WNBA filled with unusual parity at All-Star break

LAS VEGAS — Even this late in July of the WNBA season, no team has solidly staked its claim as the favorite. Does that make things more fun, or just kind of chaotic?

Some years by around the All-Star Game, there has been a clear front-runner. Other times, two or three teams have had a definite edge over the pack. But 2019 has a different feel, not unlike a short-track speedskating race in which the winner may just be the lone competitor who can avoid wiping out.

Las Vegas’ Bill Laimbeer, who coached Team (A’ja) Wilson in the All-Star Game, sees this as just a cycle the WNBA is going through.

“The whole league is in transition, and it started last year,” Laimbeer said. “Every league goes through this, and it lasts a few years. Then somebody establishes themselves. The perennials like Minnesota have gone down. The Sparks are not the same cohesive unit that they were. Phoenix has gotten older. Some teams are dipping, and other teams are still learning how to win.”

Granted, there are six weeks to go in the regular season. So by the end, teams may separate themselves. Right now, they’re very compacted.

Over the WNBA’s first 22 years, the average margin between the best and worst teams in the league by the end of the regular season was 18.4 games. Between the best and worst playoff teams, it was 9.7 games.

Right now, just 8.5 games separate the first- and last-place teams, with 3.5 between the best and worst in playoff position.

In first place are Connecticut and Las Vegas at 13-6. Just behind them is Washington at 12-6. Los Angeles and Chicago are 11-8, and defending champion Seattle is 12-9. Phoenix is 10-8. Then there is the last team currently in playoff position: four-time WNBA champion Minnesota, which is eighth at 10-10. Yet the Lynx have reason for hope, too.

“Even though our record might not be what we want it to me, and we’re not playing as well as we’d like, we’re still right there,” Lynx rookie forward Napheesa Collier said. “It’s still really anyone’s game, at this point.”

Collier was at the All-Star Game as a replacement player for one of the captains, Las Vegas’ Wilson, who suffered a sprained ankle on July 19 and is out an indeterminate time. That’s one of the many injuries that have hit the league, none bigger than the torn Achilles’ tendon suffered overseas in April by last season’s MVP, Seattle forward Breanna Stewart.

The Storm are also without point guard Sue Bird (knee), and it’s not known when/if she will return. Seattle guard Jewell Loyd missed seven games with an ankle injury, although she is back and was an All-Star.

Minnesota’s Maya Moore is taking a break from basketball. The other members of the “core four” who led the Lynx to their titles aren’t playing, either: Lindsay Whalen retired, while Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson are injured. Augustus is on the roster, but has yet to play. Brunson may not play again.

Atlanta star Angel McCoughtry hasn’t played this season after suffering a torn ACL last year. Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, the league’s all-time leading scorer, has appeared in just one game this season (July 12) after undergoing back surgery. She tweaked her back again in that game, and her status is uncertain. The Mercury also have Sancho Lyttle and Essence Carson out with injury.

Dallas’ Skylar Diggins-Smith has not played this season after giving birth. Los Angeles veterans Candace Parker, a two-time MVP, and Alana Beard each have been limited to seven games due to injuries. The Sparks also lost guard Riquna Williams to a 10-game suspension on July 16 because of a domestic violence incident she is facing charges for in Florida.

“I’m not sure I’ve seen a year where the impact of change — mostly by injury — has affected so many teams,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “And change for some other reasons, too. Usually by about All-Star break, there’s a team or two where you’re saying, ‘If they stay healthy, they’re definitely separating.’ But this year, it’s still really ‘to be determined.'”

Who should benefit the most from the parity? Washington might be considered as close as there is to a favorite, with the Mystics’ experience in making the WNBA Finals last season, having an MVP-caliber player in Elena Delle Donne, and their chemistry.

“We want to continue to build on what we’ve been doing,” said Delle Donne, the other All-Star captain. “We have a multifaceted team, and our bench has been huge for us. If we can continue to improve defensively and rebounding, we know we can score the ball.”

Washington’s Mike Thibault, coach of Team Delle Donne, said he doesn’t necessarily see this season as an indication that anything is wrong or lacking in the WNBA, despite the large number of star players who are out.

“I just think there are so many good young players that have come into the league the last few years, we’ve had teams lifted quickly,” Thibault said. “A team like Vegas, that had three No. 1 picks in a row and then made a big trade [for Liz Cambage]. Our team has a blend of veterans and young players. Chicago seems to be on the rise.

“Seattle’s younger players learned how to win last year. So even though they’re missing some key players now, there are other ones who are really good. I think the league is as talented as it’s ever been. Yes, the injuries have happened. But it means there are still a bunch of good young players filling those spots.”

Maybe Thibault’s assessment sounds too rosy, but it seems likely the season will end with an exciting stretch run. Teams like Washington and Connecticut, which have never won a league championship, will vie to get one of the top two spots and the double bye into the postseason semifinals that comes with that.

The Aces seek that, too. They are in their second season in Las Vegas, but the organization hasn’t been in the playoffs since 2014, when it was still in San Antonio. The franchise, which started as an original WNBA team in 1997 in Utah, also has never won a title.

So the WNBA may get a first-time winner this year. Or a team such as Los Angeles or Phoenix may get healthy and then go on a postseason run fueled by their experience. Right now, a lot of scenarios sound plausible.

“It’s been kind of weird,” Phoenix All-Star center Brittney Griner said. “There’s been a lot of injuries. And it’s been hard for teams to break out of that bunched-up mosh pit. After All-Star, I think this is when teams start to break away or fall back. We definitely want to be one of the ones who breaks free.”

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