Entering Thursday night, there are just 50 games remaining in the WNBA regular season. With the 2017 Playoffs set to tip off in less than a month, each one of those games takes on added importance as they will determine which eight teams make the field, which teams are headed to the lottery and which teams have the highest seeds.
Before we delve into this year’s playoff races, let’s do a quick review of the new WNBA Playoff format that was first implemented last season.
The impetus to change the playoff format was to ensure that the top two teams faced each other in the WNBA Finals for the championship.
The 2016 WNBA Finals featured the Minnesota Lynx (28-6) and Los Angeles Sparks (26-8), the two best teams throughout the regular season by a wide margin. Consider this, the Lynx and Sparks lost a combined 14 games. The only other team in the league that finished with fewer than 14 losses was the third-seeded New York Liberty (21-13).
In years past, the Lynx and Sparks would have met in the Western Conference Finals in a best-of-three series with the winner moving on to the WNBA Finals.
Under the new playoff format, we got to see the top two teams in the league meet with the championship on the line in a best-of-five series. It delivered what many believe as the greatest WNBA Finals in league history with L.A.’s Nneka Ogwumike making the championship-winning shot with 3.1 seconds left in the decisive Game 5.
It was just the fifth time that the Finals went the full five games since the championship round was expanded to a best-of-five in 2005. In the six years prior to the playoff format change, only one series had gone the full five-game distance, while there were four three-game sweeps.
>=500(H/A): Games remaining versus teams at or above .500 (Home/Away)
<500(H/A): Games remaining versus teams below .500 (Home/Away)
(-) Tie breaker not needed (better overall winning percentage)
(1) Head-to-head winning percentage
(2) Winning percentage vs. teams at or above .500 at end-of-season
(3) Net point difference in head-to-head games
(4) Net point difference in all games
(5) Coin toss (tied teams listed alphabetically above)
Once again, the Lynx (21-3) and Sparks (18-7) are in position to claim the top two seeds and the double-bye all the way to the semifinal round of the playoffs. At two games back, the Sun (16-9) are the biggest threat to the defending champion Sparks for the No. 2 seed.
The Sparks have the tougher schedule down the stretch with six games against teams at or above .500, compared to just four for the Sun. However, the Sparks won the season series with the Sun by winning the first two games between the teams. The Sun must finish with a better record than L.A. in order to pass them, which could make their matchup on the final day of the regular season crucial if they enter with even records.
While Minnesota and Los Angeles are the heavy favorites to capture the top two seeds once again this season, the race for the third and fourth seeds will be important to watch over the coming weeks. Remember, the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds come with the highly coveted first round playoff bye. And with the first two rounds of the playoffs being single elimination, one subpar performance could lead to playoff elimination.
Last season, the Indiana Fever finished as the No. 5 seed, just one game behind fourth-seeded Chicago. While the Sky got a bye to the second round, the Fever had to face a red-hot Mercury team that won three of its final four games to sneak into the playoffs. The Mercury defeated the Fever 89-78 to pull off the first round upset and advance to the second round. The single-elimination aspect of the first round is great in terms of the excitement that it brings, but it can be a cruel way to end a season after 34 games of work.
This year’s battle to earn those first round byes is headlined by four teams – Connecticut (currently No. 3 at 16-9), Washington (currently No. 4 at 15-10) as well as New York and Phoenix (both two games back of Washington at 13-12). Two of those teams – Washington and Phoenix – are currently without their leading scorers as Elena Delle Donne (thumb) and Brittney Griner (knee/ankle) are sidelined with injuries. Among these four teams, Phoenix also has the toughest schedule with five of their final nine games coming against teams with winning records.
An important thing to watch down the stretch is the tie break scenarios. Entering Thursday’s games, New York holds the five seed over Phoenix thanks to owning the tiebreaker by winning their season series 2-1. Connecticut currently holds tiebreakers over New York (2-1) and Phoenix (1-0), but has one game remaining with the Liberty and two left with the Mercury. The Sun and Mystics split their season series, which means their last meeting on Aug. 29 in D.C. could hold serious playoff implications.
While the teams near the top of the standings are in pursuit of playoff byes, there is another group of teams just looking to make it into the field. The Wings (13-14) are looking to make their first playoff appearance in Dallas and currently hold the No. 7 spot, with a 2.5 game cushion over a trio of teams trying to land the final spot in the field.
The Chicago Sky currently hold the No. 8 spot by virtue of holding tiebreakers over both Atlanta and Seattle as all three teams enter Thursday at 10-16 on the season. The Sky are 3-1 against the Dream this season and 1-0 against the Storm. However, there are two more meetings between the Sky and Storm to be played (8/20 and 9/3, both in Chicago) that could prove to be critical in determining which team qualifies for the postseason. The Storm and Dream are tied 1-1 in their season series with one final matchup set for Aug. 23 in Atlanta.
The Sky not only hold the No. 8 spot now, they are also playing the best ball of the three teams over the past 10 games with a 6-4 mark compared to 2-8 for Atlanta and 3-7 for the Storm, who just made a head coaching change on Thursday afternoon. Further back in the standings are the Indiana Fever at 9-18, which is 1.5 games back of the Sky-Storm-Dream trio. The Fever have made the playoffs for a WNBA-record 12 straight seasons, but that streak is in real jeopardy unless the Fever get hot and some good fortune from the teams ahead of them down the stretch.