Amid all the talk of the coronavirus pandemic, life in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, and the social justice initiatives the league and players are pursuing, the countdown to tipoff for the 2020 WNBA season is on. There were months of uncertainty about whether the WNBA would even have a season, but opening day is Saturday (ESPN, noon ET). It comes two months and 10 days later than initially planned, and the regular season has been shortened from 36 to 22 games for each team.
So it’s neither a sprint nor a marathon, but more like a middle-distance race that requires both endurance and speed, tactics and tenacity. We’ll get to see veteran legends such as Diana Taurasi, Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird and Candace Parker, but also ascending young stars such as Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson, plus a rookie class led by Sabrina Ionescu.
Before the season opens, we look at 12 of the biggest questions that will define the WNBA’s 24th season, which might be its most unusual but also could be among its most memorable.
1. Who is the favorite for the 2020 championship?
In early April 2019, the Seattle Storm seemed a strong bet to repeat. But midway through that month, 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart suffered an Achilles tendon injury while overseas that kept her sidelined the rest of the year, and guard Sue Bird missed the season as well after knee surgery. Yet even without them, the Storm went 18-16 and won a playoff game.
Both are back, and the Storm again are favorites. Consider the depth of this team, including Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd, Seattle’s scoring leaders last season, defensive stalwart Alysha Clark and improved third-year players Jordin Canada and Mercedes Russell. Rookie Ezi Magbegor, the Storm’s 2019 first-round draft pick who didn’t play last year, Stewart’s former UConn teammate Morgan Tuck and 10-year veteran Epiphanny Prince are new to the Storm roster this year.
“It’s almost like we have to take some steps backwards to get everybody on the same page again because Sue and I haven’t been here,” Stewart said. “We added three new pieces, and then we have to go forward.”
Dan Hughes isn’t in the bubble because of a medical assessment that deemed him high risk if he contracted the coronavirus, so assistant Gary Kloppenburg will fill the head-coaching role.
2. Who are the other top contenders?
Chiney Ogwumike and Kristi Toliver are sitting out this season, and Alana Beard has retired. But the Sparks still have a “big three” in post players Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike and guard Chelsea Gray.
“Usually within the first two weeks you can find out,” 12-year veteran Parker said of how long it will take to get a feel for what kind of team the Sparks will be. “How people deal with adversity, and what’s going to happen. So far we have great energy and team chemistry.”
The Mercury’s Diana Taurasi was limited to six games last season by back and hamstring injuries but said she feels good entering her 16th season. Center Brittney Griner continues to be an MVP candidate. The Mercury lost a longtime key player in DeWanna Bonner, who’s now with the Connecticut Sun, but Phoenix brought in point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.
“This is the best I’ve felt in a long time,” Taurasi said, although she acknowledged that the overall shutdown because of COVID-19 kept her from playing anything that resembled 5-on-5 for a few months. “The more years you pile up, you need those reps and that type of game action to get you ready. Hopefully when the season starts, I’ll be ready to go.”
3. How will the Sparks respond to last season’s playoff implosion?
The Sparks would probably just as soon not think about how 2019 ended: a 78-56 Game 3 loss as Connecticut swept them out of the semifinals, with Parker benched by first-year coach Derek Fisher. Longtime general manager Penny Toler was then fired after a locker room tirade was revealed, and she subsequently filed a lawsuit against the franchise. All that might make people forget that before the fireworks, the Sparks went 22-12 and finished third in the regular season.
Parker said she’s physically in better shape than she was last season, and Fisher said he has learned a lot. Both seem ready to move on, as does the team.
“I think my role is to serve the best needs of our players,” Fisher said. “To do whatever it is that is necessary to allow our players to be the best versions of themselves.”
4. What about the Mystics and the Sun?
Last year, the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun played a thrilling WNBA Finals that went to a decisive Game 5, won 89-78 by the Mystics for their first title. Getting that far again will be a challenge, as both teams look different in 2020.
For the Mystics, Natasha Cloud and LaToya Sanders opted out this season, and Toliver left as a free agent. Elena Delle Donne is not expected to play after being denied a medical exemption. Center Tina Charles, the Mystics’ key addition, got a medical exemption and won’t play.
But Emma Meesseman, the Finals MVP, is just 27 and in the heart of her prime. She averaged 21.8 points per game in the 2019 postseason, earning the nickname “Playoff Emma” — and she might need to be closer to that version all season for the Mystics.
The Sun are without three key players from 2019: Courtney Williams and Shekinna Stricklen are gone to Atlanta, and Jonquel Jones opted out for this season. As mentioned, Bonner is in her first season with the Sun and should make an immediate impact. And Alyssa Thomas and Jasmine Thomas, who were so essential in last year’s Sun playoff run, are the toughest of competitors.
5. Which teams could surprise us and win the championship?
The Storm, especially, are likely to make that difficult. But considering it’s a shortened season and no one can be sure how bubble life will impact players and teams, maybe a “surprise” wouldn’t be that surprising.
How about the Chicago Sky? They suffered a heartbreak last year in losing their second-round playoff game to Las Vegas and Dearica Hamby’s half-court heave. But the Sky have a veteran backcourt in Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley, a rising star in Diamond DeShields and a promising rookie in Oregon’s Ruthy Hebard.
Then there are the Las Vegas Aces, who would be a strong championship contender if Liz Cambage, who is not playing this season, and Kelsey Plum, who is sidelined with an Achilles tear, were with the team. As it is, they’ve still got players such as A’ja Wilson, Kayla McBride, Hamby and new addition Angel McCoughtry.
“We still have a lot of key pieces, even with Liz being out,” said McCoughtry, who spent her first 10 seasons in Atlanta but sat out last year rehabbing a knee injury. “I’m excited to play with them and bring some leadership.”
6. Which non-playoff team from 2019 might make the biggest leap?
Indiana has a new coach in longtime WNBA presence Marianne Stanley, who won a title as an assistant last year with Washington. And the Fever bring back most of the team that went 13-21 last year. Indiana has been rebuilding since Tamika Catchings’ retirement in 2016, and maybe the Fever can make it back into the postseason.
“We want to establish a culture of winning,” Stanley said. “We have a relatively young group with some veterans sprinkled in, so developing players and helping them grow in their game is also part of the mission this season. I would suspect you’ll see us improve each time we go out there.”
Dallas is even more youthful, and the Wings are remaking themselves.
“I’m locked in, and I think the whole team is ready to go,” said Moriah Jefferson, who was traded to the Wings in 2019 but didn’t play last season. “It’s never easy to make a decision to sit out and not play. I knew for me, in order to be my best self, I needed to do that and take the time to rehab and get better.”
7. Who are the leading MVP candidates?
Last year, Stewart was looking to become the first repeat MVP since Cynthia Cooper did it the first two seasons of the WNBA (1997, ’98). Then came Stewart’s injury and the MVP door opened for Delle Donne, who had a 90-50-40 season with her shooting percentages from the line, the field and 3-point range.
Peak efficiency has defined the MVP race the past several years. Stewart, who doesn’t turn 26 until August, again becomes the front-runner. She was able to return to playing with the U.S. national team in late January and then also competed overseas in Russia.
“She’s improved her ballhandling, her accuracy from 3, and she’s added to her game,” Kloppenburg said. “I think the adversity of that injury made her even more determined to become a better player.”
Los Angeles’ Nneka Ogwumike (2016) could be another second-time MVP. Or maybe Phoenix’s Griner or Las Vegas’ Wilson becomes a first-time winner.
8. How will the rookies, led by No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu, fare?
For the most part, No. 1 picks have made a pretty big splash in their first season. That wasn’t as much the case last year as guard Jackie Young joined a strong Las Vegas team. She had a solid season, but the rookie of the year race was between No. 5 pick Arike Ogunbowale of Dallas and the winner, No. 6 Napheesa Collier of the Minnesota Lynx.
This year, Oregon’s Ionescu might battle a couple of her former Ducks teammates for the award — or maybe even some of her current New York Liberty teammates. Ionescu is one of seven rookies on the roster.
Dallas selected Oregon’s Satou Sabally at No. 2, and the Wings also have two other rookies who could have an impact in No. 5 pick Bella Alarie and No. 7 Tyasha Harris. The Sky’s Hebard, also from Oregon, will be looking to prove she went too low at No. 8.
There’s also No. 3 pick Lauren Cox of Indiana and No. 4 Chennedy Carter, who could be responsible for a lot of Atlanta’s offensive production. For that reason, Carter — a scoring whiz at Texas A&M — might be the favorite pick of many.
And don’t forget the Lynx’s No. 6 pick this year, Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, who could follow Collier’s lead.
9. What can we expect from top players who missed last season?
Bird said even for someone as experienced as she is — she’s entering her 17th WNBA season — it’s still a bit of a shock to the system to return to league play after a year away. She has experience with that, having sat out 2013 and returned the next year.
“I know what to expect,” Bird said, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to be prepared for it.”
Still, the fact that everyone’s preparation was altered by the pandemic might make it a little easier for the players returning. For Bird, Stewart and Diggins-Smith, who was out on pregnancy leave, their time with the national team over the winter helped get them back onto the court.
10. How much will teams be hurt by no home-court advantage or fans this season?
This will affect every team because of the energy that fans can bring, along with the familiarity of being at home versus the fatigue factor of travel. Now every game will be at a neutral site with no spectators in attendance, and it’s hard to know what impact that will have on teams.
Augustus, in her first season in Los Angeles after 14 years in Minnesota, said she won’t miss going to Phoenix.
“Phoenix is probably one of the toughest places to play in the league,” Augustus said. “That energy that Diana and BG and all of them feed off of, and the fact that their fans are right up on you and they don’t mind talking real good smack to you.
“And there’s a place like Dallas, that’s smaller, but when they pack that [arena], it’s really hard to hear.”
The Aces’ Wilson said she’ll miss the road trips, especially to Phoenix — “Their fan base is pretty electric” — and that she was particularly looking forward to facing the Liberty, who were supposed to be in their first full season at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“Of course, the House is the best place to play,” Wilson said, referring to the Aces’ Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
11. How will the time off this spring affect players’ health and fitness?
WNBA teams are used to shorter training camps and limited preparation time together, in part because some players come in at different times from overseas play. But with the pandemic shutdowns, a lot of players didn’t have a chance to do anything close to normal preparation for this season. They did get rest — but too much of it in some cases.
“Let’s be frank: The players are going to be out of shape going into the regular season,” Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said. “We will try to get into the best shape we can in the course of the games.”
After a relatively brief preparation, they’ll have to jump directly into a season in which they’ll play about three times per week. But there isn’t any travel, so that helps.
12. What will the quality of play be like?
As mentioned, players are working to get back into full-court shape. Plus, there are no male practice players in the bubble, which all teams are used to having, and that affects what can be done in practice.
Laimbeer said he thinks practices throughout the season might more closely resemble what they’re like during the playoffs, with teams doing more walk-throughs and specific film preparation.
“You’re going to have to be a little more sensitive to tiring them out,” Laimbeer said, “and saving their legs for games.”
Still, the teams are determined to put on a great show.
“One of our biggest concerns was, ‘How do we navigate this world?’ You’re trying to get ready,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve said. “A lot of games are gonna be on TV, and you want to make sure your product looks really good.”