Well, Well, Well, If It Isn’t The 2021 WNBA Season: A Preview
10:15 AM EDT on May 14, 2021
The WNBA is back tonight after what feels like one thousand years. The offseason is long; my memory is not. Let’s try remembering some things that happened last season and see if we can’t figure out what will happen this year.
I presume you know the drill—scroll really fast until you see your team's name, read what I have to say about them, nod along and think to yourself, "Yes, she's right. She's exactly right!" and then close this window. But maybe you don't have a team. What then? Well, you'd better decide on one fast because the season starts in a few hours. If you, like me, live in a market without a WNBA team—perhaps because it was sold in 2009 despite three championships in five years and you will resent this sale for the rest of your life—but would like a team to defend to the death, I’ve added some adoption suggestions to the preview. The 12 teams are listed in order of regular season record, from worst to best.
New York Liberty
2020 record: Oof! 2–20 (didn't make the playoffs)
When we last saw them, they were … not great! And in their defense, they were not planning to be great. The Liberty started the season with seven rookies on the roster, and the most-heralded of them all, Sabrina Ionescu, left the bubble with an ankle injury just three games in. They played fast (second-most possessions per 40 minutes) and loose (most turnovers, lots of three-point attempts, not so many three-point makes), a style perhaps necessary for a team without a commanding scoring threat inside. Small-ball basketball is great. We love small-ball basketball! However! Your small-ball lineup does actually have to score, which the Liberty's did not. They were sort of just vibing all summer, which, you know, fine and same, but that’s no way to win.
Anything to look forward to? The re-debut of Ionescu is the obvious answer, so let’s go with a less obvious one: I love the veteran additions this team made in free agency. Primo use of tons of cap space! Sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb is a perfect fit for a system built on the perimeter, and former Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard gives them some help around the rim, where they badly needed it last year. The Liberty also nabbed wing Betnijah Laney, last year's Most Improved Player, who brings elite defense and some extra shooting. Also there's a new mascot, Ellie the Elephant. I'm sorry to see Maddie the Dog go, but Maddie's namesake was the building James Dolan evicted this team from a few years ago, so she was probably due for retirement.
Could they win it all? The group is still young and mostly without playoff experience; I bet they’d be happy just to be back in the postseason after three years of missing it.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? If you’re too sheepish—nay, ethical!—to be a bandwagon fan, but still crave the rewards of winning and don’t mind waiting a year or two, the Liberty are an obvious contender-in-the-making. Or because a Liberty game was the first professional sporting event your parents took you to when you were a baby! That’s my reason, but I’ll let you borrow it if you want.
2020 record: 6-16 (didn't make the playoffs)
When we last saw them, they were … yes, the, uh, Indiana Fever, the team we famously watched last year. They were a heartening reminder that women can have it all: lots of frontcourt size and the worst defensive rating in the history of the WNBA. OK. I won’t be all mean. I will not mention Teaira McCowan's defense. Guard Kelsey Mitchell had a breakout season and was among the most efficient scorers in the league. You like an overage rookie? To my knowledge, the Belgian beast Julie Allemand has never missed a shot in her entire life. Also that time they beat Seattle was fun. But the offseason betrayed a lack of vision for the franchise. Personally, it's kind of a bummer to go from geeking out over the Liberty's awesome, perfect-fit free agents to writing this sentence on Indiana's marquee signing, 32-year-old point guard Danielle Robinson, who seems neither impactful enough to seriously change the team's prospects nor like she'd even be able to use her driving speed on a team where none of the bigs can space the floor. Now the sentence is over and I remain bummed.
Anything to look forward to? Great jerseys.
Could they win it all? Beautiful jerseys.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? I guess you could.
No, I was asking wh— We really must get going to the next team.
2020 record: 7-15 (didn't make the playoffs)
When we last saw them, they were … kicking Kelly Loeffler out of the damn Senate! Well, first they were finally beginning to jell after a grim 10-game losing streak but then they were kicking Kelly Loeffler out of the damn Senate! That was pretty cool, eh? Loeffler ended up selling the team this winter, and she's not the only offseason departure. GM Chris Sienko was fired, bizarrely, a week after the draft in April, and head coach Nicki Collen left to take the Baylor job right in the middle of Dream training camp last week. It's anarchy, baby! There is no one in charge.
Anything to look forward to? Rookie Aari McDonald had herself a terrific NCAA tournament and became a fan favorite in that heroic Final Four performance against Evil Empire UConn. She's a speedy gal and was so tough to stay in front of in college, so she'll be fun to watch in the pros. There's one problem: Per FIBA and WNBA rules, only one basketball is allowed on the court in each game. I worry a little about her fit with the electric Chennedy Carter, another ball-dominant guard, and with Tiffany Hayes, and with Courtney Williams, and with Odyssey Sims, and with, ah, the other 85 guards the Dream have on this roster. At very least, they will be fast as hell. Once again, there is no one in charge. I am dying a little at this quote from the New York Times:
“I’ve got no idea what positions you play,” Mike Petersen, the Dream’s interim head coach, said he told his players. “But if I don’t know, the other team’s got no chance.”
OK, sir! Fair!
Could they win it all? No ❤️
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? The Dream pioneered a fascinating new mode of athlete activism last summer and you're still asking me for reasons to adopt them and defend them to the death? What's your deal, anyway? You're kind of hard to please, and frankly, it's off-putting.
2020 record: 8-15 (didn't make the playoffs)
When we last saw them, they were … young! Wee babes! (And because they had the top two overall picks in the 2021 draft, they've somehow gotten younger.) Driving the offense was Arike Ogunbowale, who averaged 22.8 points per game and won the league's scoring title last year, her second season in the WNBA. Similar story to the Liberty here: lots of attempting threes, not a lot of making them. The Wings also didn't have much going on inside, something they'll ask No. 1 overall pick Charli Collier, the center out of Texas, to help with.
Anything to look forward to? Are any NHL fans reading this post? Get in, we're doing the thing where we get excited about a 19-year-old from Finland because of some European league footage we saw on Twitter. Meet Awak Kuier. The 2021 No. 2 overall pick is 6-foot-4, surprisingly fast, sometimes dunks and might have the highest upside of any rookie drafted this year. Alas, this is the WNBA, where everyone is either injured or in another country to begin the season; she'll miss at least the first few games due to some visa issues. But once she's here, watch out!
Could they win it all? Ei. (That's Finnish for "no.")
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? It sucks to have your team play against the high-usage, high-volume iso scorer. (Many Pistons-Hawks games, for example, end with me wishing a hex upon Trae Young and his family.) But I imagine it would be cool to have one of those on your team. The Arike Ogunbowale Show is some of the best television in the WNBA, and if you're cheering for her, you won't have to cover your eyes as she lights up some other hapless bunch.
2020 record: 9-13 (lost to the Mercury in the first round)
When we last saw them, they were … playing basketball in Washington Mystics jerseys, that's for sure. Last year’s team might not tell us too much about this one. In the bubble, they were without several key players: franchise star Elena Delle Donne, point guard Natasha Cloud, and intriguing addition Tina Charles. In their absence emerged Myisha Hines-Allen, a basically immovable post player with the skills of a guard. Hines-Allen may have been the best story of the season; she went from Garbage Time Only to No. 1 scoring option. So if you're the Mystics, you're hoping for the whole experience to go the way it did for Seattle in 2019 and 2020: The bench players get some quality minutes and playoff experience while the stars are away, and they're prepared for a championship run when the stars return.
Anything to look forward to? Do you know the math puzzle with the cabbage, the goat and the wolf? As I remember it, you’re a farmer tasked with getting those three things across the river in your small boat—you can only transport one at a time—but you can’t leave the wolf and goat alone together because the wolf will eat the goat, and same goes for the goat and cabbage. That’s been the vibe of the Mystics since they won the 2019 championship. The basketball gods will allow them to sign a bunch of great players, but they can't all be healthy and playing at the same time. So look forward to the return of Delle Donne and Cloud, and the Mystics debut of Tina Charles, but it sucks to have so much talent stuck on the wrong side of the river. 2019 Finals MVP Emma Meesseman will probably miss most of the season due to her Belgian national team commitments and big offseason signing Alysha Clark is out for the year with a foot injury.
Could they win it all? Yes. And if Ted Leonsis could green-screen the whole roster into games together, a la Archie Panjabi and Julianna Margulies, they’d be unstoppable.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? It’s some nice modern basketball they play, pace and space, real easy on the eyes. Elena Delle Donne is just about unguardable. Despite being less than two years removed from the championship, the Mystics feel a little underestimated heading into this season—this power ranking has them EIGHTH—so if you’d like the feeling of being an underdog without the dearth of talent that usually implies, here’s your team.
2020 record: 10-12 (lost to the Aces in the semifinals in five)
When we last saw them, they were … putting up the toughest fight against the top-seeded Las Vegas Aces in the semifinals and doing it without arguably their best player, 6-foot-6 unicorn Jonquel Jones, who opted out last year. The Sun bounced back from a dismal start to the season and ended up not just in the playoffs, but taking the Aces to a fifth game in a fiercely competitive best-of-five series. Theirs was a typically annoying performance: gumming up the lane, slowing down the Aces' transition game, and battling on the defensive boards. It was not pretty! It made me, at times, physically ill. But it almost worked. And it was a style perfectly suited to guard Alyssa Thomas, the WNBA's best two-way player and an absolute madwoman who plays through excruciating shoulder pain for depressing financial reasons. In a blog last year, I compared her to that knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who has all his limbs chopped off but stays jonesing for a fight. Now, she has suffered an Achilles injury that will actually prevent her from playing the season, which sucks.
Anything to look forward to? JONQUEL JONES! Oh, how I missed Jonquel Jones. Forget the above paragraph about how well the Sun did without her and get excited with me. Jones is one of the league's best rebounders AND shot blockers AND she can shoot threes? Not just shoot them, but shoot them quite well? I'm hearing MVP???
Could they win it all? No matter what I say, the answer will be wrong. But I'm no coward and will still share my take with you: I am going to say no. Alyssa Thomas has been the engine of this team in two straight playoff runs now, and losing her will be a challenge. Again, I'll be wrong and they'll win it all and you can roast me then, that's fine.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? Do you like all those words they say on TV? Grit, heart, toughness, unselfish, blue-collar, outsiders, etc.? Become a Sun fan and you will hear them so, so many times!
2020 record: 12–10 (lost to the Sun in the first round)
When we last saw them, they were … sigh, flaming out. The Sky sometimes felt like a team on the brink of something special, and they boasted the highest true shooting percentage in the league. Credit the offensive flow to expert facilitator Courtney Vandersloot. Thanks to the intervention of some eagle-eyed video staffer, Vandersloot averaged the first double-digit assist season in WNBA history. (The team discovered that an assist had been wrongly credited to Vandersloot's wife, Allie Quigley, and petitioned the WNBA to fix it. Some domestic drama for you!) But an injury cut short an already-disappointing season for emerging star Diamond DeShields, and the defensive issues that have plagued this team for a few years sent the Sky packing in the first round of the playoffs. (A little peek behind the blogging curtain for you: I remember being very excited about this Shey Peddy buzzer beater in the Mystics-Mercury playoff game in large part because it meant I wouldn't have to write about the grim Sun-Sky game that preceded it.)
Anything to look forward to? Not just anything! Candace freakin' Parker! And it just so happens that free agency's biggest fish, coming to Chicago after 13 years with the Los Angeles Sparks, is exactly the sort of player who fixes those holes on defense.
Could they win it all? Two years in a row now, I’ve been very high on them, and in both those years, they didn’t get out of the single-elimination rounds of the playoffs. Just statistically, I feel like I can’t be wrong about this three years in a row, so I’m going to say yes again. Simple math.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? You should adopt them and defend them to the death because Azurá Stevens did a project on Candace Parker when she was in middle school and now the two are teammates. Aw!
2020 record: 13–9 (lost to the Lynx in the second round)
When we last saw them, they were … huh, not as bad as I remember them being. And that makes sense; a team with Diana Taurasi (soon to be 39!), Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith has only so low a floor. But it was difficult for the Mercury to find any rhythm last year; injuries struck them bad, and Griner left the bubble halfway through the season for the sake of her mental health. The Taurasi/Diggins-Smith pairing seemed to come together late in the season, and the team rolled into the playoffs off a hot stretch. But while the backcourt tandem and the Shey Peddy miracle shot kept the Mercury alive for a round, they looked all out of sorts again in their second-round game against the Lynx. Kind of a weird season, but some laughs were had. You'll recall Diana Taurasi yelling at a ref to meet her in the lobby after the game.
Anything to look forward to? The Liberty fan in me was sad to see our All-Star Canadian queen Kia Nurse traded to Phoenix. She brings a consistent shot to the perimeter, where the Mercury had some shakiness last year. When her brother is bounced from the Stanley Cup playoffs by my crush Mitch Marner in a month, maybe he can go watch some of her games. I'm also looking forward to the dulcet tones of mic'd up Sandy Brondello. (More seriously, I'm curious to see how she adjusts her scheme to fit a roster that didn't really cohere last year.)
Could they win it all? They could. Depends on which versions of the stars show up. I'll admit, I was not entirely convinced by the "Big Three" of Taurasi, Griner and Diggins-Smith last year, but if they're all healthy and playing their best alongside each other, sure.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? Are you by any chance Geno Auriemma? Between Taurasi, Nurse, Megan Walker, and Bria Hartley, this team is like UConn West now.
2020 record: 14–8 (lost to the Storm in the semifinals in three)
When we last saw them, they were … pretty perfect, as non-contending teams go. In her second year, forward Napheesa Collier had a terrific, MVP-type season. Between her elite defense and her ability to score from anywhere, she might just be my favorite basketball player to watch. Last year, Collier passed her Rookie of the Year title down to Lynx point guard Crystal Dangerfield, who's a tad small for the pros, but got by just fine on her quickness. I wrote last year that despite their semifinals loss to Seattle, the Lynx had really bright days ahead of them, and they didn’t disappoint in free agency. Two key pickups: Washington's Aerial Powers (she is now in a close battle with Dangerfield for coolest name on the team) and Vegas's Kayla McBride, both versatile guards who make things a little easier for everyone else.
Anything to look forward to? The standard bearers for longevity in the WNBA are Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, but forget them. I'm sick of 'em! Sylvia Fowles is 35 and might still be the best center in this league. Though she missed most of last season with a calf injury, in her few appearances, she showed that she could still keep up with even the quickest guards, and she passed her former teammate Rebekkah Brunson to become the WNBA's all-time rebounding leader. It'll be nice to see her back.
Could they win it all? Yeah, you know what, screw it, why not? They might have the best starting lineup in the WNBA. And while we're here and I'm going a little nuts, Collier is winning MVP. I know I already said that about Jonquel Jones, but whatever, it's my preview.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? You don't get many opportunities to root for a team that is competent in every way. (Well, I don't, anyway.) If you love the feeling of watching a player on your team and thinking, "I can't believe she fell to us!" you will delight in the crazy good drafting the Lynx have done of late. They got Collier sixth overall, Dangerfield in the second round, and recently stole Tennessee's Rennia Davis at ninth. I think this makes them the exact opposite of the Wolves. Had I not already adopted a team and pledged to defend them to, you know, the death, I'd pick the Lynx.
Los Angeles Sparks
2020 record: 15–7 (lost to the Sun in the second round)
When we last saw them, they were … making me sad! What else! I was a Sparks believer for much of the season. They shot pretty well, Candace Parker forced a lot of turnovers, and they seemed to have a good shot at the Finals as late as late August, when they put together a nine-game winning streak. But the momentum faded in early September; it may have been outright killed by the below Jewell Loyd buzzer beater. (Was she out of bounds? I'll leave that for you to decide.) The Sparks were ultimately screwed by the WNBA's single-elimination playoff format, which lent some brutal stakes to star Nneka Ogwumike missing the second-round game against the Sun with a migraine. Sparks ownership's response to the early postseason exit was somehow allowing coach Derek Fisher to amass more power, so he is now coach and GM. Great! As his first act of business, he let Candace Parker go to Chicago in free agency and as his second act of business, he let Chelsea Gray go to Vegas. Amazing! Are there any more responsibilities we can give this man?
Anything to look forward to? It's been too long since we last saw guard Kristi Toliver play basketball. Toliver returned to L.A. from Washington after winning the 2019 championship but opted out of the 2020 bubble, so this will be her first season back with the Sparks. You may have forgotten this, because it was one million years ago, but she had a pretty damn good final season with the Mystics, where she was steering the best offense in WNBA history.
Could they win it all? I do not think so, sadly.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? May as well get on Derek Fisher's good side now before his inexplicably successful 2024 presidential campaign. I, for one, welcome our new upward failing overlord.
2020 record: 18-4 (beat the Aces in the Finals in three)
When we last saw them, they were ... guzzling champagne, doing confetti angels, things of that nature. The Storm swept the Aces in the WNBA Finals to become the 2020 champs, and Breanna Stewart continued to make her case for being the greatest ever. It wasn't a particularly suspenseful campaign, to be honest; the Storm had a top offense and defense in the WNBA all season, and the Aces were nowhere near as deep. But I enjoyed watching it. I wonder, though, whether the winning feeling has worn off a bit. While center Natasha Howard was likely to leave in free agency given the Storm's cap constraints and the kind of money she could get elsewhere, it really sucks to lose both her and wing Alysha Clark, the two players largely responsible for that top defense.
Anything to look forward to? Ezi Magbegor. Just kidding ... unless? OK, I know she's not the biggest name on the roster, but the post player was quietly one of the best rookies in the WNBA last year, and the Storm may be leaning on her a little more heavily to make up for the loss of Natasha Howard. Sorry if I want to look forward to the blossoming talent of youth! Now we'll get to the boring people you already know: Sue Bird will never ever die; Stewart is so good she is now in that unfortunate tier of athletes who can only surprise you by not dominating a game; Jewell Loyd is a top 10 player in the WNBA no matter what this ESPN list says; and it's very funny that Jordin Canada is a backup point guard, a position she could only play on this team. That enough to look forward to?
Could they win it all? If you have the best player in the world on your team, you get an automatic yes. But it’s a less enthusiastic one than I might have given them in the glow of the championship win back in September. There’s no way around it, I'm afraid. This year’s Storm team is worse than last year’s. Worse enough to matter? We'll see. In Stewie we trust.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? I realize I've just finished freaking out about potential problems that await the Storm, but know that I'm grading them on a curve. This is not a team that will ever truly disappoint you. The "lean years" are rarely all that lean; the good years are so, so good. And you're running short on opportunities to cheer for Sue Bird.
Las Vegas Aces
2020 record: 18-4 (lost to the Storm in the Finals in three)
When we last saw them, they were … oh, no plural "they" necessary here, buster. Last year was all one Ace: MVP A’ja Wilson. She dragged the weirdest roster in the league into the WNBA Finals, and did all the work while everyone else on the team was either injured or in ghost protocol. God, now it's all coming back to me. One of her teammates was a 31-year-old forward named Emma Cannon, who was playing her first WNBA games in like three years? There was also Carolyn Swords, who retired, took a job in the front office and then was asked to un-retire to be on that team. I'm not sure why A'ja didn't challenge the GM to combat last summer. At least their brand of basketball was pleasa—ah, no, never mind, it was pretty horrible to watch and involved a lot of going to the free throw line. Free throws accounted for over 21 percent of their points.
Anything to look forward to? Shooting! Don’t get me wrong, drawing fouls down low is the aesthetic pinnacle of basketball, but the rest of the team could actually make things easier for Wilson by helping to open up the floor a little. The Aces' best shooter, Kelsey Plum, returns from an injury this season, and the team has also picked up point guard Chelsea Gray. (Guard Angel McCoughtry is out for the season with an ACL tear.) Dearica Hamby missed most of the postseason with a knee injury but she'll be back, too, and plays well alongside Wilson. A more credulous individual might add to this section that A’ja has been spotted draining threes in the preseason. Andre Drummond was on my NBA team for seven years so I have seen many such videos in my life and you’ll forgive me if I’m not so easily swayed.
Could they win it all? You’ll notice “the return of Liz Cambage” was not listed as a thing to look forward to, and that may be misleading. I'm very much looking forward to the return of powerhouse center Liz Cambage, who sat the 2020 season as a health precaution. But there’s a reason Wilson had the season she did last year, and it’s that she didn’t have to worry about sharing the paint with anyone. This was a problem for the Cambage-Wilson duo two years ago: you can’t use one of them to their fullest strengths in a way that doesn’t somewhat disadvantage the other. So they can absolutely win it all—they've got the talent—but it'll take some ingenuity from coach Bill Laimbeer. Good thing he's known for his forward-thinking schemes and willingness to adapt.
Why should I adopt them and defend them to the death? Yeah, not much more to say here. All the players are extremely good at basketball, and kind of rude in a thrilling way. If you're the unscrupulous type with no qualms about simply rooting for the best team, then pick them. Fine! The godly New York Liberty, their 2–20 record, and I will be over here.
Stay in touch
Sign up for our free newsletter