Generations Collide in the 2022 WNBA Playoffs Presented by Google

The final week of the 2022 regular season was a combination of competition and celebration.

While teams battled it out to either secure a playoff berth, or earn home-court advantage in the first round, or capture the No. 1 overall seed in the eight-team tournament, they also took time to salute two legendary players —  Sylvia Fowles and Sue Bird — that were nearing the end of their WNBA careers.

For Fowles, the end came on Sunday as her Lynx fell just shy of securing a playoff berth for the 12th consecutive year. Syl’s Final Ride included a heartwarming sendoff in Minneapolis on Friday and in Connecticut on Sunday as the Sun fans gave her a standing ovation when she was subbed out in the final minute.

For Bird, the WNBA’s all-time leader in games played at 580 in the regular season and 634 in the playoffs and regular season combined, she has a maximum of 11 games remaining in her WNBA career should her Seattle Storm make another Finals run and need to go the distance in each series along the way, beginning with a best-of-three first-round matchup against Washington.

Bird is one of 11 players in this year’s postseason with at least 10 years of WNBA experience, a list that includes four of her Storm teammates as Seattle enters the playoffs with the oldest roster in terms of average age (30.1 years) and WNBA experience (7.8 seasons).

PLAYER TEAM POS EXP DRAFT YEAR
Sue Bird SEA G 18 2002
Diana Taurasi PHX G 17 2004
Candace Parker CHI F-C 14 2008
Allie Quigley CHI G 13 2008
Briann January SEA G 13 2009
DeWanna Bonner CON F-G 12 2009
Epiphanny Prince SEA G 12 2010
Courtney Vandersloot CHI G 11 2011
Jasmine Thomas CON G 11 2011
Tina Charles SEA C 11 2010
Jantel Lavender SEA F 10 2011

 

In addition to Seattle’s five players (Bird, January, Prince, Charles and Lavender), Chicago has three players with double-digit WNBA experience (Parker, Quigley and Vandersloot), and Connecticut has two (DeWanna Bonner and Jasmine Thomas, although Thomas is out for the season with an ACL tear).

While we know this is the final playoff run for Bird and January (who also announced her intentions to retire at season’s end as she looks to pursue a coaching career), could it also be the last chance at a championship run for anyone else on that list above? There are no guarantees of a return trip to the postseason year after year – as so many things can derail a season – so veteran players have to take full advantage of the opportunity that lies ahead of them.

TEAM AGE EXPERIENCE
Seattle 30.1 7.8
Connecticut 27.7 5.8
Chicago 28.7 5.4
Phoenix 29.0 4.8
Las Vegas 27.0 4.6
Washington 27.9 4.4
New York 26.5 3.5
Dallas 24.4 2.6

 

Even though the Storm are veteran loaded, they are complemented by two stars currently in their primes: league scoring champ Breanna Stewart in her sixth season and the league’s 10th leading scorer in Jewell Loyd in her eighth, as well as two younger players that bring the energy while each logging about 25 minutes per game (Gabby Williams in her fourth season and Ezi Magbegor in her third).

Stewart, who matched her career-best in scoring at 21.8 points per game, was just named the AP’s WNBA Player of the Year. She remains a frontrunner to win her second league Most Valuable Player award, with some tough competition from Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson, who we’ll discuss shortly.

When the Sky won their first WNBA title a season ago, it wasn’t one of the core veterans that took home the Finals MVP; that honor went to Kahleah Copper, who is now in her seventh WNBA season and averaged a team-best and career-best 15.7 points per game. In the offseason, the Sky added another former Finals MVP in Emma Meesseman, who is now in her eighth season. In terms of youth, look no further than rookie Rebekah Gardner, who went from undrafted to an AP All-Rookie selection this season.

Of course, this is just one of end of the spectrum. On the other hand, there are teams with rosters dominated by younger players as new stars arrive on the playoff stage looking to make their mark.

Look at that chart above again and you’ll see New York and Dallas in final two spots when it comes to average age and WNBA experience. The Wings earned the No. 6 seed with the youngest roster of any team in the league with an average age of 24.4 years old. Only the 5-31 Indiana Fever had a roster with less WNBA experience at an average of 2.2 seasons compared to Dallas’ 2.6 seasons.

The Wings finished at .500 (18-18) – their best season since arriving in Dallas in 2016 – but will enter the playoffs without their leading scorer as Arike Ogunbowale is sidelined for the first round with an abdominal injury. Ogunbowale is one of the league’s top young scorers – she won the scoring title in her second season and finished fourth in scoring this season at 19.7 points per game. The young Wings didn’t let the absence of their top scorer derail them down the stretch as they won six of their final eight games to lock up a playoff berth for the second straight year.

New York is back in the postseason – and once again in the eighth seed – for the second consecutive year. Their 2021 playoff run ended in heartbreaking fashion in a single-elimination loss to Phoenix. After Betnijah Laney knocked down a clutch 3-pointer to tie the game with just 2.7 seconds to play, a defensive miscue on the Mercury’s ensuing ATO left Brianna Turner wide open under the basket; she drew a foul, hit a free throw, and sealed the New York’s fate.

Laney, who is in her seventh WNBA season, is one of New York’s more experienced players, alongside Stefanie Dolson (who won the 2021 title with Chicago) and Natasha Howard (who won the 2017 title with Minnesota as well as the 2018 and 2020 titles with Seattle). But the Liberty also have a younger core centered around 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu along with the last two Rookie of the Year winners in Michaela Onyenwere (2021) and Crystal Dangerfield (2020), as well as 6-10 center Han Xu and sharpshooter Marine Johannes, who are both in their second WNBA seasons.

In her first WNBA playoff game, Ionescu posted 14 points, 11 assists and five rebounds in New York’s loss to Phoenix. What will she do in her second trip to the postseason? Ionescu posted two triple-doubles during the regular season to bring her career total to three – tying Parker for the most in WNBA history.

After looking at the oldest teams and the youngest teams in the field, we have to look at the teams in the middle of the spectrum – teams that are filled with players that have earned some experience but are still entering, or currently in, the prime of their careers.

We have to begin with Las Vegas, the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, and a squad loaded with talent for first-year head coach Becky Hammon. Any discussion of the Aces has to begin with A’ja Wilson, a fifth-year pro that already has one MVP in her trophy room (2020) and has made a strong case for earning a second MVP in 2022 as she finished fifth in scoring (19.5 ppg), second in rebounding (9.4 rpg), first in blocks (1.9 bpg) and 12th in steals (1.4 spg), while shooting career-best percentages from the field (50.1%) and from 3-point range (37.3%) as she expanded her range beyond the arc with 31 3s this season compared to just one in her first four seasons combined.

The Aces have the most-used five-person lineup in the league and it’s not even close as the Las Vegas core of Wilson, Chelsea Gray, Dearica Hamby, Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young shared the court for 561 minutes this season – 208 more minutes than any other five-player lineup in the league. That core group ranges from fourth year (Young) to eighth year (Gray and Hamby, who is expected to miss the opening round with a knee contusion).  Plum finished as the league’s second-leading scorer in her fifth WNBA season while also capturing MVP honors at this year’s All-Star Game.

The Connecticut Sun have been knocking on the door in search of their first championship for the past few seasons – including a run to the 2019 WNBA Finals, where they fell to Washington in five games. Is 2022 the year they can finally break through and capture that elusive title? They have a roster that can beat any team in the league on any given night, led by reigning league MVP Jonquel Jones, who is in her sixth WNBA season. Jones led the Sun in scoring (14.6 ppg), rebounding (8.6 rpg) and blocks (1.2 bpg); she has all the skills of an elite modern day big – she can anchor a defense and protect the basket on defense, while being able to score inside and stretch the floor on offense.

Behind Jonquel, the Sun had three players average between 13.4 points and 13.8 points per game – Brionna Jones at 13.8, DeWanna Bonner at 13.5 and Alyssa Thomas at 13.4 – showcasing the balance of their attack. Bonner is the most veteran player on the roster in her 13th season and with two championships under her belt from her time with Phoenix. Both Joneses are in their sixth WNBA season, while Thomas averaged a career-best in assists (6.1 apg) and racked up the first two triple-doubles of her career in her ninth season.

Three more younger players to watch for the Sun are Courtney Williams (averaging 11.1 points and 3.3 assists in her sixth WNBA season), Natisha Hiedeman (averaging 9.1 points and 3.3 assists in her fourth season) and DiJonai Carrington (averaging 6.8 points in her sophomore season).

While the core of Connecticut’s lineup remains the same from their 2019 Finals appearance against Washington, the Mystics roster has undergone some changes over the past few seasons. Of course, the centerpiece remains the same in Elena Delle Donne, who played a total of three games in the two seasons following Washington’s title run, before getting healthy and playing 25 games this season. The two-time league MVP averaged 17.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 blocks in 27.8 minutes per game in her ninth WNBA season.

In her seventh season, Natasha Cloud dethroned Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot to win her first assist title, leading the league with seven dimes per game to go with a career-best 10.1 points per game. Ariel Atkins earned her second straight All-Star nod in her fifth WNBA season as she finished as Washington’s second-leading scorer. Rookie center Shakira Austin provided a welcome spark to the squad as she averaged 8.7 points and a team-best 6.4 rebounds in just 21.6 minutes per game.

The Mystics also added a pair of veterans in free agency since their last title run, with Alysha Clark (now in her 10th season) coming over after winning two titles with Seattle, and Elizabeth Williams (now in her eighth season) coming over after spending most of her career in Atlanta.

The toughest roster to analyze belongs to Phoenix as there is still so much unknown about the status of two star players: Diana Taurasi missed the final five games of the regular season and has been ruled out for Game 1 of the playoffs due a quad injury; Skylar Diggins-Smith missed the final four games of the regular season due to personal reasons and her status for the playoffs remains a mystery.

Without Taurasi (18th season), Diggins-Smith (ninth season), Brittney Griner (what would have been her 10th season) and Tina Charles (who left the Mercury in the middle of her 12th season), the veteran core of this team has essentially vanished. That leaves first-year coach Vanessa Nygaard with a lot of young players to work with as she looks for her first playoff win.

Phoenix will have to rely heavily on Diamond DeShields, who is in her fifth WNBA season and first with the Mercury after winning a title with Chicago last season, along with fourth-year players Sophie Cunningham, Brianna Turner, Shey Peddy and Megan Gustafson, as well as second-year player Jennie Simms to try to take down No.1 overall seed Las Vegas in the opening round.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll see a number of players make their playoff debuts and others play in the final playoff game of their careers. But when looking at the overall talent landscape of the league, as the older generation begins to exit, the younger generation will continue to rise, leaving the game in good hands.

Longtime WNBA reporter Brian Martin writes articles on WNBA.com throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.