The most important thing that’s different for the WNBA’s 2016 season is that the league blew up their playoff system in the offseason, and balanced out the regular season schedule at the same time. Conferences have essentially been made irrelevant, as each team will now play every other team three times, plus one extra game against a local-ish opponent to get the total up to 34 as in other recent years.
The teams with the best eight records make the playoffs and will be seeded in order, regardless of ‘conference’. #5 hosts #8 and #6 hosts #7 in single-game elimination matchups in the first round. Then for the second round they re-seed and #3 hosts the lowest seed remaining, #4 hosts the other, in another pair of single-elimination games. They re-seed again, so #1 faces the lowest seed remaining, and #2 meets the other team left, in best-of-five semi-final matchups (2-2-1 format, as in recent WNBA Finals). Then the WNBA Finals will still be best-of-five, again 2-2-1.
The main impact of this is that the regular season becomes more important, because teams will fight to avoid the potential pitfalls of those single-game playoffs. It also means that if everything goes to plan, the two best teams will meet in the WNBA Finals, when easily the largest audiences are paying attention to the league. If one conference is weak, we won’t all be sitting there knowing that one of the Conference Finals is essentially deciding the title, before an ugly sweep in the showcase event. I’m not a big fan of everyone playing 34 games apiece only to have your season decided by one night, as will be the case four times in the opening couple of rounds. But it should be exciting, and the US is certainly enraptured by the NCAA tournament every year. If the WNBA can capture even a slice of that, this plan will be seen to have worked.
There are two slight rule-tweaks for this season. Firstly the WNBA has brought in FIBA’s rule where the shot-clock will be re-set to only 14 after an offensive rebound, not all the way to 24. The only time you’re likely to notice or care is late in games, where an offensive board for the team in front has always been incredibly helpful in running down the clock. That advantage is slightly diminished now. The second change is that everything that used to be allowed in the final minute of a fourth-quarter or overtime now applies to the final two minutes. Things like being able to advance the ball with a timeout, or any foul putting your team automatically into the penalty. Expect teams and/or referees to screw that up at least a couple of times early in the season. Sadly they’ve done nothing to fix the interminable reviews and endless confusion surrounding the clear-path foul rule.
The WNBA have changed the name of their streaming service LiveAccess to WNBA League Pass for no particular reason. But you can now buy single games, or a single-team season passes, or follow links from the WNBA’s social media accounts to watch games. That stuff’s new.
Most Valuable Player
It seems like a glaringly obvious choice, but I’m going with Candace Parker. It’s obvious because of the recent furore around her being left off the Team USA squad for the 2016 Olympic Games, which has led a lot of people to expect her to come out all guns blazing for the WNBA season. I lean towards her more because she’s the one superstar who’s currently scheduled to have a month of rest in the middle of the season, rather than be flying down to Rio. Maya Moore was my secondary choice, purely because she’s in her prime and could put up even better numbers this year, and because history says it’s very hard to win this award two years in a row. Combined with her chequered health history, that pushed Elena Delle Donne down my list, but if she plays something close to 34 games she’ll be right in the mix.
Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner may be too good to allow the other to draw enough individual votes for MVP. Tina Charles’s percentages probably won’t be good enough without Epiphanny Prince to help. Tamika Catchings probably doesn’t quite have the legs any more, even though sentimentality will be on her side. Angel McCoughtry’s team is likely to be terrible. Skylar Diggins might not be healthy, or could take a little while to get going again. And that’s about the end of my list, unless Breanna Stewart does something extraordinary as a rookie.
Elena Delle Donne (fully expect them to claim she’s partly a ‘guard’, so Moore, Parker and Delle Donne can all be first-team)
Rookie of the Year
Come on. If Breanna Stewart doesn’t win it, something’s gone sadly wrong in Seattle (presumably injury). Moriah Jefferson’s going to have plenty of opportunity to put up numbers in San Antonio, but that won’t really be an issue for Stewart either, on a Storm team that badly needed offense last year.
And if the All-Rookie Second Team existed…
Defensive Player of the Year
This is Brittney Griner‘s award until she gets hurt, skips a season, or the voters get incredibly bored. Even the sentimentality of Tamika Catchings’s final season is unlikely to compete with Griner’s game-changing dominance on the defensive end. They might name this award after Catch once she’s gone, but once her career’s over Griner might well have won it even more times than Catchings has.
Kiah Stokes (just call her a damn forward so she can be on this team even with Griner in the way)
Moriah Jefferson (I was really struggling to come up with a fourth guard)
Sixth Woman of the Year
Allie Quigley won this again last year, despite having a pretty quiet season in Chicago. It was not a strong group of candidates. She’ll probably be in the mix again this year, while some of the other contenders will be decided by who the head coaches decide to start. A whole variety of people could be coming off the bench to put up numbers in Connecticut, including rookies Rachel Banham and Morgan Tuck. If Bill Laimbeer brings her off the pine again in New York, Kiah Stokes has a good chance even if her basic numbers aren’t great. Various talented options could qualify in Los Angeles, including Ana Dabovic and Chelsea Gray. Or Monica Wright, a frequent contender for this award when in Minnesota, is likely to be coming off the bench in Seattle. But I’ll go with Jia Perkins, freshly installed in Minnesota as their combo-guard backup who should put up numbers, and maybe get a few starts to boost her raw stats.
Most Improved Player
This continues to be an absolutely horrible award to try to predict. It usually goes to someone in a new situation, who’ll get more minutes and therefore greater chance to impress (and stack up points). Or it goes to someone in their second season, who’s finally got a handle on how to play in the WNBA. Jewell Loyd could certainly fit the second category, and with Stewart to open up space for her in Seattle things should be a little easier regardless of her own development. Similarly Brittany Boyd could blossom in New York, or her two new teammates Shoni Schimmel and Amanda Zahui B might make a leap in the Big Apple with a new coaching staff and fresh opportunity. Elizabeth Williams will have a lot more time to show herself in Atlanta, assuming the Dream are good enough for anyone to be paying attention. Either backup ballhandler in LA, Dabovic or Gray, could shine if Brian Agler decides he needs someone to run the offense besides Kristi Toliver. And there are always the silly votes for people who were injured before, like Chiney Ogwumike or Skylar Diggins.
I’ll take Boyd, but without any real confidence. The unpredictability of sports is reflected in how impossible it is to guess the winner of this award before the season begins.
Coach of the Year
Typically, this goes to whoever’s in charge of the most surprisingly good team. Or if there isn’t anyone who clearly fits that criteria, then it just goes to the coach of the team at the top of the standings. Cheryl Reeve hasn’t won it for five years, maybe it’s her turn again.
Kim Perrot Sportsmanship Award
This could be virtually anyone, but it’s usually a vet who everyone loves, who’s on the edge of retirement. She’s won it 1.5 times before (one was shared), but Tamika Catchings seems like a pretty solid guess.
New York Liberty
Los Angeles Sparks
San Antonio Stars
#5 Los Angeles over #8 Connecticut, 1-0
#7 Indiana over #6 Dallas, 1-0
#7 Indiana over #3 Chicago, 1-0
#4 New York over #5 Los Angeles, 1-0
#2 Minnesota over #4 New York, 3-2
#1 Phoenix over #7 Indiana, 3-1
#1 Phoenix over #2 Minnesota, 3-2.
And that’s your lot. I’m hoping to be writing about the league a couple of times per week this season, and I’ll honestly be trying harder to stick to that than happened last year. Check back next week for the first impressions.
Enjoy the season WNBA’s 20th season, everybody.