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Inside The W with Michelle Smith

We’re halfway through the milestone 20th season in WNBA history and some truths are self-evident.

1) This league is loaded with talent across the spectrum, from veterans like Tina Charles, Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi, who continue to play at the highest individual levels, to players like Maya Moore, Nneka Ogwumike and Elena Delle Donne, who are continuing to shine as they head into the prime of their pro careers, to young players such as Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, Skylar Diggins and Moriah Jefferson, who are quickly making their mark.

2) The best league in the world has become a truly international showcase, with 15 players from around the world on rosters around the WNBA.

3) The league is top-heavy. Only three teams in the WNBA have winning records as of Tuesday evening – Los Angeles, Minnesota and New York. Washington and Atlanta are even at 9-9. And seven teams are below .500.  If the season ended today, three teams in the Playoffs would have a losing record.

Setting aside what we know to be true, there are many questions heading into the second half of a season that will be interrupted soon enough by the Olympic break which begins July 23.

Who are the leading candidates for MVP?

In order of the moment:

1) Tina Charles, New York. Charles is having the best season of her pro career, averaging 23.1 points and 9.8 rebounds a game for a team that looks like a title contender. Perhaps, most impressive, she’s averaging 4.2 assists, a career-best by a wide margin. She’s scored at least 25 points in seven games this season and has collected 10 double-doubles. She’s been stellar and equally integral to her team’s fortunes every night.

2) Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles. She is currently the leading scorer and rebounder on the No. 1 team in the league. Ogwumike is averaging a career-best 18.6 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. In her last two games, against the two of the stronger teams in the Eastern Conference – New York and Atlanta – Ogwumike has scored a combined 60 points and pulled down 26 rebounds with eight blocked shots. For the season, she’s shooting an incredible 69.9% from the floor.

3) Maya Moore, Minnesota. Moore is a perpetual MVP contender and this season is no different. Moore is averaging 19.3 points a game for the powerful Lynx. Moore’s scoring average is down slightly compared to previous seasons as the Lynx find more offensive balance in their lineup. But she is the driving force on a veteran team built to make another title run.

4) Candace Parker, Los Angeles. The Sparks’ amazing start means at least two players have to be playing at an extremely high level. Parker, as motivated as ever to get her team to a championship, is averaging 16.2 points a game. She leads the Sparks in assists at 4.5 per game.

Could the Rookie of the Year and the Most Improved Player come from the same team?

Absolutely. Breanna Stewart is averaging 19.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in her first professional season, and while she isn’t winning nearly as much as she did at UConn, she’s getting the hang of this whole pro basketball thing in a hurry. She’s sharing the floor with Jewell Loyd, who is making the most of her sophomore season. Her scoring average has jumped from 10.7 points a game as a rookie to 17.1 this season. She is rebounding more, dishing more often and has dramatically improved her 3-point shooting (from 20.8 to 29.0 percent).

Should they just etch Brian Agler’s name on the Coach of the Year trophy right now?

Yes. Los Angeles is off to one of the best starts in league history and Agler’s offensive and defensive philosophies have taken hold. But more importantly, Agler has tapped into a level of motivation and drive that has been missing on a talent-rich Los Angeles roster for years. And he has made smart moves bringing in experienced international players to fill specific roles. This one is a done deal.

Can any team other than Los Angeles be considered a pleasant surprise?

Washington. The Mystics are 9-9 after starting the season with a bevy of injuries. But Washington has won seven of its last 10 games and are currently positioned for the No. 4 seed in the Playoffs. The Mystics are about to begin a five-game road trip, the longest of the season. Offensive balance is the key to their success at the moment, with guards Tayler Hill and Emma Meesseman averaging a combined 30.6 points a game.

So, what is up with Phoenix?

The Mercury’s slow start was, frankly, shocking to many who had the reunited Mercury – with Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor back on the floor – pegged to contend for a title. But defense and chemistry failed Phoenix in the early going and then things started to click. The Mercury are steadily climbing the league’s power rankings, but can’t quite find the consistency to reel off a big winning streak that would put them solidly above .500. A three-game winning streak has been blunted by two losses in the last three games. The Mercury will play four of five at home heading into the Olympic break.

Is Stephanie White’s imminent departure impacting Indiana?

The Fever are not giving White – or legend Tamika Catchings – the send-off they would like. Indiana has fallen in the Eastern Conference with six losses in nine games and now face a tough West Coast road trip that includes games at Los Angeles, Phoenix and then Seattle. The Fever are the second-lowest scoring team in the league, only one of two teams averaging less than 80 points a game.

Who is the most likely candidate for postseason darkhorse?

Dallas. The Wings have had an up-and-down year, but have proven that they can beat talent-rich teams like Phoenix, whom they have downed in all three of their matchups so far this season. Skylar Diggins is getting healthier, Glory Johnson is getting warmed up after her suspension – she scored 23 points and pulled down a WNBA season-high 22 rebounds Tuesday night – and the Wings are one of the highest-scoring teams in the league. On Tuesday, the Mercury had four players score in double figures and still couldn’t hold off the Wings.

What is it about Atlanta that brings out the individual best in its opponents?

Three of the top single-game performances of the season have come against the Dream.

Brittney Griner’s triple-double (27-27-10 blocks) on July 3.

Nneka Ogwumike’s 38-point game, 11-rebound game on June 30.

Breanna Stewart’s 38-point game on June 28.

But, what is the best single-game performance so far this season?

My vote is for Candace Parker’s 31-point, 13-rebound, 7-assist game to lead the Sparks to an 89-84 win against Dallas on the night of Pat Summitt’s passing. It was impressive, it was inspired and it was emotional.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2016 season.

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