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Inside the W: Greatest Season in WNBA History?

The halfway point of the WNBA season came and went with fireworks and potato salad last week. As we move into the heart of the second half of the season, the championship looks up for grabs, the standings are jam-packed, the MVP race is wide open, and one thing is crystal clear: we might well be witnessing the greatest regular season in this league’s 22-year history.

By so many measures, the WNBA is experiencing the height of its collective power in 2018, a season that began with the promise of an exceptional rookie class in the April 12 draft and has already exceeded expectations.

The level of play across the board is arguably as high as it has ever been. The balance between the record-smashing careers of some of the greatest women’s players ever and the infusion of new talent has brought new fans, new coverage, strong ratings and an increasing level of interest.

The argument, however, is worth making. Even when stacked against the league’s inaugural season, or its barrier-smashing 20th season, could this really be the greatest season in WNBA history? Yes it is, and here’s why.

Competitive balance. It’s not unusual to have bunching in the middle of the standings while a couple of teams establish themselves as the cream of the crop with gaudy records. But the parity of this season is remarkable by any standard. Five different teams have been at the top of the league standings so far this season. As of Thursday, the top eight teams in the league – teams that would be in position for a playoff spot if the season ended right now – are separated by 4.5 games.

Eight of the 12 teams in the league have at least a .500 record. And the No. 9 team, Las Vegas, is closing fast, winning three in a row and six of its last 10 games. Even among the teams that are struggling, there are impressive wins. On Thursday, New York got a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Shavonte Zellous to beat Connecticut. Last week, last-place Indiana defeated the defending champion Lynx. Tenth-place Chicago has wins over Phoenix, Atlanta and Minnesota.

In seasons past, the league’s top teams have asserted themselves early. This season’s parity doesn’t mean that those teams have come down to the rest of the league. But the rest of the league has come up to them and it’s been exciting every day.

Records falling. On July 5, Rebekkah Brunson, who has won more titles than any player in WNBA history (5), became the league’s all-time leading rebounder. Diana Taurasi became the WNBA’s all-time field goals leader last week as well, passing Tina Thompson. Mystics coach Mike Thibault became the first coach in WNBA history to reach 300 wins. Unprecedented feats that the record books haven’t even conceived are tumbling. On Wednesday, for example, the Atlanta Dream became the first team in league history to have four players in the same game with at least 20 points and five assists.

Stars are shining. The league’s marquee players are earning their top billing. The list of top scorers this season is a who’s who of the world’s best women’s basketball players: Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne, Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Maya Moore.

Stewart is leading the league in scoring in her third professional season, propelling Seattle to the top of the standings. In the past three games, Diggins-Smith has scored 74 points, pushing Dallas to a five-game winning streak. Delle Donne has scored at least 20 points in eight of her last 10 games as Washington makes a push for a top-four playoff seed. Taurasi and Moore are giving their experienced teams an offensive focal point with their consistently clutch play.

The best at their best.

Oh, these rookies. A’ja Wilson had plenty of buzz coming into the league as the No. 1 pick. She also had plenty of burden, the centerpiece of an Aces franchise that is settling into a new home, with a new coach, and trying to erase an old narrative of on-court struggles. And Wilson has delivered in every way. She ranks second in the league in scoring and third in rebounding, the only rookie on either top 10 list. Her Aces have won three in a row and six of 10 after a 1-8 start. But she’s not the only spectacular debut. Rookies like Diamond DeShields (Chicago), Kia Nurse (New York), Kelsey Mitchell (Indiana), Ariel Atkins (Washington), Azura Stevens (Dallas) and Jordin Canada (Seattle) are all making an immediate impact on their teams, raising the level of play throughout the league with their talent and energy.

Comeback kids. Two of the best post players in the world are back on the WNBA court this season. Liz Cambage, the Australian star, hadn’t played in the WNBA in five years. The 6-foot-8, 26-year-old has vaulted Dallas to the list of title contenders. Cambage ranks sixth in the WNBA in scoring and second in rebounding and is an MVP candidate.

Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Chiney Ogwumike has juggled her broadcasting career at ESPN with rehabbing an Achilles injury that cost her the 2017 season, a setback that followed the microfracture surgery that forced her to sit out all of 2015. But Ogwumike is back for the Sun, and she’s picked up where she left off. Ogwumike currently is second in the WNBA in field-goal percentage (59.3) and has only failed to score in double figures in two games so far this season. She also has two wins this season over big sister Nneka’s Los Angeles Sparks.

Veteran than ever. Sue Bird, Taurasi and Alana Beard are some of the most experienced players in the league, and in many ways, they have never been better. Bird, in her 16th season, became the Storm’s all-time leading scorer last week, and is averaging 9.8 points and 7.3 assists a game, ranking No. 2 in the league in the latter category. Taurasi is averaging 19.6 points per game playing alongside Brittney Griner as the Mercury look for a title run. And Beard, who sustained a groin injury Thursday, is cementing her legacy as one of the best defensive players in the history of the league.

Compressed schedule. The compressed schedule is undeniably taxing teams with tight turnarounds and tough travel schedules. One WNBA coach this week called it “truly grueling.” But it is also creating a sense of urgency that is giving teams a win-now mentality. No time to fret over a loss because the next game is around the corner. As the second half moves on, teams will be tired, players will be gutting it out, and the WNBA will close with one of its most competitive finishes ever.

A finish that will be fitting for the greatest season in league history. Really.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.