WNBA 2020 Playoff Preview: Contenders, challengers, troublemakers and more

Las Vegas Aces v Los Angeles Sparks MVP candidate A’ja Wilson (left) and players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike are two of the players who made the 2020 WNBA regular season delightful. They are expected to make this year’s playoffs absolutely divine. | Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

After a satisfyingly successful 22-game regular season, the 2020 WNBA playoffs are here! Who are the contenders? Who could cause trouble? In short, who will win the wubble?

For many, the idea of a 2020 WNBA season was an unwise, unnecessary experiment during a global pandemic that seemed destined to end in disappointment, if not disaster.

All credit to the WNBA, especially the players, for making this season an undoubted success.

Not only have teams fought through on-court adversity — a compressed 22-game schedule, injuries, illnesses and the emotional challenges of living in a bubble — they’ve also prioritized a fight against off-court inequalities.

To a previously unprecedented degree, WNBA players have used their platform to speak out in a unified voice against the many forms of discrimination that people who look like the women of the WNBA continue to encounter. They repeatedly said the name of Breonna Taylor and other Black women killed by police. They cleverly combatted the bigotry of Kelly Loeffler. They together walked out because of the emotional burdens of being Black in America in 2020.

All the while, they turned in some fantastic performances, highlighted by Stewie’s return to MVP form A’ja’s rise to it. Fans also witnessed throwback seasons from Angel and CP3, more records for Big Syl, DT3 and Sloot, a surprise ROY candidacy from Dangerfield, high-upside efforts from the Unicorn and Hollywood, unexpected improvement from Betnijah and Myisha, Arike doing Arike things and more.

And now the playoffs begin tonight with the first of two win-or-go-home single-elimination rounds.

Entering the postseason, here’s a look at where the eight remaining teams stand and which teams are most likely to stand for the long haul.

The Contenders

No. 1-seed Las Vegas Aces

It seems insane to suggest that the absences of Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum have been inconsequential, but the Aces have secured the top seed without them.

Re-installed at the center of the Aces’ offensive system, A’ja Wilson has emerged as a leading MVP candidate. A revitalized Angel McCoughtry has proved a perfect complementary star, strategically attacking on offense and making plays on defense. Off the bench, the Aces are boosted on both ends by Dearica Hamby, who could win the Sixth Woman of the Year award for the second straight year, and a more aggressive Jackie Young.

The Aces also have untapped potential.

Head coach Bill Laimbeer insists upon bringing Hamby and Young off the bench, thereby, ensuring that the Aces dominate second-unit minutes. However, it is important to maximize the court time for top players in the postseason, meaning that Hamby and Young should start. Laimbeer made a playoff lineup adjustment last season, inserting Plum into the starting lineup and allowing us to enjoy “Playoff Plum.”

This year, might we get “Playoff Young”?

No. 2-seed Seattle Storm

At midseason, the fully-stocked Storm — the only team that did not suffer absences due to COVID-19, social justice or personal concerns — looked like a juggernaut. Winners of 10-straight games, it was not inconceivable to imagine them winning a franchise-fourth title.

Since then, the Storm have been great but not dominant.

The health status of Sue Bird is critical for Seattle. In 2018, the Storm would not have won the championship without Masked Sue. The veteran savvy and sharpshooting of the legend eases the offensive load on Breanna Stewart who, while still an MVP candidate, has not been as undeniable of late.

While the Storm do have a deep, experienced team headlined by 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard and 2020 Defensive Player of the Year candidate Alysha Clark, their ultimate potential sits with Bird and Stewart. That’s a heavy burden for two players who missed all of the 2019 season due to injuries.

The Challenger

No. 3-seed Los Angeles Sparks

The Sparks are categorized as a “challenger” due to their 0-4 record against the Aces and Storm and the risky single-elimination game they must play to advance.

The health of Sydney Wiese (ankle) and Nneka Ogwumike (back) is a concern for the Sparks. Wiese is the Sparks’ best 3-point shooter and Ogwumike missed time with with back tightness. A lack of depth means Candace Parker must maintain her MVP-level play — doing the little things that go beyond the box score and filling in the box score with points, boards, blocks, steals and assists.

Another must is that Chelsea Gray find her Point Gawdiness. After a poor shooting start to the season, Gray steadily found her stroke, but her increased field goal percentage came with a slightly decreased number of attempts. To go far in the postseason, LA needs Gray to take and make more shots.

Fortunately for LA, Riquna Williams and Brittney Sykes are capable of igniting the offense. And don’t be surprised if Seimone Augustus, bolstered by a wealth of high-leverage playoff experience, hits some big, mid-range Money Mone shots.

The Troublemakers

No. 4-seed Minnesota Lynx

Even after the loss of Sylvia Fowles (calf), the Lynx surprisingly remained one the WNBA’s most successful teams led by the young UConn duo of 2019 Rookie of the Year Napheesa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield, a candidate for this year’s rookie award.

One sign of concern is that the Lynx’s trademark defense surrendered triple-digit point totals in two of their final four games. Luckily, Fowles — one of the best defensive players in WNBA history — is expected to return to the team. With Fowles back in the paint, the Lynx have the potential to make real trouble for the top title contenders.

The integration of Odyssey Sims also raises the Lynx’s ceiling. Although it is unlikely she returns to her 2019 All-WNBA level, the new mom has begun to find her footing. In Minnesota’s six September games, Sims shot 52.8 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range, good for an average of 13 points per game. Plus, if Lexie Brown returns to the court after experiencing concussion symptoms, the Lynx will be even more dangerous.

No. 5-seed Phoenix Mercury

Of course Diana Taurasi, one of the best postseason performers in WNBA history, can cause trouble in the playoffs.

More importantly, the Mercury have coalesced into a more consistent and cohesive team. Taurasi has led the way and Skylar Diggins-Smith has been playing some of the best ball of her career.

Brianna Turner, who has blossomed into one of the best rebounders in the game, also has been a huge factor in the team’s success. Turner averaged 13.8 rebounds per game over the last seven games, the best mark in the WNBA.

So, even though the Mercury remain shorthanded without Brittney Griner (personal reasons) and Bria Hartley (knee), it won’t be surprising if Taurasi and company shoot and rebound their way past the Mystics and into an upset win or two.

No. 7-seed Connecticut Sun

The Sun had reason to be unfazed by their 0-5 start to the 2020 season. Over the last 15 games, they have gone 9-6, tied for the fourth-best record in the WNBA during that span.

And still, it seems we have not seen the Sun’s fastball.

If the Sun’s foursome of DeWanna Bonner, Alyssa Thomas, Briann January and Jasmine Thomas is completely healthy, the Sun’s defense can stymie the Sky and any opponent thereafter. The Sun can then turn that defense into offense with A. Thomas tearing down the court for transition buckets.

There is also a reason the Sun prioritized the offseason addition of Bonner, who can enter into a mode of unstoppable offense highlighted by absurdly deep shots and an ability to draw fouls for extra points at the free-throw line.

While A. Thomas and Bonner might play big minutes, Connecticut needs a player outside its core four to step up and both Kaila Charles and Natisha Hiedeman showed some promise down the stretch of the regular season.

The Long Shots

No. 6-seed Chicago Sky

While Kahleah Copper and Cheyenne Parker have raised their play and established themselves as part of Chicago’s core, the losses of Azurá Stevens (foot) and Diamond DeShields (personal reasons) put significant pressure on Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley. Vandersloot, the WNBA’s assist queen, put the valuable in MVP this season as she was absolutely critical to the Sky’s success, especially because Quigley’s 3-point shot has eluded her.

Oodles of assists from Sloot could not prevent the Sky’s late-season stumbles but her talent gives Chicago hope. If the Sky manage to best the Sun and advance in the playoffs, expect to see a starry stat line from Vandersloot.

No. 8-seed Washington Mystics

Throughout an up-and-down season — from a stunning start to a shorthanded slog in the middle of the season to a fabulous finish — the Mystics have refused to go down without fight.

Myisha Hines-Allen, a little-used reserve on the 2019 championship team, serves as the spirited heart and soul of the squad and has emerged as a legitimate star, turning in an unexpected All-WNBA-caliber season.

A bruising-yet-smooth point-forward who can score inside or outside and create for others, Hines-Allen gives the Mystics an advantage in many matchups, including their first-round contest against the Mercury.

Ariel Atkins brings significant playoff experience to the table for Washington and there’s also the possibility of a “Playoff Emma” sighting. Last season, Meesseman assumed a more aggressive offensive mindset in the postseason that elevated her shot attempts, scoring and efficiency.