The WNBA is officially back for a 24th season inside the affectionately named “Wubble.”
The shortened, 22-game regular season tips off Saturday, July 25th in Bradenton Florida, with an intriguing matchup between Seattle and New York. While all twelve teams are present in the wubble, players had the option to opt out. Like the NWSL, the players negotiated with the WNBA to earn their full contracted salaries, but, unlike the NWSL, those who opt out will only receive those salaries if they’re considered to be “at-risk” for health complications from Covid-19.
While some players have opted out for health reasons, others have opted out to focus their time on advocacy. WNBA players have already proven their ability to effect change, with Maya Moore opting out of the past two seasons to help overturn the conviction of Jonathan Irons. This season, Natasha Cloud, Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes have joined Moore to lend their voice to Black Lives Matter and other issues.
Even those who chose not to step away will still have the opportunity to support the movement. Black Lives Matter will feature prominently on every court, “Say Her Name” will be written on pregame warmup shirts, and custom jerseys will include a patch honoring Breonna Taylor.
“We have always been at the forefront of initiatives with strong support of #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, the LGBTQ+ community, gun control, voting rights, #MeToo, mental health and the list goes on,” said Nneka Ogwumike, the player’s union president. “This is not only necessary from a humanitarian perspective, but it may be one of the biggest opportunities that this league has and will ever have.”
While we can’t know ahead of time what the WNBA will accomplish through its Justice Movement platform and the player-led Social Justice Council, our bet is: a lot.
Sticking with Ogwumike, her sister and Los Angeles Sparks teammate Chiney was one player who opted out due to injury concerns. Outside of Chiney, however, the Sparks retain much of their core, with a big three of Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and Nneka Ogwumike leading the way. Parker missed 12 games last season with an injury and scored just 11.2 points per game, well below her career average 17. Now healthy, Parker should become a favorite target for Gray, who is coming off her first All-WNBA First Team honor after ranking second in the league in assists last season.
While Los Angeles chose to keep none of its own draftees, New York took the opposite approach, signing a whopping seven rookies to its 2020 roster. At the head of the class is No. 1 pick and potential superstar Sabrina Ionescu. Everyone in the league wants to know if or how quickly Ionescu’s triple-double prowess will translate in the pros. But surrounded by fellow rookies, and with a first-year head coach in Walt Hopkins, it might be wise to temper expectations as we wait to see whether this group can gel. Any positive momentum they’re able to generate would be enormous heading into 2021.
The Dallas Wings are another franchise that will look to assemble a new team on the fly. After finishing as runner-up for Rookie of the Year, Arike Ogunbowale will now pair with second overall draft pick Satou Sabally as the core of a young squad. With the addition of Tyasha Harris in the draft, Ogunbowale will be able to move off the ball to find better looks. The trade for Katie Lou Samuelson should also open up the court even more. Given their youth, though, the most important question is what kind of chemistry the team can foster while bunkered down at IMG.
In a slightly different situation, the Phoenix Mercury have their own chemistry to work on, as they work to integrate a new big three in Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith. Coming off a 15-19 season and a playoff berth in 2019, the Mercury traded three first-round draft picks for Diggins-Smith, a three-time All-WNBA selection whose addition immediately elevates this already-talented team.
Griner has been on the cusp of an MVP award her entire career, and after averaging over 20 points per game for the third year straight finished second in last season’s voting. Most importantly, after being limited to six games last season, Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer, should be back to full strength.
Speaking of GOATs, the Seattle Storm have their own returning to the court. On the strength of Sue Bird as well as 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart, the Storm were unanimously voted the top team in the AP power poll heading into the Wubble. That same panel selected Stewart as the AP preseason player of the year as she comes back from an Achilles’ tendon tear. Bird missed last season recovering from knee surgery. If both Natasha Howard, who last season averaged five more points per game than her previous best, and Jewell Loyd play to their potential, Seattle will have a long run in the Wubble. For Seattle, it all depends on how well these stars mesh, and how quickly.
When Tamika Catchings was named the GM of the Indiana Fever, the organization was hoping for a quick turnaround. After three straight seasons missing the playoffs since Catchings retired and a 28-74 overall record, Marianne Stanley took over on the bench. This is a franchise with pedigree and a WNBA record for most consecutive playoff appearances with 12 straight from 2005 to 2016. Candice Dupree is not merely a veteran presence, she also put up 11.6 PPG in a little over 30 minutes per contest last year. Coupled with an up-and-coming star in Teaira McCowan, who last season ranked second in the league in rebounds and 10th in blocks, Indiana has a lot to like. Kelsey Mitchell will grow more in her third season, while rookie Lauren Cox can be an immediate contributor.
The two teams mentioned before, Indiana and Seattle, have done something no other WNBA franchise has: make the playoffs for 10 straight seasons. The Minnesota Lynx are just one season away from reaching double digits and have already won four championships in that stretch. Pushing the season count to 10, and the title count to five, would cement the Lynx dynasty. Last year, in what was a down year for Sylvia Fowles, she posted her lowest scoring average since coming to Minnesota, but still finished third in the league for rebounds and tied for seventh in blocks.
Starting every regular season game and playing a league-high 33.3 minutes per game as a rookie, Napheesa Collier averaged 13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.91 steals and 0.94 blocked shots. The reigning Rookie of the Year was a steal at sixth in the draft, but as a team captain will see her role grow in year two. The Lynx are hoping either this year’s sixth pick, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, or Crystal Dangerfield, who fell to 16, will be the season’s surprise rookie.
If we are talking about history, then the Washington Mystics have a chance to make their own. No team has repeated as champions since 2002, when the Sparks ended their two year run on top. Before that, the Houston Comets’ dynasty won four straight. Since then, no one has found the magic sauce. Washington will have to ask itself, what does it take to repeat? The recipe likely doesn’t start with roster turnover, which is what the Mystics are facing. Although Elena Delle Donne was controversially denied a medical exemption for being “at-risk,” she will not play in 2020. Tina Charles has been medically exempted, Kristi Toliver was traded in the offseason, and both Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders have opted out, leaving just Ariel Atkins from the starting five in the title-clinching Game 5. Emma Meesseman is capable of a starting role but the roster flux has to dampen any expectations of back-to-back titles.
The team that pushed Washington to a Game 5, the Connecticut Sun, are facing a similar year of potential turbulence. Without the presence, or 14.6 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, of Jonquel Jones, the Sun will turn to a Thomas and Thomas pair. Last season, Alyssa Thomas was named an All-Star and Second Team All-Defense, both for the second time, despite playing through torn labrums in both shoulders. In the playoffs, she added four points per game to her regular season average and doubled her assists per game. That toughness and clutch performing will be crucial in the sprint-like season. Right there alongside her is Jasmine Thomas. All over the league leaderboards in 2019, Thomas ranked sixth in assists and eighth in steals. The trade for DeWanna Bonner could result in a high-powered big three, but the jury is still out on how well their games will complement.
The Chicago Sky would love to have a player like Jasmine Thomas, who has been named to the All-Defensive team three years straight. Protecting the basket remains a concern for the Sky. While Chicago scored the second most points in the league last season, they also allowed the second most on defense. Some of that can be attributed to their pace of play and the extra possessions it generates for their opponents (which explains why the team was 11th in total points allowed but eighth in defensive rating), but that is still not good enough. The core of Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley and Stefanie Dolson all re-signed and Diamond DeShields and Gabby Williams are still on their rookie contracts. The biggest additions are Azurá Stevens, Sydney Colson and rookie Ruthy Hebard, who should all see minutes as they complement the core group. Both the old and the new will need to come together to shore up the defense.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Atlanta Dream, who finished at the bottom of the league in scoring. With the added burden that the top three scorers from last season are either sitting out, as is the case for Hayes and Renee Montgomery, or were traded, as was Brittney Sykes, the Dream are now tasked with finding a new identity. Just two players are returning from the team that finished 8-26 and at the bottom of the league last season. Despite the almost entirely new roster, there is a chance the outcome is the same. Neither Monique Billings or Elizabeth Williams are natural players to build around. Billings averaged 5.5 points and 6.9 rebounds in her second season and Williams is now three years removed from her 2017 All-Star season. A lot rests on the shoulders of Chennedy Carter, who left college a year early to become the franchise’s highest draft pick since Angel McCoughtry in 2009. Carter is a prolific scorer who was reliable for 21.3 points per game at Texas A&M. As a rookie, she’ll be asked to carry the team, and where she goes, so will Atlanta.
The loss of McCoughtry for Atlanta is a gain for the Las Vegas Aces. McCoughtry has been one of the top scorers in the league since her rookie season in 2009, but it has been almost two years since her last All-Star appearance. A’ja Wilson could have an MVP-type year after a sparkling 2019 season in which she averaged 20.7 points and eight rebounds a game with a 28.9% usage rate. While Kelsey Plum, a former first overall pick, will miss the season with a torn Achilles, 2019 first pick Jackie Young could find a bigger role in her second season. Meanwhile, Liz Cambage’s decision to opt out of the season will give 2019 Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby an opportunity to start. An interesting note is that despite a league-best 36.7% 3-point percentage last year, the Aces attempted just 15.0 3-pointers per game, the fewest in the league. That could change this year. With an abundance of talent, the biggest question for the Aces is how quickly they can find the right balance to exploit it.
Finally, plenty of us are simply wondering: what is Wubble life like? And how will players cope as days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months of isolated basketball? Some of the players kids’ various exploits have been revealed, but this unique season will certainly leave plenty of people wanting to know more, and some of most intriguing storylines may end up being those off the court.
Regardless, expect a season of surprises — let’s just hope they’re mostly the fun kind.