It’s that time again.
Time for Internet trolls to take up arms against anything that threatens their masculinity, and, much more important, time for basketball fans for settle in for a month of high-level play.
Yes, we’re talking about the WNBA playoffs, which begin just before football gets serious and conclude as the baseball season winds down – and this year’s version should be both hotly contested and very entertaining.
Obviously, compressing a full season, and a quarter-century’s worth of history, into one brief preview will leave out a lot, but here are five reasons to pay attention to the 2022 WNBA playoffs.
1. The game. Having watched the WNBA since day one, I can say with assurance that the quality of play has never been better. The players are skilled, physical, athletic and motivated, and you will see the same kind of intensity and focus in these playoffs as you did during the NBA version.
No, there won’t be any dunks, and there will be a few more turnovers, but if you like to watch good basketball, the WNBA playoffs are worth your time. (Granted, some of the announcers are annoying, but that’s true of any sport, it seems. Pro tip: When you see Holly Rowe on the screen, just hit the mute button.)
2. The stars. It’s the last rodeo for Seattle’s Sue Bird, who’s still a top-level point guard at age 41. She’s certainly not the player she was in her prime, but she can still run a game, still hit the open three and still make some youngsters look silly.
The best point guard in the league – and in the world, for that matter – is Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot. She led the Sky to the WNBA title last year, and if anything, is playing even better this season. Aside from shooting 36.7% from three-point distance, she has a 2.4 assist/turnover ratio and like all great players, has the knack of hitting shots when her team needs them the most.
Las Vegas, which tied Chicago for the league’s best record at 26-10, is led by reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, a smooth 6-4 post who averaged 19.4 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. But Wilson has serious competition in this year’s MVP race from Seattle’s Breanna Stewart, who averaged 21.8 points a game to lead the league in scoring, and also added 7.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game. And the 6-4 Stewart is an outstanding three-point shooter (37.9%) which makes her almost impossible to defend.
And the last player I’ll mention – but hardly the last player worth mentioning – is Elena Delle Donne, a 6-5 scoring machine who has had to battle a bad back throughout her career. When she’s 100%, the Washington Mystics can beat anyone, and her minutes have been managed all season to have her ready to go for the postseason.
3. The format. The WNBA is constantly tinkering with its postseason format, which unfortunately allows eight of the 12 teams to qualify for the playoffs. The first-round series are all best-of-three, but because of the league’s issues with travel – charter flights are way too expensive for most teams to afford – the first two games of the three-game series will be on the higher seed’s home court.
Ideally, the format would have the higher seed at home for the first and potentially decisive third game, but the logistical and financial demands of a 1-1-1 structure rule it out. So yes, the third game could be played in the lower seed’s back yard, which is not what anyone wants – but it’s the way it is.
4. The favorites. Last year, the Sky were the sixth seed and won it all, and this year, it would be no surprise if any of the top five were to walk away with the trophy.
As mentioned, Las Vegas and Chicago have the best records at 26-10, but Connecticut is right behind with 25 wins. Seattle and Washington both finished with 22, but both of these teams rested their veterans more in hopes of being in top form for postseason.
Dallas (18-18), New York (16-20) and Phoenix (15-21) fill out the bracket, and though it’s possible one might pull a huge upset and win an opening-round series, the chances of any of them getting to the finals are very low. Still, all are fun to watch and will not be eliminated without a fight.
At this point, it’s traditional to pick the winner, but really, the five top teams are all very good, all with many strengths, and all with a few weaknesses -- which are: Las Vegas lost one of its best players to injury (Derica Hamby); Connecticut has size but is shaky at the point; Chicago turns the ball over a little too much and isn’t consistent from beyond the arc; Seattle doesn’t rebound well; and Washington is heavily reliant on the fragile Delle Donne.
If you took out the thumbscrew, I’d go with Las Vegas, but nothing will come easy for anyone in what should be a tremendous few weeks of high-end basketball.
5. The future. The WNBA survives because of its TV deals, and it’s expected the next one will be large enough to increase salaries significantly so that a) American players don’t have to go to Europe to make most of their money, and b) the elite Europeans will be more likely to play in the WNBA because it will be worth their while.
That said, happy talk has always dominated predictions about the WNBA, and the fact that its franchises have essentially no value is a limiting factor on its future growth. It is not, however, going away, much as the Internet trolls would like it to, and if its weaker franchises start relocating to more welcoming homes (such as the San Francisco Bay Area), it will only get better.
And ask any serious basketball fan who’s been watching in 2022, and they’ll tell you this: If you like good basketball, you’ll love the WNBA.
(Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com)