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WNBA Decade In Review: 2016

League Champion: Los Angeles Sparks (Third title in franchise history)

Top Draft Pick: Breanna Stewart (SEA, University of Connecticut)

 

Awards

 

Top Players

  • All-WNBA First Team: Sue Bird (SEA), Tina Charles (NYL), Elena Delle Donne (CHI), Maya Moore (MIN), Nneka Ogwumike (LAS)
  • All-WNBA Second Team: Sylvia Fowles (MIN), Jewell Loyd (SEA), Angel McCoughtry (ATL), Breanna Stewart (SEA), Diana Taurasi (PHX)
  • All-Rookie Team: Moriah Jefferson (SAS), Imani McGee-Stafford (CHI), Tiffany Mitchell (IND), Aerial Powers (DAL), Breanna Stewart (SEA)
  • All-Defense First Team: Alana Beard (LAS), Sylvia Fowles (MIN), Briann January (IND), Angel McCoughtry (ATL), Nneka Ogwumike (LAS)
  • All-Defense Second Team: Tamika Catchings (IND), Brittney Griner (PHX), Breanna Stewart (SEA), Jasmine Thomas (CON), Tanisha Wright (NYL)

 

Stats Leaders

  • Points Per Game: Tina Charles (NYL): 21.5
  • Rebounds Per Game: Tina Charles (NYL): 9.9
  • Assists Per Game: Sue Bird (SEA): 5.8
  • Steals Per Game: Tamika Catchings (IND): 1.8
  • Blocks Per Game: Brittney Griner (PHX): 3.1

 

Regular Season

The year 2016 brought a new president, a new superstar and a new playoff format to the WNBA.

On April 14, the new president Lisa Borders introduced the new superstar, Breanna Stewart, as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft by the Seattle Storm. This was the second straight No. 1 pick for Seattle (Jewell Loyd in 2015) as the Storm laid the foundation for their future success.

Stewart entered the WNBA following a historic run of success at the University of Connecticut. She led the Huskies to the national championship each year of her college career and is the only player in NCAA Division I history to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four four times.

A pair of her college teammates followed her in the draft – Moriah Jefferson to San Antonio and Morgan Tucker to Connecticut – marking the first time in WNBA history that three players from the same school were selected with the top three picks in the draft.

Once the season tipped off, the defending champion Minnesota Lynx (12-0) and Los Angeles Sparks (11-0) both started the season red hot, setting up a historic matchup of unbeaten teams when they met on June 21. The matchup marked the first time in history that two teams from the WNBA, NBA, NFL, MLB, or NHL met with each team having 10 or more wins, no losses and no ties. The game lived up to the hype as the Lynx edged out the Sparks, 72-69, on a 3-point shot by Renee Montgomery with 2.9 seconds to play.

 

That historic game took place 19 years to the date of the WNBA’s inaugural game on June 21, 1997. In celebration of the league’s 20th season, the WNBA unveiled the names of the 20 greatest and most influential players in league history – a group known as the Top 20@20. Four members of that elite group of 20 participated in the Sparks-Lynx matchup with Candace Parker representing L.A, while Seimone Augustus, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen represented Minnesota.

The other 16 players honored for their contributions to the game were: Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Catchings, Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, Yolanda Griffith, Becky Hammon, Lauren Jackson, Lisa Leslie, Deanna Nolan, Ticha Penicheiro, Cappie Pondexter, Katie Smith, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi, Tina Thompson and Teresa Weatherspoon.

The Lynx (28-6) and Sparks (26-8) ran away from the entire Western Conference while the New York Liberty (21-13) finished first in the East. It would be star players from those three teams that went 1-2-3 in MVP voting. Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike won her first MVP award, becoming the eighth different player in the last eight years to win the honor. New York’s Tina Charles finished second and Minnesota’s Maya Moore finished third in the voting.

Ogwumike shot a WNBA-best 66.5 percent from the field this season, the second-highest mark of all time, and set league records for consecutive field goals made (23) and most field goals in a game without a miss (12 vs. Dallas on June 11).  She finished third in the league in scoring (career-high 19.7 PPG) and rebounding (career-high 9.1 RPG) and recorded the second-most double-doubles (18).  She added career highs in assists (3.1 APG) and blocks (1.2 BPG) to go with 1.3 SPG in 33 games.

While the MVP race was tight, the Rookie of the Year contest was a bit one-sided as Seattle’s Breanna Stewart ran away with the honor after putting together one of the most impressive debut seasons in league history. Stewart led all rookies with 18.3 points (sixth in the WNBA), 9.3 rebounds (second) and 1.8 blocks (third) as she helped the Storm make a six-win improvement from 2015 to return to the playoffs after a two-year absence. With Jewell Loyd winning ROY in 2015, the Storm became the first team in WNBA history to have the Rookie of the Year in consecutive seasons.

We go from the beginning of a promising career to the conclusion of one of the greatest careers of all time as Indiana’s Tamika Catchings retired from the WNBA after 15 seasons. The 2011 MVP, 2012 champion and Finals MVP, and five-time Defensive Player of the Year retired as the WNBA’s all-time leader in steals, rebounds and free throw attempts and the league’s second-leading scorer. (Catchings was later surpassed by Diana Taurasi and now ranks third all-time in scoring.) But her impact was felt far beyond the numbers she posted on the court. She played the game with a passion and intensity that few players ever have and is one of the most giving and inspirational players off the court.

Another WNBA legend was honored in 2016 as the San Antonio Stars retired the No. 25 jersey of Becky Hammon two years after she ended her WNBA playing career and began her NBA coaching career as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs. As the Stars honored one of their best in 2016, they also won the WNBA Draft Lottery to hold the top pick in the 2017 Draft.

On Sept. 9, three-time WNBA MVP and four-time WNBA champion Sheryl Swoopes received the ultimate honor as she was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame alongside Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Yao Ming in the Class of 2016. Swoopes was just the fourth WNBA player to join the Naismith Hall of Fame but would be joined by teammates and opponents in future classes throughout the remainder of the decade.

 

All-Star

The was no WNBA All-Star Game held in 2016 due to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A record 26 active WNBA players began competition in the Summer Olympics, representing the United States, Australia, Brazil, Serbia and Spain – surpassing the previous record of 22 from the Sydney Games in 2000.

The United States would win their sixth consecutive gold medal – a streak that began with the 1996 team that helped launch the WNBA two decades earlier. The veteran trio of Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Diana Taurasi joined legends Teresa Edwards and Lisa Leslie as the only athletes in history with four Olympic gold medals in basketball.

 

Playoffs

The 2016 season marked the debut of the WNBA’s new playoff format. Under the new postseason structure, the eight teams with the highest winning percentages regardless of conference qualify for the playoffs and are seeded based on their record.

The number of playoff rounds increased from three to four.  The top two seeds receive a bye to the semifinals (third round), and the third and fourth seeds receive a bye to the second round. Teams are re-seeded after each playoff round.

The first and second rounds are single elimination. In the first round, the No. 5 seed hosts the No. 8 seed and the No. 6 seed hosts the No. 7 seed.  In the second round, the No. 3 seed hosts the lowest-seeded first-round winner and the No. 4 seed hosts the other first-round winner.

The semifinals feature a best-of-five format, with the No. 1 overall seed playing the lowest remaining seed and the No. 2 overall seed meeting the remaining team.  The Nos. 1 and 2 seeds will host Games 1, 2 and 5, and the lower-seeded teams will host Games 3 and 4 in their respective series. The WNBA Finals remain best-of-five and follow the same 2-2-1 format.

  • First Round: (6) Atlanta Dream def. (7) Seattle Storm, 1-0
  • First Round: (8) Phoenix Mercury def. (5) Indiana Fever, 1-0
  • Second Round: (4) Chicago Sky def. (6) Atlanta Dream, 1-0
  • Second Round: (8) Phoenix Mercury def. (3) New York Liberty, 1-0
  • Semifinals: (2) Los Angeles Sparks def. (4) Chicago Sky, 3-1
  • Semifinals: (1) Minnesota Lynx def. (8) Phoenix Mercury, 3-0
  • Finals: (2) Los Angeles Sparks def. (1) Minnesota Lynx, 3-2

 

With five of the previous eight WNBA Finals ending in three-game sweeps, the new playoff format was designed to ensure that the top two teams in the league – regardless of conference affiliation – meet in the championship round to determine the league champion.

The debut season of the new format played that out to perfection. During the regular season, the Minnesota Lynx (28-6) and Los Angeles Sparks (26-8) finished well above the rest of the league – the next team (New York, 21-13) was five games behind the second-ranked Sparks.

In previous seasons, the Lynx and Sparks would likely have met in a best-of-three series in the Western Conference Finals with the winner moving on to the Finals against the top team from the East. Thanks to the new format, these two powerhouses could meet in a best-of-five series in the championship round.

The end result was a matchup of the two best teams in a five-game series that will go down as one of the most thrilling in league history. The Sparks struck first in Game 1 thanks to an Alana Beard baseline jumper at the buzzer to give L.A. the 78-76 road win.

The Lynx would protect home court in Game 2 and send the series to Los Angeles tied at 1-1. The Sparks took Game 3 and were one win away from their first championship in 14 years. With their backs against the wall, the Lynx rode Maya Moore’s 31 points to force a winner-take-all Game 5 back in Minnesota.

Some games don’t live up to the hype – but this one exceeded it. Game 5 had 23 lead changes, 11 ties and neither team led by more than eight points all night. The final 24 drama-filled seconds saw both teams take the lead twice.

With 23.4 seconds remaining, Rebekkah Brunson put the Lynx up one (74-73) as she split a pair of free throws. Following a timeout, L.A. went to Nneka Ogwumike in the post, who found a cutting Candace Parker for a layup to put the Sparks up one (75-74) with 19.7 seconds left. Now it was Minnesota’s turn to take a timeout and draw up a play; they found Maya Moore for a turnaround jumper with 15.4 seconds that gave the lead back to the Lynx (76-75).

Out of timeouts, Chelsea Gray brought the ball up for the Sparks, dribbled into the lane, and put up a fadeaway jumper that missed with 7.5 seconds to play. Nneka Ogwumike grabbed the offensive rebound and put up a quick shot that was blocked by Sylvia Fowles with 5.2 seconds left. Ogwumike collected the blocked shot and put up a fadeaway jumper that dropped with 3.1 seconds to play to give the lead back to the Sparks (77-76). The Lynx got the ball to Lindsay Whalen for one last shot; she launched a half-court shot at the buzzer that only hit the backboard as the Sparks celebration began.