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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Burning Questions

With less than a month to go in the regular season, the playoff picture is getting only a little clearer in the WNBA. Only 1.5 games separate the top four teams in the standings as the battle for a top two seed and a bye to the semifinals rages on while six teams are currently within 3.5 games of league-leading Washington.

And at this point, there are some burning questions that need answers.

Who is the best team in the league right now? Washington. The Mystics may only have a one-game lead in the standings for the top spot in the WNBA, but they are the league’s most dominant team. They have the best record in the league at 17-7 (three in a row and eight-of-nine wins) with 10 games to go, and they have been the most consistent throughout a season in which many teams have found consistency to be an elusive concept. Even with current injuries to Kristi Toliver and Tianna Hawkins, Washington defeated Minnesota, 101-78, on August 11. The previous week, they tagged Las Vegas with a 29-point win. They have beaten Seattle by 20 points and the Sun by 43 earlier this season. They are averaging 87.9 points a game, six points a game more than any other team in the league. Elena Delle Donne is having a great season, but not only because she is one of the world’s best basketball players, but because there is so much support around her with the breakouts of Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud and the veteran presence of Emma Meesseman, along with Aerial Powers. This feels like the team to beat.

Are the Sparks ready to challenge top teams heading into the postseason? Simple answer, absolutely. Los Angeles lurked for a long time this season, hanging around in the top tier of the standings while Candace Parker got healthy, with Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray holding down the fort. Now the Sparks have vaulted into the fourth position with 11 games to go with five straight wins and are making a run at a coveted top two seed. The Sparks overcame a 16-point first-half deficit to win at home against Chicago on Sunday. The team that started the season 4-6 has been 11-2 ever since. Parker is averaging 14.2 points and 6.7 rebounds in August. Add that to the mix in an offense already led by Ogwumike and Gray and things are definitely looking up in LA.

How dangerous is Minnesota? It’s hard to see how a team that has won just four of its last 10 games qualifies as “dangerous” right? And that’s fair. But the Lynx beat the Sun on August 9 by an attention-getting 32 points and have proven they can be a very good defensive team on any given night. Now about that offense…the Lynx have Seimone Augustus and Temi Fagbenle back on the floor, which provides depth and more scoring options. Six Minnesota players scored in double figures in the Connecticut win, which is a good sign moving forward. Napheesa Collier gets better every game and Cheryl Reeve is built to coach in the postseason. But it’s not going to be an easy home stretch. Minnesota faces Washington, Seattle, Los Angeles in a row starting Friday night. And in the final six games, they face Vegas, Chicago, Phoenix and LA again – all of whom are playoff teams right now. If the Lynx are going to be a factor, we will know soon enough.

What will be the impact of Brittney Griner’s suspension on Phoenix playoff prospects? Losing the league’s leading scorer for three games when you are in a race to make the playoffs isn’t an ideal spot to be in. But on paper, the short-handed Mercury (11-12) – who are already missing four players due to injury – look like they might be in a position to weather Griner’s absence. Her suspension begins Wednesday with a home game against the Connecticut Sun, a tough task to be sure, but the Mercury will then host the Atlanta Dream (5-20) and the New York Liberty (8-16) before Griner’s return against Las Vegas on August 20. Those two are certainly winnable games given the Dream and the Liberty’s respective position in the standings.

What’s the state of the Las Vegas Aces without A’ja Wilson? Holding their own. The 2018 Rookie of the Year has been sidelined since before the All-Star break with an ankle injury and there is no clear indication when she will be back. But the Aces remain in the top four in the league standings and are easily within striking distance of a coveted top two seed even with two losses in their last three games. Dearica Hamby is filling in ably for Wilson as a rebounder, defender and third scoring option next to Liz Cambage and Kayla McBride. But it’s not quite the same as having one of the league’s brightest young stars on the floor every night. The play of rookie Jackie Young, who has scored in double figures in four of her last five games, will be crucial. The next stretch is tough. Vegas has only three home games remaining and will play on the road at Chicago, Connecticut, Minnesota, Indiana and Phoenix before the postseason begins.

Is Courtney Vandersloot playing her way into the MVP conversation? The Chicago Sky have solidified their postseason position with eight wins in their last 10 games. And who has led the way, but the veteran point guard who has facilitated and scored and worked some all-around magic over this crucial stretch, to put herself in the conversation for the league’s Most Valuable Player. Only once in this 10-game stretch has Vandersloot dished out fewer than eight assists. She has scored in double figures in four straight games, including a 22-point, 11-assist performance in a tough loss to Connecticut. Last Friday in Las Vegas she finished with 16 points and 13 assists in 31 minutes. Vandersloot isn’t going to be an MVP favorite, but if people aren’t putting her in the conversation, they are just missing the point (guard).

Who is truly in the MVP race? If Vandersloot isn’t the first name that comes to mind, then who is? Washington’s Elena Delle Donne, who ranks second in the league in scoring at 19.1 points per game (to go with 8.3 rpg). Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike (16.9 ppg, 9.5 rpg). Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones (15.1 ppg, 10.3 rpg to lead the league). Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage (15.7 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Seattle’s Natasha Howard (18.4 ppg, 8.2 rpg). As someone who tends to focus my MVP attention on the biggest impact players for the top teams, Delle Donne and Ogwumike are my top tier of MVP candidates right now, with Jones, Cambage and Howard in the second tier.

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.