Note: WNBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Tuesday during the season, are the opinion of this writer and do not reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.
With less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, every game from here until Sept. 18 is magnified in importance for teams seeking playoff berths and improved positioning in the postseason.
Keep in mind, with the new playoff format, the top four teams in the league — regardless of conference affiliation — will receive byes in the first round, with the top two teams getting byes for the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Lynx and Sparks have solid leads on the rest of the league for the top two seeds and New York is sitting comfortably in third position, but then things get interesting for that No. 4 seed and the first-round playoff bye that comes with it.
There are four teams — Atlanta, Chicago, Indiana and Phoenix — that are separated by just a single game in the loss column with an average of eight games left to play in the regular season. Snagging that No. 4 spot will allow that team to avoid the single-elimination opening round of the playoffs.
It’s a challenge to face the most important stretch of the season coming off of a five-week hiatus, but it is a challenge each team must face and the teams that respond best will reap the benefits come playoff time. In the first few days since play resumed on Aug. 26, we’ve seen some teams come out hot (Chicago and Phoenix are both 2-0) and others have been cold (Sparks and Wings are both 0-2).
1. Minnesota Lynx
Last Week: 2
2016 Record: 22-5 (clinched playoff berth)
OffRtg: 107.0 (2); DefRtg: 95.1 (1); NetRtg: 11.8 (1)
The Lynx once again own the league’s best record (by a half-game over the Sparks) and the top spot in the WNBA.com Power Rankings (which they held for the first six weeks of the season). After dropping its first game after the Olympic break — which wasn’t much of a break for the Lynx as four of their players and their head coach all represented the USA in Rio — Minnesota bounced back with a win over Seattle to grab win No. 22 on the season, matching last season’s win total with seven games left to play.
2. Los Angeles Sparks
Last Week: 1
2016 Record: 21-5 (clinched playoff berth)
OffRtg: 108.1 (1); DefRtg: 96.5 (2); NetRtg: 11.6 (2)
It took the Sparks 22 games before they took their second loss of the season. Now, the once 20-1 Sparks have lost four of their last five games — two of their final three before the break and both of their games since play resumed on Friday. The Sparks will look to get back on track with a back-to-back in Texas against the Stars and Wings — the bottom two seeds in the West — beginning on Thursday. Although the Lynx snapped L.A.’s five-week reign atop the Power Rankings, the league’s top two teams will have their rubber match next Tuesday (Sept. 6) on ESPN 2.
3. New York Liberty
Last Week: 3
2016 Record: 19-8 (clinched playoff berth)
OffRtg: 101.2 (T-8); DefRtg: 97.6 (3); NetRtg: 3.6 (3)
The Liberty are a near-lock for the No. 3 seed in the playoffs, as they have a commanding lead over the four teams contending for the No. 4 spot and trail the Lynx and Sparks by three games in the loss column with just seven games left to play. Another lock for the Liberty is Tina Charles being among the favorites to win her second WNBA MVP award. Charles is the WNBA’s second-leading scorer (21.0 ppg) and leading rebounder (9.7 rpg) and ranks 13th in assists as a power forward/center.
4. Atlanta Dream
Last Week: 4
2016 Record: 14-13
OffRtg: 99.6 (10); DefRtg: 102.0 (4); NetRtg: -2.4 (T-7)
The Dream face Western Conference teams in six of their final seven games of the season — including a pair of games with Phoenix, which is one of the three teams chasing the Dream for the No. 4 spot in the playoffs. With the race for that spot so tight, we have to look at potential tiebreakers: The Dream own a 2-1 series lead over Chicago this season, a 1-2 series deficit against Indiana and an 0-1 mark against Phoenix with two games to play.
5. Chicago Sky
Last Week: 6
2016 Record: 13-13
OffRtg: 106.1 (3); DefRtg: 105.5 (11); NetRtg: 0.7 (T-4)
The Sky opened up post-Olympic break play with wins over Atlanta and Dallas to get them back to .500 at 13-13 and on the heels for the Dream for the No. 4 playoff spot. Elena Delle Donne dropped 34 points on the Dream in the first game after the break on Friday to help the reigning MVP and scoring champ take over the league lead in scoring at 21.6 points per game. After coming off the bench and averaging 8.6 points per game for the USA during the Olympics, the first-time gold medalist returned the the WNBA in MVP form.
6. Phoenix Mercury
Last Week: 7
2016 Record: 12-14
OffRtg: 105.5 (4); DefRtg: 104.8 (9); NetRtg: 0.7 (T-4)
There’s always a question about how players will return from the Olympic break, whether they were participating in the Games or using the five-week break to heal up and work on their game. For Diana Taurasi, who led the USA in scoring (15.6 ppg) and set three-point shooting records en route to her fourth gold medal, she’s come back to the WNBA on fire. Take a look at her numbers in the final two games before the break compared to the two the Mercury have played since the season resumed:
Before Break: 8-30 (26.7%) FG, 6-18 (33.3%) 3FG, 31 PTS (15.5 PPG)
After Break: 14-25 (56.0%) FG, 7-15 (46.7%) 3FG, 39 PTS (19.5 PPG)
7. Indiana Fever
Last Week: 5
2016 Record: 12-13
OffRtg: 101.4 (7); DefRtg: 103.8 (6); NetRtg: -2.4 (T-7)
Tamika Catchings wrapped up her USA Basketball career by winning her fourth gold medal, but played the fewest minutes of any player on the team. The veteran forward, who will retire at the end of this season, accepted the reduced role on the National Team, but when it comes to leading the Indiana Fever back to the playoffs, Catchings will be front and center as she tries to end her WNBA career on a high note.
8. Seattle Storm
Last Week: 8
2016 Record: 10-16
OffRtg: 102.8 (5); DefRtg: 104.5 (8); NetRtg: -1.7 (6)
When Sue Bird went down with a knee injury during the USA’s win over Japan in the Olympic quarterfinals, the WNBA universe — particularly the contingent in Seattle — held its collective breath. After sitting out the semifinal win over France, Bird returned to the court for the gold medal game against Spain as we all let out a sigh of relief that the Storm point guard and WNBA assist leader (5.9 per game) was not seriously hurt. Bird and the Storm opened their post-break schedule by splitting games against the top two teams in the league, beating L.A. 79-72 and falling to Minnesota 92-80. Seattle is currently tied with Washington for the eighth and final playoff berth with eight games to play.
9. Connecticut Sun
Last Week: 9
2016 Record: 9-17
OffRtg: 99.3 (11); DefRtg: 103.9 (7); NetRtg: -4.6 (10)
The Sun are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture, but they have won three of their last four games (going back before the Olympic break), including their second win over the defending champion Lynx on Friday in the first game after the break. The Lynx have lost just five games all season and the Sun are the only team the Lynx have yet to defeat this year. Connecticut is the only team to beat the defending champs since June 30.
10. Washington Mystics
Last Week: 11
2016 Record: 10-16
OffRtg: 101.2 (T-8); DefRtg: 104.9 (10); NetRtg: -3.7 (9)
The Mystics lost their final seven games heading into the Olympic break and got a much-needed win over Indiana on Saturday in Washington’s first game since the hiatus. However, those winning ways came to a quick halt the following day as the Mystics dropped a home game to San Antonio on the second night of a back-to-back. The Mystics (10-16) are currently tied with Seattle for the final playoff berth with their season series knotted at 1-1 before their final regular season matchup on Sept. 9.
11. Dallas Wings
Last Week: 10
2016 Record: 9-18
OffRtg: 102.7 (6); DefRtg: 108.0 (12); NetRtg: -5.3 (11)
While the Mystics were able to snap the long losing streak they carried over from the Olympic break, the Wings were not so fortunate as their six-game losing skid heading into the break has now been extended to eight straight losses after defeats to the Mercury and Sky over the weekend. If the Wings have any hopes of making a return trip to the playoffs, they have to end this tailspin quickly, with their first shot coming on Wednesday in Seattle.
12. San Antonio Stars
Last Week: 12
2016 Record: 6-19
OffRtg: 93.7 (12); DefRtg: 102.8 (5); NetRtg: -9.1 (12)
In a season that has been a struggle from the start, let’s focus on a couple of highlights from the past week. First, Sydney Colson turned in one of the plays of the year on Friday against New York, pulling off a “Showtime” around-the-back layup on the fastbreak. While the Stars dropped that game against the top team in the East, they did pick up their sixth win over the season on Sunday in Washington. The Stars have nine games left on their schedule for this young team to continue to grow and build toward next season.