After Seattle, Which Team Is Number Two?


If the Seattle Storm are the best team in the league, and they have certainly looked the part in jumping out to a 10-1 record, who comes next?

On Saturday, we saw Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and  Minnesota dominate with convincing victories, and at 8-2, 7-3, and 7-3 respectively, they each have a case to make as the next best team.

First, the Aces, who are on a torrid stretch for the best 10-game start in franchise history and are currently on a seven game winning streak. Las Vegas is first in the league in field goal percentage and rebounds. Meanwhile, opponents are shooting 28.7% from beyond the arc.

It’s not just defense, however, as A’ja Wilson is battling to stake her claim as the best offensive player in the game. She is averaging over 20 points per game with 8.5 rebounds, all while shooting 49% from field. The one-two punch with Angel McCoughtry has been exceptional so far. McCoughtry is sitting at 15.4 points per game and shooting 57.1% from the field.

Through the first five games, Jackie Young had just 27 points and one game in double figures. Since then, she’s figured something out, as Young has 15, 15, 17, 16, and 16 in her last five outings. All of that has come for Young while playing off the bench. If those three can continue to play at their current level, Las Vegas can challenge the Storm.

The Aces have already beaten both Los Angeles and Minnesota in the short season. The win against the Lynx came on Thursday by 10. In the game against the Sparks, Wilson and McCoughtry combined for 50 points. Young added 15 more, while the rest of the team combined for 21.

Sparks fans, however, will be quick to remember that Nneka Ogwumike didn’t play in that game, and this past Saturday was just another reminder of what she can do. She went for 17 points on 8-of-9 from the field, playing in her usual, absurdly efficient manner. On the season, the 2016 MVP is averaging 12.6 points per game.

The other (two-time) former MVP on the Sparks roster is off to another phenomenal start. Candace Parker is nearly averaging a double-double, and her 3.7 assists per game are the second most on the team. While Chelsea Gray is facilitating and scoring, she has not been as consistent a shooter as in past seasons, when she typically shot well above 40%. Some of that could just be lingering rust, and if Gray can find her stroke during the second half of the season, the Sparks could be primed for a deep playoff run.

A true title contender, Los Angeles boasts a strong starting five, depth, and an abundance of scorers. As a team, Los Angeles is second in 3-point percentage and Riquna Williams showed why on Saturday, draining 7-of-12 for 21 points. Despite playing off of the bench, she has been the team’s leading scorer, shooting 50.8% from beyond the arc, more than 10% above any season in her career. The Sparks can also turn to Seimone Augustus or Brittney Sykes off the bench for scoring, making this a well-rounded team.

Also active on defense, the Sparks are second in steals and have forced the most turnovers of any team. Because of their fast pace on offense, where they lead the league, Los Angeles is both scoring and letting up the most points of any team. The Aces are right behind the Sparks in pace, at second. And on the other end of the spectrum is Minnesota, the slowest-paced squad in the league. Rather than a defect, this speaks to the preferred style of the Lynx.

Like the Sparks, Minnesota also has a caveat for their loss to Las Vegas. Sylvia Fowles, who was putting up MVP-like numbers up to that point, missed nearly the entire game with injury. In their first game without Fowles, Minnesota had no trouble putting up points in a commanding win over the New York Liberty. The Lynx kept all five Liberty starters under double digit scoring while four of their own five starters reached that mark.

Fowles is now out indefinitely with a calf strain, after missing two games earlier in the season due to the same injury. The Lynx will need Napheesa Collier and rookie Crystal Dangerfield to step up in her absence, and so far, they have. Against the Liberty, Collier had her second straight 20+ point outing, scoring 26, one shy of her career best, while adding 13 rebounds and five assists. Dangerfield, meanwhile, scored 22 for the second-highest scoring output of her young professional career.

The Lynx, whose dynasty dominated the past decade, will need to rely on some new faces. Collier’s 14.9 points and nine rebounds per game are impressive, but she can’t be expected to drop 20 every night. And while the return of Odyssey Sims should give the team a boost, they’ll also need rookie Mikiah Herbert Harrigan to play beyond her years and for Lexie Brown to sustain what is now a career-best season.

Minnesota is leading in the categories they need to, including ranking first in offensive rebounds. Their opponents are shooting a second-worst 42.4% from the field. Still, with all the young talent, Minnesota needs to prove it can compete with and beat the best teams in the league. All three losses have come against Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, but by an average of more than 17 points.

Behind Seattle, the Sparks, Aces, and Lynx are two through four in defensive rating. And at this point, that is exactly how I would rank these four teams.