What’s New in the WNBA for 2016, plus now-traditional Last Second Predictions

 

What’s New

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.

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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.

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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.

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Predictions


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.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Seattle Storm

 

PG: Sue Bird/Blake Dietrick

SG: Jewell Loyd/Monica Wright

SF: Alysha Clark/Jenna O’Hea/Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis

PF: Breanna Stewart/Ramu Tokashiki

C: Crystal Langhorne/Abby Bishop/Markeisha Gatling

Dietrick beat out Tiffany Bias as Bird’s backup, a final cut made minutes before publication.


Significant additions
: Stewart, obviously, the latest player offered up as the saviour of the WNBA. They’ll also be seeing Wright in a Storm uniform for the first time, after adding her in a trade last season while she was injured.

Significant losses: Basically nothing, but from a bad team.


Overview

Y’know what’s good about being terrible? The US sports system tries to help you out. And sometimes you fall ass-backwards into a superstar or two. Jewell Loyd was the first significant piece of the Storm rebuild last year, after she declared early and made the 2015 draft a much happier event for Seattle. A year later and another #1 pick offered up Breanna Stewart, the latest virtual can’t-miss star to emerge from the University of Connecticut. Just like when Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird arrived in consecutive drafts over a decade earlier, the Storm now have key building blocks in place for their team to form around. The only question is how long it’s going to take for everything to fall into place.

It’s possible that it might take Stewart a little while to fit into the pro game. She’s a little like Elena Delle Donne in her ability to score from inside and out, and her surprising fluidity for someone of her size. She doesn’t quite have the handle of Delle Donne, but based on college performance she’s significantly more prepared to help on the defensive end than Delle Donne was when she turned pro. She’ll have an immediate and significant impact, even while Jenny Boucek and the Storm are working out exactly how best to use her. Loyd took a while to settle as a rookie, and still needs to work on her outside shot so that teams stop sagging way off her to combat her speed and athleticism. But after a strong European season under a bright spotlight with Galatasaray, she should be ready to flourish in her second year. The defensive attention Stewart will draw can only help Loyd.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: San Antonio Stars

 

PG: Moriah Jefferson/Sydney Colson

SG: Kayla McBride/Frida Eldebrink/Jazmon Gwathmey

SF: Monique Currie/Alex Montgomery/Haley Peters

PF: Dearica Hamby/Astou Ndour

C: Jayne Appel-Marinelli/Kayla Alexander

They suspended Danielle Robinson for the full season, so she can’t return until 2017, even if she were physically capable.


Significant additions
: Jefferson was the #2 pick in the draft, Currie was a recent trade acquisition from Phoenix, and it’s nice to see young post Ndour back to give the WNBA another shot after a brief cameo at the end of the 2014 season.

Significant losses: Sophia Young-Malcolm retired, Danielle Robinson had surgery on a torn Achilles and is done for the year, Jia Perkins was traded away for the pick that became Gwathmey, and Danielle Adams was cut after arriving out of shape yet again. So outside of McBride, that’s basically the core of their team from last year. Although it was a pretty terrible team, so gutting it might not be the worst idea in the world.


Overview

If this team rises to the heights of mediocrity, it’ll be a surprise. They were terrible last year when an experienced and talented point guard was running the show, Young-Malcolm was still around the help out inside, and Perkins and Adams gave them some additional scoring punch. Now they’re just hoping for signs of progress. Jefferson was a star at UConn, and will have plenty of opportunity to learn the ropes of the pro game with Robinson out of the picture. Then they’re looking for other young pieces like Hamby and Ndour to show they can be significant parts of the future for the Stars, while veterans like Currie and Appel-Marinelli help teach and lead. The generous term is a ‘rebuilding year’

The backcourt could at least be pretty exciting. Jefferson’s lightning quick, knows how to run an offense, and showed strong defensive ability in college. She can also shoot from outside, one thing that Robinson’s never been able to provide from the same spot. McBride’s a serious threat from outside as well, and they’ll be hoping that she takes a step towards being a real star rather than just a good player. The scoring’s going to have to come from somewhere, and there’ll be plenty of shots available.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Phoenix Mercury

 

PG: Diana Taurasi/Nirra Fields

SG: DeWanna Bonner/Courtney Williams/Noelle Quinn

SF: Penny Taylor/Sonja Petrovic/Alex Harden

PF: Candice Dupree/Mistie Bass

C: Brittney Griner/Isabelle Harrison

Trading away Monique Currie virtually finished the job for them, creating the cap space to keep 12 players while simultaneously making the final cuts fairly easy.


Significant additions
: Taurasi, obviously, is the big story after taking a year off from the WNBA. But Taylor’s back as well and has always been a huge part of any Mercury successes in the past decade. Harrison and Petrovic deepen the options in the frontcourt, while rookie guard Williams could be a nice injection of energy on the perimeter.

Significant losses: Not a huge amount. The Currie trade was a surprise, and they might miss her a little if injuries strike. Marta Xargay is still in Spain, and won’t be seen until after the Olympics, if at all. Leilani Mitchell is gone, but given Taurasi’s return to run the team, that’s not a big deal.


Overview

Optimism is high in Phoenix, now that all the key pieces are back from the 2014 team that went 29-5 and only lost one playoff game in their march to a title. Diana Taurasi turns 34 next month, but she’s looked just as good as ever while playing overseas, and with Griner, Taylor, Bonner and Dupree alongside her this team should be scary once again. They were pretty damn good last year when Taurasi and Taylor didn’t bother to show up.

As with the Lynx vets, people have started to wonder how many years we have left with stars like Taurasi and Taylor. But for now we can just enjoy it while it lasts, and the Mercury fans certainly will. Taurasi is a gifted creator with the ball in her hands on top of her natural scoring ability, and this time around they’re not even pretending to put a point guard alongside her to run the offense. She’s be running the team, with Bonner and Taylor helping out and young guards like Williams and Fields as options off the bench. It should be the usual superior level of entertainment.

And while Taurasi leads the offense, the dominance of Griner in the paint provides the single-greatest impact of any player in the game on the defensive end. She had her personal issues last year, and didn’t take quite the step forward in Taurasi’s absence that some people were hoping for, but she’s still an absolute force. She’s also been playing with Taurasi overseas in Russia, so their connection should be even smoother. She has a nice touch on the offensive end when her team uses her, and few teams have anyone who can contend with her one-on-one. Candice Dupree’s mid-range game and smooth finishing are a nice complement offensively, and Bonner’s individual defense on whoever the primary perimeter threat is has improved exponentially. Unlike their championship teams under Paul Westhead and Corey Gaines, this squad can do serious damage at both ends of the floor.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Minnesota Lynx

 

PG: Lindsay Whalen/Renee Montgomery

SG: Seimone Augustus/Jia Perkins

SF: Maya Moore/Keisha Hampton

PF: Rebekkah Brunson/Natasha Howard/Bashaara Graves

C: Sylvia Fowles/Janel McCarville

Another team kind enough to cut their roster down to size nice and early. They have absolutely no chance to carry more than 11 players. This is a throughly veteran – and therefore thoroughly expensive – roster.


Significant additions
: Perkins was brought in from San Antonio to help deepen the guard group, while Janel McCarville returns in the post. They’ll be hoping that Howard or Graves can provide minutes inside as well.

Significant losses: Anna Cruz might be seen at some point this season, but not until after the Olympics; Devereaux Peters was signed-and-traded to Indiana in the deal that brought Howard back; and they moved on from both Tricia Liston and Asjha Jones, neither of whom will be particularly missed.


Overview

The champs are back again, trying to do one of the few things this group is yet to achieve – repeating as champions. The roster reflects that they feel their time to win is right now (understandably, considering their aging core and all the winning they’ve done in recent years). The roster is even older than last year, with veteran backups behind the veteran starters. One of these days, this team will get too old (or at some point, presumably, they’ll start retiring). But with Maya Moore still in her absolute prime and leading the way, there’s little reason to believe that the decline will start this year.

In fact, there’s every reason to think that the Lynx could be a little better overall than they were last season. Sylvia Fowles is there from the start this time, so should be more integrated into the offense and more comfortable with the system. Cheryl Reeve always managed to build impressive defenses without a dominant presence in the middle, so with Fowles to work with they should be even better on that end. Lindsay Whalen played through injuries for most of last season, and while she might be a little into the downslope of her career arc, an offseason to recover should mean she’s more effective this season. Seimone Augustus was banged up last year too, but that does seem to be true pretty frequently. She’s still an exceptional player, but expecting her to be in one piece all year is probably optimistic.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Los Angeles Sparks

 

PG: Kristi Toliver/Chelsea Gray

SG: Alana Beard/Ana Dabovic

SF: Candace Parker/Eugeniya Belyakova/Essence Carson

PF: Nneka Ogwumike/Jelena Dubljevic

C: Jantel Lavender/Ann Wauters

At time of writing, LA still officially have 18 freaking players on their roster, so you’ll have to forgive me if Brian Agler makes some unexpected choices and the list above proves inaccurate. If it’s correct, there’s one place left for Crystal Bradford, Brianna Butler, Jennifer Hamson, KK Houser, Whitney Knight, Jasmine Lister and Rebecca Tobin to fight over.


Significant additions
: Chelsea Gray was added in a draft-night trade from Connecticut, Essence Carson in free agency, and then they went international. You may not have heard of Dubljevic or Belyakova, but they’re well-established, veteran performers in Europe. Even more ‘veteran’ is Ann Wauters, returning to the WNBA for the first time since a brief stint with Seattle in 2012. They also signed-and-traded for Riquna Williams, only to see her rupture her Achilles before ever putting on a Sparks uniform. She’ll presumably be suspended for the year.

Significant losses: Despite all those additions, they haven’t lost many people that’ll matter. Marianna Tolo is still recovering from injury in Australia, Temeka Johnson wasn’t re-signed, and Phillips was traded. That’s about it.


Overview

I feel like it’s hard to say anything particularly new about the Sparks. They’ve got the same core that’s been there for years. They’ve got oodles of talent. There is no good reason why they shouldn’t be one of the best teams in the league, and a serious threat to win the championship. But year after year they come up short. Candace Parker is yet to make an appearance in the WNBA Finals, never mind win a title. So here we go again – if Agler can mesh the pieces together, they could be exceptional. But that niggling little feeling remains that they’ll find a way to screw it up.

At least they’ve got Parker from the start this year, after she skipped half of last season to rest. Once she returned in 2015 she was a star, encouraged by Agler into being more of a fulcrum and creator than other coaches had managed in the past. The fit in the frontcourt with Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Jantel Lavender remains a little awkward, because they’re all good enough to demand playing time but none is at their best playing small forward. But we’ve seen it work in the past for extended stretches. They can all score in multiple ways, and with everyone in camp on time this year, Agler has a better chance at creating a solid team defense. They were messy on that end last season, despite his successes in the past.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Dallas Wings

PG: Odyssey Sims/Brianna Kiesel

SG: Skylar Diggins/Erin Phillips

SF: Karima Christmas/Aerial Powers/Jordan Hooper

PF: Glory Johnson/Plenette Pierson

C: Courtney Paris/Theresa Plaisance/Ruth Hamblin

And thanks to the Zahui B trade, that’s it. They’re still young enough to easily carry 12 players, although no longer with the ludicrous amounts of cap space that they had during multiple years in Tulsa.


Significant additions
: Johnson’s back from pregnancy, Phillips arrived in a trade with LA, and Powers was the #5 pick in the draft. Most importantly of all, assuming she’s actually back in one piece, Diggins returns from tearing her ACL early last season. Oh, and they’ve added a new city, name, and hideous colour-scheme, too.

Significant losses: Riquna Williams was sent to LA in the Phillips trade, they gave up on Amanda Zahui B after just one season, and Vicki Baugh was cut as well, placing extra pressure on the remaining post players. The name and city of the Tulsa Shock are also no more, obviously.


Overview

After half a decade in the mire of terrible basketball, the Tulsa Shock finally dragged themselves into the realm of respectability last season. Even after Skylar Diggins blew out her knee after nine games, and with fellow star guard Odyssey Sims battling injury herself all season, they managed to claw their way to enough wins for their first playoff appearance since leaving Detroit. Unfortunately for fans in Oklahoma, all that was accomplished while everyone already knew they were on their was to Dallas. But with a new city and fanbase behind them, this young squad has the chance to continue to grow and develop, and start chasing down the league’s true powers.

Of course, their chances in 2016 are heavily dependent on the health of that scarily talented backcourt. Diggins says her knee is ready, and the Wings reportedly expect her to play from the start of the regular season, but neither she nor Sims appeared in the preseason. If they’re both 100%, Diggins and Sims present a two-headed monster for opposing defenses that’s very hard to handle. Neither is really a point guard, but between them they can run the offense, score from anywhere, and drive at will. Few teams have two backcourt defenders that they’re comfortable assigning to offensive talents like that.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Washington Mystics

 

PG: Ivory Latta/Natasha Cloud

SG: Bria Hartley/Tayler Hill

SF: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt/Kahleah Copper

PF: Emma Meesseman

C: Stefanie Dolson/Kia Vaughn

Plus three out of Tianna Hawkins, LaToya Sanders, Ally Malott and Zoi Dimitrakou. The decision might be made for Mike Thibault if Sanders is staying with the Turkish national team to prepare for the Olympic qualifier. They have the cap room to temporarily suspend Sanders and keep the other 12, if necessary.


Significant additions
: Copper in the draft, and Hawkins back from pregnancy (assuming she makes the roster). Thibault didn’t manage to do much to improve them this offseason.

Significant losses: Kara Lawson is still working for ESPN, and last I heard still thinking about playing at some point this season. But certainly not from the start, and as an unrestricted free agent it wouldn’t have to be for Washington even if she decides to play. Armintie Herrington retired, but did very little for the Mystics last year. Latta had surgery on her knee a few weeks ago, but is expected to return fairly soon.


Overview

And here we have another team that – since Thibault’s arrival – somehow always manages to be more than the sum of its parts. There are no superstars here, although Meesseman is quietly one of the most talented young players in the game, Dolson took a big step forward last season, and Latta can be electric on any given night. They play as a collective group, they battle, they claw out wins you don’t expect them to get, and then every year you look up at the standings and they’re in the thick of the playoff hunt.

With Kia Vaughn injured for much of last season, the post pairing of Meesseman and Dolson had time to gel as the definitive first-choice front line for the Mystics. Meesseman can still be too passive for a player with her level of skill both around the rim and out towards the three-point line, but when they convince her to be aggressive and take everything on offer, she can be a beast. Dolson has grown into a solid and reliable pivot, with a surprising scoring touch. With Vaughn and hopefully Sanders around to back them up, plus whatever Hawkins is capable of returning from pregnancy, Washington have a strong and deep post corps.

The situation on the perimeter is a little dicier. There’s some talent there, but you’re never quite sure who might show up on any given night. Losing Lawson cuts into their shooting, and Latta’s the only one left on the squad that opposition defenses really respect from outside. Hill hasn’t shown anything remotely approaching consistency since entering the league, Cloud was a useful all-purpose guard last year but never showed much scoring ability, and Ruffin-Pratt is a big wing more useful for her defense and physicality than her offense. They’ll be anticipating more from Hartley this year, after she struggled with injuries last season, and hoping that rookie Copper can help out as well. And they’ll be anxious to get Latta back to provide her typical energy and drive at the point of attack. But there’s no one they can truly rely on night-in and night-out.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: New York Liberty

 

PG: Brittany Boyd/Lindsey Harding/Shoni Schimmel

SG: Tanisha Wright/Sugar Rodgers/Ameryst Alston/(Epiphanny Prince)

SF: Shavonte Zellous

PF: Tina Charles/Adut Bulgak

C: Kiah Stokes/Amanda Zahui B./Carolyn Swords

Presumably, Prince will be temporarily suspended, allowing the Liberty to carry 12 players plus her. They have the cap space to manage that, thanks to the youth of much of the roster.


Significant additions
: Zellous as a free agent from Indiana, Harding as a vet option to help at the point, and both Schimmel and Zahui B in trades for minimal cost during training camp.

Significant losses: Prince tore her ACL overseas and is far and away the most meaningful loss. Essence Carson left for LA and Candice Wiggins retired, but neither will be hugely missed. Swin Cash was a late cut when the roster crowding forced a tough decision.


Overview

The Liberty were a surprise last season. After a couple of years in the lottery, then an offseason of turmoil where head coach Bill Laimbeer was fired and re-hired, and Isiah Thomas joined the front office, few were expecting such a dramatic turnaround. But Laimbeer finally got his squad playing as a unit, hit a shock home run in the draft with Kiah Stokes to help knit together a league-leading defense, and somehow they finished with the best record in the entire WNBA. It all ended in disappointment when Indiana upset them in the Eastern Conference Finals, but overall it was a dramatic step forward from where they’d been. Now the question is whether they can repeat the trick, and how much damage Prince’s injury will do to their prospects.

Tina Charles remains the fulcrum for everything New York does offensively, and while she still had her moments of drifting too far away from the basket and firing bad shots last season, it was better than in the previous couple. But the loss of Prince could hurt her, allowing defenses to pay even more attention to collapsing around her and forcing her teammates to make shots. Zellous was the best replacement they could’ve hoped for in free agency, with players of her calibre rarely available on the open market in this league, but they’ll need the Zellous of a couple of years ago to return. Last season she was limited by injuries and an aborted trip overseas, and never really got going.

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2016 WNBA Team Previews: Indiana Fever

 

PG: Briann January/Erica Wheeler/Brene Moseley

SG: Shenise Johnson/Tiffany Mitchell/Maggie Lucas

SF: Marissa Coleman

PF: Tamika Catchings/Devereaux Peters/Lynetta Kizer

C: Erlana Larkins/Natalie Achonwa

And that’s it. Thank you Indiana for being the rare team that makes their cuts early enough for me to preview the actual roster. Unless they cut one of the guards to save cash and preserve some extra flexibility.


Significant additions
: Mitchell adds to the guard corps, Peters to the posts. That’s it.

Significant losses: Shavonte Zellous left for nothing in free agency (and I’m still not really sure why they didn’t core her and extract some value in a trade); they gave up on Natasha Howard to acquire Peters; and Layshia Clarendon was traded to Atlanta after three years of trying to convert her into something resembling a point guard.


Overview

While she won’t really want it to be, this season will likely be all about Tamika Catchings for the Indiana Fever. When one of the greats announces their retirement with over a season to go, it inevitably becomes something of a farewell tour. But Catch has always been the ultimate competitor and she won’t be fading away with a whimper, or with a trainwreck season like Kobe Bryant and the Lakers (although based on last year, her shooting percentage might not be that much better than Kobe’s). While Catchings remained the leader of this squad last season, for the first time they looked capable of surviving and winning games without her always being at the controls. It looked like the pieces were starting to move into place for when she’s gone. So one last hurrah while she’s still part of the equation is certainly in play.

The Fever haven’t always been the prettiest team to watch in action. While they were one of the first WNBA teams to embrace ‘smallball’ when Catchings slid down to power forward full-time a few years ago, they’ve always been more about guts than glitz. The approach changed a little last year when Stephanie White took over from Lin Dunn, and demanded that her team speed things up a little. They won games with depth, and with contributions from a variety of different places on different nights. Shenise Johnson looked more comfortable and effective than she ever did in three years in San Antonio. Marissa Coleman had her best season in the WNBA in her seventh year. They pieced together a post rotation with the likes of Kizer, Achonwa and Howard helping out a limited Catchings and a beaten up Larkins. It felt like there was smoke and mirrors involved at times, but as the Fever have been doing for over a decade under Catchings’s leadership, they battled through and won games. Then tossed in a playoff run that came up just one game short of another title.

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