Inside the W with Michelle Smith: 2021 Western Conference Recap

Let’s finish the 2021 season team-by-team recap with the Western Conference and take our first look at possible 2022 predictions.

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

Dallas Wings

2021 record: 14-18, eliminated first round of playoffs

Team MVP: Arike Ogunbowale, with 18.7 points a game, was the Wings’ most consistent contributor.

High point: An 87-84 win over Los Angeles in the regular-season finale, securing their playoff spot.

Low point: Losing 5 of 6 to open the regular season.

Heading into 2022: The franchise made its first playoff appearance since 2018, and despite falling in the first round to Chicago, Dallas made it clear that this still-young team is one that continues its upward trajectory. It’s not hard to see a bright future for any team that has Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally on its roster. But the Wings need to improve defensively to match their offensive prowess, and landing an experienced player in the post could certainly help the development of young posts Charli Collier and Awak Kuier. This is a team without a single unrestricted free agent on the roster, salary cap space, and another high draft pick. And a playoff experience to build upon.

Las Vegas Aces

2021 record: 24-8, eliminated in the semifinals

Team MVP: A’ja Wilson. The 2020 MVP came through again, leading the team in scoring (18.3 ppg) and 9.3 rebounds per game.

High point: A four-game winning streak to close the regular season including wins over Minnesota, Dallas, Chicago, and Phoenix.

Low point: Losing three of five in the semifinal series against Phoenix, including two home losses.

Heading into 2022: The devastation of A’ja Wilson in the moments after the Aces were eliminated in the semifinals by the Phoenix Mercury shows just how much Las Vegas felt strongly that this was their season to win a title. And the pieces were there, from Wilson and Liz Cambage inside, to the addition of Chelsea Gray and the off-the-bench contributions of Kelsey Plum and Dearica Hamby. But the Aces are going to have to make some offseason decisions about what the 2022 Aces will look like with Cambage, Riquna Williams, Angel McCoughtry and Kiah Stokes as projected unrestricted free agents and Wilson as a projected restricted free agent, who’s unlikely to be moving on. Is McCoughtry, who missed this season with a knee injury, still part of Vegas’ long-term plans? Does Cambage want to return to the WNBA next season? These are the big questions for a team that still has big ambitions.

Los Angeles Sparks

2021 record: 12-20, missed the playoffs

Team MVP: Erica Wheeler, the only player who appeared in all 32 games, and averaged 13.6 points and 4.8 assists per game.

High point: A run of four straight wins coming out of the Olympic break that put L.A. back in playoff position.

Low point: Following up those four wins with six straight losses, which contributed to the Sparks missing the postseason for the first time in a decade.

Heading into 2022: Injuries got in the way of Derek Fisher’s plan to remake the team’s identity. Nneka Ogwumike, Chiney Ogwumike, and Kristi Toliver all missed significant time, and Seimone Augustus moved to the coaching seat early in the season, costing this team its veteran core on the floor. Nneka Ogwumike will continue to be L.A.’s centerpiece with Amanda Zahui B, Erica Wheeler, and Brittney Sykes all set to return in 2022. Gabby Williams, who sat out the 2021 season after playing for France in the Olympic Games, will also join the fold and adds international experience and versatility. With Nia Coffey as the team’s only projected unrestricted free agent, the Sparks have a good idea of what they will look like, and what they need to fill in the gap. Chief on that list is 3-point shooting and depth in the frontcourt. L.A. could look to re-sign Maria Vadeeva and Lauren Cox to help in the frontcourt.

Minnesota Lynx

2021 record: 22-10, eliminated in the second round

Team MVP: Sylvia Fowles, the veteran center averaging 16.0 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals and blocks per game.

High point: Closing the regular season with 9 of 10 wins to secure the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.

Low point: Opening the season with four straight losses.

Heading into 2022: The Lynx got off to a slow start in 2021, and then rallied behind the stellar play of 36-year-old Sylvia Fowles and some key lineup changes to finish with the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, but fell in the single-elimination quarterfinal round to eventual champion Chicago. And so Minnesota’s quest to contend for a title for the first time since they last won one in 2017 continues. The biggest offseason question will be whether that quest continues with Fowles, the 2021 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, who has indicated she will take some time to consider whether to keep playing, as she is an unrestricted free agent. Guards Rachel Banham and Layshia Clarendon, whose addition to the lineup seems to have sparked Minnesota’s winning ways, are also projected unrestricted free agents and head coach Cheryl Reeve has already said to expect some change on the roster heading into 2022. The Lynx will have four draft picks, which could potentially be packed for a trade, and have a need for depth at the point guard position. The Lynx are always a team ready to make the interesting move, but what Fowles decides to do will likely be the most interesting move of all in Minnesota.

Phoenix Mercury

2021 record: 19-13, WNBA Finals runner-up

Team MVP: Brittney Griner, who led the Mercury in minutes (32.8), scoring (21.8) and rebounding (9.5) and could have been an MVP finalist if the Mercury could have finished higher in the standings.

High point: An impressive playoff run that included a pair of single-elimination wins over New York and Seattle, followed by a five-game series win over Las Vegas to go to the Finals for the first time since 2014.

Low point: A painful 80-56 loss to Chicago in the pivotal Game 3 of the Finals series that put the Sky in a position to close out a championship at home.

Heading into 2022: The Mercury aren’t likely to forget the sting of their WNBA Finals loss to Chicago anytime soon. What they plan to do about it in 2022 depends on a few things, starting with whether Diana Taurasi, who is signed for one more season, is committed to finishing that contract and making one more title run. Taurasi, who has played in just 41 games in the past three seasons thanks to injuries, should come back to a roster that’s largely intact with only two projected unrestricted free agents, Sophie Cunningham and Alanna Smith. Still, the Mercury needs to improve their depth off the bench, which was tested in the Finals series, particularly with Kia Nurse injured and out. Relying only on the Big Three doesn’t look like a pathway to a title, even though it got them awfully close.

Seattle Storm

2021 record: 21-11, eliminated in the second round of the playoffs

Team MVP: Breanna Stewart, the 2019 MVP had a great season (20.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a game) and was the engine that drove the defending champs all year until her late-season injury stopped them cold.

High point: A 79-57 win in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup over Connecticut immediately following the Olympic break.

Low point: Losing to Phoenix in an elimination game, ending the dream of defending a title.

Heading into 2022: The defending champs didn’t plan on finishing fourth and having to play in an elimination game when they had the best record in the league for the majority of the season before the Olympic break. But a 2-5 run during the closing stretch dropped them into the No. 4 seed and Stewart’s injury made them even more vulnerable. With the Storm having three big projected unrestricted free agents heading into 2022 – Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, and Sue Bird – the decisions about the future of the franchise, which will return to its remodeled arena next season, are of the highest magnitude. It’s easy to imagine Seattle giving Stewart its “core” designation. And Bird will decide whether or not she wants to play one more year. The big choice may come with Loyd, who will have plenty of suitors around the league willing to pay for a high-scoring, All-Star-caliber guard.

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.