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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Midseason Grades

With the All-Star break having come and gone, the second half of the 2019 WNBA season is about to be back full swing. Once teams return to the floor Tuesday night, the determined scramble for playoff position will begin.

And what a scramble it is shaping up to be.

Only 3.5 games separate the top two teams in the standings – Connecticut and Las Vegas – from the team currently in the No. 8 spot, Minnesota.

A sense of parity has taken hold as every team in the league has at least six losses while many have have faced a degree of adversity in the form of injuries and absence.

There will be ample time to look ahead. But let’s hand out some grades for the first half, as well as a few mid-season awards:

Las Vegas (13-6). The team that began the season with expectations of a title took a bit of time to come together. Coming out the gate with a 2-3 record, the Aces have begun to find momentum. Las Vegas has won seven of their last eight games to ascend to the top of the league standings. New addition Liz Cambage is heating up. The Aces lead the league in rebounding and are second in scoring and assists. They are winning consistently, but will be tested in a big way with 2018 Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson now sidelined with an ankle injury. But Dearica Hamby is filling in ably in an unsung role, and the Aces still look like a team to beat come September. Grade: A-

Washington (12-6). The Mystics, like the Aces, came into the season as assumed title contenders. They have barreled through some key games this season, including a 42-point win against Connecticut, the top team in the league at that time. They have the league’s highest-scoring offense and are No. 1 in assists, field-goal percentage and 3-pointers made per game. Although they have been led with strong performances by Tianna Hawkins and Aerial Powers, along with Kristi Toliver’s experience and leadership, it’s evident that they need their star. Elena Delle Donne missed three games with a broken nose and the Mystics lost all three. They are 12-3 with her in the lineup. Is it clear that as Delle Donne goes, the Mystics go? Probably. But as long as she stays healthy, this is a team that will be in the conversation to the end. Grade: A

Connecticut (13-6). The Sun have their eyes on a title run and have won four straight games after a five-game losing skid that tested their ability to weather adversity. They rank fourth in the league in rebounds, third in steals and lead the league in second-chance points and they have won 16 of their last 17 games at home dating back to last season. But the five-game losing streak exposed the Sun’s inconsistency on the offensive end as they averaged just 70.6 points a game during their losing streak. A 98-point scoring game against Atlanta prior to the All-Star break showed that if the Sun can score, they will be able to stay atop the standings. Grade: B

Seattle (12-9). The defending champions have been on the ropes since before the season began. Breanna Stewart’s injury. Dan Hughes’ cancer diagnosis. Sue Bird’s injury. Jewell Loyd out for six weeks. Yet here they are, sitting in sixth place and just two games out of first place. Natasha Howard is having an MVP caliber season. Jordin Canada is turning into a top-line point guard in her second season. Alysha Clark and Sami Whitcomb are playing vital roles. The Storm are not among the league leaders in scoring, rebounding or assists, but they know how to find ways to win. No one has faced more adversity. It’s been impressive to watch. Grade A

Los Angeles (11-8). The Sparks have been playing short-handed for much of this season so far, missing Candace Parker and Alana Beard for long stretches. Alexis Jones and Maria Vadeeva are hurt. Riquna Wiliams is in the middle of a 10-game suspension. Playing in the past week with just eight active players has not kept L.A. from finding its way to four wins in its last five games to counter a four-game losing streak in mid-June. Nneka Ogwumike and Chelsea Gray provide steady leadership on the floor and are being relied upon heavily to do so. The Sparks rank fifth in the league in points per game, are sixth in rebounds per game, seventh in assists per game and ninth in field-goal percentage. On paper, the Sparks are a middle of the pack team at midseason. Still, this is a team that can get healthy and do some big damage in the second half. Grade: B-

Phoenix (10-8). The Mercury are still awaiting the return of Diana Taurasi to the lineup. Without Taurasi, who played part of one game and hasn’t been back on the floor since, offense isn’t exactly the issue. Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner are No. 1 and No. 2 in the league in scoring respectively. But Phoenix ranks last in rebounding and near the bottom in scoring overall. To make matters worse, Sancho Lyttle and Essence Carson, a key signing this offseason, are out with injuries. Still, this is a team that has beaten Las Vegas, Washington, Los Angeles and Seattle and should be more consistent, given its experience. Grade: C

Chicago (11-8). The Sky are putting themselves in prime playoff position under first-year head coach James Wade, who is taking advantage of his team’s variety of offensive weapons to become one of the top scoring teams in the league. Chicago ranks third in the league in scoring, second in field-goal percentage, and are tied for second in assists. Point guard Courtney Vandersloot is handing out 8.5 assists per game. 2019 WNBA All-Star Skills Challenge champion, Diamond DeShields, is one of the most exciting young players in the game. The second half is going to be tough, with nine of the final 15 games on the road and two games each left against Connecticut, Washington, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But so far, pretty good. Grade B+

Minnesota (10-10). The Lynx are rebuilding in real time, putting new pieces on the floor in an effort to begin to recreate the magic of the recent past for this franchise. Odyssey Sims has proven to be one of the best pickups of the offseason as she has been a consistent go-to scorer from the guard spot. Rookie forward Napheesa Collier is demonstrating the versatility and dependability she was known for during her accomplished college career, while being second in scoring among rookies (11.2 ppg). Sylvia Fowles is playing at an All-Star level on most nights. And the Lynx are hanging around in playoff position, even if they aren’t the juggernaut they were just a couple of years ago. But the Lynx don’t score as well as the top teams in the league. They rank eighth in opponents’ field-goal percentage and there is room to grow in the second half to solidify their postseason position. Grade: B

New York (8-11). The Liberty have more talent around Tina Charles this year with the addition of rookie Asia Durr. Kia Nurse is having the best season of her young career. And New York, in the second season under Katie Smith, is in contention for a return to the Playoffs. Charles is averaging 17.2 points a game, but the Liberty are in the bottom half of the league in rebounding, field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage and blocked shots. Durr has been dealing with a groin injury. Guard Brittany Boyd has an ankle injury that is slowing her. But there is room for growth and a chance to change momentum after the All-Star break. Grade: C

Dallas (5-14). After making the playoffs a season ago and bringing one of the best coaches in league history – Brian Agler – to the bench, the Wings aren’t happy about sitting in last place in the standings at this point. Dallas ranks last in the league in scoring offense. They continue to play without star point guard Skylar Diggins Smith. They are leaning heavily on rookie Arike Ogunbowale, who is producing some big moments in her first season. But Dallas is 2-7 in games decided by five points or less. Learning how to close out games is the No. 1 priority. Grade D

Indiana (6-15). The Fever are significantly better than they were a year ago, but a six-game losing streak over the past few weeks proves that they have a significant distance to go to catch up with the league’s best teams. Erica Wheeler is having a stellar individual season from the guard spot, becoming the first undrafted player in league history to win All-Star Game MVP. Candice Dupree is providing veteran leadership and stability and 6-foot-7 center Teaira McCowan is still finding her way in the post on a night-after-night basis. Victoria Vivians’ absence is being felt here. But there are steps forward here that are worth acknowledging. Grade: C-

Atlanta (5-15). This entire season has been a struggle for the Dream, who were a playoff team a year ago when Angel McCoughtry was injured in the semifinals and hasn’t been back on the floor since. Atlanta ranks last in the WNBA in scoring at 69.7 points a game and last in field-goal percentage at 36.9%. A team that has always prided itself on defensive tenacity ranks ninth in steals per contest. There is simply not enough scoring happening. Only Tiffany Hayes and Brittney Sykes are averaging double-figures scoring, both from the backcourt. Sitting five games back from the current eighth seeded Minnesota Lynx, the Dream have a daunting task ahead of them. Grade: D

Midseason Rookie of the Year: Napheesa Collier, Minnesota. Big impact on a potential playoff-bound team.
Midseason Coach of the Year: Bill Laimbeer. Putting a young team on a path to a title.
Midseason MVP: Elena Delle Donne, Washington. Her impact on the success of her team is unquestioned.
Midseason All-WNBA Team: Brittney Griner, Phoenix; Elena Delle Donne, Washington; Natasha Howard, Seattle; DeWanna Bonner, Phoenix; Courtney Vandersloot, Chicago.

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