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WNBA Decade In Review: 2017

League Champion: Minnesota Lynx (Fourth title in franchise history)

Top Draft Pick: Kelsey Plum (SAS, University of Washington)

 

Awards

 

Top Players

  • All-WNBA First Team: Tina Charles (NYL), Skylar Diggins-Smith (DAL), Sylvia Fowles (MIN), Maya Moore (MIN), Candace Parker (LAS)
  • All-WNBA Second Team: Chelsea Gray (LAS), Brittney Griner (PHX), Jonquel Jones (CON), Nneka Ogwumike (LAS), Diana Taurasi (PHX)
  • All-Rookie Team: Kaela Davis (DAL), Allisha Gray (DAL), Kelsey Plum (SAS), Brittney Sykes (ATL), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (WAS)
  • All-Defense First Team: Alana Beard (LAS), Tina Charles (NYL), Sylvia Fowles (MIN), Nneka Ogwumike (LAS), Jasmine Thomas (CON)
  • All-Defense Second Team: Rebekkah Brunson (MIN), Brittney Griner (PHX), Briann January (IND), Maya Moore (MIN), Alyssa Thomas (CON)

 

Stats Leaders

  • Points Per Game: Brittney Griner (PHX): 21.9
  • Rebounds Per Game: Jonquel Jones (CON): 11.9
  • Assists Per Game: Courtney Vandersloot (CHI): 8.1
  • Steals Per Game: Alana Beard (LAS): 2.1
  • Blocks Per Game: Brittney Griner (PHX): 2.5

 

Regular Season

With the top pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft, the San Antonio Stars selected the (then) NCAA women’s all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum of the University of Washington. The Sky selected South Carolina’s Alaina Coates at No. 2 and the Dallas Wings added Kentucky’s Evelyn Akhator and South Carolina’s Allisha Gray at Nos. 3 and 4, respectively.

Once again, the Minnesota Lynx got off to a hot start, opening the season with nine straight wins and improving to 13-1 after defeating the Sparks in a Finals rematch after their epic five-game battle in 2016. The loss to the Lynx snapped an eight-game win streak for the Sparks, who opened the season 12-3.

For the second straight season, the Lynx (27-7) and Sparks (26-8) ran away with the top two records in the league. They were followed by a pair of 20-win teams from the Eastern Conference – the New York Liberty (22-12) and Connecticut Sun (21-13). This was the third straight year that the Liberty finished first in the East thanks to a 10-game win streak to close out the regular season, but the Sun’s rise came as a bit of a surprise.

With 2014 No. 1 pick Chiney Ogwumike set to miss the entire WNBA season for a second time (she missed 2015 with a knee injury, 2017 with a ruptured Achilles), expectations dipped for the Sun. They opened the season with four straight losses and were 1-5 before things began to click. Jonquel Jones emerged as the Most Improved Player in the league as she absorbed the minutes left by Ogwumike. After their 1-5 start, the Sun would put together three win streaks of five games or more as they went 20-8 the rest of the season to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

The new-look Washington Mystics finished at 18-16 – a five-win improvement from 2016 – after adding 2015 league MVP Elena Delle Donne and 2016 champion Kristi Toliver during the offseason.

After joining the Lynx midway through the 2015 season, Sylvia Fowles made an immediate impact on the team. She was named Finals MVP as the Lynx won their third title (Fowles’ first) that same year. A year later she was named Defensive Player of the Year for the third time in her career as she helped the Lynx get back to the Finals.

But in 2017, she took on a larger role in the team’s offense and made the most of those added opportunities as she displayed a two-way dominance that made her a clear-cut choice for her first MVP honor in her 10th WNBA season. She joined Tamika Catchings as the only other WNBA player to win their first MVP in their 10th season or later. On the NBA side, only Hakeem Olajuwon (10th), Kobe Bryant (12th) and Karl Malone (12th) have ever done it.

How dominant was Fowles? Take a look at her season averages: 18.9 points (fifth in WNBA), 10.4 rebounds (second), 2.0 blocks (tied for second), 65.5 FG% (first, fourth-highest mark in history). And she did that on the team that finished with the best record in the league for the second straight year and the fifth time in the last seven seasons.

Just as Fowles broke the mold by winning MVP a decade into her career, Allisha Gray broke the mold of the Rookie of the Year winner. Since 2004 with Diana Taurasi, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft has gone on to win Rookie of the Year in 11 of the past 16 years. Gray, the fourth pick in the 2017 Draft, is one of five exceptions to this trend during that time.

 

  • 2005: Janel McCarville No. 1 pick, Temeka Johnson ROY (No. 6 pick)
  • 2007: Lindsey Harding No. 1 pick, Armintie Price ROY (No. 3 pick)
  • 2013: Brittney Griner No. 1 pick, Elena Delle Donne ROY (No. 2 pick)
  • 2017: Kelsey Plum No. 1 pick, Allisha Gray ROY (No. 4 pick)
  • 2019: Jackie Young No. 1 pick, Napheesa Collier ROY (No. 6 pick)

 

The 2017 season also saw two of the most important all-time records set by two of the biggest stars in the league’s history.

On June 18, in the closing seconds of the first half of Phoenix’s game against the Sparks in Los Angeles (near her hometown of Chino), Diana Taurasi passed Tina Thompson’s mark of 7,488 points to become the all-time leading scorer in league history. While Thompson needed 17 seasons to reach her total, Taurasi needed only 13 to top it.  Since that time, Taurasi has increased her scoring total, becoming the only player to surpass 8,000 career points as she sits at 8,575 points after the 2019 season.

On Sept. 1, in the first quarter of Seattle’s game against the Mystics in Washington, D.C., Sue Bird became the WNBA’s all-time leader in assists as she surpassed Ticha Penicheiro’s mark of 2,599. At the end of the 2019 season, Bird has increased the record to 2,831 assists and should add to it in 2020 as both Bird and Taurasi will be back on the court.

While these two UConn legends continue their WNBA careers, a former Husky and one of the first players signed to play in the WNBA back in 1996, Rebecca Lobo became the fifth WNBA player to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September.

On the business side, the WNBA had the first women’s sporting event ever streamed live on Twitter as the league and the social media platform entered into a multi-year agreement to stream games. The WNBA also became the first major sport to have a game streamed live game on a music streaming platform (TIDAL). And for the first time, all 12 WNBA teams, plus All-Star rosters, were available in the new NBA Live 18 video game.

In October, the WNBA and NBA Board of Governors unanimously approved the relocation of the Stars franchise from San Antonio to Las Vegas for the 2018 season. In November, the Las Vegas franchise won the WNBA Draft Lottery, giving them the top selection in the 2018 Draft. In December, the team unveiled its logo, colors and new name as the Las Vegas Aces became the city’s second major professional sports team, following the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights.

 

All-Star

The 2017 WNBA All-Star Game marked the first time that the marquee event was hosted by the city of Seattle. In front of a sellout crowd of 15,221 at KeyArena, the West All-Stars defeated the East 130-121. Maya Moore won her second straight All-Star MVP as she scored a team-high 23 points in 23 minutes. Sue Bird, who tied Tina Thompson for the most All-Star appearances with 10, racked up an All-Star Game record 11 assists. Jonquel Jones of the Sun led all players with 24 points for the Eastern Conference, with the final two coming on a dunk in the closing seconds.

For the first time in eight years, the 3-point contest returned to WNBA All-Star as five of the league’s top sharpshooters competed in the two-round event during halftime of the All-Star Game. The final round came down to New York’s Sugar Rodgers and Chicago’s Allie Quigley, with Quigley coming out on top with an impressive 27-point performance in the final.

Playoffs

  • First Round: (5) Phoenix Mercury def. (8) Seattle Storm, 1-0
  • First Round: (6) Washington Mystics def. (7) Dallas Wings, 1-0
  • Second Round: (5) Phoenix Mercury def. (4) Connecticut Sun, 1-0
  • Second Round: (6) Washington Mystics def. (3) New York Liberty, 1-0
  • Semifinals: (2) Los Angeles Sparks def. (5) Phoenix Mercury, 3-0
  • Semifinals: (1) Minnesota Lynx def. (6) Washington Mystics, 3-0
  • Finals: (1) Minnesota Lynx def. (2) Los Angeles Sparks, 3-2

 

The second year of the new playoff format brought about many of the same results that were seen in its debut during the 2016 Playoffs.

The Lynx and Sparks finished 1-2 for the second straight season and earned the double-bye to the semifinal round. There were upsets in the single-elimination rounds as both the No. 3 seed Liberty and No. 4 seed Sun were bounced after just one game as they were upended by the No. 6 Mystics and No. 5 Mercury, respectively.

However, the Mystics and Mercury were unable to keep the magic going against the top two seeds as the Lynx and Sparks both swept their way to the finals to set up a rematch of last year’s five-game classic.

The 2017 Finals were playing out eerily similar to the 2016 Finals. The Sparks stole Game 1 in Minnesota thanks to a last-second shot – this time it was Chelsea Gray that knocked down the game-winner. The Lynx responded to even the series as it shifted to Los Angeles. The Sparks won Game 3 to put them on the cusp of the title, but with their backs against the wall, the Lynx stayed alive and forced another winner-take-all Game 5 back in Minnesota.

History was on the line in Game 5 as the Sparks looked to become the first team in 15 years to successfully defend the championship (the 2001 and 2002 Sparks were the last team to win back-to-back titles) and the Lynx looked to claim their fourth WNBA title, matching the Houston Comets for the most ever by a single team.

The Lynx built an early lead – going up by 11 points with 2:34 remaining in the first quarter – and fought back every Sparks rally the rest of the night. L.A. cut the lead to two by the end of the first quarter, but the Lynx responded and pushed the lead back to 11 with a minute left in the first half. The Sparks closed the half on a 7-2 run to cut the lead to six at the halftime break.

The Lynx scored the first six points of the second half to build their biggest lead of the game at 12 points. Once again, the Sparks had to chip away at the lead; they cut it to four points (60-56) to close the third quarter. The Lynx had yet another answer as they pushed the lead back to 12 with 2:32 remaining in the game. But everyone knew the defending champion Sparks had one more run left in them.

The Sparks would score the game’s next nine points, cutting the Lynx lead to three (79-76) with 34.9 seconds left after an old fashioned jumper by Odyssey Sims. With all of the momentum on L.A.’s side, the Lynx nearly committed another turnover on the inbounds pass. Seimone Augustus saved the ball from a backcourt violation and got it to Sylvia Fowles, she handed it off to Maya Moore, who drove and hit a tough runner from the free throw line to make it a two-possession game with 26.5 seconds left. Sims missed a three with 22 seconds left and Fowles grabbed her 20th rebound of the game to essentially seal the victory. Fowles and Lindsay Whalen each knocked down a pair of free throws to close out the 85-76 victory.

Fowles was named Finals MVP for the second time in her career, and Whalen won a WNBA champion in the same gym – Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota – where her college jersey hangs in the rafters.

The 2017 WNBA Finals on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 is the third most-watched WNBA Finals ever on ESPN networks averaging 559,000 viewers for the five-game series since the networks began exclusively televising the Finals in 2003.