Liberty steal Game 1 from Sky: Can they complete the upset?
The Liberty need just one more win to send the reigning champions home.
A lot has gone down in the WNBA since the unprecedented bubble season ended in October. Rosters have turned over, stars have switched teams, injuries have taken their toll and draft picks are ready to make their mark.
It all amounts to what could be one of the most entertaining seasons in the WNBA’s 25th year.
With limited preseason games this year, it’s hard to project where every team stands heading into the season openers Friday night. But based on what we’ve seen and heard out of training camps, here are our inaugural WNBA power rankings for the 2021 season.
Check back every week for updated rankings and fresh analysis as the games unfold. (Note: Records in parentheses indicate those from the 2020 regular season.)
12. Indiana Fever (6-16)
It’s been five years since the Fever last made the WNBA playoffs. Their chances of breaking that drought this season are riding on their defense. In 2020, Indiana gave up 89.5 points per game to opponents, the most in the league. Teaira McCowan has been a menace on the boards in each of her two WNBA seasons, averaging 8.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in that span, but she can’t do it alone.
Kelsey Mitchell is in line for a breakout year offensively, Julie Allemand is one of the best distributors in the league, and No. 4 draft pick Kysre Gondrezick should get plenty of chances to produce. Can they put it all together to bring playoff basketball back to Indiana? The rebuild might need one more year.
11. Atlanta Dream (7-15)
The team that gave up the most points next to the Fever? That would be the Dream, who surrendered 87.6 points per game in the bubble and recorded their second-straight losing season. Now, their head coach is gone (with Nicki Collen taking the job at Baylor in the middle of training camp) and they’ll be starting the season under interim head coach Mike Petersen while the front office searches for Collen’s permanent replacement.
Along with the turnover at the top comes many new faces on the roster. Tianna Hawkins, Cheyenne Parker and Odyssey Sims will bring much-needed veteran experience, while Elizabeth Williams and Tiffany Hayes bring stability. The biggest X-factors will be second-year player Chennedy Carter and No. 3 pick Aari McDonald, who could blow by teams in transition.
10. Dallas Wings (8-14)
The Wings will be one of the most intriguing teams in the league this season. They came one Mystics loss away from making the playoffs last year, and the young players who led them there are now one year older. How quickly their four rookies adjust to the league will go a long way toward their ability to break the franchise’s two-year playoff drought.
Those chances largely rest on the shooting hand of Arike Ogunbowale, who led the WNBA last season with 22.8 points per game. First-year head coach Vickie Johnson will be looking to her to run the offense. No. 1 pick Charli Collier, who posted a double-double in Dallas’ only preseason game, and second-year forward Satou Sabally (when she returns from German national team duties) will carry a heavy load in the paint.
9. New York Liberty (2-20)
Here’s where the power rankings get particularly interesting. I’m not yet convinced the Liberty, a team with many moving parts under a second-year head coach, are ready to contend with the best teams in the league. That said, they have just the tools to prove me wrong.
Sabrina Ionescu recorded barely 2 ½ games of play before going down with an ankle injury last season, but her numbers in that span were a scary sign of what’s to come — 18.3 points, 4.0 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. 2020 Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard now enter the picture to make this team formidable on both sides of the ball. How effective their supporting cast is — notably, rookies Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards, as well as Jazmine Jones and Layshia Clarendon — will be the difference-maker for the Liberty.
8. Washington Mystics (9-13)
The season-ending foot injury Alysha Clark suffered overseas was a devastating blow to this team. With her, the Mystics would have more insurance while Elena Delle Donne eases into game shape after undergoing two back surgeries in the past year. Now, how quickly Delle Donne can get back to her old MVP self will likely determine the Mystics’ postseason path two years after they won it all.
The return of emotional leader Natasha Cloud, who sat out last season to focus on social justice initiatives at home, is key for this team. She’s joined by Tina Charles, the seven-time All-Star suiting up for Washington for the first time, and 2020 offensive leaders Myisha Hines-Allen and Ariel Atkins. Emma Meesseman, the 2019 Finals MVP, remains an unrestricted free agent and said she will not return to the WNBA until after the Olympics, if at all.
7. Los Angeles Sparks (15-7)
The Sparks will be an interesting case study this season in team chemistry. The past few years, they have had the individual talent to go the distance but were ousted from the playoffs in the second round or semifinals. Gone this season are Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray, and in their place are Erica Wheeler and Amanda Zahui B. While less proven stars, Wheeler had a breakout 2019 season and Zahui B. recorded her best season as a pro in 2020.
If they mesh well with Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver in coach Derek Fisher’s system, the Sparks could be a force to be reckoned with in the WNBA. Also keep an eye on second-year guard Te’a Cooper and No. 7 pick Jasmine Walker, who dropped 23 points and drained 7-of-11 3-pointers in Los Angeles’ final preseason game.
6. Phoenix Mercury (13-9)
The Mercury had a target on their back last season after adding Skylar Diggins-Smith in free agency and forming a Big 3 with her, Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner. They got off to a slow start, losing seven of their first 13 games in the bubble. Then Phoenix hit its stride in late August, riding Taurasi’s hot hand to a six-game win streak and a spot in the playoffs. It offered a sign of what this team can be in 2021.
Making the Mercury even more dangerous this year is their supporting cast. Bria Hartley is coming off a season in which she recorded career highs in nearly every category, and Kia Nurse joins the team after three steady years with the Liberty and one All-Star nod. Guard Sophie Cunningham and forward Alanna Smith also provide a spark off the bench.
5. Chicago Sky (12-10)
The Sky could easily move into the upper tier of the power rankings if they perform to the level they’re capable of on paper. Candace Parker, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, will immediately draw defenders and take some of the pressure off Chicago’s playmakers and sharpshooters, like Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. Diamond DeShields is healthy and primed to return to her All-Star form from 2019.
The question remaining for the Sky is whether they can win when the stakes are highest. Despite having good teams and winning records the past two years, they haven’t advanced past the second round, losing by 13 points to the Sun in the first round last season.
4. Connecticut Sun (10-12)
The Sun like to use a perceived lack of respect as a motivational tactic, and for the past two years, it’s worked out quite well for them. They have a case for beating that drum again this season with the way free agency has people talking about the other top teams.
Connecticut will have to adjust to the loss of Alyssa Thomas, who’s out indefinitely with a torn Achilles tendon after dominating in the playoffs last season. This team gets a huge boost, however, with the return of Jonquel Jones, a two-time WNBA All-Star who’s been overseas winning EuroLeague championships with UMMC Ekaterinburg. The combination of Jones, DeWanna Bonner and Jasmine Thomas has me liking the Sun’s chances in 2021.
3. Minnesota Lynx (14-8)
The Lynx have been the most consistently good team in the WNBA in the past decade, and it doesn’t look like that trend is changing anytime soon. If there’s one thing that held the Lynx back last season, it was that they didn’t have enough offensive weapons to spread defenses out and score enough points to beat the best teams. That showed in the semifinals, where they were swept 3-0 by Seattle.
This year, Minnesota welcomes Kayla McBride and Aerial Powers to an already potent lineup led by six-time All-Star Sylvia Fowles and reigning Rookies of the Year Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield. McBride and Powers each shot over 34.0 percent from 3 last season, giving the Lynx two more threats from deep along with Rachel Banham and Bridget Carleton. Minnesota also has Damiris Dantas coming off her best year in the league and 2020 second-round pick Jessica Shepard returning from an ACL injury.
2. Las Vegas Aces (18-4)
The Aces were without Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum last season and still made a run at the WNBA championship. That was in large part because of A’ja Wilson, who put up ridiculous numbers (20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.0 blocks per game) in her MVP season.
Now, the Aces return Cambage and Plum and have free-agent signee Chelsea Gray to run the offense alongside 2019 No. 1 pick Jackie Young. Angel McCoughtry’s season-ending ACL and meniscus tear is a tough blow for this team, but Las Vegas has the depth to overcome it. Two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby should lead the effort off the bench.
1. Seattle Storm (18-4)
The Storm lost a few key players from their championship team in the offseason, but I am not buying that those roster shake-ups will set them back this year. If not for Wilson’s dominant 2020 season, Breanna Stewart likely would have won her second MVP trophy. She leads Seattle’s title defense and is only 26 years old.
Sue Bird, meanwhile, is 40 and on the backend of her career, but she’s still dishing out assists. Jewell Loyd was a more efficient shooter last season, averaging 44.3 percent from the field and 39.0 percent from deep, and Jordin Canada continues to be a steady contributor. The Storm will miss Alysha Clark and Natasha Howard, but they’ve patched holes with additions like Candice Dupree and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, and third-year player Ezi Magbegor’s tantalizing potential could come to fruition this year.
The Liberty need just one more win to send the reigning champions home.
New York leads Chicago 1-0 in the series.
The Aces won 79-63 to open the playoff series.
Williams has a massive social media audience on Instagram and TikTok.
Get a rundown of the top highlights, stories, and events in women’s sports, including can’t-miss games and exclusive features.
Enter the JWS Bracket Challenge for your chance to win $150,000.