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Each week of the WNBA season, we'll go "All In" on five topics that are worth a closer look and preview what is upcoming.
The Commissioner's Cup date on the 2021 WNBA calendar was meant to be the ultimate kickoff party to the second half of the season after a five-week break for the Olympics. Pit two of the league's best teams against each other on a neutral court, throw in a rose gold trophy, a half-million dollars and a halftime performance to boot.
Seems solid. And in theory, it is. Except in reality, it ended up being more of a dud. The Seattle Storm, with three Team USA gold medalists at the helm, looked like they usually do in a championship game: dominant. They tore up the Connecticut Sun, 79-57, in what for the Sun was a slow, rusty performance despite having the advantage of rest. Clearly, that didn't matter.
That's not entirely the league's fault. In the coming years, teams won't be coming off such a break to play this game. And how many times have we seen a Super Bowl, heralded as the best title game in the land, get out of hand before the second quarter commences? It's part of the deal with games like this, and it's the other aspects that make it feel whole.
The event planning tried to make the Cup feel worthy of a trophy-awarding game, and it was refreshing to have a little lead-in from Amazon Prime broadcast crew Lisa Byington and Lisa Leslie. Honestly, the commercial breaks could have done with more commercials. The league was the first to test new wearable technology, though the mannequins were more nightmare than dream at 10:30 p.m. ET.
And the halftime show could have been a nice touch, except Mariah the Scientist clearly had an issue with her earpiece. The issue is the largely unknown R&B artist seemed about as thrilled to be there as fans were to follow the Cup standings, and her song selection — while pretty and talented — wasn't fitting of a championship basketball game.
All of this is tweakable and anyone who has held any type of event would tell you the first one is difficult. This is a new entrant to sports in the U.S., and the WNBA has to start somewhere to build it. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters during All-Star week the one thing the league is already planning on changing is making sure the day-to-day Cup race details are on fans' radars.
"My assessment is marketing, marketing, marketing, which I talk about a lot," Engelbert said. "I talked about it when I came into the league, not knowing anything. It's still something we need to double down on and make sure that as we grow this into something that the players really compete for it."
It will also be activated in local markets more and become part of the social justice platform, she said. That was intended to be the case this year, but with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing that fell off the table.
The best, most important thing about the athlete-led push for the Cup tournament was the money aspect. Sue Bird raised the trophy, bellowing, "It weighs the same amount of pounds as our BONUS MONEY!" And it's more special for the young players or ones bouncing around trying to make it in the league.
These are the highest paid 7-day contracts ever lol quick $30k 🤑
— Karlie Samuelson (@ksam44) August 13, 2021
That the WNBA is officially back was worth the celebration. Yet the inaugural Commissioner's Cup wasn't quite what anyone wanted, or honestly expected. The positive is there's room to grow
Olympics: Will we see another Dawn Staley?
Much of the conversation in the past month has centered on if we'll see another Diana Taurasi or Sue Bird collecting five gold medals as Team USA players. A'ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart seem likely candidates to do it.
What we should also be talking about is if we'll see another Dawn Staley, the dynamic coach who became the second to win gold as a player, assistant coach and now head coach. It's the bookend to this current run of victories as she made her first Olympic team in 1996, also the first of seven golds. And after winning in Tokyo, she said she would step away from Team USA. One cycle is the norm for head coaches of the national team.
Which begs the question, will we see another leader with the player-coach accolades that Staley has brought to the table? The likelihood of that is growing as more former players enter the coaching ranks. Seimone Augustus, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, announced her retirement days ahead of the season and joined the Sparks coaching staff. Might we see her take charge in a few decades?
Lindsay Whalen could certainly do it. The two-time gold medalist has taken a somewhat similar path to Staley's so far, playing her final Minnesota Lynx season concurrently as head coach of the Minnesota Gophers women's program. Team USA coaches have almost exclusively been college coaches.
Or it could be someone on this team, though probably not Taurasi or Bird. Taurasi has spoken about a desire to own a team one day, going the route of Renee Montgomery. Bird has locked into activism, something it seems she might focus on even more in retirement.
No matter who it is, if anyone at all, the pressure is on.
Where were we? WNBA standings at restart
Seattle (16-5) and Las Vegas (15-6) control the standings at the halfway point, but the final few days before the Olympic break saw both teams lose a game. The Connecticut Sun (14-6) are on the cusp of a top-two seed, which would lock in a bye to the WNBA semifinals, and the Minnesota Lynx (12-7) have charged back to No. 4 (12-7).
The Lynx have the longest winning streak in the league at seven games. But they'll have one of the tougher schedules out of the break. After hosting the New York Liberty, they'll take on a three-game road trip against the Sun and Sky before returning home for the Storm.
The Sky were truly the tale of two teams in the first half. Getting the entire planned starting five on the court together meant a swap from losing seven straight to winning seven straight and being within striking distance of that opening-round playoff bye. It's not how you start, it's how you finish.
The second-longest winning streak is the Indiana Fever (4-16), which closed the season with three of its four wins. Indiana had the tougher schedule on the front-end with all three Storm matchups and two of three against the Aces. Now it's the Sky's turn for that tough stretch with six of their final 12 games this season against the Storm and Aces combined.
Playoff outlook down the stretch
The break came more than halfway into the season, so there are between 11 (Storm, Aces, Liberty) and 14 (Mystics) games left on team's schedules. The top three have distanced themselves a smidge, but the Nos. 5 through 11 spots are tight and the Nos. 5 through 9 teams a complete jumble. But if the playoffs, slated to start Sept. 23, were to start this weekend, here's where it stands:
No. 1 Seattle and No. 2 Las Vegas would receive a bye into the semifinals.
No. 3 Connecticut and No. 4 Minnesota would receive a bye into the second round.
No. 8 Washington Mystics at No. 5 Chicago Sky
No. 7 Phoenix Mercury at No. 6 New York Liberty
Games out of a playoff spot: Dallas Wings (.5), Los Angles Sparks (2.5), Atlanta Dream (2.5), Indiana Fever (5).
There's a lot of shifting that can, and likely will, happen within the first-round matchups over the next month. Minnesota could easily drop down.
Call it a comeback for team leaders
The Olympic break gave some players rest while allowing injured players more time to focus on coming back. In some respects, the second half that’s upon us feels like an entirely new season.
Elena Delle Donne could suit up for the Washington Mystics this weekend for the first time since winning the franchise’s first WNBA championship in October 2019. The two-time MVP will be on a minutes restriction after two back surgeries within a calendar year. Myisha Hines-Allen is also back in practice after a knee injury and 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, who spent the first half of the WNBA year with her Belgian national team, could return.
This will all make center Tina Charles particularly happy.
"I can't wait for these guys to get back so I'm not taking 20-plus shots, I can tell you that," Charles said before the break. Charles is averaging 26.3 points per game, on pace to set the single-season scoring record. That pace should drop with EDD back in the lineup.
Nneka Ogwumike is ready to go for the Sparks after suffering a knee injury on June 1. All she wants to do is play basketball after a heartbreaking few weeks, and that's honestly all fans want, too. Veteran guard Kristi Toliver (eye) is likely to return for Sunday’s game. And Chiney Ogwumike (knee) is getting close to coming back, though there is no timeline there.
Natalie Achonwa, fresh off an Olympic appearance with Canada, will be back in a Lynx uniform after missing time with a knee injury in mid-June. As will reigning Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield, who injured her shoulder shortly before the break. And New York Liberty center Natasha Howard was back in practices this week.
Catch up on the week
Nneka Ogwumike was understandably emotional thinking about the last few weeks: "I just want to play basketball."
Allisha Gray wants to see a women's professional 3x3 league in the U.S. It's unlikely anyone who watched the Olympic competition would disagree.
We still stan Erica Ogwumike attending medical school and playing in the Olympics for Nigeria.
Becky Hammon doesn't want an NBA team to hire her "to check a box."
What to watch — every team returns Sunday
Storm at Sky, 4 p.m. ET on ABC — It's the celebrated return of the second half of the WNBA season. The Storm have the benefit of the Commissioner's Cup under their belt.
Sun at Wings, 4 p.m. ET on ESPN3 — The Sun also have a game under the belt, and the Wings had most of their players in-market for the break.
Mystics at Aces, 6 p.m. ET on WNBA League Pass — It's the Olympic return of the Aces' "four-of-a-kind" and will Elena Delle Donne make her long-awaited return?
Dream at Mercury, 6 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — The Dream are on their third head coach of the season while the Mercury return their big three Olympians and hopefully can pull it together.
Liberty at Lynx, 7 p.m. ET on Facebook — Will Natasha Howard take the floor for the Liberty and can the Lynx keep up their hot streak even with the break?
Fever at Sparks, 9 p.m. ET on League Pass — The Fever surprised fans with three wins to end the break. But Nneka Ogwumike is ready to hit the floor again and — though she shouldn't — has something to prove.
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