Dominant Storm put finishing touches on entertaining WNBA season
It was obvious early on that this WNBA season was shaping up to be something special.
The titans of the past two seasons -- Minnesota and Los Angeles -- began to pile up losses. The former Stars franchise in San Antonio got off to a rousing welcome in Las Vegas as the Aces. The rookies made an immediate impact. Young standouts matured into team leaders. We saw in Seattle a team that could -- and eventually did -- win another championship.
But one week crystalized just how special the summer was: July 15-22. Defending champion Minnesota lost by 19 points at home to Connecticut. Los Angeles, a 2017 finalist and the 2016 champion, lost by two at home to last-place Indiana. Phoenix lost at home to Las Vegas, another team, like the Fever, that didn't make the playoffs in 2017. Even the Storm took a tumble, losing 87-74 at Atlanta. It was evidence of just how difficult every game was.
Chicago guard Courtney Vandersloot became the seventh WNBA player to post a triple-double -- and nearly set the single-game assist mark in a victory over Dallas. But Wings center Liz Cambage scoring a single-game-record 53 points on July 17 in a 104-87 victory over New York was the biggest event of that week. Two days later in beating Washington, Cambage had 35 points (and 17 rebounds), setting a two-game scoring mark.
Cambage, who returned to the WNBA this year after four seasons away, then faced one of the issues that bother many players: not just back-to-back games, but travel, too. The Wings had home games on Tuesday and Thursday, then played at Chicago on Friday.
In a teleconference that week, Cambage said, "I don't know how you're meant to get the best out of your elite players when they're playing back-to-back and flying economy the day of the game. It's frustrating. If you want to market something as the best, you better treat it like the best."
The travel issue would come up again in a dramatic way later, when the Aces had multiple travel delays getting into Washington, D.C., for an Aug. 3 game. The Aces got to their hotel late that afternoon, and the league delayed tipoff by one hour. But after 24-plus hours spent either flying or in airports, the Aces opted not to play, citing the dangerous possible effects of fatigue in regard to injuries.
It took the WNBA a few days to determine the game a forfeit. The Aces had the support of the players' union, which will be trying to resolve certain issues with travel, among other things, in the next collective bargaining agreement.
The morning of the All-Star Game in Minneapolis on July 28, union head Terri Jackson met with the All-Star players. The current CBA went into effect in March 2014 and runs through October 2021. However, both the league and the union have the right to opt out and terminate the agreement after the 2019 season. Either side has until Oct. 31 of this year to exercise that opt-out provision.
A league spokesman said the WNBA provided financial information about all the teams to the union in July. The union said it is still seeking more details. The players realize some big decisions loom, but they have to keep the WNBA's overall financial health in mind.
"We need to see how the league is really doing, revenue-wise," Washington forward Elena Delle Donne said. "We have to look at it in a business frame of mind. I think all of us will look at it in that way. There should be ways to make this work a little bit better."
The talent is the deepest and best it's been since I've been in the league.Mystics coach Mike Thibault, who joined the WNBA in 2003
Delle Donne was part of what made the playoffs as exciting as they were. She and the Mystics won a five-game semifinal series with Atlanta, putting Washington into the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. Delle Donne suffered a knee injury in Game 2 of the semifinals, and missed Game 3. But with around-the-clock treatment, she played in the last two games of the semis and the three games of the WNBA Finals. She was far from 100 percent, but still good enough to help the Mystics to their best season.
As for the champion Storm, this was a magical year of things coming together just right. A new coach, but someone with so many years of experience in Dan Hughes. Two former Rookie of the Year winners, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, in their third season together. Stewart elevating to MVP level. A player obtained in a trade, Natasha Howard, who answered the team's biggest need with her rebounding and defense, plus had a lot of offensive skill. And a point guard in Sue Bird who, in her 16th WNBA season, is still playing at such a high level.
All of them contributed in an epic five-game semifinal series victory over Phoenix, then hit another peak in sweeping the Mystics in the WNBA Finals for Seattle's third title.
"You get to a point in life where you think you know what's in the future, and then sometimes you have no earthly idea what's about to happen," Hughes said of the chance to coach the Storm after he'd retired from the WNBA in 2016. "This was a team that constantly was looking to learn something that could help them be a champion, and a champion they are."
There remain issues to resolve. Charter flights don't appear to be financially feasible overall, but could they be used for particularly challenging travel situations? The regular season was compacted in 13 weeks because of the upcoming FIBA Women's World Cup Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain. But looking to the future, should the league continue to make its schedule conform to that event, or should it do what might be best for the WNBA season?
There are key questions to face, some more urgent than others. But one thing no one questions is the talent level and entertainment value of the league. More top players will be coming in 2019; draft lottery winner Las Vegas has the No. 1 pick for the third year in a row to add to a team with 2018 Rookie of the Year A'ja Wilson. New York will pick second, followed by Indiana and Chicago.
"The talent is the deepest and best it's been since I've been in the league," said Mystics coach Mike Thibault, who joined the WNBA in 2003. "We don't have any 'gimme' games. The coaching is at a high level; there are different styles. You have to raise your level to an incredible degree to have success against all the teams."