As the world’s attention shifts to the FIBA World Cup, let’s recap the 2022 WNBA season.
By Laura Fay
The confetti has barely settled from the Aces’ championship parade, but the world of women’s basketball waits for nobody. Already the FIBA Women’s World Cup has kicked off in Sydney, with numerous WNBA players traveling overseas to represent their home country. But before we focus on that, let’s take a minute to look back at the teams of the WNBA West and grade the seasons they’ve had.
Las Vegas Aces
This one’s a bit self-explanatory. Coming off of a heartbreaking Game 5 semifinal loss in 2021 and finals sweep in 2020, some people were questioning whether Las Vegas had what it takes to win it all. With their 2022 campaign, the Aces proved everyone wrong.
The Aces already had a stellar core, but the added leadership of Becky Hammon elevated them far above the rest. Extending the team’s game to the three-point line and unlocking the potential of perennial bench player Kelsey Plum, Hammon put together the most dominant starting five in the league.
It paid dividends. The Aces dominated the league and ran the year-end awards. Commissioners Cup. All-Star MVP. Most-Improved. Defensive Player of the Year. Coach of the Year. All-WNBA. MVP. Finals MVP. Every single member of the Las Vegas core got their deserved flowers, and then some. To top it all off with a ring is the perfect ending.
With their entire starting five contracted through next year and no players over 30, this is a group that could stay together for some time. As their traditional Western conference rivals enter a period of flux, it looks like the Aces could reign over the WNBA for some time to come.
This season and coming offseason provide more questions than answers for Seattle. On the surface, this season seems pretty much in keeping with the Storm’s recent dominance. They finished fourth in the league, and a hard-fought semifinal loss to the eventual champs is nothing to be ashamed of. Still, this Seattle side might look completely different come next May.
The retirement of Sue Bird leaves a huge emotional void, but even more concerning is that there is nobody to take up the mantle. 2018 draftee Jordin Canada was long seen as Bird’s successor, but she was traded to Los Angeles last offseason after a couple of years of stagnated play. Veteran Briann January was Bird’s backup this season, but she too retired at the end of the year. With Seattle native Courtney Vandersloot a free agent this year, the Storm will definitely try their hand at luring her away from Chicago. But even if they get her, Vandersloot could be leading a very different Storm offense.
Just like last year, franchise player Breanna Stewart is a free agent. While the chances of Stewart leaving with Bird committed to play one more year always seemed low, the picture is much more open this year. Stewart, a New York native, took meetings with the Liberty last season. She has also expressed her displeasure with the WNBA’s new prioritization rules, which would fine any player returning to the league late after playing overseas. Already committed to playing in Turkey this offseason, Seattle risks losing Stewart to competing teams or seeing her sit out the league entirely to avoid being fined.
Stewart isn’t the only Storm player displeased by the WNBA’s policies. French national team player Gabby Williams, who signed a one-year deal with Seattle last offseason, has been blunt about her thoughts on the matter.
“I understand the business aspect to this … but if you want us to stay in America and have this thing, you need to put your money where your mouth is.” Williams said to media.
As the Sue Bird era of Seattle basketball comes to a close, the Storm could be looking at a substantively different team next season.
The young Dallas Wings aren’t so young anymore, but they’ve still got incredible potential. Headlined by 2021’s leading scorer Arike Ogunbowale, the Wings core looks like they’re on the cusp of a real breakthrough.
Allisha Gray, 2020 Olympic champion in 3×3 basketball, took her game to new heights this season. Teaira McCowan thrived when given increased minutes, becoming the first player in franchise history to earn Western Conference Player of the Month honors. Marina Mabrey strung together an incredible run of form, finishing the season having scored double-digits in ten straight games.
Together, the group elevated Dallas above the rest of the pack at the backend of the season, leapfrogging Phoenix to snatch the 6th seed in the playoffs. They got their first playoff win in Wings history, with their last postseason victory coming in 2015 as the Tulsa Shock. It wasn’t enough.
Despite a historically good result, coach Vickie Johnson was released from her contract as head coach at the end of the season. At the time of writing, Dallas is searching for a replacement. Johnson had been scrutinized for the lack of cohesion within her core, particularly for the way she used Arike Ogunbowale.
With Ogunbowale injured for much of the end to the regular season, the remaining Wings core thrived. Forced to play out of position with Ogunbowale on the court, Marina Mabrey was shifted over to the 2 guard slot and delivered her best offensive performance of the season. She complimented the rest of the group well, leading the Wings to back-to-back wins over the #2 Aces and #1 Sky with a playoff spot in the balance.
Given the fluidity of their offense without Ogunbowale, who is on a supermax salary, questions swirled about Johnson’s usage of the players. With Mabrey a free agent this offseason, it remains to be seen whether a new coach can tempt her to stay or if she’ll find somewhere she can play her best position all of the time.
It’s impossible to evaluate Phoenix’s season without addressing the emotional turmoil all of the players and staff have been through this season. With the continued detention of Brittney Griner hanging over the organization, it’s unreasonable to expect the Mercury to match the finals berth they claimed just last year. Still, dysfunction is threatening to tear the team apart at the seams.
Tina Charles left. Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith argued on the bench. Diggins-Smith called out first-year coach Vanessa Nygaard for a perceived snub after Diggins-Smith was named an All-Star. Taurasi got injured and missed the last month of the season. After playing on the day of Griner’s sentencing in Russia, Diggins-Smith sat out the rest of the year for personal reasons. Shey Peddy tore her ACL in the playoffs.
Laid bare, it’s impressive Phoenix managed to make the playoffs at all. The starting five in their Game 2 loss to Phoenix was entirely bench players and hardship signees. Still, nobody knows what the organization will look like next season. With Taurasi injured, Diggins-Smith discontent, and Griner detained, the Mercury’s core is depleted in every sense of the word. There’s been no word on coach Nygaard’s fate, but her first season as coach has clearly been less than ideal.
It’s unclear what’s next for Phoenix, but all bad luck must break eventually.
The end of an era has been calling for Minnesota, but now it’s well and truly over. With Sylvia Fowles’s retirement, the last piece of the legendary Lynx dynasty has departed. Who are the Lynx removed from that period of greatness? We’re about to find out.
While the Lynx are definitely looking to rebuild, there is a lot of promise in the players still on their roster. We’d wager that if Napheesa Collier had played the whole season, the Lynx should’ve been able to snag a playoff berth. Collier, a former Rookie of the Year and Tokyo Olympic gold medalist, is the brightest spot on the Lynx’s roster. With a full preseason under her belt, expect Collier to rebound as Minnesota’s leader into this new era.
Around her, the supporting cast is in flux. Minnesota’s season was characterized by inconsistent performances from everybody but the retiring Fowles, and no lineup coach Cheryl Reeve put out seemed to make the starting five click. That’s not to say there isn’t talent— Moriah Jefferson had a triple-double while the young Jessica Shepard put out the best season of her career—but it’s not there on a regular basis.
Thankfully, the Lynx have a high draft pick and, if their performance continues to stagnate, could get good picks in subsequent years as well. There’s a lot of talent coming through in the next couple years—Aliyah Boston and Haley Jones should headline in 2023, while Minnesota native Paige Bueckers is a big name for the 2024 draft. If the Lynx can supplement their young star with some up-and-coming talent, they can start rebuilding for a future dynasty.
Los Angeles Sparks
If any team has had a disappointing season, it’s the Los Angeles Sparks. Right in the playoff mix as the race came down to the wire, the Sparks went 1–10 to end their season short of September. Through it all, management and coaching issues loom large.
Star center acquisition Liz Cambage left the team in July, citing personal reasons. She has not played in the league or international competition since, having burned her bridges after being accused of directing racial slurs at the Nigerian national team during the Olympics. She stayed with the Sparks through that controversy, but one imagines it soured the relationship between Cambage and teammates Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, both of whom are Nigerian.
While Los Angeles was mired in controversy off the court, their results on it weren’t anything special either. Head coach Derek Fisher was fired in June, having led the Sparks through a middling four-year stretch that saw Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray leave the team. Crucial members of the Sparks’ 2016 championship, both Parker and Gray have won titles since departing.
Interim coach Fred Williams, who captained the side through the 1–10 end to the year, is leaving to coach Auburn. During his short tenure, Williams generated controversy for his player management, particularly for not playing Chennedy Carter. Despite solid performances when given minutes and a playoff berth hanging in the balance, Carter was benched for a 9-day stretch in early August. She only returned for the last games of the season, when Los Angeles was eliminated from playoff contention.
A third-year player, Carter was suspended by the Dream last season for “conduct detrimental to the team” and was traded to Los Angeles in the offseason. But while Atlanta was upfront about Carter’s absence, coach Williams was non-committal about her at every turn, leaving fans and media guessing about her status with the team.
It’s not like Carter was a small-name acquisition either. A former #3 pick, the Sparks traded veteran Erica Wheeler, along with their 2023 first-round pick, for Carter’s rights. It’s safe to say nobody envisioned that pick turning into a top-four one, but now the Sparks are out a first-round pick and a head coach in a year when they desperately need to rebuild.
With nearly $1 million dollars in cap space heading into the offseason, the Sparks are a blank slate. It’s up to them how they use it.