The close-knit Minnesota Lynx overachieved in 2020. In 2021, they will face much higher expectations. | Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
The playoffs have ended the seasons of five more WNBA teams. Should the Minnesota Lynx, Chicago Sky, Los Angeles Sparks, Phoenix Mercury and Washington Mystics take pride in their 2020 performances? Do they have reason to be optimistic about 2021?
Having been swept out of the WNBA Semifinals by the Seattle Storm, the Minnesota Lynx became the latest team to depart the Bradenton, Florida, wubble. In spite of an unceremonious end to their season, however, the Lynx should look back fondly on their wubble experience. The team defied expectations in a way that suggests Cheryl Reeve and company could be planting the seeds of another dynasty.
Like the Lynx, the Chicago Sky and Washington Mystics exited IMG Academy with optimism about their futures, but after first-round single-elimination playoff losses. That they made it to the postseason in spite of absences of key players due to injury, their seasons should be commended. In contrast, the Phoenix Mercury’s and Los Angeles Sparks’ seasons ended in frustration, with both veteran squads falling short of high expectations with losses in their second-round single-elimination games.
Here’s what Minnesota, Chicago, LA, Phoenix and Washington can look forward to as they enter their respective offseasons:
Minnesota Lynx (14-8 regular season; 2-3 playoffs)
Lost to Seattle Storm in 3 games in semifinals
A season-ending sweep at the hands of the Storm does not change the fact that the Lynx overachieved in 2020.
Entering the season, significant questions surrounded the Lynx. With Odyssey Sims, Minnesota’s 2019 leading scorer, slated to miss the first few weeks of the season due to the birth of her son, only Sylvia Fowles and Napheesa Collier were sure contributors.
Then, after beginning the season playing at an All-WNBA, if not MVP, level, a persnickety calf soon stalled Sylvia Fowles’ season. Anchored by Fowles on both ends, the Lynx started the season a surprising 6-2. Surely, without their living legend, the Lynx would fall to the fringes of the playoff picture.
Instead, Crystal Dangerfield showed she was more than just the occasional rookie spark plug. The 2020 second-round draft pick who would become the Rookie of the Year established herself as a foundational piece of the present, and future, of the Lynx.
Head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve again proved her penchant for putting players in positions to succeed. Damiris Dantas thrived as a stretch big, Bridget Carleton announced herself as one of the league’s best 3-point markswomen and Rachel Banham emerged as an off-the-bench energy scorer. Coming back from maternity leave, Sims seamlessly integrated back into Minnesota’s system, bolstering the rotation as the lingering effects of a concussion kept the defensively-determined Lexie Brown out of the lineup. In limited minutes, rookie Mikiah Herbert-Harrigan also previewed her high-upside shot-blocking and 3-point shooting skills.
All these players return next season. As does Napheesa Collier. Like her teammates, Collier exceeded expectations. The 2019 Rookie of the Year played with the poise of a long-tenured vet, certifying that she will be a fixture on All-WNBA teams for years to come.
Napheesa Collier swatted Stewie three times in the span of 75 seconds pic.twitter.com/9ohEokvAZe
— espnW (@espnW) September 23, 2020
As long as Fowles can solve her calf trouble, Minnesota should be a homecourt advantage playoff team in 2021.
If only Reeve can convince a newly-married social justice warrior to put back on the Minnesota blue and gray. While Maya Moore admirably has dedicated her life to issues that are bigger than basketball, it is hard not to want to see her back on the basketball court, taking the Lynx to even greater heights in 2021.
Chicago Sky (12-10 regular season, 0-1 playoffs)
Lost to Connecticut Sun 94-81 in first round
When the Sky started the season 11-4 despite injuries limiting Diamond DeShields and Stefanie Dolson, they provided a preview of how high their ceiling could be.
Unfortunately, the Sky began falling soon thereafter, with impressive new addition Azurá Stevens (injury) and the ever-dynamic DeShields (personal reasons) leaving the bubble. Without two of their most promising players, Chicago struggled down the stretch before coming up short in their first-round, single-elimination playoff game.
As long as Stevens and DeShields return at full health in 2021, the Sky can look forward with optimism. The growth of Cheyenne Parker and Kahleah Copper — who both proved themselves to be part of the Sky core — should further inspire confidence in Chicago’s future prospects,
However, it is worth questioning the solidity of another member of that core: Allie Quigley. She has one of the purest 3-point strokes in all of basketball but struggled to find the bottom of the net from deep this season. In 2020, she shot 34.6 percent from 3-point range, nearly 10 percent worse than her sterling 2019 percentage.
This drop was perhaps a product of shot selection. Without DeShields to create offense and draw the attention of the defense, Quigley was forced to take more shots of worse quality. Alternatively, it could be age-related decline. Due to the every-other-day schedule of the 2020 season, the 34-year-old may not have had the fresh legs needed to fire accurately from behind the arc. Hopefully, a more normal 2021 schedule, in combination with a reduced offensive burden, will allow Quigley to again drain threes with accuracy, even at age 35.
Courtney Vandersloot showed no signs of decline and tossed in a WNBA-record 10 assists per game in spite of being short on offensive talent. She also scored a career-high 13.6 points per game to average a double-double for the season. Vandersloot was integral to the Sky’s success, evidenced by her well-known on/off numbers.
The first #WNBA player to average double-digit assists through the regular season. ✔ @Sloot22 and the @chicagosky tip off the #ATTPlayoffs in a single-elimination game TONIGHT against Connecticut at 7pm/et on ESPN2! pic.twitter.com/418yOC02lK
— WNBA (@WNBA) September 15, 2020
Nevertheless, Chicago should not be so dependent on Vandersloot. The Sky need to determine if Sydney Colson can serve as a productive backup point guard, with her 2020 ineffectiveness the product of her late arrival to the team due to COVID-19. If concerns about Colson’s viability linger, a new backup point guard is a must if Chicago hopes to approach its ceiling in 2021.
Los Angeles Sparks (15-7 regular season, 0-1 playoffs)
Lost to Connecticut Sun 73-59 in second round
The Sparks’ 2020 season did not end as disastrously as their 2019 season but, nonetheless, a season of high expectations again fizzled out.
The Sparks entered the final stretch of the regular season with the opportunity to grab a top-two seed and earn an elusive double bye. Instead, they dropped two-straight games before a dud of a playoff performance sent them packing.
Candace Parker is not to blame. The Sparks’ stalwart had, start to finish, her best season since LA’s 2016 title run. Against the Connecticut Sun in her team’s single-elimination playoff game, Parker played all 40 minutes and stuffed the box score in classic CP3 fashion: 22 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and one steal.
She enters the 2021 offseason as a free agent but appears committed to continuing to wear the purple and gold. Parker will be 35 when the 2021 season begins, so let’s hope the Sparks did not waste her last best season.
— Los Angeles Sparks (@LASparks) September 18, 2020
As for the rest of the roster, untimely injuries certainly played a role. The absence of Nneka Ogwumike to back tightness and then to migraine, was critical. Injuries also limited Sydney Wiese and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt.
The single-game playoff cauldron also exposed slipperiness of the Sparks’ supporting cast. At their best, Brittney Sykes and Riquna Williams look like absolute All-Stars. Yet, Sykes and Williams are not All-Stars because both are too-often bedeviled by inconsistency.
More concerning, inconsistency also is becoming a characteristic of Chelsea Gray, who underperformed all season — struggling not just to make shots but to take enough of them. In the playoffs, she played with a passivity unworthy of the Point Gawd moniker she proudly claims, taking only nine shots and scoring only four points.
Gray also will be a free agent. At first, the prospect of inking Gray to a long-term, high-dollar deal seems automatic. The recent trajectory of her career, however, could give the Sparks pause. If she returns, head coach Derek Fisher must figure out how to maximize his star guard.
Because they will welcome back Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver next season, LA should again be in the title conversation. To truly contend, however, the Sparks must do more than “run it back.” A re-envisioning of the squad and its strategies may be in order.
Phoenix Mercury (13-9 regular season, 1-1 playoffs)
Lost to Minnesota Lynx 80-79 in second round
From one perspective, the Mercury were a buzzer-beater away from advancing to the semifinals. From another, it took a buzzer-beater for the Mercury to escape their first-round matchup against the Washington Mystics.
Contrasting optimistic and pessimistic interpretations can capture the Mercury’s entire 2020 season.
Optimistically, Phoenix began to coalesce down the stretch, winning seven of their last eight games even as they were without Brittney Griner (personal reasons) and Bria Hartley (injury), who departed the bubble. During this run, Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith played at All-WNBA levels and poured in the points. Brianna Turner blossomed into a core contributor and using her boundless energy to clean the glass and block shots at elite levels.
Brianna Turner with the block and Diana Taurasi with the pull up 3️⃣ in transition pic.twitter.com/esRH9o1aZL
— WNBA Got Game (@wnbagotgame) September 16, 2020
However, when the Mercury were whole — with Griner on the court and Hartley healthy — they underachieved, suggesting the idealized vision of this team failed. During the majority of the season, strong individual performances from Taurasi, Diggins-Smith and Hartley did not consistently translate into cohesive, winning basketball. Likewise, Turner was not at her best when playing alongside Griner.
Even the more optimistic version of the Mercury had some glaring weak spots. Defense was a problem. That two of Phoenix’s best players — Taurasi and Diggins-Smith — are poor defenders makes it difficult to instill a culture of defensive accountability. Furthermore, even as the offense flourished late in the season, it was highly dependent on unsustainable high-volume shooting and scoring from Taurasi and Diggins-Smith. That Phoenix could not settle on a third starting guard/wing further points to the lack of a coherent system.
These concerns raise questions about Sandy Brondello. Is it possible that her time in the Valley has expired? While she has championship credibility, she has been unable to push the right buttons these past two seasons. But it is hard to imagine the Mercury refreshing and reorienting until Taurasi retires, and no one is wishing for that.
If Phoenix wants to contend for the 2021 title, a re-imagining of the team is required. As long as Taurasi and Griner remain in orange and purple, though, it seems more likely than not that the unsatisfying status quo of unmet expectations will continue.
Washington Mystics (9-13 regular season, 0-1 playoffs)
Lost to Phoenix Mercury 85-84 in first round
The Mystics have the right to be bitter about the end of their 2020 season. A player they waived — Shey Peddy — shot them out of the postseason with last-second 3-pointer.
Overall, Washington’s 2020 season was a success.
It became a gap year for Washington as soon as it was clear that 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne, superstar center addition Tina Charles, starting point guard and social justice warrior Natasha Cloud and the underrated-but-essential LaToya Sanders would all sit out the 2020 season.
Yet, ups and downs in terms of wins and losses aside, multiple players made valuable progress.
Before she went down with a season-ending hip injury, Aerial Powers was thriving as a primary offensive option. Ariel Atkins flashed a more assertive offensive approach and maintained her solid defensive play. And, of course, Myisha Hines-Allen busted out and showed off an enviably versatile skill set in what amounts to an All-WNBA-worthy performance.
— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) September 11, 2020
The Mystics entered games with barely enough active players this season. In 2021, presuming full participation and health, head coach Mike Thibault will have a plethora of options — possibly, too many.
Delle Donne undoubtedly should resume her place at the center of the Mystics’ offensive system, so how will this affect Hines-Allen? Hines-Allen played so little in 2019 not because of a lack of talent but because Delle Donne has so much talent. Powers’ place on the 2021 season also is in question. While the pending free agent has expressed much appreciation for the Mystics organization, she could be enticed away from DC by a team that can offer her a larger role.
It also will be interesting to see how Thibault integrates Charles, a more traditional big, into his modern, spacing-focused offense. The name Emma Meesseman also deserves mention to highlight how absurdly deep the 2021 Mystics could be.
Fortunately, Thibault not only can tap into his wealth of coaching experience but also the strengths of his star. Delle Donne’s understated and empathetic leadership will be just as valuable as her all-time great play as the Mystics chase a second championship next year.