League attendance, already in decline for a few years before the pandemic, has bounced back to 2018 levels, and TV viewership (ABC, CBS, and both ESPN channels broadcast games) is up by 67% from last year.
A lot of the renewed attention to the league is a result of Brittney Griner’s incarceration in Russia and subsequent release — the six-time All Star and former first overall draft pick was already one of the league’s biggest stars, from the moment she tied the league’s single-season dunk record in her first game.
Both Griner and the league have taken full advantage of the additional spotlight, simply by playing some very good basketball. Griner is still in top form, with eight double-doubles in just twenty starts, (although her last-place Phoenix Mercury have struggled around her). And the league heads into the playoffs with a heated rivalry between two of the most dominant lineups in its history. We break down the playoff matchups, with every team in the best-of-three first round playing either Friday or Sunday night.
#1 Las Vegas Aces (34-6) vs. #8 Chicago Sky (18-22)
The defending champion Aces set the record for most wins in a season… and then won four more games. They lead the league in points, they lead the league in blocks, they lead the league in field goal and free throw percentage. They’re the top-rated offense and the top-rated defense. When they lost an exhibition game (the WNBA Commissioners Cup) earlier in the season it made national news because it came in the midst of a 21-game win streak. Forward A’ja Wilson is #3 in the league in points and #2 in rebounds and odds-on favorite to be this year’s MVP. Teammates Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young are #8 and #11 in points; Chelsea Gray is #3 in assists and Plum is #10. The Aces are fast, they’re tough, they’re accurate. They are very, very, very good at basketball.
The Sky have some talented players and are two years past winning a title, but the best thing you can say about them in this series is that they have courtside tickets to see the Aces. They lost Game 1 on Wednesday by 28 points; no one expects them to do any better in Game 2 on Sunday, and there won’t be a Game 3.
#2 New York Liberty (32-8) vs. #7 Washington Mystics (19-21)
The Liberty also have more wins than any previous WNBA team. That Commissioners Cup the Aces lost? The Libs were the team that beat them. The MVP? A’ja Wilson’s main competition is Liberty forward Breanna Stewart, who’s #2 in points and #3 in rebounds. Veteran guard Courtney Vandersloot leads the league in assists; shooting guard Sabrina Ionescu leads in 3-pointers, and sunk an astonishing 20 consecutive threes at the All-Star Game. The Liberty are also one of the best teams in WNBA history, and yet they aren’t even the best team this season. Unless, of course, they can beat the Aces again in the Finals, and everyone expects those two teams to meet, while the other six are afterthoughts.
On that note, the Mystics fell just shy of .500, and have an uphill fight in Game 1 Friday night. (In an 12-team league where 8 teams make the playoffs, there are bound to be a few losing teams in the postseason. But there’s a glut of them this year, as the top two contenders have sucked up all the wins.) But some of that mediocre record can be chalked up to injury, as the team lost key players Elena Della Donne and Ariel Atkins for stretches this season. But if they can’t win without a healthy lineup, that doesn’t bode well for the playoffs, as guard Kristi Toliver is done for the season with a torn ACL, and center Shakira Austin is out for at least two games with a hip injury, and two games is likely all Washington has left.
#3 Connecticut Sun (27-13) vs. #6 Minnesota Lynx (19-21)
The Lynx also stopped just shy of .500, but they started 0-6 and quickly turned things around, so that record is deceptive. But they’ve beaten the Sun only once this season in four meetings. Power forward Napheesa Collier is having a career-best season after missing most of last year on maternity leave, but she’s got a young team around her and rookies Diamond Miller and Dorka Juhasz will have to prove they’re playoff-ready.
The sun is led by Alyssa Thomas, who led the league this year in rebounds and assists, and DeWanna Bonner, who took the Phoenix Mercury to two titles, and was traded to the Sun for three first-round draft picks. Connecticut has won in the first round of the playoffs the last four years in a row, and after beating the Lynx 90-60 in game one, seem pretty confident in extending that streak to five.
#4 Dallas Wings (22-18) vs. #5 Atlanta Dream (19-21)
Another lopsided matchup in a playoff series full of them, as Dallas were 3-0 against Atlanta in the regular season. The Wings haven’t won a playoff series since 2009, but they’ve poured a lot into turning the franchise around, hiring new head coach Latricia Trammell, trading for Natasha Howard, Crystal Dangerfield, and Diamond DeShields (who missed the season with a knee injury), and wrangling four first-round picks in this year’s draft. They’ll also depend heavily on versatile forward Satou Sabally, only the second player in league history to average over 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists.
All of that means Atlanta has their work cut out for them. Rookie of the Year Rhyne Howard has run hot and cold, but when she’s on, she’s unstoppable, scoring 43 points against Los Angeles a few weeks ago. Their big worry is that they have the weakest offense in the playoff field, and made it here on the strength of their defense, but star defender Nia Coffey is out for the season.
There may not seem to be a lot of drama in a playoff round with four heavily-favored teams. Once basketball playoffs start, all bets are off, and we could still see an upset. But this is more likely all prologue to a Finals between two of the best teams the league has ever seen. Stay tuned, as we’ve got some great basketball ahead.