The New (And Hopefully Improved) WNBA Playoffs

Feeling confused about this year’s WNBA playoff format? We’ve got you covered.

By Elisha Gunaratnam

If you’re relatively new to the WNBA, you might be confused about how the playoffs work. The good news is that you’re probably not alone. With some of the changes that have taken place in the league recently, those who have been following the WNBA for all 26 years of its existence are likely also confused about this year’s playoff format. Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect to see as the WNBA postseason tips off on August 17.

Crash Course on the WNBA Playoffs 

During the regular season, the league is divided into the Western and Eastern Conferences, but come postseason, all that matters is your record. The top eight teams with the highest winning percentage (regardless of conference) qualify for the playoffs, and as a result, the playoff bracket is also just based on league seeding.

What Are Some of the New Changes This Year?

In November 2021, the WNBA Board of Governors approved changes to the league’s playoff format and postseason seeding. The 2022 season is the first year that these changes will be implemented.

The reconfigured postseason structure includes three rounds of series play using a best-of 3-5-5 format. Prior to this season, the first round of the playoffs was a single-elimination game. While this was certainly exciting, many fans (and players) were finding this playoff was too short and did not allow for adequate competition. 

For instance, the Phoenix Mercury and the New York Liberty faced off in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, and even though the Mercury were the higher-seeded team and eventually made their way into the WNBA finals, it took a last-second free-throw by Brianna Turner to give them an 83–82 win over the Liberty. 

In the words of WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, while “it was clear that while the prior format’s single-elimination games created a win-and-advance level of excitement to the start of the postseason, [a] new best-of-three series format [would] provide added opportunities to create and showcase rivalries with all playoff-eligible teams participating.”

Players on the Chicago Sky gather to discuss their next play (WNBA Twitter)

The planned change for the first-round series games will include a 2-1 format in which the higher seed will host Games 1 and 2 and the lower seed will host Game 3 if necessary. With the way that teams are seeded this year, Las Vegas, Chicago, Connecticut, and Seattle will each be hosting at least two playoff games. This is fantastic news for Sue Bird fans who were hoping that she would play more games in Seattle during her final season in the WNBA.

The fact that all eight playoff teams will be starting their playoff runs at the same time is another key change that the league has implemented this season. It used to be that the top two teams received a first-round bye and that only the third through eighth place teams competed in the first round of the playoffs. That means that if the rules had not changed, the Las Vegas Aces and the Chicago Sky—this year’s top two teams—would not have begun their postseason until three teams had already been eliminated.

On the financial end of things, the playoff bonus pool has also increased to $500,000 this year, which will double what each player winning the championship receives. 

The Las Vegas Aces bench celebrates after Jackie Young hits a shot (WNBA Twitter)

How the 2022 WNBA Playoffs Will Be Formatted

Like many other sports leagues, the WNBA sorts teams into two brackets for the playoffs. That has not changed. In one bracket, the No. 1 seed (Las Vegas) will face the No. 8 seed (Phoenix), and the No. 4 seed (Seattle) will face the No. 5 seed (Washington) in a best-of-three series, with the winners advancing to a best-of-five semifinals series against one another. 

In the other bracket, the No. 3 seed (Connecticut) will face the No. 6 seed (Dallas), and the No. 2 seed (Chicago) will meet the No. 7 seed (New York), with the winners moving on to face one another in the other best-of-five semifinals series. Teams are not reseeded after the first round.

The winners of the semifinals series will then meet in the WNBA Finals, which also will be a best-of-five series, to determine the WNBA champion. 

All in all, basketball fans are being gifted with more content this season, and with how competitive the playoff race was this year, the additional first-round games might mean that we see some early upsets.

Before we forget, one other new rule has been introduced for this year’s playoffs. The WNBA will secure charter flights for the two teams that qualify for the WNBA Finals. It’s a little crazy that in 2022 we’re having to celebrate that this is finally happening, but hopefully, this will be the start of improved travel arrangements for all WNBA teams in upcoming seasons.

The WNBA Playoffs begin on August 17 with the Chicago Sky taking on the New York Liberty at 8:00 PM ET on ESPN2 and the Las Vegas Aces taking on the Phoenix Mercury at 10:00 PM ET on ESPN.

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