After a shortened 2020 season in the Wubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., due to COVID-19, opening day of the ’21 WNBA season is Friday.
As the league commemorates its 25th anniversary, one filled with iconic moments from players who paved the way for today’s players and rising superstars, eight of the league’s 12 teams will square off against one another on opening day.
Let’s dive into preseason power rankings as we look to sort the top contenders for the WNBA title.
12. Indiana Fever
The Fever finished the previous season second to last in the league—earning four more wins than the Liberty—and missed the playoffs for their fourth-consecutive postseason. Over the past four seasons, Indiana has won a total of only 34 games. During the offseason, Fever general manager Tamika Catchings stressed that the franchise needed a star player and veteran leadership.
Kelsey Mitchell is the centerpiece, but the franchise does not have the greatest supporting cast around her. The Fever returned the team’s second-leading scorer Tiffany Mitchell (12.5 points per game) and fourth-leading scorer Teaira McCowan, who averaged 10.9 ppg last season. After those three, the Fever re-signed three former veteran All-Stars in Jantel Lavender, Danielle Robinson and Jessica Breland.
However, the team lost the WNBA’s fifth all-time leading scorer Candice Dupree (to the Storm), Erica Wheeler (Sparks) and Natalie Achonwa (Lynx) in free agency. In the draft, the Fever selected Kysre Gondrezick at No. 4, while most projected her as a later draft pick. As a team still rebuilding and in a conference dominated by the Sky, Sun and Mystics, the Fever will most likely miss the postseason yet again.
11. Dallas Wings
With a new coach in Vickie Johnson and four newly drafted players—Charli Collier, Awak Kuier, Chelsea Dungee and Dana Evans—there is a ton of excitement surrounding the Wings. The big question is: How will the young talent translate to wins on the court?
Dallas won eight games and missed the playoffs last season due to a tiebreaker in favor of the Mystics that would have put the Wings in the eighth seed. In Johnson’s first year, she will be tasked with figuring out each player’s role into her coaching scheme. However, she is not starting from scratch. Arike Ogunbowale—the reigning scoring champ—led the team (22.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game) and will be the anchor for the franchise.
Getting fifth-year veteran Allisha Gray and Kayla Thornton back from free agency helps. The play of Satou Sabally, who finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, will be worth watching. The pair of young players who can step up and play alongside Ogunbowale will play a big part in the Wings’ success.
10. Atlanta Dream
Former Atlanta head coach Nicki Collen accepted the Baylor coaching job after Kim Mulkey left for LSU, and Chris Sienko was fired as president and general manager. With a lot of uncertainty internally, interim head coach Mike Petersen will be tasked with figuring out how to get the Dream back to the postseason for the first time since their conference finals run in 2018.
The Dream lost their second-leading scorer in Betnijah Laney to the Liberty during free agency. However, Atlanta acquired former Sky forward Cheyenne Parker, who brings scoring ability, as she averaged 13.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game last season. Pairing her up with Tianna Hawkins as a frontcourt tandem in combination with the team’s leading scorer from last season in Chennedy Carter will be interesting to watch.
The play of Tiffany Hayes, Courtney Williams (who can create her own shot), Odyssey Sims and Kalani Brown will be key. Also, the team got its biggest draft need in Aari McDonald. But there are many moving parts to be worked out. Strong chemistry and cohesion will be important. This season should be an exciting one to watch, but it could be one that finds the Dream coming just short of a postseason appearance.
9. New York Liberty
Last season the Liberty won two games, and general manager Jonathan Kolb spent the offseason emphasizing the importance of a hybrid rebuild. In fact, when New York squares off against the Fever on Friday, the team will look drastically different from last season. In free agency, the Liberty acquired former Storm forward and 2019 All-Star Natasha Howard and ’20 Most Improved Player Laney (a consistent scorer).
Howard and Laney, combined with the 2020 No. 1 pick in Sabrina Ionescu—whose season was cut short three games in due to a grade 3 ankle sprain—make for a solid big three. Depending on Ionescu as floor general in conjunction with Laney, the screen-and-roll game with Howard, and New York’s third big acquisition in free agency, Sami Whitcomb, the Liberty have the potential to be a playoff team—on paper.
Whitcomb has the ability to knock down the three-point basket, something New York likes to do. The question mark lies in talent beyond the big three. All-Star Kia Nurse and Megan Walker are gone. But Jazmine Jones and Layshia Clarendon return; both averaged double-figure points last season.
8. Connecticut Sun
The Sun finished one game shy of earning a trip to the WNBA Finals last season. DeWanna Bonner, the league’s third-leading scorer from last season, was a major catalyst for the Sun’s success in the Wubble averaging 19.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game.
Connecticut hoped to form a big three this season with Bonner, Jonquel Jones—who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns—and veteran Alyssa Thomas (15.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists per game), but that will not happen. With Thomas tearing her Achilles, it will be interesting to see who steps up to fill her production this season. Two players come to mind in Jasmine Thomas and Brionna Jones.
Jasmine Thomas was the team’s third-leading scorer (14.7 ppg) in the playoffs and led the team in assists (4.4 per game). But she’s temporarily suspended because she hasn’t been cleared due to COVID-19 protocols after playing in the Turkish league. Jones (11.2 points, 5.6 rebounds per game) was a pivotal force in the paint and finished third in the league in offensive rebounds, and in the top 10 in steals, steal percentage, field goal percentage, true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. Sun coach Curt Miller expects Jones to have a “monster year” for Connecticut.
7. Los Angeles Sparks
After losing five-time All-Star Candace Parker to the Sky and three-time All-Star Chelsea Gray to the Aces in free agency, the Sparks will look very different this season. Parker and Gray combined for an average of 28.7 points and 13.4 rebounds per game last season.
Despite finishing third in the regular-season standings last season, the Sparks had a second-round playoff exit. Coach Derek Fisher will have his hands full in figuring out the engine that makes his new-look Sparks team go. Los Angeles added Amanda Zahui B (9.0 points, 8.5 rebounds per game) and Erica Wheeler (10.1 points, 5.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game in 2019), who did not play in ’20 after testing positive for COVID-19 in July.
The Sparks also re-signed Brittney Sykes and will have Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike, as well as Kristi Toliver, back. And, in drafting a trio focused on perimeter scoring in Jasmine Walker, Stephanie Watts and Arella Guirantes, the Sparks have solid pieces to work with. It might not be the most exciting roster compared with previous seasons, but it should help the Sparks earn their 10th consecutive playoff appearance.
6. Phoenix Mercury
Depth and health will be of major concern for the Mercury this season. The Lynx defeated the Mercury in the second round of the playoffs. But with Diana Taurasi’s—who is entering her 17th season—signing the supermax deal in the offseason, she is poised to lead this Phoenix team on a deep playoff run.
Taurasi (who has dealt with back injuries), Skylar Diggins-Smith, Brittney Griner, Nurse, Brianna Turner and Bria Hartley are a dangerously good combination of talent. When it comes to depth beyond the team’s key players, that’s where things get sticky. The Mercury will have to rely on Kia Vaughn and Megan Walker, as well this year’s draft picks in Sophie Cunningham and Alanna Smith.
Part of the Mercury’s early 2020 postseason exit came from the big three’s—Taurasi, Griner and Diggins-Smith—not playing with each other in the Wubble. Griner left early for personal reasons. With a chance for all three to play together this season, the Mercury could be on target to compete for a title.
5. Washington Mystics
The 2019 champs went into the ’20 season hoping to defend their title, but COVID-19 hit. Former MVPs Tina Charles and Elena Delle Donne did not play. Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders opted out of the final year of their contracts.
Despite losing Aerial Powers—a valuable asset from their 2019 title run—in free agency, Washington is a favorite to make a deep playoff run. However, health will determine how far the Mystics can go. Two-time champion Alysha Clark, who was acquired in free agency to fill the void of Powers, will not play this season due to a right foot injury. Clark was named first-team All-Defense and averaged career highs in points (10), assists (2.7) and steals (1.5) while shooting above 50% from three-point range last season.
However with Charles, Delle Donne and Cloud set to play this season, the Mystics are a contender in comparison to last season’s 9–13 mark. The Mystics’ sub-par 2020 campaign in the Wubble allowed for the rise and growth of Ariel Atkins (14.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.8 steals per game) and Myisha Hines-Allen (17 points, 8.9 rebounds per game), a critical piece for Washington last season. If they can find their roles alongside Washington’s three key players, watch out for the Mystics.
4. Minnesota Lynx
The Lynx were swept in the semifinals by the eventual champion Storm last season. When Minnesota takes the court this season, things will be drastically different. In free agency, the team acquired Kayla McBride (12.5 ppg with the Aces), Powers (16.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists) and Achonwa (7.8 ppg, 5.5 rebounds per game last season) while selecting Rennia Davis, who finished her career at Tennessee in the top 10 in ppg and rpg.
Combine that talent with the league’s career rebound leader Sylvia Fowles, Crystal Dangerfield and the team’s star player in Napheesa Collier, coach Cheryl Reeve has a really talented team at her disposal. For a team that finished fourth in the regular-season standings last year, there is no way the Lynx will not compete for a top playoff spot, make a deep run and vie for a championship.
After the second-round playoff exit in the Wubble due to injuries, Reeve stressed the need for more scoring, rebounding and defending. Minnesota added all the necessary parts in different styles of play centered on spacing the floor, setting screens for three-point shooting and sometimes small-ball lineups. Minnesota is primed to take the next step this season.
3. Seattle Storm
The Storm won their fourth championship in franchise history in the Wubble. Despite losing Howard and Whitcomb in free agency, the Storm still have Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, three players who give them a great chance of repeating as champs.
Stewart finished second behind A’ja Wilson for league MVP. Bird earned the supermax contract, and Loyd is primed to take her game to another level. However, losing Howard and Whitcomb will not go unnoticed, as the two helped Seattle greatly in its championship run. That means other players, like new acquisition and WNBA legend Dupree (12.5 points per game) and Katie Lou Samuelson will be important in the frontcourt.
Also, keep an eye on second-year center Ezi Magbegor, who poured in 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds for Seattle in a preseason game against the Mercury. But, how far the Storm go in the 2021 postseason is simple: It will come down to the play of Stewart, Bird and Loyd.
2. Chicago Sky
After the Sky were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in 2020, general manager and coach James Wade said he needed a MVP-type player on his team. Wade not only acquired an MVP player, he brought in five-time All-Star, six-time All-WNBA selection Parker.
Signing the former Sparks forward and center alone made Chicago a heavy favorite to compete for a WNBA title in 2021. Parker, the ’16 Finals MVP, averaged 14.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 22 games last season. She was crowned the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and finished third in MVP voting last season, two spots above her current teammate Courtney Vandersloot. Parker adds to the frontcourt of Chicago, a team that is extremely talented offensively and full of experience.
A two-time All-Star point guard in Vandersloot—who became the first player in history to average double-digit assists in 2020—in combination with Allie Quigley, Diamond DeShields and Azurá Stevens (the latter two return from injuries), makes for a balanced team. Having DeShields and Stevens back also helps the Sky in their second unit, where Stefanie Dolson and Kahleah Copper will come off the bench. Copper made a huge leap in her first season as a regular starter, playing twice as many minutes and scoring more than twice as many points per game as she did in ’19. The Sky will make a deep postseason run.
1. Las Vegas Aces
Being the top team comes with high expectations. The Aces, however, are solely focused on building from last season’s run to the WNBA Finals, fueled by reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson. Although Seattle swept Las Vegas in the Finals, the Aces were without three key players in Liz Cambage (who opted out the 2020 season due to COVID-19 risk), Kelsey Plum (torn left Achilles tendon) and Dearica Hamby (partial MCL tear in her right knee).
When Las Vegas takes the court in its Finals rematch against Seattle on Saturday, the Aces will have the two-time reigning Sixth Woman of the Year in Hamby, a newly acquired piece in Chelsea Gray (14.1 points and 5.0 assists over the past four seasons), and Plum and Cambage back.
However, even with key pieces returning and more talent on this year’s team from last season, coach Bill Laimbeer said his team still has more work to do. To Laimbeer’s point, losing Angel McCoughtry—who tore her ACL and meniscus in her right knee in a preseason game against the Sparks—is something the Aces will have to adjust to.
In addition, it will be interesting to see how Laimbeer uses the 2019 No. 1 draft pick Jackie Young and Riquna Williams in a loaded Aces rotation. Young shot 49.2% coming off the bench and nearly doubled her scoring output from 6.6 to 11 points per game last season. It is no question that the Aces are the team to beat in the WNBA.