the dang bandwagon and watch these Aces take it home.