This week on Above the Break, we’re looking at WNBA Playoffs odds, the best teams in the league, Skylar Diggins-Smith trade rumors and more.
The WNBA All-Star break is here, which is a good time to stop and reflect on where this season has gone…and where it’s headed.
As we head into the break, we officially have a new team atop the standings, as the Chicago Sky have passed the Las Vegas Aces for the No. 1 seed. Will Chicago stay there? And what about the battle for the final playoff spots?
Who makes the WNBA Playoffs and who gets left out?
The most compelling battle right now is for the final three playoff seeds. Seemingly every team except the Fever are in the mix still, so who will it be that gets those spots?
As of now, we have five teams in the league who are over .500 and feel essentially locked into the postseason. That leaves the rest of the WNBA fighting for a spot. Right now, Atlanta, LA and Dallas all sit at 10-12. Phoenix and New York are a game back and the Lynx are an additional game and a half back.
So, which of those teams will claim those final seeds?
One team I’m going to quickly eliminate is Phoenix. The team has gotten relatively hot lately, but there are just too many depth concerns with this team, and there’s the Skylar Diggins-Smith situation, as there are rumors the team might be looking to trade her — more on that below.
That still leaves five teams battling for a playoff spot. Can New York or Minnesota surpass anyone?
Maybe. But it’ll be tough. FiveThirtyEight has the Liberty with the worst odds in this group of making the postseason and the Lynx as the second-worst. New York losing on Thursday to Phoenix was a big hit for the team’s playoff hopes, and the team exits the All-Star break with the following schedule: Aces, Aces, Sun, Mystics, Sky, Sky. That’s six games in a row after the break against teams over .500. They’ll end the season with eight in a row against the teams that they’re battling for the playoff spot with, but can this team even be in the playoff conversation by that point? They’ll have to find a way to steal some games in that six-game stretch.
Minnesota has a lot of momentum right now. They also have six games against teams over .500, but none of those are against Vegas and Chicago. With Sylvia Fowles healthy, the Lynx are playing good basketball and just ended the first half with wins over Vegas and Chicago. The Lynx feel like a playoff team.
Who will they displace, though?
Atlanta has Tiffany Hayes back. The Sparks have Nneka Ogwumike playing at a high level. The Wings have a ton of talent…but also have the lowest floor of these teams. Dallas has had some games this year where nothing working. They recently lost 92-64 to Minnesota. They’ve been held under 70 points five times, going 1-4 in those games. Arike Ogunbowale can shoot her team out of a game, though she also possesses the ability to shoot them back into one as well.
So, here’s my current prediction: the Lynx make the playoffs. The Wings don’t.
Chicago is the WNBA’s best team
Should we be shocked that the defending champions have the best record in the league? Not in a vacuum, but when you consider how good Vegas was to start the season, seeing a different name atop the league is a little bit of a departure from where we thought we’d be.
The Sky sit second in the league in offensive rating per WNBA.com, and they have the fifth-best defensive rating.
A big part of that is that the team has the most intriguing and versatile frontcourt in the league.
Candace Parker, Emma Meesseman and Azurá Stevens are the most interesting frontcourt in the W because they’re so skilled. They can all shoot. They can all play inside. They each average a block per game.
The Sky have a net rating of 14.7 when Parker and Meesseman share the floor, 1.7 when Meesseman and Stevens share the floor and 13.9 when Stevens and Parker share the floor. Obviously, Candace Parker makes the whole thing run, but being able to play your other two bigs together and still be better than your opponent is huge.
Take the Aces, for example. The team has a 10.5 net rating when A’ja Wilson is on the floor, but a -9.5 net rating when she’s off the floor. That team doesn’t have the depth to survive those minutes when its star is on the bench.
And for me, that’s the difference right now with the Sky. You have a 6POY candidate in Stevens, who allows you to always have an advantage over other teams up front.
Should the Mercury trade Skylar Diggins-Smith?
This has been a weird season for the Phoenix Mercury.
With the team’s star center, Brittney Griner, currently detained in Russia, Phoenix entered 2022 with lower expectations than they had during the offseason. Still, the addition of Tina Charles meant there was still plenty of talent. This was a playoff team.
Except, well…Charles is now in Seattle and there are rumblings around the status of the team’s star, Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Howard Megdal reported this week that the Mercury have explored trading Diggins-Smith.
Earlier in the season, Diggins-Smith and Diana Taurasi got into a verbal altercation on the sidelines, and SDS was then out for a few games after that. Then, there was the perceived disrespect from head coach Vanessa Nygaard, who said of the All-Star game that it would “not be an All-Star game because Diana Taurasi is not playing,” even though Diggins-Smith, who also plays for Nygaard, is an All-Star. Diggins-Smith tweeted a clown emoji in response to this.
So, there’s some discord there. But what would a Diggins-Smith trade mean for Phoenix?
Essentially, it would be the team waving the white flag on this era of Mercury basketball.
Diana Taurasi is 40. She’s not the future of your team. Diggins-Smith is almost a decade younger. And because the nature of the WNBA doesn’t really allow for equal value trades, dealing Diggins-Smith means that within the next year or two, the Mercury are left with a potential core of Brittney Griner. That’s it. Just Griner. And while Griner is a great player, she’s also in the last year of her contract, so the Mercury could be left in an even worse position.
Trading Diggins-Smith is the start of a rebuild. Maybe that’s a good thing, though it would represent a huge shift from a team that went all-in this year in pursuit of a title. And Phoenix won’t have a first-round pick in 2023 because it was traded to Chicago, so if they’re going to rebuild, even that is down the line. 2024 is a good draft class, potentially headlined by Paige Bueckers and Caitlin Clark, two guards who can try to fill the hole left by a SDS trade. But is Phoenix, which last missed the playoffs in 2012, ready for this kind of seismic shift in team building?