Inside the W with Michelle Smith: 2021 Eastern Conference Recap

The WNBA’s 25th season is in the books, ending with the Chicago Sky’s exuberant celebration at Wintrust Arena in front of a sold-out home crowd. The season was a celebration of the league’s history and its longevity and its relevance in the current sports landscape.

Now begins the offseason of debate and decisions. Who will stay? Who will move? Who will bring back their core? Who will remodel?

Let’s recap the 2021 season team-by-team starting with the Eastern Conference and take our first look at 2022.

*Any mention of free agency status is subject to teams’ qualifying offers and core designations, which will be sent between January 1-14, 2022.*

Atlanta Dream

2021 record: 8-24, missed the playoffs

Team MVP: G Courtney Williams, one of two players to appear in all 32 games, led the team in scoring at 16.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

High point: Four-game win streak between May 21 and 29, including 90-83 win over Chicago.

Low point: 11-game losing streak between July 2 and Sept. 2 (including the Olympic break)

Heading into 2022: A major makeover is going to happen here, with new head coach Tanisha Wright, a 14-year WNBA veteran with a championship and numerous awards under her belt, along with Monday’s announcements of the hiring of Dan Padover (two-time WNBA Executive of the Year in 2020 and 2021) as general manager and Darius Taylor as assistant GM. Wright, heading into her first offseason as a WNBA head coach, has a significant job to do to rebuild a team that lost two coaches during the season, endured the lengthy suspension of a young star, and dealt with a sequence of significant player issues. With projected free agents Elizabeth Williams, Tiffany Hayes, Odyssey Sims, Courtney Williams, Shekinna Stricklen, and Candice Dupree, there is a lot of room to remake this franchise. The big questions, can the team repair its relationship with Chennedy Carter, find a bigger role for Aari McDonald and can Padover, who has been instrumental in building the Las Vegas Aces into a league power, convince some big name free agents to be a part of this team’s extreme makeover? And then there’s the small matter of getting another impact player through the WNBA Draft lottery.

Chicago Sky

2021 record: 16-16, won the WNBA Championship

Team MVP: G Kahleah Copper, led the team in scoring at 14.4 points a game and minutes played in the regular season and oh yeah, she was the Finals MVP.

High point: 8-2 run through playoffs on the way to franchise’s first WNBA title.

Low point: Seven-game losing streak between May 23 and June 5 with Candace Parker injured on bench.

Heading into 2022: The Sky are still basking in their first-ever championship, and after a 16-16 regular season and impressive postseason run in which they went 8-2 and became the first team in league history to win a title after winning two single elimination games in the early playoff rounds, they have every right to celebrate. But what comes next are some difficult decisions if the Sky’s aim is to bring this team back together. The list of projected unrestricted free agents includes Courtney Vandersloot, Allie Quigley, Stefanie Dolson, Astou Ndour-Fall, and newly minted Finals MVP Kahleah Copper, whose value in the market just skyrocketed after the postseason. Meanwhile, Diamond DeShields is a projected restricted free agent. And this list doesn’t take into account whether 35-year-old Candace Parker, who is under contract next season, is giving any serious thought to closing her career on the high note of winning a title in her hometown. The first decision is which of these incredibly important players might earn the core designation, and after that, a whole lot of tough choices.

Connecticut Sun

2021 record: 26-6, reached WNBA semifinals

Team MVP: Jonquel Jones, not coincidentally the WNBA MVP after averaging 19.4 points and 11.2 rebounds a game.

High point: A franchise-record 14-game winning streak to close the regular season.

Low point: Three straight losses in June while Jonquel Jones was away in Europe.

Heading into 2022: The Sun’s disappointment that, after finishing the season with a 14-game win streak and sweeping many of the league’s postseason awards, they didn’t get to play for a title after running into the buzzsaw that was eventual champ Chicago, should be salved by the fact that they are in a good position to bring back most of their team to take another shot at the championship in 2022. The biggest projected unrestricted free agent on the roster is Jonquel Jones, but the Sun would be in a position to tag her as their “core player.” The return of Alyssa Thomas full-time next season, as well as the emergence of Brionna Jones and the steady contributions of DeWanna Bonner make the starting lineup look pretty set. Veteran point guard Briann January is a projected unrestricted free agent and is still one of the league’s savviest defensive players. But at 34, it might be time to get younger in the backcourt. The Sun also definitely need to improve their depth off the bench and that will likely be their biggest focus in the upcoming offseason.

Indiana Fever

2021 record: 6-26, missed the playoffs

Team MVP:  Kelsey Mitchell, the only player on the roster to play in all 32 games, averaged Mitchell averaged 17.8 points a game.

High point: A three-game win streak between July 3 and July 11, including a 73-67 win over Connecticut.

Low point: Losing seven straight to close the regular season after a big win over Los Angeles on July 31.

Heading into 2022: The Fever missed the postseason for the fifth year in a row, and head coach Marianne Stanley and general manager Tamika Catchings, who led the team to its last winning season as a player back in 2016, are vowing that next year will be better, after this year’s disabling spate of injuries that held them to just six wins. But there are silver linings. Teaira McCowan had her best pro season yet and is rounding into the kind of strong post presence a successful WNBA team needs to have. Kelsey Mitchell has become a dependable go-to scorer. And the return of point guard Julie Allemand from France could improve the Fever backcourt. Indiana, which has experienced mixed success with its draft picks in recent years – this year’s No. 4 pick ​​Kysre Gondrezick played just 19 games before leaving the team for personal reasons and the No. 3 pick in 2020 Lauren Cox was released mid-season and picked up by LA – has another opportunity to improve through the draft with a pair of first-round draft picks, including potentially the No 1 pick, depending on how the lottery shakes out.

New York Liberty

2021 record: 12-20, eliminated in the first round

Team MVP: Betnijah Laney, a year after she was the WNBA’s Most Improved Player, Laney was New York’s go-to scorer at 16.8 points a game.

High point: A 5-1 start to open the season that changed the team’s expectations for the rest of the season.

Low point: Losing eight of nine games to close the season and barely eke out a playoffs berth for the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Heading into 2022: Heading into year 26 in the WNBA, the Liberty are still looking for their first title, but feeling better about the future after making it into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and nearly knocking off Phoenix when they got there. New York is still a young team, but now they have a good year of experience under their belts, cornerstone point guard Sabrina Ionescu had a mostly healthy second season, and the addition of veteran forward Natasha Howard late in the season showed promise for what they could look like next season. Rebecca Allen and Reshanda Gray, role players who brought important minutes to this team are projected to be unrestricted free agents and perhaps the Liberty will be in a position to secure another big-name veteran to bolster this team on both ends of the floor, with a particular emphasis on the post.

Washington Mystics

2021 record: 12-20, missed the playoffs

Team MVP: Tina Charles, who in her first (and perhaps only) season in a Mystics uniform, simply dominated to the tune of 23.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.

High point: A run of five wins in six games spanning June 8 to June 22, wins that included Minnesota and Seattle.

Low point: Losing five of seven to close the regular season and lose a shot at the playoffs.

Heading into 2022: The Mystics are at a crossroads with five potential unrestricted free agents, including Tina Charles, and the question about Elena Delle Donne’s long-term health after she was only able to return for three games in 2021 because of her back issues. Charles has made it clear that she wants to win a title before the end of her career and Washington looks further from it than just a couple of years ago. Emma Meesseman’s return is uncertain and Alysha Clark will be coming back from an injury. Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud, and projected restricted free agent, Myisha Hines-Allen are great building blocks, but now some of the big questions really need answers, including who will be the everyday point guard. Washington is likely to have a very busy offseason.

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.