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WNBA playoffs: Contenders and pretenders for 2023 championship

The Liberty and Aces are the two frontrunners for the 2023 WNBA championship. (David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images)

New York, Las Vegas and Connecticut have all secured a playoff spot as the 2023 WNBA postseason approaches.

With five playoff spots remaining and less than a month until the regular season ends, some teams have a legitimate shot at hoisting the trophy, while others should begin focusing on the 2024 draft.


Las Vegas Aces

The defending champions have the highest win percentage (.879) in the league and have remained relatively consistent throughout the season. They’ve had their share of challenges, with a season-ending injury to Candace Parker making the biggest impact. Fatigue could also hurt the Aces in the long run, as they only have Alysha Clark playing consistent minutes off the bench. A short rotation was a weakness for Las Vegas last season as well, and it didn’t end up mattering in their run to the WNBA championship.

The Aces are a true title contender because of their starting five, led by reigning WNBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year A’ja Wilson. She’s taken on an even bigger role since Parker went out, recording a career-high 53 points (which also tied the WNBA record) in a win over Atlanta on Tuesday. Wilson is Las Vegas’ anchor, but she’s surrounded by talented guards in Jackie Young, Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum.

The Aces have both an explosive offense and a solid defense, leading them to win their games by an average of 13.6 points.

New York Liberty

Between New York and Las Vegas, it’s difficult to determine the true favorite to win the title. With the Commissioner’s Cup championship game factored in, the Liberty and Aces have split their season series with two wins apiece. They play one more time in the regular season, matching up on Aug. 28 in New York.

Like the Aces, the Liberty have a lethal starting five. Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Sabrina Ionescu, Courtney Vandersloot and Betnijah Laney are the reason the Liberty were dubbed a superteam heading into the season. That group alone makes the Liberty a contender, with different players capable of going off on any given night. But where New York stands out from the rest of the league is in its bench play.

Headlining the talented secondary unit is Marine Johannès, whose 17 points in 14 minutes of play propelled New York to the Commissioner’s Cup title. Kayla Thornton provides a lift off the bench, often on the defensive end, and Stefanie Dolson and Nyara Sabally are also viable depth options. In a playoff series, the Liberty’ deep and talented bench gives them a major advantage over their opponents.

Arike Ogunbowale has the talent to lead Dallas on a deep playoff run. (Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)

Dallas Wings

Las Vegas and New York are the top contenders to win the WNBA championship, but there is a world in which Dallas could pull off an upset. The Wings are capable of getting hot and erupting on offense, currently third in the WNBA with 86.9 points per game.

Dallas is led by Satou Sabally and Arike Ogunbowale, who are exactly the type of players that can help a team make a playoff run. Sabally is a walking mismatch who can get up and down the court and score from inside, outside and the midrange. Ogunbowale is fifth in the league in scoring at 21 points per game, and she is known for her ability to hit high-pressure, contested shots. Her assist numbers (4.6 per game) are also at an all-time high as her offense continues to evolve.

Outside of Sabally and Ogunbowale, Dallas has a scary frontcourt, with veteran Natasha Howard and 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan starting, and 6-7 Kalani Brown coming off the bench. There are few teams in the league that can compete with the size and strength of the Wings inside.

Connecticut Sun

The Sun are the third-best team in the league based on record, but they’ll have to play nearly perfect basketball to win a championship, especially without an injured Brionna Jones. They do have the personnel to pull it off, as one of two teams in the league that have topped both Las Vegas and New York this season (Dallas is the second).

Connecticut is led by the WNBA’s triple-double machine, Alyssa Thomas, who is averaging 15.7 points, 10 rebounds and 7.9 assists per game, and DeWanna Bonner, who at 36 is having the best season of her career with 17.8 points per game. And without Jones, Tiffany Hayes has developed into a solid third scoring option.

DiJonai Carrington brings a spark off the bench, and Rebecca Allen has the ability to go on a scoring streak, but the Sun’s real strength is on the defensive end. They give up just 78.7 points per game and snag 8.2 steals per game, both of which lead the WNBA. If Connecticut puts together a top-tier defensive showing throughout the playoffs, and shooters like Bonner and Allen get hot — and stay hot — they have a chance.

Natasha Cloud is one of few Mystics players to log 30 games this season. (David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)


Washington Mystics

Even if everyone is healthy when the playoffs start, the Mystics haven’t had enough time on the court together to gel as a unit. On paper, the Mystics look like contenders, with Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Shakira Austin and Brittney Sykes, who is having a breakout season. But with nearly every player having missed significant time this season, time is running out. Right now, the question isn’t if the Mystics can contend, but if they can make the playoffs at all. The top eight teams in the league earn postseason bids, and Washington is currently seventh.

Chicago Sky

The Sky were always going to need time to adjust to losing a core group that included Parker and Vandersloot, but the departure of head coach and GM James Wade in the middle of the season put them in an even more challenging position. Currently in ninth place at 13-20, the Sky need to go on a run to end the regular season if they want to make a postseason appearance.

Indiana Fever

In last place, the Fever are nearly out of playoff contention with a 9-24 record. They made strides this year, and No. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston is a franchise cornerstone going forward, but Indiana never learned how to win despite being in close contests all season. It’s time for the Fever to turn their attention to the 2024 draft.

Seattle Storm

In 10th place, the Storm are almost out of the playoff picture as well, which was expected after losing Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird in the offseason. Now, Seattle needs to use the offseason to convince Jewell Loyd — who leads the league in scoring at 24.1 points per game — to re-sign with the organization in free agency. Without her, the rebuild becomes even more daunting.

Phoenix Mercury

There have been some bright spots for Phoenix this year, most notably the return of Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi surpassing 10,000 career points, but making a postseason run has never seemed in the cards with how the season has gone. After parting ways with head coach Vanessa Nygaard early in the season, the Mercury have a lot of rebuilding to do, including their relationship with veteran guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.

Los Angeles Sparks

The Sparks are close to figuring it all out, even with the injuries they’ve endured all season. They’re in the midst of a five-game winning streak that included a win over the Aces. Curt Miller is moving the team in the right direction, building around Nneka Ogwumike and facilitating breakout seasons from players like Jordin Canada and Karlie Samuelson as the team pushes for a spot in the playoffs. This isn’t the Sparks’ year, but they are making positive strides for the future.

Napheesa Collier is having a career-best season after returning from pregnancy. (Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Somewhere in between

Minnesota Lynx and Atlanta Dream

While not true contenders, the Lynx and the Dream don’t fall into the pretenders category, either. Both teams are capable of winning a series and making things interesting in the next round.

The Lynx are hitting their stride, despite a complicated situation with Aerial Powers. Napheesa Collier is having the best season of her career, averaging 21.5 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Rookies Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhász are settling into their roles, and veterans like Kayla McBride have served as a steadying force. The Lynx are much improved since their 0-6 start to the season, and even better than they were last month. Take Tuesday’s win over Dallas: A month ago, the Lynx lost by 40 points to the Wings; on Tuesday, they showed poise in a testy contest to pull off the win.

Meanwhile, Atlanta has talented players who can compete on any given night. All-Stars Rhyne Howard, Allisha Gray and Cheyenne Parker will always give the Dream a chance in games. Whether they can turn that potential into playoff series wins depends on their consistency.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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